[artinfo] Armin Medosch: How Media Art Died But Nobody Noticed

marc marc.garrett at furtherfield.org
Wed Feb 8 12:22:25 CET 2006

Good Bye Reality! How Media Art Died But Nobody Noticed

by Armin Medosch

The festival Transmediale is one of the oldest and biggest of its 
kind in Europe. Held annually since 1988, it started out as a video 
festival. In the early days the VideoFest, as it was called then, 
featured works which did not fit into the programme of the Berlin 
Film Festival - the star studded - drum role, fanfare - Berlinale. In 
the early 1990s the festival started presenting interactive works on 
CD ROM - I think this was called multi-media at the time. With 
changing technologies - adopting net art and generative and software 
art in the late 1990s - the festival kept true to its beginnings by 
maintaining the notion of critically engaging with new technologies 
and presenting a broad spectrum of alternative currents in art, 
technology and related theoretical production.

Until 2005 the festival carried the strap line 'international media 
art festival'. This year, for the first time, the notion of 'media 
art' has been silently dropped. For the diligent observer of the 
field of media art this does not really come as a surprise but merely 
represents the ongoing confusion and blatant opportunism which marks 
contemporary production in the digital culture industry.

Since 2001 Andres Broeckmann has been artistic director of 
Transmediale. The task given to him was to sharpen the profile of the 
festival by inventing specific themes each year. His record, in that 
regard, is rather mixed, to put it politely. In 2001 Transmediale was 
devoted to do-it-yourself media which we are not really in a position 
to critizise (given that we are in the process of organizing Takeaway 
- festival of do-it-yourself media). What followed since then were 
'go pulic!' in 2002, 'play global!' in 2003, 'fly utopia!', 2004 and 
'basics!', 2005.

Sebastian Luetgers, Berlin based artist, programmer and activist, 
said in an interview I did with him for Austrian Radio O1 programme 
matrix that he thinks that those were not really proper themes but 
catch-all terms which vaguely tried to catch the spirit of the time 
without committing themselves to anything in particular. What 
Transemdiale really was about in terms of the legitimisation of the 
funding it gets, was, according to Luetgers, to strengthen Berlin's 
image as a place of cultural innovation. This strategy is contained 
in the untranslatable German phrase Hauptstadtkultur. A word by word 
translation would be, "culture of the capital city"; but this does 
not really express well the German discourse on its unloved and 
underfunded old/new capital city.

The once divided city was a bullwark of Western style freedoms - the 
combined freedoms of market style economies and democracy - divided 
from its eastern half by a wall and surrounded by the GDR and the 
tanks of the Red Army. Once the wall had come down the realization 
was that Berlin had, for its relatively large size, very little in 
terms of productive industries. The answer to this problem should be, 
first, to make it the capital of Germany again which would be 
bringing with it large scale building projects and jobs, and second, 
take a gamble on the 'creative industry' coming to the rescue of a 
city offering little else in terms of economic growth prospects. 
Hence, festivals such as the Berlinale and the Transmediale are of 
vital interest for marketing the city as a place to work, live, study 
or visit.

On my daily journey from the appartment where I stayed in East 
Berlin, Prenzlauerberg, to the Academy of Fine Arts in the 
Hansa-Viertel, Tiergarten, the contradictions of this city in 
transformations unfolded before my eyes. Only 10 years ago city 
bouroughs such as Prenzlauer Berg and Mitte had been the throbbing 
heart of The New East where the bars and clubs never closed and young 
creatives lived along the motto of 'live hard, party hard'. In the 
meantime Prenzlauerberg has been gentrified and converted into an 
area favoured by the well heeled cultural middle class - called BoBo 
in Germany (Bohemian Bourgeoise), while the bourough of Mitte has 
become a charmless touristic area littered with grand government 
buildings and the hubris of Potsdamer Platz - a completely new city 
centre built within just a decade and dominated by the towering 
corporate centres and logos of Mercedes and Sony.

This year, Transmediale took place at the old Academy of Fine Arts in 
the midst of the Hansa Viertel. Here, Berlin-West had tried to become 
a modern city with truly modernist architecture right after 1945. It 
is an interesting irony that the failed modernistic adventures of the 
1950s should be tried to get revived within the domain of media art 
at the beginning of the 21st century. Transmediale 2006 was certainly 
a success in terms of audience numbers. The old academy seemed to 
burst at the seems occasionally. Getting a seat at the cafe or a 
drink seemed near impossible at times. And the artistic director of 
the festival, Andreas Broeckmann, equally seemed to be bursting with 
confidence when I a aprroached him and asked for an interview. Even 
the hint at the notion that there were some critical voices annoyed 
him visibly. So it took some chasing until I was finally granted an 

My line of inquiry, I need to explain, was a very particular one. I 
was interested in what role such a festival plays a) within the field 
of - lets still call it - media art, and b) within the bigger picture 
of society, culture and politics. And the second question, which 
partly should serve to answer the first one, was how the festival's 
theme was actually dealt with in the festivals programme. It is one 
thing to have a theme, another one to make it come alive in the 
actual proceedings of lectures, discussions, screenings and 
exhibition. This year's theme was, Mr.Broeckmann explained, 'Reality 
Addicts' I quote from the position statement at the website:

"transmediale.06 is devoted to the Reality Addicts and their artistic 
strategies, with which they subvert the technological paradigm of 
reality. They demand more than the smooth surfaces of a mediatised 
world, they enjoy the paradoxes, celebrate technical defects, and 
play with the almost possible. They commit themselves to nonsense, 
and seek to multiply reality by means of exaggeration, rupture, 
distance, and ever new diversions."

A major inspiration for this main theme was the exhibition 'Smile 
Machines' curated by Anne-Marie Duguet. The novelty of the approach, 
according to Mr.Broeckmann, was contained in the notion of humour as 
a subversive force. I found this quite startling in a number of ways. 
First of all, if a festival which somehow relates to media art, 
suddenly discovers humour as its unique selling point, this implies 
that there had been no humour previously. This completely ignores the 
fact that a lot of net art in the 1990s was all based on pranks and 
hoaxes and subtle plays with notions of fixed identity. Luetgers 
confirms my doubts and goes beyond. When you stress humour in such a 
way, he said, you make it actually more difficult to deal with 
certain issues. For instance, he continued, certain genealogies are 
now constructed. A range of practices in the digital cultural domain 
are now seen as having inherited the humorous spirit of Dadaism, 
Surrealism and Situationism. Yet at the time, Luetgers claims, humour 
may have been the least important aspect of those art movements. 
Facing a rather grim social reality, the main message of those 
movements was an obstinate Fuck You! addressed at the dominant powers 
at the time. Only now the humorous aspects of those art movements 
became more easily digestable, according to Luetgers.

Indeed, the best moments of the conference were involuntarily funny. 
The first panel about humour politics was introduced by Paris based 
theorist Brian Holmes. Quite eloquently he related the festival's 
theme to the current outrage about cartoons printed first in a Danish 
Newspaper. In his short summary Holmes referenced the use of humorous 
tactics in the anti-globalisation movement, the gallows humour of 
people in the Southern Hemisphere and the philosophical wit involved 
in some advanced net art practices. From there on proceedings 
descended into farce with Anne-Marie Duguet spending a good 20 
minutes on failing to play a quicktime file. A pattern was 
established. The most 'funny' moments came when some technological or 
organisational problem disrupted or delayed proceedings. In between 
we could hear some rather dry lectures by media art old timers such 
as Jordan Crandall or Simon Penny, more suitable for a cultural 
studies seminar at university rather than the grand conference 
podium. A French professor drowned on about humour being actually not 
funny at all. Marie-Louise Angerer sent everyone asleep with the 
usual Freudian-Lacanian culture studies political correctness blah 
blah. Katrien Jacobs, talking in net porn, and Shu Lea Cheang, 
introducing her wide portfolio of art works and films, managed to 
wake us up briefly again, before we descended into banalities such as 
the iPod as the icon of the 21st century. The trade fair is next 
month, this speaker should have been reminded.

So what about the exhibition then? Ms. Duguet curated a show which 
explicitely set out to illustrate that certain positions have 
actually a deep history by including 'historic' works by artists such 
as Dara Birnbaum and Antonio Muntadas. It is certainly worth showing 
such pieces for younger audiences, students and people not aware of 
the many turns and twists first video art, then media art have taken 
of the past 30 years. Nevertheless, the exhibition was really poor in 
terms of showing contemporary work. In this area, the Google Will Eat 
Itself project by our friends and guest lecturers Ubermorgen was one 
of a few noted exceptions where the internet and the digital economy 
actually played an important part. Another highlight was Burnstation 
by Platoniq, shown behind the staircase. Maybe this was a Freudian 
slip in terms of exhibition arrangement, but this Free Software and 
Free Audio Culture project was the only project with some real street 
credibility. Platoniq have realized a completely free and legitimate 
environment for downloading and burning music under Creative Commons 
licences. Both, Ubermorgen and Platoniq, had been nominated for the 
Transmediale Award.

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