“Science is the ultimate political body,” are the words with which Rasheedah Phillips began her ferocious spoken word performance at the opening ceremony of this year’s transmediale. Phillips, in her wide-ranging speech, and Moor Mother from the Black Quantum Futurism Collective, both worked a table covered in electronic devices, seeking to create a field of experience that tore at the roots of the false dichotomies drawn between regimes of thought and power. Images of landscapes, moonscapes, true and alternative pasts, and futures—created by Angie Holliday—flashed by on the screen behind them. It was a fitting and appositely ambitious way to begin a cavalcade of talks, workshops, performances and events at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt(HKW) on February 2.
After Phillips’ riveting reading, and a set of opening remarks from some of the festival’s prime movers, artist Harm van den Dorpel screened ‘Lexachast’ with an accompanying musical performance by producers Amnesia Scanner and PAN founder Bill Kouligas. Van den Dorpel’s video compiled images from the internet and slowly morphed them into the form of human bodies. NSFW in various ways, the work kept the emotional register of the first night of transmediale quite fevered. Such a flow of images, some violent, some sexually prurient, no doubt reflect the bleak realities and fantasies of the contemporary moment; however, questions could be asked about the way the work will be received by some viewers. Trauma flows incessantly from the internet, as a work like ‘Lexachast’ demonstrates, but not all viewers will experience these images in the same way. Proximity and distance from such events are critical concerns which any artist working with the rich proliferation of images off extremity must contend with. In another context, and to other viewers, ‘Lexachast’ could itself have seemed collusive rather than critical. Nevertheless, the fever it invoked seemed the right state to seek, as the political sphere into which this annual meeting of tech-driven creativity has scarcely been more fraught in the festival’s 30-year history.
The sense of urgency could be felt across the events. Talks by Esther Leslie and Lisa Parks in various sessions on the Friday provided powerful rebukes to the anthropocentric discourse that continues to stubbornly impose a policy of diktat on the natural world. Order and chaos and the order of chaos were themes across several discussions. Steve Kurtz’s magisterial keynote lecture on the closing evening of the weekend, dedicated to the subject of Necropolitics, explored a lifetime of creative work at the boundaries of the possible, the legal and the conceivable. Kurtz’s warnings about the dangers not only posed by corporate predators and regimes of organised violence, but also of quasi-magical solution-seeking could not have been more timely. If this all sounds a bit Cthulhu-tastic, well, it was, but that is not to say that even if the wide-eyed techno-optimism that appears to have characterised earlier iterations of the festival is on the wane, digital doom was the only fare on offer. I was particularly entranced by a sweetly absurd exploration of human conceptions of alien life by Finn Bruntonduring a panel on theorizing the non-human. Heba Y Amin’s contribution to the panel ‘Mediterranean Tomorrows’ provided a hopeful vision of what becomes possible when historically marginalised voices and intellectual formations are reintroduced to conversations about the future. The panel ‘Dulling Down’ with Constant Dullaart, Adam Harvey and the always insightful Nora Khan was as hilarious as it was thought-provoking. Harvey and Dullaart discussed the creation of their new app, DullDream, which removes the fundamental visual essence of whatever images are uploaded to it. Khan’s wry responses and the back and forth of the Dull Design Duo made for a fascinating exploration, not only of the ways in which algorithms see, and, thus, make us come to see ourselves, but also of basic questions about the nature of concept-formation in the mind.
There were also a number of high-quality entries in the festival’s film programme. Strong works by Dorine van Meel, Louis Henderson, and a heartbreaking film about silver mining in Bolivia by Armin Thalhammer, entitled Cerro Rico, were among those that continue to reverberate in my mind. Not every aspect of the event was resonated as strongly. While the Alien Matter exhibition had a few genuinely great works, not least the works on paper by Suzanne Treister, elaborating a strange cognitive entanglement between gardening and high-frequency trading, overall the techno-fetishist display methodology felt somewhat overbearing and did leach some of the potency from the works included. I confess to feeling a bit dumbfounded at times during Johannes Paul Raether’s address immediately prior to Kurtz’s on the closing evening. While the artist’s performative works are reputedly transcendent in person, seeing stills from them as Raether’s lecture unfolded did seem to rob them of context in ways that bordered on the problematic. Looking up at the imposing Raether in full witch-gear enlightening IKEA employees or beside an elderly South Asian man in a provocatively ‘incongruous’ shot reminds one of just how much is missed when one only experiences the documentation of a performance and not the event itself. In some ways, it was a fitting end to the opening of transmediale, as the programme now moves in an even more immersive direction, including a series of excursions to Langenbeck-Virchow Haus, ver.di and silent green at the Kulturquartier. The excursions seek to place audiences more directly in contact with the ideas, territories and ecologies the festival seeks to address.**
If you’re never to trust a man with candy, following a person dressed like an alien in full body harness, facepaint and lycra is also not advisable. Yet, in signing up for participatory performance ‘DysTerb, NeoEuroGado PraYttLanth 126.96.36.199 – Infiltration der Rare Screen Halde’ at Berliner Festspiele on July 9, a group of us agreed to joining Berlin-based artist Johannes Paul Raether on a search of the messages from ‘The Witch’. ‘Protekto.x.x’ —one of Raether’s colourful drag characters from his growing set of fictional identities developing as part of his Identitecture project in recent years —introduces herself as “only an outdated prototype” that will deliver instructions from said sorceress.
We listen to Protekto.x.x’s soothing voice, partly live and partly as playback, through single-ear headphones as we leave the aforementioned theater. She will lead us to our final destination, the so-called “eyeStore”. As we walk, the group practices disintegrating and uniting around Protekto.x.x, blending in with the crowds that becomes more dense as we get closer to Kurfürstendamm, Berlin’s busiest shopping street. Regularly she stops to pose for selfies at a passerby’s request, in exchange for a code she writes with thick black letters on their hands. The code, a few random letters ending with .tk is also written on the participant’s forearm.
The Witch believes that the humans are possessed by capitalism, materialised in what she calls their addiction to their “smartphone-candy-fetishes”. Her rituals are constructed around this belief. There is a possibility for “world healing” though, through “de-rationalization and sensual commoneering” —an antidote.
Arriving at the Apple store, our final destination, we place our smartphones into metal compartments attached to Protekto.x.x’s full body harness. Heavily blinking her thin metal eyelashes, she hands each of us a small coin before we enter, to be squeezed tightly in our palm. The group disperses easily between display tables in the huge commercial space, blending in with customers that languidly swipe their fingers on the tablets and laptops in front of them.
At one of these display computers, I type the code written on my forearm in a web browser. It leads me to a web page that partly looks like the store’s home page, plus hovering golden phones. Through my headphones now plugged into the device, I listen messages for message from The Witch. “Press, as you breathe in”, she says and we become one, me and the device. Myself, Apple Computers and capitalism: “Press, as you breathe out”. I look around at other participants, co-ordinated, clicking and breathing. One of them has advanced further than me following The Witch’s instructions. Over his shoulder I watch a moving image of a silver fluid leaking on a smartphone.
Until that moment I had followed the orders and kept my fingers firmly clenched, only to notice a silver drop seeping through them and onto the hardwood table in front of me. The coin has melted by the heat of my hand and transformed into a puddle in my palm. While I study the miraculous liquid, I’m grabbed from behind. “We have another one”, one of the Apple store employees announces in German. He ignores my protestations while leading me to the shop entrance where two other participants are held by a man marked “Security”.
From there, the situation escalates quickly. Until now, Raether’s Protekto.x.x has been waiting outside. He now enters, abandoning character to explain the situation, which appears to only cause more confusion as further traces of the mysterious liquid are discovered. The police arrive. With barricade tape, the small group, along with Raether himself, are isolated from the customers who have been ordered to evacuate the building immediately. Specialists are present to investigate the assumed chemical attack, accompanied by fully-armed police while we, the suspects, are transferred outside. A small area at the side of the store is cordoned off by the ribbon barrier, strung between pillars, with images of hovering laptops. Like we had observed the behaviour of the customers inside the store, we were now being observed by the growing mass of people gathering in Berlin’s busiest commercial district.
Filmed with smartphones from the store, we the participants become the feature for selfies, our hands covered in liquid gallium —the harmless rare earth metal that makes up every smartphone. “You have become your own fleshy prostheses of your own economy”, the Witch once said, “materialised in the smartphone”.
An unplanned interference in Raether’s performance, this result of high security alerts related to recent attacks around the world, was even more fantastical than the fictional narration we had followed. But it’s a serendipitous reminder of the complexity of economic entanglement that the artist had inadvertently pointed at directly. After an afternoon of captivity, one-by-one we reentered the “eyeStore” where mugshots were taken beside a giant banner of smartwatches, before finally being set ‘free’.**