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Artfully opening the black box and finding only black magic
Table of Contents
Introduction 1. Approaching the black box: knowledge versus design 2. Three examples of artistically opening the black box 2.1 Julian Oliver - The Transparency Grenade 2.2 Herman Asselberghs - Dear Steve 2.3 Graham Harwood - Coal Fired Computers 3. Invested with (ir)responsibility: black boxes, interpassivity and cynicism Bibliography
both come together in a 'politics of aesthetics'. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it. from distinct angles.” Wittgenstein. For each artist. which shouldn't be taken too literally as the hidden 'inside' of a technological artefact. or what Ranciere (2006) calls 'the distribution of the sensible.taking an historical approach. the problems of life have still not been touched at all. 6. Secondly.52 There is a close connection between art and media technologies. This tendency of new technologies to disappear.the scientific model that lies at the basis of today's computerized world . questions surrounding the transparancy. secret relationships.' In the second half of the 20th century. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Both work on perception and action. . Others take it as a 'working metaphor' to describe the lack of transparancy of technologically mediated networks. as the latter becomes more pervasive in everyday life. I will discuss three art projects that construct themselves vis-à-vis the pervasive blackboxing of technology. Media artists increasingly take on the role of critically investigating media technologies. and just this is the answer. describing it in terms of means of production.” Don DeLillo. it should be understood to refer to a range of diffuse effects that are distributed through a networked topology of human-machine interaction (where even the latter distinction is increasingly fading). Von Hilgers (2011) for example states that together with the feedback loop. The open source movement is an example of such an approach. a lot has been written on this concept. . Running Dog “We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered. Of course there is then no question left.“This is the age of conspiracy . Within this domain. Rather. is related to the notion of a 'black box'. the notion of a black box is one of the central concepts of cybernetics . In the past couple of years. Both operate in the 'objective' domain. In this paper I will first give a short introduction to the problematics surrounding the blackboxing of technology in critical media art and theory. both mediate processes of visibility and invisibility.the age of connections. links." (Weiser. the black box has a . appropriation and ownership. ownership and 'rights of use' of these technologies become important topics for artists to reflect on and experiment with. to investigate and trace the historical origins of technologies that always tend to disappear into an axiomatic background that is meant to remained unquestioned: "The most profound technologies are those that disappear. Different strategies are employed: some attempt to defetishize technology by turning towards the past. 1991: 65).
we should be careful not to reduce the quesion of the black box to a question of knowledge. does not immediately indulge the reflex to enlighten itself?" (von Hilgers. how it functions. put forward by von Hilgers: "what sort of theory is it that. The source shall be opened. The black box shall reveal itself to be. a diffuse. developed by Žižek..considering only inputs and outputs. Let's say that the above functions more as an 'imaginary postulate'.. but ever only finding new composite constellations. we leave the domain of knowledge and enter the . Hence the relevance of the question. regulative idea that would be denied by everyone if straightforwardly asked. Of course all of the above is really exagerated and no one (especially the artists I discuss in the following) is that naïve to pronounce the former in such fashion. and van Oenen. cybernetics triumphs by its relative modesty: here. But then again it's like those Matryoshka dolls. Not so weird. Approaching the black box: knowledge versus design 'Artists and intellectuals are much needed to open the black boxes of technology in order to reveal the underlying power logics secretly at work there'. Ironically. one version of it can be discerned in more disguised and eloquent forms in some substreams of critical theory and media art. The type of knowledge at work in both cybernetics and media art is a practical knowledge. 2011: 42). a knowledge in making. Crack open the beautiful outer case of an iPad. when faced with a closed box. Pfaller.specific meaning. In the last part I will discuss some of the problems that arise from their shared understanding of what the black box is all about. They have their own black boxes to deal with. Some version of the above statement you often encounter in critical media art's self-legitimations. But although nobody really believes it's that straightforward. knowledge is possible only by a circumscription of a definite opacity: the black box .perhaps not the scariest thing in the world we secretly hoped it could be! But lets leave the psychoanalytic angle out of it for now. and underneath lies the raw stuff that does the dirty trick. scientists were convinced that cracking open a brain could well reveal the essence of the human mind. I will do this by connecting this debate to the theme's of 'interpassivity' and 'cynicism'. be it via hacks or leaks. we will know what it means to think. knowledge and technical construction are always intertwined. an attempt to know in order to use and make differently. Thus. If we know all the neurons and their interrelations. and how it should be dealt with. Here. A very Kantian move indeed. But in cybernetics. and their strategies of dealing with the black box differ accordingly. Or like scientists looking for the ultimate singular element. for an age obsessed with questions of transparency. 1. One day.
The artist designed a small. but also outside of it. there is a difference in wanting to know in order to critically adjust belief. saving it from alienation. 2012). The great humanist projects of liberation aimed at transforming subjectivity. moving towards a practical understanding in the media. But in the twentieth century. but a mode of creation as well..are placed in direct proximity.. but with the information and communication networks that connect them. and proposes a project of critical engineering in order to deal with these new forms of semi-transparency of data. The last art project shows the interdependencies of industrial and informational technology and the ecological impacts that these interdependencies involve. The first discloses . i.' As Hertz and Parikka (2010) mention in the context of media archaeological art practices.spheres of design. All art projects could be classified as 'awareness art' but this sounds too passive and thus wouldn't do justice to the active component with which they intervene in the technological landscapes of today. And I understand 'design' not to refer exclusively to the aesthetics of the 'outside'. but as applying to all parts of human-machine interaction. man’s environment became the object of emancipatory projects. 2. The latter is where a lot of artists thinks they can contribute.through a very direct intervention . or its experimental avant-garde. 2.the 'opaque transparency' of wireless networks.1 Julian Oliver's Transparancy Grenade1 deals not so much with black boxed technological objects. The second dissects a laptop in the hopes of finding the historical and material traces that make up this perfectly designed 'cipher' (Galloway. In order to achieve this all these invisible connections .e. Thus. Three examples of artistically opening the black box In the following paragraphs I will discuss three art projects that deal with depunctionalizing technological black boxes. a 'critical object' might as well replace the outworn 'critical subject. "its not only a mode of analysis. Art in this context is defined as something like 'critical design': both part of design. but in the media" (6). as its critical conscience.com/ . grenade-shaped computer with a wireless antenna that . and a wanting to know in order to modify and to use differently. Hence the importance of adding to a purely theoretical understanding of technology a technical and practical understanding.geographically and temporally scattered .when set off connects to any public wireless network and starts harvesting the data that is transferred over that 1 http://julianoliver. Since ideology is no longer mainly invested in belief systems.] Media archaeology talks not only of the media. This extends the idea of criticism from a second-order reflection on things into a mode of creation [. and since these are also the traditional domains of art. as well as the users emply them. but in the objective parameters of existence.
where it is mined for information. Oliver is currently developing an application for android deviced with the same functionality to 'sniff' wireless networks. But not only does it collect the data. Savičić and D.network. Based on this insight they state that: "the greater the dependence on a technology the greater the need to study and expose its inner workings." 2 http://criticalengineering. Alongside this project.org/ . regardless of ownership or legal provision. G.2 In this manifesto they contend that codes (engineering languages) have become a huge factor in shaping social and psychic life. public map (together with the audio that is recorded at the place where the grenade is set off). Vasiliev published the Critical Engineering Manifesto. The resulting data is then published at an online. Julian Oliver. it also immediately streams this data to a server.
affects and unconscious fantasms. technological machines of information and communication operate al the heart of human subjectivity.S. but as that which encompasses both.nl/archive/works/dear-steve .2 Peter Sloterdijk describes the enlightened. what hasn’t come to light yet. modern man as someone who“wants to know everything there is to know about what exists in the background. forces and networks. but within its sensibility. Guattari asks (and immediately provides his answer): "Should we keep the semiotic productions of the mass media. The notion of the machine is expanded to include (the relations between) devices. itself based on Foucaults notion of a dispositif: an ever changing dynamic of relations. by taking apart his Apple laptop and spreading out all the parts. 61. Just as social machines can be grouped under the general title of Collective Equipment. But what does he find? 3 http://www. and must thus be left in the hands of who knows what kind of specialists. In this fashion. Herman Asselbergh's Dear Steve and P. My translation). informatics. using what can be called a 'shock tactics'. that which takes the place of the void: an apparatus that distributes the possible interrelations between heterogenous elements.v2. the sudden and unexpected exposure of personal materials such as emails and images shows the vulnerabilities of pushing so much of our lives and our dependencies into these networks. where the distinction between technology and subjectivity is not as clear cut anymore. to go beyond the ontology of context in which subjects and objects co-exist (that what Heidegger would call an 'ontic' notion of Being. It challenges our unfounded trust in these networks that we do not control. 2. constantly re-opening its self-made black box. It calls for collaboration and despecialization of artists.An important step in their reasoning is to conceptualize the machine not as some isolated object that opposes a human user withint a neutral 'void'. The difference between the Transparency Grenade and the 'normal' capturing of network traffic lies not in its method but in the way it transparently accounts for its procedures. as Vorhandenheit). This media-ontological effort.' Asselbergh does the same for his computer. not only within its memory and intelligence. 1995: 4) The critical engineer works on all these intersections of strata. agents. telematics and robotics separate from psychological subjectivity? I don't think so. Where Marx's project consists of breaking the commodity's 'mystical shell' and reaching the 'rational kernel. is reflected in Deleuze and Guattari's notion of assemblage. programmers and theorists. In this project. what until now has been hidden from view" (Sloterdijk: 2009. bodies. be they human or nonhuman (see introduction).3 seems to take this dymanic literally." (Guattari. what is folded up. do not understand.
addressing all these issues.Apple products are notorious for being black boxes. Opening the back of an Apple product voids any warranties you may have on the product. The installation work P.S. It's all part of the philosophy of Integration (between software and hardware). reenacting the original feedback loops that make up the processes of its production and circulation. That's why. is presented as an archive in progress: besides the laptop parts. The undead labour invested in it is given a voice. The hardware thus becomes but a moment in a huge cycle of production and is reinscribed in a very concrete materiality. besides showing all the parts. the work Dear Steve contains a video letter actually send to Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs decides what user experience is optimal. letters from people working in the factories where Apple products are made are displayed. preventing any 'modding' or updating. . All peripherals are soldered to the motherboard.
This work comes close to the methods of depunctionalization as proposed by Bruno Latour's ActorNetwork-Theory and described in Hertz and Parikka's (2010) text on media archaeology: an endless tracing of black boxes inside black boxes. pulling it from its immediate 'context of utility'. it becomes visible as such. often by destroying them: "By breaking open the semi-transparent box of consumer technology. 2000) 2.be/programma/detail/58360 . in the same way as Heidegger states that the hammer appears as such only after it has broken down. By breaking the functionality of the laptop. the avantgarde breaks the spell of overmystified technologies.artefact-festival. 4 http://www. The machine must be continually fed with coal in order for the computers to run. avant-garde tradition of defamiliarizing and deconstructing every day use-objects. It consists of a bank of computers that are powered by a coal-fired boiler located right next to it." (Kluitenberg. this work fits perfectly in the modernist. Leuven. Thus.the mystical kernel of modern technology. revealing .this time .3 Graham Harwood's Coal Fired Computers4 was exhibited in 2011 at the Artefact festival in STUK.
e. highlighting their ecological impact. the more opaque and obscure they become. that you can get something for nothing. It deconstructs the fetish of immateriality inherent to new media technologies. when a matter of fact is settled. But even more so.due to their implicitness . Thus. new technologies tend to completely blackbox the older ones: new inventions are build upon the working hypotheses of the old: "When a machine runs efficiently. Due to the general public awareness of the ecological impact of industry. It brings into spatial proximity two nodes of the production process that are normally separated by an indeterminate amount of intermediate links.This work attempts to trace and draw the linkages that connect the industrial and technological revolutions that lead to the current computers. 1999: 304) By turning to the historical background that links ICT to its industrial origin and by bringing into direct proximity geographically scattered processes of production. i. the more science and technology succeed.play no part in processes of deliberation and negotiation of our common environments: "The inner workings of consumer electronics and information technologies are increasingly . thereby automatically obscuring and mystifying the underlying operational models that . one need focus only on its inputs and outputs and not on its internal complexity. obstructing any effort at epistemically relating the use of our computers to for example some coal mine in India. the work counters the tendency of new technologies to blackbox older technologies. computer and software companies have an interest in downplaying and disassociating their activities from the social imaginary of the smoke-filled skies of industrialism. that often seem to imply that you can have your cake and eat it too." (Latour. paradoxically.
but from the perspective of the black box consumer. or for example a speed bump (also known as a 'sleeping policeman'). how we normally interact with them. I hope that this added perspective is able to hint towards some of the psycho-social obstacles to be dealt with by critical-artistic unboxers. is not some ancient activity eradicated with the dawn of enlightenment. 2011). up until the present context.concealed as a result of the development of newer generations of technologies. which then becomes a participant. An interpassive artwork on the other hand. but represents a magical dimension that is present in every kind of human interaction with (technological) objects and environments. he . Non-artistic examples of such interpassive dynamics are: 'canned laughter' in TV comedy shows (the tape laughs for and instead of us). 3. In Little Gestures. black boxed technologies. political-economic spheres into the consideration of the effects of new technologies. Devices are built out of existing technologies. a part of the production of the artwork (van Oenen.. In Little Gestures of Disappearance: Interpassivity and the Theory of Ritual. Originally this term was used to critique dominant notions of interactivity in art. On the contrary. Pfaller however presents this concept as a 'theoretical tool for understanding the ritual'.e.. Artists are in a position to trace and preserve the different 'concrete situations' and linkages through which technologies develop. connecting the old to the new and thereby preventing their disappearance into the implicit background of these situations." (Hertz and Parikka. and in the process the components fade from being contemplated objects into the background of infrastructure. according to Pfaller." Howard Beale in Network. interpassivity and cynicism "I don't have to tell you things are bad. and understanding of. and point to the necessity of involving the extra-medial. Robert Pfaller discusses the psycho-social dynamic of what he calls 'interpassivity'. Everybody knows things are bad. and question whether such unboxing is desirable per se. Lumet 1976 In this last section I would like to reflect on the former not from the perspective of the black box constructor or its artistic deconstructor. where the artwork delegates a part of its 'performance' to the viewer. i. The latter involves the question of in what way this desirability is dependent on how one evaluates transparency and its political and practical effects. of our everyday living with. takes over some of the (possible) actions of the subject. that takes over the attendendance of a human representative and implementor of the law. The ritual. Invested with (ir)responsibility: black boxes. 2010: 6) Coal fired computers also radically rejects the autonomy or specificity of the media-technological sphere.
and connects it to dynamics of (in)visibility and transparency (or: indexicality): “Software perpetuates certain notions of seeing as knowing." (Pfaller. Žižek's notion of ideology assumes that ideology functions best whenever the subject 'does not really believe' in the system of ideas he apparantly adheres to. on the contrary. is not.5 To believe 'as if' this were the case. we do not have to really believe that a 'desktop' is a desklike space where 'files' are stored. This pseudo-belief creates a distance in which a state of exception to the official rules can be implemented quite easily. aber sie tun es.contends. which is then doing the praying for and instead of him. but which nevertheless does not prevent acting 'as if' the rule were valid. the candle being attentive to the Divine in place of the one who lid the candle.” (Chun. by conflating executable with execution. Wendy Chun. the imaginary plane is made up of 'as if' pseudo-beliefs transferred to 'objective illusions'. He is freed from the responsibility and conscious attentiveness of praying. in her reflections on the user-software dynamic and its similarities with the functioning of ideology. Pfaller points to the imaginary and liberatory nature of these kinds of interpassive conduct: "By acting "as if" praying would take place. A Tibetan monk can delegate his praying to a spinning wheel. According to Sloterdijk. Marx’s famous statement about the false consciousness of his time: 'Sie wissen das nicht. It does so by mimicking both ideology and ideology critique. Another example Pfaller gives is of the Christian ritual of lighting a candle in a church. . notices the same 'as if' structure embedded in software. Cynicism is the mode of agency where a strict belief in a rule is absent. is enough to make the transition to acting. 2004: 27) By being able to use a graphical interface correctly and succesfully. 2003) An example of such a religious ritual with an interpassive dimension is the Tibetan praying wheel. as: 5 Similarly. order with action. of reading and readability that were supposed to have faded with the waning of indexicality. whereas primitive man is still semi-conscious of this magical dimension of his interactions. This shows the inherent connection between interpassivity and cynicism. or is recognized as not applying to a concrete situation. Similarly. modern man is not: "The only difference between the "savage" and our "civilized" intellectual consists in the fact that only the savage is aware of the fact that he is practising magic." Thus. making the monk himself free to do or think whatever he wants. program with process. the Tibetan and the Christian actually keep a distance from their religion. The civilized.' must me adjusted for contemporary (Western) consciousness. or applicable.
is able to resubjectivate the subject: When objective belief is there (thanks to a ritual medium). 1989) Like ideology. but still. Due to its interpassive dimension.” (Žižek. which is at the center of the some of the artistic projects described above. Despite the knowledge we already possess.e. 2003) This disappearance and relative autonomy that opens up in this cynical transfering the subject's agency to an object is possible only by blackboxing this object. but still. Software enacts in the user a temporary suspension of belief in favour not of disbelief but of a cynical in-between belief and nonbelief. the ritual frees the individuals from subjectivation" (Pfaller. What is relevant is that he acts. uncertain and unable to co-ordinate our position or our practical relation to this knowledge: “Cynical reason is no longer naïve. like software. Black boxing in this sense is the making-autonomous of the interpassive object and ."" (Pfaller. 2004: 43). ‘they know very well what they are doing. Whether he believes or disbelieves is irrelevant. 2003) But Pfaller also describes the methods by which . . 2006: 21). but is a paradox of an enlightened false consciousness: one knows the falsehood very well.in the procedure of cutting all epistemic links that trace back this responsibility to me. that is then made to operate as if it were now responsible and acting for the subject.in Christian religion . i. . they are doing it’” (Chun. Similarly.these interpassive. . one is well aware of a particular interest hidden behind an ideological universality. “ideology’s dominant mode of functioning is cynical . that it is able to integrate and make productive a cynicism normally counterproductive to the perpetuation of software’s magical spell with regard to its own ‘semi-transparent’ procedures. this 'as' if' transference of agency and responsibility to the (technological) object has a positive and even 'liberatory' dimension of enabling the subject to revalidate his individuality and autonomy vis-à-vis the (moral. it weakens the idea of transparency as an emancipatory force. user-software interaction operates without regard to the belief of the user. they are doing it'. Again. political) institutions of his religion: The Tibetan's and the Christian's ritual practices thus turn out to be defensive moves against their proper religions. If this has even the slightest validity. playful . but still one does not renounce it. the religious subject can go away. This corresponds to what Chun calls the fetishistic logic of software (Chun. They allow the Tibetan and the Christian to indulge in a psychic or spatial "disappearance. still we live on. in Pfaller's description of Christian ritual.'they know very well what they are doing.
instead of liberating him from it though an intimate knowledge of its inner workings. The dealing with technology should be torn away from specialists (priests. towards a destruction of our 'as if' relation to technology. as implemented by practices of 'circuitbending': "an electronic DIY movement focused on manipulating circuits and changing the taken for granted function of the technology without formal training or approval" (Hertz and Parikka. 2003) Hertz and Parikka (2010) propose "a depunctionalization of media and the opening. engineers) and a non-specialist. interpassive dimension remains unacknowledged in an undialectical understanding of our 'magical' relations to technology. 2010: 4) The project of opening or hacking the black box. the effects of opening the black box could well run counter to the original intentions of its supposed 'enlighteners'. When religions abandon a good part of their own rituals. this ironic. This project shows a lot of similarities with the protestand ethic of closing the interpassive dimension. It promotes the restoration of a 'conscious attention' to the inner workings and power effects of the black boxes of technology. The exteriority of ritual is thus being transformed into the interiority of religious consciousness.distances are countered and dissolved by transferring the religious responsibility back to the original carrier. The protestant ethic was a form of such countering of the catholic's fondness for interpassive freedom: "The use of ritual machinery and of specialists (priests) becomes more and more reduced in religious ideology (as opposed to economy where the use of machinery and division of labor increase in history). as it can be seen for example in the "leap" that led. bypasses the 'liberating' potential inherent to interpassive rituals. the subject in question could well become even more 'entangled' in its procedural logics. "anonymous. by proposing the reinstitution of the epistemic linkages that run from the human agents to their black boxes. Because by promoting a 'dense' epistemic relation of responsibility to our technology. as a tactical extension of the contemporary politics of transparency. in Christian religion. is also destroyed. Because this positive. distancing play of interpassive transference of responsibility that enables the subject to disappear. An increasing imperative of "Do it yourself" characterizes the history of religion. understanding and hacking of concealed or blackboxed systems" (15)." (Pfaller. objective belief is being erased in order to establish subjective faith" (Pfaller. The black boxes of technology can be described as today's medium of interpassive ritual. Thus. 2003) . from Catholicism to Protestantism. As in protestantism. DIY mentality is promoted. referred to in the above quote. they try to destroy the interpassivity inherent in these rituals. Clearly this hostility of religions toward their own rituals expresses an acknowledgement of the fact that the rituals allow the believers to avoid conscious attention to the religious meaning.
The 'fit' and overlap of moral and political institutions and technology is often made to appear very extensive and intimate (technology as the material extension of disciplinary control. the result of all this critical probing and making-transparent could well turn out to be a mixed blessing. Topics like the ecological impact of information and communication infrastructures can never be enough on the agenda. the long arm of the Law).is as much needed as ever. With all of the above I am of course not trying to wholly delegitimate critical art practices that hack into the black boxes of modern technology. Nevertheless. the dynamics of interpassivity has its own obvious pitfalls (Andrejevic 2001). With great knowledge comes great responsibility.. But the above also shows a space of conflict between moral-political and media-technological regimes: technology enables the subject-object of religious or political power to put his media in the place where the subject-object of power should be.. freed from all the ironic and playful lack of responsibility ('playing dead') that open up lines of flight that immediately dissolve when exposed to the harsh light of transparency.on a technical and political level . The ideal of transparency . Furthermore. . replacing the rituals of disappearance with a new ritual: a joy in the obscene transparency and control of our technological environments.This points to another important issue. The open source movement is a prime example of a force countering the monopolizations and privatizations of the commons. This opens up a line of escape from those former regimes. to expose the secret injustices that animate the contemporary corporatized world. whilst of course inciting another.
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