I read last night that the so-called Jungian psychologist of love Aldo Carotenuto believed we humans find ambiguity so troublesome to deal with because “very few have the courage or the strength to hold the tension between opposites until a completely new standpoint emerges, because, in acknowledging contradictory truths, one has to create an inner equilibrium to keep from being torn in two.”
Ambiguity is certainly tricky. One wants things to be either one thing or another, not a little bit of both. It’s so much easier to see the world in black and white, to contain ones experiences in a series of neat little boxes with the appropriate label clearly annotated on the front, preferably typed and laminated so it doesn’t risk getting wet and doing nasty smudging things that might open the door, once again, to the horrors of ambiguity.
It’s all very well to know this intellectually. In fact knowing things intellectually is a piece of cake compared to living the knowledge, incorporating the knowledge into the choices one makes as one bumbles through life. I’ve begun to wonder even if it mightn’t be the case that the more one claims to ‘know’ things, the less one really knows anything, for to ‘know’ something intellectually is to close the door on myriad other possibilities that might also be true. Perhaps a claim to ‘know’ something is little more than an expression of the impossible desire to eradicate inherent ambiguity from ones own mind?
An erstwhile friend of mine used always to know everything. Whenever I’d say anything about anything, even my own personal emotional responses to circumstances I had experienced, she’d respond: ‘I know that’. After a while it started to sound defensive. Does the act of knowing something somehow distance one from the fear of the possibility that one might not know - the fear of the ambiguity and uncertainty of not knowing?
To ‘know’ is very self-affirming. To allow that one might not know, perhaps one needs either a very stable sense of self or else a faith in something beyond the self.
It’s all very well my observing other people’s wont always to know, but the truth is I wish I could let go of my own need to know. Wouldn’t it be awesome to be happy not knowing; to kick back and go with it, wherever it’s going and whatever it may be? To have sufficient faith that I could be content simply to believe that ultimately it’ll be alright, rather than having to know, for the sake of my own peace of mind, the details of what exactly it is, or will be, in relative, academic terms.
I went to an interactive performance at the David Roberts Art Foundation last week called Conversations with the Other Side by Sidsel Christensen and Ben Judd. There were about sixty of us in the basement. We were all instructed to sit down on one huge piece of paper. The performance went on for an hour and nobody was to enter or leave during that time. It was all rather serious.
At the start Ben explained that he was going to put Sidsel into a trance. Sidsel would then act as a medium for the audience in an attempt to bridge the gap between the audience and the beings existing on the other side. It sounded a bit bonkers and I was curious to know whether it was all very ironic and amusing or whether Ben and Sidsel really were intending to attempt some sort of clairvoyancy in Great Titchfield Street, W1.
An hour later I was no wiser. Had Sidsel really been in a trance? Had we really been conducting a conversation with beings from another dimension?
It didn’t occur to me until some while afterwards that it might not be so simple as a case of either or. Predictably my pedant’s brain had leapt at the default position of neat little boxes. Pleasingly it turned out that Conversations with the Other Side is based on a creative investigation into ambiguity. It seems Ben and Sidsel are interested in the point at which world’s collide and barriers become de-stabilised; not only between this and other dimensions, but also within our selves as individuals and within our countless inter-dependent communities.
Ben Judd’s work relies on the tension between belief and non-belief. Unlike most of us who spend our lives on a ceaseless quest for resolution and stability, Judd is on a quest for the unresolved in-between position. Instead of fighting it, Judd is proposing the position, or perhaps non-position, of inconsistency and ambivalence as fundamental truth. He seems to be embracing the very unknown that most of us are in a constantly unsuccessful battle to resolve.
“I would like to believe in clairvoyance and when I stood up in front of a class and tried to demonstrate my clairvoyance, I felt that I did do it in a genuine sense. On the other hand, I think it is absolute nonsense – a ridiculously constructed experience for everyone. Being a non-believer or an atheist is still also a belief system. I try to become the medium through which other people experience these different positions. Hopefully people can see from my own expressions that I am going through this very intensive period of questioning. Hopefully they can put themselves in my position….. The idea of questioning your own beliefs is very important. I don’t want to find a position of stability.” Ben Judd
Perhaps in a way Conversations with the Other Side is a metaphor for art itself. Perhaps that is the raison d’etre behind the creation of and engagement with art – to act as a facilitator in helping us suspend our limiting beliefs, ejecting us from our comfortable, rationalised, safe positions and forcing us out into the terrifying, but ultimately liberating, waters of ambiguity and the unknown.