Transmediale: Festival for Art & Digital Culture

Transmediale: Festival for Art & Digital Culture
February 3–7, 2016

From Skype duets to an artist shaking hands with one thousand people and then tak­ing “Microbiome Selfies” of the germs on his hands, from a performance of a flying drone to a brief history of the air-raid siren, from angst about maker culture being co-opted to complaints about the creeping complicity of the sharing economy with neoliberalism, Transmediale is an annual five-day festival in Berlin that approaches digital art, technology, and culture from a mind-bogglingly diverse panoply of conceptual, theoretical, and disci­plinary starting points.

The twenty-ninth festival kicked off the first evening with the zany and delectably strange Superschool: Conversation Starter, a lecture-performance that attempted to transform an internet chat room into a per­formance. With an anything goes, off-kil­ter intelligentsia’s game show feel, complete with a gong and three “experts” seen only as dark silhouettes behind a screen, the per­formance centered around a cyborg-like man in a half stupor reciting fruitless Wikipedia searches in a drone-like computerized voice, as well as boisterous interventions from planted audience members.

Brooding, portentous, and imbued with a claustrophobic feeling of enclosure, Sophie Hoyle’s memorable video essay Anxious to Secure (2016) added a foreboding ten­or to the “Inner Security” panel, a discus­sion of security politics within the digital age. Moderated by Theresa Züger, the pan­el began with Martin Hartmann’s discussion of different typologies of trust within polit­ical philosophy and the pressure that clas­sical notions of trust are put under in the age of ubiquitous surveillance. It conclud­ed with Hoyle’s video essay comprised of a stream of hard-hitting, even damning, pro­nouncements about the prevalence of anxiety disorders and psychiatry as a tool of biopo­litical control, woven into a larger context of the complicity of the American Psychiatric Association in the War on Terror’s use of torture, and a citing of Giorgio Agamben’s theory of the “state of exception” to justi­fy extrajudicial killings in the United States. Ridden with a bleak, indefatigable suspi­cion of the nefarious motives of various in­stitutions (government, psychiatry, military) and with periodic intertitles such as “Inner Security: Anxiety from the Interpersonal to the Geopolitical,” “Interpersonal Security and Technology,” and “Geopolitical Security and the Discourse of Crisis,” Hoyle’s video gave a stunning indictment of the contradiction of the US intervening in Iraq and Afghanistan to putatively uphold international law on human rights violations, while simultaneously us­ing interrogation methods defined as torture under international law. Reading almost like a manifesto with dense nuggets of texts, the video statements by themselves might have come across as plodding or monolithic were it not for the beguiling seventeen-minute ac­companying audio collage consisting of a pulsating, grinding doppler-like wave sound, a helicopter sound, a metallic clanging, and an anxious, gasping breathing.

On a jauntier note, with the requisite perky enthusiasm of aerobics instructors, complete with headbands and sweatsuits to match, visual artist Liat Berdugo and cho­reographer/dancer Phoebe Osborne held an aerobics class in which the aerobic exercis­es replicated movements we make with our hands while navigating iPhones, iPods, and mobile devices in their lecture-performance Unpatentable Multitouch Aerobics (2015–present). With a class of fifty participants clad in aerobics gear, Berdugo and Osborne began with such an impeccable personifi­cation of the bubbly “can-do” aerobics in­structor, I found myself curious to see if this persona was meant ironically (it was). After forty-five minutes of aerobics, the group sat in a circle and began talking about the af­fective dimensions and notions of intimacy embedded in the new gestural lexicons en­gendered by our use of mobile devices. The term “unpatentable” is an ironic reference to the fact that Apple is suing Samsung for pat­ent infringement for its multitouch gestures, with Berdugo commenting on her website that each time we swipe, scroll, and pinch to zoom on our handheld devices, we are in fact leasing our movements from Apple. Unpatentable Multitouch Aerobics was im­portant in that it is so seldom one sees ac­knowledged the threshold we have crossed: that our “staples” now—the iPhones, Instagram, social media, etc., around which our communication, news gathering, sched­ules, personas, and lives revolve—are things we could not have imagined ten or fifteen years ago. If one thinks about society before and after the invention of the telephone, be­fore and after the invention of the automo­bile, the refrigerator, or the airplane—one could say the wholesale move from the ana­logue to the digital/mobile coupled with the ubiquity of social media is a tidal change of commensurable magnitude. Yet one sees people blithely jumping on the bandwagon of these changes with alacrity, very seldom re­flecting upon or pondering them.

For the third year in a row, Transmediale grappled with the ramifications of National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations of state se­crets. It began with the panel “Tacit Futures #1: Building Snowden Archives” and culmi­nated in a ten-hour workshop the next day that was a clearinghouse for various players in the post-Snowden “freedom of information” scene—journalists, hacktivists, information activists—to cross-pollinate ideas about how to make use of the Snowden revelations. The starting point for discussions was provided by the pioneering archivists and project groups working with the Snowden archives, many of which were gathered in one room for the first time: the Snowden Document Search from the Courage Foundation, the Snowden Digital Surveillance Archive, the Snowden Archive-in-a-Box, and Cryptome.

This gathering was a continuation of a now two-year-old “Commoning Movement,” revolving around the online journal Berliner Gazette and organized by its founder, Krystian Woznicki, and his col­leagues, which seeks to take the Snowden archives out of the privatized domain of jour­nalist Glenn Greenwald and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, and put them into the public domain. It was at the “Snowden Files for All?” panel in November 2014 at the Slow Politics Berliner Gazette conference that Geert Lovink, founder of the Institute of Network Cultures, first voiced his distrust of journalists as being inimical to the proj­ect of “commoning the archives.” This dis­trust of what some information activists view as the self-interested tendencies of journal­ists to hoard the Snowden NSA revelations in a “digital enclosure” was echoed by mem­bers of the New York City-based organi­zation Cryptome, speakers at this year’s Transmediale Snowden panel and workshop. A forerunner of WikiLeaks, Cryptome has hosted a whistleblower website for leaked intelligence documents since 1996. The two founders of Cryptome—artist Deborah Natsios and architect John Young—gave a withering indictment of how the Snowden archives have been monopolized by the me­dia in an interview on RebootFM during the Transmediale Festival with Pit Schultz (au­thor of The Producer as Power User [2006] and founder of

Referring to how Snowden gave Greenwald and Poitras sole access to the NSA cables, Natsios said,

It is a serious conflict of interest; they [Poitras and Greenwald] have written them­selves into the story, as heroes of the story. They are not at a distance from their source; they have embedded themselves in the nar­rative. And therefore all decisions are highly suspect because they benefit from the out­come of the narrative in every sense. Their approach has been un-democratic and ex­tremely proprietary. They jealously hang onto this collection in an entitled way, that is now embedded in their careers, their prizes, their awards, their personae, their growing celebri­ty in the culture, and now museum shows.

Of course, no Transmediale festival would be complete without the appearance of Jacob Appelbaum, hacktivist and former member of WikiLeaks. And indeed, Appelbaum present­ed Autonomy Cube, a collaboration with visual artist Trevor Paglen wherein a Tor relay (i.e. a global network of thousands of volunteer-run servers, relays, and services designed to an­onymize data in order to render one untrace­able on the web) was embedded inside a sleek cube-like sculpture, thereby wedding the min­imalist legacy of sentient objects confronting spectators as embodied entities with the “dark web,” as elaborated by architect-theorist Keller Easterling. The fact that we now see “Tor sculptures” is emblematic in that Tor, once firmly in the realm of techie esoteria and barely known to the public, has in the last several years evolved into the “pop star of pri­vacy-protection tools.”1 Easterling expanded upon Appelbaum’s evangelist praise for Tor in her talk on the Autonomy Cube.

Cryptome’s skepticism toward what they see as journalists’ and filmmakers’ exploita­tion of whistleblowers/hackers was echoed again by someone in the audience in the “Let’s Talk About Whistleblowing!” panel. During the question-answer session, an audience member asked, “Now that all the journalists/filmmakers have exploited the Snowden ar­chive, post-fame, post-Oscar, when is the public finally going to have access to the Snowden files?” To this, Appelbaum said, very deliberately, “I agree.” However, there was dissensus on this point, as two of the other four panelists—Annegret Falter, for­mer chairperson of Whistleblower-Netzwerk, and Wolfgang Kaleck, Snowden’s lawyer—dis­agreed that the Snowden archives should be thrown into the public domain. The oft-cited reason for their objection is the claim that the cables in raw form would be incomprehen­sible to the public and require a “mediator.” Appelbaum called for a wholesale “delegiti­mization of the culture of secrecy” and pro­vocatively advocated for a scenario in which whistleblowing would be considered a mod­erate option, not an extreme option. He called for more extreme actions (such as out­right sabotage of a corporation) to be the norm, thereby rendering whistleblowing a “middle of the road” route.

Perhaps the greatest strength of the Transmediale festival, and what renders it unique compared to other festivals of a sim­ilar nature, is its complete lack of tech­no-fetishism. I am accustomed to festivals of “digital art and technology” being ridden with a mindless infatuation with buzzing, whirring, shiny gadgetry with high produc­tion value but rarely any ingenious grasp of conceptual issues underpinning technology, where a puerile fascination with slick tech­nology replaces actual ideas. On the contrary, Transmediale is deeply immersed in situat­ing technology at the crossroads of vital so­ciopolitical issues, crises, and polemics that have reverberations outside the realm of art and technology. At Transmediale, technology and digital culture are often mere jumping-off points to delve into larger social or an­thropological issues. Standout examples this year included Eyal Weizman’s explosive pre­sentation of a project by the Goldsmiths, University of London–based Forensic Architecture, which refutes denials of the Israeli military about attacking unarmed Palestinian civilians by digitally recreating sites of conflict and amassing “counter-fo­rensic” evidence; Hito Steyerl’s exploration of pareidolia (an illusion in which people per­ceive meaning, patterns, or forms in random phenomena) around her analysis of drone strikes; Telekommunisten’s “” app that helps people detect how “white” they are and whether they qualify to be a “white savior”; Peng Collective’s call for civ­il disobedience in helping undocumented refugees cross European borders; and Eric Kluitenberg’s theorization of how the archive can be responsive to temporary media-activ­ist interventions or “tactical media.” Another great strength of the festival is the sheer ebullience of its eclecticism—where vari­ous dense subcultures are put into dialogue with one another and where high-rolling “art stars” (Steyerl, Weizman, Easterling) can rub elbows with Chaos Communication Congress information activists or merry pranksters like Geheimagentur, who are attempting to oc­cupy the port of Hamburg. Whereas in the US, these subcultures are largely balkanized, where one would have to attend a separate conference for each subculture—Maker Faire for the hacker artists, Dorkbot for the elec­tronic sound artists, College Art Association for the famous art critics, 16 Beaver Studio for the dense theoretical discussion, and NCOR (National Conference on Organized Resistance) for the hard-core activists—at Transmediale, all the subcultures are thrown together in a delightfully unpredictable digital art and culture bouillabaisse.

Andrea Liu is a New York City–based critic and cu­rator/director of the Counterhegemony: Art in a Social Context Fellowship Program (CAC Vilnius), who is currently completing a project titled “What Can Foucault Offer Feminism?” as a researcher in resi­dence at Goldsmiths WAL (Womens’ Art Library).

NOTE 1. Stilgherrian, “Tor’s Feral Fans Are Its Own Worst Enemy,” ZDNet, November 21, 2014,

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