Good Bye Reality! How Media Art Died But Nobody Noticed
Subjective notes about Transmediale 2006
The festival Transmediale is one of the oldest and biggest of its kind in Europe. Held annually since 1988, it started out as a video festival. In the early days the VideoFest, as it was called then, featured works which did not fit into the programme of the Berlin Film Festival - the star studded - drum role, fanfare - Berlinale. In the early 1990s the festival started presenting interactive works on CD ROM - I think this was called multi-media at the time. With changing technologies - adopting net art and generative and software art in the late 1990s - the festival kept true to its beginnings by maintaining the notion of critically engaging with new technologies and presenting a broad spectrum of alternative currents in art, technology and related theoretical production.
Until 2005 the festival carried the strap line 'international media art festival'. This year, for the first time, the notion of 'media art' has been silently dropped. For the diligent observer of the field of media art this does not really come as a surprise but merely represents the ongoing confusion and blatant opportunism which marks contemporary production in the digital culture industry.
Since 2001 Andres Broeckmann has been artistic director of Transmediale. The task given to him was to sharpen the profile of the festival by inventing specific themes each year. His record, in that regard, is rather mixed, to put it politely. In 2001 Transmediale was devoted to do-it-yourself media which we are not really in a position to critizise (given that we are in the process of organizing Takeaway - festival of do-it-yourself media). What followed since then were 'go pulic!' in 2002, 'play global!' in 2003, 'fly utopia!', 2004 and 'basics!', 2005.
Sebastian Luetgers, Berlin based artist, programmer and activist, said in an interview I did with him for Austrian Radio O1 programme matrix that he thinks that those were not really proper themes but catch-all terms which vaguely tried to catch the spirit of the time without committing themselves to anything in particular. What Transemdiale really was about in terms of the legitimisation of the funding it gets, was, according to Luetgers, to strengthen Berlin's image as a place of cultural innovation. This strategy is contained in the untranslatable German phrase Hauptstadtkultur. A word by word translation would be, "culture of the capital city"; but this does not really express well the German discourse on its unloved and underfunded old/new capital city.
The once divided city was a bullwark of Western style freedoms - the combined freedoms of market style economies and democracy - divided from its eastern half by a wall and surrounded by the GDR and the tanks of the Red Army. Once the wall had come down the realization was that Berlin had, for its relatively large size, very little in terms of productive industries. The answer to this problem should be, first, to make it the capital of Germany again which would be bringing with it large scale building projects and jobs, and second, take a gamble on the 'creative industry' coming to the rescue of a city offering little else in terms of economic growth prospects. Hence, festivals such as the Berlinale and the Transmediale are of vital interest for marketing the city as a place to work, live, study or visit.
On my daily journey from the appartment where I stayed in East Berlin, Prenzlauerberg, to the Academy of Fine Arts in the Hansa-Viertel, Tiergarten, the contradictions of this city in transformations unfolded before my eyes. Only 10 years ago city bouroughs such as Prenzlauer Berg and Mitte had been the throbbing heart of The New East where the bars and clubs never closed and young creatives lived along the motto of 'live hard, party hard'. In the meantime Prenzlauerberg has been gentrified and converted into an area favoured by the well heeled cultural middle class - called BoBo in Germany (Bohemian Bourgeoise), while the bourough of Mitte has become a charmless touristic area littered with grand government buildings and the hubris of Potsdamer Platz - a completely new city centre built within just a decade and dominated by the towering corporate centres and logos of Mercedes and Sony.
This year, Transmediale took place at the old Academy of Fine Arts in the midst of the Hansa Viertel. Here, Berlin-West had tried to become a modern city with truly modernist architecture right after 1945. It is an interesting irony that the failed modernistic adventures of the 1950s should be tried to get revived within the domain of media art at the beginning of the 21st century. Transmediale 2006 was certainly a success in terms of audience numbers. The old academy seemed to burst at the seems occasionally. Getting a seat at the cafe or a drink seemed near impossible at times. And the artistic director of the festival, Andreas Broeckmann, equally seemed to be bursting with confidence when I a aprroached him and asked for an interview. Even the hint at the notion that there were some critical voices annoyed him visibly. So it took some chasing until I was finally granted an interview.
My line of inquiry, I need to explain, was a very particular one. I was interested in what role such a festival plays a) within the field of - lets still call it - media art, and b) within the bigger picture of society, culture and politics. And the second question, which partly should serve to answer the first one, was how the festival's theme was actually dealt with in the festivals programme. It is one thing to have a theme, another one to make it come alive in the actual proceedings of lectures, discussions, screenings and exhibition. This year's theme was, Mr.Broeckmann explained, 'Reality Addicts' I quote from the position statement at the website:
"transmediale.06 is devoted to the Reality Addicts and their artistic strategies, with which they subvert the technological paradigm of reality. They demand more than the smooth surfaces of a mediatised world, they enjoy the paradoxes, celebrate technical defects, and play with the almost possible. They commit themselves to nonsense, and seek to multiply reality by means of exaggeration, rupture, distance, and ever new diversions."
A major inspiration for this main theme was the exhibition 'Smile Machines' curated by Anne-Marie Duguet. The novelty of the approach, according to Mr.Broeckmann, was contained in the notion of humour as a subversive force. I found this quite startling in a number of ways. First of all, if a festival which somehow relates to media art, suddenly discovers humour as its unique selling point, this implies that there had been no humour previously. This completely ignores the fact that a lot of net art in the 1990s was all based on pranks and hoaxes and subtle plays with notions of fixed identity. Luetgers confirms my doubts and goes beyond. When you stress humour in such a way, he said, you make it actually more difficult to deal with certain issues. For instance, he continued, certain genealogies are now constructed. A range of practices in the digital cultural domain are now seen as having inherited the humorous spirit of Dadaism, Surrealism and Situationism. Yet at the time, Luetgers claims, humour may have been the least important aspect of those art movements. Facing a rather grim social reality, the main message of those movements was an obstinate Fuck You! addressed at the dominant powers at the time. Only now the humorous aspects of those art movements became more easily digestable, according to Luetgers.
Indeed, the best moments of the conference were involuntarily funny. The first panel about humour politics was introduced by Paris based theorist Brian Holmes. Quite eloquently he related the festival's theme to the current outrage about cartoons printed first in a Danish Newspaper. In his short summary Holmes referenced the use of humorous tactics in the anti-globalisation movement, the gallows humour of people in the Southern Hemisphere and the philosophical wit involved in some advanced net art practices. From there on proceedings descended into farce with Anne-Marie Duguet spending a good 20 minutes on failing to play a quicktime file. A pattern was established. The most 'funny' moments came when some technological or organisational problem disrupted or delayed proceedings. In between we could hear some rather dry lectures by media art old timers such as Jordan Crandall or Simon Penny, more suitable for a cultural studies seminar at university rather than the grand conference podium. A French professor drowned on about humour being actually not funny at all. Marie-Louise Angerer sent everyone asleep with the usual Freudian-Lacanian culture studies political correctness blah blah. Katrien Jacobs, talking in net porn, and Shu Lea Cheang, introducing her wide portfolio of art works and films, managed to wake us up briefly again, before we descended into banalities such as the iPod as the icon of the 21st century. The trade fair is next month, this speaker should have been reminded.
So what about the exhibition then? Ms. Duguet curated a show which explicitely set out to illustrate that certain positions have actually a deep history by including 'historic' works by artists such as Dara Birnbaum and Antonio Muntadas. It is certainly worth showing such pieces for younger audiences, students and people not aware of the many turns and twists first video art, then media art have taken of the past 30 years. Nevertheless, the exhibition was really poor in terms of showing contemporary work. In this area, the Google Will Eat Itself project by our friends and guest lecturers Ubermorgen was one of a few noted exceptions where the internet and the digital economy actually played an important part. Another highlight was Burnstation by Platoniq, shown behind the staircase. Maybe this was a Freudian slip in terms of exhibition arrangement, but this Free Software and Free Audio Culture project was the only project with some real street credibility. Platoniq have realized a completely free and legitimate environment for downloading and burning music under Creative Commons licences. Both, Ubermorgen and Platoniq, had been nominated for the Transmediale Award.
The winner of this year's award was Agnes Meyer-Brandis, Germany, with the "SGM-Iceberg-Probe", a rather metaphorical and strangely poetic project, while Platoniq had to share second place with Yuko Mohri and Soichiro Mihara, Japan, for their "Vexations - Composition in Progress", and a video work by Andres Ramirez Gaviria, Colombia. Ubermorgen won the famous midnight sausage award, our commiserations are with them.
Which brings us back to the main line of inquiry. Even before the interview with Andreas Broeckmann I had the strange feeling that, without making a big noise about it, Transmediale had distanced itself from media art, and with it from postions and legitimation strategies it had used for almost 20 years. The Smile Machines exhibition showed a lot of video work, hardly anything digital or networked there. The job of the exhibition was, according to Mr.Broeckmann, to pull in a large non-specialist audience. While it succeeded in doing that, it was a letdown for all those who had hoped to see the latest and hottest digital works (apart from the two noted exceptions, Ubermorgen and Platoniq). And then, on my repeated insistence, Broeckmann confirmed that media art existed no more. There was no such thing as a distinguished field of practice. It was either art, where it did not matter which technology was employed, or something else (he did not spell out the something else). In this day and age, Broeckmann said, technology can not be the sole angle from which an art practice can be looked upon.
Voila! Exactly my talking. Only that I had been saying that already 10 years ago, when the Broeckmanns of this world, the Svengalis of the cultural buerocracy, were still promoting net art and the 'machinic' in cultural production. But as he looked rather smug after he had said that I did not trouble him with any further questions. Off he went to another reception. And I was left pondering the implications of media art's sudden but not so unexpected death. The signs had been up there already. Peter Weibel had been advertising the age of digital everything for nearly 25 years before he abandoned it, all in a rush, this year, by creating a show called "Post-media Condition". What is going on? Are the former captains of media arts now turning into rats who are the first to leave the sinking ship? And what with all those newly founded faculties and MA courses of media art worldwide? London, always being a bit slow in those areas, only this year will have a media arts festival for the first time, Node.London, thereby embracing a term which has not been too well known on these shores.
To my opinion the talk about the end of media art is cheap and conceptually lazy. If media art was understood as mainly being determined by the technology, then this was a conceptual mistake in the first place. It had always been about the intersections of technology, culture and society, about where those different layers meet and create interesting ruptures and points of interventions for critical artists. The technologies might change but not the task of critically engaging with new technologies and their role in society. And in this respect not so much is different in 2006 from what it was in 1996. As the industries turn out new hard- and softwares in ever accelerating cycles and the big machines of war and business keep using those technologies to control and determine our lives, we need to keep being able to identify spaces where we can throw in the spanner, create engagement, real participation and what I would call real virtuality: not the empty promises of virtual worlds but the virtuality or potentiality of utopian change in the real world, as technologically enhanced as it may be. Pronouncing media art dead may offer some short term advantages in terms of funding strategies but is not of any help in the long term. And as we all know people pronounced dead live longer.