Artist Duncan Poulton reflects on his recent research visit to Transmediale, a festival of digital art, culture and technology, and fringe events that took place in Berlin, 2 February – 5 March 2017.
His visit was part funded by the New Art West Midlands Engine Micro Bursary scheme.
In February I visited Berlin during the Transmediale festival of digital art, culture and technology after being invited to screen some of my video work by independent curators Alexine Rodenhuis and Kat Rickard. The screening was entitled Semi-Self Reflections and was held at Rockelmann & gallery as part of Transmediale’s Vorspiel programme of events. The programme, which explored digitally mediated bodies, identities and avatars, displayed a number of artists working around a zeitgeist of uncertainty, post-production and appropriation including Elliott Dodd, Puck Verkade and Samuel Walker.
At Transmediale I was able to see a number of talks, presentations and discussions, the best of which was a talk entitled ‘On the Origins of Androids’. This was a series of presentations by artists Floris Kaayk and Koert van Mensvoort which playfully examined the limits of what is accepted as (post- and trans-) human, framed by propositions and parables by technology philosopher Peter-Paul Verbeek. In turns fascinating, morbid and entertaining, the speakers discussed their projects for viral social media which were designed to deceive the viewer by feeding them CGI animated science-fiction and presenting it as New Scientist clickbait. Presenting these spoof projects – learning to fly with prosthetic Icarus wings or the 3D-printed organism with reconfigurable body parts – became a way to tangibly measure the limits of new technologies, their ethical limits and public gullibility. In closing Van Mensvoort explained a diagram which depicted how technologies progress from unimaginable to invisible to naturalised, and spoke of present day Western humanity as essentially cyborg; so immersed in and reliant upon technology that we are “like a fish that does not know that it is wet”.
‘Prove You Are Nonhuman’, another Transmediale panel talk, saw a variety of speakers touching upon the growing phenomena of anthropomorphised technology and the simultaneous dehumanisation of mankind. The subject matter of presentations ranged from musings on how big data will replace psychology and other sciences, to E-waste dumps in developing countries and the 18th century astronomer Franz von Gruithuisen, who mistook rough terrain on the moon for a cityscape resembling the suburbs in which he lived. Elsewhere I visited HAU 2, a venue which was part of Transmediale’s partner festival CTM. On show was a new 3-channel digital video work by London-based artist Alan Warburton. Using crowd simulation software normally utilised by Hollywood blockbuster VFX teams, Warburton’s immersive work presented an infinite expanse of homogeneous figures in a perpetual series of exercises, configurations or drills which questioned the agency of simulated beings.
Transmediale’s exhibition alien matter featured a number of artists I admire including Mark Leckey, Constant Dullart, Morehshin Allahyari and Daniel Rourke. Imaginatively installed, the show included a giant chroma-green corridor, a video prophesy of a future governed by an Artificial Intelligence system (voiced by an adorable virtual kitten) and Leckey’s GreenScreenRefrigeratorAction, in which the artist performs technological ventriloquism with a smart fridge, giving it voice in an existential monologue. Many of the works in alien matter were in some way interactive, most notably Allahyari and Rourke’s 3D Additivist Cookbook. An interactive PDF which hosts a spectrum of disruptive, inventive digital artworks and critical/theoretical texts, the cookbook details some of the most interesting projects in recent years and is free to download. The 3D Additivist Manifesto, a video-call-to-arms the duo made in 2015, was influential in the formulation of my recent video work Pygmalion that was screened in Semi-Self Reflections, and which will be showing in No Copyright Infringement Intended, a group exhibition at Phoenix Leicester curated by Antonio Roberts.
Outside of Transmediale I visited a number of other exhibitions and museums, most notably a retrospective of the video artist Omer Fast at Martin-Gropius-Bau. Impressive in scale and ambition, the show housed 7 moving-image works from early video-collage CNN Concatenated (2002) to the 3D film August (2016) and multi-channel video Spring (2016). Dark cinematic spaces with large projections were interspersed with ‘waiting rooms’ which had been fabricated to appear like airport terminals and hospital waiting areas, complete with magazines, litter, posters and other ephemera. Even the exhibition handout was laid out in the style of a garish gossip magazine, with shocking headlines and exclusive interviews which further complicated the intricate layering of fantasy, role-play and unreality in Fast’s work.
Transmediale is a weird and wonderful thing; it is important that these festivals exist, and that artists get the opportunity to visit them to have their thoughts and assumptions about their practice disrupted, challenged and reimagined. Whether you want to speculate on technology as the saving grace of creativity and mankind, or dwell on digital premonitions of a dystopian future (present?), I strongly recommend a visit to Transmediale.