DELUGE: DISEMBOWELLING BLACK BOXES

In response to the Deluge artwork, at Tapescape Catford: The Intervention I, by artist Paul Halliday, sociologist Francisco Calafate Faria presented a paper discussing obsolescence, waste and redundancy to an open audience in disused Blockbuster Video store, Catford, London, SE6.

DELUGE: DISEMBOWELLING BLACK BOXES

An essay by Francisco Calafate Faria responding to Deluge

In the beginning there was the motion picture film – a sequence of photographs with a sound track. The reels could be transported in containers – those round metal cans. But the package was not essential to the mechanism. Then, once you opened a can and pulled the film to attach it to the projector, you could actually see the sequence of still images that composed the movie. The projector would do just that: project those images by passing a light through the film.

The videocassette represents a massive leap in the development of the audiovisual. Technologically it is a completely different object as is the process through which VCRs read information from the tape. One of the biggest innovations brought in by the videocassette is that the information on the support is not composed by images – if you look through the tape you cannot see anything. Between the screen and us there is a mediator that has nothing to do with images or sound. There is a translation process which most of us don’t understand. And we don’t need to. It is a black box.

In engineering a black box is a device, the inner workings of which are opaque or can be disregarded. All that matters if that the device produces certain results (often predictable) in relation to the inputs[i]. You put the cassette in the VCR, press rec, then rewind and play and the images are repeated on the TV screen. It doesn’t matter how it works inside. We can think of other examples, say the human brain for example. Or a piece of closed source software. The computer itself. The human brain. Financial systems. A sociologist.

On the other hand, since the invention of the videotape, the material support has become even smaller, more contained and portable. Just think of the sequence: photographic film reels, video tapes (from the first big ones until the video8), DVDs, memory sticks and now ‘the cloud’. The compression of the technological support has been so successful that it has now apparently made materials redundant altogether. We now can take pictures and upload them straight to ‘Instagram’ and there’s no reason why we won’t replace the DVD (digital video disks) with clouds. Certainly, places like Catford Blockbuster, where this piece is installed, are being replaced by online film rental services that allow you to download films for a fee.

Paul Haliday’s piece suggested to me crucial concepts with which I am working in my research on recycling. They relate to processes that in my view are manifestations of wider social phenomena. These processes are: containment, concealment and compression.

Containment: Wrappings and Containers

Most households in London have the experience of separating their waste for recycling. What goes into the recycling containers? In the borough of Lewisham, apart from newspaper and magazines (which by the way used to serve as wrappings for fish n chips or chestnuts) or clothes since last December (which can be seen as wrappings of the human body) the green bin is almost entirely filled every week with containers and packaging objects. This is what cassettes are: packaged films. How the package became so important to the point that is essential to the design and use of machines is difficult to pinpoint. What is evident is that in most aspects of our lives, the amount of disposable containers on which we have become dependent is now much higher than it has ever been. And this creates a big problem of excess material.

Recycling appears to be a solution to this problem. But sometimes it is difficult to disentangle the materials that compose the container – like in tetrapak plastic for example – the juice cartons composed by sheets of aluminium, paper and plastic. Other times it is the container that cannot be separated from the contained, as when food gets absorbed in the package. Or as in videocassettes.

In my visit to Veolia’s Material Recycling Facility in Greenwich, which used to take Lewisham’s recyclable waste, one of the contaminating objects about which they mostly complained was exactly cassettes. When the machines break through the containers, the tape gets entangled causing major breakdowns in the partly automatic separation process.

Concealment: the Black Box

Apart from generating waste, the use of containers in our society has the effect of concealing. Containment and concealment are concurrent forces that tend to separate people from the knowledge of what happens beyond the curtain. Do not cross, this will be dealt with by experts, do not criticize – you cannot understand how it works. One of the most topical examples of a black box, a contained system with which everyone interacts but no one knows the functioning is the financial markets. You put your money in the bank. Something happens in there so that they promise to give it back to you with an interest. When the machine breaks down – as in the present financial crisis-, a deluge of information starts spilling out of the black box.

In recycling, the closest black box we have is the recycling bin. We input the empty packages of our lives in this container. It has a symbol that suggests that it makes things move in a circle. Then we see the same symbol in a packet in a shop and we believe that it is the output of what we have done. How it works inside… “that is not my problem”.

Like a video cassette being slowly swallowed by the VCR, every week I see from my window the recycling containers being attached to the collection truck and mechanically tipped over into the back of the truck. When the truck disappears at the end of the road, I am ready to buy new containers. I have recycled. The verb, the symbol, they both suggest a process. Yet all I have done was to introduce something in a black box – in this case a green box. What happens inside the box? What relations of production does recycling entail? How much does the process contribute to a better environment? Would there be alternative processes more just both socially and environmentally?

One of the main reasons why I undertook research in Curitiba was to try to look through the idea of recycling as the only best solution for the waste problem. Curitiba, in south Brazil was one of the first cities in the world to institute a municipal system of recycling. Yet, underneath the neat campaign and policy design, 90% of the recyclable waste is still collected by informal waste pickers. The self-promotion discourse of the city hides a multitude of human realities and material networks that do not fit it.

So, underneath the image of circular contained sustainable linearity of recycling a number of social relations and inequities are concealed. Lewisham Council is a good example of positive effort to convey information to residents and to find the best contractors to deal with the materials the former separate. Yet difficulties arise in the mediation between a commercial logic on the one side and an environmental one on the other. But most people know little about it. Part of the recycling process as it has developed relies on this ability we have to trust in black boxes, in experts, in systems of which we don’t want to know the workings. In the case of waste this happens even more smoothly because we are dealing with things from which we want to part. So if someone tells me that they take the package away and that they will bring it back to the shelf we don’t ask if that is a truthful narrative, what’s the cost or who should benefit from the establishment of this cycle. And that brings me to the third process that the videocassette shows.

Compression: Dematerialisation or Displacement?

The ideal of recycling, it seems to me, is that materials disappear from our site to be disentangled and compressed before they re-appear again in an endless cycle. Going back to our history of audiovisual, we are liberated from materiality. We can film and not have to deal with the cassettes. We can have a collection of films on a ‘cloud’ – when I was in Curitiba, I stored my films in Dropbox. I didn’t have to worry too much with the prospect of loosing the hard drive where all of my data was being collected. As videocassettes were shrinking, the number of transistors that can go in a silicon chip have doubled every 2 years since the 60s[ii]. And the development of optic fibre networks has made it possible to transfer information at the speed of light. All of this makes it possible for us to store large amounts of information without having to deal with any storage material. Yet the support hasn’t dematerialized. It has been displaced. We have a good example of the same process when we think that slavery and child labour were abolished in the 19th century. In fact they have been displaced. I bought these trousers in M&S and in the following day BBC tells me that children working in conditions of near slavery in Asia might have manufactured them. Think about degradable plastic bags. All they do is break up in small particles that are contaminating the Oceans. In many ways they are much more harmful for the environment than normal ones.

So when I look at Deluge I can also think about the day when someone will disembowel the earth and the bottom of the oceans of obsolete cables used for communication. I think about the need to open machines, to resist believing in simple stories. It also makes me think that the only form of recording that does away with materials is collective oral memory. But even collective memory is difficult to conceive without the aid of objects.

Read and view images from Catford Tapescape: The Intervention I and The Intervention II

Watch short video of Paul Halliday and John McKiernan discussing Deluge

[i] MacKenzie, D Material Markets: How Economic Agents are Constructed, Oxford UP 2010

[ii] “Oh, that’s near enough: Letting microchips make a few mistakes here and there could make them much faster and more energy-efficient” in The Economist, Jun 2nd 2012 http://www.economist.com/node/21556087