Transmediale, “a model, a map, a fiction” Orit Gat, δημοσίευση e-flux [16/2/2023]
“Alexa, I used to bark at you, now I say please and thank you.” This is artist duo !Mediengruppe Bitnik describing their work Alexiety (2018), featuring music written for the virtual assistant. It begins as a love song between user and device, then gradually gets darker. They discuss the work during a panel about the “Digital Middleman” with artists Farzin Lofti-Jam and Simone C Niquille, moderated by Silvio Lorusso, as part of the five-day Transmediale festival at the Akademie der Künste, which is complemented by exhibitions at the AdK, as well as a citywide public art project, “Out of Scale.”
The Digital Middleman panel, its participants explain, developed during preparation from a larger discussion of our relationships to the platforms and corporations that shape our digital lives to a conversation about how companies like Google and Apple have come into our homes. Transmediale, the veteran arts festival begun in the late 1990s (with precursors dating back to the ’80s), has grown from a focus on the relationship between art and technology to a reflection on how our interactions with technology are now conditioned by its developments. Many of the works on view and panels in the festival considered advancements in, for example, machine seeing and artificial intelligence, exploring a shifting world, and deciphering an image landscape produced by technologies humans are designing to move farther and farther away from what we used to think of as vision.
You’d be forgiven for smiling when seeing a life-size Pokémon right at the entrance to the festival, but it’s not just a wink at popular culture’s obsession with augmented reality games, it’s Neïl Beloufa’s Host B trying to reach out to its audience (2021), an interactive sculpture that takes over your Twitter account and tweets for you (if you scanned a QR code, which I didn’t because I don’t trust cartoon characters with my social media accounts). Host B is something between a museum docent, a parasite, and a critique on surveillance and data collection. In another interactive work, CAON–control and optimize nature (2022/23), a two-channel simulation by Marc Lee, viewers use a smartphone to navigate an imaginary world in which AI and 3D printing are used to manage the natural environment. It feels weirdly dark though it’s not a cautionary tale, just an imagining of another end of technology.
Niquille, who in the panel discussion reminded listeners that “tech is a solution to a problem you didn’t know you had,” is showing her work duckrabbit.tv (2022/23) in a two-person exhibition with Alan Butler in the upstairs gallery. Their works invade each other: Butler’s Unnecessary Journeys (2023) is a 3D video simulation shown on a long convex screen modelled on the topology of Yosemite National Park in California. We see a weather reporter trying to speak above an intense storm against an audio of a loud disturbing hum (actually the sound of computer fans). Sometimes the screen is shared with Niquille’s duckrabbits, little animated characters based on the famous nineteenth-century optical illusion, who jocularly discuss their lives. They break the anxiety of Butler’s natural landscape, introducing ambiguity and a questioning of what it is we see.
Trevor Paglen has written that we live in an age of “machine realism,” when more images are viewed by autonomous systems interpreting them than by any other way of looking. Paglen describes it as a new category of vision. This, he writes, is alarming since “it robs us of the possibility of self-determination by commandeering the power to decide the meaning of things.”1
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