Failing to write about uncertainty

A Restless Art was written from a place of relative confidence, although that confidence ebbed during the four years it took me to write. I set out complacently thinking I had knowledge to share but, as I met more people working in community art, I saw how much I had to learn. In the end, that book reflects both realities, old experiences tested by new ones. 

The testing has grown since its publication. Public events and private experiences have unsettled my foundations and made me far less sure of what I know or think. I’ve never minded uncertainty—it’s part of the definition of community art I proposed in A Restless Art—but I’ve not felt it so deeply before. It’s woken me up, excited and scared at the same time. I think about some of those who’ve inspired me over the years: Richard Feynman, who argued that scientists need a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, Michel de Montaigne, who was never afraid to show the human inconsistencies of his ideas and, most recently, Buddhist teachers for whom not knowing is both a reality and a starting point. 

Still, it’s not a comfortable place to be. I spent time last week drafting different posts about uncertainty. I shelved them both after sharing them with friends who asked good questions. I found that I was uncertain about uncertainty, confident of its reality and value, but unable to articulate anything clearer than that. I’d quoted Rainer Maria Rilke’s words to a young poet advising patience ‘towards all that is unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves’ but I was still trying to answer them. Old habits are resilient. 

So uncertainty itself taught me a lesson. Stop trying so hard. Stop rushing. Stop looking for solutions while pretending you’re not. Live with the questions, and for as long as it takes. Maybe answers will come, maybe not. Maybe A Selfless Art, if I do find a way to write it, is about living with the right questions.

I’m hesitant about sharing this journey without maps: it seems likely to be meandering, with unexpected halts, dead ends and reversals. But I’ve always thought that the journey was the point, the process of community art—while paradoxically believing that process is validated by what it produces. Time will tell where this ends. 

The pinhole camera photo is from a project in a youth custody centre in Portugal by MEF, (see A Restless Art)


  1. So I’m writing about uncertainty and indeterminacy a lot at the moment because of work with forestry researchers looking at adaptation and climate change. Can I ask you to unpack the uncertainty in the terms that they might recognise it? They seem to think about it in terms of range of outcomes and uncertainty in terms of evidence for decision making. In response we might ask – what are the range of outcomes sought? What is the evidence for making judgements about each of those possible outcomes? I realise that this is a very odd approach and totally in contradiction to the arts’ normal focus on uncertainty/indeterminacy as a requirement for doing anything different or novel…


    1. Thanks Chris, but I can’t unpack it, as I said in the post. I’m not sure what I have to say about uncertainty except that it exists and it can be valuable (especially if we recognise that it exists). Could it be that the forest researchers are more concerned with probability than uncertainty?


  2. I wonder whether it is the ‘right’ questions or more about the ‘next’ question when it comes to uncertainty…

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    1. Thanks for the suggestion. I need to be more careful about my words; ‘right’ meant only right for me, so that I’m thinking about the questions that matter to me. I’m not comfortable with ‘next’ because it implies a progression I don’t believe in, and that we can know what comes next anyway… back to uncertainty.


      1. I did not mean ‘next’ in the sense of progress or improvement, more just the movement of time, and the idea that you do not know the future and therefore can not plan for it, and so all you can do is make your next move and see what happens…

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