Last week I went along to the opening of Berlin’s transmediale festival, a 5 day long conference, exhibition and performance series that explores the impacts of emerging digital technologies on art, culture and psychology. This year’s theme was “afterglow”, a term that usually refers to the experience of a drug comedown: the time when the effects of altered states of consciousness are lingering after the experience has already peaked.
Following a year in which we were rocked by the Edward Snowden NSA revelations, entertained by the alternative reality digital dystopias of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror and critiqued by former tech enthusiast Jaron Lanier for failing to fairly compensate online journalists and creatives for their work, the utopian dreams of early internet adopters certainly appear to be receding from the realms of the possible. At the same time even the most hardcore privacy and civil liberties advocates still retain a certain optimism about the possibilities afforded by new communications technologies.
As the transmediale team put it,
transmediale 2014 proposes the post-digital moment of ‘afterglow’ as a diagnosis of the current status of the digital hovering between ‘trash and treasure’. afterglow conjures up the ambivalent state of digital culture, where what seems to remain from the digital revolution is a paradoxical nostalgia for the futuristic high-tech it once promised us but that is now crumbling in our hands.
All in all, the notion of afterglow seemed like a pretty good starting point for some of the more interesting minds in tech to get together and examine the state of our digital culture. The event that interested us the most was Art Hack Day, in which a whole bunch of “hackers whose medium is art and artists whose medium is technology” got together for 48 hours in the lead up to the festival’s opening, and made artworks on the spot that responded to the afterglow theme. From this intense period of creation resulted a wide range of pieces and performances – from the funny to the rather frightening.
Definitely on the comic end of the spectrum was the Smoke Messaging Service, a playful riff on the ridiculous experience of being sold ecosystem lock in and planned obsolescence under the guise of removing barriers to communication and bringing ease and convenience to our lives. By looking at a form of long distance communication that has existed for thousands of years and mashing it up with a shiny iPhone the artist reminds us that cheaply expressing our ideas isn’t only a feature of the contemporary world.
The trash and treasure motif was picked up by a number of artists, with several making sculptural pieces from discarded pieces of e-waste. A lighthearted interpretation of the concept was developed by Jonah Brucker-Cohen and Michael Ang into the PrintCade, an interactive arcade style sculpture “reanimated in colorful 80s style!”
A much darker take on the problem of e-waste was Back to Sender, by Dani Ploeger and Jelili Atiku. The physical residue of our outdated tech gadgets all too often finds its way to dumps in developing countries across Asia and Africa. Residents make a living salvaging materials from the discarded components, typically without adequate health or environmental safety measures, leading to exposure to large doses of toxic heavy metals and organic contaminants.
In December 2013, Ploeger and Atiku traveled to Nigeria, collected e-waste originating from Europe and brought it home to roost. Over the course of the Art Hack Day, Ploeger was pierced with a coil of copper wire extracted from a cathode ray tube monitor, which was then fed with enough electricity to generate a magnetic current. Standing on show throughout the opening, the artist presented a starkly confronting reminder of the fact that many people who spend their lives among digital waste have no choice but to have their bodies contaminated and invaded by dangerous scrap materials.
A less intense work but one that was nevertheless quietly moving was BbB Bit by Bit, by Justing Blinder and Benjamin Gaulon. Described as a “cloud shrinking service”, the artwork consisted of a small darkened room, within which random snippets from Pastebin (the web’s “#1 paste tool since 2002”) were projected onto light sensitive material. Each snippet was shown for a brief period before leaving a short afterglow. At the same time, a cease and desist request was sent, removing the content from the internet permanently.
It’s an interesting comment on the way digital detritus builds up in the informational, as well as the physical domains. In one sense, it highlights the feelings of ambiguity we have towards digital permanence and transience – while today we are more concerned about potentially embarrassing or damaging emails or photos that can survive forever on the internet or social media, I still found it slightly sad to be viewing material visible “for the last time”. While most snippets were filled with junk code, one text was a passage from a piece of writing on social isolation and loneliness. Standing silently in a dark room staring at a screen surrounded by perfect strangers, the coincidental aptness of the text made for an unsettling and moving experience.
Later while wandering around the exhibition space, I received a message on my phone welcoming me to my “new NSA partner network”. This was in fact a part of Julian Oliver and Danja Vasiliev’s controversial PRISM: The Beacon Frame, which listens for phone requests to wireless access points, and is then able to extract the hostname and hardware information from the device. This information is used to then send the “NSA” welcome messages.
The piece caused such a scare that the artists ended up dismantling it early under the threat of police action. Responding to the take down request from transmediale, the artists argued that “it is vital that technology-based art remain a frame with which we can develop critical discourses about the world we live in, from the engineered to the cultural and political.”
While the utopian techno-dreams of the late nineties may be dying down to a chilled afterglow, it’s clear that given the breadth of artworks, talks and performances on show at transmediale this year, it seems the space for those critical discussions is thankfully thriving.