Artist Peter Schmidt and Brian Eno
You can’t swing a dead spirit animal guide in a metaphysical bookstore without hitting stacks and stacks of oracle cards and inspiration cards. Like many things in the last quarter of the twentieth century, such as ambient music, Brian Eno can take partial credit for inventing such cards.
I say partial credit because his famous Oblique Strategies: Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas cards, now available as a free Android and iPhone app or on this website, were predated by Yoko Ono’s instruction cards in the mid-1960’s. Eno and his friend, painter and multimedia artist Peter Schmidt made their Oblique Strategies cards in late 1974. They discovered that they had both been working on similar lists of aphorisms for getting through difficult moments while doing creative work, but from the different paths of music and visual art. They collaborated, combining some of Schmidt’s foundational The Thoughts Behind the Thoughts cards from 1970 and Eno’s own early homemade Oblique Strategies cards.
Eno invented the cards for his own personal use when working under time constraints in a recording studio. They came in handy when working with other artists as a producer, particularly ones who were stressed out in an intimidating studio environment. They are widely respected as one of the tools used by Eno when recording David Bowie’s Berlin trilogy of albums in from 1976 to 1978, Low, Heroes, and Lodger.
Eno told Charles Amirkhanian at KPFA in Berkeley in 1980:
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.
The deck’s first edition was privately printed in a limited, numbered and signed edition of 500 in 1974. They fetch over $2000 when they come up for auction now, but it took a decade for that edition to sell out. Software publisher Peter Norton asked Eno for permission to create a new set for him to give away as Christmas presents in 1996.
If you want a physical copy of the new fifth edition, which came out in May, you can buy them for £30.00 (about $47) at Eno’s online shop.
The usefulness of the cards’ brief philosophical shake-ups and kicks in the eye has expanded far beyond the art world. It’s been helpful for anyone needing a fresh perspective in the face of a deadline or under other pressure. Creative blocks can turn into a vicious downward spiral, and the cards are an excellent tool to introduce lateral thinking to break the negative tape loop in one’s head. You knew corporate culture, with its annual retreats and meetings featuring motivational speakers and team-building exercises, would eventually find a use for the Oblique Strategies cards as well. And it has.
Here are ten random card messages:
Discover your formulas and abandon them
What are you really thinking about just now
Use ‘unqualified’ people
Do we need holes?
Think of the radio
The inconsistency principle
Would anybody want it?
Make what’s perfect more human
A very small object - its centre
Listen to the quiet voice
The insights are a bit reminiscent of Zen koans, New Agey affirmations, the I Ching (Schmidt did a series of drawings based on the 64 hexagrams in 1972), and the multitude of inspirational cards available on the market. They aren’t technically oracle cards, since you don’t have to call upon angels, ascended masters, faeries, spirit guides, or other beings of light to use them, but if you believe in a creative muse, that’s exactly what they can be.
Jarvis Cocker discusses the Oblique Strategies cards with Brian Eno in a 2010 BBC Radio 6 interview, below: