An exhibition being held at the ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany, discusses how life is defined in digital worlds. Rarely has the relationship between humans and machines been as intelligently decoded as has been done here.
Free admission, free W-Lan, fresh fruit and coffee free of charge for everyone: anyone who educates themselves should be rewarded if they cannot be paid for their efforts - which the artist and curator Peter Weibel, director of the Centre for Art and Media (ZKM) in Karlsruhe, would certainly find even better. But even he cannot completely reverse the mediation of art and culture, but instead he can turn the inside of those equally mysterious and ubiquitous apparatuses that encode our digitized life outwards. The black boxes of electronic machines contain the commands of which we see nothing when wiping, typing and clicking on the gleaming user interfaces, but of which, Weibel thinks, we should have an idea if we want to be mature citizens of the 21st century. And so this exhibition wants to give the visitor a kind of keychain to a closed world and help democratize knowledge of power.
"Open Codes" is the name of the show, which has changed steadily since it opened in the autumn and was extended until the beginning of next year due to the great popularity of the public. The title is a call to crack the code and describe the state of the disclosure in one; the poster itself is not designed, but coded. The letters for the lettering do not come from the drawing treasure of our alphabet, but are the result of a three-dimensional notation specially developed for the exhibition by Adam Slowik, Christian Lölkes and Peter Weibel. Everyone can try them out in Karlsruhe: A quadruple-angled metal tube with a built-in position meter, as in a smartphone, shows the outline of a letter as a projection, depending on its position in the room.
With the "Alphabet Space", writing becomes a space-consuming gesture that - digitally transmitted worldwide in real time - at the same time transcends the boundaries of space. As Leibniz, the father of the binary code, has shown that it only takes zeros and ones to represent all numbers, the visitor should playfully act as a character reducer and deal with an ABC reduced to a single object. Possible fields of application? Maybe in VR computer games, says Weibel.
Game is the keyword. Digitization, coding, computer science: that sounds like work, for nerds. And what visual stimuli can blockchain and monitoring software set? „Open Codes" is unsuitable for the classic "white cube" of exhibition architecture. So the show is like a pocket-sized Google campus or the sharing economy office of a start- up that encourages people to become active. In the atriums of the ZKM, metal shelves looking like a workshop function as partitions between work islands, lounge areas, reading corners, display cases, free-standing exhibits, participation stations and a table tennis table between green plants. Above the cloud shines symbolically as a cloudy lamp (Weibel) and morst a Murano chandelier texts about astrophysics (Cerith Wyn Evans). Anyone can apply to give a lecture on a digital topic of their choice, a hackathon with students and a varied, constantly updated accompanying programme make the museum an open forum, an "educational experiment". Weibel is proud that a talk about Cambridge Analytica was heard at the ZKM even before the Facebook scandal became known.
A color-coded system and hashtags such as #GenealogyofCodes, #MachineLearning, #VirtualReality and #GeneticCode, which sort more associatively than categorize strictly, point the way through the exhibition path full of disparities. There is an app, a brochure and lots of information online.
About two hundred showpieces, a little more works of art than scientific objects, are offered by "Open Codes". Many of them are at the limit, like Bernd Lintermann's serious mirror play "YOU:R:CODE", which takes you to the exhibition. First a conventional mirror throws back the visitor's image, then his image is captured by a digital mirror, dissolved by the letter sequences of the genetic code and, scanned again, transformed into markers that can be derived into information such as gender, size, age until the mirror image rasterizes into analog pixels on a switchboard. This is how we see the machines to which we entrust more and more tasks: as codes that can be translated into ever different data bodies. An installation by Alex Wenger and Max-Gerd Retzlaff reveals what traces we leave behind as data carriers or smartphone carriers.
An installation by the artist group robotlab, in which a pen-armed robot from car production writes an endless manifesto on a writing desk, which he generates from a pool of ethical texts and laws, raises the question of what rights machines equipped with artificial intelligence could demand for themselves. "The dignity of the system is inviolable," writes the robot and liquidates the human being - one can think of Kafka's "In the penal colony“.
But "Open Codes" is not a dystopian exhibition, on the contrary. It reveals coding as a cultural technique which, as an art of combinatorics, goes back to medieval theology and went from the philosophical discipline of logic to mathematics and electronics. Historical morse telegraphs, an Enigma coding machine and early transistors can be found in the exhibition. Right next to it, questions of the present arise: according to which criteria autonomous vehicles decide which life to spare in an accident and which to sacrifice? What happens when two bots flirt with each other? How does a speech computer encode agency messages when it receives instructions to use affirmative or critical language? How do Bitcoin Miners create value? Can numbers be declared illegal because they are used for encryption? And how does it change our self-perception when we move in virtual reality?
In the exhibition you can listen to the noise of the universe, watch beguiling fractal images calculating them, find out about the air quality of German inner cities or deal with democracy and e-governance. Whether you just want to turn a knob and enjoy the reward in the form of electronic sounds, drink coffee by the litre or learn how DNA molecules are used as data storage for texts and images, it's up to you. And so "Open Codes" is above all an encouragement to use the decoding software with the greatest decoding power: one's own mind.
Open Codes. Living in digital worlds, until 6 January 2019 at ZKM Karlsruhe.