Living in Ambiguity
by Josh Bacigalupi • June 9, 2015
Ambiguity is often considered a negative state, but any compelling work of art or design has an element of ambiguity from the Mona Lisa to Modernist architecture. An engaging character in a story is one that is both good and bad; because, this is reality. We live in what scientist's call an indeterminate open system. In other words, the world can be understood and anticipated only sometimes and in different ways. It’s ambiguous.
So, ambiguity is neither good nor bad. It just is. And everything from our mammalian need to play to our artistic endeavors is about dealing with this indeterminate reality.
Of course, all ambiguity all the time is just not fun. There needs to be a balance. Engaging art and design starts with what we think we know, e.g. people, places, and the stories in and around them. But to help us deal with the complexity of the world, the artist and designer can simultaneously challenge our preconceptions about such things while providing a figurative or physical space to explore novel perceptions of our current understandings. Herein lies the opportunity for engagement, play, and exploration, all pathways to broader and deeper understanding of our shared existence. But how is this theoretical balance achieved in practice? Well, through practice.
That’s why we call such professions an “art practice” or a “design practice.” Bodies of work by folks illustrated above do not happen by accident. Action is taken, reflections on the outcome are made, more actions are taken … wash, rinse, repeat. But here is one trick of the trade to look for.
Let's start with some images:
Gestalt principles are one way that ambiguity is leveraged in design. Is it faces or a vase; parts or a whole; is there a triangle or not; are they alike or different; did the star move across “space”? This ambiguity exists because we conceive of two or more interpretations of a single perception. Typically, such phenomena are considered contradictions, because of what philosophy calls The Law of Excluded Middle, or that A cannot be not-A; put another way, if A and B are two distinct states, they cannot co-exist in the same time and space. However, in the context of perception, instead of thinking so exclusively, we can permit “both/and” understanding … thinking “outside the box”, so to speak. For example, the image is both faces and a vase; the objects are both parts and a whole; and, there is both a triangle and not one, simultaneously.
And this double meaning, or interpretation, can tell us a lot about ourselves in the world. Each of these claims embodies a paradox, which is an invitation to explore deeper inter-dependencies in our physical and social world.
It is in this “both/and” world of ambiguity that engaging art and design plays and practices. Because, this is how the world actually is, namely, complex and re-interpretable. It is through this exploration of complex and novel states of mind that new opportunities for engaging each other and our world emerge.