Berlin, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, January 31 – February 3, 2019, http://transmediale.de
At HKW visitors were welcomed by a pinkish illumination both on the outside and inside of the building. It felt like a butchers shop display. Inside the air smelled a bit funky. The combination of architectural shapes, color and smell brought forth another association, that of entering the interior of a huge vagina. I am guessing all of this ambient design, rounded up by ladies with plastic horns walking around, should be credited to #purplenoise’s “ᕦ(⩾﹏⩽)ᕥ Opting out Is Not an Option!” intervention? The color and the smell stayed the same for the duration of the festival, the ladies with plastic horns disappeared after day 1.
The opening lecture by festival director Kristoffer Gansing and guests was already in full swing when I arrived and the hall was so full, and I did not manage to squeeze in anymore. But the time was just right to pop in to the screening hall where Emanuel Almborg’s “The Nth Degree” movie was starting. The theatre-performance-documentary combination investigated the social conditions and individual psychological motives that lead people to protest and riot. While interesting in its concept, it became a bit repetitive and boring after about 15 minutes, and after 30 minutes the continuous theatrical shouting of the actors was unbearable.
Next step: “Fascia 18100619013” performance by Marija Bozinovska Jones. This was taking place in the “exhibition hall” (from the old days when transmediale still contained an exhibition, now replaced by performances). Content: Text to voice robotic voices, video projections of microscope views of cells and microorganisms coupled with spectacular laser projections, and a lady dressed in white with a smartphone strapped to her neck. Supposedly about “quantification, datafication, self-optimization and artificial intelligence”. In fact, I enjoyed it. Great visuals, reasonably good sound, just the lady could have worn some more fun costume and worked a bit harder on her choreography. Anyway, it completely satisfied my “new media art festival” opening performance expectations.
To round the day up, there was the CryptoRave (I remember we did algoraves in the old days). I prepared for this by selling my available computer time in exchange for a cryptorave bag, a plastic bag containing an orange traffic visibility vest, a light stick, black face mask, lollipop and other useful stuff. I danced with this props on. A bit ridiculous, but also playful, and somehow, why not, let’s have some fun, and it made me think a little about cryptocurrencies. Fun was also to see how the organizers printed out QR codes on a paper sheet and used that for manually checking cryptorave bag eligibility. I wonder if we will have paper cryptocurrency bills one day.
Creating Commons: Affects, Collectives, Aesthetics (Panel Discussion)
The underlying premise of the panel was finding ways to use affect to create commons. Jeremy Gilbert (besides other roles active as a DJ) started off with the first presentation: Joyous affect, the feeling of being able to experience and do something together is more important for collective action than negative stimulation via oppression. It is not oppression and exertion of power that makes people act collectively for/against something. That is just one possible reason. The necessary starting point is a feeling of commonality and potentiality. (I’d call it “social affordance”, he called it “affect”.) Interesting (but old news) point: Dark aggressive music does not make people more revolutionary or prone to riot (similar argument like there is no need to explain oppression to the oppressed).
Next was Gary Hall, an academic (adjective) academic (noun). He is, besides other achievements, the Open Humanities Press founder. He talked about open access academic publishing. I did get the relationship to commons (creating publics) but I did not get the relationship towards affect… clever guy but why was he on this panel?
Third in the row was Laurence Rassel making a promotional speech about the art school she is directing and what it does mean to be a director of an institution… a slightly out-of-place performance of self-centered indulgence, and pointless to listen to.
Overall a panel with a promising start and some great insights by Gilbert. Later the panel degenerated into a blabbering about stuff only the panelists themselves cared about. Pity.
Reworking the Brain (Panel Discussion)
First Hyphen-Labs presented their critical design practice, especially the project Neurospeculative Afrofeminism where they created a VR reconstruction of a hairdresser saloon through where one could get one’s neurons done. Through this work they attempted to raise issues of race and gender inequality… or something like that. They were young, ambitious and playful in their seriousness. It was a fun presentation.
Tony D Sampson came from a very different angle. He presented a very well structured walkthrough of how affect theory entered the world of commercial user interface cum user experience design, where the shift from “interface” to “experience” terminology exactly represents the shift that occurred in the theories underlying this field. His slides stuffed with references were close to impossible to absorb in the full speed of his presentation, but even grasping bits and pieces was rewarding. Sampson, radiating competence, made me curious about his writing and I’m looking forward to check out some of it, probably starting with “The Assemblage Brain: Sense Making in Neuroculture” that, according to panel moderator Ryan Bishop was a close reference used by Hyphen-Labs in their practice.
Thus, even though the two presentations were very disparate, they were linked by the same underlying interest that drove on one hand a practice-based creative endeavor and on the other hand a theoretical inquiry. Audience questions rounded up the discussion. The interesting ones pointed towards the absent but assumed subject in UX design: Can the “experience” exist without a specific user? Or does, as Hyphen-Labs suggested, the standardized user matter, because it is always an assumed user with a certain gender, race, education etc.? The panel opened up questions in the minds of the audience.
Software Garden (Performance by Rory Pilgrim, Casper-Malte Augusta and Robyn Haddon)
In the beginning I approached the performance a bit skeptically, but over its duration, it managed to surprise me again and again with its twists and turns. Even though I cannot pinpoint the exact “aboutness”, it was emotionally touching. It was less “about” something and more an experience transmitted directly from the performers to the audience. In this sense, Software Garden was probably one of the most concrete examples in the whole transmediale of “Affective Infrastructures” that some other presenters (see below) struggled to verbalize. Formally, it was a multimedia theatre performance with remote performers, videoart, live music, singing, dancing acting, and and and… an explosion of emotions, culminating in everyone (who wanted) dancing together to the “Don’t Leave Me” song dedicated to the performer-poet (an old lady) participating via Skype. It did not get hung up on fetishizing technology, but naturally incorporated it and put interpersonal relations at the forefront, emphasizing human agency, even in an interaction with a robot. The performance was sugar-sticky-sweet, but somehow I did not mind, I enjoyed.
Affective Infrastructures Discussion
What should have been a presentation of workshop results was… I am not sure what.
The first hour was spent listening to a pre-recorded text snippet in Portugese and English presenting some feminist manifesto, a lady talking about how she bumped into gay men having sex while searching for mushrooms (“fungal fuck culture”), another lady reading a marked up text from Raymond Williams, and another lady giving a breathing meditation exercise.
I escaped to the “Land on Earth” screening program. Dorine van Meel’s video was visually stunning and beautiful in its black and red wireframe style, the voiceover did not speak to me that much, something about nation state. The keywords were masses/quantities, state control, infrastructure. Adelita Husni-Bey’s environmental tarot-reading felt embarrassing and boring both visually and verbally, reiterating the eco-ideology staples. Stephanie Lagarde’s juxtaposition of acrobatic flight rehearsals and a crowd control software simulator footage was chilling and intriguing. Overall half-half. The films did indeed question (as the synopsis suggested), but I did not see any new vision (as the synopsis suggested).
After the screening I wanted to give a second chance to the Affective Infrastructures discussion. Upon entering the room I was welcomed by a reiteration of the story about smut cruising practices from the mushroom-seeking lady, followed by another lady lying in the lap of Femke Snelting (the moderator) and rather inconsistently and unsuccessfully attempting to construct sentences out of keywords like affect, infrastructure, feelings, black, oppressed, body, etc. interspersed with a lot of “eh”, “ah” and “um”. I escaped again, for good.
As every day, I was late again. I just managed to catch the tail of the screening program: Graeme Arnfield’s Sitting in Darkness that was formally about mysterious sounds coming from the sky, but actually much more about the way how fears and beliefs spread across video sharing platforms.
I concluded my transmediale adventure by attending the discussion panel Affects Ex-Machina: Unboxing Social Data Algorithms.
Ariana Dongus moderated the panel investigating algorithms that make choices on behalf of social media users. Facebook would be very happy to see that the panelists treated its name as a synonym for social media as a whole, and generally the attention it managed to attract.
Caroline Sinders took on a subjective viewpoint. She presented a rehash of Brecht/Benjamin’s old lament that a photo of a weapon factory tells nothing about the inner and socioeconomic relations embedded within it. This core idea was pimped up by using a contemporary buzzword jargon of artificial intelligence, image recognition and sentiment analysis techniques. To further elicit the audience’s emotional response, she anchored her presentation in a personally linked narrative by showing family photographs documenting the destruction of her relative’s homes by hurricane Katrina. Nice presentation. But I wonder, if even a human cannot “read” the sentiment out of photograph, how can she even expect an AI algorithm to do so?
Claudio Agosti (tracking.exposed) was more sober and practical. His presentation was a case study of research into the “black box” of Facebook algorithms and how they curate individual user’s newsfeeds. It was informative, not very surprising to me, but probably the appropriate amount of information for the average person in the audience. I wondered if it is even worth it to spend so much time on researching Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm, as it is always an ex-post analysis, always behind the reality of the attention harvesting business. But I guess it is still useful work, better to know late who manipulated our last elections than never. Even though the topic was serious and technical, Agosti was a funny presenter and made the audience laugh a few times.
Nayantara Ranganathan presented a localized version of another Facebook issue, the hidden symbolic messages encoded within images that are very hard to identify as promoting violence and hate. She went through some examples from India, explained the cultural background, but I somehow missed the conclusion. She seemed a bit nervous in her presentation, but earnest in her concern.
I found it interesting, how Facebook succeeded in recuperating all criticism directed at it. While some time ago people would be talking about quitting FB and developing alternatives, now, these three researchers’ livelihoods were based on “researching” Facebook algorithms as if it were some new biological species whose behavioral patterns needs to be mapped and understood. As Agosti mentioned, the justification of doing so was based in the political reality: While youngsters might move on to the next new fashionable platform, their parents and grandparents who were taught by them to use FB, will likely stick to it, stay within the filter bubbles created by it, and keep voting for political parties based on its influence, so it is worth paying attention to FB. That is how the argument goes.
After this panel, it was time to head back to the airport. Transmediale was frustrating at times. Nevertheless, I realized that if one is trying to experiment and come up with new ideas, it is inevitable that the ideas are unclear and imprecise at first. It was also very unique to have a space without obvious corporate sponsors from the media industry, and be able to talk about the media industry in self-defined and not imposed terms. A lot of the talks expressed concerns about the affective space that is increasingly taken over by corporate entities that lead their voice to whoever bids the most in the attention market. The attention harvesting is largely enabled through digitalization, and characterized by polarization that is in fact a result of monopolistic political actors (“left”, “right”) bidding for attention resources via social media. Talking in seemingly incoherent terms, expressing one’s emotions beyond pre-programmed smiley face icons, talking about care etc. does not always fit into the binary framework. It was not always pleasant to encounter thoughts that are alien to one’s own mental framework. Nevertheless it is a necessary step in any attempt to break out of it. It takes courage to experiment, failures are inevitable and part of the game. Thought experiments are not exempt from this.