Black box refers to a theatrical or performative space, usually a dark and square room with a horizontal and black painted floor, which was introduced in the early 20th century by Western avant-garde theatre and also became increasingly popular in the 1960s as a rehearsal space. This theatrical model can also be adapted from existing spaces, allowing for a certain flexibility from one performance to another. The lighting and stage design have been conceptualised and idealised as “neutral” precisely because of this structural and constitutive simplicity. For the same reason, it became popular with nonprofit and low-income theatre companies that aimed to reduce costs and work with basic technical arrangements while focusing on non-traditional acting techniques and uses of the body. These artists also aimed to differentiate theatre from cinema and television and its capacity to offer immediacy and build communities. Theatre directors working towards this goal and fascinated by the versatile nature of the black box theatre model also aimed to create a new relationship with the audience, often asking for their active participation, as well as a different relationship among performers on stage. In a context of intense experimentation, Jerzy Grotowski in Towards a Poor Theatre (1968) and Peter Brook in The Empty Space (1968) theorised the relationship between performers and spectators as the “essence” of theatre.
The white cube exhibition model also appeared in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century and is characterised by its squarish shape, white walls that help to reduce distraction and a main light source mostly coming from the ceiling that limits light reflections on paintings. This spatial model was introduced as a consequence of the increasing abstraction in modern art and became the global standard primarily for galleries and museums, as well as alternative spaces. Similar to the black box, it is supposed to be a “neutral” space that gives the impression of being timeless. For this reason, alongside the assumption that the white colour does not disturb the eye, has rendered the white cube both an idealised and criticised space for potentially making the reading of artwork more “objective” or problematic. Therefore, black box and white cube have a great impact on the relationship that spectators/visitors establish with the staged or exhibited artworks mainly through unspoken conventions. Both spaces can orient the attention of the audience as much as their behaviours inside these spaces: in theatre, spectators usually sit for the entire duration of the show (frontally or around the stage), whereas in museums or galleries visitors can enter and exit at any time and move around following either their interests or precise instructions by artists or curators. Theatre spaces are also governed by a single-point perspective of the viewing sitting subjects. Instead, the absence of an ideal viewing position in museums and art galleries promotes a multi-point perspective that stimulates self-directed viewing in contrast to the one traditionally imposed by the lighting and seating conventions of the theatre.
The presence of dance and performance inside museums and art galleries can produce cultural and social change by stimulating collective experiences and developing a sense of community. Dance’s move from the black box to the white cube is currently provoking radical changes in the way artists make “dance artefacts” accessible and attract new and diverse audiences.
The migration of the performing arts from the black box to the white cube, which is an increasing phenomenon noticed at an international level, requires a series of adaptations and generates a number of effects. When visitors enter a museum space for attending a dance or performance event, they are asked for a different commitment concerning the amount of time to spend inside the exhibition, what to look at and for how long. The average duration of a theatrical representation shifts from about two hours with or without intermission to a schedule linked to the daily working hours of a museum. Also, a dance performance or a choreographic work, usually inserted inside a theatre program for about a week, in the museum context is repeated for at least several months or is scheduled only for a limited time during the exhibition. Inside museums or art galleries, dance performances and choreographic works can also be presented in a loop for the entire day and/or be activated only when visitors enter the room. They can be presented as independent works or in dialogue with the surrounding artefacts of a permanent or temporary art exhibition, and as entertainment for selected occasions, such as official openings. Dance can be performed in its “final” form but also as an ongoing creative process, making the exhibition space the crossroads of production, presentation and response. Moreover, these different phases of a dance piece or a performance acquire the same value and media technology plays an important role. On the one hand, dance can continue in the absence of visitors, questioning the necessity of their presence as an essential component of the event. On the other hand, visitors are invited to actively participate in a dance piece more often than in the theatre.
The relocation of dance in museums has produced new genres that deliberately straddle different artistic languages and formats, such as dance or performance exhibitions, and choreographic or performance installations. As indicated by Claire Bishop in her Black Box, White Cube, Grey Zone: Dance Exhibitions and Audience Attention (2018), these new genres represent a “grey zone” where the black box and the white cube converge. This zone is characterised by the increasing presence of mobile devices and network technology activated by the audience. Whereas theatres still forbid the spectators to take pictures or videos during a performance, museums have recently abandoned these restrictions and, on the contrary, encourage the visitors to document the events and share their experiences via social networks. Bishop suggests that this “grey zone” is both a symptom of the virtualisation of contemporary perception and also a way to compensate for it.
Theatres keep a dance piece alive principally by maintaining it in their repertoires. Still, the growing interest shown by museums in dance and performance has raised many questions about alternative ways to preserve and transmit dance heritage. The French choreographer Boris Charmatz in his Manifesto for a Dancing Museum (2009) and the series of pieces he created for different museums, provocatively introduced the idea of dance reenactment as a way to make choreographic works of the past part of our present and to exhibit them not simply through their performance remains (objects, photographs and videos). On the one hand, museums are increasingly investing in dance and choreographic works to experiment with new exhibition formats as much as to expand and enrich their permanent collections by critically reconsidering the supposed immateriality of dance. On the other hand, many art curators are interested in presenting exhibitions that inquire about the long-standing dialogue between performing and visual arts by rethinking their intertwined historical narratives.
Barba, Eugenio (2002) Towards a Poor Theatre. Jerzy Grotowski. New York: Routledge.
Bishop, Claire (2018) Black Box, White Cube, Gray Zone: Dance Exhibitions and Audience Attention, TDR: The Drama Review 62(2), pp. 22–42. Doi: https://www.muse.jhu.edu/article/695785.
Brook, Peter (1968) The Empty Space. New York: Touchstone.
Charmatz, Boris (2009) Manifesto for a Dancing Museum. Available online: https://www.moma.org/momaorg/shared/pdfs/docs/calendar/manifesto_dancing_museum.pdf.