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“A Post-Digital Art Festival”: The Artistic Director and Curators on transmediale 2018

Finding Fanon

On the heels of Sundance and its New Frontier section every year comes transmediale, the Berlin-based festival more singularly focused on interactive film, video art, transmedia, virtual reality, and other forms of new media. Founded in 199, transmediale also excels at maintaining a clear focus on how these new works engaged with broader societal issues; traditional artwork, panel discussions, academic papers, and other offerings are always an integral part of the proceedings along with films and videos. This year’s theme is “face value.” With forces like globalization and feminism in stark public contrast with nationalistic authoritarianism and racial inequalities in the larger public discourse, transmediale 2018 aims to focus on, in the festival organizers’ words, “the values, as well as the processes of value creation, that have contributed to our present moment of extreme political, economic and cultural divides,” as well as on whether those values can bridge these divides.

Kristoffer Gansing has been the artistic director of the festival since 2011 and has always emphasized addressing social issues like these as much as seeking out the best new films and artworks. I spoke with Gansing, Daphne Dragona (curator conference program), Inga Seidler (curator exhibition program) and Florian Wüst (curator film and video program) about what to expect at this year’s event and what the state of the art—and the culture—is in each of their respective fields.

Filmmaker: How has transmediale evolved over the past seven years?

Gansing: I think we have found an independent identity which people recognize and value for what it is. When I did my first festival as artistic director in 2012, I sensed a lot of different audiences and communities wanting to define what transmediale is — this is still the case but there is less confusion about what transmediale does and should do. So back then it was kind of sandwiched between an old media art vanguard, the diffuse “new media” field and the emerging creative industries. Now I think it is clear that transmediale has found its niche as a post-digital art festival, still dedicated to reflecting on our technological conditions but never fetishizing the use of new technologies. Instead of advocating art as a motor for technological innovation, transmediale is a transversal festival that promotes the intersection of the arts in all spheres of life while also recognizing the intrinsic value of art as such. We want to promote the creation of critical imaginaries of how technologies might work differently — and to not take everything at face value.

Filmmaker: Can you tell me about select “face value” as a theme? How is that reflective of art and society in 2018?

Gansing: This theme very much developed throughout the organization of the 2017 festival, during which a lot of disruptive political events took place, not least Brexit and Trump, as well as the ongoing right-wing surge in Germany. After the 2017 festival, which was our 30-year anniversary, it really felt that we needed to address more urgent matters. But we also want to do this in a transmediale-way, so it is a festival thematically more lodged in “current affairs.” At the same time with face value we are asking people not to take everything for granted, at face value, and instead to look in unusual places for approaches to the problems of today. Simultaneously, however — and this is the paradoxical nature not only of the transmediale theme but of our current political moment, I think — we need to face value, as in calling things for what they are, naming exploitative, racist and biased structures within technology, politics and economy. How to do this without becoming a reactionary populist yourself — we need to invent new ways of resisting, creating, living together.

Filmmaker: That’s a great perspective. So can we look at racism as one example of the types of issues you’re addressing this year? How is race treated across the spectrum of transmediale’s offerings?

Dragona: The constructions of race, class, and gender, and the intensification of cultural and social differences, are of central importance for this year’s festival. What we are specifically interested in is how such differences have always been exploited by capitalism, and how capitalism and racism have always been inseparable. A notion we turn to for this reason is racial capitalism, which was thoroughly discussed by Cedric Robinson. Moreover, we are especially interested in the role of media and algorithmic computation. We are looking into how forms of bias and discrimination are now embedded in the systems that we are using and how such categorizations and filterings influence us. We are interested in exposing and discussing such biases and in understanding how they can affect our lives in the future.

Filmmaker: What is the process like coordinating between the presentations, exhibits, and films? Is there a conscious effort to create a dialogue between these branches — particularly the speeches and the artwork — or does it flow organically out of the festival theme?

Dragona: The different programs evolve closely to each other and we try to work transversally as much as possible. We aim for transdisciplinary and multivocal encounters and approaches. This is exemplified by our discussion sessions, in which we address central questions through various practices and experiences, with participants from different parts of the festival. How feasible is it, for instance, to act on a transnational and transcultural level? How could we think of a different “we”? How could we overcome the so-called complicity of art and move towards new forms of coalition?

Seidler: Take, for instance, how the conference and exhibition come together: in addition to presenting artworks, the program aims at hosting panels that offer space for the artists to talk in depth about their works and their specific approaches. The development of these panels happens in direct relation with the exhibition. Artists present their work or research projects as case studies, starting from a specific aspect of the festival theme.

Dragona: We are, for instance, exploring the role of forensic practices; we are discussing how artistic narratives revisit the history of colonialism and exploitation of natural resources, and we also examine how artists investigate extraterritorial economic and logistical zones.

Seidler: Furthermore, in order to focus on different ways of engaging with artistic works, 2018’s exhibition program is not solely built around a classic group show, but fuses installations and live project presentations. These will take the shape of screening lectures, performances, workshops, and panels and will happen in the same space as the exhibition.

Filmmaker: Can you tell me more about the presentations? Some very knowledgable scholars been scheduled.

Dragona: The keynotes this year will be given by Jonathan Beller, Lisa Nakamura and Françoise Vergès, who, from different angles, look into the ongoing relationship of capitalism and racism. Françoise Vergès, for instance, will address the racial capitalocene and the inequalities that pervade the history of environment politics, colonialism and Promethean thinking. Jonathan Beller will discuss how a new form of computational capitalism follows racial capitalism and problematize the toxicity of the current correlation of media, finance and information. Lisa Nakamura will discuss the importance of critical race theory as a tool of surviving the so-called post-race world. She will focus on the role of women of color as actors of resistance in today’s internet infrastructure.

We have panels and discussions with different thematic foci, looking into, for instance, the impact of financialization, the rise of fascism, and the weaponization of language. Speakers like Max Haiven, Nina Power, Rasmus Fleischer, Ewa Majewska, Alex Foti, Nick Thurston and Sybille Krämer will present their research and perspectives on these issues.

Filmmaker: transmediale always has artists in residence and art created specifically for the event. What are some of this year’s original/commissioned pieces?

Seidler: Among the commissioned pieces of the festival program is the Offshore Investigation Vehicle by the Demystification Committee—2017’s transmediale Vilém Flusser resident artists Oliver Smith and Francesco Tacchini. The artists will show the project as a multifaceted installation that also displays large amounts of their research material and activate their work during a performative presentation. The Offshore Investigation Vehicle is based on the artists’ ongoing research about the power structures inherent in offshore practices and tries to identify means of intervening into these financial systems. In general, most of the projects presented in the exhibition will be extended by an additional layer specifically created or put together for the festival; many works will, for the first time, be displayed accompanied by contextualizing research, referential material, or documentation.

Gansing: Another major work is a new performance by the musician James Ferraro who collaborates with visual artist Nate Boyce to create the AI-themed Plague, a project we are presenting together with CTM Festival, and which was originally commissioned with AND – Abandon Normal Devices festival in Manchester. This will be the first time that the underground “vaporware” star Ferraro, who rose to fame with his Far Side Virtual album in 2011, will be creating a conceptual stage production, featuring a choir and live visuals.

Filmmaker: What are some of the films — or film-based works — that you’re particularly excited about?

Wüst: We are particularly excited about hosting a new piece by Berlin-based artists Stefan Panhans and Andrea Winkler that combines installation, film, and performance in the form of an on-stage staccato reading by three actors: HOSTEL Sequel #1: Please Be Careful Out There, Lisa Marie. In this work, the artists will address increasing everyday racism, celebrity worship, and the dominance of the economic. transmediale 2018 face value also presents the Berlin premiere of Eric Baudelaire’s feature-length artistic documentary Also Known as Jihadi. The short film programs combine experimental, essayistic, and documentary films and videos, predominantly from the last 15 years, with a main focus on recent productions. Highlights include the Berlin premiere of Roee Rosen’s The Dust Channel (which was part of documenta 14 in Kassel), the German premiere of Rosa Barba’s Disseminate and Hold, shot in São Paulo, belit sağ’s Ayhan and Me, Lina Selander and Oscar Mangione’s The Offspring Resembles the Parent, Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s Rubber Coated Steel, and Indefinite Pitch by James N. Kienitz Wilkins. Additionally, transmediale invited the Moldavian filmmaker and curator Stefan Rusu, who lives in Central Asia, to put together a program with films from Thailand, Malaysia, and other Asian countries in order to reflect on the global post-democratic condition of an increasingly reactionary political discourse and media culture.

Seidler: Regarding film-based artworks, several hybrid formats are among this year´s program highlights. Within the exhibition program this includes the activation and intermission of film-based artworks though live elements as, for instance, through theatrical performances, readings or music. Among them are Larry Achiampong and David Blandy, who will activate the latest part of their collaborative film series Finding Fanon [shown above] — which deals with the politics of race, racism and the post-colonial in an age of new technology, image circulation and globalized capitalism — through a dialogical spoken word performance. Mumbai-based art studio CAMP will present their widely travelled feature-length film From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf, which started as a research project on the Gulf of Sharjah and the ungoverned trade with free ports in Somalia, in a screening lecture format. Another highlight is the German premiere of the video installation Jubilee 2033 by Zach Blas, starring Susanne Sachße as Ayn Rand and performance artist Cassils as a contra-sexual, contra-internet AI prophet. The film is roughly based on the opening sequence of Derek Jarman’s queer punk film Jubilee from 1978 and confronts the transformation of the internet into an instrument of state oppression and capitalism.

Filmmaker: This is actually two questions, but where is the future of digital media heading and how will it relate to culture in the near future? You actually refer to (post)digital culture in your announcement of this year’s festival; is that where we are headed, or are we already there?

Gansing: The challenge of the future as we see it, in the light of the face value theme, is the importance of bridging different cultural viewpoints, especially when it comes to technological development and its relation to different social and cultural contexts. In order to counter today’s tendencies towards identitarian and essentialist conceptions of culture we need to recognize our own position in the world as not being the absolute center, and instead as very much relative to other kinds of forces, natural or technical or in-between. For this purpose, we also try to present alternatives to western-dominated narratives of media culture and propose new imaginaries for the past, present and future of our globally mediated societies—digital, analogue and hybrids thereof.

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