Edited by Margaret Iversen, Chance is a compilation of writings that observes the gap between intention and consequence, giving the ‘spontaneous’ or ‘accidental’ in art much importance. The unexpected has played a vital role in many works of Expressionism, Dada, Surrealism and Fluxus, and while this anthology examines chance procedures in art since 1990, it also questions why chance remains a deliberate method in artistic practices in the contemporary world.
Although the use of chance can be traced back to cave drawings from prehistoric times, Iversen begins by focusing largely on Marcel Duchamp’s and John Cage’s engagement with chance procedures. While Duchamp’s use of chance resulted in objects that were ultimately displayed in museums and galleries, many artists who follow his example are more inclined to document the experiment itself and allow the work to be seen in the form of photography, video or film. A classic example of such practice would be the performance by Vito Acconci called Following Piece where he tasked himself to follow a random stranger walking in the street while remaining unobserved.
The spontaneity meant each step could be his last – or not; and each experiment could last from two to three minutes up to seven hours. Without any anticipation of his subject’s path, Acconci called this activity ”Performing myself through another agent”. The performance itself was displayed via video and photographic documentation. Ten years later, in a similar vein, French artist Sophie Calle took the practice to another level. She decided to travel to Venice to follow a man she had met at a party. She photographed Henri B intensively while out on the streets, sitting in cafes and even in his hotel room.
In his essay Chance Imagery, George Berchet makes a useful distinction between two species of chance. One kind of chance imagery results from consciously unknown causes; the other kind results from motorized processes not under the artist’s control. Both, however, have in common a lack of conscious design. Examples of chance procedures highlighted in the book vary from the highly methodical to the more spontaneous and informal. They can be tied to mechanical systems or produced simply by letting scraps of torn paper fall, while arranging themselves “according to the laws of chance” as done by artist Jean Arp in 1916. Contrary to this, John Baldessari repeatedly bounced a ball of a pier and asked two artists to photograph it so that it would appear in the center of the finished photograph. As a result there was no time to compose and Baldessari’s use of chance to avoid aesthetic decisions and composition through photography was shown in an exhibition called Pier 18.
While surrealist automatism and the gestural abstraction of Jackson Pollock’s paintings inclined more towards the subconscious, leaving mark making and eventual results to chance and accident, for painter Gerhard Richter chance is never blind. It is in fact always planned and he uses it to carry on, eradicate mistakes and introduce something different and disruptive.
Thus from the role of psychoanalysis used in surrealist imagery to the special place photography has in the history of chance procedures, this bookbrings to light numerous writings and artistic practices that analyze the uncertainty poised between intention and outcome. And as thrilling as it may be, in chance methodology, one cannot ignore the risk involved, which, in the case of Los Angeles based artist Bas Jan Ader, proved to be severe.
As part of his artistic practice, Ader staged accidents, such as riding a bike into a canal (as seen on the book cover) or falling off from his roof, which exposed him to chance but also to the risk of harm. His final performance, In Search of the Miraculous II, was an attempt to cross the Atlantic solo in a sailboat. His body was never found. His death highlights the correlation between chance and mortality, showing it to be a method controversial in nature and calling into question its ethical viability.