The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2018

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FEB 2018 Issue
Editor's Message Guest Critic

contingency, probability and the void

Joan Waltemath, photo courtesy Jarrett Earnest.

…imposing the hegemony of the financial cycle over both economic and social relations, brought to every domain of existence the awareness of the indeterminate, aleatory nature of reality.

— Franco “Bifo” Berardi, The Soul at Work

In an amalgam of ancient cultural memory there is a tiny thimble containing all the alternate universes, events, and possibilities that have not yet occurred, the majority of which may never occur though, in fact, one may never know what unknown occurrence will not occur.

The collection of all these alternate universes and unknown occurrences that may or may not occur is infinite and continually expanding; contingency expands not only the perspective of anyone who engages with it, but also those who refuse to entertain the proposition.

It might be said that to consider the permutations of contingency is to engage in speculation, though speculation would be more at home in the realm of contingency’s kissing cousin, probability, which limits its term to the extent to which an event is likely to occur. The notion of contingency encompasses what might or might not occur, thereby opening thought to what is not yet realized in realizing what might or could be realized—or not.

This slippery slope of nimblemindedness has been held, significantly, in the purview of liability insurance and other traffickers in the market of “worst-case scenarios,” and has been most often employed to determine or delimit what can be done, rather than having been employed to expand awareness of un-thought possibilities and to broaden perspectives.

Perhaps only an extended sojourn into a culture not delimited by liability laws would allow for a clear picture of their strictures. 

It was, however, something completely unrelated that first sparked my interest in contingency. To me it seemed like a significant artistic challenge to use aspects of contingency to determine the nature of relations in a pictorial composition. Especially given that the kind of compositional intelligence that leads a viewer into the subject of a painting has been, for years, out of vogue. The anti-composition stance is seemingly one that runs parallel to the “the death of painting” discourse during which time serial images, indexical images, all-over and non-compositional images that eschewed classic principles of balance, harmony, and form were acceptable. Helmut Federle, for example, in his 1997 catalog for the Swiss pavilion at the Venice Biennale, states this explicitly by calling composition “a taboo,” a statement that might or might not mark the height of this tendency.

The notion of contingency with its inherent ability to negotiate indeterminacy allows for the nature of relations to be described, defined, and refined in a subtle way and thus escape the dominance of the binary. A contingency is by definition neither and both, true and false. In other words, “The dream is not true, but rather, at the limit comes true; the difference is of the greatest importance. [It is] characterized precisely as that of a space ‘between truth and falsehood.’”

To be able to re-engage a compositional strategy then, requires a reassessment. The notion of contingency with its inherent ability to expand and contextualize indeterminacy is relevant now in some branches of contemporary physics. An evolution in scientific thought that occasions a perspective on the correspondence between scientific and artistic pathways, which helps bring the slippery slope into focus.

The nuances of a contingent perspective encourage us to distinguish an artwork which boasts “no meaning” from the term “meaningless” and not equate them. The seemingly nonsensical investigations of randomness and chance in the work of conceptual artists like John Cage and Barry Le Va in the 1960’s might appear initially as meaningless exercises, whereas a deeper look into the relationship between the singular event (chance) and the serial order resulting (random) reveals the nature of their relation as a complex of contingencies. The perception of an order as random is contingent on the pattern that emerges from a succession of moves or decisions, in La Va’s case the dropping, sweeping, or cutting, and in Cage’s, chance procedures within a framework of limited options. Contingency allows the fact that an event is not intended to convey a meaning, to be read as the nonoccurrence of meaning, and not as the occurrence of meaninglessness in the pure “being” of a work of art.

By chance, then, I entered the Rothko Chapel in Houston. An amenable number of visitors, some worshipers, some browsing through the multi-denominational selection of spiritual literature and others scattered on benches attended to their diverse engagements at the site in silence. I waited with a desire to see what this visit might allow. My memory of Rothko’s slow-moving and deeply emotional presence contrasted with the works before me and Death’s suffocating presence began to stuff their emptiness—here in the dim light. In being, a void claims its boundaries to affect an awareness of its resonance.

The uncertainty of our present moment finds an analog in the kind of suspension of certitude that contingency rests upon. Its indeterminacy acknowledges the void of our not knowing, as well as the unknown and the unknowable. Its destruction of the false sense of comfort hidden in the absence of risk relocates responsibility in the action of the actor, the doer’ and the maker and makes us stewards of our own fate, if we care to take hold of the wheel. All these things drew me to contingency.

In the light of contingency’s nonoccurrence, I have had the pleasure to open up the subject for consideration among close friends and peers. I am grateful for those who have taken up my difficult challenge to ride on the suspension of certitude. Art depends on it as well.

I allowed for the length of each text returned to me to be determined by its own necessity. Many of the texts are quite short, though not all. Bearing in mind that “poetry may be defined precisely as the language of contingency…” I did not ask for more.


  1. Daniel Heller-Roazen, Fortune's Faces: The Roman de la Rose and the Poetics of Contingency (Parallax: Revisions of Culture and Society) (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003) pg. 36
  2. Ibid. p. 26


Joan Waltemath

Joan Waltemath is an artist who lives and works in New York City. She writes on art and has served as an editor-at-large of the Brooklyn Rail since 2001. She has shown extensively and her work is in the collections of the Harvard University Art Museums, the National Gallery of Art, the Hammer Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art. She is currently the Director of the LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting at MICA.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2018

All Issues