Black Box
Felix Luque Sánchez, Presse du Reel, 2020
A black monolith, pulsing light and sound. Its geodesic form seems to be alive, perhaps, or possessed by some kind of agency—demonstrating reactive qualities that portend something to be revealed. Its shiny surface beckons the curious viewer, responding to their closer proximity with sound—buzzing, broken and babbling. Sometimes its sonic range, and rhythms, appear to approximate human speech. Is it a monologue? Or is it kin—communicating, however partially, with us? We see the outputs but don’t know what is driving them. Is that rising pitch (and flashing light) a threat of some kind?

Chapter I: The Discovery is a dramatic construction: A dark gallery occupied by the object in question, and others featuring videos that appear to document various scenarios involving said dodecahedron, out there, in the world—so many portentous opening scenes from science fiction cinema: some sort of alien probe, perhaps, crash-landed in a snowy field; a super-advanced piece of found technology being monitored in a secret lab. Are they vignettes from the physical object’s past—a kind of backstory, presaging our gallery encounter? Or, within the work’s dramatic universe, do these animations suggest that there are other versions of the device out there? How many might there be? Acknowledging the videos’ CGI look (again within the virtual universe) raises a further question: what if these animations belong to the physical object as supplementary materials—like instruction manuals outlining appropriate modes of contact? Questions proliferate. The mystery deepens. Throughout, the object is all surface.

The aesthetic import of Félix Luque’s project leverages a psychological oscillation between attraction and alienation that each of us, as late-capitalist consumers, feel in the presence of a compelling container. This is a locus of desire attending packaging that is set into an uneasy relationship with content (that which is contained). For it is not so clear that we really want to know what is inside. Often we are not interested in the technical, economic, or political back-end, and have only shown up for the interface. The online phenomenon of ‘unboxing’, wherein persons upload video footage of themselves opening packages (to reveal a newly purchased consumer product) while carefully describing the process, exemplifies interest in the interface as a layered experience.

In computer science, a Black Box is a unit of software or hardware that interacts (with the system that it is embedded in) entirely through its interface. The details of its implementation are obscure.1 Beyond this field, a black box is a device that can be viewed in terms of inputs and outputs, without any knowledge of its internal workings. This is to say, what happens inside it is opaque; veiled in shadow: black.

In terms of user relation, a black box instantiates an imperfect or partial understanding of a given thing which, nevertheless, does not affect one’s ability to make use of that thing, or to observe its effects in the real world. It is the inscrutable face of a system. One’s encounter with this occult element is a key locus of desire and disappointment in contemporary techno culture. It is this drama that would seem to concern Luque in Chapter I. Indeed, alienation obtains where such a gap in comprehension is identified and then accepted as a cost of doing business. When agency and social space (tangible life goods) are premised upon traffic with such mysterious functionality, questions of trust and deception loom.

It’s not that black boxes are necessarily bad things or up to no good. It’s just that they often require an act of faith that they are not. We children of the aufklarung are supposed to demand more light, not less, and manmade black boxes are all the more suspect for being the fruit of (scientific) rationalism while proposing that we disengage from it, to some degree, when using them. There is, after all, a possible universe where each of us (on principle, in terms of human intellect) are capable of understanding whatever another human has made. When we don’t meet this theoretical selfhood in practice our critical agency is displaced, and the hum of the device sounds more like a growl.

The confidence that these things are knowable is what allows us to ignore them; to accept the alienation. But all too often this is a lived science-fiction—premised on a one-to-one relation between theory and practice that is too ahistorical a concept to be applicable, today, given the sheer abundance and sedimentation of extant technical systems. It is the science-fiction of our scientism, spuriously guaranteeing the legibility of the world we live in—a world saturated with specialized constructs—though we are long past being able read the book. It is a faith structure.

This faith is a mania. One where something proprietary is treated as if it were miraculous. Mysticism meets the fetish for the commodity and its secret, here; a secret which is embedded in the dark logic of exchange, value production, and exploitation—of workers, environments, attention spans, worlds. The fetish object is everything you want from a new phone, car, or high-end oven. It looks like it might deliver your dreams to you; or you to your dreams.

It is a black mirror, offering images even as it circumscribes clear vision: The task of so many corporate technological behemoths is to create as many black boxes as possible; to establish them where, previously, an open system might have offered more affordances. Black absorbs light. Keeping things proprietary means stopping the sun from rising over the internal horizon of the device—keeping users to prescribed inputs (e.g. pay as you go), and receiving proscribed outputs. When it comes to computing power, so many commodities could do more than what they are marketed for. But why pay once when you can pay three times? More is more, after all. Unless, of course, less is more (if you catch their drift).

This brings us, once again, to the work’s title, Chapter I: The Discovery. If this discovery is a case of finding a fully formed inscrutable object, in the world, then does this imply that there will be a Chapter II? A second chapter in which one may find out more about this mysterious thing? Or, perhaps, does the artist’s work only concern the perennial limbo of an initial encounter. Is there to be any further character or plot development in the future, or is the space of the work manifestly always in suspense? So many sounds, and lights, but what will happen next?

Tezcatlipoca, a central deity of the Aztec religion, was associated with prophesy, amongst others things. His name is often translated as ‘Smoking Mirror’—for the black mirrors made of obsidian used for divination under his sign. The blackness of such mirrors was that smoke, clouding and altering a reflection of the world—in so doing, providing no mere picture of what (already) is but what might be. A 21st Century smoking mirror, Luque’s object partakes of the iPhone’s obsidian character—crystalline and jet-black, though forged not in the natural furnace of a Tequila volcano, but some neo-alchemical crucible. It is in such research and development laboratories that, we are told, visionaries operate—willing the future into being. Staring into the black mirrors with which they have equipped us, smoke (and fire) begins to speak riddles, to cast spells; to babble, whisper, shout, and cajole. Beyond echoes of pre-Columbian magic, closer to Europe, divination through crystal gazing, running from the Druids through to carnival side-shows, flicker in our collective unconscious, as we wonder less at what we are looking with than what we see.

That darkness—a bit like paint. A surface, painted over; not so much a mark of erasure as overwrite. A screen (or veil) separating the viewer and what is inside. Qua mirror, the black surface is constitutive of a human image (a face), and reflective of a world that looks familiar. But the web (wherein we seem reflected) is not, actually, an arrangement of colors, human bodies, or emoticons. There is a whole other world of representation beneath it. Code and logic do not have any color at all. Below the image universe (the outside of the box), code has its own cosmos of signs, which speak to people as much as metal, and flows of energy through the circuit board. The image on (in?) the darkness is a superficial truth that distracts us from a motherboard.

What is the difference between opening the black box—cracking the system—and unboxing? The latter would appear to be the epitome of the commodity fetish, and the former closer to its refusal. However, Luque’s Chapter I invites us to discover that things are less clear. The video components of the exhibition, all of them apparently disclosing historical facts about the ambiguous object in question, might at first appear to be a kind penetration of its mystery. And yet, one must eventually realize that each is a spectacle, nothing more, sliding across the surface of another black box—the screen. We visitors are unboxing: pulling back one veil only to find another. Behind the plastic wrap, beneath the cardboard, within the polystyrene: a skin.

1 Andrew Butterfield & Gerard Ekembe (eds.), Oxford Dictionary of Computer Science, Oxford, 2016, p.52.