NOT KNOWING WHAT YOU SEE (AND SEARCHING/FINDING KEYS)
The following text addresses the question of ambiguity in art, as well as in relation to science. He approaches the idea of the difficult to define, the importance of attention, the requirement of commitment and the discomfort that activates thought. He also speaks of ambiguity as an oblique illumination, a resizing, a material, a vector of disorder and a fleeting form of power.
The difficult to define
The hard to define in art is often seen as an indication that something interesting is at work. An artistic proposal evoking this, appearing to speak of that, expressing one thing and its opposite, resembling that but not quite, is a work that has much to say. What it can express is probably inexhaustible. It also implies that one of the expectations we have of art would be to undermine the unknown, and that if the artistic proposal before us seems opaque to us is that it probably conceals something that promises dazzling – which is not entirely false. But opacity does not guarantee anything, nor is it proportional to the interest or strength of a work. Ambiguity nevertheless contains elements that are not alien to the content of a work and its value of knowledge, i.e. what has been called its counter-knowledge in the post entitled Approaching the idea of counter-knowledge (and turning around the formless).
In a way, we can say that ambiguity is part of informality, a concept previously associated with the notion of counter-knowledge. These three notions – ambiguity, informality, counter-knowledge – work together. Most often there is ambiguity in the formless, which leads to a form of counter-knowledge – a knowledge that goes beyond the work and that is discovered in the observation and experience that it presents and/or that one allows oneself to make of it.
By definition, what is ambiguous is equivocal and obscure. But ambiguity does not necessarily mean strangeness. It’s something we don’t understand. A polysemy such that it is not possible to determine its meaning. In this difficulty in grasping an artistic proposal, there is often discomfort, if not fear. It can be insecure to be in the presence of an object that cannot be easily read and grasped. There is an ordinary fear of making a mistake. Then a fear perhaps more complex which would be to lose contact with common sense (by giving, for example, credit to something crazy – and not by going crazy yourself). This posture of fear underlines as much our limits – or what we believe to be our limits – as the investment that sometimes requires our encounters with art. It is also a sign that something is resisting: the work in front of us opposes a form of resistance, which is also the promise of a possible, the possibility of an overcoming. And this resistance requires commitment.
The requirement of ambiguity: attention
The work resists, and by this very resistance, it demands a form of engagement on the part of the public. This commitment can be expressed in different ways and to different degrees: time; observation; projection; openness; patience; letting go; resilience. In all cases, a particular quality of work and attention is required and must be given. Attention is a key, and perhaps even more so today as we are constantly solicited through the reception of emails and notifications, the management of our social networks, and the Internet in general. The flow of information and the density of communications that are imposed on us on a daily basis necessarily fragment our attention, which is more difficult to maintain over a given period. None of this is new. Let us go in that direction a little.
In the fall of 2006, I took a literature course entitled “Aspects et problèmes de la création littéraire”, given by Quebec writer, essayist and poet René Lapierre. Issues such as resistance and attention were addressed. Lapierre spoke to us, among other things, of “attention as a line of opening sobriety”, to note that I quote it freely according to my course notes, preciously preserved since. There is in this idea, of an “opening sobriety line”, that of a delimitation where attention would make it possible to reach an ability to apprehend things – art? with clarity and openness that is also a form of knowledge. A specific, indirect and oblique light – that of ambiguity – necessarily gives access to the blind spots of the object of our attention. The ambiguity, housed in the work of art, encourages us to look at it blindly, unresolved, who does not know what he sees. It is a question of staring at the work, of supporting this uncertainty and unease, of drawing from it an abandonment, a permission to see without seeing. It will be necessary to imagine in part what is seen, to create extensions of visibility. In doing so, our gaze activates the work and it engages us in its complexity.
The necessary discomfort: the stone floor and the keys to the castle
If ambiguity is generally so well received in art it is certainly, on the one hand, because it reveals the inexhaustible character of a work. On the other hand, it invites, by its irresolution, to prolong and linger on the gaze. In the nonresolution is housed a life teeming with clues and keys of reading, which will contribute to liberate a form of counter-knowledge. Discomfort is necessary: it places the art public in a position that forces it to reconsider its foundations. Lying on a stone floor, one will not be able to remain very long neither on the back, nor on the stomach or the sides: the hardness of the ground forces the body to a perpetual movement, does not provide any rest. Ambiguity has a similar effect on thinking: it activates movements of back and forth, zoom in zoom out and other discursive oscillations and detours that push language into reptilian folds. We would like to state a clear idea, but the object in front of us does not allow it. The formulations he suggests are under the authority of indeterminacy. Through the indeterminate however are key terms.
In a text entitled “Nommer la pratique” published in 2004 in the collective work Tactiques insolites – Vers une méthodologie de recherche en pratique artistique (Dir. D. Laurier and P. Gosselin, 2004, Guérin éditeur), I address the question of key words in research/creation. I then do it under an artist’s hat and as a master’s student in visual arts. I am also taking the floor for the very first time in a text to be published. On re-reading this text, I rediscover a quotation by Anne Cauquelin that I hear today resonating with as much relevance as ever: it is a question of”…seeing how language itself can reflect and bend itself to generate the reality of the world that we see or, more precisely, that we believe we see. For we see only what we can name to recognize it” (Cauquelin, Les théories de l’art, 1998, p.84). In front of the difficultly definable, the questions of what we believe to see and how to see activate the modes of the glance and the language at the same time. The gaze and the language work together to see-name and open a path in the magma of ambiguity.
But it is not a question, by highlighting key words, of reducing the ambiguity of a work to nothing: on the contrary, they are tools that make it possible to cohabit with ambiguity, to see through, to see something clear – even just one element – in a complex whole. For ambiguity is necessary: the demand it calls and the discomfort it generates form the look, which the keys then open. Of course, art is always in a castle.
The importance of oblique light
If in art ambiguity brings an unusual form of lighting on the perception of the world – a dark and oblique light? in science it is rather perceived as absence of light, and thus absence of value of knowledge. And yet, as we know, scientific research is trial and error. A scientific experiment only reaches the official and public status of a reproducible experiment, therefore verifiable and bearing a value of truth, following multiple round trips, involving an incalculable number of variants. In spite of this, research protocols and scientific reports are evacuated from these ambivalences, pre-existing to the final result and essential to the identification and affirmation of this same result. To affirm something with certainty, should we not have checked it against, even partially? It is surprising to note that the “remnants” of these experiences are not preserved, if only in terms of documents witnessing a process. Ambiguity – contrary to certainty – is not welcome in scientific research: it shades it. Does this mean that the only light that is acceptable in science is that of a very white and very raw light, like those of hospitals and administrative offices? Different places, different lights.
There are several cases where the discovery preceded, in a way, the scientific explanation (I am thinking in particular of the examples given by my colleague Miguel Aubouy in his post entitled Le contraire de l’illumination previously published on this blog). Because science could not articulate the processes behind what it saw, it refuted their outcomes and the meaning they potentially carried. And yet, the result of this research, born in ambiguity, clearly participates in the construction of the world as it appears to us, that is, in the splendour of its daily contradictions. Once again, I am astonished at the field of scientific research, which asserts its freedom from the uncertainties that underlie existence – at least the uncertainty that exists in the margins of the minutes. In a way, it is as if science was freeing itself from life’s disorder, its swarming, its share of confusion and chaos, its clutter and dirt, the cloudy appearance of its waters, the molecular agitation within its materials. All these realities which are however among his subjects of studies. Science itself is not unambiguous.
Obviously, the knowledge produced by science does not meet the same needs as those arising from art. They do not go in the same direction or come from the same route. They also light up differently to produce an optimal effect. Everything seems to want to distance them – including their reciprocal relationship to ambiguity – and yet, an intuition tells us that there is a potentially complementary dynamic here, induced by the law of opposites.
Short fiction in the workshop: about scraps and artifacts
I entered the workshop and first saw elements without any apparent connection. Sketches on wall and floor; various building materials; clay and what appeared to be plaster moulds; electronic modules; soldering iron; orange cone; tape measure and several other tools; computer and plants; empty coffee cup. A certain disorder reigned: the impression of a perpetual movement, of matter as of thought. The artist lets me wander a few minutes among these objects. Then he tells me everyone’s story. He explains to me how the sketches are the basis of the project: first here, then this second, more complete, more complex. The drawings exist for themselves – even in the state of diagrams – he tells me, nevertheless, from these sketches, he wanted to imagine arrangements of materials, of materials. Gypsum laid perpendicularly, a sheet of metal on one side, glass on the other. Then he stood back and observed the whole thing. From this arrangement, he isolated an angle that seemed more singular to him, revealing and holding everything at the same time. He modeled the shape of this corner with clay and then made a plaster mold in order to reproduce several copies of this shape. After all these very material manipulations, he integrated microcontrollers in order to generate a sound dimension. He drank coffee while working on the audio aspect of the project on his computer. The cone is just an object waiting, he tells me. At first glance, the workshop work area does not reveal the relationship between the objects. These have played a role in the process at different times, some are still relevant for the future – because nothing is ever completely finished he tells me. But also, more importantly, some of these elements will be taken up and recycled: it will then be the beginning of a new creative cycle, which will be based on an artifact from a previous creative process.
In the same way, it is possible to imagine that in science, the famous “scraps” of ambiguity that are quickly swept away from the minutes of experiments can serve as a starting point for new research. That they are somehow recycled and revisited, picked up from the ground and looked at under a new light.
In art, the ambiguity housed in the work is like an artifact of the one – more global – that accompanied the artist throughout his process of realization.
Ambiguity as matter
While the scientist avoids considering the fears, doubts and other beginnings that accompany his research, the artist on his side not only embraces ambiguity in a global way, but he literally works with it. Through his pervasive presence, it becomes the very material of the artist’s work: he materializes it, often partially, sometimes totally.
In December 2015 I visited the Biennale internationale des arts numériques de Némo in Paris at the CENTQUATRE. Under the theme “Prosopopeias: when objects come to life” many installations and performances were presented. One in particular has often come back to haunt me: Installation Sans Objet (2015) by the French artist Aurélien Bory is a performative installation consisting of an industrial robot entirely covered with a black tarpaulin forming a strange moving sculpture. Without any staging other than a very dark space, the work is presented in the form of a performance at thirty-minute intervals: it performs punctually. In space completely plunged into darkness at first, our eyes gradually get used to this initial discomfort. It is in the darkness that one guesses the first movements of the machine. We don’t see, we don’t know what we see. We hear sounds that we can’t identify. Then a weak light, oblique, illuminates the surface of the object: one recognizes plastic. We think we see: a huge garbage bag covering an indefinite, probably monstrous machine creature. At first very slow, the movements will progress into a more complex choreography, faster and faster. The sounds generated are those of a robotic machine: the sound level can now identify them. The whole is clearly worrying, even threatening. And it’s ambiguous: we don’t know what we see.
At the beginning of this post I mentioned that ambiguity, inform and counter-knowledge work together. Bory’s work exemplifies this proposition: we have before us this shapeless, perfectly ambiguous form. Through this ambiguity-inform relationship that is given to us to see, we are also transmitted this discomfort by which our thought is activated back and forth, zoom in zoom out. In this absence of rest, thought requires a particular form of attention that allows it to catch the keys to reading as it passes. Ideas flow in a more or less coherent way: a shapeless form; metamorphosis; morphism and anthropomorphism; plastic in motion; a garbage bag – garbage? a monster; a being or a creature? a tarp – what under the tarp? a sound – of what origin? of the living – of robotics? A form that moves, dances, stretches, stretches, unfolds and folds; a light that hides and discovers back and forth; a generalized fluctuation; a hesitation; a variation in speed; a beginning and an end.
Then from this dynamic – from ambiguity to inform to counter-knowledge – exceeds something that will eventually put itself in images, in thoughts and in words, in order and/or in disorder.
A receding form of power
If ambiguity bothers and creates unease – because it seems to be the case outside the art world – isn’t it partly because it insinuates the disorder I mentioned earlier? We do not want the disorder of life, it is suspended or lost time, ruins to be reduced to nothing, the pendant without any grace of confusion. And yet, disorder is also the fertility of reordering and renewal. From disorder is born the possibility of a new order, an index of truth by which to rethink the foundations – those of science? In this rejection of disorder is perhaps the keystone (!) of why ambiguity is an embarrassment: by its elusive and indefinable aspect, it represents a fleeting form of power. The potential for identity mutation that it suggests constitutes a real power of transformation and therefore of influence over the objects and subjects of the world. But it is an uncontrollable power, which escapes and self-determines as it changes, incessantly – a lava that would never freeze. Not allowing to enslave anyone in the short or medium term, this wild power remains ignored and denied. The ambiguity is this unknown denied at first glance, when we should take the risk of entering into a relationship with her: look her in the eyes, perhaps even kiss her full mouth.
Installation Sans Objet (2015), Aurélien Bory (image from the artist’s website)
Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator