“We have lost the game of the internet,” warns Peter Sunde. Recently released from jail, the former Pirate Bay founder speaks alongside other participants and organizers at the transmediale 2015, commencement address. The opening presentation, as the next few days demonstrate, fittingly contextualises the idea between the opposing speeches of the BitTorrent spokesperson and Jennifer Lyn Morone. In contrast to Sunde’s warning to abdicate from digital media, as he has done, Morone briefly and somewhat nervously explains her project of incorporating her identity and data as a form of resistance. The year’s theme is ‘Capture All.’ It focuses on current trends and methods of data accumulation, centering around, yet not limited to, this process as it relates to internet activity and monitoring.
On opening night the main group exhibition, titled Capture All and located in the exhibition hall of Haus der Kulturen der Welt, is crawling with visitors. Partitioned with black barriers forming geometric shapes around each work, it seems akin to a manufactured beehive. I flip through the books made for the ‘Networked Optimization’ (2013) piece by Silvio Lorusso and Sebastian Schmieg. The works function as optimised versions of self-help bestsellers and feature only their most highlighted lines, as derived from Amazon’s former feature of seeing the activity of e-book users. I explain the basics of the work to another viewer confused by the lack of context. They ask me if I had created them. We stand around the replicated version of the Amazon patent for product display, the positioning and lights of which intend to streamline the digitising process, removing the need for post-production. In this simplified, doubled version of something which itself is aiming for simplification and replication, it is tempting to lie. ‘Trust is the highest form of human motivation’, can be read on a page of one of the books, surrounded by an otherwise blank space. I resist.
Returning on a quieter day, the black walled exhibition is barely populated and the impression is more ominous. Screens project out onto darkness, austere and quixotic objects are illuminated with a quality of sacredness. Zach Blas‘ ‘Face Cages’ (2013-2015) rest on two pedestals with their prisoners looking out from video screens behind them. Art is Open Source’s ‘Stakhanov’ is positioned under flags bearing religious symbols. This so-called ‘BigData God’ prints predictions that pile in an unread ribbon of paper on the floor. In the back of the space, Timo Arnall’s hefty documentation ‘Internet Machine’ (2014) quietly pans along the cloaked and impenetrable physicality of the internet. An overall “the-future-is-now” affect of the exhibition itself is felt alongside the actual works – something that transmediale projects in general.
The entire festival has a surreal quality to it, bordering on the (science-)fictional. Continuously, the lectures and panels consider the means in which life has been taken up into the cloud. In some cases, this is brought up in the deterioration between private/public or leisure/labour spheres, as happening within social media. At other times, this can be seen through visualizations of the quantities of data collected from all internet activity. The result is a distorted sense of what exactly composites reality. Of course a lot of this information is at least vaguely familiar, but entering this web of consistent verbal reinforcement gives it an abstract tangibility as it cuts away at the physical world.
At the keynote lecture called ‘Work’ in HKW’s Auditorium, sociologist Judy Wajcman lists off current buzzwords for the dependence on and transformation due to digital media. “‘Business & distraction,’ ‘digital addiction,’ ‘digital detox,’ ‘mindfulness,’ ‘timeless time,’ ‘demise of clock time,’ etc.” I find myself writing. A slight comedy presents itself as Wajcman turns to the idea of cohabitation and co-development. These structures and mechanisms are not developing ahead of us, but rather they are shaped by our own desires for them, she suggests. But then as ‘Networked Optimization’ implies and one of its creators, Sebastian Schmieg, later clarifies at a panel, the clearing up of time and technological augmentation questions what exactly is intended with the time that we want freed up and the improvements we wish to see in ourselves and our machines. This paring-down seems to almost be a willed-for drive for disappearance.
This aspect of counter-reality reaches its peaks in the artist talk panels, held in HKW’s Konference Raum 1. Though art’s relation to reality is usually one of some degree of distance and, therein, reflection, the practices of certain artists present cross this separation into more standardised disciplines, such as chemistry or economics, only to step out of them again.
“Do you ever wish you were invisible?” asks Heather Dewey-Hagborg in the video accompanying her piece ‘Invisible’ (2014). In answer to that question and the possibility of electronic data collection turning to the biological, she has created two chemical products. One erases 95 per cent of DNA traces from any surface that may contain them, and the other obfuscates the remaining five per cent. The practicality of using these products to actually remove all traces immediately seems unfeasible, bringing to mind an obsessive-compulsive ritual of self-obfuscation. Nonetheless, they are functional items and can chemically succeed in this intention. Meanwhile, Jennifer Lyn Morone’s response to undermined individual rights and a complete lack of privacy is to turn her person into a corporation. With ‘Jennifer Lyn MoroneTM Inc.’ (2014), she privatizes and places all her personal attributes on the market. What exactly this means in legal terms for any of her data collected by third parties remains unclear. Similarly, she herself seems unsure of the concrete implications of potential transactions. Nonetheless, in the advertising video accompanying the piece/business venture, the gestures of the ill-fitting business suit she wears and the green screen in front of which she stands point to the theatricality of corporate identities. Perhaps the irony of the entire project – gain through defeat – suggests that while Pirate Bay’s Peter Sunde’s claim, ‘the internet game is lost,’ stands true, another game can be played.
Erica Scourti’s ‘Body Scan’ (2014) delves more personally into Big Data and the reorganization of the body. The artist shows the results of an intimate exchange mediated through data-recognition software, moving from pictures of skin to Google-esque collections of similar images narrated by a robotic voice. A similar restructuring of data can be seen in Jonas Lund’s piece ‘FIFY’ (2015). Made specifically for transmediale, the present-through-absence work is based on an algorithm that interprets the descriptions of prior transmediale exhibitions. With a borrowed phone, a visitor can walk to numbers painted on the floor, dial, and be told of the potential work that could be there, as according to past patterns. Lund’s practice is generally algorithm based. He has created an extensive network of contemporary artworks, artists, curators, and galleries, which he then runs through a programmed system. This leads to the production of future pieces deemed by this system to have probable success. As Scourti shows the reduction of the body and the emotional individual to an expanse of electronic patterns and data potentially valuable for advertisement, so Lund breaks the market economy of art into a predictable method, turning it also into a game, but one that can be won.
In a final artist talk in K1, the relations between art and labour, and labour and time is brought up. It features Sam Meech, Elli Harrison, and Oliver Walker from the FACT-curated Time and Motion, a transmediale guest exhibition. Walker discusses his piece ‘One Euro’, which shows screens documenting various forms of labour. Each video lasts the time it would take for its labourer to earn a euro. The other two artists examine the division of their own time. Meech’s knit tapestry, ‘Punchcard Economy’ (2013), reads ‘8 hours labour, 8 hours recreation, 8 hours rest.’ The slogan is taken from Robert Owen’s 8 Hour Day movement, while the tapestry’s pattern incorporates Meech’s own irregular and freelance labour schedule. In ‘Timelines’ (2006), Harrison displays four days from a carefully recorded month, during which she had tracked each activity based on its duration.
In contrast with these personal works, Walker’s ‘One Euro’ and the ‘75 Watt’ (2013) piece by Tuur Van Balen and Revital Cohen (not present at this particular talk) bring into question the relations between labour, the body, time, and control in broader contexts. ‘75 Watt’ specifically documents assembly-line workers in China creating an object with no function other than to choreograph the workers’ movements. These are documentations of or interventions in the facets of oppression and formation in labour. It’s curious how these labours and their political or ethical implications are transformed when they are carried over into the artist’s work, especially one made for a potential market value.
Whose labour is it at this point? And what does it entail for someone to interrupt another’s work process to document, only to then return with the documentation back to the gallery, unscathed? These queries flowed with the others gleaned from the five days of Transmediale as I tread up and down the stairs of HKW’s elaborate architecture. I’m mentally trying to organise the excess of information gathered, and figure out what could be done with it beyond storage and categorisation. **