Report From Transmediale.04: Fly Utopia!

Report From Transmediale.04: Fly Utopia!
1/31/04 - 2/4/04
Haus Der Culturen Der Welt, Berlin

By Jonah Brucker-Cohen (jonah(at)

In the backdrop of a snowy Berlin skyline, Transmediale.04 opened
with a hefty line-up of theorists, performers, artists, and
practitioners. Billed as the second largest media arts festival in
Europe (next to Ars Electronica), the event featured award categories
of Software, Interaction, and Image, and showcased a wide assortment
of themes ranging from locative mobile media to social fictions to
speculative programming and MIDI scrap-yard workshops. This year's
theme was "Fly Utopia," perhaps a reaction to the idealistic vision
of technology as a harbinger of the promised land of connected
toasters and robot butlers. Instead of exhibiting nicely "packaged"
products or projects, the festival aimed to add accountability to
practice by focusing on social and political movements that question
the status quo. Whether these themes were embodied in art objects or
a way of thinking seemed less important than the overall message:
creativity breeds disruption.

The opening ceremony discussions began with the idea of "utopia" as
coined by Thomas Moore, specifying an ideal commonwealth whose
inhabitants live under perfect conditions. Some participants argued
that technology has augmented this definition, especially with the
use and dissemination of the Internet, where the concept of "place"
has lost meaning as a fixed location. This discussion generated
questions throughout the festival, such as how historical visions of
the future, especially those of technology, have kept us questioning
our fate.

Beginning with the theme of bio-technological utopia, several
projects and lectures presented a future consisting of everything
from human-grown organs to planned and assisted ritualistic death.
Designer Fiona Raby's (RCA) former students presented their work
within the context of "Immortality," a sub-section of a larger
inquiry entitled "Consuming Monsters." Specific projects included the
"Toy Communicator," a telematic device to allow people to talk to
their pets when they are away. Another piece, "Planned Death,"
consisted of a kit for committing suicide when one reaches a state of
physical perfection. All of these future products were on display in
the Transmediale exhibition space as wary reminders of the future of
our imperfection. Along similar lines was Shilpa Gupta's "Your
Kidney Supermarket," an installation commenting on a bleak future of
organ trading across national borders, consisting of several dozen
kidneys in a hypothetical showroom. Despite its lack of noticeable
technology, the project displayed how close we have come to
commodification of anything (including human organs). Another
interesting lecture was about constructing the national identity of
the principality of SeaLand (, a sovereign island
micro nation situated in international waters, 6 miles from the coast
of Britain. This identity overhaul included designing stamps with
pictures of corporate scandals and failed political regimes, and
coins made to look like writeable CD media.

One of the most heated conference debates occurred after Andreas
Broegger's talk "From Art as Software to Software as Art." This
presentation featured details of two influential art interventions
from the 1970's: Jack Burnham's "Software" show at the Jewish Museum
in NYC and the magazine "Radical Software." Broegger's aim was to
show how a shift in attention has occurred away from simply taking
art objects at face value and towards examining the processes and
ideas they instill and execute. Arguments were vented that the
1970's show was trying to appropriate a definition of the term
"software" while today's "software art" is more about utilizing and
positioning the software as an art object unto itself. In this
regard, the Radical Software magazine can be seen as distilling
cultural processes into information processes as a type of software
creation. I tend to think that today's software art has an interest
in not only what it represents as executable code, but also in how
people use and experience it in their everyday lives. Since software
was not a pervasive technology in the 70's, this question of defining
the term existed as artistic experiments and conceptual models of
what the future of technology might hold. Today a glitchy network
protocol can be called art, whereas the 1970's birthed the idea that
computational technology could be re-purposed for artistic
interventions in the first place.

Moving into mobile space, the MobiloTopia panel featured artists
working with location-based or "locative" media. Marc Tuters opened
the discussion with an overview of the "Locative Media Lab," a
dispersed network of practitioners focusing on the creative practice
and use of portable, context-aware technologies. His talk featured a
breakdown of the cultural theory and representative images of future
utopias as envisioned from the past. Ben Russell followed by
offering an overview of current systems for location tracking and
surveillance. He presented a case for creating localized street
level sharing systems, where for instance, people would be able to
use their neighbors' garden equipment if they knew it was available
on a shared map. This idea would certainly work in a utopian version
of the world, but may not be likely in today's ultra paranoid,
terrorist-alert police state. Drew Hemment of FutureSonic spoke
about how locative media feeds into emergent art practice; whereby
navigating real space is the impetus for the work (think GPS
drawing). Finally, Teri Rueb showed documentation of her "Trace"
project, an interactive, location-aware sound installation where
hiking in a forest recalled sounds clips that commemorated personal

The award presentations for image, interaction, and software
consisted of short talks by the nominated artists. In the image
category, Julien Maire's "DEMI-PAS" was a remarkable projection
system featuring interchangeable slides, each with tiny motorized
dioramas. Everyday, repetitive scenes were depicted, including a man
washing his car or smoke blowing from a factory, but their
intricacies were precise and beautiful. In the interactive category,
Simon Schiessl's "Haptic Opposition" won over the judges with a
simple motorized LED text display that responded to user aggression
by becoming more anxious and nervous during repeated interaction. I
was a bit surprised that Schiessl seemed more impressed by the
technology of the piece rather than its social potential for
interface design. Finally, the software art presentation of Robert
Luxemburg's "The Conceptual Crisis of Private Property as a Crisis in
Practice" was premised on the idea of a screen shot that, when run
through a PHP script, would be transformed into the full text of Neal
Stephenson's "Cryptonomicon." Although the concept of decryption of
proprietary file formats is not new (take DeCSS for example), the
idea that one file could be masked within the binary data of another
begins to get scary.

For a festival themed on questioning the future, there existed almost
a fearful reluctance to discuss what might happen if we ever reach
utopia. There might be bio-products in our food, computer-predicted
life experiences, and organ superstores on every corner, but what
will happen to society in general? Will a resistance form? Will
technology eventually catch up with us and deter our fetishistic
instincts? Forget living! Is utopia something worth dying for? Does
anyone care? As the festival closed, a central question remained
stuck in my mind: If creativity is our salvation, why does the dream
of utopia always seem to cloud its potential? Most of the projects
shown at Transmediale seemed to grapple with the idea that technology
can produce beauty through simplicity. This was also evident with
most of the invited speakers, who spoke of utopia within a defined
context rather than masked jargon. Overall, the festival offered a
taste of both questioning and embracing the road ahead, and it
promises to be even more inspirational next year.

Jonah Brucker-Cohen (jonah(at)


, ryan griffis

The utopia theme seems to be everywhere… or it's one
of those things where i see something a few times and
start connecting everything to it…
The Venice Biennale's Utopia Station curated by: Molly
Nesbit, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Rirkrit Tiravanija
the "community" category for AE (though it doesn't use
the word 'utopia' it is certainly implied)
and i saw a lecture and presentation by Nils Norman
just the other day on his work and the impossibility
of utopia (though his examples could become
conservative defences of the status-quo)
it seems like i've seen more, but that's all i can
recall off the top of my head.
anyway, it's an interesting cultural direction given
all that's going on.
it also seems interesting that all the utopianisms
seem associated with notions of 'interconnectivity'
and 'automation' derived from the development of new
protocols with nostalgic ideals - back to Galloway's

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