"BLACK BOX", Alexandros Psychoulis, National Participation at the 47th Venice Biennale (1997), interactive installation.
Commissioner: Efi Strousa.
BLACK BOX is in short an "automatic animator of speech".
It consists of a video-wall, a microphone and a powerful computer.
There are approximately 4,000 images stored in the computer (still and moving pictures) which correspond to an equal number of English words. The images belong to the mental space of the artist, in other words to a Greek male, named Alexandros Psychoulis, of thirty-one years of age who lives in Athens.
The viewer can speak his words into a microphone. His words automatically project images on the video-wall. In reality, the visitor speaks and his speech is animated through somebody else's experience.
The artist sees his own images in the mouth of a stranger. As a result he cannot control them any longer.
With these simple and sparse words, Psychoulis describes the alphabet of the words and the images he has created. Is it perhaps a game of unexpected combinations of words and images? It might be that as well, if we pause in front of the screen and speak and play for a while. In any case, there are not many alternative ways any longer that can make the viewer stop in front of an image. Screens have now usurped the place previously occupied by paintings. This is true enough.
However, Psychoulis's BLACK BOX apart from containing unexpected and secret information is also an ark that encloses the soul of a contemporary artist interpreted into experienced images. Their projection is activated by vocal speech, but their narrative character changes according to each distinct way of thought and is coloured by the oral expression of the viewer who utters them. Things that are voiced, as Aristotle tells us, are the mishaps of the soul. The vocal script, as Derrida later explains in his treatise De la Grammatologie, listens to its speaking self. In this way a new language is born.
The evaluation of the radical transmutations of world culture during the passage from one millennium to the next, and the role of the new deceptive pictorial image of the world, introduced by digital technology, will be decisive.
Who does the language of the image belong to? Who is its creator in today's world? And who is the principal image-maker of the world?
This role has been ascribed to the artist for centuries throughout the history of art and civilisation. Art addressed itself through the power of rhetoric to an recipient and the world of pictorial representation was either a window that opened on to a designated field or level of symbolic images that spoke their own language. A language that has always exercised power on the eye and the soul in different ways. The image of the work of art, as a text, was offered for the reading of the plot, the form and the thought which the artist wondrously unfolded in the eyes of the observer.
Art in the twentieth century has radically changed the basic structure of pictorial representation. It has broken and minimised it to the point that the narrative character of the artistic text has now completely disappeared. Or conversely, it detached the "text" from its purely representational and fictional quality and restored it to the domain of language itself. Art as a language has explored all the ways that led to and revealed its source, from the fundamental formalistic structures to the conventional expressions of body language. In addition, the natural and social environment has become the framework of the observer with a view to rendering him active in the re-creation of the natural environment and abolishing his being a passive recipient.
The long list of the transmutations of form, structure and concept always had a constant characteristic. The transmutation was the result of a single creator, orator or versatile commentator. Behind each elevating or annihilating transformation of art, the "magic wand" was manipulated by the artist's hands. His writing was the reading text. Within this continuous relationship between writing and reading, the observer was always an integrate part of the design of the work of art.
With his work entitled BLACK BOX, Alexandros Psychoulis drastically intervenes in the fundamental scheme of art through the centuries. In reality this vigorous intervention is not entirely due to him. As a man and artist of this age, Psychoulis is today the recipient of this transformation in the relationship between writing and reading. This transformation questions the role of the creator irreparably. This time, it is science itself that has moved the magic wand, rendering the reading of the pictorial "text" an undertaking that does not permit passive acceptance. Any image, any word mediated as knowledge or information through the demonic digital machinery can simultaneously be substituted according to the volition of the viewer by his personal intervention.
The application of this new mode of "writing" in an extensive radius and scale in the natural and social environment is daily read in the powerful presence of the pictorial media, from advertisements to every kind of signification. It remoulds the environment of contemporary man into an open illustrated text, where the avant-garde design of form, the simplistic codes of communication and the most advanced metaphorical use of writing-reading coexist on an equal footing.
For this reason, it is not strange that a young artist with perspicacious and sagacious spirit concedes his image-making role to the language of the observer. Psychoulis does not simply create an unrestricted work with his BLACK BOX. In reality it is deceptively beguiling. The BLACK BOX is like a Trojan Horse which as a toy contains hidden and unexpected traps. He encloses information in the "black box". His own images are the products of a private interaction between images and words as experienced in his own personal environment. By definition, they are not familiar to others. Thus they are stored in the memory of a computer. The thread that connects these images with the source of their origin is invisible and mystical as it is unwound by experiences that are not repeated and do not belong to the viewer. All the illustrated information, all the connections that bind it to speech, are clearly a personal matter of contemporary man.
The viewer who projects them on the screen with the use of his voice, appropriates them and starts experiencing the illusion of personal narration. Without seeking to do so, he takes on somebody else's role, while their initial moulder -the artist himself- automatically becomes the observer of his own self, the viewer of a process of detachment from his own self.
Nothing corresponds to anything.
A strange presentation of the re-presentation is inaugurated.
In the archeology of language, Rousseau claims that "the first language was necessarily pictorial," therefore, metaphorical.
This claim seems to find correspondence in the pursuit of a new artist who searching for a new mode of "writing" instinctively turned to the exclusion of his "ego" from his own language.
Psychoulis ploughed the terrain of many different arts and forms of communication before being drawn to his BLACK BOX; from the theatre, video films and illustration to cartoons, narration, the graphic arts, multimedia and publishing. In a great number of his produced works, co-creators and colleagues equally underwrite them and, in some cases, as it happened with his installation entitled "Machinery-free Industry" (1994), the visitor of the exhibition appears to be a co-producer. The objects placed in his installations in space are his own creations that have an intensely ironical character like the works he appropriates. The wooden sculpture that decorates the glass ark which contains the sacred heirloom of the braided piece of hair of the favourite heroine of all his narrations, Anna-Maria, is the work of a worthy anonymous Greek craftsman with whom Psychoulis becomes one, as it also happens with the deceased constructor of the Infant-Recipient. He voluntarily confirms or revokes his existence in the capacity of the artist-creator in relation to what already exists in everyday life whether that may be in the past or in the future.
This characteristic is a constant force in Psychoulis's creation and he does not hesitate to eliminate the identity of the creator, the omnipotent "ego" of the artist who has always dominated or bolstered art's proposition. Thus, the BLACK BOX adopts the common method of "writing" through the interaction inaugurated by digital technology. However, the use of this apparatus, the artist does not pretend to be paving the way in order to facilitate the viewer's transport to the top of creation. The person who talks in front of the screen, enters into it in order to dispense with the artist. The viewer, left by himself, becomes the forger of art. Left alone, the artist, becomes an awkward observer. BLACK BOX is a signpost showing the way to a situation of extreme alienation and detachment from everything familiar. The sign that signifies the present offered by Psychoulis, is in reality a big question mark that is brought about by every radical change of values of a certain civilisation and, consequently, its language.
In the design of an "ecumenical" level of co-existence and understanding the experience of Babel prevails as an almost necessary precondition. "In what place could we understand each other by talking and listening to one another? "Could that happen in the theatre", Derrida wonders, "which unites spectacle with speech, and could it substitute the unanimous assembly?" Even in the theatre language cannot remain pure and new; it becomes complimentary.
With this question in mind, Psychoulis considers the theorem of the qualities of the dead and living languages with clear-sighted thought. Grammatology explains that "the unvocalised and universal writing of science is in this sense a theorem. As Leibniz used to say, "ad vocem referri non est necesse".
The BLACK BOX restores the birth of language through the lost unity between seeing and oral speech. With this process that is facilitated by high technology and which also revolves round the particular reality established by electronic society, Psychoulis transfers the quality of the artist to the intermediate stage between the pre-lexical condition of civilisation that gives birth to vocal writing and the strictly personal reality as experienced by the individual.
Psychoulis's BLACK BOX is deceptively offered as a toy. A toy in which his entire life is incorporated with pictorial signs that cannot be interpreted. His illustrated life, stored in the computer, becomes a womb. The artist-creator is rid of his "ego" and maintains his femininity. The word of a third party, the word of the new society, of multiple sensitivities and individual creativity, will produce the sperm for the birth of a new language in a different art form.