[spectre] Good Bye Reality! How Media Art Died But Nobody Noticed

marc marc.garrett at furtherfield.org
Wed Feb 8 12:21:19 CET 2006

Good Bye Reality! How Media Art Died But Nobody Noticed

by Armin Medosch

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.

rest of the article

More information about the SPECTRE mailing list