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The Black Box Exercise

Derived from a Chinese proverb, black box exercise means ‘operating in darkness’. Amrita Gupta Singh looks at the formation of the notion of home in a metropolis like Mumbai by analyzing the ‘Black Box Exercise’ project done by MPCVA in collaboration with the Hong Kong based cultural collective Zuni Icosahedron. She says that the notion of home is also controlled by the ISAs as observed by Louis Althusser.

“A democracy, the realistic observer is forced to conclude, is likely to be idealistic in its feelings about itself, but imperialistic about its practice” - Irving Babbitt

How does one understand ideology? Ideas are abstract, so how do they become valid, manifested as they are in the common consciousness, as received and not questioned? An ideology can be defined to be a collection of organized ideas, or a science of ideas, proscribed by a governing class for all members of a society via a normative process, persuasive in nature. The internal logical structure that an ideology represents, whether it is political, social, familial, educational or ethical, also corresponds to the power equations that are underscored in the received subject. If one looks at the ideology of a terrorist (who often comes from the poorer sections of society), or the ideology of Hindutva politics (where the thrust is to prove a cultural-religious hegemony), the ideology of a patriarch in a family (where the financial/sexual power is embodied in the man), or even the ideology of a teacher vis-à-vis, the student, one notices that such ideologies exercise power over cognitive thought, maneuvered as they are via the concept of rule/governance.

In our everyday social relations and activities, the monopoly of a dominant ideology regulates human behaviour and the individual is conditioned, acclimatized to believe in the same with a non-aligned status and apparent objectivity.  It would be pertinent to bring in a discussion of Louis Althusser’s concept of Ideological State Apparatuses, which is based on Karl Marx’s proposition of “Ideology as an instrument of social reproduction” via the base-superstructure model of society; Taking this model as a metaphor for a ‘homerather than a strict model for economic production, Althusser charted out two sites – Repressive State Apparatuses (RSA) which functions via power and politics and Ideological State Apparatuses (ISA) which functions via ideology sustaining capitalist structures, not by force, but by coercion and inherent contradictions. ISA’s function to inculcate in children and adults specific ways of thinking and thus understanding their relationship to the societies within which they live; Schools, the Family/Homes and
Religious Institutions operate ideologically and the individual is subjected to internalize that ideology which becomes a self-definitive process.  In Althusser’s words, “the individual within modern capitalist societies is interpellated by ISAs as free so that he/she freely accepts his subjection”; this in turn provides a possible site for class struggle, as there are contradictions in the ruling class ideology.

Homes and Schools/Education are the two dominant ISA’s that inculcate class consciousness in individuals and it is in this context that I would like to analyze a particular art education project – The Black Box Exercise, positing it within the realms of class, social awareness and perception of art. Founded in 1995, by the independent cultural collective, Zuni Icosahedron in Hong Kong, the Black Box Exercise, is a workshop generated, installation arts education program. The model employs installation art creatively to enable people who are artistically and creatively under-served in the existing education curricula and environment, to acquire the tools and concepts of learning, creative expression and communication. The Black Box Exercise", derived from a Chinese proverb that literally means "operating in the dark”. It is a catchy phrase commonly used by the populace in criticizing public institutions in Hong Kong, which are found making decisions "in a black box", in an opaque system of bureaucracy or even conspiracy.  When applied to describing an art project, it may become a self-critical reminder for the incestuous and provincial practice of the arts community, or even an oppositional alternative for the white cube.

In the Mumbai chapter of this international project (January 16-21, 2006), sponsored by the India Foundation for the Arts and organized by the Mohile Parikh Center for the Visual Arts, Mumbai, twenty-five participants, including teachers, facilitators and students from diverse backgrounds (elite international schools, municipal schools, suburban visual art colleges and non-formal organizations) and contexts (social, economic and educational), were given opportunities to experience being an artist, curator and critic. Responding to the theme of Mumbai-Environments & Issues, the thrust of the workshop was to enable the participants to express their perceptions of the reality of Mumbai and their aspirations-personal and collective-for it. The plan stressed on the idea of crossing, (cross generation, cross media, cross discipline, cross regions & cross cultures/class). The artist, Shilpa Gupta, who works across genres and spheres (private and public) and the sociologist, Shilpa Phadke provided a contextual arena for the participants to locate their ideas via the arts and social dynamics, with specific relation to the city of Mumbai.

Here, the Black Box served as a self-contained learning environment in the form of the miniature “gallery” measuring 1x1x1foot, in which each participant was encouraged to create, curate and critique an installation art exhibit, inside the uniform wooden black box, for a public exhibition. The exhibition of the finished boxes took place at the Art Entrance Gallery during the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival from February 4-12, 2006.

Mumbai has a significant past and a vital presence in India’s history-colonial, nationalist and contemporary. More importantly, for today’s Indian, Mumbai is a destination, where his/her dreams come true. And in trying to actualize their aspirations, the citizens of Mumbai shape the city, which in turn create environments that speak of multiple realities. Besides, Mumbai is a dynamic cosmopolitan city, a ‘home’ to many individuals and many cultures and has come to represent the global aspirations of many. Mumbai also witnesses and contains within itself, the major economic, political and social problems of our times, its many subcultures and conflicts of class, mills/malls binary, displacements and identity crisis serves as a classic example of the oppositional conceptions of subjectivity, a marker for the formation and transmission of all that is included in the terms, culture and ideology.

As a workshop which was oriented as an art versus institution/system and at fostering dialectical partnerships across class and community with the metaphor of Mumbai as a “home”, one needs to evaluate the pedagogical value of this workshop, given that the concept was an imported one fitted to a local situation. Numerous critical challenges can be cited here, firstly, the Black Box Exercise, in its original models adopted a more theatre-based intervention without a specific theme, the works emerging via spontaneous experiences and open-ended in approach; the Mumbai chapter had a specific theme to begin with and also took place in the elite institution of the National Center for the Performing Arts (NCPA), and was later exhibited in a gallery space within the realms of a public art fair, the Kalaghoda Arts Festival (all three spaces being capitalist in nature). Secondly, the oppositional realms of a liberal cosmopolitanism and class/ideological divides was a significant part of the workshop as the participants, especially the students came from divergent economic backgrounds (elite business class children, trader-class children and slum children, who lived in skyscrapers, chawls or tenements respectively) and also access to the English language and knowledge systems that each particular class and its consequent exposures provided. As the concept of the Black Box had already traveled to various countries before coming to Mumbai, it had already become institutionalized in its form. Thirdly, the Mumbai workshop was also cross-generational, so the question of an open interaction versus an imposition given the presence of a teacher/facilitator also was problematic for some participants, especially those who came from a suburban art college with the principal as guide and participant.

Notwithstanding these contestations, when one looks at the artworks produced in the duration of one-week of the workshop, one notices that the children and adults enthusiastically approached the black box as a creative challenge and understanding divergent experiences that came in with the groups from different classes. The students of the Dhirubhai International School displayed a very sophisticated understanding of materials and language and buying power since most of them bought their materials, apart from the usage of materials provided by the organizing body in the workshop. The students from the middle class suburban art college (The Vasai Vikasini College of Fine Arts) and Diamond Jubilee High School, displayed a conservative/academic approach to materials and art, while the students from the Akanksha Foundation with slum area backgrounds used recycled materials such as paper pulp, used cloth and everyday products from their homes. The constituent of distance between the students, given their diverse backgrounds, were evident in the first two days of the workshop, which gradually dissipated once creative ideas and experiential realities were shared and appreciated in an easy camaraderie of the innocence of adolescent minds, and the enthusiastic creative trajectories that each participant chose.

Many of the artworks focused on the acute class distinctions and survival strategies that define the city, and the capitalist ideology that marks such distinctions. Dreams and desires, money and power, issues of real estate and water crisis, communal tensions and ideals of harmony, the seductiveness of glamour, each participant approached the city via the metaphor of a home, some problematized and critiqued its issues, while others were locative in a generic sense. The children from the trader-class backgrounds who lived in chawls built their ideal homes in the black box, a perfect room in a skyscraper, while the student from the slum visualized the inequitable water distribution in the city, given his own reality in his slum where the supply of water is only for two hours per day for the entire slum, while the adjoining high-rises enjoy 24 hours supply coupled with wastage. The cosmopolitanism of the city was marked in a work which transformed into a shop with a Muslim owner who specialized in bridal wear of various communities- Hindu, Christian, Parsi or Jain, while the games of money and power was symbolized via the metaphor of the snake-ladder game and Mumbai as a labyrinth of dreams and glamour, where each psychic terrain is marked by the quest of a golden existence, like a Midas touch syndrome. The adolescents from the elite international school, given the security of their economies, brought in symbols of wine-glasses, mirrors, diamonds and branded products, but it was with a spirit of critique that these metaphors were brought in, and not an easy acceptance, such as one particular work, beautifully crafted, which evaluated with a vigorous satire, the futility of Page 3 culture and the pervasiveness of Bollywood glamour and the larger entertainment industry. Other works dealt with land politics, (a work of a facilitator and not a student) including the aspect of Dharavi (the largest slum in Asia), which contributes much to Mumbai’s revenue via its small-scale industries.

In retrospect, one would say that this collaborative initiative became a dynamic site for problematizing the issues of class struggle, and also provided symbiotic links between art/art education/society. The young minds that created the works demonstrated a keen sensitivity to community issues and social cohesion, via a vigorous engagement with the numerous possibilities that the Black Box provided. Some of the teachers who participated in this workshop have also used this concept in their respective schools, but given the institutionalization of The Black Box Exercise, one wonders if its participatory and synergistic constituents become self-contradictory with time.

If one could look at the culture of the metropolis as an Ideological State Apparatus, as an icon of the twentieth century and a metaphor of a concept of ‘progress’, with ever-rising towers of steel and glass, neon lights, larger- than- life billboards and constant motion, Mumbai serves as a representation of such an icon. The modern city, however, is both physically and ideologically repressive because, on the ground, it is capable of controlling the movement of people yet, at the same time; ‘urban’ living becomes desirable and a marker of social achievement due to the connections between the city and potential wealth. It is also interesting to consider the extent to which the physical control mechanisms of a city are struggled against by those for whom the dream becomes a nightmare. Simultaneously, Mumbai is also the city of the Other, populated by the marginalized, living on the peripheries, yet contributing to its growth in tertiary sectors. In this context, the works of the Black Box Exercise, in many ways of its microscopic renderings of multiple Mumbai’s and alternative voices, articulated such struggles against a dominant ideology in which the friction becomes palpable, where the city, splitting at its seams, with immigrants, suicides and disappearing spaces, nevertheless seeks to meet the notions of progress and modernization, dismantling social relations and multiple histories.


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