The future is no longer just that part of time that has yet to take place, but a cultural projection onto our present. This is how Bruce Sterling opened his keynote address at the transmediale Festival in Berlin, which closed last Sunday, focused this year on the Future.
The festival was opened under the auspices of a snow storm that, however, scared no one away, as visitors remained heads held steadfastly high to watch the stage performance “Tintinnabulations For Tomorrow and Tomorrow” by Charlemagne Palestine and the lighting of the laser installation “From One to Many”, a futuristic rainbow by Yvette Mattern.
The performance was accompanied by the ringing of the bells in the Tiergarten, near the House of World Cultures, which had the effect of marking the rhythm and time of this year’s festival, dedicated to the Future. In the words of Stephen Kovats, artistic director for this year and next, “FUTURITY NOW! is not about what will come, but how we have to re-consider our past futures. The future has caught up with us, and now it is our task to define it.”
The festival itself began as a discussion around cacophonic systems and volatility in the wake of the meltdown of global financial systems – the world’s first digital storm. The paths of technological progress, the ‘truth systems’ that mark our digital culture, can no longer be set on autopilot, and the conditions for another form of future need to be laid out.
The most anticipated conference scheduled was the Futurity Long Conversation, a nine-hour long uninterrupted dialogue. It was introduced by Alexander Rose, director of the Long Now Foundation, who gave a very Californian-style introduction of little significance. The conference itself was a relay of one-to-one conversations, bringing twenty-two leading artists, designers, theorists, journalists and media interventionists together to discuss, contextualise and explore the abstract and qualitative elements defining what we conceive of the future today.
This Long Conversation was inspired by the work of The Long Now Foundation, an organisation I really like for its way of observing the future and the present (one of the founders was Brian Eno). This international organisation crafts ways with which to perceive time and durational process in radically different and perhaps media-technologically appropriate ways.
The different dimensions of past, present and future flow into each other, creating a state of atemporality. The speed of our society is constantly increasing in terms of processes, logistics and media, causing the present to “shrink”. In the conference Atemporality – A Cultural Speed Control? – keynote speaker Bruce Sterling spoke about the structure of the future and how it has changed, and with it our sense of time. We are running out of the future as a resource for growth, progress and stability. Our cultural is switched on cruise control and has become defective.
The conference examined the limits, gaps and dysfunctions of the future as a cultural object of projection and sought to delineate possibilities and strategies to analyse our present (and its media). Today it is the media that defines how we judge our reality as it is.
Of rather less interest was the exhibition FUTURE OBSCURA, curated by Honor Harger, although I was very impressed with the curatorial framework, as it took its cue from a quote by Thomas Pynchon in Against the Day: “We make our journeys out there in the low light of the future, and return to the bourgeois day and its mass delusion of safety, to report on what we’ve seen. What are any of these ‘utopian dreams’ of ours but defective forms of time-travel?”
Artists always give us a vision of the world that is in some before its time. It is in this way that their artists have something in common with science fiction writers; taking their cue from the same visionary assumptions, the former express themselves through visual media, while the latter speak to us through the word.
The vision of the future that visual artists express was continued in the thematic exhibition of the festival. As the curator Honor Harger puts it, “the curatorial departure point explores the camera obscura, the historical apparatus in whose interior the image of an exterior scene can be projected. Future Obscura explores how the machines and materials of moving-image making capture, retain and reproduce our reality and so alter our sense of temporality.”
What I really appreciated, for aesthetic reasons, was the tendency to involve artists that make original re-use of low-fi technologies, offering an implicit critique of technology itself.
One of my favourite works was “The Space Beyond Me” (2010), a new work by Julius von Bismarck (Germany) which, much like his last work “Image Fulgurator”, turns the functions of things on their head.
This new work uses the materials and devices of filmmaking to create an uncanny experience of space and time. “The Space Beyond Me” recreates a process in the human brain in which virtual three-dimensional images are reconstructed from two-dimensional information; this takes the form of an immersive installation, where a 16mm camera, which has been converted into a projector, beams a film onto a circular screen that is painted with phosphorescent paint. In this work historical instruments and contemporary digital and robotic technology combine to create a transient experience of futurity.
I also found “The Optofonica Capsule” quite interesting. It creates a futuristic context for experiencing moving image and sound. It is both a visionary design object and an immersive environment in which a visitor can select from a programme of audiovisual works made by international artists and curated by TeZ. The shell-like shape of the capsule enfolds the body of the visitor to optimise the experience of surround and tactile sound. This highly technologically-augmented audiovisual space suggests a future whereby our existing passive tropes of experiencing moving image and sound, have been upgraded substantially.
As concerns the transmediale Award itself, I thought it should have gone to the F.A.T. Lab collective, which Christine Sugrue (winner of the Share Prize 2008) is a part of. The Free Art and Technology Lab (F.A.T. Lab) was founded in 2007 by Evan Roth and James Powderly. Over the last two years it has grown to nineteen members, working in more than three continents connected through the internet. The entire F.A.T. network of artists, engineers, scientists, lawyers, and musicians is committed to supporting open values and the public domain through the use of emerging open licenses, support for open entrepreneurship and the admonishment of secrecy, copyright monopolies and patents.
I found the Carnivorous Domestic Entertainment Robots quite funny, though also tremendously cruel – especially the Coffee Table Robot by Auger-Loizeau & Zivanovic.
The Carnivorous Domestic Entertainment Robots prototypes power themselves with special fuel cells that are able to produce electricity by processing the bodies of flies, and in one case, yes, mice. The future conversation around this table could possibly sound something like “Hi! Want a cup of this coffee made with mice power? It’s still warm.”
Somewhat questionable were the co-operative aspects were of the so-called Art 2.0 (another definition of art and Internet) work “Bicycle Built for Two Thousand” by Aaron Koblin and Daniel Massey, because the people contributing to the initiative did not actually work with each other but only with the authors, so in reality the approach was hardly co-operative at all.
The online work is comprised of over 2,000 voice recordings collected via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk web service. Workers were asked to listen to a short sound clip, then record themselves imitating what they heard. The result is a reconstructed version of the song Daisy Bell – the first song to implement musical speech synthesis in 1962.