How Berlin Is Revealing The Darker Side Of The Digital World

How Berlin Is Revealing The Darker Side Of The Digital World

The Transmediale festival that highlights art, technology and digital culture, embarked on a critical examination of the Internet.

Emily Wasik, Travel Editor
  • 17 march 2014

Welcome to the dark side of digital culture, a chilling new world where computers know us more intimately than lovers, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone is tapped by the NSA, spy satellites take photos of us from above, and our Facebook feeds are hacked by cyber bandits. What was once so promising about the digital revolution in our utopian dreams of the late nineties — shiny interfaces, high-definition audio visuals, real-time electronic communication and infinite storage possibilities — is now showing its true colors. Welcome to the morning after, where the party is over and you have a killer digital hangover.

Photo: Halea Isabelle Kala © transmediale

Last month, Berlin’s 27th annual Transmediale festival brought together the most compelling think-tanks in tech to embark on a critical examination of the present condition of digital culture, exploring the “geopolitical, infrastructural and bodily consequences of the excessive digitization that has taken place over the course of the last three decades.” (Transmediale) As one of the most controversial movers and shakers left in the mainstream media art festival circuit, with a rich program of exhibitions, conferences, screenings, performances and culture hacks, it reaped in 20 000 visitors this year alone. Adopting an “afterglow” theme, it investigated the relationships between art and politics and man and machine, offering insights on mass surveillance, whistleblowing, uses and abuses of big data, bitcoin, dating through smart technologies and the emersion of a “fifth estate” empowering civic resistance.

Although the digital age’s buzz may have faded to a dim afterglow, these festival highlights prove that at least innovation and critical discussion still prevails.

1. Whistle-Blowing, Cypherpunk and Journalism in the Networked Fifth Estate
“Whistleblowing is the new civil disobedience of our time.” (Bruce Schneier) With the festival’s venue Haus der Kulturen der Welt (House of World Cultures) located within spitting distance from the German parliament, the Angela Merkel NSA phone-tapping saga was ever looming in festivalgoers’ minds. Shedding light on how “virtue ethics of cypherpunk, whistle-blowing and investigative journalism are evolving into a hybrid form of civic resistance against the predations of the State” (Transmediale), panel speakers Annie Machon, William Binney and Jeremy Scahill illustrated how a breach of confidence in government agencies, internet service providers and the media calls for the ascendance of an information commons – a so-called “fifth estate”.

2. Art Vs. Politics / Man Vs. Machine
In key-note panel Art as Evidence, documentary film director Laura Poitras, whose direct engagement with Edward Snowden led to the revelations appearing in The New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel, independent security analyst Jacob Appelbaum and artist and geographer Trevor Paglen critically reflected on the role of art as a crucial practice for people to regain and reclaim their autonomy in a networked world, through which the “discrepancies and paradoxes of geopolitical surveillance and control” can be revealed. (Transmediale)

3. Artists + Tech Meet Hackers + Art
Art Hack Day, curated by San Francisco-based artist Olof Mathé, LEAP (Lab for Electronic Arts and Performance) and Transmediale, saw over 80 “artists whose medium is tech and hackers whose medium is art” create new and original artworks around the festival theme of “afterglow” – all in the span of 48 hours:

Photo: Elena Vasilkova © Transmediale

  • NSA PRISM Parody Was So Effective It Was Almost Shut Down By Police

Within the vicinity of this exhibition, attendees’ phones’ vibrated with the following message: “Welcome to your new NSA partner network.” Art hackers Julian Oliver and Danja Vasiliev caused such a stir with their PRISM: The Beacon Frame project that it was promptly shut it down due to police threats, because it was, well, data mining. By intercepting protocol messages, the software broadcasted messages directly to people’s cell phones and observers could gaze into a rotating glass prism to read disclosed personal information about the people around them.

  • iPhone Smoke-Signaling Makes Communication NSA-Proof

What’s a sure way of making your phone NSA-proof? Sending messages via virtual smoke signals! Putting a new-age twist on Morse Code, artist and hacker Dennis de Bel developed a Smoke Messaging Service (SMS), an iPhone add-on that released puffs of smoke to communicate securely with others.

  • E-Waste: Return to Sender

In the performance Afamako, Nigerian artist Jelili Atiku’s body became a warehouse for e-waste materials from his home country, demonstrating how many people in developing countries get contaminated by the western world’s digital waste.

Artist Dani Ploeger was pierced with a coil of copper wire extracted from a cathode ray tube monitor, which was then fed with enough electricity to generate a magnetic current.

Photo: Elena Vasilkova © Transmediale

4. The Black Stack: On Software and Sovereignty
Visual Arts Professor Benjamin Bratton and research and design collective Metahaven discussed the future of planetary computation and its geographies modeled as a vertical software/hardware “stack” with six layers: Earth, Cloud, City, Address, Interface, and User.

5. Internet Black Market Brought Online Browsing to Life
Internet Yami-ichi (Internet Black Market), a flea market for face-to-face browsing, got people to “turn off, log-out, and drop in on the real world for a change.” (Transmediale) Being the brainchild of a secret society known as IDPW, it blended virtual with the real, allowing market-goers to feel what real-life tweets feel like by having an “Internet Dude” scream tweets at them or be literally “followed” by him around the market. To top off the ultimate internet kitsch extravaganza, they could shop-till-they-dropped for sample bottled MacBook-Air Air, Edward Snowden globes, web browser tableware and glitch embroidery sweaters.


Sources, Images: Transmediale FlickrPhiline von DüszelnHalea Isabelle KalaElena Vasilkova

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