Thursday, April 06, 2006

Transmediale 2005 (CMJ)

Transmediale 2005

Under the patronage of the German Ministry of Culture and with half a million Euros per year guaranteed for the next five years, the multimedia festival Transmediale 05 opened its doors in the House of World Cultures in Berlin from 4 to 8 February. The fact that the ministry of Culture has admitted the Transmediale to its elite group of “beacon” projects of best-practice contemporary art along side the Donaueschingen Music Festival, Ensemble Modern, and other media events such as the Kassel documenta, is an indicator of the importance the German government attributes to new media art. The festival began in 1988 as “Videofest”, a sub-project of the Berlinale film festival – long before the days of internet, digital art, and electronic-ambient music – and morphed to “Transmediale” in 1998. It has since established its place as Germany’s largest and most prestigious festival for new media art. Today, the festival is divided into two parts: the Transmediale (T05) that, reflecting its origins, is dedicated primarily to moving image art, and the Club Transmediale (CTM), a parallel platform devoted to music started in 1999 to bridge the gap between “art and Berlin club culture” (electronic dance music).

The vast program of T05 encompassed some 11 conferences, 27 lectures, 27 exhibitions, 8 performances, 100 screenings, a prize, 15 workshop exhibits where visitors could construct their own digital gadgets and robots, as well as myriad partner exhibitions. CTM encompassed further concerts, dance events, cinema, and installations. Director of it all is the loquacious Andreas Broeckmann, who managed to moderate or comment on almost all events simultaneously.

In contrast to the broad festival themes of recent years, such as “remainders of utopian potential”, globalization, or public space, T05 questioned the “basics” of contemporary culture in the areas of biotechnology, politics, and media art. “Our perception of what constitutes our basic needs must continually be redefined… The festival investigates the aesthetic and ethical foundations of a frantic and hyper-potential culture and presents models of artistic practice whose ethics derive not from past value systems, but from an appropriation of an extreme and contradictory contemporary culture.” What in the program booklet had the flavor of a left-over modernist manifesto turned out in practice to be a playful, imaginative, and many-sided festival.

However, before “getting down to basics”, the thorny definition of terms had to be dealt with. Multimedia, electronic, digital and sound art, Klangkunst, sound installation, time-space collage, audio-visual art – the array of terms was nearly as varied as the panoply of definitions. Artists, curators, academicians, and philosophers from the US, Asia and Europe offered background, history, and definitions. No final consensus was reached, nor was one sought. The diversity of approaches and lack of established canon are testimony to the fact that the area is still in its baby shoes; technology and theory are developing more rapidly than they can be analyzed and classified. The charm and innovation of the exhibits owed much to the unselfconsciousness of a new field, as yet unshackled by convention.

The theme of the conference, basics, turned to the fundamentals of art and to the ethics of contemporary society. It also represented (to the American viewer) a notable attempt to escape the navel contemplation often surrounding traditional art in “old Europe”. The exhibits in the “basement” reflected the conference’s theoretical underpinning and offered dialogue with artists and insights into their approaches. Portable shelters developed with and for street people (paraSITE, USA) or prisoners’ inventions (Temporary Services, USA) drastically marked the zero ground of basic needs. A Geiger counter for “corporate fallout” was a mordantly witty device, which used bar codes and a data base of genetically modified foods and corporate behavior to detect the ethical status of groceries at the supermarket (James Patten, Visible Food, USA).

The “basics” theme gave an ethical aspect to most conferences and also contributed to a rich variety of works and thought, from the serious to the slap-happy: presentations of art initiatives in Southeast Asia, a discussion on a Wikipedia article on media theory, freshly composed cell-phone ringtone downloads, or a bring-your-sine-wave party, as examples. The desire was expressed for more African and South American entries, and after Okwui Enwesor’s bench mark documenta 11 focused on Africa, it is hoped that the next T06 succeeds in opening up geographically while at the same time keeping its variety and high level.

Another theme that has resurfaced in the German multimedia scene and that ran throughout Transmediale was the old discussion on how to combine different art disciplines. The first panel discussion, “Listening Out”, questioned the separate-but-equal co-existence of the two Transmediale festivals. And with good reason. Most of the works and exhibits witnessed at the visually oriented T05 were either silent or they employed sound or noise, but not music. One couldn’t help but ask, “If works at the Transmediale employ multiple media, why isn’t music one of the media?” But the current discussion surpasses previous discussions on Gesamtkunstwerk or synesthesia, which were intent on combining visual and musical forms of “high art”. At Transmediale, visual art was heavily represented with academic and theoretical panels, and its integration with CTM’s popular club music might appear to be a union of non-equals. But is it?

Throughout the twentieth century, film and photography fought their way as new art forms into the high art canon as did visual pop art from Warhol onward. Electronic music, the “ancestor” of club music and “electronica”, also managed to box its way into the canon thanks to the efforts of Schaeffer, Stockhausen, Eimert, et al. But in the course of the 90s, a schism of sorts took place. While electronic music remained in its ivory-tower institutions, PCs and portable software took off for the dance floor. The good old disco rotating, reflecting, crystal ball of the 70s gradually evolved into laser and other lighting effects, then video. Finally, in the 90s, digital technologies permitted visual media to play a more prominent role, and, as a natural consequence, the two media began to interact in the club atmosphere – the popular Gesamtkunstwerk of the digital era had arrived.

Today’s “club” music still has solid roots in popular art, as demonstrated by the lively CTM concerts performed in the Berlin discotheque “Maria am Bahnhof”, but remains largely marginalized in the high art canon, dramatically so in Germany. (Latest examples were the German Musicological Society’s congress in Weimar and the symposium “Critical Composition” in Stuttgart’s Schloss Solitude, both of which largely ignored popular music, aside from gender aspects of rock singers and abundant ethnological treatment of folk musics.) It is obvious that this alternate club culture is giving birth to a healthy new current of electronic music. The seriousness of CTM’s endeavors was underscored by the presentation of the book Gendertronics, a theoretical text from the venerable Suhrkamp publishing house documenting the discussion of gender and electronic music of last year’s festival. Lyotard may have proclaimed the end of the great narratives 30 years ago, ostensibly leading to the dissolution of divisions between high and low art. Yet in many cases this convergence is not taking place, and the burden of straddling art “classes” and generations complicates the already onerous task of merging media formats. In this sense, CTM and T05 have existed separately for six years, and the opening panel rightfully posed the question: quo vadis? For all that, is the divergence perceived at Transmediale the result of a clash between high and low cultures, between various media, or simply a generation gap – with visual art already “over 30” and club music still in its lively youth?

There was some evidence of rapprochement between club and electronic music cultures at T05, for example, the panel “Sound Art Visual” (A. Moore, E. v. d. Heide, E. Ungeheuer), which bravely asserted, “the dominance of the visual in media art has broken down”. Christian Ziegler’s performance was another case in point, where low-tech DJ scratch technique met off-the-shelf samplers, filters, and synthesizers. In the work, Turned, a DJ scratches live, placing various paraphernalia (rubber bands, post-its, etc.) directly on the amplified LP, while a “composer” transforms the scratched sounds in real time and a dancer interacts with video projections. In this video-sound-dance piece, the scratched sound-material is transported throughout the multiple segments of the piece in quasi leitmotiv fashion. Though the work united many intriguing aspects of different media, the loosely bound segments and techniques did not coalesce into an intense artistic experience. The conundrum of merging media in art was reflected from many sides at T05, and it is to be hoped that the exchange will continue and deepen. From the musician’s point of view, there is much to be gained.

The climax of the festival was the awarding of the Transmediale prize. In yet another manifestation of the turbulence of this young art form, prize categories from the past such as interactive, video, software, CD-ROM, internet, and image, were jettisoned this year in attempt to “re-evaluate the connection between art and media technologies”. In the end, three equal prizes without category were awarded: to Camille Utterback (USA) for her installation Untitled 5, to Thomas Köner (Ger) for his video Suburbs of the Void, and to the Austrian duo 5voltcore for their work Shockbot Corejulio.

Shockbot Corejulio is a self-destructive hardware/software system ( A robot arm is attached to a computer which receives command signals from the computer and gets the computer to produce short circuits inside itself. From this interaction, a series of images is produced and deconstructed on the monitor; ultimately, defective command signals arrive, and the system breaks down completely. The work, in the genealogy of Tinguely’s machines that destroy themselves and Bataille’s “beauty of destruction”, highlights the performative aspect of software and redefines relationships between hardware/software components. In Shockbot Corejulio sound was only present as a noise component.

Camille Utterback’s installation Untitled 5 translates physical movement in the exhibition space into imagery that is painterly, organic, and evocative while being algorithmically generated ( The work consists of a large wall projection, a walking area in which viewers are detected by a video sensor, and Utterback’s own programmed painting software, which transforms movements into projected images. With body motions, the viewer interacts with the software and sees the result on the screen. Using colors and painterly gestures reminiscent of abstract expressionist Joan Mitchell, the work brings to the forefront the interaction between the artist, the viewer, and the viewed. The relationship between passive viewer and static object is broken, thereby creating new subject/object relationships between artist, work, and viewer. While lacking any audible element, the installation was nonetheless a delight to watch and to interact with.

Suburb of the Void, a 14 minute installation combining visuals and sound by the established video artist Thomas Köner, was the only prize work to incorporate sound. For the jury, the work represented the “perfect combination of sound and image”. Drawing on his declared predilection for “cold” climates and sounds, Köner used 2000 photos of a traffic intersection in Finland in winter for the visuals, taken by surveillance cameras over a period of several months. He assembled the photos into video form and underlay them with the analog filtered sounds of Finnish children playing.

The grainy images change very slowly from night to day, from color to black-and-white, bringing gradual changes of mood. In this impressionistic play, actual pictorial elements appear blurred, recalling Monet’s Reims cathedral studies or, more recently, the white-grey minimalist landscapes of Luc Tuymans or Qui Shi-Hua. In all cases, the poetic ambiguity of what is seen is one of the aesthetic charms of the works. Congruent with the grainy, ambiguous images, Köner created minimal, white-sound, ambient music, white noise à la Morton Feldman. While most viewers had difficulty remaining at the installation for longer than one or two minutes (chairs would have been welcome), viewing all 14 minutes revealed the subtle and understated interplay of the images with the music, and it was this evocative interaction that particularly convinced the jury.

For Köner, the permanent cold in the north of Finland is connected with the deceleration of the image and thus with a sharpening of the viewer’s senses, and Köner tries to engage the visitor in the observation of the passage of time. But does the slow-motion picture/sound drone activate the imagination, or lull it to sleep? In the tension between high-tech and concept art, abstract and concrete, Suburb of the Void with its under-cooled statement succeeded in eliciting controversy. Köner’s works have been widely performed and received numerous awards, and there’s certainly no arguing with his earnest investigations into sound, silence, and their implications for a society overwhelmed with audio massages (cf. his ars electronica speech on

However, in the context of the Transmediale, it seemed that both artist and jury accepted the primacy of the visual image, whereas the musician has a different set of criteria to hear by. And there’s the rub. On the one hand, the question was omnipresent, "Is this all music has to offer moving images?" On the other hand, how does the musician empty the ears of tradition in order to engage in creating sounds based on new criteria to match new art forms? The astonishing variety of works and approaches presented at the Transmediale gave ample room for speculation on new media art and its aesthetic questions in a continuing heated and productive art-technology discourse. -- J. Shintani


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