Can we Think Outside of the Box…?

On the occasion of the 300th anniversary of Immanuel Kant’s birthday (22 of April) I was rereading the “Critique of Pure Reason” … so I started thinking on the old question about the relationship between human knowledge and experience

That all our knowledge begins with experience there can be
no doubt. For how should the faculty of knowledge be called
into activity, if not by objects which affect our senses, and which
either produce representations by themselves, or rouse the activity
of our understanding to compare, to connect, or to separate them;
and thus to convert the raw material of our sensuous impressions
into a knowledge of objects, which we call experience?
In respect of time, therefore, no knowledge within us is antecedent
to experience, but all knowledge begins with it. But although all our knowledge begins with experience, it does
not follow that it arises from experience. For it is quite possible
that even our empirical experience is a compound of that which
we receive through impressions, and of that which our own faculty
of knowledge (incited only by sensuous impressions), supplies from
itself, a supplement which we do not distinguish from that raw
material, until long practice has roused our attention and rendered
us capable of separating one from the other. It is therefore a question which deserves at least closer investigation, and cannot be disposed of at first sight, whether there exists a knowledge independent of experience, and even of all impressions of the senses?

So I only began reflecting on Kant’s pre-given: “That all our knowledge begins with experience”, craving for a visual exploration of the impact of that statement on my thought…

Installation Proposal: “50/50 (Open the box)”

This proposition is about the creation of an installation that consists of 20 boxes, which would be installed at the Black Box Theater of the American College of Greece. It is inspired by and directly references artist Joseph Cornell and two behavioral psychologists: Edward L Thorndike and B. F. Skinner. It is questioning the concept of the box; as an object and as a symbol; literally and metaphorically, metonymically. Also, it explores how associations can be drawn between different disciplines, such as psychology and art, science and aesthetics. The title 50/50 (Open the Box) is an indirect reference to Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment, based on Einstein’s theory, of 1935. The place of exhibition is a theater inside an educational institution, highly reflective of the character of the installation as well.

The boxes are going to be abstract replicas of the outlines of:

  • 9 out of the 15 puzzle boxes behavioral psychologist Edward L. Thorndike used in 1898 to conduct experiments on hungry cats, testing their ability to escape while tempted by food to study animal intelligence, connectionism and the process of learning. Those experiments led to the development of his famous “Law of effect,” a theory that emphasizes the role of “trial and success method” (rather than “trial and error method”) in the process of acquiring new skills. According to it, pleasure that follows a successful trial, or rewards after a desired behavior, are much stronger motivators for learning and establishing new associations than punishment. As Chance and Delaware point out in their article Thorndike’s Puzzle Boxes and the Origins of the Experimental analysis of behavior,

    “[Thorndike] proposed that animal learning has nothing to do with reasoning or the association of ideas; it occurs as a result of “trial and accidental success,” a phrase that gave new emphasis to the role of actions and their consequences. (Although Thorndike is typically said to have studied “trial-and-error” learning, he preferred the phrase “trial and success”).” (p. 438)
  • 9 boxes of artist Joseph Cornell which included a cutout paper parrot; a white cockatoo. Nine out of “at least fifteen boxes relating to [Juan] Gris between 1953 and the mid-sixties, making the series one of his most extensive;” as Deborah Solomon mentions in her book Utopia Parkway the Life and Work of Joseph Cornel (p. 208) This bird was a symbol and a homage to Maria Felicita Malibran, an opera singer of 19th C. Cornell associated her with the cubist artist Juan Gris because they were “both Spanish born artists whose brilliant careers were cut short by untimely death,” as Anne d’ Hornoncourt mentions at her article The Cubist Cockatoo: A preliminary Exploration of Joseph Cornell’s Homages to Juan Gris. (p. 8)
  • Cornell’s first box, “Soap Bubble Set” of 1936. That box was inspired by Cornell’s interest in astronomy, physics and scientific discoveries. As A. Hoving mentions in her article The Surreal Science of Soap: Joseph Cornell’s First Soap Bubble Set, “he placed these objects in a shallow box to cross-index such apparently incompatible objects as surrealism and cosmology, and to create a densely layered essay about scientific and spiritual quests, from Galileo’s study of the moon to new theories of an expanding universe.”(p. 16) What is central for Cornell in this creation is the physical law of gravity,- “the concept of the center of gravity, the single point in a given body through which the direction of its weight passes”- the moon,- how it reflects sun’s light, instead of being a source on its own- and the expanding universe-

    “that the universe is expanding like a soap- bubble. […] Crossindexing was key, as he overlapped the physical with the artistic and spiritual so the past and present, art and science, and spirit and self could meet in a little box containing the cosmos.” (Hoving article, 21-23, 26-27, 32. Hoving book, 31)

    Or as Hoving points out in her book Joseph Cornell and Astronomy a Case for the Stars “he realized the importance of the visionary condition, and he used unexpected combinations of objects to suggest alternate states of mind.” (p. 42)
  • B. F. Skinner’s “baby box,” the “heir conditioning” or, to be more correct, B. F. Skinner’s technologically advanced Aircrib or baby tender. B. F. Skinner was a behavioral psychologist and social philosopher, known as the father of “operant conditioning,” a theory that focused on the role of reinforcement in the process of learning or behavior modeling. He studied and taught at Harvard as a researcher. During WWII he worked for the American Government, proposing an alternative of bomb- throwing by using trained pigeons instead of soldiers (the predecessor of “Project Orcon”). For his research he was conducting experiments with animals, like pigeons and rats, enclosed in laboratory apparatuses called “operant conditioning chambers,” commonly known as “Skinner Boxes.” In 1945, he launched on the market a technologically advanced air crib model for babies, characterized by some as “Skinner’s baby box,” which he had invented and used for his second daughter Deborah, and which divided the public opinion. The first article in which Skinner introduced the device to the public was titled Baby in a Box and was published in October of 1945, at the “Ladies Home Journal”. He stated that, after having used it for almost a year with his daughter, he believes it to be an “inexpensive apparatus” that provides mother and child with more freedom, by providing a warm, controlled environment. In it, the baby would be protected by unwanted environmental stimuli like frightening sounds, cold temperature and viruses and the mother would have more spare time as many of her problems- such as laundry- would be solved. As he claimed in the closing paragraph of the article aforementioned

    “[a]t least we have shown that a moderate and inexpensive mechanization of baby care will yield a tremendous saving in time and trouble, without harm to the child and probably to its lasting advantage.”

    In another article titled The First Baby Tender and published in 1987, he quoted the critique he received and answered as follows

    “It is not an experimental apparatus. It is not soundproof; Deborah was shielded from loud noises, but we could hear her at all times. […] (Perhaps I should add that rumors that she committed suicide or became psychotic are equally wrong […] she is a happily married, talented artist and writer.”

The concept of this installation is an interdisciplinary approach of the box as an object, in different contexts of life and for different purposes. It is also the creation of a visual-spatial metaphor for the process of learning, creating and interacting with the environment during those processes, of how learning and ideas are generated, facilitated (or not) and communicated in and by the society.

The location I chose is the Black Box Theater of Deree, not only because of the implications the theater’s name has for my project, but also because it is a theater placed into an educational institute. The college environment, in which Psychology is one of its major subjects to be taught, interlinks with the puzzle boxes of Thorndike and the Skinner referenced box. The fact that it is a college also puts in question the techniques of learning contextualized in a standardized manner. On the other hand, the theatrical setting fits well with Cornell-inspired boxes; as Kristen Hoving quotes in her book, Cornell has referred to his shadow boxes as follows:

“[s]hadow boxes become poetic theaters or settings wherein are metamorphosed the elements of a childhood pastime.” (p. 29)

Moreover, the biographical book of Mary Ann Caws, Ashbery and Motherwell, which includes abstracts of Cornell’s diaries and letters, is titled (most probably because of the aforementioned Cornell’s phrase) Theater of the Mind. Lastly, the black dark hall of Black Box Theater, in which light could impressively highlight the boxes, would be fitting to Cornell’s reference, because, as is mentioned in the article of Niedenthal Learning from the Cornell Box:

[t]here were, however, certain illumination environments in which Cornell did have a say: his gallery exhibitions. Cornell’s exhibition at the Julian Levy gallery in 1939 was one in which darkness prevailed. […] The effect of this subdued level of illumination upon Cornell’s work of the period would create deep boxes, obliquely lit dramatic spaces. […] If Joseph Cornell and the researchers at Cornell University made something together, perhaps it would look like that space.

The title of the installation is by half (50/50) an indirect reference to all three scientists (Schrödinger, Thorndike and Skinner) who on their experiments have been using cats – either real or imaginary. It is also a reference to an interesting phrasing by Rona Cran in her book Collage in Twentieth- Century Art, Literature, and Culture, in which she quotes Cornell and then makes the link, as follows

“[i]t is interesting to [] note a quotation copied into Cornell’s diary from 1968, […] ‘it is a world from which we discover we can never get out. Everything has stopped, everything goes on reproducing itself.’ What this enunciates about Cornell’s work is the function of his boxes according to the principle of Schrödinger’s Cat.”

The second part of the title (Open the Box) is an incitement that refers both to the puzzle boxes of Thorndike’s experiments; and to Cornell’s feeling of being unable to escape his enclosure; as Andrew Brink narrates in his book Desire and Avoidance in Art,

“[g]allery owner David Mann reported the following conversation with Cornell: “I once praised a new group of things that he was working on and he said, ‘I’m glad you find them beautiful’ […] ‘you don’t know how terrible it is to be locked into boxes all your life, you have no idea what a terrible thing it is.’” (p. 175)

In his last letter to his sister, at the day of his death, he wrote “I wish I have not been so reserved.” (McShine, 1995, p. 115)

It refers to Schrodinger’s cat as well, that is in the paradoxical state of being 50% dead and 50% alive, only until the box opens.

Furthermore, the 50/50 refers to the two parts of the visual conversation between the boxes: the one part being the researcher’s boxes and the other Cornell’s. Specifically, between the Skinner’s baby box, for which he was accused of isolating the human of the world, and Cornell’s Bubble Set in which he tried to enclose the whole universe, there is a contradiction in relation to their creator’s character. In Brink’s book Cornell is described as avoidant and antisocial personality with tendencies for obsessional control. (p. 146) Yayoi Kusama in her autobiography Infinity Net, describes Cornell as “a complete misanthrope,” she claims:

“he hated photos, he hated people and he hated socializing. […] he liked his seclusion and had no desire to associate with anyone.” (p. 170)

On the contrary, Skinner was undeniably an important intellectual figure of the 20th Century, actively involved in the international scene of his time. In the aforementioned book of L. Slater, he quotes a conversation with his oldest daughter (also a psychologist) in which she describes her father as follows

“if my father made one mistake it was in the words he chose. People hear the world control and they think fascist. If my father had said people were informed by their environments, or inspired by their environments, no one would have had a problem. The truth about my father is that he was a pacifist. He was also a child advocate. He did not believe in any punishment because he saw firsthand with the animals how it didn’t work. My father is responsible for the repeal of the corporal punishment ruling in California, but no one remembers him for that. No one remembers how he always answered every letter he got […] My father was never too busy for people.” (p. 26)

To conclude, I think this installation project is a visual metaphor, conceptual in character, and abstract in form.

Only the boxes’ outlines are going to be reproduced accurately in their dimension measurements. As far as the materials are concerned, cheap melamine would be used for the boxes and also a plexiglass layer for the forefront of the baby box. As Burnham mentions in his article Thorndike’s Puzzle Boxes the materials from which the scientist assembled the boxes were from packaging of “Heinz Baked Beans.” (p. 1)

Photo Gallery

50,8 x 38,1 x 30,48 cm
50,8 x 38,1 x 30,48 cm
50,8 x 38,1 x 30,48 cm
50,8 x 40,64 x 30,48 cm
73,66 x 52,07 x 57,15 cm

50,8 x 38, 1 x 30,48 cm

38,1 x 25,4 x 40,64 cm

(An example of how the boxes worked)

“A Parrot for Juan Gris” 1953-54, 1957
45,1 x 31 x 11,7 cm

“Untitled (Juan Gris)” 1953- 1954

47 x 32 x 11,7 cm

“Juan Gris Series, Le Soir” 1953- 54

49,5 x 30,5 x 12,7 cm

“Juan Gris Cackatoo No 4” 1953- 1954

50 x 30 x11,5 cm

“Homage to Juan Gris” 1953- 1954

47 x 38,1 x 11,7 cm

“Grant Hotel de la Pomme d Or” 1953- 1954

47,9 x 27 x 8.3 cm

“Juan Gris #7” 1949- 1959

45,72 x 26,67 x 10,48 cm

“Pergolisi Parrot” early 60s

45,9 x 28 x 10,2 cm

“Black Cockatoo Silhouette” 1954- 1955

49,8 x 30,5 x 11,1 cm

“Soap Bubble Set” 1936

40,01 x 36,2 x 13,67 cm

“Skinner’s Baby Box” 1944- 1945

116,84 x 60,96 x 137,16 cm

Returning to Kantian excerpt

“It is therefore a question which deserves at least closer investigation, and cannot be disposed of at first sight, whether there exists a knowledge independent of experience, and even of all impressions of the senses?”

I wonder myself

“are all our thoughts stemming from experience?… were do thoughts come from… what does it mean to have an idea…

Let’s navigate through a Heideggerian puzzle of thoughts on the subject:

“Everything thought-provoking gives us to think. […] Most though-provoking is that we are still not thinking- not even yet, although the state of the world is becoming constantly more thought-provoking. […] In universities especially, the danger is still very great that we misunderstand what we hear of thinking, particularly if the immediate subject of the discussion is scientific. Is there any place compelling us more forcibly to rack our brains than the research and training institutions pursuing scientific labors? Now everyone admits unreservedly that the arts and the sciences are totally different from each other, though in official oratory they are still mentioned jointly. […] When we decide to look for the essential nature of contemporary science in the essence of modern technology, this approach posits science as something in the highest sense worthy of thought. […] Our age is not a technological age because it is the age of the machine, it is an age of the machine because it is the technological age. But so long as the essence of technology does not closely concern us, in our thought, we shall never be able to know what the machine is. […] Thinking is thinking when it answers to what is most thought-provoking. In our thought-provoking time, what is most thought-provoking shows itself in the fact that we are still not thinking. […] Let us be honest with ourselves: the essential nature of thinking, the essential origin of thinking, the essential possibilities of thinking that are comprehended in that origin- they are all strange to us, and by that very fact they are what gives us food before all else and always; which is not surprising if the assertion remains true, that what is most thought-provoking in our age is that we are still not thinking. […] what is this anyway, to form an idea?”

The oldest known “Thinker” represented in art is the prehistoric “Thinker of Cernavoda” (c. 5,000 BCE), an ancient sculpture placed in the National Museum of Romania. It depicts a human figure sitting on a stool, with their chin leaned upon their hands, their elbows leaned upon the knees and looking towards the horizon, deeply absorbed in introspection.

The “Thinker” by Auguste Rodin (1880- 1904) was an emblematic sculpture, destined to be placed at the Gates of Hell, at the main entrance of Musée des Arts Decoratifs, initially named “The Poet” or “L’ homme et sa pensée,” inspired by Dante’s Inferno from the Divine Comedy (c. 1308-1321). According to Albert Alhadeff, it depicts Rodin himself, contemplating over life and death, love and sin as “a suffering creator” (Alhadeff, 1966, 393) and “was therefore initially both a being with a tortured body, almost a damned soul, and a free-thinking man, determined to transcend his suffering through poetry.” ! (Musée Rodin)