transmediale 2015: Why we need spaces for art and tech beyond corporate influence


Photo: "Through the Eyes of a Paratrooper: 173rd Jumps in Ukraine for Rapid Trident 2011" by U.S. Army Europe Images on flickr. © Artwork by The Laboratory of Manuel Bürger

True to its title, "Capture All," the program of this year's transmediale festival in Berlin was ambitiously panoramic, with such a marathon, round-the-clock schedule that by the last day a number of attendees had come down with the same cold. Separated into the thematic tracks of Work, Play, and Life, the events revolved around the quantification of everyday activities, mass data acquisition, algorithmic sorting of information about people and the planet, and the systems of power and control implicit in all of those processes—topics in which most of the festival's target audience is well-versed.

The majority of that audience is made up of academics, artists, cultural workers, technologists, and students. This year for the first time, tickets sold out completely; on opening night the 1,035-seater auditorium was over capacity, and throughout the five-day festival, waiting lines stretched around corners. Besides lectures and panels, the schedule included a steady stream of performances and screenings as well as ongoing workshops in the cacophonous foyer—from a six-hour workshop on feminist network methodology to four days of open meetings held by the unMonastery.

A 14-person exhibition, sharing the festival's title and curated by Daphne Dragona and Robert Sakrowski, showcased reflections on "the future of algorithmic work and life" with artists like Erica Scourti, whose video Body Scan compares images of her own body with those of a Google search algorithm, and Jennifer Lyn Morone (Inc), who created a corporation out of herself to advocate for compensation for her digital labor. Any exhibition with the keyword #algorithm is also an invitation for artists to reflect on exhibition-making itself as a potentially algorithmic process. Jonas Lund, who has long dissected and replicated the gamification of art practice, created a pre-recorded audio tour called FTFY (Fixed That For You) describing (imaginary) artworks with an algorithmic mashup of words and phrases from previous transmediale press texts. A guest exhibition down the hall, "Time and Motion: Redefining working life," produced by FACT Liverpool, shifted the emphasis onto quantified labor in the context of mass production and automation.  

transmediale Opening Night. Photo: Julian Paul.

Well-known names (assuming you go to these sorts of things) cropped up across the lecture and discussion program—McKenzie Wark, William Binney, Sarah Harrison, Metahaven, Evgeny Morozov, Benjamin Bratton, Tiziana Terranova—speakers who appear regularly on the conference circuit and know each other (or at least each other's tweets). As one speaker announced, overjoyed, in his lecture introduction: "This is like Christmas! I get to see all my friends here!"

Familiarity can breed lively and productive conversation and debate, but it also risks a known pitfall: stagnation. Reminding one of this fact, the typical meta-question "What is the point of all this talk?" periodically reared its head. During his presentation, Morozov, in keeping with his role as a polemic public figure, expressed exasperation at discursive redundancy and made a rousing call for overt political action. A more ambivalent response was more common. On a panel called "Predict & Command: Cities of Smart Control," designer and artist Tobias Revell responded hesitantly to an audience question about how to combat top-down planning, saying (according to my notes) "I don't know about what we can do from the bottom up. As far as I know, transmediale isn't full of hedge fund managers who are like, 'I wonder what's going on in the media art scene?'"

"Predict & Command: Cities of Smart Control." Photo: Katharina Träg.

While Revell went on to suggest methods of revision or resistance, the implications of the Hedge Fund Question hung in the air. Far from damning transmediale as an initiative, questions like these are absolutely necessary to keep it alive—and point, in fact, to its unique position among events of its kind as a place for experimentation without instrumentalization. For better or for worse, and with some inconsistencies, transmediale manages to sustain an annual balancing act between autonomy and hermeticism—as any platform aiming to uphold a space for critical thought has to.

transmediale is one of the oldest European events focused on interactions between digital technology and creative practice. It began in Berlin in 1988 as a small film festival called VideoFilmFest; in 1997, its name was changed to Transmedia and the following year to transmediale, an evolution indicating its broadening scope. At the start of the millennium the annual event was relocated to its current home, the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, and an exhibition was added to the live events. 2011 saw the appointment of artistic director Kristoffer Gansing, whose inclusiveness, vision, energy, and encyclopedic knowledge have in many ways characterized the programming since; that same year, the parallel CTM festival for electronic music was launched: a further trans-gression of genre boundaries.

Today, the event is both a staple in the international media arts community and in Berlin, whose population it also engages throughout the year in a roster of city-wide programming called reSource. transmediale's activities have been funded primarily since 2004 by the Kulturstiftung des Bundes (Federal Culture Foundation). This year the foundation, along with the Haus der Kulturen der Welt and the Medienboard Berlin Brandenburg supported 70% of the festival, 18% was covered by national and international foundations (like embassies, the Goethe-Institut, and the EU) and 10% came from merchandising, sponsoring, and ticket sales—for a total of around 850,000 euros.

Art Hack Day Berlin: Afterglow. Photo: transmediale 2014

These public endowments allow Gansing and his collaborators to remain relatively uncompromising in terms of who they invite. As he says: "I'm pretty pragmatic when it comes to certain things, but in terms of programming, I'm not." A few corporate toasts lightly smatter the proceedings—cheers to Audi—but branding is at a minimum. Instead, transmediale's self-branding—a hyper-hip graphic identity updated each year by Berlin-based designers at Laboratory of Manuel Bürger—plays with the visual language of corporate design.

Public funding from the nation-state is of course fettered in different ways than private sponsorship, but overall, transmediale is tethered to its roots in maker culture with the "alternative" or critical edge that entails. Gansing doesn't prevaricate. "I have realized that you get more attention from 'power players,' so to speak, if you need them, by doing radical content than by trying to have a meet-up." To illustrate, he describes a clash of interests that happened at last year's festival: at the same time that Laura Poitras, Trevor Paglen, and Jacob Appelbaum were giving a keynote at the HKW, "Vice President John Kerry, one of the most outspoken Snowden critics, was visiting the American Embassy in Berlin—which is one of our investors on a small scale." A balancing act, indeed.

For comparison's sake, take the development of another of Europe's oldest and best-known new media art festivals: Ars Electronica in Linz, which dates back to 1979 and has had a very different and also very successful trajectory. In 1995 Ars Electronica was incorporated as a limited company, and in 1996 it opened the now well-oiled Futurelab program—a team of artists and researchers with a "unique hybrid research model…which allows them to take prototypes developed from artistic projects and apply perfected solutions to industry projects, or vice versa." FutureLab has explicit goals based around that verb "apply": innovation, product development, and revenue—the latter of which contributes to the festival budget, which is just over a million euros. Profits from FutureLab, in conjunction with private partnerships and ticket sales, have led Ars Electronica to yield "a larger surplus every year," in the words of pleased Linz Mayor Klaus Luger—in 2013, 60% of Ars Electronica GmbH (the umbralla company responsible for all projects) revenue was self-financed. Over time and through its shifting model, Ars Electronica has come to epitomize a collaborative approach across the arts, technology, industry, and society—also aiming for autonomy, but in this case via self-sufficiency.

Internet Yami-ichi (Internet Black Market). Photo: Cristina Ara / transmediale

And closing the collaborative circle, culture-science-nation-corporation reaches ultimate fusion at the DLD (Digital-Life-Design) conference held annually in Munich since 2005. DLD is a mega two-day event described by founder Hubert Burda Media as an "innovation platform"—indicating both its positive startup rhetoric and its goal to actively produce change through new ideas and products. The upcoming 2015 conference in May, themed "It's Only the Beginning" (striking a neat contrast with transmediale's 2014 title, "Afterglow: The Revolution is Over"), brings together chief executives, government ministers, investors, start-up managers, artists, designers, and innovators from around the globe.

Though corporate collaboration probably does imply a forward-looking approach reliant on some notion of technological progress, it would be simplistic and naïve to suggest that criticality is compromised in direct proportion to the amount of private funding a project receives. Collaboration is not the same as cooption, and even the most ivory tower purist would have to admit that the "untainted cultural production" implied by that sort of continuum is a (rather cringeworthy) myth. The point of these comparisons is not to make some sort of value judgment on how to run a festival. Instead, it's to do the following:

First, to ask whether "trans," in the sense of cutting across sectors with fundamentally different perspectives, may have shifted meaning in the last decade or so. Rather than indicate cross-collaboration between artists and philosophers, for instance, "trans" disciplinarity in the way it is often used now refers to public-private partnership—which might in turn suggest a gelling of "culture" into its own kind of conglomerate.

Second, to consider the usefulness of a distinction between "goal-oriented" platforms in which a potentially commodifiable outcome is necessary or expected, and platforms where the goal is to provide a space without a predefined goal. Do the necessary compromises one has to make in order to run anything in a bureaucratic society mutate the critical space to such an extent that it might as well define a target?

To think further on the second point, one could throw back to last year’s transmediale. This entailed a goal-oriented event called Art Hack Day—a meeting of over 80 of artists and hackers who were given 48 sleepless hours in the HKW to come up with novel collaborative hacks. The event, though well attended, was criticized by many—including invitee Constant Dullaart, who wrote an open letter explaining his reasons for not attending. He argued that, rather than hyperspeed artistic production, today "we desperately need art that deals with contemporary cultural issues relating to technology and media that has had a chance to ripen outside of this techie neoliberal pressure cooker format."

Time and Motion: Redefining Working Life | Exhibition Hall © Paco Neumann

Another issue was that the artists and hackers were expected in this context to hack for free. Participants received neither the compensation that would be expected in an industry setting, nor the time for criticality and contemplation afforded within the cultural sphere. Goal-oriented but not goal-rewarded: "Wonderful during a Google job interview, or Facebook Hackathon perhaps," said Dullaart, "but I could not get it to rhyme with my belief in art."

The art-hack experiment and its ensuing controversy were entirely productive in that they led to a reconsideration of the role of the art exhibition within transmediale’s other proceedings, and of the role of transmediale in general. If it is to preserve an autonomous space for criticality without dependence on specific kinds of production (apps, social movements, revenue), transmediale also has to resist the lifestyle mandates that come with those production models, and to stick to its philosophy that a space without tangible results is not necessarily a space without agency. It’s worth noting in this vein that the idea of activity as a means to its own end, rather than as a means to a functional or ideological end, is the role that has been historically ascribed to art.

So how does an independent space resist instrumentalizating discourse while managing still to engage systems of power? Gansing has a convincing, if somewhat circular answer. "That's not a valid question, unless you think that the power is only held by people who hold the money. But then, why are you at transmediale in the first place?"

Screenshot of sick selfie by @lvpw viewed on iOS smartphone.