The Black Box: An Experiment about Imagining Otherwise

Project Description


In the current context of growing inequalities, cut-throat competition in the global labour market and human activities that make our planet more dangerous and inhospitable for future generations, social scientists and economists around the world are questioning the notion of ongoing economic growth, and commentators from radically different perspectives argue that today’s young people are left with ‘no future’ (Giroux, 2011Willetts, 2011). In China, similarly the test-driven and cut-throat competitive educational and labour market system has been leading to intense experiences of anxiety and uncertainty among young people, which has fueled a rise in phenomena like “lying flat (躺平)” and “involution (内卷)”. As a consequence, young people feel increasingly isolated, anxious and helpless, and take these experiences to be private matters.

The common solution the younger generation finds to deal with private matters is asking help from the authority or indulging themselves in the imagination concerning the future in the distance. Occasions are rare when people trapped in the same structure discuss with each other about their confusion and suffering. In this project, we want to provide an open platform to discuss the private issues that we college students all face and re-imagine our future by sharing and responding to others.


Art provides a space for us to test our limits. They are mediums for meditation and reflection. Art moves us because it provokes feelings and calls for a response. Our project will be an interactive exhibition that aims to construct narratives of young people’s present struggles and of imagined futures. In order to achieve that, the two rooms in the “black box” will make connections between the individual and the collective, the reality and the ideal.

This project draws inspiration from theories across various disciplines such as the concept of black box systems, Augusto Boal’s Forum Theatre, and Goffman’s dramaturgy theory. The metaphor of “black box” comes from the concept of black box systems in computer engineering which can be viewed in terms of its inputs and outputs without any knowledge of its internal workings. In this project, the ‘black box’ represents the default social norms in our society. We aim to find out how the default norms influence our daily life. The action of ‘opening the black box’ means revealing the personal doubt to the public and creating connections with others. In our project, we aim to initiate our individual actions of ‘opening the black box’ and join collective forces to explore new opportunities and re-imagination about our future. 

This exhibition will be organized by the Applied Psychology research group ‘Utopia’. and is part of an ongoing research project entitled ‘Utopian Futures’, which has received ethical approval by the Applied Psychology Ethics Committee. EF20220713001.


Design concept

The spatial design of the ‘black box’ balances privacy and publicness. According to the dramaturgy theory by Erving Goffman, members of the society perform in different social scenes based on the internalized social norms. Our project aims to provide the participants with the opportunity to ‘step down from the stage’. The black box functions as a backstage of people’s social performance where our participants could show their private emotions and thoughts. 

The box has two rooms. In the first room, our participants are invited to write down their personal private responses to an assigned question/scenario. The question will be changed every two weeks. New questions will be based on previous responses from participants. Then the participants enter the second room filled with accumulated notes. In the second room, participants are free to read and write their own response to others’ thoughts and feelings, contributing to the final collective narrative.

In terms of the functional design, the two rooms build a bridge between reality and ideal. According to Forum Theatre by Augusto Boal, the whole activity could be divided into four steps: 

  1. Participants enter the first space and respond to an everyday scenario by writing their answers on post-it notes; 
  2. Participants enter the ideal space that has other people’s responses and everyday objects; 
  3. Participants integrate their personal response into the collective responses, and take part in the collective design of the ideal space; 
  4. Finally, participants have the opportunity to spend time in the ideal space. 

In the second room, we will use the concept of interactive art to provide participants with a safe place to collectively compose and create their work. Through this individual and collective process of combining real responses with ideal space, we will visually present the possibility of change and create alternative scenarios about possible futures.

Design Rationale and Function

Appearance: The black box is used as a form to draw attention, but its contents and intentions cannot be judged through the external decoration in order to ensure privacy.

Entrance: Only one person can enter the black box at a time. There is an “OCCUPIED” sign at the entrance, which lights up red whenever a person enters the box to alert the outside, thus creating a private and safe space to the greatest extent possible.

Inside: The interior of the black box is divided into two rooms, “Room 1” and “Room 2”. The two rooms are connected by a single door.

Room 1: It represents how individuals respond individually to an everyday social situation. The overall light of the room is low and warm, with a desk and a lamp, with the intention of providing a quiet, calm and not cramped environment for participants to write. The question and writing guidelines are posted on the wall. The questions will be changed every two weeks and enriched based on participants’ answers while maintaining the original topics. Writing is anonymous. After they write their personal answers, participants take their notes with them to Room 2.

Door: Link between Room 1 and Room 2, the transition between reality and the ideal. Before entering the room is the world of “the self which acts in a social scenario”, after entering the room is the world of “the self which responds to an individual but collective issue”.

Room Two: Connecting the self to the collective consciousness and transforming the everyday into something new. This room will allow participants to connect their private issues to the collective consciousness and build together alternative stories by intervening in this public space.

The colour is brighter and one wall of the room is has mirrors, where people can write things and respond to others’ responses. Participants are asked to paste what they have written in room one onto the wall in room two. Brushes, paint, stickers, white board and stamps are provided. Participants can use everyday materials to interact with the drawings and notes of previous participants in the same space across time, or they can simply enjoy the offstage situation in the public space, adjust the spotlights, disco ball and switch the music in the room according to their preferences. A computer is required to control these installations. Or the participants can also do nothing but lie down and relax. All the activities in Room 2 depend on the participants’ own will. All equipment must be placed to its original state for the next visitor before leaving. We aim to see how our participants’ creativity can transform their everyday stuff into new things.






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