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.[1] 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.

Transmediale 2018 - Face Value. February 4, 2018.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?[2] 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.[3] 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,[4] along­side the con­stant buy­ing out and homog­e­niz­ing of many of its leg­endary and diverse coun­ter­cul­ture cen­ters.[5] But Berlin­ers tend to fight back[6] 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.

transmediale 2019. February 1, 2019. Photo: Adam Berry, transmediale, CC BY NC-SA 4.0Jack­ie 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”.[7] Iron­i­cal­ly, this came after the fes­ti­val itself embraced a local Kreuzberg-based cam­paign, call­ing the Google cam­pus to “f**k off” from the neigh­bor­hood.[8] 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.

transmediale 2019. February 1, 2019. Photo: Adam Berry, transmediale, CC BY NC-SA 4.0Vis­i­tor 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.

transmediale 2019. February 1, 2019. Photo: Adam Berry, transmediale, CC BY NC-SA 4.0Rory 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


End­notes

[1] trans­me­di­ale fes­ti­val web­site: https://​trans​me​di​ale​.de/

[2] Debord, G.: “Soci­ety of Spec­ta­cle”, Zone Books, New York 1994

[3] All of transmediale’s pro­grams are list­ed and archived on its web­site: https://​trans​me​di​ale​.de/​a​r​c​h​ive, The archive includes also var­i­ous pub­li­ca­tions and doc­u­men­ta­tion.

[4] https://​www​.the​guardian​.com/​w​o​r​l​d​/​2​0​1​8​/​a​p​r​/​1​0​/​b​e​r​l​i​n​-​w​o​r​l​d​-​f​a​s​t​e​s​t​-​r​i​s​i​n​g​-​p​r​o​p​e​r​t​y​-​p​r​i​ces

[5] http://​www​.exber​lin​er​.com/​f​e​a​t​u​r​e​s​/​c​u​l​t​u​r​e​/​l​i​f​e​-​a​f​t​e​r​-​t​a​c​h​e​l​es/

[6] https://​www​.the​lo​cal​.de/​2​0​1​8​0​4​1​3​/​h​e​a​d​-​o​f​-​i​c​o​n​i​c​-​b​e​r​l​i​n​-​t​h​e​a​t​r​e​-​s​t​e​p​s​-​d​o​w​n​-​a​f​t​e​r​-​l​e​f​t​-​w​i​n​g​-​p​r​o​t​e​sts

[7] http://​revis​taar​ta​.ro/​e​n​/​c​o​l​u​m​n​/​f​u​c​k​-​o​f​f​-​t​r​a​n​s​m​e​d​i​a​l​e​-​p​r​o​v​i​s​i​o​n​a​l​-​t​i​t​le/

[8] https://​fuck​of​f​google​.de/


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.