Notes on “Enabling Constraints”

While I have done a few quick searches online to try to find scholarly articles on the notion of “enabling constraints”, most of my results have been quite specific to the fields of I.T./software design, systems theory, and business management. A lot of these texts were at first glance quite jargon-heavy and intimidating to read, whereas the concept of “enabling constraints” itself is to me quite intuitive. Because of this the notes below are based on my own take on the topic, without reference to any specific academic text.

The idea of enabling constraints appears to be based on the premise that the application of constraints or rules to a given process will allow resources to be used more efficiently and in a more directed manner. The less decisions there are to make, and the more simple the process, the more energy can be put to use toward the intended goal. Thus the application of constraints “enables” the system/user to work more effectively, by cutting down on distractions, fatigue, and wasted resources.

Another benefit of enabling constraints is that constraint appears to encourage innovation and invention. This is likely due to the fact that more resources are being spent in a more concentrated way, with less arbitrary decision making, in a more streamlined workflow with clear goals. Thus enabling constraints not only make systems more efficient, but they can also facilitate the generation of new and inventive solutions through increased focus.

In art practice, enabling constraints might include medium-specific and process-based ways of working. Restrictions on medium or process may heighten focus on the task at hand, eliminate distractions and reduce decision fatigue. The same constraints might also enable the artist to generate novel applications or approaches that might have otherwise been missed.

While the examples above describe ways in which artists might apply self-imposed restrictions to focus their work, there are also examples of enabling constraints that might be imposed on the artist. One such imposition might be the working environment itself – whether it be a conventional studio or workshop, a domestic space, a shared space, or somewhere else entirely. Each individual space will have its own imposing constraints which – with some thought – could be reframed from negative restrictions to positive enabling constraints.

For example, a reduced amount of space in which to paint may focus the artist more directly on the production of small works; an absence of power tools may lead to a focus on hand crafts; or a lack of private space may engender a move to more open, collaborative ways of working. In this way each different space could be said to have its own set of enabling constraints, which could in time lead to emergent forms of innovation. The painter may find novel ways of working small-scale; the craftsperson may invent hybrid techniques; and the the collaborative effort may result in new and exciting forms of practice.

A final example of enabling constraints might be a focus of subject matter. A focus on, say, portraiture, or on pop cultural icons, or on the domestic space would enable the artist to fully explore that interest, and lay the groundwork for new insights to emerge. New ways of seeing and interpreting the world may arise more readily from the application of constraint – rather than through an “anything goes” approach.

I will try to find some more approachable resources to back up these brief thoughts on the topic, as I feel like “enabling constraints” is an interesting way to approach my current subject matter of work and site. As noted in my previous post, I may try to generate some kind of guide or workbook on the use of enabling constraints to facilitate art practice (perhaps citing examples from the WORKSITE Q&A’s), so any further reading on the subject can only be helpful at this point.

One thought on “Notes on “Enabling Constraints””

  1. Enabling constraints is often used in relation to game design. You might find what you’re looking for if you look in that area? The concept is often called ‘creative constraints’ in art and design. You might have to try out different phrases to find what you’re after? What you have written is good nevertheless. If you can connect it to what’s also out there already it will be better still. The distinction between self imposed and unsolicted constraints is helpful as is the suggestion that limitations can be reframed through your constraints approach. One thing to consider: are there ever any points when there are NO constraints? If not, then are you proposing something that’s a form of ‘attention’ or even ‘mindset’ e.g. being aware of your constraints, seeing constraints in positive terms?

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