this could be a game

These two concepts taken together, performativity and indexicality, pose a series of related questions: What does it mean to do something that is “not real” or symbolic within a situation that is otherwise designated as real? What does it mean to do something “real” within a situation that is ostensibly not real? Does one constitute a not-real-but-real; the other a real-but-not-real? Why is the former generally considered to be more real than the latter? And what happens when ambiguity is introduced into either or both sides of the equation, forcing us to confront this question of the real?

Based on my observations thus far, the magic that I sought was to be found not in an insistence that the ambiguous or real-but-not-real be accepted as certain, but in allowing this uncertainty to be equally real. For the unknown seems to be a more powerful state than the known; questions more transformative than answers. Researchers who have studied ambiguity have observed similarly.

‘By thwarting easy interpretation, ambiguous situations require people to participate in making meaning,’ writes interaction designer William Gaver (Gaver, Beaver & Benford 2003, pp. 235-234). ‘This can involve the integration of previously disconnected discourses, the projection of meaning onto an unspecified situation, or the resolution of an ethical dilemma. In each case, the artefact or situation sets the scene for meaning-making, but doesn’t prescribe the result. Instead, the work of making an ambiguous situation comprehensible belongs to the person, and this can be both inherently pleasurable and lead to a deep conceptual appropriation of the artefact’ or situation.

Grappling with ambiguity in non-critical situations may indeed be a rewarding experience, but it appears to be a pleasure that not many of us take to naturally. In their own study of ambiguity, the psychologists Ellen Langer and Alison Piper point to previous research that demonstrates ‘how quickly people come to view the world in a limited and rigid fashion’ (1987, p. 280). A primary mechanism of this rigidity is what the authors refer to as mindlessness: a tendency to assign the objects of our perception to categories of varying exactitude, and to see in these specific objects only the more general attributes and possibilities of their category. ‘According to this definition, one deals with information as though it has a single meaning and is available for use in only that way,’ the authors write. ‘This results in a lack of attention to details.’ In light of this tendency of human cognition, the authors ask: ‘Is there a way to come to understand the world that does not simultaneously set the stage for limited use of that knowledge?’ (ibid.).

Attempting to answer their own question, Langer and Piper conducted a series of experiments in which participants were presented with an open-ended problem that was not disclosed to be part of the study. Within the context of the experiment’s purported (but irrelevant) objective, participants were also presented with a collection of objects. These objects were either familiar (a pen, a rubber band) or unfamiliar (a fragment of a dog’s chew toy), and were introduced in a manner that was either conditional (this could be an X) or unconditional (this is an X) (ibid.). An “unexpected” situation was then introduced, which could be creatively resolved with at least one of the introduced items. Participants most frequently “solved” the problem by identifying the potential of an unfamiliar object that had been conditionally introduced, leading the authors to conclude that mindlessness can be prevented through a ‘conditional understanding of the world’ (ibid.).

This conditional understanding is eloquently articulated by Tassos Stevens, director of UK-based immersive theatre company Coney. ‘What if. What is. We’re playful when we hold two spheres of belief in our brains overlapping,’ Stevens writes. ‘The distance between these two spheres of what if and what is, it’s a dynamic space, sparking like the electrical storm of Van der Graaf. Sometimes so close the spheres are almost touching, sometimes miles apart, but the meaning of play is found across that distance. Still what if is only charged if it is grounded and connected to what is. There’s no chance of transformation otherwise’ (2013, para 5).

It is this tension between the real and the possible, the dynamic space between these spheres, that energises both the performative and the indexical. What is. What if.