The tragedy of the common black square
Hidden in plain sight by the seemingly mundane or profane, lies sacred pathways for our humanity. If we seek to understand why we are stirred by social objects, we need to look closer beyond what meets our eye; things seen and unseen. We must educate ourselves to have a more dynamic visual vocabulary, to view our humanity beyond monochromes into more polychromatic illuminations.
But first let’s tread a troubled track, and go back to black.
“If we look at the square without mystical faith, as if it were a real earthy fact, then what is it?”
Margarita Tupitsyn (Scholar & Curator)
“Black Square”, Kazimir Malevich, 1915
Malevich unveiled a painting titled ‘Black Square’ in 1915. What for and why? He reasoned: “Trying desperately to free art from the dead weight of the real world, I took refuge in the form of the square.” Those dismissive of the abstract aesthetic might look at the black square as pointless nothing. However, this notion of a nothing remains indicative of various somethings when we consider the thicker descriptions of history and context.
Malevich’s black square was an artwork for a visual language he labeled ‘Suprematism’. It was also the design for a stage curtain in the futurist opera Victory over the Sun. If we refer to the book of Exodus, the Pharaoh refused to free their Hebrew slave population, and one of the plagues all suffered included the blocking of the sun with a solar eclipse. There is symbolism here for those who recognise the significance of black drapes used for covering and mourning rituals. One can also recall the Rolling Stones lyrics:
I wanna see it painted, painted black
Black as night, black as coal
I wanna see the sun, blotted out from the sky
I wanna see it painted, painted, painted, painted black
The early 20th century world of Malevich was also experiencing its unique problematic and unprecedented chaos. Before the celebration of the ‘roaring Twenties’, populations were experiencing the First World War, cities were rife with social unrest, and the arts raged about their new Futurist manifestos on the modernist wonders of machine technology. The uprising of the far-left with Lenin and the Bolsheviks ushered in the red scares of a 1917 Russian revolution. Then the famous influenza pandemic of 1918 hit. Can you imagine the newsfeeds and debates that were generated?
Fast forward to 2020, and we are digital witnesses to the appropriation of another black square. Same same, but different. The picture gallery is now mobile and hand-held. Instagram users put up non-images in 1080px by 1080px to support #blacklivesmatter.
The reception was inevitably emotional, and this is an understatement. The cascade effect of thousands of black tiles was that it inadvertently drowned out most of the helpful activist-led materials being collected under the hashtag.
The stark blackness as people scrolled through their newsfeed caused the mass upset of many who were using the platform to search for vital information. It was a paradox. People thought they were giving space for the movement by black voices, that were simultaneously dismayed at their stories and dis/content being erased.
It is recognised wisdom by now that change-makers prefer deeds not words. Token gestures made online must also be substantiated by tangible behaviours that speak louder beyond current events. As Joy Ejaria said:
“I understand that change starts with awareness and acknowledgement, and that’s likely what anyone posting the black square intends. But I can’t help but wonder why this hasn’t happened sooner. And I’m cynical that it’s just another guilt-quenching social media demonstration that will be forgotten about by next week.”
This frustration has been expressed repeatedly whenever ‘calls to action’ are announced via the Internet. In spite of the dissatisfaction with pledges, badges and changes to social media profile pictures, it remains an item on campaigners’ toolkits. Yes, the news cycle and attention spans may have become too fickle for preferences, but visual demonstrations have the power to incite herd behaviour to create conversations.
What’s also significant is that it was two black music executives who led the #BlackoutTuesday initiative. Brianna Agyemang and Jamila Thomas proposed #TheShowMustBePaused, with major labels and channels (MTV, Apple, VH1, etc) playing black-only music or abstaining from brand communications, and musicians also opted to mute their platforms.
“Tuesday, June 2nd is meant to intentionally disrupt the work week…
It is a day to take a beat for an honest, reflective, and productive conversation about what actions we need to collectively take to support the Black community.”
The organisers succeeded with this intention. It has become standard practice to match names for days of the week with hashtags. At a time when people are posting statuses about not knowing what day of the week because of COVID-19, people were disrupted from these usual complaints. Also, consumer brands had already been issuing ‘white font messages on black backgrounds’ expressing their support. Many of these were empty platitudes that warranted satirical responses.
For some, it was a reprieve from the proliferation of vapid marketing announcements, though oddly enough, adverts became even more visible. Arguably, it was not much better than the cosmetic and pointless support of hypocritical companies.What appeared to be ‘visibly saying nothing’ clearly conveyed different meanings, and audiences were debating the substantiation of the black square. It is unsurprising that we deploy the language of colours and shapes to express our emotions. When Malevich defended his black square, he maintained:
‘To the Suprematist the visual phenomena of the objective world are, in themselves, meaningless; the significant thing is feeling’
The angst about such displays being ‘performative distractions’ are worth analysing, especially if we think about the ‘black box theatre’, a space built as a flexible stage for more intimate interactions. Removed of dressage, the focus is on the relationship between actors and audience. On Instagram, in absence of lifestyle representation and text, the spotlight drama was on how people were acting, not acting, and interpreting the different streams of BLM stories. We may detect the authentic and the false, and reject plots and scripts. On a grand scale, we are all role playing through discontinuous events as they transpire. The protests are personal and political. They are grieving; expressing rage and loss.
There is a strange nominative determinism when we look at what happened. ‘To take a beat’ means to pause, and people complied. Where others were visually and verbally muted, black voices rebutted this silence. Those that posted black squares took the beating of unquenched outrage. The Internet created a black void that would absorb the screaming and howling pain of the many.
It was also rather ominous to encourage a ‘blackout’ - projected by black mirrors that we really need to face up to instead of our selfies, like some grief hole for the whole. It spilled blood that turned into a digital wailing wall and well of blank ink, as people spuriously took to their pens and type to generate letters to write about all the wrongs. No immunity from the algorithms of the herd, the sick and tired demanded to be heard.
In the jargon of tech hardware, a black (broken) square on your screen is recognised as a dead pixel. It’s rather poignant, that if we think about the blanket coverage of Instagram as if it were a global quilt, we would spot all the black squares. Perhaps this serves as a modern allegory for all the black lives that were vanquished into non-existence — a black square for the disembodied nameless and named, countless and counted. As people argue about the dominance and supremacy of white spaces, we were given a day of negative space, allowing us to consider how we might balance the scales of justice.
The request to pause the show, manifested not just in terms of entertainment or leisure, but it provided a sombre chamber for processing the emotional vitriol of communities. We know better that telling people to calm down when you’re angry isn’t effective. To halcyon and carry on is definitely not the popular attitude. What is significant, is that we reassure each other by reminding ourselves… to breathe. Mindfulness techniques about being ‘in the present’, recommend that we pay attention to how we inhale and exhale. A formula recommended for those who need to manage their state during stress or to avoid being triggered is to Stop, Breathe, Notice, Reflect and Respond (SBNRR). How we breathe affects our brain waves, and therefore how we think before we act. We hear about listening a lot — hear out Resmaa Menakem how we should ‘Notice the Rage; Notice the Silence’.
Covid 19 has been a global memento mori for us. Death comes to us all, and that is hardly a spoiler alert. Is it just a coincidence that George Floyd’s repeated words before he was murdered resonated with so many? That he called for his mama and gasped “I can’t breathe” powerfully ignited compassion — and the root meaning of passion is suffering. Perhaps to talk of spirits and souls is mere fantasy, yet we sense there’s something in the air. When powder kegs explode, there’s fire, and it feeds on oxygen. Perhaps to stop righteous rage from burning out of control, some slack in airtime for momentary respite was of some health benefit.
There has always been a great and constant lamentation from many different lands.
Out of the Australian bushfires pan and into the coronavirus fever, with ominous swarms of locusts and murder hornets. The apocalyptical sequence of events echoes the book of Exodus. The main story was not about pity parties of woe, but of an enslaved population who sought freedom from oppression by their tyrannical owners/rulers. With no citizenship rights, and forbidden to protest, their tragic plight made divine intervention necessary.
We are quick to announce the dystopian end of days, identifying all flagrant evidence of brazen evils and bloody hells. So in this abysmal vortex… where is the godly in all of this? According to art theory, black and white are not categorised as colours, but rather as values, indicating the presence and absence of darkness or lightness. We hear people justify they’ve “got bills to pay” or “got a family to feed” — so if it’s money that makes the world go round, is this what we worship?
The Kaaba in the Grand Mosque of Mecca is a monolithic cube — a sacred container of small and venerated meteorite fragments. Millions of pilgrims travel to pay their respects, not to worship the Black Stone, but towards the great unseen that it signifies. This black box unites, and in some ways it divides. Yet to the initiated, there is a bridged link from Lent to Pesach and Ramadan. How we experience life is not based on the events that occur, but based on the meaning we attach to the events that will make all the difference. There is a substantial part of us that is not contained in physical parts of us, that makes us, us.
What is the existential urgency that drives a well lived life?
Why can’t we just get along? When I was studying civil society, globalisation and nationalisms at Birkbeck — my reading list included Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View’by Immanuel Kant. Well here’s an eloquent and academic version of why people can be such utter cunts:
“The means employed by Nature to bring about the development of all the capacities of men is their antagonism in society, so far as this is, in the end, the cause of a lawful order among men.
By “antagonism” I mean the unsocial sociability of men, i.e., their propensity to enter into society, bound together with a mutual opposition which constantly threatens to break up the society.
Man has an inclination to associate with others, because in society he feels himself to be more than man, i.e., as more than the developed form of his natural capacities. But he also has a strong propensity to isolate himself from others, because he finds in himself at the same time the unsocial characteristic of wishing to have everything go according to his own wish.”
The phrase ‘unsocial sociability of men’ is memorable, and though obvious, it’s all too easily forgotten when people refer to ‘social’ as if it only existed because of social media platforms.
As a side note, men should probably be substituted for more inclusive pronouns. I am personally amused that the original translation highlights the patriarchy in the problem of Ungesellige Geselligkeit.
A sociology professor I admire once taught me that pursuing individual perfection was intertwined with seeking solidarity with community. If we literally consider what the common ground is between two opposites, it leads us to that other frequently mentioned concept, that of the tragedy of the commons. The conflict between individual and collective rationality was a subject of a paper by American ecologist Garret Hardin. In 1968, he wrote about ‘the damage that innocent actions by individuals can inflict on the environment’. His theory was based on the idea of human overpopulation and overconsumption. Hardin was a controversial proponent of eugenics, which tends to stray towards racism and quasi-fascist ethnonationalism. These days the term we recognise is ‘eco-fascism’. While he advocated for abortion rights, he was worryingly anti-immigration and anti-welfare state. It’s important to realise the limitations of abstract models and question theories as just perspectives rather than absolute realities.
There are plenty of economists worth looking into who explore the futures of abundance, that is not based on exploitative and exponential growth. Diversity and Inclusion are not just buzzwords, they are the way forward (see Esther Duflo, Stephanie Kelton, Mariana Mazzucato, Carlota Perez and Kate Raworth.) The shared square we call our ‘commons’ — these are both private and public spaces that we live in. Whether it’s the park, the piazza or playground — it’s the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society. In 1987, Margaret Thatcher infamously stated that “there is no such thing as society; only individuals and families.” What’s interesting here is that society comes from the French société or the Latin societatem. Society is by definition about fellowship, association, alliance, union, community — and as a basic unit, founded on the ally — to ‘bind together’, and the companion — which is literally ‘one who breaks bread with another’.
We have been taught to see the world in simplistic squares when it comes to both competing and playing with one another. A shape we learn for framing our relationship to the physical world, and our relationships with others, is the elementary square. We build in blocks, draw boxes for houses and windows. Our perspectives and directions for how we move is framed within a basic axis of left and right, up and down.
Our movements are contained in basic axes and grids. How do we evolve from this? Shakespeare reminds us that men and women are merely players with exits and entrances. So what in heaven and hell are we playing for?
An old Persian poem by Omar Khyam guides us to reconsider this life game of offence versus defence:
“Life is a checker board of nights and days
Where destiny with men for pieces plays,
Hither and thither moves and mates and slays,
And one by one back in the closet lays.”
Will we continue to consent to being reducible to individual-level phenomena, or do we yet have free-will to make choices. In The Moves that Matter: A Chess Grandmaster on the Game of Life, Jonathan Rowson shares:
“My chess experience tells me how there probably is another world in this world, and that other world is defined by truth encountered through our aesthetic sensibility.”
When the rules are fixed that we cannot enjoy it, and so hate the players and the game, we could flip the tables, or we try new games. We could confine our experiences to finite environments, or create better conditions. Dutch designer Felix Albers chose to change the rules of chess play with Paco Ŝako. It follows the same movements, but no pieces are ever captured and removed from the board. Collaborative partnerships of peace replace captures and killings.
From birth we are profiled to fit inside boxes, and ticking squares. Hi, I’m Name, Age, Gender, Birthplace, Nationality, Relationship Status, Job, Sexual Preference, Likes and Dislikes etc. What we know as Monopoly (One against the Many) was originally called The Landlord’s Game. It was designed by Elizabeth Magie Phillips, as a protest against the big monopolists of her time such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller.
The purpose was to teach a lesson for an anti-monopolist set of rules where players were all rewarded when wealth was created. The board that is far too often skinned with the packaging of some other brand franchise, trains the mind to achieve success at the expense of others. We know how we feel about that one go-to-jail square with the policeman on it. As for the railroad stations, there’s also history about the rail network being built on the slaves of prisoners and black labour.
To return to the problematic black squares of the internet — the peacemakers might ask where the common ground is in all the fighting between US versus THEM. The background canvas were blanks, but maybe this was the black ground we all needed to look into.
In Washington DC, a beacon of the past stands tall across a reflection pool. From above you can see the obelisk memorial situated in the middle of what looks like a Venn diagram. Isn’t it peculiar that Western culture would feature a monument designed by an ancient North African civilization? The Egyptian hieroglyph for ‘black’ is pronounced as kem/khem. This refers to the colour of the life-giving silt rich in minerals deposited by the Nile river when it cyclically flooded the land. We are all on Earth, and live off the soil. This universality has long been lost to the ideologies of national borders and property ownership of resourceful territories. The continuing global history was ever this — stolen lands by those who take against those who are taken from.
How do we wipe the hate slate clean and get back to the drawing board?
Why can’t we just have nice things? An example of the lesson about conflicts over common grounds and differences in how we play-fight with one another, can be learned from a different social experiment. On April Fool’s Day in 2017, Reddit hosted an online canvas called Place, that allowed users to edit by changing the colour of a single pixel. “The experiment was commended for its representation of the culture of Reddit’s online communities, and of Internet culture as a whole.”
The human condition has ever been thus, a tug of war between the benign and the malign. In the global tapestry of life, we question each character’s ethical and moral perspective. Our fictions are also our non-fictions, and we should really have learned about ‘alignments’ and identity axes much sooner. Everyone enjoys a fun personality quiz to find out what types we are, but few are willing to actually experience how the interactions happen IRL. Squabbling about what is utopia or dystopia is a matter of choice because all THIS is TOPIA — or field and landscape, of which all share.
If we want to proverbially think and behave outside the box, we need to examine the variations and dimensions of the matrix that we box ourselves in. While we’re breaking glass ceilings and opening doors of opportunity, there’s a trusty psychotherapist tool that helps us better understand our relationship with ourselves and others. Personal development starts with awareness and getting comfortable with checking ourselves in these four squares. The challenge is not merely to think outside it, but to familiarise ourselves from inside it.
For those who seek to move on from this black square complexity, there are of course other shapes available to us. Our perception creates our reality, and we have to allow ourselves to be educated. Perhaps there’s truth in a cosmic joke that we frequently have to go back to square one.
The Yin and Yang symbol exists to remind us that there are binaries plus the beyond. As cave dwellers watching the visible shadow plays, there are spheres out there. Plato and the members of the Academy knew that Geometry is life. Geo is earth, and materia is mother or source.
Our individual and collective schooling is an infinite experience.
If it’s all too much, let’s K.I.S.S. our aching hearts better by going back to origin stories and start from the basics — keep it simple, so we don’t suffer from stupid sequences. We might have fatigue from silly hashtags and black squares, but to get to the answers we must fill in the blanks and use our eyes. We seem to have forgotten the symbols staring us in the face. The hash sign has been used in our communications as telephone buttons and web tags. It also looks like a pattern for a weave. Or are the lines the windows of a prison cell? What if fate is the lattice network, and destiny is the choice we make as we encounter others through our different pathways through cross-pollinations and intersections?The world is wide, and it is a web. We could compete, or we could equalise our intelligence for balanced relations in the metaphorical life game of tic-tac-toe. After all, being tied also means being bound (by a social contract?) and connected by being bound together instead of restraining and choking our prized humanity. The fancy word for a hashtag is octothorpe — which means ‘eight’ and ‘village’. Will we choose an infinity of hate, or discover more infinite frontiers and dimensions? If only we had real time machines to change the past! According to H.G. Wells:
“Civilization is in a race between education and catastrophe. Let us learn the truth and spread it as far and wide as our circumstances allow. For the truth is the greatest weapon we have.”
We can aim for Mars, and look to the stars, but we have to consciously question how we boldly go to where we’ve not been before. It requires inter-generational relationships, from those of you who fondly remember Minesweeper, to lovers of Minecraft. As we witness living bodies campaign for reformation of beliefs and making their marks in public squares, these are profound historical times and we need to acutely heighten our sense and sensibilities.
Rina Atienza teaches History & Context for art students at Kingston University and is a strategist for hire with Nusbacher & Associates. Interested in untangling wicked problems, she curates the Holy Hand Grenades newsletter, practices Kundalini yoga and loves TTRPG.