Why Ambiguity?

This is the place where I allow myself to nerd out about ideas related to my art, whether philosophical, practical, or personal; about tools, processes, and finished products. This is my first post, so I’m going to talk about why I call this blog “Ambiguity.” It has to do with how I want my art to express meaning on multiple levels.

Whatever form it takes--Easter eggs, steganography, head fakes, polysemic and asemic art, pattern recognition, signal-to-noise ratio, symbolism, etc., the concept of multiple levels of meaning in any given instance of a medium has always fascinated me. So as an artist, I often find my work delving into the realm of ambiguity and multivalence. Just for fun, and to give some context, I’ll parse out the nuances of these various forms of hidden or multi-layered meanings and how they’re connected to each other. 

The term “Easter egg” is well-known. If you haven’t heard of it, it first referred to a hidden message in electronic media. For example, a message commented out in the code of a website. But at this point in history, Easter eggs can be anything hidden in any medium, such as self-referential jokes and lighthearted mentions of things that are “meta,” like when Stephen King has a character say “I feel like we’re in a Stephen King novel!” Easter eggs are part of the broader category of steganography.

My friend Tim has a good definition of steganography: “the art and science of encoding hidden messages in such a way that no one, apart from the sender and intended recipient, even suspects the existence of the message.” --Timothy James Lambert, The Gnostic Notebook Vol. I, On Memory Systems and Fairy Tales. If the content (such as a catchphrase, reference, or codeword, for example) is something only the sender and receiver would understand in the context of the message, that message can be used as a kind of CAPTCHA. That’s basic security, especially if you want to confirm the identity and/or intent of the other party. 

The steganographic recruitment efforts undertaken by Cicada 3301, seeking individuals willing and able to crack code after code in multiple knowledge domains, represented a more scattershot approach, not directed at a known recipient but at “intelligent individuals.” Interestingly, such an endeavor could work both angles and reach out to new people, while at the same time contain specific messages for known individuals. This is called a head fake.

The head fake is often defined as a form of misdirection, but I think the implied disingenuousness in that is a bit uncharitable. In addition to teaching about one thing on the surface, and another when you look deeper into it, a head fake can be a way of communicating on one level to one audience, and on another level to another audience at the same time. That is the topic of The Last Lecture by Dr. Randy Pausch. If you’re not already familiar with it and have some time, check it out, but bring the Kleenex! 

Thus, the head fake is a form of polysemy, defined as “the coexistence of many possible meanings for a word or phrase” (or an entire lecture, or art-blog essay). The opposite of a polysemic work would be an asemic one, in which there are text-like figures that have no meaning.

I’ve been a member of a Facebook group, Asemic Writing: The New Post-Literate for a while. Whether you call it writing or art, the works’ interpretation is completely subjective, though they are meant to evoke a response. Often they rely on pattern recognition.

Aside from a machine-learning term, and a novel by William Gibson, pattern recognition is something most if not all humans do, though some seem preternaturally good at it. When it gets to the point that a person is drawing connections between seemingly unrelated phenomena or seeing signal where others see only noise, it’s called apophenia. Mainstream culture judges apophenia harshly, equating it with mental illness and conspiracy theories. However, it is just as accurate to call it a form of creative ingenuity, whatever your opinion of the outcome.

When groups of people agree upon how to interpret pattern recognition, those patterns become symbolism for that group. Symbols can take on such importance that they become archetypes for a culture. Or they can be purely personal, like brands, special signifiers, or dream images or phrases. In my work I use both kinds, the cultural and the personal, some inspired by my dreams. 

I go on (and on, and on) at even greater length about archetypes in the following post on “conscious archetype retrieval” (which is one of those dream phrases I just mentioned, one that came to me decades ago). So if you want more of my blathering, have a look. Or hey, just check out the art for sale! (Keep your eyes peeled for Conscious Archetype Retrieval Cards coming up in 2022).