Featured image: ‘Promised Land’ design of transmediale 2k+12
Everything is not connected was the title of one of the talks organised as part of the in/compatible symposium at transmediale 2k+12 (2012), precisely the keynote speech of Graham Harman for the section titled systems. But this year’s programme of transmediale was all about connectedness, or I’d better say, about a curatorial structure of connectedness and subtle linkage.
The festival’s format was one of visual and conceptual reminders, and this became evident at the very beginning and during the opening ceremony, in the auditorium of the the Haus der Kulturen on the 31st January.
At the moment of opening a power point presentation, the new artistic director Kristoffer Gansing seemed to experience a technical problem as his file would not open. A technical assistant was then called on stage to fix it, and while we all giggled and looked at each other thinking that this was somewhat like a paradox for a festival devoted to the exploration of art, technology and media culture, we soon realised that the dooming technical failure was a pretext for one of the Prepared Desktop performances by glitch-artist jon.satrom.
Thus, from the very start, we experienced what Gansing often defined as a festival which “is an incompatible being”, suggesting that the 25th edition of transmediale would be different, perhaps more oriented to a multidirectional engagement with its audience and, surely, aimed at making us aware of how much technology is intrinsically part of our everyday lives – physically, mentally and also politically. It seems that Gansing had worked towards making us feel like explorers in order to experience what he described in his curatorial statement as the “in/compatible moment”, the “moment of stasis” resulting from the clash between things that were supposed to flow and converge peacefully within a system. That unforeseeable clash generated by an incompatibility which, according to him, is to be seen (and perhaps also sensed) as a moment full of potentials, as a gap which allows a new rearrangement of the elements of a given system – be it artistic, social, economic or political.
This ‘curatorial tactic’ marked the rich programme of transmediale 2012, which spanned from exhibitions to academic research networks, from online artistic interventions to talks and live performances – worth a mention is also the overall design of the festival’s contextual material, called the Promised Land design theme, which with its retro digital-pop aesthetic  seemed to have been devised to reinforce the idea of the clash, the tensions at work within the notion of technological convergence (“the myth” of contemporary society), starting from the very aesthetics of it.
The connectedness I mentioned above is very tangible when looking back at the main themes discussed at the in/compatible symposium – which was divided into three thematic segments:
systems, publics and aesthetics – in that they could be found as extensions across the whole programme, which in turn was developed across six sections:
1- the exhibition Dark Drives. Uneasy Energies in Technological Times curated by Jacob Lillemose
2- The Ghost in the Machine performance programme curated by Sandra Nauman
3- the video programme Satellite Stories curated by Marcel Schwierin
4- 25 Years, a series of events, amongst which talks and video screenings, about “areas of conflict between old and new” that were devised to mark the 25th anniversary of the festival
5- Featured Projects, a series of special parallel projects, such as web-based and site-specific
6- last but not least, the new addition of reSource for transmedial culture, an “interface between the cultural production of art festivals and collaborative networks of art and technology, hacktivism and politics” presented as a series of ongoing events (workshops, discussions, lectures and performative interventions) curated by Tatiana Bazzichelli.
Taking a step back to look at the overall thematic framework of the festival before digging into the specifics of each programme, what should be emphasised is the effort that was made to strengthen the transdisciplinary nature of the festival as a whole. In fact, each section of the programme inserted itself into the wider discourse of cultural production; putting a stress on how deeply technology is intertwined with the every day while looking at the relationship between art and technology from a socio-economic and political perspective that was permeated by an historical orientation. And the latter is precisely what makes this 25th edition different from those I had experienced before.
Gainsing’s perspective – as it was often stated by his collaborators throughout the festival – is that of a media archeologist; and in this sense he occupies a specific place in the media theory-scape of the city of Berlin, which houses the Institute for Time Based Media (Berlin University of Arts) where Siegfried Zielinski is the Chair of Media Theory. As many might know, Zielinski is the theorist who coined the term (or better still, founded the field of) media archaeology with his book Deep Time of the Media (MIT Press, 2002). I would then say that the methodological approach of the artistic director, as well as that of the four festival’s curators, was the one which looks at a present “linked to a past pointing at a possible future”, adopting a perspective that is different and finds “something new in the old” rather than seeking “the old in the new” (quotes from Zielinski, 2002). This is probably the reason of the festival’s holistic character, of the existence of critical and aesthetic linkage between the various panel discussions and performances, research projects and art installations.
This year’s symposium, across three different but converging angles, looked at the tension between functionality and disruption in order to address how the gap existing between the two has been (and could be) “productively used” by artists, as well as by society at large, in relation to available technology – mostly digital and web-related.
The strong connection existing between all panels – grouped under systems, chaired by Christopher Salter; publics, chaired by Krystian Woznicki; aesthetics, chaired by Rosa Menkman– was given by the historical approach of their explorations into the present. Their positions were those according to which it is not technology that impacts society, but it is almost the reversal: it is society – and artists – who, with their behaviours and actions, transform it, generating a new language and new possibilities within established systems, or failing systems. One way to embrace this type of perspective was described by Graham Harman in his keynote speech: it is through differentiating “between background and foreground” and bringing the latter “into consideration”, through accepting obsolescence as something inherent to the state of the technological thing and through embracing the fact that mediums change, that new ways of thinking and understanding reality can be established.
In this regard, the in/compatible aesthetics panels brought about interesting paradoxes in relation to media archeology and technological historicism, such as the necessity to move away from nostalgia for the past and avoid what could perhaps be termed as techno-romanticism. Through a series of panels, spanning from Uncorporated Subversion. Tactics, Glitches, Archeologies to Unstable and Vernacular. Vulgar and Trivial Articulations of Networked Communication, this section of the symposium presented a variegated array of artistic and research practices (from artist Olia Lialina to media theorist Jussi Parikka) that are concerned with establishing methods for challenging given systems, their codes and protocols, in order to establish new languages and modes of operation. All of them presented different artistic scenarios embedded in current socio-cultural frameworks, stressing the fact that “cultural history is shaped by users more than its inventors” (quote from artist and programmer Dragan Espenschied‘s presentation during the Unstable and Vernacular panel).
The publics section dealt with “forms of activism and social resistance” that emerge from incompatibility with the economic-political systems. In the instance of the Norifumi Ogawa in his talk Social Media in Disaster, during which he gave a very detailed insight into the “productive and effective” uses of social media during the recent Japanese earthquake and the consequent accidents at the Fukushima’s nuclear plant.
According to the exhibition curator Jacob Lillemose, Dark Drives “explores the idea that uneasy energies exist in technological times” and offers “a thematic reading and an historical mapping of the last fifty years, expressing a critical attitude to existing phenomena as well as exploring possibilities of reinvention”. And it does so with “no promise of overcoming” them (quotes from Lillemose’s curatorial statement).
In fact, the exhibition included works by 36 artists spanning different cultural fields as well as periods. The inclusions ranged from Ant Farm’s Media Burn, Chris Burden’s Doorway to Heaven and William S. Burroughs/Antony Balch’s The Cut-Ups (late 60s and 70s) to Art 404’s 5 Million Dollars 1 Terabyte, Constant Dullaart’s Re: Deep Water Horizon (HEALED) and jon.sotrom’s QTzrk (2010/2011), all while moving through the practices of artists attached to the net.art movement, such as Heath Bunting’s Skint – The Internet Beggar and JODI – the latter with a new light installation, LED PH16/1R1G1B, dated 2011–. Included were also works produced in the 80s by music bands like SPK with their Information Overload Unit. Not only, but the show also presented works which are usually not associated with the conventional art circuit, such as the TV programme Web Warriors produced by Christopher Zimmer (2008) and the music video Come to Daddy by Chris Cunningham/Aphex Twin (1997), along with, as a reversal, old(er) media-oriented work, such as the series of computer prints Leaves by Sture Johannesson, which can be read as early pieces of conceptual art.
This condensed list is to say that the amount of artistic and cultural material on display in the exhibition and the trajectories that it opened were broad to such an extent that Dark Drives functioned more as a general narrative survey than a show with a clear proposition. It was a survey of how uneasy energies might materialise as consequences of the modes and methods in which technology is used and understood, with no much distinction drawn between technology in electronic, computational or digital times.
Dark Drives did not aim to address further its initial statement, nor to narrow down the kind of relationships (and their reasons) between historical instances and contemporary ones; and from my perspective this was its flaw. However, this is the kind of exhibition that a festival like transmediale eventually needed, because to my knowledge this sort of display and curatorial approach had not been presented before: an exhibition which finally embraced the inclusion, with no hierarchies or differentiation in terms of choices of display, of works conventionally shown in gallery spaces along with those traditionally related to (ahem) the still-existing ‘niche of new-media experts’.
Dark Drives might not be a very daring exhibition if placed outside the context of a media art festival like transmediale, but it is certainly almost subversive in this context, and in comparison with its precedents. The exhibition installation was clever and atmospheric and, as it was for the festival’s format, it was dotted by visual and aesthetic reminders. I’ll give you an example amongst many and various ones that you could have spotted in the show: formulas by Peter Luining (2005), which is a video about manipulating a screen-grabbed image in Photoshop till it becomes a black screen, was shown just a work before jon.sotrom’s Qtzrk (2011), another video based on the process of image deformation – in this case through the use of QuickTime 7; the latter, was, in turn, shown just another work before Heath Bunting’s Skint – The Internet Beggar (1996), a website that operates as a service through exploiting the potentials offered by the network system. The three works all adopted the framework of computer desktop as a display platform for their artistic interventions, but also as a production space. And although each artist’s agenda and research area were different, their proximity made these distinguishing elements more evident, highlighting various ways of activating modes of production that diverge from those of the system within which these artists operate.
Similarly to what I have just described, it was Dark Drives as a whole that guided the visitor all the way through its display towards specific thematic directions, which were suggested by the installation in conjunction with the many visual and aesthetic links. But simultaneously, the visitor would also be free to follow the other and many trajectories arising from the content of each specific work, and this flexibility made the exhibition an attractive narrative territory ready to be employed for further explorations.
This section of the programme has been devised as an ongoing project by curator and researcher reSource is an initiative that started before transmediale festival with the gathering of an international network of PhD researchers for a conference and workshop held at the University of Arts in Berlin last November. The outcome of this collaborative network was launched on the second day of the festival, in the form of a research newspaper titled World of the News – Thank you & Goodbye . This newspaper operates as a platform in which an array of researcher, most of whom practising artists, presented a series of essays and interviews looking at the “unresolved questions and paradoxes of media technology” and how they might impact (and redefine) not only artistic production but also research processes and academic conventions, such as peer-review systems or the definition of what is currently accepted as ‘proper research’ within the academia.
World of the News gathers a very well-thought through research material, and it does challenge academic formats, bringing forth the necessity (and preciousness) of collaboration and dialogues across disciplines, forms and formats.
The above is only one of the activities that were part of reSource; in fact, its programme was divided into five different sub-themes, Methods, Activism, Networks, Markets and Sex, each of which ranged from panels to presentations and workshops.
One of the proposed panel was titled Coded Cultures – Sub-Curatorship Beyond Media Arts and drew on a previous event organised by the group 5uper.net in Vienna, Coded Culture: The City as Interface (2011). Although aimed at addressing questions about curatorship and media art festivals, thus the public sphere, I wonder why curatorship as a practice within the field of new media and, supposedly within what was termed as “beyond new media art”, were not discussed more in depth, especially given the changes that transmediale exhibition itself proposed. If Joasia Krysa presented her specific approach to curating as a system that is informed by technology and thus embraces its inherent systems, like software codes and protocols of Internet and digital technology, in order to change the hierarchy of power; the other invited curators seemed to lack a depth in the discourse. The whole panel unfortunately stranded in general statements such as “technology changes the role of the curator” or “the curator does not want to define itself as a curator anymore, but as a coordinator and a producer”; a cliched conversation that – opportunely – ended with Krysa throwing on the table of discussion Christine Paul’s definition of “curator as filter feeder”.
Many other were the events presented at transmediale, such as the visually stunning, and purely analogue, performance of Joshua Light Show for the The Ghost in the Machine performance programme . At different times during the week of the festival Joshua Light Show performed with different musicians, such as the one man band Oneohtrix Point Never, bringing to light the beauty and magic that old(er) media can (still) give to a public of a “transmedial” festival.
As a final round-up, it is also to be noticed that in/compatible embraced slightly more extensively the sphere of online production and distribution, specifically in conjunction with the 25 Years, Satellite Stories and Featured Projects programmes.
If when browsing the transmediale website you experience some strange episodes, such as pages merging into each other when scrolling up and down, that is because of a site-specific intervention by Danja Vasiliev and Gottfried Haider – the developers of a Content Manipulation System called HOTGLUE which allows to construct websites directly in a web-browser.
Also as part of 25 Years there was a video installation <collaborative documenting / archiving on netart.activities> initiated by artist Constant Dullart and art historian and artist Robert Sakrowski. The duo had devised an open database system which employes YouTube as a repository for net.art projects. This project tackles issues related to hardware and software obsolescence in relation to the (often impossible) access to early net.art projects, and proposes a way of archiving them by filming an ‘audience-in-action’ during the browsing; a strategy which is also useful for tracking users’ behaviours and thus highlight the changes brought about by technological development. Dullart and Sakrowski also led a workshop at the transmediale headquarter, as well as presenting their work during the panel discussion web.video the new net.art?.
As a last mention, the video programme Satellite Stories was launched at the opening night with Screening Re-enactment Videospiegl, a looped video screening which connected the present of the festival with its history, its archive. In fact the festival first opened in 1988 as VideoFilmFest, and the Videospiegl selection of early videos is now accessible on transmediale website; hopefully marking the start of an archive which will be online and for all.
The online activity described here is certainly not enough for a festival like transmediale, which should investigate thoroughly the relationship between art festivals, artistic production and online distribution; but at least it seems a start for what is a much needed new exploration to be carried out by the organisers.
There is one more issue that I feel was only and often superficially addressed by this edition of transmediale. There were many mentions, in theory, of capitalism and its ramificated systems, such as the closeness of network systems which before were open and the consequent failure of techno-utopian ideals. However, there was little evidence of this in the artworks on display, nor in the site-specific installations presented. I don’t support the idea that artists should be literally political, or activists, but when I experienced jon.satrom’s performance at the opening, it came across as a sort of exercise in showing what can be done through bending technology to generate new languages and approaches to that which is established. In a way it reminded me again that we often operate within boxes, and rarely attempt to challenge the form and format of what is given to us. But then, most of us already know this. And although in/compatible as a festival did not want to give answers but generate a context for formulating questions, as Gainsing specified in his presentation, I felt the need of a next step, a step made of actions, which to me was only fully present in the reSource programme of Tatiana Bazzichelli. When I rethink of jon.sotrom’s performance, and I am very aware I am using him as an example to point to a larger scenario (my apologies to the artist!), I cannot refrain from thinking that the system he was challenging was that of an Apple Macintosh software, built on visual tricks like Spaces, Mission Control, etc; a system that perhaps needs to be challenged at a deeper level since, for instance, its reliance on the exploitation of developing countries workers?
This is just a final thought.
That said, I am really looking forward to seeing how transmediale will move forward, will it take the next step from this initial change?. It will be interesting to see how this merging of historical perspectives, academic research and artistic innovation will stir up more conversations and, as I said, more actions for another exploration of the relationship between contemporary cultural production, media and technology.
Please note: since the richness of the programme, I have highlighted my personal experience of the festival, so that this review highly reflects the choices I made about what to attend and what I (unfortunately) left out from my jammed daily schedule.