Interface writer Micheal OConnell traverses the fine lines of media art at Transmediale08 in Berlin.
"People often see art as what's shown at really commercial art fairs. This is trying not to be a really commercial art fair". So says Miles Chalcraft, from Nottingham's multidisciplinary collective Trampoline, about Berlin's annual Transmediale. Other international media get-togethers, considered central for those making art within new media, such as Siggraph, are, first and foremost, trade fairs. But Transmediale situates itself outside both the art-market and the technology-market. This year's theme is Conspire, which, for most is interpreted to mean Conspiracy, partly explaining why the overwhelming impact is that the politics imbedded here appear genuine -certainly compared with other fine-art events and biennales.
The opening seminar featured speakers who, along with Manchester UMIST cybernetics guru Stafford Beer, developed a social computer network called Cybersyn in Salvador Allende's Chile during the early nineteen-seventies. The system was decades ahead of its time and comparable conceptually with today's internet. Pinochet shut it down immediately following the infamous coup on September 11th, 1973. In fact one of the platform guests, a lateral-thinking but hardly subversive engineer, was thrown in jail for his part in the innovative project. Seminars at this week-long event, continued in a similar vein, in the sense that they tended to expose the workings of what some now term the 'Information Industrial Complex'. Is it the case that artists employing new media cannot help but be drawn into wider ethical debates?
Other participants at Transmediale who'd travelled from the UK remark on this question and on whether festivals like this one and Ars Electronica for example, should be kept separate from the art world generally. London-based video artist Michelle Deignan challenges these proposals commenting: "I don't think all net art is inherently counterculture. No-one is completely outside the space of neo-capitalism". Also she points to the fact that areas within Transmedial amount to "faux gallery space". Ruth Jarman of Semiconductor wonders also whether the work presented here is "purely talking about politics." "Other language is being used too. Artistic and aesthetic language is being imposed on the work."
Probed on the subject Artistic Director Stephen Kovats clarifies his strategy: "We were interested in what all these things are doing and saying and how they communicate with each other, what they tell us about ourselves. I also feel a bit alienated when we start talking about the art world and the art market because I'm not so interested in galleries and museums". He complains about the nationalist emphasis at biennales. Digital media art events, he adds, "are always imperfect things". In selecting work to include "we miss a lot". The result is refreshing. Petty individualism appears to be undermined, the desire for collaboration is palpable. On the downside, aspects of event organisation obviously suffer from the design-by-committee approach.
Does technology art still need to be distinguished from other art forms? Drew Hemment, founder of Manchester's Futuresonic, implies that something might be lost if the division disappeared: "There are a lot of people in the media-art world with anxiety about the lack of respect from the rest of the art world. I don't have a problem with that. Actually I quite like it." Richard Colson an educationalist and painter in London says "digital media definitely requires people to collaborate in a way that the artist in the garret doesn't".
Significant weight is still given to video art at Transmediale thanks to its origins. Screenings take place each day followed by short discussions with the makers. Michelle Deignan points out "you can't really call video new technology anymore" though video now, is often employed as a convenient means of documenting activities which deal directly with what Drew Hemment describes as our "media-saturated and mediated society".
Transmediale includes a tonne of live art, experimental music and sound, interactive art and web interfaces. Personally I am drawn to work which conveys itself eloquently and requires no big puzzle to be solved, simplicity does not always imply a lack profundity.
Norimichi Hirakawa's A plaything for the great observer at rest contains, in a dark cylindrical installation space, curious instrument-like devices which can be turned by passers through. The revolving motion drives subtle lighting effects, projected downwards onto the floor. Literal physical interaction is not compulsory. It is reasonable to describe the immersive experience in this or the visual impact alone, involving multiple concentric specs of brightness, spinning, incorporating motion blur, as beautiful.
Other exhibits such as Standard-Time, a video-recorded performance of the 24hour digital clock and Knife.Hand.Chop.Botdeserve the kind of attention a short article like this cannot give. To do justice, other pieces warranted criticism (of the negative variety) too but what surprised me generally was the intensity and quality of what I met here. To be honest I arrived with the expectation of having to deal frequently with the kinds of pitfalls sometimes associated with those who engage with technology art. Drew Hemment says that "there's a huge difference between faddism, getting into shiny gadgets, which I think people should be rightly wary of, and a really in-depth critical engagement with that media and mediated culture." His clarity in relation to this subject seemed to reflect the outlook and actual practice of most exhibitors. At Transmediale08 I discovered a hotbed of playfulness and intelligence which is rare enough in the 'traditional art world'.
First published: a-n.co.uk February 2008
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