Black Box /fragments

In one of his days among the Amazonian Pirahãs, Daniel Everett noticed that they were gathered in great numbers, talking excitedly about what was happening just across the river. Daniel and his daughter couldn't understand why, they only saw an empty beach. All the village was watching a spirit there. “I could never have proved to the Pirahãs that the beach was empty. Nor could they have convinced me that there was anything, much less a spirit, on it.” The two perceptions were irreconcilable, a radical disagreement persisted about what the reality across the river was. They looked into two different worlds – the river had three riverbanks.

In hypnosis shows, things can easily appear or disappear. A chair can float because the person that manipulates it is not there anymore. Humans without heads or heads without bodies could populate the stage because of partial disappearances. Anthony Jacquin, a hypnosis artist, explains it very simply: “reality is plastic”, a “false consciousness” is replaced by another one, and everything is felt as real.

Barbara Glowczewski describes how the Warlpiri of Australia, in order to expand the Dreaming – the relative time-space of collective memory that “dreams” all reality – “must pass through a kind of black box”. This black box is often an important dream or a visionary experience that has to be introduced and confirmed within the community as “real”, which means, as having to do with Dreaming. For the Warlpiri, it is clear that there is no easy way to intervene in the foundation of what exists or can exist, that is, in the Dreaming.

The Everett family cannot voluntarily see the spirits on the beach and the Pirahãs cannot voluntarily unsee them. You cannot see people without heads or chairs moving by themselves just by wanting to – a good hypnotist is necessary for that. You cannot voluntarily modify the reality around you – for that you need to pass through a sort of black box. There is no easy bridge between the people who see humans with heads and those who see them without. There is no easy bridge between the Everett family and the Pirahãs. Some of them have to pass through a black box for an agreement about reality to be possible.

A black box is needed wherever there is no bridge between two realities. In some SFs, like Interstellar, the current state of things (space technology) is so weak that only a black hole, an event horizon, or a wormhole, can make the story advance through a leap to other galaxies, parallel universes or other dimensions. The only way that a jump between realities, or something extraordinary, can happen is through a sort of black box. A black box is needed when you reach the end of possibilities. The black box happens at the end of imagination.

That things happen at the end of imagination is not always desirable. Many theories of consciousness say something like this: an accumulation of complexity in physical or informational processes at some point gives rise to subjective experience. This “some point” is a black box, there is no idea about how and why this leap happens. The impossibility of understanding how any physical system could ever produce or give rise to any subjective, qualitative experiences is the “hard problem of consciousness”. The unbridgeable “explanatory gap” between the physical and phenomenal realm is one of the most persistent and annoying black boxes in science.

With this black box around, a great effort and extreme theories are required to preserve the materialist-physicalist paradigm that currently powers science. Behaviorism saw the mind as self-contained, mysterious, inaccessible and unobservable – a black box that should be ignored in favor of directly and objectively observable behaviors. The neuro-reductionist approaches see mental processes as physiological processes in the brain. Cognitivism and functionalism reduce the mind and consciousness (if it is not ignored) to informational processes and computation. Eliminativism eliminates consciousness along with other “folk psychology” concepts centered around subjective experience, or explains it away as illusion.

Some of these theories are instrumental in Artificial Intelligence progresses and allow us to foresee an AI with some capacities equal or superior to those of humans – attention, perception, use of language, thinking, imagination. Even the apparently obsolete Behaviorism found a way back – in some tech circles AIs are often called “black box systems”, for similar reasons for which the mind is a black box for behaviorists. But these theories seem constitutionally incapable of approaching consciousness – the existence of subjective experience cannot be explained in physical, chemical or functional terms. The kind of AI that could be envisioned by them performs subjectivity, emotions and mental states, without living and feeling them – it is a philosophical zombie, not capable of experiencing its functional and cognitive capacities.
What used to work, in this case a materialist paradigm that is generally very useful and productive, suddenly, and often unexplainably, ceases to work in the proximity of a black box. Or, a black box rather shows how the respective theories have always been problematic.

A black box produces an explanatory void that forces thinking and speculative explorations. Anomalies require speculative explorations, but this works the other way around, too: explorations often start from a need to escape the conformity of the world, from a need for anomalies. And they are fed by a desire for the unknown, for a secret passage, for a treasure, for a way to oneself or out of oneself, for a shortcut to something, for a leap to somewhere… for a black box.

The Franklin expedition from 1845 started as a collective desire to find a Northwest Passage, a shortcut to the new worlds. It was the biggest expedition at that time, using the most advanced technologies, self-sufficient for many years – it appeared as one of the safest explorations. But something went wrong and they never came back. The rescue missions were unsuccessful and many search parties disappeared too. It was one of the biggest mysteries in the history of explorations, a shock. The emerging hints about cannibalism and some terrible diseases were accentuating the horrific picture of what had happened. Recently, it was discovered that food cans actually played a big part in the disaster. The technology of canning was only at the beginning and the food was apparently contaminated, inducing lead poisoning.

In the Ship of Fools, land was a distant memory, or rather a legend. Many generations spent their entire lives on the ship in interstellar travel. The Earth they had left thousands of years ago became a myth. On the ship, the voyagers still preserved something from the earth cultures but everything was distorted. This is one of the many SFs featuring spaceships that become cosmic arks, in which the earthly germs are amplified, leading to distorted, usually monstrous, humanities, millions lightyears away from home.

To explore unknown or hostile territories the obvious solution are capsules in which a livable world could persist. But once the capsules are away from the multiple stabilizing mechanisms active at home, things can deviate easily and evolve fast. Any problem is amplified – it could be a psychological trait that contaminates everything or an unnoticed detail, like the poisonous lead in Franklin’s expedition. In time, inevitably, the homeworld capsules become black boxes that generate monstrous mutations.

In 1853, Elisha Kent Kane and his crew made a second attempt to save the Franklin expedition. It ended up, as many other explorations of the “mysterious region of terrors”, with the ship being trapped in ice, and the crew eating mainly canned food, hoping that good weather would free them next summer. It didn't happen. Noticing the rapid degradation of everybody's health and knowing that the Eskimo people are healthier in those environments without eating canned foods, Kane started to eat rats, of which there were plenty on the frozen ship.

While he was healing, the mental distance between him and his crew was growing – the ship “presented all the appearances of a mad house.” Stupor, paranoia, debility, a total loss of reason, great nervous weakness, ghost-like appearance, convulsions, were the terms used in that period to describe a community affected by some mysterious disease that later proved to be lead poisoning. Under these conditions, on a disintegrating ship (as the wood from the ship was used for heating), Kane couldn't convince anybody else to renounce the last nutritional advancements, canned food.

The explorers cannot take their world with them, no matter how much they try, these environments don't allow their homeworld to persist. They often face something that renders their conventions ridiculous. Their clumsiness and inability to respond to the jungle, desert or polar ice is made even clearer by the populations that they eventually meet there. But some explorers, like Kane, who learned from the Eskimo, are inspired to take a leap out of the prevailing common sense of their own world and tune to the alien environment. Once the cut with the homeworld is made, they have to start from zero, to improvise with vital components, to mess with the fundamental structures. They voluntarily plunge into a black box that makes possible a leap to the new environment.

If they take the leap and survive and go home, they often cannot feel at home anymore, they cannot arrive. They changed so much of their basic structures in order to adapt to the new world that the old world feels alien. Because of this alienation, they are often able to see painfully clearly problems in what was before their homeworld normality. Many explorers and anthropologists feel restless, haunted by an urge to go back, sometimes to the hells from which they barely escaped alive. It is more an irrational obsession, they know that it is very dangerous, that it is preferable to stay home, in comfort, among friends and family. But they feel that they belong to the new world, or even worse, that they are caught between worlds, nowhere at home – they’re trapped in the black box.
To facilitate the apparition of other realities, contemporary performance spaces are blocking as much as possible the interferences with their exterior – they try to be black boxes, physically and conceptually. Contemporary performance gave the impression that it can reactivate the theater, but its initial esthetic perturbations became stabilized and stylized – just an expected conventional esthetic. The theater's black box got filled with its own history and conventions, with institutional pressures for entertainment and an obsession for audience’s satisfaction – it became just a conventional homeworld extension. It is almost impossible for a black box to emerge in a theater black box.Paradoxically, there seems to be a better chance for black boxes to appear in white cubes nowadays.

While the contemporary dance is back to something that is rather a craft than a contemporary art, in the visual art field the deregulation goes on. Delinking art from disciplines, mediums and modalities, brought about new possibilities and speculations, in a way similarly to what has happened in the financial world due to deregulation and the revocation of the “gold standard”. New forms are acknowledged and embraced by contemporary art rather than by their own disciplines, which often seem rigid by comparison (dance, music, theater, literature, film). There are zones of contemporary art in which to overcome what is accepted as art is one of the aims. Zones with an implicit drive for conceptual and formal leaps, in which self-alienation may be viewed as the essence of the esthetic experience.14 From this perspective, some artworks are black boxes that reconfigure the understanding of what contemporary art can be. They make possible a jump to a slightly different art world.

Some artworks are black boxes that make possible leaps to other descriptions. They operate on the esthetic layers that are organising and perpetuating a reality, rewriting or at least perturbing some of the implicit abstractions of a world. The black box artworks can be experimental mini-worlds that are able to cover big esthetic distances, as the endurable self-sufficient spaceships in extremely hostile environments, far away from the long-term tuned structures functional at home. Or, they can be more like artworlds that radically fluctuate their own constitutive esthetic structures, as a Stalker’s Zone that changes time and space and its other basic abstractions.

There is an isomorphism between worlds – practices, approaches can be transferred, but a world speaks mainly about itself. The content of political art doesn't affect the political world. If you speak in an artwork about problems in your world, the effects on your world are minimal – the artwork speaks the language of its world, the language of art, not the language of politics, sociology or philosophy, no matter how much you try. You cannot take a content from a world to another, but some dynamics and practices can be transported, and how to activate a black box could be one of them. A black box doesn't teach you how to change the world but how to change it for another, how to leave it, as somebody else.

In Childhood’s End, the only man that succeeds to see the planet of the aliens (who assist humankind in its transition towards a new stage) hid in the belly of a whale taken aboard their ship in order to be placed in a sort of extraterrestrial museum of “otherness”, and complete its Earth section. It was so alien there on the planet that he didn’t have feelings and ways to relate, he had to go back home, but home was in the meantime no longer home (due to the speed of the whale ship and relativity), but something even more alien. A black-box is a device that allows the transition to another world, something like a black hole or a wormhole, or a whale in this case. But an ideal black box not only transports you to another world, it transforms you on the way. I don’t know how a work or a project can be a black box, but there are works that made the transition to a new art world and that require mutations of subjectivity in order to be produced and perceived.

Published in Black Hyperbox