the ugly and the bad:
transmediale sadly employed the same hidden price increase method as a lot of FMCG manufacturers do these days: Same price, same packaging design, but less content. It always offends me a bit, because I feel like someone thinks I am so stupid I will not notice. Of course I will.
In the case of transmediale the shrinking of the content manifested itself by reducing 3 full days with 3-4 simultaneous program timelines (lectures, screenings, workshops) to 3 half days out of which the first two days featured only a single (!) program line plus a one hour looping video program (more than 60 % content reduction) and only the last half-day maintained a richer programming consisting of two lecture stages and one screening stage.
Furthermore, given the reduced program scope, transmediale did not only save on artist/speaker fees, but it went a step further and moved the first two days of its programme into the cellar of the building where the regular offices of the institution are located. This cellar, a large dark underground concrete cave, had a night club feeling, which would be OK for performances, concerts or dance parties, but much it was less suited for a conference-like setting. Having one large lecture hall also meant that in between lectures, the few surrounding spaces with installations and projections were overcrowded. Miles away from the light and spacious spaces of the AdK Hanseatenweg or HKW. A real down grade. For the same price.
This situation itself made me already feel a bit let down, but worse was to come.
Because of some Berlin-local art-political feud, suddenly about 30 % of the artists/speakers decided to withdraw their contributions or performances. As far as I understood, their withdrawal had nothing to do with transmediale or its management team itself. They simply wanted to make a point about something that the transmediale organization had no way of influencing, thus taking the transmediale organisation and visitors as hostages. Of course everyone is a free person and can withdraw for whatever reason. As a curator I would take it as a very personal breach of trust and put these artists on my blacklist.
By itself, this despicable behavior of some selfish artists would make me feel very sorry for the organizers, who were put on the spot and hat to scramble to fill in the holes in programming and reorganizing. And I did indeed feel sorry for them.
However, in combination with the aforementioned hidden price increase, I could not hide a bit of oh-so-German schadenfreude. If transmediale had not made such dramatic cuts to its programming, they would not end up so close to a total collapse as they did. They thought they could just cheat the audience but in their focus on the savings, they totally neglected the increased risk to the programming that they caused. And the risk materialized. And they were standing there. Petrified.
In the end, transmediale did somehow manage to carry on, they had to, but I can imagine this was a very hard time for Nora O Murchu and team. And they did their best in this situation. A situation whose foundations they partially created, probably unknowingly, even though it was not their fault.
Now that the bad and ugly is out of the way, we can turn towards
I had a great time and enjoyed many inspiring speakers and artists. Thanks to everyone who came and everyone who cared.
Winnie Soon / Rachel O’Dwyer “The Poetics of Unerasable Characters” conversation
An artist talk by Soon, presenting the artwork for which she received the Ars Electronica Prize last year: A visualization of weiboscope data, i.e. data tracing deleted posts on the Chinese messaging platform Weibo (similar to twitter). Weiboscope somehow makes the assumption, that if a tweet was deleted, it happened by the action of a censor. My main complaint would be, why the discussed artwork was not shown in transmediale but only talked about. Based on the little images in Soon’s Powerpoint (no full screen photo documentation, no video preview) I can only voice my assumption: The artwork in fact looked very solemn and minimalist. Black and white Chinese characters arranged in a grid-like shape on a projection, probably animated, accompanied by a paper printout. It looked like a rather simple visualization. And it looked like something very different than all of the colorful, sparkling, messy, 3D printed and noisy artworks presented in the transmediale exhibition. Probably the artwork would not fit in. It would probably receive embarrassingly little attention.
For me the value of the work lies in popularizing the weiboscope research project, which is a matter-of-fact political sentiment analysis of Chinese social media. What I feel ambiguous about is the China-bashing that (likely) earned the work the Ars Electronica price: An illustration of how wicked “communist” China is and as a logical extension, how great Western democracy is. In fact, if someone made a “twitterscope” and visualized all the disappearing tweets, what would that mean? Would that be considered equally wicked? Is it possible to consider every deletion documented by weiboscope as a “bad” censorship, while considering every deletion documented on the imaginary twitterscope as a “good” content moderation? The issue of censorship is not clear cut and in fact “Westerners” in their “democracies” should not pretend to be immune to it.
To focus more specifically on Soon and her project, there is another very sad, personal dimension to it. While there is a lot of talk about decolonizing and emancipation on transmediale, Soon, who is from Hong Kong, in fact replicates the typical British colonial ideology of a “red” China that was part and parcel of Hong Kong education as long as Britain ruled. It is a paradox and personal tragedy of the Hong Kong population to be stuck between an anachronism of longing for the “freedom” a colonial past and fear postcolonial “repair” of returning Hong Kong to “communist” China. It is really an impossible choice between denouncing one’s own beliefs or denouncing one’s own roots.
Overall, I guess it was this kind of ruminations that made Soon’s artwork special to me. It is most of all a thought experiment, whose seriousness is stressed by the fact that Soon puts her own skin in the game. It is not only a work about censorship in China. It is also a work about her own identity as a person from Hong Kong, looking critically towards China while never being able to completely shake of her own Chinese roots.
Noura Tafeche / Alex Quicho “She’s Evil, Most Definitively Subliminal” lecture performance
Two artists reading texts from their cellphone (Quicho) and paper (Tafeche) infront of two video collages made by the respective artists. Quicho’s video reel consisted of a selection of subliminal YouTube videos allegedly helping one to become a powerful and desired woman. Contrasting with this was Tafeche’s video loop of a much less subliminal intermingling of kawaii (cute) culture with militaristic fantasies: A use of cuteness to make warfare look “sexy”, obscuring the politics and suffering it causes. The texts read by the authors referred to the same phenomena shown in the video loops. The performance was a great introduction to the author (Quicho) and artist (Tafeche). Tafeche was also featured in the transmediale exhibition. Quicho seemed more like a writer/author than visual artist, but I might be wrong. Quicho’s expession was more ambiguous and multi-layered, I feel, it was more psychological. Tafeche’s approach was more in-your-face and visual.
Silvia Dal Dosso (Clusterduck Collective), Svitlana Matviyenko, Anna Engelhardt, Aleena Chia “Read/Unreal” conversation
The panel started off by Dal Dosso playing a video work of which part 1 was also featured in the screening program of the day. An Adam Curtis documentary-inspired AI mashup/tribute, a bit like a dream after watching too much news TV. Next was Matviyenko (Ukrainian) with a very pathetic contribution about the ongoing war. Next was Engelhardt (Russian) talking about fake videos from the Ukrainian battlefield generated in a computer war simulator… and I gave up. The Real/Unreal theme was taken too literately here. Sure we live in a mediated world and the battle field is not the same as the image of the battlefield. And? Hello?!
I used the opportunity while everyone was still listening attentively and checked out the “A box is a box is a box” video installation by Harold Lechien, Frizbee Ceramics and Gabriel Rene Franjou. The artists somehow got hold of a palette of returned goods from amazon and staged an epic re-unpacking party in their studio, all recorded on video. The re-unpacked discarded products together with the video-documentation of their unpacking and voice-over now formed a coherent whole, which was as fascinating as unpacking videos are. And of course, it was food for thought, what happens with all those free-returns crap products one buys online.
Another installation was “Uncensored Lilac” by Bassam Issa Al-Sabah and Jennifer Mehigan. It was a large scale transmediale-worthy assemblage of large size dibond cutouts with photo-realistic but 3D generated images of female body parts, intermingled with 3D prints of other body parts and other sculptural objects, all rounded up by an animated 3D video work. Unfortunately the space in front of the screen was overcrowded and I skipped the video.
Next I checked out the looping film reel. The projection room was unfortunately much less comfy than the HKW or AdK ones, here it was a bare concrete cube right next to the bar (lots of chatter sound coming in) with a few beanbags on the floor. The films were good. Anna Hawkins’ “Blue Light Blue”, a traditionally shot (16 mm) film about the “horror” of blue (smarphone screen) light. Very subtle and almost without actors, mainly with empty spaces and objects. Riar Rizaldi’s “Fossilis”, a 3D animation about e-trash. Nina Davies “Precursing”, a documentary-style video about autonomous vehicles being trained on computer-game data. Once people found out about it, they start to behave/move like computer game characters in hope that it will make them better recognizable for autonomous cars and thus prevent the cars crashing into them. Kind of upside-down world, very well produced and kind of scary because it sounded almost as if it could be true. And lastly part one of the aforementioned Silvia Dal Dosso/Clusterduck Collective work titled “The Future Ahead Will Be Weird AF (The Ultimate AI CoreCore Experience)”
A performance “洪火机构 (The Office Agency of Flash Flood and Wildfire)” by bela and Kloxii Li concluded the day. It consisted of a combination of news videos scraped of the internet of recent extreme weather events in California (fires) and South Korea (floods), a live voiceover of electronically modified voices of the two artists and a complex electronic soundtrack somewhere in the drone/ambient/metal corner. A great AV show and in some way the highlight of the day for me, something that was multi-layered, rooted in reality/media reality, but also not simply illustrating something but taking something as a material and transforming it creatively. And of course the whole impression was shaped by the perfect preparation of the two artists.
After experiencing the rather disappointing location, checking the program of the second day ahead of time and noticing a higher than usual amount of withdrawals/cancellations, I decided to skip day two in the transmediale cellar completely. Let the following screenshots from the program speak for themselves. I blanked out the names of the artists, because they do not deserve even a bit of attention.
The only event that I was a bit sorry to miss was a conversation between Rachel O’Dwyer, Georgina Voss and Alex Quicho about on-line girl economy. But in the end, the draw of this one talk was not strong enough for me to make it there. I already saw the performance of Quicho on day 1 and I expected (rightly) to see O’Dwyer and and Voss on day 3 in HKW during their twin book launch.
One last observation on day 1 and 2 which was however also valid about day 3, something that I perceived as neither good or bad, but actually quite fascinating: The whole festival seemed to have completely removed any males from the lineup. The stage was almost exclusively populated by females. And the few leftover males were relegated to subordinate roles like asking questions and flattering the main speaker (as Silvio Lorusso did) or filling in for a drama queen that decided to withdraw (as Jussi Parrika did). This was a slightly fascinating turn of things, because I of course still remember the old days when the transmediale was on the contrary exclusively populated by male nerds and profs of all ages. I felt it was a bit too extreme and too obvious, a clear example of a positive discrimination, but it actually worked surprisingly good and it also gave a different feel to the whole event.