Brief notes on the black box and the street

This text was published in the Autonomy Project Newspaper #3 "At Work" in September 2012

After the three day symposium in Eindhoven, organized by the Autonomy Project, we returned to Berlin – still under the impression of the last day of debates. One question repeated in our minds: how to relate that inside discursive space to an outside, or, more specifically, how to relate the black box to the street? In a regard to social action and the alternative use of power/desire lines that cross through spaces, both topoi carry their own tradition of references and imagination. How to bridge the gap between those “topoi”, on a physical and a conceptual level?

Maybe the dilemma starts already here, in the wish to bring the two spaces together:
to transpose the experience of sitting for days in a conference or presentation space, of listening, thinking and talking to an exterior space where movements appear more vital, more in touch with life.

Maybe you know this creeping sense of discomfort that spreads out each time the mind is being activated when the body stays attached to a chair in a black box. Theatre uses the silenced seated mass of people to show how dynamics and mechanisms in society affect the individual, in situations where we should be stimulated to action. Often in these contexts however, doubts, long-learnt patterns of behavior, and the fear of breaking unwritten rules, silence and immobilize us. Experiencing those forces in the temporary space of a theatre might transpose a sense of what is going on with us outside. But does this transfer really work?

Each black box is different, of course, black is not only a non-colour, but also a lack of transparency designed to make us forget that there is a whole machine, a whole structure of activity surrounding us, producing and keeping up the mise-en-scene that allows us to concentrate on and to conceive an outside. You do not need to travel to Greece or Turkey in your mind to do so – if you just have a close look around or leave through the backdoor, it might be enough to reach the outside … but maybe not your outside. You are coming from somewhere else.

We came from Tunisia. We had spent three weeks there, traveling to the coast and through the interior of the country. Being in the street meant, for us, an entirely different notion in Tunisia: at least for two women on their own. It was the lived translation of Jean-Luc Nancy’s definition of the communal as “être exposé”: being exposed to the heat of early September, but more than that, being exposed to gazes and calls in a public space that – at least in the smaller and middle size towns – is exclusively dominated by a male presence. You would not expect something different, of course. And yet, the conscious step into the outside from an inside of far away imagination affected the way we perceived our own presence, strengths and fragility, curiosity and need of protection. The social body is not (only) a joyful one, and occupation is a tiresome enterprise if there is no space granted to one’s needs and activities. Fortunately, we found some moments of rest, when standing in front of the walls of the former party headquarter in Le Kef, or sitting on a bench in the shadow, discussing the potential of the revolution and its pitfalls with a lively local pensioner.

How did it feel then to enter the black box and to immerse ourselves in the dense web of thoughts and social contacts offered by the space of the symposium? In some ways, it felt like an oasis. But careful: from walks through the big oasis of Douz and Tozeur we learnt that the oasis is a space of work, of intense productivity, of private territories and shared corridors. It is not a place to stroll around and linger in dreams.

At a certain point we were sneaking out of the auditorium and found ourselves in the middle of the ambitious Eindhoven city marathon – standing there in shock and clasping our trolley bags we were easily identified as intruders and chased away from the street as not to obstruct the continuous flow of energy, of activity, competition and endurance.

The next weekend, we joined the demonstration in Berlin for the international day of mobilization against the financial regime – it seemed like a Sunday stroll in comparison. Maybe it was. Maybe in the future, there will be different ways to make use of the two topoi, the black box and the street.

Berlin, January 2012

Alexandra Ferreira & Bettina Wind