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a model, a map, a fiction: transmediale Festival Draws and Disseminates the Digital Art World

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This year I had the opportunity to attend transmediale, an annual festival dedicated to explorations of media (or postdigital) artworks that takes place in and through Berlin primarily over five days. I say primarily because, when taken with its partner programs CTM Festival and Vorspiel.Berlin, it becomes over two weeks of installations, workshops, talks, performances, interventions, and club parties scattered throughout the city. This year’s principal location was at the Akademie der Künste, Hanseantenweg, with a satellite exhibition in Silent Green, Kulturequartier. 

This being my first visit, I found the scale and programming of the combined schedules almost as overwhelming as the gravity with which they were discussed in the panels. Perhaps this is appropriate as their 36th edition, titled “a model, a map, a fiction” focuses on the exploration of scale in the digital realm and how these digital technologies likewise influence our understanding of scale through expanding and contracting of economics, rights, personal relations, and beliefs.

This somewhat extended then into how, after two years of virtual spaces, the festival might find ways to bring people back together into a singular space. A thematic example given by one curator referenced the 2022 parading of Queen Elizabeth through London as a hologram of her younger self, (due to the physical inability of her older self to attend) and how the farce of the virtual was still successful in bringing together people in the physical.

The artworks on display might all be defined as technologically speculative but ran a range from past and present critiques to future possibilities (the term speculative comes up all too regularly in such spheres). Techno-utopianisms were not the theme here, and one would certainly be hard-pressed to find anything from the technology-is-neutral crowd, but overall, the works addressed the complications of digital futures with a certain levity. Entering the main SALON of the exhibit one encounters Niël Beloufa’s “Host B trying to reach out to Its audience” and its attempts to interact with and direct viewers through influences of reality TV and political propaganda.

 

"Host B trying to reach out to Its audience,” Niël Beloufa
“COAN - control and occupy nature," Marc Lee

Other works, such as Marc Lee’s “COAN – control and occupy nature” went the direction of contemplating a future in which synthetic biology allowed greater control of the multiple residents of our ecosystems. Using a smart phone touch-screen interface, participants could navigate through a virtual ecosystem, selecting animals, plants, and fungi to see information on the given species, and choose whether or not to optimize it and watch the environmental ramifications of each optimization.

It brings to mind something I see through much of the speculative media art, wherein a “but should we?” is implied, but never direct—although I also understand this would be difficult to implement in an open-ended interactive work such as this. Continuing with critiques of the technological influence on landscape, this time through considerations of the present, are works such as Elisa Balmaceda’s “Líneas de poder ***//*** Powerlines” in which Andean energetic ritual practices are compared to the resource intensive, privatized, and extractive views of energy economies.

“Líneas de poder ***//*** Powerlines,” Elisa Balmaceda
“Líneas de poder ***//*** Powerlines,” Elisa Balmaceda (detail)

Among the larger and more amusing installations was a paired screening of Unnecessary Journeys by Alan Butler with duckrabbit.tv by Simon C. Niquille–both taking place on a wide curved projection screen. The first presents crisis-as-entertainment through the classic newscaster-in-extreme-weather reporting, rendered as 3d simulation on a stage modeled after Yosemite Park.

Barely audible through a raging storm is the newscaster’s screamed reporting which is, in reality, the John Muir journal My First Summer in Sierra (1911). Contrasted with this “anxiety-porn” is the periodic, calm, and light-hearted Duckrabbit in its state of ambiguous levity. The titular character, modeled after the 1892 illustration by Joseph Jastrow, inhabits its own 3d composite world in which questions of reality are built through their multiple technological replications. Duckrabbit itself is to be the protagonist of an upcoming animated show in which it navigates the social and technological pressures of its queer coming-of-age story.

 

"Unnecessary Journeys," Alan Butler
"duckrabbit.tv ," Simon C. Niquille
"Out of Scale," as projected by the in-venue security camera

Aesthetically, many works relied on game engines such as Unreal or Unity. On several levels, this makes sense. It allows, by design, creation of interactive spaces such as those of Marc Lee’s “COAN.” One can use them in connection with photogrammetry to show impossible/creative perspectives of physical space, as in “Strata,” an interactive hybrid performance and encyclopedic documentary by Hannah Jayanti and Alexander Porter.

The artists provided the opportunity to explore complex topics in the style of a game, as did Bahar Noorizadeh’s “Teslaism: Economics at the End of the End of the Future.In Noorizadeh’s game—designed in response to the new, controversial Berlin GigafactoryElon Musk dialogues with his self-driving car/lover. (While I believe the last thing anyone needs is to hear more thoughts from or about Musk, I mostly enjoyed this work in relation to the first night’s party at Berghain, a club which famously claimed to have turned him away at the door last April). Of course there are several other reasons for the use of game engines, but I occasionally find myself weary of the aesthetic, even at media arts festivals, and gravitating towards those works using digital in other contexts.

Beyond the installed works were a series of performances and interventions. One such, Nina Davies’ “Bionic Step,” takes the ritualistic aspects of social media dance challenges to suggest potential evolution into traditional dances of the future. Along with Leah Marojević and Michelle Cheung, she performed before ring lights and cell phones to a thumping dance track. Such a view of future tradition does not seem particularly unrealistic given how many memetic online dances have become common. Even moves from MMORPGs such as Fortnight have shifted to IRL meat-space. Realistically, it might be considered that every traditional dance only became so through a certain memesis, only now one technologically driven.

 

How an Image Matters
"Planetary Portals: Diamond Power"

The second main portion of the exhibition, at Silent Green, was explicitly titled Out of Scale and specifically attempted to draw people out of the gallery context and into the physical and virtual spaces of Berlin. Produced as a model of the distribution warehouses that have taken over much of the city’s real estate, it featured a collection of artworks in which interactions with aspects of Berlin’s marketplaces (real and virtual) could be used to obtain the artwork merchandise presented.

Some, such as USB sticks, could be purchased through select Spätkauf convenience stores. Others required finding them in the zu verschenken section of Ebay Kleinanzeigen (roughly the ebay-owned version of the free section of Craigslist). In many of these cases, to obtain the free item, one had to complete small tasks such as researching a piece of history—as in Ekwe Bilé’s “Chainz“—or write a poem. Others were distributed around metro stations of the U-bahn. At any rate, it might be questioned how deep these engagements with such corporate capitalist endeavors bring one to understand a city, but that may have been the point.

“Chainz,” Ekwe Bilé

While the artworks themselves had a spirit of play in their speculative future ways, the panels as well as some of the events (some of which overlapped) tended towards a greater gravity that was mostly only hinted at in the presented works. The opening keynote lecture and discussion, “Nuclear Cyberwar: Speeds and Vectors of Energy Terrorism” (focusing on the topic of the Russian aggression in the Ukraine) certainly set the tone for many of the later panels many of which focused on the wide array of colonialist effects of technoscience on the world at large.

Among those that crossed paths with the concerns of Baltimore and its history. How an Image Matters traced lines from the 1900s attempts at defining criminality through facial blending through to the modern implementations of AI predictive military first-strike interventions built on long-term aerial surveillance. Specifically, Anthony Downy explains how AI misidentified a journalist’s daily walking habits through “pattern of life” analysis to order a drone strike on his home. Given Baltimore’s own history with spy blimps, Cessnas, FBI drones, and the constant stream of military-designed tools for use in civilian policing, it’s certainly worth considering the dangerous convergence of surveillance and predictive threat analysis.

In Planetary Portals: Diamond Power four performers read a script beside an Unreal Engine generated abstract film. They trace the history of Cecil Rhodes exploitation of the African continent and peoples to London segregation to the modern day laying of interseas cables by transnational tech corporations to provide network infrastructure to allow those now in Africa the opportunity to classify images to help further build AI infrastructure. Oft repeated through the piece are references to grids of red lines used to divide the continent. One does not need to look hard to see relations with Baltimore’s history of red-lining. 

The program featured a limited film selection. Among these (and keeping with with the prior mention of game engine visual design) Anna Engelhardt and Mark Cinkevich’s “Onset traces the lines between Russian takeovers of air bases within Crimea (2014), Syria (2015) and Belarus (2020) using those lines to draw a sigil as it merges demonology and possession to explore these aggressions. The occult metaphor works in part due to the occulted nature of the military intelligence on these operations and the uses of online public tools to access and uncover them. In a different direction were works such as the offering by Sungsil Ryu which confronts the neoliberalist influences on indigenous Korean culture through her Cherry Jang series in which the named persona instructs viewers on how to become first class model citizens.  

While the events program, especially when including the CTM Festival, was far too vast to cover here, I should at least mention “Millions of Experiences (Huge if True”) performances by Jennifer Walshe and Jon Leidecker (aka Wobbly). Beyond regular collaborations with Matmos, their first night performance included Owen Gardner (of Horse Lords) among the host of alumni of Baltimore’s High Zero / Red Room experimental music tendrils. It seemed fitting, then, with trasmediale’s theme of scale (and CTM’s theme of portals), that such events can make the art world feel incredibly small and through such connections of distance.

 

Onset
"La Orejona Records," Nicole L’Huillier
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