"Transmediale" Interplanetary – transmediale 2013 in Berlin

Transmediale is Berlin's annual “festival for art and digital culture”. In 2013 the event was dedicated to a bygone future. Among other things, at the heart of the festivities was a vote on the status of the celestial body Pluto.

The result in the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (House of World Cultures), the central venue of the transmediale, was clear:was clear: 357 votes against and 269 for. Visitors at the opening ceremony of transmediale 2013 were asked by the art director of the festival, media archaeologist Kristoffer Gansing, a Berlin transplant from Sweden, to weigh in with their yellow ballots on the not so trivial subject of whether Pluto is a planet or not. In 2006, the celestial body had been demoted from planetary status at a controversial poll of astronomers in Prague, so after taking a look at the case from 2006, festivalgoers had the chance to reassess the question. Ultimately it was all for naught. In this more artistic and less scientific vote, Pluto was denied once again the lofty status of planet.

Post-dramatic opening

Since 2012, when Gansing took over management of the 24th annual transmediale, which began in 1988 as a “video festival”, the opening ceremonies of this “festival for art and digital culture” rather resembled a “post-dramatic” theater piece. It was up to visitors to decide in such moments whether the auditorium at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, a contemporary art museum, itself felt like a place of ceremonial representation or more like a place where ceremonial representations are held. The festival's format brought a much-needed breath of fresh air to transmediale 2013, even if it was just Gansing's second year. Named after the eponymous Internet meme BWPWAP – Back When Pluto Was a Planet – transmediale risked a look back at an ambiguous past in which we “used our minitels”, the “fax was the new telex”, “history was coming to an end”, and “we still had nine planets” – as it is said in a curatorial statement on the festival.

If some folks saw the festival's main theme as slightly retro, a closer look reveals that it was actually a courageous attempt to describe our current “crisis of classification” in which unsuitable or at least questionable terms like “media art” have been topped by ones such as “media art festival” or “festival for digital culture”. Based on four thematic directions – Networks, Users, Paper and Desire – Gansing's program team tried to use six days of exhibits, conferences, workshops, films, concerts and performances to critically assess the “unreal and poetic modi of cultural critique” that have made this crisis a general expression of the times.

Evil media

Surprisingly, among the four topics, Paper seemed to have generated the most productive discoveries. A presentation from New York poet Kenneth Goldsmith about the lyrical qualities of computer-generated literature was one of the outstanding moments of the festival. The fact that some of the formats required visitors to break away from convention was part of the concept for 2013. The exhibit curated by Jacob Lillemose's had an especially noticeable lack of recent artworks. Divided into three areas, his installation was very much focused on the past.

Called Tools of Distorted Creativity, the group of works all on one wall expressed a fundamental mistrust of the presumed perfection of technology, for example Jacob Nielsen's Desktop (Gravity Edition) from 2007, in which the screen icons of a rotating monitor were unable to withstand the force of gravity and kept falling to the bottom of the screen. The Evil Media Distribution Center area was similarly skeptical with texts and objects submitted by 66 people about “evil media”, from the microwave and Excel to the tampon. The retrospective from the lesser-known media artist Sonia Landy Sheridan (1925) stood out as comparably traditional but as a result was surprisingly effective within the context of the festival.

Back to the future

As if to make the thematic tone of transmediale 2013 even more omnipresent, many parts of the museum were outfitted with a pneumatic tube messaging system call the OCTO. Visitors could use it to send their own unannounced messages with loud whooshing sounds throughout the building to the various conference rooms, thereby providing the different sessions with new input and material for discussion. Lively ideas like these made this year's festival conceptually very powerful, so much so that it will take some serious consideration for next year about how to escape the BWPWAP past that was created in 2013.