HTNM Revisited: The Black Box, the Light Box and Photo-Receptivity

18 Mar, 2014

HTNM Revisited: The Black Box, the Light Box and Photo-Receptivity

By Katherine Chandler

The black box is the most prominent cybernetic metaphor, neatly capturing this discipline’s focus on inputs and outputs, which eschews philosophy’s search for transparency and mirror-like replication. Yet, as Alexander Galloway argues, resolution, fidelity and definition continue to frame the informational aesthetics associated with these processes, even as the variations they produce undermine these very concepts. The language of compression uses input and output to uphold the distinction between reality and its representation, reproducing traditional philosophy in the process. Galloway, accordingly, turns to a thinker of “non-philosophy,” Francois Laruelle, to offer an alternative. Laruelle’s writing on James Turrell’s series of etchings, First Light, seems to offer a counterpoint to the black box. In these images, a light box emerges from a dense black field. There is no object or image in the works – instead, the pieces, according to Laruelle “think perception not think about perception” (230-231, emphasis in original).

Turrell’s etchings defy the separation between reality and representation, as light is both. For Laruelle and Galloway, the identity of light contrasts with a system of inputs and outputs, which produce the world and its double. Turrell’s work instead proposes a non-world organized through photo-receptivity, emphasizing the identity of light as experienced in perception. If one were, so to speak, in the perception of light, one would not see the separation between world and representation. Galloway concludes with Laruelle that “[t]o refuse the philosophical decision is to refuse the world, and thus to discover the non-standard universe is to discover the non-place of utopia” (236).

What happens, however, when thinking according to perception does not take a visual form, but instead is heard, touched and felt? While the identity of light allows one to move away from the difference between object and image, sight is not the only mode for experience. For instance, consider holding a rock (rather than looking at it) - the smooth, cold surface weighing on your palm. Here, it seems to me, through what is tactile, one might be able to refuse the distinction between what is real and what is representation, but not rely on identity. Rather, in the molecular encounter between skin and mineral, it is the difference between the two materials that is perception.

While Galloway’s challenge to the black box is poignant, I am unconvinced by the utopia of “light as light.” Rather, I want to explore another mode of exposure and photo-receptivity. Turrell’s “Joseph’s Coat ” is a skypiece that allows one to view the sunset through a twenty-four foot square aperture, cut from the ceiling of a room he designed at Ringling Museum of Art. Entering the gallery, the viewer lies on the floor and watches the sky through the opening. The evening winds shift clouds across the aperture and breeze comes in through the open ceiling. The light of the sunset is not just seen, but felt and the experience is registered by the body as it “receives” and “reflects” the sky. The sensations are tactile, as much as they are optical. Like Galloway and Laruelle suggest, the aperture opens to a non-standard universe, but the viewer is not in the identity of light, but exposed through it.

Galloway, Alexander R. “Laruelle and Art.” continent. 2.4 (2013): 230–236. Web.
Turrell, James. Joseph’s Coat. 2011. Event. Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida, USA.

Alex Galloway HTNM Lecture March 6 from Berkeley Center for New Media on Vimeo.