The Oblique Strategies are a deck of cards. Up until 1996, they were quite easy to describe.
They measured about 2-3/4"
x 3-3/4". They came in a small black box which said "OBLIQUE STRATEGIES"
on one of the top's long sides and "BRIAN ENO/PETER SCHMIDT" on
the other side. The cards were solid black on one side, and had the aphorisms
printed in a 10-point sans serif face on the other.
That was then, and this is now. There is now another set of the Oblique
Strategies in existence, and it looks nothing like this; perhaps
the best way to think of the differences between the earlier versions
and the fourth edition deck is by analogy. Where
the earlier versions were a quiet, well-dressed neighbor who, once you got
used to her/him, turned out to be a funny, intriguing, and frighteningly
prescient friend, the 1996 version is the equivalent of going to the other
apartment on your floor to ask directions to someplace and discovering a large,
noisy party full of tipsy graduate students attempting some kind of
fashionable dance en masse who pause only to give you advice in a half-dozen
But I digress. Perhaps it's best to attempt a description of their intention and function.
The deck itself had its origins in the discovery by Brian Eno that both
he and his friend Peter Schmidt (a British painter whose works grace the
cover of "Evening Star" and whose watercolours decorated the back
LP cover of Eno's "Before and After Science" and also appeared
as full-size prints in a small number of the original releases)
tended to keep a set of basic working principles which guided them through
the kinds of moments of pressure - either working through a heavy painting
session or watching the clock tick while you're running up a big buck studio
bill. Both Schmidt and Eno realized that the pressures of time tended to
steer them away from the ways of thinking they found most productive when
the pressure was off. The Strategies were, then, a way to remind themselves
of those habits of thinking - to jog the mind.
It is not clear from any sources I've run across whether the cards were
explicitly intended to be oracular at the outset - that is, whether or not
Peter Schmidt and Eno necessarily saw them exclusively as a "single
instruction/single response" kind of "game". The introductory
cards included in all three versions of the first versions of the Oblique
Strategies suggest otherwise.
It seems clear, also, that the deck was not conceived of as a set of "fixed"
instructions, but rather a group of ideas to be added to or modified over
time; each of the three decks included 4 or 5 blank cards, intended to be
filled and used as needed.
Eno discusses the Oblique Strategies at greatest length in an interview
with Charles Amirkhanian, conducted at KPFA in Berkeley in early 1980:
"These cards evolved from our separate working procedures. It was
one of the many cases during the friendship that he [Peter Schmidt] and
I where we arrived at a working position at almost exactly the same time
and almost in exactly the same words. There were times when we hadn't seen
each other for a few months at a time sometimes, and upon remeeting or
exchanging letters, we would find that we were in the same intellectual
position - which was quite different from the one we'd been in prior to
The Oblique Strategies evolved from me being in a number of working
situations when the panic of the situation - particularly in studios -
tended to make me quickly forget that there were others ways of working
and that there were tangential ways of attacking problems that were in
many senses more interesting than the direct head-on approach. If you're
in a panic, you tend to take the head-on approach because it seems to be
the one that's going to yield the best results Of course, that often isn't
the case - it's just the most obvious and - apparently - reliable method.
The function of the Oblique Strategies was, initially, to serve as a series
of prompts which said, "Don't forget that you could adopt *this* attitude,"
or "Don't forget you could adopt *that* attitude."
The first Oblique Strategy said "Honour thy error as a hidden intention."
And, in fact, Peter's first Oblique Strategy - done quite independently
and before either of us had become conscious that the other was doing that
- was ...I think it was "Was it really a mistake?" which was,
of course, much the same kind of message. Well, I collected about fifteen
or twenty of these and then I put them onto cards. At the same time, Peter
had been keeping a little book of messages to himself as regards painting,
and he'd kept those in a notebook. We were both very surprised to find
the other not only using a similar system but also many of the messages
being absolutely overlapping, you know...there was a complete correspondence
between the messages. So subsequently we decided to try to work out a way
of making that available to other people, which we did; we published them
as a pack of cards, and they're now used by quite a lot of different people,
-Brian Eno, interview with Charles Amirkhanian, KPFA-FM Berkeley,
An introduction to the Oblique Strategies can be found in the deck itself.
This is how each of the first three decks labels and describes itself:
Over one hundred worthwhile dilemmas
by BRIAN ENO and PETER SCHMIDT
(signatures, if your copy is signed)
Printed January 1975 in an edition of 500
of which this is number (your number, circled)
(note: later versions note that the deck has been revised, and include
the date of publication - either 1978 for edition two, or 1979 for edition
These cards evolved from our separate observations on the principles
underlying what we were doing. Sometimes they were recognized in retrospect
(intellect catching up with intuition), sometimes they were identified as
they were happening, sometimes they were formulated.
They can be used as a pack (a set of possibilities being continuously
reviewed in the mind) or by drawing a single card from the shuffled pack
when a dilemma occurs in a working situation. In this case,the card is trusted
even if its appropriateness is quite unclear. They are not final, as new
ideas will present themselves, and others will become self-evident.