In a video hangout with some other students last week we discussed intent and ambiguity, two subjects that fed into each other and seemed – on the surface at least – to display some paradoxical qualities, or at least some kind of tension between them…

We were discussing my Assignment 2 work-in-progress and the two strands of theory that came up were:

  • It’s crucial for the artist to have clarity of intent
  • It’s valid for the work to be ambiguous to the viewer

These ideas emerged from a couple of comments in the peer discussion: firstly, someone commented along the lines of ‘the notion of memory isn’t really coming through these images’, while another suggested that ‘you could remove all the cues about singing and just have a series of portraits of people who happen to be remembering things’.

My first reaction was that I can agree with both of these viewpoints whilst believing them to be, in part at least, contradictory: is it important to communicate a message clearly, or isn’t it? As ever, the answer includes the phrase ‘it depends…’.

Thinking about the interplay of intent and ambiguity in the intervening days helped me to tease them apart and better understand their relationship – and, importantly, what I will do with this understanding.

Encoding/Decoding

First of all, I’m on board with the central principle of Barthes’ Death of the Author (1977) that the viewer is also an author, and that there is no definitive ‘true’ interpretation of any text (using that word in the widest artistic sense). Understanding this was a lightbulb moment at the time, but I soon became curious as to how to apply this realisation to producing my own photographic work.

With the Barthesian view as a foundation, the most practical framework I have yet found to deconstruct and articulate the communication process is Stuart Hall’s Encoding/Decoding model (Hall 1993). Though originally constructed around broadcast media, the fundamental components of the model can be applied to other forms of visual communication. To summarise hugely, a message is encoded (produced) in a context of frameworks of knowledge (e.g. cultural) and decoded (consumed) by viewers in a context of frameworks of knowledge – which may or may not be the same as the one under which it is encoded.

“[S]ince there is no necessary correspondence between encoding and decoding, the former can attempt to ‘prefer’ but cannot prescribe or guarantee the latter, which has its own conditions of existence. Unless they are wildly aberrant, encoding will have the effect of constructing some of the limits and parameters within which decodings will operate. If there were no limits, audiences could simply read whatever they liked into any message.” (Hall 1993)

Hall’s words here (with my emphasis) describe the potential for variance between creator and message, and go some way to explain how misunderstandings can occur. Hall described three types of reading: hegemonic (‘yes, that’s what I meant’), negotiated (‘hmm, that’s not quite what I meant’) and oppositional (‘that’s not what I meant at all’).

Applying this to the intent/ambiguity discussion

Looking at the notions of artistic intent and viewing ambiguity through the lens of the Encoding/Decoding model, it’s tempting to see intent as being a function of encoding and ambiguity as being a function of decoding – but I no longer believe that it is as simple as that.

To examine intent for a moment: there is a continuum of artistic intent, at one end of which is the artist who knows exactly what it is they want to achieve; the other end of the continuum is the artist who does not know consciously why they do what they do, but  works from a subliminal drive that may not be apparent before, during or after creating the work. It may even be that the artist doesn’t ‘understand what it means’ but viewers feel like they do. So I just want to debunk the idea that all intent is conscious and fully understood by the artists themselves.

Ambiguity in consuming visual communication means that there is room for differing interpretations. This is not necessarily the same as misinterpretation, and it could be deliberate ambiguity intended by the author/artist.

Bringing the two together: an artist can decide upfront that ambiguous readings are part of their intent. This is quite different to work that is supposed to communicate a particular message but fails to do so.

So there can be a variety of positions in the encoding/decoding relationship. As the encoder (artist) a series of questions arise:

  • Do I have a message I wish to communicate?
  • If yes, am I concerned whether people understand it as I intend?
    • Or do I not mind if people find their own interpretations?
  • If yes, am I doing what I need to in the encoding of the message to minimise misinterpretation?
    • including understanding the decoding environment and expectations
  • If there is no particular message (or no consciously known one), do I mind if people interpret the work in different ways?

The artist can take one of various standpoints with regard to intent and ambiguity:

  • I have a message, and it’s important to me that you understand it
  • I have a message, but I don’t mind if you interpret it in a different way
  • I don’t (think I) have a message, so interpret it however you like
  • I don’t even know what my own work’s about, can you tell me what you think? (!)

Allow me to be cynical for a moment: as as part of considering these issues it occurred to me that it’s possible to fall back on ambiguity as an artistic decision, to mask a failure of communication:

  • Viewer: I don’t get it
  • Artist: You don’t? Ah, OK, that’s fine, it’s, er… supposed to be ambiguous ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The flipside of this, of course, is the artist who does intend to generate ambiguity, but is criticised for a lack of clarity!

Summary

This has been a little rambly, maybe somewhat incoherent, I know. But it helps me to write these thoughts down.

I will summarise my feelings on this in a short sentence:

Intentional ambiguity is OK!

Applying the ideas to my Assignment 2 work, I can now articulate my position as:

  • I do have a communication intent
  • I’d very much like viewers to understand this communication intent
    • i.e. ambiguity is not my primary intention with this particular work
  • So I will continue to include some visual cues to provide a framework for decoding the images in line with my communication intent

Sources

Barthes, R. (1977) ‘Death of the Author’ in Image Music Text. London: Fontana.

Hall, S (1993) ‘Encoding/Decoding’ in The Cultural Studies Reader (ed: During, S). London: Routledge