Saturday, 14 April 2012


“By thwarting easy interpretation, ambiguous situations require people to participate in making meaning. In each case, the artefact or situation sets the scene for meaning making, but doesn’t prescribe the result. Instead, the work of making an ambiguous situation comprehensible belongs to the person, and this can be both inherently pleasurable and lead to a deep conceptual appropriation of the artefact.” - William W Gaver, Jake Beaver, Steve Benford, Ambiguity as a Resource for Design”

Following on from a previous discussion I've been thinking quite a lot about the role that ambiguity plays in various forms of communication and how it can either multiply possible interpretations or fragment them. Multiplication in this sense is a generative process whereas fragmentation is destructive.

When we seek to communicate clearly (for example in law or education or instruction) it is vital to minimise ambiguity. Much legal documentation, for example, runs into reams of detail as a consequence of its determination to avoid misunderstanding and misinterpretation, as does much philosophy, whereas artworks, poetry, music - in fact all creative forms (though arguably not design) - thrive on ambiguity.

There is a commonly encountered situation in art education where students new to the process of art-making, as a means to explore ideas (as opposed to creating decorative images), produce work which might be described as "illustrative" ie: the ideas are unambiguous, preconceived and obvious to the point of cliche. It is easy to spot this kind of pitfall and it is also easy to criticise it (perhaps too easy since it at least indicates an emergent ability to articulate certain kinds of representations clearly - if predictably). Nonetheless, there is little point in repeatedly producing and reproducing clichés, so art teachers inevitably tend to emphasise the degree to which illustrative work, propaganda and explicit statements in general rarely generate engaging artworks, not least because these tend to limit the free play of association that is often so conducive to art appreciation. The invariable response, on the part of the student, to this charge of obviousness, which is usually driven by a desire to overcome it whilst also salvaging the artwork, is to obscure, blur or somehow conceal the meaning of the work by various forms of abstraction, decoration or elaboration. These strategies almost always result in vagueness rather than meaningful ambiguity.

We can think of vagueness in this context as being equivalent to the fragmentary form of ambiguity. But where ambiguity either multiplies or fragments potential meanings, vagueness only ever diffuses them. Where ambiguity invites interpretations, vagueness obstructs or atomises them. But the common error isn’t simply to mistake vagueness for ambiguity but to assume that ambiguity, of any kind, is a positive thing. It could be said that a successful artwork is one where the different strands of interpretation – ie: the ambiguities - add up, multiply or compliment one another, (not unlike Aristotle’s “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts”) as opposed to subtracting from or contradicting one another. This is why chance plays such an important role in the art-making process since felicitous ambiguities are rarely, if ever, engineered but rather emerge from variation and experimentation (play) under the watchful eye of a perception (often intuitive) that must distinguish between ambiguities that make a contribution, in comparison with those that are superfluous or that simply detract.


Tamsin said...

Blimey, this is a whole banquet for thought. I've been thinking about ambiguity ever since I started this recent painting life (ie the last couple of years). And only today I wrote a post about the effects of removing one kind of chance (watery fractals) and tentatively trying out another (emergent variation and experimentation in the conscioulsy placed acrylic mark - at least I would like to think so!).

I would need to watch that I didn't start to think about this too much, because I could get myself in a real tizzy about whether or not I was just being vague etc. For me, it seems to work to not interrogate all this with my endlessly pinickity mind, which has the capability of destroying the very thing it's interested in. But what a treat to read your post.

J. Hamlyn said...

Yes getting embroiled in thinking at the wrong point in the process can be a disaster. It reminds me of that famous philosophical analogy of the donkey caught between two identical bales of hay and who starves through indecision over which to eat first. If meaningful ambiguity can't be engineered then the worst thing you can do is to try to engineer it ahead of time. Best just to act through accumulated experience and expertise (to improvise) and reflect about the consequences later.

Brian said...

Ambiguity, it would seem then, is itself ambiguous. Perhaps life is full of ambiguity, and art responds to this. The law strives to be clear precisely because it accepts this feature of lived life, and tries to deal with it through reason and common sense. Spontaneity and ambiguity are related in some way, perhaps through chance? Art accepts this and uses of it to open up infinite possibilities.

[thanks for your email, Jim, which I will answer soon]

J. Hamlyn said...

I’m not so sure Brian – I think of art, on the contrary, as something that selects from the infinite, that picks out patterns and, most of all, highlights significances (which itself is probably a form of pattern recognition). It makes sense (though much strikes as nonsense) amongst the chaos.

I’m also not so sure that it makes sense to think of ambiguity as a property of things (if that is what you’re implying?) so much as a property of our interpretation of them – where I see ambiguity you see clarity (or at least you see less ambiguity, as our earlier discussion regarding Derrida seemed to suggest).

But yes ambiguity is clearly ambiguous – even if it is oxymoronic to say so!

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