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Transmediale 04: the art of hope

Gail Priest

Gail Priest attended Transmediale 04 courtesy of the Conference and Workshop fund of the Australian Network for Art and Technology, a development grant program of the Australia Council, the Federal Government’s Arts Funding and Advisory Body

Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay, I am a Boyband Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay, I am a Boyband
There is hope. There is no hope. Transmediale 04 ‘s theme “Fly Utopia” reverberates with the tug-o-war between idealism and cynicism. With the whole 21st century before us and the shattered illusions of the last in a pile at our feet, how do we actively construct our future realities? And what roles do art and technology play within those futures? Do we still believe that art can be wielded as a weapon, or is its role merely as an escape plan for collective imaginings?

Transmediale is an annual 5-day media art festival based at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt. It consists of a conference, a lecture series, exhibition, workspace and screening program. The majority of the content is selected via an international competition which divides work into the categories of Software, Interaction and Image. In 2003, over 1000 entries were submitted.

The festival started out 17 years ago under the name Videofest, so it’s not surprising that the Screening section makes up a large proportion of the event with 8 curated programs drawn from the Image entries. These are screened at specific times but also run as video-on-demand in a dedicated lounge area. Of particular interest is the re-emergence of narrative within the experimental video genre. The Tropfest-style short has made narrative a dirty word in the Australian digital art scene, but something different is happening here. The program Subtext Slides revelled in the trend, offering some fine examples such as Chubby Buddy by Erika Yeomans (US) in which a New York publisher in the midst of a mid-life crisis catches trains to the suburbs to steal stuffed toys (chubby buddies) from family houses; or 1.1 Acre Flat Screen in which a European family buys an acre of land in New Mexico on eBay and then attempts to recreate the cowboy existence. These narratives sound simple enough, however their gradual exposition and excessive attention to detail—a fetishisation of the mundane—shifts them into the surreal. Fashion Town 2: Race for Oblivion by Ivan Hürzler (US) is a 2-channel work shown as split-screen. One screen shows a progression of stills, the other short video segments set on the fictional Planet Los Angeles which is at war with the utopian state of Fashion Town. The literal ‘hit’ of the festival was a piece by Canadian Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay called I am a Boyband in which the artist plays all the members of a generic pop group singing a souped-up version of the Elizabethan song “Come Again, Sweet Love”, with joyous choreography. This work would sit perfectly alongside the pop culture parodies of our own Kingpins and Kate Murphy’s Britney Love.

As well as the competition programs there were also a number of invited features. Mark Boswell’s (US) The Subversion Agency questions ideas of control and the invisible powers that wield it through a stunning “Situationist satire.” Nine years in the making, the fictional footage actually makes up only 30 minutes of the 72 minute film which is sliced and mashed between propaganda and archival footage, creating a visually enthralling piece of parody and paranoia that would make William Burroughs proud. Other invited compilations included an Electrofringe program Alterna Terra Zones of work by emerging Australian video artists (including Anto Skene, Tania Doropoulos, Sumugan Sivansen, Tim Parish and Scott Morrison). An inspiring inclusion was Utopia Travel in which David Rych and Emmanuel Danesch (Austria) travelled from Cairo to Vienna in an old taxi, collecting video works which were screened along the way, creating a very immediate cultural exchange. The selected videos document a disturbing propensity for war and violence.

One of the more accessible pieces at the festival was Bioland—a virtual department store of the future catering for all human needs. Under the guidance of Fiona Raby and Gerald O’Carroll, students from the Architecture Department of the Royal College of Art in London developed design concepts for bio-products of the future such as Bio Trace which allows you to inject your DNA into a tree that will live on after you; or Utility Pets, your own pet pig infused with your DNA to make the bond more meaningful and subvert the desire to eat it; and engagement rings grown and spliced from the lovers’ own bone (now that’s what I call commitment). Beyond the heavy irony, these exercises in imagining, represented in the exhibition by a bricolage of items in Bioland shopping bags, were disturbingly insightful, raising many questions about collusions between science, technology and perhaps society’s greatest weakness—consumerism.

The exhibition comprised mostly competition entries along with curated video works. Of particular interest was Daniel Alina Plewe’s General News (www.generalnews.de), a meta-browser that rewrites any html website, substituting words drawn from a university database. The visitor can choose the levels of substitution from directly synonymous through to abstract. Plewe is interested in the challenges for meaning and language that such a tool opens up.

In the plethora of works hidden in computers and viewed on screens, Shilpa Gupta’s installation Your Kidney Supermarket offered a welcome engagement with the physical environment. Bags of brightly coloured kidneys decorated the walls around the appropriately kidney-shaped lounge where you could watch a sales video featuring William Shatner. A computer at the ready provided an online shopping experience—choose your own replacement organ. Gupta’s work won the Interaction award with the disclaimer that even though the work could exist free from the digital domain, “its meaning relies heavily on the social and economic culture of digital systems.” In 2003 no Interaction award was given and in 2004, although receiving 200 works, the jury was disappointed in the level of work. This perhaps has resulted from a narrowness in the definition of interactivity. Until now, the Interaction category has not considered the development of expert user interfaces, ie performer to technology inter-relations, as viable entries. The jury also complained that it had received a lot of non-interactive sound and installation works. As acknowledged by the jury, this would suggest aspects of practice are not being addressed by the present categorisations in Transmediale.

Sound, electronic music and audiovisual performance are the territory of Club Transmediale. Mostly this work is presented within the club environment (unfortunately meaning that the level of discussion is not as rigorous), however 2 events involved roving the streets of Berlin by bus. Unfortunately, I missed the Xplo bus, a journey driven by GPS audio programming, however the De-Place/Re-Place bus tour with sound performances was more than satisfying. The audience was taken to 4 different locations and treated to site-based works. Kaffe Matthews’ piece in the cellar of an old brewery was truly sublime. The escalating carnivorous nature of her sampling and resampling process caused every particle within the cavernous space to vibrate. The highlight of the night (and the festival for me) was the installation by Christina Kubisch which took place in the Research Institute for Water and Naval Engineering. The audience was invited to don gumboots and electromagnetic headphones and wade into an indoor channel of ankle deep water. At the other end was a beautiful loom of red wires that fanned out and into the water. As you walked along you began to pick up various hums and distant voices: each wire was transmitting a text around shipping and navigation. You could mix your own sonic experience by zigzagging across the wires, changing proximity to the loom for intensity. It was a stunning work in its sonic, visual, and physical elements.

Transmediale 04 in some ways was a perplexing event, not just in the thematic ground it was exploring but in its shaping of events. The conference provided some interesting discussion, however in the sessions I attended, the talk was often disconnected from the practice of art-making. Coupled with the limited space given to installation and performance work, it often felt like a head that had forgotten it had (or could not locate) a body. For instance, in one of the most interesting discussions, Andreas Broegger presented a paper on the Software exhibition in New York in 1970, equating the written instructions of the performance art works of Vito Acconci and associates with software. What never seemed to come up in the ensuing discussion was the agency and very real presence of the body within these works. At the same time the festival was challenging and enlightening as many of the works presented actively pushed, pulled and expanded form and technologies, illustrating that there are still subversive uses to be discovered, while also offering alternative visions and ideals.

Transmediale has secured funding from the Federal Culture Foundation, ensuring its continued existence 2005-2009. Perhaps this will allow an expansion and reintegration of some of the more physical aspects of media art. I live in hope.


Transmediale 04: Fly Utopia, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, Jan 31 - Feb 4, www.transmediale.de

Gail Priest attended Transmediale 04 courtesy of the Conference and Workshop fund of the Australian Network for Art and Technology, a development grant program of the Australia Council, the Federal Government’s Arts Funding and Advisory Body

RealTime issue #60 April-May 2004 pg. 24

© Gail Priest; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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