Through the viewfinder of Jamie Allen and David Gaulthier's Critical Infrastructure project at transmediale, 2014
Through the viewfinder of Jamie Allen and David Gaulthier's Critical Infrastructure project at transmediale, 2014

TRANSMEDIALE - Day One


19 February 2014

Storyteller & Technologist Natalie Kane is currently attending Transmediale, a digital arts festival in Berlin. Here’s her notes on the opening ceremony of the festival, with presentations by Bruce Sterling and artist Jamie Allen.

Haus der Kulteren Welt
Haus der Kulteren Welt

This year transmediale is concerned with debris, the afterglow of technology, and what to do with all of the rubbish. What we make of the things we leave behind, and what light we can obtain from the dusk, allows us to make sense of the leftovers to come.

The festival was opened by Haus der Kulteren der Welt’s director Bernd Scherer, unfortunately my german is terrible, so rather than a horrendous translation, I’ll let you discover Bernd’s opening remarks for yourself when the videos are released online.

Following Scherer, co-curator of this year’s festival Kristoffer Gansing suggested that in a world of big data ‘trash’, art has always been the field devoted to finding the treasures among the rubbish. Introducing the themes of this year’s transmediale, Gansing warned us not to ignore the rubbish that piles up. Technological trash, and waste products, are seen as marginal asides that have a lot to say about what’s going on, as explained by Gansing – ‘We can’t hide in the overflow of data anymore, as big algorithms are taking dumpster diving to new levels.’ This year’s programme offers a strong critical approach to media culture and technology, where artistic approach is becoming ‘deeply marked by the ambiguity of the post-digital moment, the afterglow.’ We are losing the traces of the digital, forgetting about the debris that is being left everywhere, we need to find ways to make it tangible again.

One of the installations set up at HKW over the festival is David Gaulthier and Jamie Allen’s Critical Infrastructure project, a series of surveyor tools where various datasets are collected from the festival, from social networking sites, the air and ground, to the wider world, as well as enabling us to see data through a series of high magnification lenses.

We can measure everything, says Allen, and they’re going to get as much as they can over the next few days. Everything we do, as audience members at transmediale, will be quantified, and will contribute to the project, our data ‘matters’ over this festival. So what to do with it, what are the correlations? Do moisture levels affect the seismic impact at the bar? The point we start to extract meaning in correlations was presented by Allen through a series of infographics, in which a correlation between the quality of rock music, and the scarcity of oil was presented, without context or meaning, just as interpreted data. There were gasps in the audience, and then laughter.

Speaking to fellow audience member, Stephen Fortune (who’ll be speaking on Sunday), afterwards, we’ve always known data collection and scientific method as a critical issue – who determines the metrics, what is important and who decides? Can we ever have a constant when the context is always changing? Where is there comfort in being able to visualise and interpret data, regardless of its ability to tell us anything? As explored by Allen in his work, though perhaps not clearly in his presentation, was that correlation and affect are not necessarily equal; if you have enough data, eventually a decontextualised argument will appear.

Bruce Sterling’s talk opened with a picture of Bruce’s personal debris, a photo from the last decade or so. How we interpret our own afterglow, in context to what has gone before, is important.

Bruce spoke on the importance of understanding that there was no ‘glow period’ in the first place, it has always been about repurposing rubbish, being the ‘arty scavengers of hardware that we couldn’t afford, abusing devices that we could never create ourselves.’ There was never a time when we liked having to make do, ‘making things from other things that we don’t control.’ Referencing John Perry Barlow’s declaration for the independence of cyberspace as a sign of protest, rather than ‘naive rhapsody’, Bruce Sterling explained how pressure from corporations and governments has always existed, it’s just that the hidden, secret, systems are becoming more publicly visible. It a comment that divided opinion within the Transmediale audience, Bruce argued that corporate surveillance is worse than governmental surveillance, because at least the spies stick to spying, ‘the NSA don’t try to sell you NSA branded social software.’

In a call to evaluate our own positions within this garbage, and react against the debris, Bruce talked on seizing the means of control and building things ourselves, ‘I want to be able to look at myself in the mirror, that’s my victory condition. I won’t need Zuckerberg’s software to look at my own face.’ All of this ‘mulch’ is fertile compost that we need to come to terms with, because it’s our heritage.

‘We need to stop pretending that bits don’t decay, or that the virtual world lacks no real world consequences. Things are internet, internet are things.’ – Bruce Sterling

After extolling the virtues of Arduinos, Bruce pushed the urgency of finding things we can make ourselves, not salvaged, taken over or repurposed. It is time to build new computational systems that are ethical, and needed, ‘we’ve got to stop sleeping in the rich guys used car; we can build our own means of expression. If we stop being scavengers and livestock, the rest of it will take care of itself.’

On that note, I’ll leave you for today. Tomorrow I’ll write up my notes on Trevor Paglen and Laura Poitras’s interesting presentations, the problems with defining the ‘nothuman’, and a brief overview of some of the results of the Art Hack Day, including Danja Vasiliev and Julian Oliver’s Prism: The Beacon Frame.

I’ve also been introduced to Club Mate (thanks Bruce), which I’m pretty sure was responsible for the inability to go to sleep before 4am. I can see why everyone is able to stay up til six at Berghain…


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