THE BLACK BOX:
My sculpture is about the ‘black box’, Peter Galison discusses his ideas about the origins and practise of the ‘black box’ in his journal article ‘The Ontology of the Enemy: Norbert Wiener and the Cybernetic Vision’. Galison examines American mathematician and philosopher Norbert Wiener’s sentiments regarding the notion of the ‘black box’, “Black boxes, as Wiener used the term, meant a unit designed to perform a function before one knew how it functioned; white boxes designated that one also specified the inner mechanism.” (Galison, 1994, p. 246). This is the perfect analogy for my sculpture, because the ‘black box’ in my case is a personal computer or server tower and a large proportion of people who use a PC or store their personal data in ‘the cloud’ on an internet based server, understand what function these relatively new technologies perform, however, they are unaware of what they are agreeing too and the dangers involved in using them, such as hacking and data scraping, used to generate capital for the server farm owners which lines the pockets of their shareholders. They are still supplying a service, to refer back to Wiener, ‘the cloud’ is still carrying out the desired function that we want it too, but we are unaware of the risk because ‘the cloud’ is seen to be this innocuous, imperceptible, complimentary service that is integrated with all of our devices that we should all thoughtlessly use to store our personal data.
SCULPTURE MAQUETTE PLAN:Above: You can see three-dimensional graphically rendered mock up’s I produced using ‘Google Sketch Up’ to give me an idea of what the maquette model of my sculpture would look like when it was completed, it also helps me plan and design the construction process and materials involved in creating this model.
MAKING SCULPTURE MAQUETTE:Above: Is a net for the box that will become the maquette model for the sculpture I intend to make, I used the 3D ‘Google Sketch Up’ renders to help me visualise and draw out what the box-style PC/server tower structure would look like as a flat unfolded net shape. I drew out the net for the box with all the required dimensions, so I could then draw the net above out onto the corrugated cardboard to scale and cut that shape out, to begin the construction of my maquette, which will become the basis of my sculpture.
Below: You can see I have documented the development and construction process involved in producing a maquette of my final sculpture, I have tried to take photos of my process and each transformation at every step from start to finish. I started by cutting the net for the box from corrugated cardboard that will become the ‘black box’ which will be the centrepiece and container for the sculpture, to construct the box I used PVA glue and masking tape to hold the structure together until the glue dried and it was solid. I then hand painted the outside of the box black and the inside of the box light grey, after that I printed out lots of personal photographs I had taken on my phone and stored on my personal laptop and in ‘the cloud’, images of intimate moments of my life with friends and family. I stuck the images inside the box using blue tack, as well as scattering them inside and around the sculpture. I also emptied the contents of my wallet and placed these items inside the ‘black box’, because most of my credit and debit card details and scans of my driving licence are stored on my computer and backed up in ‘the cloud’. I also placed my passport inside the sculpture, because it is an item that represents something truly personal, private and unique to me, as a metaphor for the amount of information about myself which is stored on machines which have become such a prevalent part of our daily lives.
Above: You can see the finished maquette for my sculpture titled ‘The Dark Side of the Cloud’, which, I designed and built out of corrugated cardboard. I am very pleased with the outcome of the maquette, as I believe it gives a really good idea of what the finished full-size sculpture would look like, despite it being made from cardboard and being handpainted, it resembles a box-style computer or server tower. However, I want to leave it nondescript and it’s exact function ambiguous and up to the viewer, that’s why it is a hybrid between a box style PC and a server tower, as far as I’m concerned it is just a ‘black box’. My main aim for the sculpture was to make the viewer reflect on the security of their own personal data which we all readily entrust onto machines. I feel by putting all of my own personal photographs of the intimate moments and captured memories of my life, (which I myself thoughtlessly store on computers and ‘the cloud’) on display for all to see, alongside my driver’s licence, passport, credit and debit cards and other personal items, I am encouraging the viewer to consider their own personal security, and evoke a sense of vulnerability and lack of privacy that could result from our willingness to put our faith in the security of ‘the cloud’. By putting a physical manifestation of my own digital footprint on display (the black box and its contents), I want the viewer to feel uneasy, like they are prying and intruding on my private life, and that they are looking at something they shouldn’t; a part of my life that is intimate and personal to me, in order to reference the server owners who have permission to look through all the private files stored on their database. Therefore nothing is truly private. As a result, I believe that the viewer of the sculpture will consider the security of their own most intimate information, files and photos which represent a part of their lives which they have stored in ‘the cloud’. Most people are unaware that those files are actually being stored on the hard drive of a machine connected to the internet somewhere on the planet, where it is open to data scraping, mining and extracting by the server owners, who use it as their capital to make money. As Tung-hui Hu states in his book ‘A Prehistory of the Cloud (2015, p.111), “With the mean North American user consuming over 45 GB of Internet data each month, the marvel of the cloud may be less its vastness than the software tools that manage, simplify, and make it intelligible: the indexers, the recommendation and visualization algorithms that offer users a sense of control over these data. Yet the same algorithms that make the cloud usable are the ones that define a “user” as that ever-growing stream of data to be analysed and targeted. To use the cloud is to willingly put on an electronic collar; it is to fuse our hunt for data with our identities as marketing prospects. In short, in an environment where all data are needles in petabyte-sized haystacks, we are both the targets of others and targeters ourselves.”
You will notice a few changes I made from the high-quality rendered visualisation of the sculpture in my previous blog post. The first change I made was to remove the sign reading ‘Internal Server Error’ in front of the sculpture because the whole point of data scraping is that the user isn’t aware of what is happening. It is happening without their knowledge and they wouldn’t receive an error message or an alert, so it seemed inaccurate to include an error message sign in front of the sculpture. It was a similar justification that inspired me to change the ethernet cable from being unplugged on the floor lying next to the ‘black box’ to being plugged into the wall. It wasn’t accurate because, in order to connect to ‘the cloud’ and be able to access our photos and personal files, as well as being at risk of getting hacked by someone else accessing your data, it would need to be connected to the internet as well as being plugged into the mains and turned on and running, that is why there are no cables lying unplugged, like in the high-quality renders on my ‘First Pilot and Prototype Testing’ blog post.
The final thing that I changed in this finished maquette from my initial plan, was the idea that the ‘black box’ was going to resemble a safe at a crime scene that had been broken into and robbed. I think the metaphor of the safe was unnecessary, as the sculpture didn’t need to resemble a safe that had been robbed, because, the idea that it is there for all to see and potentially steal, comes across with the contents of the ‘black box’ being open and on display. It is not closed up and secure like you would expect something that contained your most personal files, it is open to anyone who wants to see it and take it (hack it and download it), which is very much the nature of the internet in general. It is not just a metaphor for the personal security of our own personal data, it is a metaphor for the basic construction of the internet in general, which, in its simplest form, is just a sequence of ‘black boxes’ connected together through the internet, with files and information on them. I believe my sculpture successfully responds, answers and explores the brief, to make a pilot for a project that exposes something about the questionable security of digital information processing, and makes the viewer ponder the idea of digital information in a material form, and hopefully leading them to think in detail about the safety and security of their personal information, photographs and files, stored on these ubiquitous machines.
I believe that the finished maquette for my sculpture still references the work of Cornelia Parker specifically her ‘Psycho Barn’ sculpture which was one of my main artistic inspirations for the piece, because with her ‘Psycho Barn’ sculpture, Parker was interested in taking something that was every day and all American which is the red wooden barns which are scattered across America, and then making it look sinister and intimidating by using the actual wooden slats from a barn and reappropriating it and turning it into the house from the Hitchcock film ‘Psycho’. It also only has two sides like the original house film set, and it is just being held up by scaffolding. So, much like my sculpture, it has a lot of presence but still feels like a familiar everyday object, however, when you walk around it, you see what’s really behind the smokescreen, the inner workings, and you realise that it is a big facade, and it makes you think again about what you initially believed something to be before you were exposed to its inner workings. In Parker’s case, it is the scaffolding propping up her ‘Psycho Barn’ in my case it is the materialisation manifestation of our personal data stored inside machines which are becoming an ever more present part of our daily lives. There are also strong artistic connections to artists such as; Joseph Cornell, specifically his signature glass-fronted boxes or ‘Shadow Boxes’ which he filled with found items carefully arranged into small-scale tableaux’s. Joseph Beuys, specifically his conceptual sculptures and Trevor Paglen who’s artwork and books explore mass surveillance and data collection.
Galison, P. (1994) The Ontology of the Enemy: Norbert Wiener and the Cybernetic Vision. Critical Inquiry [online]. 21 (1), pp. 228-266. [Accessed 20 April 2017].
Hu, T. (2015) A prehistory of the cloud. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.