The enigmatic Berlin always represents the perfect scenario when it comes to art. A city crowded with artist facing the existential question of economic growth. Growth and speculation that could inevitably swipe off the initial conditions that enabled the artistic revolution in the past two decades. This week Berlin hosted the 15th edition of Transmediale, a key event in the global art landscape. This year’s theme is Afterglow.
The festival aims to artistically address the global dilemmas of e-waste, Internet freedom, geopolitical surveillance, digital currency and biogenetics through five days of lectures, exhibitions, panels, discussions, hackathon and music events. Here is what I’ll cover in this article:
The welcoming speech by Transmediale’s artistic director Kristoffer Gansing, followed by a fascinating lecture by Bruce Sterling present the afterglow theme as a diagnosis of the post-digital reality in which our once unquestioned enthusiasm for glossy high-tech seems to have been replaced by a cold ambivalence.
After the Revolution(s): Internet freedom and the post-digital twilight
The cleverly composed panel discussed how the original concepts of freedom and openness have been disintegrated in the present Internet. Hacker and political activist Frank Rieger, government advisor Olof Ehrencrona, artist Geraldine Juarez and internet historian Ramsus Fleischer discuss how, who and more importantly if, the internet should be regulated.
Art as Evidence
The large-3 keynotes illustrated different artistic frontiers of action in the present context of geopolitical surveillance and control. In chronological order we had artist, photographer and geographer Trevor Paglen, security analyst often defined as “the most dangerous man on the cyberspace” Jacob Appelbaum and fantastic filmmaker Laura Poitras.
Beautiful 0s and ugly 1s. On the complexity and poetics of the digital.
The discussion rotates upon the dichotomy of the digital and physical world. The tension between these two worlds is dissected by bright journalist and artist James Bridle (wearable futures) and new media professor Olia Lialina. A series of spot on examples demonstrating the continuous eruption of the physical in the digital and vice versa.
The Media of the Earth: Geologies of Flesh and the Earth
The panel reflects on the effects of electronic and synthetic waste at a geological and biological level. At times depressing, the talks question the consequences of technological progress from a social, geological and scientific perspective. Moral survival of the audience that is skillfully saved by the intelligent and ingenious biohacker and professor Denisa Kera.
Restricted Networks: Strategies of Survival After Uprising
From Syria to Palestine revolutions and uprising seems to be increasingly interconnected with the digital world, for the good or the bad. A panel composed by Syrian activist Miriyam Auoragh, Turkish theorist Ebru Yetiskin and RCA graduate Philip Ronnenberg discusses and analyzes alternative strategies and scenarios.
Transmediale starts with a full on, non-translated, 15 minutes German speech by Bernd Schrerer that left the many foreigners attending the event pondering about the intellectual and artistic properties of their fingernails.
Attention promptly re-secured by the stimulating discourse of Kristoffer Gansing. A speech introducing the creative framework upon which the 2014 edition is built. The global changing context of digital culture where digital is not anymore detached from the physical, it is an integral part. A reality where e-waste is something concrete as much as biogenetics and mass surveillance. A post-digital reality that sees artist finding inspiration form this wasted instances. Increasing attempts to resist googlification and repulsion towards the digital are the characteristic symptoms of the Afterglow. A world where the artistic practice combines representative and speculative power against the increasingly invasive digital capitalism attacking Internet’s original freedom.
Bruce Sterling is an incredibly funny American science-fiction author; he is also famous to be amongst the founders of the cyberpunk movement. He held the welcoming speech with such ease and personality, managing to mitigate the rather depressing issues discussed. The cultural twilight covered with bits of digital toxic rubbish is just an aspect of what he calls the utopian Internet. He claims how, “…the gold rush has finished in rubbish, it is time to build alternative computational system away from titanic enterprise, imposed upon us. Is time for the artists to rebuild the slum.” He stresses how we have to stop living on the skin of other people, starting now- clearly referring to African and Chinese community affected by western tech run.
The animated discussion about freedom of the internet clearly demonstrated the incredible confusion characterizing the present cyberspace. A condition that sees the ever-present clash between bottom-up realities and despotic institutional strive for control. While people like Rieger continuously try to influence politics through acting in an attempt to “reclaim the original decentralized nature of the internet” in the form of hacking. On the other side, Olof Ehrencrona representative of the Swedish government argues for the global commission on internet governance through a project named our internet.
Rasmus Fleischer held an interesting point in regards when he laments a lack of unemployed hackers to reinvent the internet. He claims how the 2.0 revolution was the result of a troop of hackers left without a job by the .com bubble of the early 2000s. These hackers had free time to experiment and finally reinvented the web as we know it today. In his view, these hackers are all employed at the moment rendering even more difficult to change the current status of the Internet.
Geraldine Juarez on the other hand describes what she calls the “Net freedom wash” and whether the theme of Transmediale should be adapted to “post-democracy”. She asserts how the more digitalized our society becomes, the less democracy we will have. She concludes by affirming “…our internet in not about cats and chats it is about monster governing our streams of information.”
Given the international fame of its keynote, Art as Evidence was by large the most crowded panel so far.
Trevor Paglen is defined as photographer, artist and geographer. However, to me he looks more like a secret agent constantly uncovering unimaginable secrets withhold by governments. Secret prisons, CIA offices, bomb testing areas, secret surveillance satellites as well as secret flights are all part of his detective art portfolio. He often uses telescopes in his works to get as far as 48 miles in order to document secrecy. He uses his art as a conscious forms of transgression to help reveal secrecy, which is everywhere according to him. His work often fades in abstraction speculating over the limits of technology. He also enjoys collecting ridiculous badges worn by special military department
I first appreciated the skills and knowledge of Jacob Appelbaum at the chaos communication conference. He has an incredible curriculum as an hacker and had access to Snowden’s top secret document that revolutionized our view of the Internet a few months ago. He considers leaked documents a form of found art and gave the audience an overview of some files. He explains how, after reading the NSA files, “what seemed some sort of a nasty, impossible dystopia suddenly became reality.” He showed USB, ethernet cables, keyboards, screens, portable continuous wave, and a series of other everyday object NSA hacked to spy on hackers and activist of course as well as normal people around the planet. In his view everyday objects have now been weaponized and turned back against the public. He also shows a series of truly beautiful pictures of friends (Assange) taken with an infrared film, originally developed by the military during Second World War.
American documentary film director and producer Laura Poiras is the girl behind the camera filming Edward Snowden while he uncovered NSA highly secret documents on the mass surveillance conducted over the past decade. This interview is only the tip of the iceberg representing her impressive career spent documenting the violence executed by the US government in the post 9/11 to Arab citizens. She first showed an emotional clip from Oh Say You Can See about people gathering in ground zero few days after the disaster. Then, she started to document the war on terror conducted by the US military with the consequent tragic implications for civilians. The Oath is the direct result of this interest that started a trilogy of documentaries on the war on terror.
Professor Lialina started the keynote with a true reflection on the limits of our vocabulary when it comes to the cyberspace. The same vocabulary used in the physical world is adopted to describe digital instances that would probably need a radically new set of words. She then carries on reflecting on the obsession of the digital with paper as an entity.
Paper found in the terms used, like webpage, or in the A sizes carried on from the physical world and most importantly for her research to be found in the thousands of tiny icon illustrating the “flickering”- manifestation of the digital nostalgia of the physical world. She then shows a series of peculiar research projects, user’s right is a fun example
I had already heard James Bridle, last December as part of wearable futures, but he seems to always be able to bring a new light on key issues through empirical research and on-ground investigation. He showed his own interpretation of the interrelationship between digital and physical with the project Iraq War Wikihistography, a work that saw him printing seven books to contain the whole history of changes made to the Iraq War file on Wikipedia. Once made physical the books were then obviously re-digitalized and uploaded online as a picture. When is not wondering on Wikipedia, Bridle seems to be obsessed by drone to the extent that he started the dronestagram drawing attention to the elusive nature of an object of which the only traces left seems to be a series of photographs. He also loves to draw drones in specific site around the planet. As part of his critic of drone activity he sent a formal freedom of information request to the London Police asking whether or not drone had been used during the Olympic games. This developed into one-year long legal fight with the MET Police that eventually refused to provide the public information requested.
After two keynotes by Sean Cubbit and Jussy Parrika denoting the reckless destruction of geologic bodies in search for minerals needed for our technological devices the stage was thankfully taken over by professor and researcher Denisa Kera.
She argues for the development of hardware for the democratization of science with successful examples like OpenPCR machine that allow normal people to detect, sequence and synthesize DNA. She then goes on describing the different successful example of hackeria.org, a space where people get the chance to experiment with tools and technique otherwise confined to the lab environment. She also introduces the somehow extravagant genius of Onyx Ashanty and his crazy experiments.
To conclude, she argued against the somehow ambiguous nature of the recent conflict-free mineral trend. Examples like the Fairphone or the new Intel conflict-free processor she claim either fail to provide a detailed list of collaboration to back up their claims or consist of an elitist group of people automatically cutting off smaller business. She concludes stating that innovation is usually followed by revolution and finally redemption which is what conflict-free minerals are for. This to my eyes looks very much like what Slavoj Zizek meant in this beautifully sketched video.
The panel was an interesting insight on the mechanisms rotating around revolutions in the middle-east as well as a bit of wild German speculative fiction. Auoragh and Yetiskin explained the role of media, surveillance and governments during the Arab Spring. Surprisingly, in strong contrast with European view, they claim the ambivalent relationship with social media and Internet made the rebels feel both empowered and unsafe. People using pigeons to communicate are an example of the impossibility of internet freedom and the confirmation of a cyber warfare during revolutionary times.
Philip Ronnenberg is the typical RCA graduate, with speculative design backed up by solid research and development. His Post Cyber War series is a collection of possible alternative infrastructure existing outside of common networks. He devised the Open Positioning System, a GPS system independent from the satellites or Google that allows you to find your location based on the triangulation of the seismic activity produced by generators in power plants. The project is still at an embryonic stage but is very promising in my view. The Sewer Cloud project gained the audience total attention and most wild imagination. The system is speculating on the possibility of a future sewage system able to store data in the DNA of organic matter such as Algae and fungi. Somehow interesting also the Social Teletex Network project that uses analogue television broadcasting to provide a wireless communication.
In conclusion, I would like to emphasize the importance of festivals like Transmediale, an event with a strong coherent theme rather than the same mere showcase of advertising trends. The festival represents a clear statement of real concern on current social and environmental issues from the international artistic community. It also created a stage for critical discussion and reflection amongst the public. Hundreds of artists and thinkers confronting and questioning currents modes of production and technological advancements that are often the direct cause of global distress.