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afterglow: 27th transmediale, a nonlinear report

Commissioned works, performances, conferences, talks, and an Internet black market have spiced up afterglow, the 27th transmediale that has taken place between 29.01 and 02.02 as usual at Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin. Under the multiple meanings of the afterglow, and slogans such as “How do you feel today?” “Feel Healthy, Feel Fit”, the debate has rotated around the different approaches towards e-waste, cloud computing, surveillance, mining, big data, and whistle-blowers.

1st February, 11 p.m. approximately. Theatersaal of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin.

Travor Paglen, American artist, writer, scholar, and one of the highlights of the 2014 edition of transmediale, has just finished to present his project The Last Pictures and discussed it with Ryan Bishop, curator with Jussi Parikka of the conference stream “Afterglow of the Mediatic”. Starting with the assumption that communication, weather, and military satellites populating the Clarke Belt, the geostationary orbit above the Earth’s equator, are going to last indefinitely longer than humans on the planet, Travor Paglen has put together hundred pictures with the help of numerous researcher and the collaboration of the MIT’s List Visual Art Center.

Etched on a silicon wafer and protected by a five inches golden disk, the pictures have been sent into the space fasten on the back of the EchoStar XVI satellite, in the hope that some future entities or any new Earth population would approach the Clarke Belt, find the disk, have the evidence for a former alien – human – civilization and could understand some of its features. Recollecting the “Voyager Golden Records Project” launched in 1977 and containing sounds and images to portray the diversity on Earth, Paglen’s Last Pictures merge utopian visions, universalism, natural and human disasters, milestones of the history and prehistory of the human presence on Earth, and more recent images of destructive experiments or the aftereffects of development and surveillance policies on living beings. Being the project contradictory in its nature – as Paglen has often stated – the message in the bottle springs back to the present Earth population as a bold question mark about the current upheavals in climate, personal freedom, rights and scientific research. 

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The microphone is now open to the public for questions. Wouldn’t be better – epitomizing the first question – to use the money you got for helping some of the whistle-blowers who are suffering in their daily life the consequence of their bravery, which is making us aware about the actions of NSA and others? Applauses by a part of the audience. I want – replies Paglen – neither “less art and more social justice”, nor “more art and less social justice”, but more art and more social justice at the same time. Applauses by another part of the audience.

This plastic representation recalls accidentally two different approaches, which have structured the 27th transmediale core concept, the afterglow”. The artistic director Kristoffer Gansing together with Tatiana Bazzichelli (conference programme curator) and Marcel Schwierin (screening programme curator) have namely given prominence to the strategies put into action by artists, journalists, hacktivists and critics exploiting, revaluating and revitalizing the digital and physical waste produced during the heyday of digital high-tech evolution. It’s neither possible nor interesting to comprise all the very different approaches presented during the 5-days programme into two closed and unconnected categories.

A dichotomy has nevertheless entangled the transmediale, starting with its stunning new corporate identity: information excess, big data and huge servers generate a daily hangover, requiring stress compensation methods like yoga or spa treatments. Visually overlapping and intermingling these two elements, the binding element becomes a font recalling the Google Glasses campaign. The visual identity pivots on the slickness coming up through the visual language and graphic elements of a smartphone and its apps. The techno-commercial façade interlaces all the events, conferences and performances with the “How do you feel today?” theme, showing young women and men dancing on an anonymous beach at dusk or at dawn, followed by electronic components, servers, spa atmospheres and tropical beaches – the feeling of in-betweenness embodied by the afterglow.

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The ambiguity works here as vantage point on the layer of the revaluation of leftovers and uncontrolled adverse reactions after a positivist tech-binge as well as on the layer of the indiscernible difference between artist and (h)activist.

Paglen has also been panellist in Art as Evidence”, keynote of the conference stream Hashes to Ashes” curated by Tatiana Bazzichelli, where he has explained his approach in pushing the limits of visibility in a metaphorical and effective way: long distance photos of derelict spacecraft, spying satellites, NSA secret installations in Nevada and Virginia, ghost companies and secret missions patches telling more than a cable about the finalities of this institutions.

At the same conference Laura Poitras – documentary film director and journalist – showed excerpts from her thirteen years activity documenting some of the moments that have given a clear imprint to the surveillance policies and the loss of rights in U.S. after 9/11: from the human empathy between New Yorkers straight after the tragedy to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Guantanamo Base and Abu Ghraib Scandal, up to the interviews with Edward Snowden about the leaked documents and William Binney (also panellist at the transmediale conference Circumventing the Panopticon) about the NSA “Stellar Wind” Programme after 9/11.

The third panellist Jacob Appelbaum, journalist, photographer and developer of the TOR project for enhancing privacy and security on the Internet, focused on examples of devices and pieces of hardware like USB cables (COTTONMOUTH) and chips into monitors (RAGEMASTER), which have been customized by NSA in order to inject software into computers, to bridge computer systems not attached to networks or literally to reflect and communicate what someone is seeing on a monitor, with the intention of spying activists, journalists as well as other interesting institutional representatives. Appelbaum photographic activity encompasses a series of portraits of activists, cypherpunks and whistle-blowers that are populating his life. Unlike Poitras, he tries to bring them out off frame of their engaging activities and to present them as familiar people.

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The drive to quantify the reality collecting and matching information was the main issue that Jamie Allen and David Gauthier have dealt with in their Critical Infrastructure installation covering the central foyer of HKW with metrological survey equipment, viewfinders and reference marks. The elaboration of graphs and data regarded everything that was going on around the transmediale and beyond – Facebook friends and Berlin car traffic included.

Geospatial analysis and geopolitical issues mix up their respective overflow and waste products.

A digital and physical dump addressed by well-know Sci-fi author Bruce Sterling in his keynote speech at the opening ceremony as the distopic situation where artists can meet up and enjoy the intoxication, which becomes an exciting pit of discards and possibilities for miners and scavengers, after the age of profusion. The roughly 80 artists taking part in the Art Hack Day Berlin afterglow have been conducted the critical and creative approach hinted by Sterling, with different results and a broadly shared nostalgic tinge. During 48 hours of cohabitation inside HKW interactive and sound installation, video-projection, performances, and outcomes of mining activities have been put together.

Art Hack Day Berlin “afterglow” has been the second part of the event Art Hack Day Berlin “going dark”. Some of the participants of the first part at LEAP and additional artists have been invited to transmediale. PRISM: The Beacon Frame by Danja Vasiliev and Julian Oliver was replicating and disclosing the functions of the surveillance programme PRISM that has been activated since 2007 by NSA to collect data trough the Internet and the mobile phones. Each visitor entering the exhibition space with a mobile in her or his pocket has received the notification “Welcome to your new NSA partner network IMSI:” plus the identification number of the device in the network.

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The collected data have been beamed in a little room trough a Linux computer, a wireless adapter and a glass prism – which rotated when active – projecting a “data-scape” of what happens in the local network. After some days the installation of this work has been dismantled on request of the German Federal Police, because of the closeness of HKW to the chancellor’s and government offices. A sort of odd contradiction laying bare the complicity of the German Government, which has been victim of espionage from the top of the near US Embassy building, but has also lately been accused of collaborating with NSA for the electronic surveillance of German citizens.

Mobile mining ends up producing also a very material outcome, the gold dust collected and shown in Mobile mining: “I won’t give you my mobile phone – there’s too much gold in it!” work by Niklas Marelius, Kristina Lindström, Åsa Ståhl. After disassembling smart phones, the gold has been filtered out of the components and exposed in glass bottles. The action of mining in all its metaphorical, digital or more abstract meaning has played the basso continuo as the approach that comes out as pertinent response to the ambiguity of an afterglow.

“To take back the gold that was stolen from us – this is the object of our actions” states the narrator in Louis Henderson’s Lettre du Voyant, documentary-fiction about spiritism and technology in contemporary Ghana, one of the highlights of the heterogeneous screening programme. An Internet scammer begins to talk about his land, his inhabitants and the mining in e-waste dump, which take place in the outskirts of Accra and in another cities and towns like Agbogbloshie. The Mining industry, in particular gold mining, represents one of the most important economy for Ghana, being the second largest African producer of this mineral. Large mounds of e-waste come to Ghana from all over the world through a network of dealers and are scavenged in search for copper and aluminium. Plastic rubbish, large fires for the removal of plastic traces from the metals, and the discards of the e-waste lie everywhere in these areas, poisoning the soils and intoxicating the “miners” and their families.

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Discards become resources in many senses. Memories remain attached to them often, nevertheless they need to be analysed and reinterpreted in order to extract some value from them. These actions require never-ending archives, as in the case of Geocities legacy cited by Sterling in his speech. The need for facing the archaeology and history of the digital seems to be a shared wish between afterglow and BWPWAP, the 2013 edition of transmediale.

A story for the Modlins by Sergio Oksman goes back to the analogic world, presenting the story of the author trying to retrace the familiar history of the Modlins, whose box full of photos, texts, VHS and other object has been founded on the street in Madrid. Their storytelling through pictures and objects becomes a search for the meaning, weaving silent remains, evidences and fictive elements, which compose the afterglow of life.

Playing and debunking fiction in a more broad sense has been the common ground for short videos like Party Island by Neïl Beloufa, Video Art Manual by Keren Cytter and the early explorer of computers and videos Elizabeth Vander Zaag, whose 1970’s series Digit Tapes dealt with the issue of the sexually charged images from computer magazines and hardware ads in a male dominated world, computer generated drawings, command line text, and with futuristic statements in Digit Recalls the Future, which very much resembles our daily life: “Everyone will wear little devices, which record audio and video of everything in their lives.”

Each day a different video has been screened open to the public. Among the others Titloi Telous (Out of Frame) by Yorgos Zois and Crystal Computing (Goolge Inc. St. Ghislain) by Ivar Veermäe, devoted to two quite opposite occurrences: the earlier displays the bare scaffoldings for billboards in Greece, that haven’t been dismantled due to crisis and are to be seen all over the country, the latter shows from the distance a Google Center with more than 300.000 server in Belgium and its imposing cooling system generating sublime visions.

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The economic afterglow takes here the consistence of a global system shaping spaces according to use, but whose decay and distortion generate an indefinite state of in-betweeness out of time. These visions render their landscapes into spectacular and distopic sets for a sci-fi and are at the same time the outcome of a fading or flourishing fiction.

Sci-fi atmospheres and hi-tech cyberpunk blend together in the strategies of Sputniko!, Japanese artist who concluded the series of conferences at transmediale with her keynote DoRadical Futures, part of the conference stream Will you be my Trashure?, chaired by Katrien Jacobs and Francesco Warbear Macarone Palmieri. Recently protagonist of a heated debate about the questionable cover of an issue of the Japanese Society for Artificial Intelligence journal (presenting a broom-wielding female as a representation of how A.I. could affect daily lives), Sputniko! has presented some of her witty and irreverent commercial music videos, born out of hi-tech design devices on which her short fiction-stories and music pivot. In 2013 Sputniko! has joined MIT Media Lab for the Design Fictions Group.

Pushing the limits of pop music, sexuality and language, the artist has projected devices such as the Menstruation Machine, the Crowbot and the Moonwalk Machine, and has opened up a different approach in gathering together youth subcultures and the Institutions in Adachi, a district with relatively high crime rates on the north of Tokyo city. Since 2012 her HIPHOP PROJECT & BUSTOUR keeps happening regularly under the aegis of local Institutions and youth communities. 

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The final statement of afterglow can be left to Douglas Coupland slogans, whose lecture at the Embassy of Canada and exhibition of post-Internet Slogans for the 21st Century at Or Gallery formed part of the Partner Programme. His collection of slogans conveys a sense of uncontrollable thought disorder and voices multiplicity, dichotomies of daily life and post digital condition, nostalgic cross-references and trust in autonomy empowered by self-made technologies: “I miss my pre-internet brain”, “Nostalgia has never been so useless”, “There’s no shopping on Star Trek”, “It doesn’t go away. You just learn how to live with it”.  


http://www.transmediale.de/

http://www.leapknecht.de/

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