What is a move?  In chess, a move is the action taken that constitutes a turn.  It is a spontaneous decision made in relation to the action or move of your opponent.  The more often a chess player plays or studies the games and moves of others, the more moves they can observe, learn from, and collect to then implement when future turns eventually arrive.  As I have gleaned from both my own playing of and cursory research into the game and from the collected chess-wisdom of my former roommate, Geoff, a player may start a game with ideas about the moves they might use as the game unfolds (we can call this the player’s strategy), but the strategy of their opponent, or lack thereof, will ultimately determine the moves implemented in response as the game progresses.  When the game is over, each individual move has contributed to the outcome of the game and though different moves could have contributed to a similar outcome, it is specifically the moves used in this game that contributed to this outcome.

Personally, I’m lousy at chess and I think it’s safe to say that one of the primary reasons that this is true is the simple fact that I haven’t played enough.  I haven’t given myself enough opportunities to observe and internalize moves so that, when playing, I can spontaneously, and in reaction to my opponent, use these moves to win.  Winning, of course, being that which inevitably ends the game, sealing my moves as formative content within the edges of the respective start and end points of play.  I’d like to be better at chess, sure, but Geoff moved out, the artificial intelligence residing in my computer’s chess software wipes the floor with me even when I have the difficulty set to “easy,” and most of my drive to seek out binarily competitive gaming experiences is relegated to the Internet Scrabble Club (join up at isc.ro, my handle is “vomitcops”).

To be frank, however, I can’t say that I’m too worried about it, given that I am not a chess player; I am an artist.  Furthermore, while I may believe that, structurally, notions of move, strategy, and some desire for a victorious outcome can function analogously to the behaviors that make up my own practice, my lexicon of moves and strategies is entirely different from that of a chess player and anyway all that chess crap was just for sake of metaphor.


In art, like in chess, it would seem a move is a tangible solution to what is, by comparison, an abstract problem: completion, victory over process.  While I may have an initial strategy, an intention, I don’t think that I know too many artists who are able to follow that intention with literality and focus until the finished product resembles identically the virtual ideal that preceded it.  Or, if it does, I don’t know that many artists who are able to get from point A to point B by taking the route they had initially mapped.

Often, the act of completion is abstract from the get go.  This is not to say that this work is free of intention or strategy, but rather, after years of pulling out hair and dramatically knocking everything off of a table with a single furious sweep of the arm, the artist just accepts that things might not go according to plan.  Hopefully, given the moves the artist has observed or learned, or even formulated at that very moment, she can solve problems as they arise and make the “right choice” as it applies to that unique problem, making the “correct” move to take her to a place where she is as it best satisfied with the outcome or, at worst, able to move on to the next inevitable problem on the road to that holiest of grails, the finished piece.

This generative model is certainly the case with those of us more oriented towards “feeling it out” or “just going with the flow, man.”  This is the artist that sits in their studio, turning the toothpick between their teeth into a smoothie as they stare at a group of objects placed in some compositional relationship, occasionally getting up to pace and cast daggers of suspicious and resentful glance at the arrangement in question.  Something isn’t right, the piece isn’t done, I am not yet victorious over this active process, I cannot. get. this lid. ON.

All of a sudden, something happens.  Our artist makes an electric leap into memory and recalls some specific move.  Indeed, this is a move our artist already knows, a move she may have used before or seen others use.  She considers the implementation of this move.  It’s risky, but with this sort of move, the worst-case scenario is that she can just undo it.  She approaches the arrangement and picks up the small slip-cast bust of Beethoven sitting atop the amorphous salmon-colored horizon-line that she has propped up on two white plastic sawhorses.  In her hands, this smooth white portion of one of the western world’s greatest compositional minds moves 13.8 inches to its left, now distinctly oriented off center in regards to the geometry of its avant-pedestal.  Joy of joys!  The piece is complete, our artist is victorious, and she steps outside of her studio to light a cigarette and call her mother.

We might call this move Proximity or Distance.  More likely than not, the artist will roll her eyes when I call it anything, but she was the choice-maker here, not me.  Her choice was highly specific, both in its function and its result, and certainly not just any move would have given her satisfaction.  In my own video-work, the choice to use a fade or a cut, the choice to follow up one kind of image-information with another, the combination of certain sounds and images, these can all be moves.  There is no limit to the catalogue of moves available to and used by artists and surely, new moves are born every day, some able to cross medias and some necessarily exclusive to individual practices.  I make no claim that moves are the only thing that determine the development or completion of a work, nor do I suggest that they are in any way essential to the act of making work, but:  Colloquially, in the presence of other artists, we talk moves and we recognize moves.  This recognition is a sort of reverse engineering of choices-made, the identification of conclusions arrived at in process that, as fellow makers, we are predisposed to, and occasionally unable to avoid, seeing.

With each column, I will identify and approach a different move as it pertains to an example in artwork, practice, medium, or artist.  Not necessarily a how-to guide, but rather a crudely anthropological encyclopedia of learned behaviors, particular choices implemented spontaneously so that we may defeat incompletion (if that is, in fact, our goal) and stand proudly next to a Work of Art.  As I attempt to accrete said catalogue, I promise to get no closer to understanding how a work of art is made or completed, but only to map the different tools that allow us to get there.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to call my mom.


Sam Davis

Sam Davis is an artist living in Los Angeles, CA.


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