February 4th, 2007


Transmediale 07: post-bit milk

'Tis the season to be... well, digital, actually. Berlin's seemingly constant flux of festivals has brought us, this week, to the part of the calendar reserved for the Transmediale, an annual event lasting a week, and marking the place where art and digital culture meet.

I must admit I've never really plugged myself into the Transmediale. I missed the 2005 and 2006 festivals -- I was in Hokkaido and New York when they were on. I had fun with Mumbleboy and o.blaat on the musical fringes of the 2004 event ("Fly Utopia!"), but remember leaving with Bernhard Gal because some of the discussions were just too boring (they were about opening up to Eastern European art communities as the EU expanded). This year I was also away, in Palma and Hamburg, and just last night caught the exhibition at the Kunstakademie before it closes later today. Here are some snaps I snapped as I sniffed around -- rather underwhelmed -- with Japanese friends Nao and Rie.

1. Posters from previous Transmediales. The electronic media festival began in 1988 as a film and video art event, but has become an exhibition, a talking shop, a series of music events, as well as a bill of film and video screenings.

2. The Korean artist Moon Na's "Against God By Water Pistol" (great title!). Moon stands in Seoul on a rainy day, pathetically challenging God by shooting water up in the air with a water pistol. God wins by making the rain bucket down on her bare head.

3. This is a painting in the lobby at Kino Babylon, one of the Transmediale's venues. I don't know the artist, but it shows a Chinese schoolgirl in Beijing, overlooking the Rem Koolhaas China Television building (not yet constructed). I'm interested in utopian future visions of China.

4. We run into sparky Sunshine Wong, who's bought a festival pass and been to many of the events. She's also pretty underwhelmed. The highlight for her was Canadian philosopher Arthur Kroker (Mr "Digital Flesh") talking about his new book Born Again Ideology, about the American tendency to mix up politics and religion. But at a certain point even Mr Kroker lost her, and Sunshine found it all a bit anti-American.

5. This was the media lounge. A discussion was going on in the next room about CCTV -- some phlegmatic Englishman was trying to present the good side of Britain's millions of security cameras by saying "we use webcams in the department... at least you can see where the government cameras are, it's not like they're hiding them..."

6. Rie is peering at Belgian artist Kurt d'Haeseleer's installation "Scripted Emotions". Basically, as you turn the "binoculars" you pan across scenes on two video screens inside. There's a kind of soap opera going on, a series of clandestine meetings. If you watch long enough you can piece a story together -- and intensely annoy the people waiting in the queue behind you.

7. Nao and Rie are "digital duplicating". This is what happens when one person in a group stops to take a digital photograph, the others look at what he saw and decide to take the same picture. Not to do so would be rude, in fact -- "Jeez, that's not really a picture worth taking, is it?", the non-digital duplicator might as well say.

8. Rie gazes at a piece of space junk which might or might not be called "Death Before Disko", which is another good "Berlin" sort of title for some song or other.

9. This is the photo I "saw", which triggered the "digital duplicating" you see above it. It's a mother breast-feeding her baby over by the window, but you can't really see that. I like to think of the tender scene as a subtle rebuke to all the digital flitter going on around it; "post-bit milk", if you will. Perhaps that could be the title of the 2008 Transmediale. Make me director and it will be.

Actually, this year's theme was "unfinish", which I suppose not only implies that the (now government-funded) festival itself will keep on truckin', but that the human narrative must avoid getting entangled with endgames and apocalypses. Festival Director Andreas Broeckmann says:

"We chose the motto 'unfinish!' to highlight a specific aspect of artistic work, namely the readiness to question things which have been closed and finished, and to return them to a state of 'unfinishedness'. The English verb 'to unfinish' does not really exist, nor does its equivalent in German, 'unbeenden'. The idea is to reopen the work towards releasing the potential inherent in the process.

"In art history, the 'non-finito' has a long tradition which is as old as painting over images, stripping off varnish, and re-using the results of fluxus and other actions. In art using digital media, the issue is somewhat different, since here the finished work is not the rule, but the exception. Instead, version follows version, reproducibility and changeability are germane to digital media. And this can indeed turn out to be a curse, because many works remain projects which never find their conclusive form.

"The festival will also look at the aspect of 'unfinish' in, for instance, the technological transgression of natural borders, in the apocalyptic visions of contemporary politics, our current notions of death and dying. Personally, I am quite happy about the finitude of things, and few desires seem to me as weird as the wish to overcome the finitude of human life. But during the festival, we will hear different opinions on these issues, and I am curious to see how notions of history and temporality are reflected upon by a younger generation today."

I'd tell you more about this Transmediale, but, as of later today, Unfinish is... finished.