Romancing the Random

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Guilherme Marconi /

Randomness is in favor.

The website Chatroulette provides an arena for webcam conversations with random participants. CNN’s regular segment Random Moment of the Day reflects on such occurrences as a teenage girl’s dress fabricated with Capri Sun packaging, ice billiards played in a swimming pool in central Texas, and an iPhone app that delivers content directly from the White House, with the idea that such disconnected episodes of everyday life speak to broader societal issues and values. Flarf is touted as an avant-garde poetic form derived from the random word associations that can be forged online. And in the music industry, recording artists are less likely to be deliberate as they once were in arranging the sequence of songs–both the random shuffle and the download/purchase of individual tracks are likely to make intentional arrangements irrelevant and passé.

It’s hard to know just where this new fondness for the random has come from, but certainly we seem starved for surprise and improvisation. Somewhere between the acceleration of contemporary life, the precision of communication technology, and the overall efficiency of the digital age, we seem to have developed an appetite for the haphazard. In the age of information, when it takes a second to Google a name or a date, a minute to download an entire book, we tend to operate on the premise that life is knowable.

A growing taste for unpredictability seems a natural response, then. No surprise that the word random has gone from being a neutral adjective describing the unexpected and happenstance to one that is loaded with more positive associations having to do with unscripted authenticity. Implicit is the idea that conversations, events, and encounters that occur without design will have genuine value and an almost certainly rewarding outcome.

Randomness can be complex, interesting, beautiful. Or it can be none of these. Unpredictability can be just as dull as predictability. The inexplicable and accidental have always held the human imagination, but the often uncritical way we romance the random now makes me want to search out those enterprises with a genuine literacy to them.

Artists’ work, by nature, often demands that they at once respect and reject random occurrences. Whether it is what happens in the fire of the kiln or the occlusions shaped by weather and time in a piece of wood, craft has always negotiated between the brilliance and the banality of random events. The consequences can be moving and even extraordinary. The random–whether triggered by nature, weather, the passage of time, or simple unplanned human events and encounters–can itself be approached with a sense of finesse, a sense of discrimination. The rational and irrational worlds can inform one another.

Maybe the point is that exploitation of the random finds its greatest meaning when it establishes a rhythm with the intentional; that the unexpected, changeable, and instantaneous can be folded into the calculated, into the deliberate. As in life itself, what’s compelling is the choreography of what we control and what we can’t. And how what we choose manages to coincide and coexist with what we can’t, don’t, and wouldn’t ever.

Excerpted from American Craft (Oct.-Nov. 2010), the American Craft Council’s bimonthly magazine, which celebrates “the modern makers who shape the world around us” and gives a voice to the vibrant craft

This article first appeared in the January-February 2011 issue of Utne Reader.

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