By Gabriel S Moses
Who does a festival represent? Its organizers? Its city? Its scene? Since its inception in 1988, transmediale has been Berlin’s most notable festival for digital art and culture. From exhibits to live performances and films, the festival fuses together a rich variety of digital-based art coupled with engaging workshops. But most of all, transmediale is known for its lively, critical academic and expert discussion in the form of panels and keynotes, featuring the most prominent speakers in the local and international scene.
Indeed, many voices have been heard from the festival’s stages and podiums. Still, as a visitor and admitted fan, I’m just as curious about the murmur in its corridors. I’ve come to anticipate it by now with a degree of excitement. The academic celebrity to my right whispers to the techno-feminist-millennial-gamer-influencer turned hacktivist to my left. I perk my ears. Would they agree? Is this year’s run “working for them”?
From comparably big festivals like re:publica to smaller but more frequent programs like the Disruption Network Lab as well as many other smaller venues, Berlin is home to a pulsating digital culture scene. Beating consistently at its center, transmediale is indeed a heart that is expected to work—hard.
I have been attending the festival consecutively since 2012. Every autumn a new headline coupled with an abstract is unveiled online, packaged in a brand new design—as enigmatic as it is impeccably crafted. Every winter, deep in, thousands flock to the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW), where transmediale is currently hosted, to get a good look inside the wrapper.
Impression of the opening of transmediale 2019. Photo: Laura Fiorio, transmediale, CC BY-SA 4.0
Still, it seems that no matter the theme or its presentation, everyone always has something to say. This year—like every year—the program had to walk a fine line. Things can’t stay focused too much here nor drift too far there; it mustn’t get too performative but also avoid being too academic; neither too participatory nor too elitist; political statements always risk getting sloganeered but then again, the speakers mustn’t lack conviction. Nothing new was said, someone proclaimed, to console her peer who sat through the keynote and didn’t know a single term. The person to their right, however, clapped with approval of the speakers every word.
From what I picked up last year, the one thing everyone did agree on was that the Chihuahua cupcake meme, which splashed on the silver screen at the end of the panel, was indeed funny. Some, however, argued that the panelist mainly used it to salvage his convoluted talk with a silly joke at the end. Granted, talks can always turn into a theatre of jargon, same as a passionate protest can get too artistic. What seems like a compelling remark for one, might seem like populist entertainment for another. Either way, there is always the fear of a critical discourse being rendered into a spectacle.
Impression of the panel "Biased Futures". Festival edition: 2018. Photo: Adam Berry, transmediale, CC BY-SA 4.0
But is a spectacle always a bad thing today? Culture reduced to a commodity, as Debord would have it? Is it simply what happens when content succumbs to delivery? Can’t a spectacle simply be a radical multi-layering of both? Or would that then be considered not spectacle, rather art? And what about the art (and culture) festival? Doesn’t festivity imply “spectacularity” even while showcasing art?
To me, it seems that in order to properly encompass the latest critique on the digital media spectacle, transmediale constantly mutates and becomes the contemporary media spectacle itself. Some see here a contradiction in terms. An annual summit in the predominantly left-wing European discourse on digital cultures, transmediale is invested with the ongoing task of capturing its ephemeral zeitgeist without reducing it to trendy hashtags. “CAPTURE ALL”, “conversationpiece”, “ever elusive”, “face value”; quite fittingly, those were some of transmediale’s headlines of recent years. Just how ironically you interpret them, depends on your answers to the questions in the paragraph before.
Of course, the festival’s curatorial team does maintain a critical position on things. But it is not easy to spearhead a community of techno-critics in a city that is experiencing the accelerated gentrification of its body and soul. It is estimated that the average property price in the city has increased by more than 120% since 2004, alongside the constant buying out and homogenizing of many of its legendary and diverse counterculture centers. But Berliners tend to fight back and transmediale serves as both beacon and facade for those in the digital culture scene, who too oppose these trends. Still, although its funding isn’t limitless, others may struggle more and get far less. In this climate, scene politics can get messy and solidarity is key. And so transmediale is expected to speak for everyone, and everyone who feels misspoken for may at time blame it for compromising the discussion. So what is a festival expected to say?
It is extremely hard to trace your finger on the pulse of the contemporary, let alone formulate it. How do you find the proper language for so many transdisciplinary positions? The queer lecture performer might argue that some poesy must be used to mediate between the vague jargon and the Instagram buzz. The anti-gentrification activist might rip the poem to shreds in the q&a round—she wants action. And yet, despite each one’s particular blend of unmet expectations, transmediale always returns. Be it tongue in cheek or head on, critics and followers are always given something back to reflect on.
Jackie Wang during her keynote Carceral Temporalities and the Politics of Dreaming at transmediale 2019. Photo: Adam Berry, transmediale, CC BY NC-SA 4.0
“I like to see it as a continuity; a response, an edition that naturally followed and offered a different, yet complementary experience”, Daphne Dragona, curator of the transmediale conference program since 2015, explains. “Very often the festival that preceded informs the next one, not only in relation to the theme but also in relation to the festival structure.”
I might be reading things into it, but never was the festival’s response more apparent to me than in its latest program. The year before, transmediale came under fire, literally being told to “f**k off”. Ironically, this came after the festival itself embraced a local Kreuzberg-based campaign, calling the Google campus to “f**k off” from the neighborhood. In turn, Revista ARTA editor, Cristina Bogdan, accused the festival of hypocrisy: the festival supported privileged European activists, she claimed, while looking down on the rest of the world from an academic ivory tower. To her, the cause was petty and the talk was fake and excluding; the festival lacked real empathy. So did the festival respond to this? I would say so. Because it seemed very fitting that the 2019 program focused solely on digital affect, and ways to use it to create solidarity, empathy, and inclusion.
Visitor with transmediale 2019 visual. Festival edition: 2019. Photo: Adam Berry, transmediale, CC BY NC-SA 4.0
What’s certain is that no emoji was spared in the design. In fact, floating popping broken hearts and a Monsters, Inc. styled, snuggly, furry, dancing logo came instead of the festival’s headline, which for the first time since 2002 remained untitled. The point? transmediale is now keen on inviting open affectionate dialogue instead of labeling it. From its early conceptual planning to its eventual performance to the building’s architecture, the festival now reimagined itself as a less hierarchical, more inclusive, empathetic space. Study circles of artists, researchers, and activists were invited months in advance to inspire the festival’s upcoming program; the number of workshops was doubled, their duration extended. The results of these activities were then further presented, shared and discussed during the festival.
Audience during the talk Algorithmic Intimacies. Photo: Laura Fiorio, transmediale, CC BY-SA 4.0
If indeed transmediale was coming down from the tower and reaching out, it did so very performatively. In many of its events, everybody—speakers and audience—literally sat together to discuss, butts on the ground. Instead of featuring an art show, the HKW’s exhibition hall was turned into what reminded me of a huge TV studio from the 90s—now repurposed for millennial teens and students: large silver screens floated far apart from one another above under lit rostra, spread out and piled one on top of the other. The content there was just as theatrical. Panels were followed by a meditative breathing exercise and then a heated debate (particularly a head-on confrontation with the founders of a co-living space) and then wrapped up with a participatory multimedia dance extravaganza. Meanwhile, In the more conventionally structured auditorium, instead of renown scholars, young poets and performers gave their spoken word keynotes.
Rory Pilgrim's performance Software Garden at transmediale 2019. Photo: Adam Berry, transmediale, CC BY NC-SA 4.0
And was the public pleased? To some extent, of course, but never in full. “I love transmediale but I have to admit I’m disappointed that they gave up the exhibition this year,” a visitor to my right says. “I actually thought we raised some really pressing discussion points,” says the activist to my left, conversely. “That’s what I come here for—to debate. But I don’t like it when it’s all made so participatory-fun and artsy”. Might it be though, that what many fail to see is that transmediale simply charts on a different register?
What if, not so much as transmediale hosts discourse alongside art, transmediale functions as one big curated art show in which the discourse is the art?
When asked about this year’s program, I can only interpret Dragone’s reply as that of an art curator: “Changing the formats of the festival is something we aim for every year. For this edition which was specifically tackling the affective dimensions of digital culture, it was important to bring again the 'body' (and its capacity to affect and be affected) to the foreground, and to therefore also turn more to performative practices. In addition, we wanted to create a different, more intimate, more horizontal space where discussions and encounters could comfortably happen, where divisions between 'speakers' or 'performers' and audience would blur and if possible even disappear.”
There. The festival has spoken. Or at least one of its representatives has given me her obligatory explanation. But transmediale’s real contribution, as is that of any influential art show, is never in its upfront statement; rather in between the many pulse lines that form its rhythm. It’s in the tension between its many voices and the space in which they echo. It’s in the murmur in the corridors.
transmediale festival 2019. Corridor, HKW lower floor. Photo: Gabriel S Moses
 transmediale festival website: https://transmediale.de/
 Debord, G.: “Society of Spectacle”, Zone Books, New York 1994
Gabriel S Moses is a Tel Aviv based performance and media artist with a millennial complex. In other words, he knows how to lie about why he lied about what ur kids are saying about u behind ur backs on the smartphone u bought them. He has published several graphic novels on similar topics (Spunk 2010, and SUBZ 2011, published in Germany). He has also showcased works in transmediale (Berlin), Lenbachhaus (Munich) and FILE (Sao Paulo). In 2014 his project Enhancement won 1st prize at the "Future Storytelling" contest in HKW, Berlin. Currently, he is pursuing his PhD in artistic research at the Bauhaus University, Weimar, focused on digital culture festivals as theatre, spectacle, and performance. He also teaches on the subject of digital cultures in Wizo Haifa, Israel.