K. Kukkonen : « Provoking Chance: Design and Improvisation in Creative Processes and Works of Art »


Karin Kukkonen, « Provoking Chance: Design and Improvisation in Creative Processes and Works of Art » in Réseau ALEA / ALEA Network [online], 2020 <https://hasard.hypotheses.org/3891>

Creative practices engage with chance and contingency across history and across different arts. Even though the specific materials, technologies and self-understanding of authors and artists change profoundly, what connects them across the centuries is their readiness to provoke chance. Aleatory practices are well documented for the surrealists and experimental artists of the twentieth century, but also authors in the early modern period represent creative processes as moments where chance is brought forth in salon conversations or on the stage. Madeleine de Scudéry followed a very different artistic programme than, for example, the surrealists – how can we think about the shared features of creative processes across the centuries?

A first step would be to consider creativity in everyday contexts. Psychology and cognitive science investigates the creative dimension of everyday thinking and action. And across multiple paradigms, the research indicates that everyday creativity unfolds in response to prompts and props. It depends on the objects that we decide to put to use in unexpected contexts (as in the so-called “Alternative Uses Test”), or on different modes of idea-finding and problem-solving in shared contexts and social settings. What emerges is an interactive, distributed and social mode of creativity in everyday contexts. Within environments that make claims on the individual, or several individuals jointly, through prompts and props, creativity emerges.

Authors and artists across the centuries have developed practices that integrate the prompts and props of their environment and put them to work in creative processes. They thereby provoke chance. The materials for painting, the instruments for music or the performative practices are chosen and designed to establish certain conditions where the outcome does not necessary follow from an action but opens for contingent, non-necessary events. In this environment designed for contingency artists then improvise in order to navigate the new possibilities. Contingency, then, characterises the moments when creative processes enter into the dynamics between design and improvisation.

The seventeenth-century salon had a very different kind of contingency design from the CBGB club in 1980s New York or from the workshops of scissor artists in the early twentieth century, and they shaped improvisation with very different protocols and practices. Whichever way these artists and authors strike the balance, however, creative processes in all these contexts involve design and improvisation. Detailed historical case studies are necessary to investigate the dynamics between design and improvisation:

  • How the provoking of contingency becomes the constituting principle represented in the work of art itself as an interplay between design and improvisation. Madeleine de Scudéry, for example, prompts her partners in conversation to spin a particular story, invites controversy or ironic contrast between their statements. The metafictional textual games of postmodernism often draw attention to the fact that stories can be told in multiple ways, and represent a certain outcome as due to a whim of the author.
  • How contingency, once it occurs in the creative process, can be integrated into the overall design of a work of art. Dada artists might draw on the impersonal and automatic method of “writing with scissors”, but they then organise the results so that they become legible as “random”. In the case of Henry Fielding, a play, after it had failed on the stage thanks to contingent audience responses, can turn into an invitation to reflect on the creative process of writing plays and giving them over to performance.
  • How creative practices come to understand the constraints of their environment as contingent, and thereby productive for improvisation. The sound limitations of the CBGB club arguably lead to the distinctive sounds of bands like Talking Heads, as they founds ways to play loudly enough to be heard and interestingly enough to satisfy themselves and their listeners.
  • How constraints of the authors’ or artists’ environment themselves come to be constructed in order to provoke the contingency that will then shape the creative process. Wagner’s Bayreuth is only one example of such a designer environment. Also interior decoration in the eighteenth-century with its paintings that can serve as conversation pieces, such as the singeries of Chantilly or the cabinet of fables in the hôtel de Rohan, can be considered in this light.

With each constellation of design and improvisation discussed here, we have a taken a step further back from the work of art to the contexts in which the work of art is created and presented.

These constellations require an interdisciplinary investigation that considers (1) how the minds and bodies of authors and artists are embedded into their environments, (2) how these environments are designed for different purposes in history, (3) how authors and artists redesign them for different purposes, and (4) how the prevailing discourses around chance and contingency might motivate them to try out one way of provoking chance after another. The interdisciplinary perspective highlights just how tightly entwined cognitive and cultural processes are, as authors and artists provoke contingency, and similarly work with the possibilities that it opens, across multiple steps in the creative processes.


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