Black Box
Myriam Van Imschoot
An essay by An Mertens (2012)

A-Side: Grand Prix of the Listener

Under the title Crash Landing, a series of improvisations took place in 1996, a joint production of Klapstuk, Stuc & Damaged Goods. Dancers and musicians with topical names participated, such as Meg Stuart, David Hernandez, Christine De Smedt, José Navas, Vera Mantero, Vincent Malstaf, Pierre Bastien and guest performers such as Olga De Soto, Jérôme Bel and Jan Ritsema. Crash Landing reactivated questions and explorations from the improvisation cultures of the sixties and seventies. Between 2007 and 2009 Myriam Van Imschoot and Kristien Van den Brande interviewed 50 people who had been involved in Crash Landing: the dancers, musicians, technicians, the book account clerk, some members of the audience…. Improvisation works often struggle with a deeply rooted neglect, especially from academic history writing that seeks to privilege the canon and the written, rather than to valorize the way improvisation cultures circulate more frequently within oral legacies and bodily practices. In contrast, the focus on oral interaction prooved for Van Imschoot and Van den Brande a far more apt method, insofar as the original improvisational dance was continued in an improvisational conversation. First and foremost this was a meeting with people, some of whom had never been interviewed before, or had never spoken in such a set-up about their contribution to Crash Landing.

D1 Side A: Hahn Rowe & David Linton Recall (EN, 3’06”):
I don’t remember what I did, nothing at all. Everything seemed pretty close to accidental.

In 2010 Myriam and Kristien, in collaboration with Ayméric de Tapol, selected significant fragments from this series of interviews. Rather than opting for a ‘master narrative’, still typical of academic historiography, they created a polyphonic fragmentary coverage of their research. Since the viewpoints of the three curating artists [Meg Stuart, Christine De Smedt and David Hernandez] could easily come to overshadow the voices of the other participants, their voices were omitted from the selection. Their selection became a hommage in aesthetical form. The fragments were transferred onto single vinyls [45 rpm] with an A- and B-side, and assembled in a jukebox. Material that would never make it to the charts, was thus catapulted to a status it could harldy ever obtain. Whereas the jukebox, a vintage relict deemed to nostalgia, got outmoded way before the advent of mp3s and ipods, it could now be revalorized for its performative capacities when interfacing with a public.

D9 Side A: We Could Do Anything, featuring Jerôme Bel (En, FR, 2’17)
On n’est pas plus libre sur la scène que dans la rue, c’est rrrrromantique. … Everything can be a moment to create, every moment in live can be a creation.

In November 2011 Myriam Van Imschoot presented Black Box in the backspace of Vitrine 17 of Recyclart in Brussels. The setting: a jukebox, a couple of chairs, menu-like plastified A4s that listed the names of the singles in the jukebox and the respective titles of A and B sides alike. The tradition of the jukebox is still so established that no more explanation is needed. The visitors take a seat on the chairs or lean against the walls, or listen in true ‘hanging’ fashion, close to the machine. In the multitude of voices, testimonies, stories and moods, the jukebox released the perfume of what normally remains hidden in the theater black box: the networked stories of preparations, the gossip in the wings, occurrences during the touring; events that are only present by proxy or imagination.

The idea to give voice to people and thus to evoke the ‘machinery’ behind the performative, relates not only to a blind spot in academic history-writing or to the desire to fill such a gap, but also to an innovative stance towards a performance tradition that passionately seeks to integrate the contemporaneous technological tools, yet rarely achieves its goal. Think of the commercial software, computers and digital networks. On a daily base we are through these technologies exposed to the black box of the spectacle of digital culture. This sort of black box remains closed for the majority of its users, in the same vein that technological performances are often only truly transparent to its makers. As a consequence, our use of computers comes closer to the experience of magic than science. However, increasingly people have come to react to this situation in emergent DIY-cultures, where the use of technology entails learning and the sharing of knowledge. Magic then resides in finding the magnificent online manual that instructs how something has been made or how it can be tweaked. Translated back to the performing arts, this means that magic not only is to be found in the opaquely finished result on the elevated stage, but in the interaction with the context in which performance exists, in the transparancy of the process, the understanding of the ‘crafting’; in other words, in a personal journey through the nodes of the network that strings together the conditions of performance to happen, including its political, economical and social context. Though not new, this approach finds in Black Box an adequate embodiment – innovative while at the same time avoiding the pitfalls of explication or self-indulgence.

In the intimate space of Recyclart the visitor could listen to testimonies of producers about how it all began, to an anecdote based on facts and numbers taken from the book accounts, a musician who complained about the bad housing conditions, a dancer who narrates how the improvisation structure radically altered her stage experience. The listeners could only activate the stories by pushing the buttons of the jukebox, which incurred a mini-democracy with unspoken rules to the situation, as the listeners in ever changing configurations had to negotiate what record that held their interest was to be played next. With every new selection the person pushing the buttons could opt to motivate his/her choice, which opened up not only to the rich universe of Crash Landing, but also to the inner worlds of the attendants in the room. Thus the jukebox activated in a rather spontaneous way a whole new performance, that of the public, who with every new track, each average three minutes long, determined through its attitude of respect, humor or superior force, the sequence of the jukebox performance. This unique constellation of listening, reading, watching, talking stands midway between performance and encounter. Morover, it stimulates all these levels all at once. A machine-play on improvisation and performance, Black Box creates an audience of ad-hoc performers; their timing, duration and composition constitute highly personal experiences and decisions. Or, in other words, how the right combination of form, matter and content assures a real aesthetical experience.

E7 Side A: PART 1 (FR, 3’12)
On crée des situations concrètes, comme dans un jeu de société avec un système proposé, il faut trouver des solutions, se sauver. … Comment elle a pu sortir d’une situation aussi coincée, c’est quand-même incroyable qu’elle a trouvé. Ça crée des narrations.
B-Side: Black Boxes remixed

Then she got into the lift, for the good reason that the door stood open; and was shot smoothly upwards. The very fabric of life now, she thought as she rose, is magic. In the eighteenth century, we knew how everything was done; but here I rise through the air, I listen to voices in America; I see men flying–but how it’s done, I can’t even begin to wonder. So my belief in magic returns. // VIRGINIA WOOLF, Orlando // Een zwarte doos of black box is een toestel waarvan het gedrag bekend is, maar niet de inwendige constructie. Een computer is voor veel gebruikers een zwarte doos. De gebruiker kan met de computer werken maar weet niets over het inwendige ervan. De computertechnicus weet meer over de inwendige werking. Hij kan schakelingen met chips ontwerpen en bouwen, maar de chips zelf zijn voor hem vaak zwarte dozen. De fabrikant publiceert de specificaties van de chip, de signalen op de in- en uitgangen, maar weinig of niets over de inwendige werking ervan. Men spreekt in dit verband ook wel van de architectuur van de chip. Het is zelfs mogelijk dat de fabrikant stilzwijgend een nieuwe chip maakt met vrijwel hetzelfde gedrag maar een totaal andere inwendige werking. // WIKIPEDIA // The main thing, it seems to me, is to remember that technology manufactures not gadgets but social change. Once the first tool was picked up and used, that was the end of cyclical anything. The tool made a new world, the next one changed that one, the one after that changed it again, and so on. Each time, the change was permanent. Using the tool changes the user permanently, whether we like it or not… More and more of technology infiltrates aspects of our lives. It’s become a support system without which we cannot survive and yet how much of it do we understand? Do I bother with the reality if I go into a big steel box, press a button, and rise into the sky? Of course I don’t. I take going into the world like that for granted. We all do. And as the years of the 20th century have gone by, the things we take for granted have multiplied. They are way beyong the ability of an individual to understand them within a lifetime so the things around us, the manmade inventions which we have provided ourselves with, are like a vast network, each part of which is interdependant of the others and all the things in that network can become so specialized that only the people making them, understand them… // JAMES BURKE, Connections Series, 1987 // A black box is any actant so firmly established that we are able to take its interior for granted. The internal properties of the black box do not count as long as we are concerned only with its input and output” (Prince of Networks, p.33). For Latour “the black box replaces traditional substance… while traditional substances are one, black boxes are many – we simply treat them as one, as long as they remain solid in our midst. Like Heidegger’s tools, a black box allows us to forget the massive network of alliances of which it is composed, as long as it functions smoothly” and “every actant can be viewed either as a black box or as a multitudinous network, depending on the situation” // GRAHAM, Prince of Networks, re-press, 2009, p.34 // Deep material & geographical curiosity is one of the virtues we need to cultivate, for sensible decisions of our futures as democratic societies // ROBERT HOLMES, An Atlas of Landscapes for I-phone (Lecture in Medialab Prado, Madrid, June 2011 / // Misschien, dacht ik, dat [de hernieuwde fascinatie voor] het mechanische de menselijke solidariteit aanspreekt, in een wegwerpeconomie waar elektronische apparatuur in plastic behuizing de norm is. We snappen mechanische machines. Ze delen met ons mensen de tragische aspecten van het lichamelijke. Het gevecht met de zwaartekracht, de slijtage die gewrichten sloopt, de strijd tegen vuil en vermoeidheid. Mensen kunnen herstellen van een kwetsuur of ziekte, en mechaniek kan worden gerepareerd. Ze zijn allebei afhankelijk van onderhoud en zorg. Mensen en mechanische machines kunnen hun werk doen, ook al verkeren ze in een onvolmaakte toestand. Oud, moe, verbogen, half kapot, ze doen het. Ze hebben desondanks hun waarde. Als elektronische apparaten een storing hebben of ondermaats presteren, worden ze geheel of gedeeltelijk vervangen. Of als het meezit, gerecycleerd. Het tempo van de elektronische vooruitgang ligt hoog. Voor onderhoud en reparatie van elektronica is weinig ruimte. Haar levensduur wordt niet gemeten in decennia, zoals die van mensen en mechanische apparaten, maar in maanden. Digitale machines zijn in feite alleen de wegwerpverpakking waarin de culturele en economische levensvorm huist die ze zo waardevol en machtig maakt, en die in niets op mensen of andere zoogdieren lijkt, omdat ze lichaamloos is: informatie, oftewel, software, code, algoritmes, data. // Dirk Van Weelden in DE WITTE RAAF, Dec 2011, Waar komt mijn transdigitale schrijfmachine vandaan? // Objects like the fetus, chip/computer, gene, race, ecosystem, brain, data-base, and bomb are stem cells of the technoscientific body. Each of these curious objects is a recent construct or material-semiotic “object of knowledge”, forged by heterogeneous practises in the furnaces of technoscience. To be a construct does NOT mean to be unreal or made up; quite the opposite. Out of each of these nodes or stem cells, sticky threads lead to every nook and cranny of the world. Which threads to follow is an analytical, imaginative, physical, and political choice. I am committed to showing how each of these stem cells is a knot of knowledge-making practises, industry and commerce, popular culture, social struggles, psycho-analytical formations, bodily histories, human and non-human actions, local and global flows, inherited narratives, new stories, syncretic technical/cultural processes, and more // Donna Haraway, Modest Witness@Second Feminism and Technoscience. Routledge, NY, 1997, p.129 // Parallel to the electronics universe closing up, the last few years there has been a tendency towards another way of dealing with devices, slowly some hardware projects choose to consciously stay open. Open Hardware are machines, printboards, microcontrollers where you can look at the way this hardware is made, you can download the plans, and make your own version. Opening up the device is an inherent part of how it is made. Depending on the license (some devices are made under a creative commons license, some are made under the open hardware license, some are trademarked, some are not) you can even reproduce the machines, microcontrollers etc and change what you want. … My (our) world is highly technologised, there are minicomputers embedded in ovens, washing machines, cell phones, microwaves and so on. Denying this complexity reduces me too much to a person just pushing buttons. Because of what I do, I know what a button is, I can imagine the world beyond the button. I can make a button myself. // Wendy Van Wynsberghe, DIY-DITO-DIWO and so on. On making, tinkering, learning and exchanging in an artistic practice. Constant Verlag, November 2011 //

An Mertens is writer, storyteller, artist and member of Constant Constant is a non-profit association, an interdisciplinary arts-lab based and active in Brussels since 1997. Constant works in-between media and art and is interested in the culture and ethics of the World Wide Web. The artistic practice of Constant is inspired by the way that technological infrastructures, data-exchange and software determine our daily life. Free software, copyright alternatives and (cyber)feminism are important threads running through the activities of Constant. Constant organizes workshops, print-parties, performances, walks and ‘Verbindingen/Jonctions’-meetings on a regular basis for a public that’s into experiments, discussions and all kinds of exchanges.

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