Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Ambiguity as Feedback

It is possible to describe artworks (and man-made objects in general) in terms of ambiguousness. At one extreme, you would have highly ambiguous things whose meanings or uses invite a great deal of user improvisation, such as alphabets, balls or building blocks: things that you are free to use to make up your own stories/games/objects. At the other extreme, you would have things whose uses and/or meanings are highly specified, such as mathematical equations, a 3/16ths inch nut or an ash-tray shaped like the Eiffel Tower, i.e. things wherein the maker tried as much as possible to restrict the range of possible uses/interpretations. In that sense, one could also describe artwork A as being more or less ambiguous than artwork B. One could say, for instance, that Lyle's Luwalhati't Hinagpis, (his 3-channel thesis with the infamous talking vulva) as being more ambiguous than Reincarnation (his 8-channel work), which is clearly anchored in existentialist themes by the spoken text.

It is not necessarily the case that the more ambiguous artwork is the better one, or even the more inspiring one. While it's true that the more ambiguous object will (by definition) be able to sustain more interpretations than a more specific object, there comes a point when the increasing the number of possible readings makes it seem more and more pointless to make a reading at all. Making a reading is to assert the primacy of a specific meaning in the work. When the work is so ambiguous that it can mean anything, then there is no point in asserting that it means anything specific . Infinite interpretations collapse to zero.

I've been circling the image of guitar feedback as a metaphor for the particular kind of aesthetic experience I seek, and want to engender. As any electric guitar player quickly discovers, there are "sweet spots" to be found that produce feedback: fortuitous arrangements of guitar, amp and fretting, when the elements lock together: output feeds into input, setting up a little self-sustaining sun of sonic energy. When you tune a work to the right mix of ambiguity and specificity, you reach a point when it seems bursting with intention, a mute gesturing urgently in the dying light, from the other side of the highway.

After all, the mind's activity of reading, or deriving meaning from signs can be described as semiotic amplification. Under the proper conditions it should be possible to set up semiotic feedback loops in the mind, where

1) the meanings the mind has produced become signs to be read again, or

2) the meanings the mind produces changes the meanings of the signs it had produced earlier, or

3) both

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