This year, along with students from the AMT program at Parsons Paris, several HDCS students attended Transmediale, Berlin’s premier art/media/technology event encapsulating cultural theorists, media professors, academics of all backgrounds, artists and activists, writers, and commentators. Over three decades, Transmediale has showcased ideas by those working at the forefront of digital aesthetics and theory. Its mandate is to “foster a critical understanding of contemporary culture and politics as saturated by media technologies.”
In this current iteration, Transmediale 2018 face value appraises our contemporary paradigm of digital populism and culture wars by probing the values, as well as the processes of creating values, that have contributed to our present moment of extreme political, economic, and cultural divides. Enacted across Berlin in a multitude of venues over the course of five days, in conjunction with the CTM festival, the lectures, exhibitions, conversations, and screenings investigate the power of surfaces, from the origins of “face value” as an economics term to its application by racist ideologies within the mediasphere. This umbrella concept structured the event and didactically questioned intrinsic and perceived value.
With so many different events and exhibitions to be seen and to interact with at Transmediale both visitor and curator are apt to become lost in the chaos, as are the festival’s original intentions. This was definitely the case this year, as I attempted to navigate the program to best reflect the HDCS curriculum and to develop a survey of the event as a whole.
Finding Fanon by Larry Achiampong and David Blandy was especially poignant in regard to the cultural pluralism class offered this spring semester as part of the HDCS program; this screening proved an interesting commentary on violence and identity within the post-colonial mediasphere. The project’s title refers to three films that use the writings of Frantz Fanon as a departure point for investigating how systemic racism complicates the artists’ friendship and shapes their respective lives. On the other hand, works such as SKALAR (a large-scale art installation from light artist Christopher Bauder and musician Kangding Ray that explores the complex impact of light and sound on human perception), while visually stunning, failed to address the impact of perception and merely functioned as a spectacular hymn to technical progress. The group-show “Territories of Complicity,” curated by Inga Seidler, gained mixed responses for its controversial curatorial decisions. Housed in dark cubicles, a reference to the “Freeport” system (the trend of building logistics centers close to container terminals outside of national jurisdictions), the artworks were stifled by an overwhelming ambiance. Although a clever reference to economic and social inequality in the wake of such events as the Panama Papers, the scenographic decision created an atmosphere of confusion due to the exhibition’s overreach in the use of multitudes of scattered didactic documents. Although the group show was convoluted as a whole, works such as Europium by Lisa Rave managed to leave a profound impact and engage the visitors in “Territories of Complicity.” Throughout her video, she created a narrative using archive images cut with European Union imagery and advertisements that linked the Euro with the taboo of offshore tax-havens. Another highlight of the event was the post-apocalyptic opera “Plague” by American conceptual artist and composer James Ferraro in collaboration with visual artist Nate Boyce, PHØNIX16, and the actor Christoph Schüchner, in which an undead Steve Jobs crawls around a sewage-laden dystopia as the surrogate of a deranged AI. As well as being an enthralling visual and audio spectacle, the piece successfully portrayed a world in which the self-destruction of humanity echoes the industrialized western middle class’s fear of automation and the loss of humanity through technical progress.
Despite a few questionable display decisions, a general frayed atmosphere, and several communication issues, the event lived up to its reputation as one of the preeminent art/media/technology gatherings and proved an enriching, if at times tedious, foray into the problematic exchange between perception and reality in our social zeitgeist. At its core, Transmediale critically confronts the dominant structures that surround the world today, while taking into account the continuous ‘play’ of history, culture, and power. Given the framing of the exhibition within a particular vernacular – the language of the academic and of the elite – is it worth asking whom the production is for? The fundamental question being: In maintaining these constructs, does Transmediale reflect the needs of a contemporary global socially connected public?