Signifying Nothing

By Audrey Molloy

 

 

Kazimir Malevich, Black Square, 1915. Courtesy tate.org/uk

 

 

Only in its ideally lifeless, empty, windswept plains is the life of abstract thought possible. Only there does a mind closed on itself open unto the world, recognize itself in the harshest biome—which it sees merely as a concretization of its own drive toward abstraction—and then withdraw, desert-ing that enucleated place in the night it has made, one in which all cows (cacti, coyotes…) are black.

— The Desert is a State of Mind Cast Over the Earth, Michael Marder[1]

 

 

On June 2, 2020, or “Blackout Tuesday ”, a monochromatic black square was relegated as a digital-visual symbol of allyship with the black community. Pictorially flat and abstract, devoid of language, the square was transmuted, mediated, and reproduced across social media platforms by over 28 million user accounts. Emphatically non-mimetic, non-critical, static, ordered, bounded, the black square or “screen” was invoked as a form of signified protest against police brutality and systemic racial inequality following the death of George Floyd. This collective visual action, at once socially participatory and independently performative, rendered the social commons defunct; a series of stark geometries framing the same negated form.

 

 

In the wake of its promulgation online, the action has been rebuked for being co-opted from the #TheShowMustBePaused[2] call-to-action and has received much criticism concerning the formal and functional modalities of a blank, black square as an aesthetic symbol of activism. These primary criticisms are twofold; that it is an inauthentic (individual) gesture of performative protest; and, second, that through (collective) repetition and recurrence online, the symbol visually disaggregates and dispels essential information circulated via the BlackLivesMatter hashtag. The central effect of both these independent and collective manifestations of the square is ordered silence.

 

 

It is unsurprising that the impervious black square should re-figure as an extempore symbol of protest at a time of global crisis, economic collapse, system error, death, and isolation. Since surfacing in pre-War Cubo-Futurist painting[3], most notably with Kazemir Malevich’s Black Square (1913), the bounded and duplicated square appears relentlessly throughout modern and contemporary art as a futurist symbol of rebirth and progress—a zero-ground of visual and cultural ambitions reduced to pure form. It remains a stringent formal emblem of modernity, mirrored too in our digital-visual conception of total shut-down; in computer operating systems, a blank, black screen indicates a critical or deadly error in the system hard drive, causing the system to shut down. Often referred to as “the black screen of death” (BSOD), it appears when an operating system reaches a state where it can no longer operate the system safely.[4]

 

 

The recurrence of the anti-mimetic square in cultural production is intimately tied to its exclusive visuality. Formally and spatially coextensive, the square readily defies interpretation despite its discursive symbolic associations. This is both the critical issue and appeal of the black square; it is a vacuous sign devoid of bodily experience, which attends perfectly to a Western egocentrism that associates “emptiness” with individual freedom.

 

 

Indeed, Malevich’s inert painting of a black square with white edges, Black Square (1913)—historicized in Western abstraction as the first purely non-objective, non-representational work—is largely considered revolutionary for its removal of an embodied experience from pictorial space[5]. First exhibited in 1915 at the Last Exhibition of Futurist Painting 0,10 in Petrograd amidst the chaos of World War I, Black Square was conceived by Malevich as a sign for a new era of art, achieved through what the artist referred to as reduction of all things to “zero of form”[6].

 

 

Malevich termed this non-mimetic aesthetic approach Suprematism, subsequently defined in his 1927 manifesto The Non-Objective World; “To the Suprematist the visual phenomena of the objective world are, in themselves, meaningless; the significant thing is feeling, as such, quite apart from the environment in which it is called for”. He continues; “Objectivity, in itself, is meaningless; the concepts of the conscious mind are worthless. Feeling is the determining factor…and thus arrives at non-objective representation. It reaches a “desert” in which nothing can be perceived but feeling.”[7]

 

 

“The desert” that Malevich refers to directly aligns Suprematism’s non-objective aesthetic principles with a pursuit of a specific pictorial vacancy necessary for achieving “pure feeling”. The spare geometric plane of Black Square—rational, monochrome, non-hierarchical, lacking in center—is an indisputable zero-ground beyond which there is no further model, structure, or text[8]. Rigorously flat and hyper-geometric, Black Square repudiates reference to the objective real world, rendering instead an isolated, empty—or framed—subjective space filled only by the artists’/viewers’ felt experience. Much like “the desert” figures as an abstract plane of uninhabited “free” space[9] in Western consciousness, here too, the pure-black square is an empty space, liberated from ideas, concepts, life. Through this process of removal, Malevich empties Black Square of external content so that the pictorial space is a recurrent reference to the self.

 

 

Alphonse Allais, Combat de Nègres dans une cave pendant la nuit” (“Negroes Fighting in a Cellar at Night”) (1897)

 

 

As a non-objective painting distinct from the lived world, Malevich’s black-square-painting is revolutionary, but not in the sense that it mobilized political or social action or reflects the unrest of a world in disarray. Despite the global context in which it first materialized, Black Square is a non-teleological, atemporal work of art, engaged in an infinite rejection of the aesthetic, political, social. Albeit the common association between the avant-garde and progress, Black Square is a fixed zero-ground that logically and structurally defies change. That it should recur in our contemporary digital landscape as a visual-symbol of solidarity approximates a crisis of visibility without meaning.

 

 

It should be noted that after recent forensic analysis, Black Square, though formally “empty”, contains a handwritten inscription beneath its uppermost layer of paint, translated as; “Battle of negroes in a dark cave.” This inscription is believed to be in reference to what is considered the first modern monochrome painting, “Combat des Negres dans une cave, pendant la nuit  (“Negroes Fighting in a Cellar at Night”) (1897) by French writer Alphonse Allais, who in turn, borrows from French playwright Paul Bilhaud’s 1882 derrogatory painting, Combat de nègres dans un tunnel (“Negroes Fighting in a Tunnel at Night”).[10]

 

 

If one were to attempt to engage in a symbolic (mis)reading of the black square as employed on June 2, 2020, based on the formal qualities it contains, within the social system it is engaged, a case for its equivalency with the external world could be made. Indeed, the desire to codify the black square as a social symbol of solidarity or revolution is readily exemplified by the language that accompanies it.

 

 

Image captions—or comments—inherent in the design of social platforms (Instagram specifically), typically are used in this environment for brief exchanges of casual icon-riddled bromides and are dissonant from the image content under which they appear. In a facsimile of social interaction, text and icon functions to affirm viewership, making bare the otherwise untraceable act of seeing-and-being-seen. Abstract and ambiguous, the black square interrupts this process of signification, given its fundamental lack of a code by which to be “read”. Its imposition in social space thereby necessitates a descriptive text, shifting the established role of the text/comment to signify what is not latent in the image itself. The author’s/account user’s text, still dissonant from the visual content, encodes a message onto what we have established is an otherwise “empty” sign:

 

 

Today, we’re participating in #BlackoutTuesday so we can listen to the voices of the Black community in the art world, and grow as an institution. We believe Black lives matter.

 

#BlackOutTuesday ✊🏽 #BlackLivesMatter

 

We grieve with the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, David McAtee, and Tony McDade—and with so many others in America’s Black communities, their stories known and untold—who have suffered appalling losses and who live in fear because of intolerable racism, abuse, violence, and injustice. #BlackOutTuesday

 

#blacklivesmatter #stoprasicm #stoprasis #blm #blackouttuesday

 

 

In this sense, repetition and recurrence reifies the black square as a collectively agreed upon visual-symbol of solidarity. However, there is no convention for symbolic meaning independent from that recurrence. Untethered from the instance of digital authorship, the ascribed meaning of the symbol is lost.

 

 

Black Square Grid, 2020, digital screenshot

 

 

This reliance on the individual account user/author to encode meaning underscores the performative aspects that the symbol has recently been criticized for, but it also underscores an intrinsic aspect of its role as a sign—which is to say, its ability to signify something. Undifferentiated from Malevich’s Black Square, the black-square-as-protest makes no connection to any extant or prior socio-political or aesthetic systems and is disparate from the objective lived world. Summarily devoid of pictorial content, the voided black square is necessarily reliant on its support, bound in origin to the individual/account user. Likewise, the imposition of the black square requires no personal action or confrontation by the individual/account user beyond an internalized or “felt” projection of meaning. In this way, the black square formally negates that which it is conceived to affirm through a total rejection of external representation—an erasure similar to the one that it seeks to protest.

 

 

In our present non-habituated physical world, visual interactions on social media constitute the closest approximation of the public self in a “public” space. Aggregate digital symbols in the form of images, words, and video footage are activated, replicated, transmuted, by the self/account user to achieve—or project—a facsimile of authenticity. Beyond the obvious issues of a mediated self, this system of infinite replication implicates the disembodied self in a perpetually unfixed state between sign and signifier.

 

 

In its negation of visual content, the duplicated black square readily attends to this conflict by pointing to the frame(s) in which it occurs. Which is to say, the operative function of the black square is not as a visual symbol of solidarity, but an empty visual referent to the self within an increasingly isolated social system. In an infinite news feed composed of black squares, what remains visually significant are the simple white headers, framing account user name(s).

 

 

Audrey Molloy is an arts writer, educator, and administrator.

 

 

[1] Marder, Michael. “The Desert Is a State of Mind Cast Over the Earth.” Cabinet, no. 63, 2017, pp. 51–52.

[2] Agyemang, Brianna, and Jamila Thomas. #TheShowMustBePaused, www.theshowmustbepaused.com/.

[3] Bois, Yve-Alain. “1915.” Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism, vol. 1, Thames and Hudson, pp. 142–146.

[4] Kumari, Neha. “Black Screen Of Death – BSOD Error in Windows 10.” Fix PC Errors, 25 Jan. 2020, www.pcerror-fix.com/how-to-fix-black-screen-of-death-in-windows.

[5] Schjeldahl, Peter. “The Prophet.” The New Yorker, June 2, 2003. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2003/06/02/the-prophet-2

[6] Bois, Yve-Alain. “1915”. 142-146

[7] Malevich, Kazimir. The Non-Objective World. Chicago: Paul Theobald and Company, 1959.

[8] Krauss, Rosalind. “Grids.” In The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, 8-22. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986.

[9] Marder, Michael. “The Desert Is a State of Mind”, 51-52.

 

[10] Shatskikh, Aleksandra. “Inscribed Vandalism: The Black Square at One Hundred.” e-flux Journal, no.85, 2017. Accessed July 16, 2020. https://www.e-flux.com/journal/85/155475/inscribed-vandalism-the-black-square-at-one-hundred/.

 

 

 

Audrey Molloy is an arts writer, educator, and administrator.