Art &Technology
- Marcel Duchamp - Chance and Indeterminancy

There are many examples in Duchamp's oevre, where chance plays an important role to arrive at a certain point in the creative process of producing a piece of art. In the 3 Standard Stoppages, Duchamp takes the three threads and uses Poincaré's scheme to verify probabilistic systems of chance.

Marcel Duchamp: Three Standard Stoppages. 1913-14

Fig.: Marcel Duchamp: Three Standard Stoppages. 1913-14


Duchamp writes:

"The Idea of the Fabrication
-- if a straight horizontal thread one meter long falls from a height of one meter onto a horizontal plane distorting itself as it pleases and creates a new shape of the measure of length

-- 3 patterns obtained in more or less the similar conditions: considered in their relation to one another they are an approximate reconstitution of the measure of length.

-- the 3 standard stoppages are the meter diminished"

Duchamp emphasizes that it is the relation among the three thread events, in approximate reconstitution of his measure system, that "diminishes" the authority of the meter. Duchamp tells us that his new measurement scheme is, like Poincaré's, a qualitative system taking the approximate relation among events as the measure, instead of the quantitative method of the meter. Duchamp states:

"I'd say the Three Stoppages of 1913 is my most important work. That was really when I tapped the mainstream of my future. In itself it was not an important work of art, but for me it opened the way -- the way to escape from those traditional methods of expression long associated with art ... For me the Three Stoppages was a first gesture liberating me from the past"

Elsewhere, Duchamp elaborates on this:

"This experiment was made in 1913 to imprison and preserve forms obtained through chance, through my chance, at the same time, the unit of length: one meter was changed from a straight line to a curved line without actually losing its identity (as) the meter, and yet casting a pataphysical doubt on the concept of a straight line as being the shortest route from one point to another."

Duchamp's idea seems similar to that of Poincaré (1902/1952) demonstrating that the curved space of non-Euclidean geometry, and the different convention of straight lines in Euclidean geometry, yield two worlds that are connected and interchangeable in the mind, given familiarity with the rules of both systems and the right geometric method for moving from one system to the other (Poincaré, 1902). Duchamp states that he captured and froze the three thread forms -- and that, despite the general laws of chance, and the chance in his individual efforts, similarity and continuity remained evident across the forms. The line of the meter (Euclidean) smoothly meets, in continuity, the curves of another new geometry (non-Euclidean). The new geometry teaches us, as Duchamp stated, that we should doubt any single system, for even though the smooth curves of the threads meet the lines in continuity, the differences are important. Duchamp gives the key case that distinguishes the new geometries (with non-Euclidean and Poincaré's new qualitative methods as examples) from the old, Euclidean, metric quantitative system. Duchamp states that even though the meter doesn't completely "lose its identity" (meaning that, from the perspective of the new, we can still see the old), our "doubt" must lead us to give up our belief in the absoluteness of the old perspective of the meter. The new perspective of non-Euclidean geometry in Duchamp's experiment, demonstrates (as the discovery of non-Euclidean geometry actually did) that the shortest route from one point to another in curved space is not a line.

Duchamps ideas regarding chance and determinancy were particularily influential for composers in the late 50ies and for a number of artists contemporary to Duchamp.

Pablo Picasso: Bull's Head

Fig.: Pablo Picasso: Bull's Head

Fig.: Jackson Pollock: In action. Click on the image to see a larger image of Pollock in action.

Fig.: Jackson Pollock: Action Panting

Fig.: Jackson Pollock: Action Panting.

Click on the image to see Pollok's painting Number 1, (Lavender Mist) National Gallery of Art. 1950


Around 1500 Leonardo da Vinci published his essay "On Painting" where he stated:

"... Don't underestimate this opinion: Every now and then stand still and watch the patterns which by pure chance have been generated: Stains on the wall, or the ashes in a fireplace, or the clouds in the sky, or the gravel on the beach or other things. If you look at them carefully you might discover miraculous inventions. The painter's spirit is influenced by these inventions and he will be guided to arrive at new inventions by the power of their seductiveness...."

Hans Ulrich Reck (in Gendolla/Kamphusmann) on the other hand values the importance of chance rather low: "There is nothing like chance in the Fine Arts, a lot we see just looks as if it would be connected to chance."

"There is no place for chance in the arts, there are just strategies to play a game of hide and seek with the recipients. What they might conceive to be hazardeous are strategic moves - if you look at them closely - which try to appear driven by chance for those who have not yet discovered the strategies." [1]


Many artists and theoreticians try to differentiate between chance, hazard, indeterminancy, random processes and aleatoric processes.




[1] The original text in German reads: "Es gibt keinen Zufall in der bildenden Kunst, vieles sieht nur so aus, als ob es damit zu tun hat."

"In der Kunst gibt es nicht Zufall, nur Überlistungsstrategien, die dem als Zufall erscheinen, der sie als Listen noch nicht zu durchschauen vermochte."


Further Reading:

George Brecht: Chance-Imagery. New York: Something Else Press, 1957/1966.

John Cage: Extract from "A year from Monday". In: Jasia Reichardt (ed.): Cybernetic Serendipity. The Computer and the Arts. Special issue of Studio International, 1968.

John Cage and George Brecht: Variations III. 1963/1982.

Gottfried Boehm: "Zur Analyse eines künstlerischen Prolems bei F. Morellet." In Exhibition Catalogue François Morellet, Nationalgalerie Berlin, 1977.

Dick Higgins: Computers for the Arts. Somerville, Mass.: Abyss Publications, 1968/1970.