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A link to source: transmediale 2018 exhibition “Territories of Complicity” documentation website (Sprawling Swamps); via a still image of Sprawling Swamps (2016-ongoing) by Femke Herregraven – installation, interactive 3d environment, video, audio.

Let’s continue the discussion from the previous post, where I observed recent transmediale, in particular, its last panel ‘Confronting Social Cybernetics’ that revisited Marshall McLuhan’s legacy and catalysed transmediale’s self-criticality. As mentioned in the post, one participant from the audience suggested to look for alternatives for the discussion, and drew attention to the activity of ‘doing.’ In this respect, there are two truths. As moderator Baruch Gottlieb noted – the festival is a ‘structure’ and a ‘product’ as such, and at the same time, if we look at the website information, it is clear that the work of the whole transmediale collective is enormous research and through that – translation.  So, if ‘doing’ is interpreted as aesthetics, discussion – as translation,  how to compare aesthetics and translation?

The meaning of aesthetics is diverse. Aesthetics can characterise any thing, it can be immediately related to art, but let’s ignore this and apply a more theoretical parameter for a start – aesthetics as opposite in nature to activity of translation. The difference is that ‘translation’ is considered transparent – it draws attention to something else such as knowledge; but we call something ‘aesthetics’ when it has intrinsic value of reality within itself. Even though translation can be thought to be minor, it is obviously very demanded. Often it is important that aesthetics is translated or discussed. But if something that is expected to be ‘translation’ and subject matter is aestheticized then its reception can be mixed. For example, professor Dave Harris has devised youtube series – Deleuze for the Desperate to give resources and tips to those students who need to come to grips with the popular Thousand Plateaus by Deleuze and Guattari which is considered difficult by any standard. But the language of Thousand Plateaus, as Harris confirms, is ‘deliberately rambling.’ [1] So on the one hand, aesthetics presents challenge, on the other hand, Deleuze & Guattari insist on experiencing aesthetics rather than clarity/translation. Where is the balance?

tansmediale is translation only to an extent; its quality as translation is absorbed within aesthetics of the whole event, and particular artworks. Art that occupies itself with research and translation prioritise aesthetic rights. During the panel ‘Extracting Hi(stories) of Complicity’ at transmediale 2018, Femke Herregraven was questioned in relation to her work of visual mapping and imagery that pointed to exploitation of natural resources through infrastructures of capital. The question was about where she situated herself between aesthetics and activism, and I think ‘aesthetics’ was used in the sense of beautification. The artist noted that one way of communication is through an article, but artist operates differently, and if images can attract attention then it is considered effective.

The audience comment above also evokes that activism is more closely related to what is considered translation, not aesthetics. If I remember correctly from transmediale 2018 discussions, a comment was made at some stage that aesthetics was not necessarily good, meaning that perhaps it was not necessarily effective. Even though the spirt of transmediale is that of activism I think it is wrong to disconnect aesthetics from activism. A discussion is activism, not because it is a discussion but because it presents itself as an aesthetic form of resistance. It is already the activity of ‘doing.’ In fact, translation and aesthetics are entangled.

Perhaps the distinction between what is considered activism and aesthetics is so strict because the current tendency of activism is focused on the strategies of subversion, confronting and negation as demonstrated by transmediale. The radical spirit for social change needs to be negating (violent, as McLuhan would say) but the classic avant-garde had the capacity to be affirmative in its nature. It has been interesting to follow e-flux collaboration with Boris Groys as they recover materials and previously overlooked histories of avant-garde – just this month  e-flux journal (#88) ‘Russian Cosmism’ has been published. The world-building idea of this classic avant-garde seems to be different from, for example, transmediale. I think excavation of avant-garde is very timely to glean from, and I am convinced that it is effective to apply active aesthetics as world-building.

But it can be also sensed, that there is a need for ‘building.’ As I mentioned in the previous post, during the Confronting Social Cybernetics panel Jonathan Beller deliberately appropriated the ‘negative’ voice which could be seen very much in consistency with transmediales overall tone. But he weakened negativism and perhaps in a much more McLuhanist way highlighted the idea of ‘re-organizing imaginaries’ with the awareness our distributed personhood. And it feels that re-organizing imaginaries is reliant on concept of building (innovating?) rather than destruction. A form of violence as world-building is possibly the only real form of violence. 

 

[1] Dave Harris, Deleuze for the Desperate #1 Introduction, published January 31, 2016, YouTube.

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Marshall McLuhan Speaks, image by cea+. Sourced from Flickr, Creative Commons licensed.

Sunday night, on the 4th of February 2018, I could stay awake: at 5am in the morning (Melbourne time) I was still happily watching the streaming transmediale in Berlin. I was drawn to the last panel ‘Confronting Social Cybernetics’ due to its cultural angle and determination to revisit Marshall McLuhan. After a video fragment from McLuhan’s famous debate with public in the 70s Katerina Krtilova in the panel suggested: the same Luhan’s statement ‘the medium is the message’ is to be reformulated for today with the focus on ‘message’ rather than the medium. The shift is clearly expressed by words in the title of the panel (Confronting Social Cybernetics). But armed with this very claim for confrontation under the overarching trope/ McLuhan’s legacy – ‘technology is not neutral,’ the session turned into a self-critical transmediale.

Ewa Majewska put forward ‘counterpublics’ and passionately talked about the criteria – counterpublics is embedded and contextualised in the production. Jonathan Beller deliberately took a ‘negative’ world-view that resonated with the title of his newest book The Message is Murder: Substrates of Computational Capital (Pluto Press, 2017). Yet the provocation that was leading to forum and self-criticality came from the moderator: Baruch Gottlieb in his flexible and rather light style (with inspiration from McLuhan?) picked a mirror image by pointing to talks of ‘cocktail parties’ and scholarly circles who were ‘well-fed’ by the conference, and at the same time, he enquired into failures to ‘accomplish social change.’

Soon a voice from transmediale’s audience reflected upon alienation by the language and gathering of the agents of language who seemed to congratulate each other.  One participant wanted to do ‘stuff’ with people in the room and proposed to look for alternatives to the ‘aboutness’ of the discussion format. Another suggested being ‘present’ because the criticisms at transmediale, such as ‘one cannot see art’ stressed that we were too hung up on the form of something. Yet another participant insisted to forget about McLuhan and cited a couple of German news reports about transmediale that were predominantly interested in form:  not about medium-as-message, but the form in the festival – good-looking audience and hipsters. Then, another member of the audience appreciated that transmediale had put the chilling issues like current rise of fascism on the table so they can be addressed.

The commentary resembled the genius question to McLuhan included in the historic video that was played at the start of the session. In 1977, McLuhan debated live on Australian TV before a large audience; the lady featured in the video phrased her question this way: ‘If the medium is the message and it doesn’t matter what we say on TV, why are we all here tonight and why am I asking this question?’ (see Marshal McLuhan ‘The Medium is the Message’ Part I, Monday Conference on ABC TV, 27 June 1977  07:06).

This self-reflective point from public enquires into the value and meaning of social activity and agency when the social environment is shaped by media complexes. Even more so, the question started echoing the very theme of transmediale 2018 ‘face value.’ The notion ‘face value’ indicates the problem of misleading value perceptions, according to what is printed or what appears to be, and points to the invisible side of media systems from Wall street finance to extreme right-wing ‘counter-cultures.’ Is it also a question about what transmediale itself appears to be and is? And how it accomplishes the ‘message’ of confronting?

But there is more to say about the video, if you continue watching the compelling documentations of The McLuhan Project on abc site. McLuhan talked about the concept of violence. Violence as encounters and self-expressing quest for identity, and media as a massive way of identity making: ‘Today when you trigger these vast media that we use you are manipulating entire population’ (see Marshal McLuhan ‘The Medium is the Message’ Part I, Monday Conference on ABC TV, 27 June 1977  08:30).

Thus, violence is the principle of media activism and ‘counter’ movements for social change. Dealing with violence amounts to enforcements of (new) identity and shaping of ‘the message.’ Violence also characterises criticism. All instances of journalistic – including art – criticism and reviewing tend towards violence, and that is – expression of their identity through their particular perspective. I do not believe that Art Review (artworld’s flagship magazine) would be more empathetic in its approach to transmediale than German mainstream newspapers. When asked, McLuhan replied that the alternative to ‘violence’ is ‘dialogue’ [1]. If the logic of dialogue is replaced by media activism (confronting) and is rather hard for criticism, it should be the defining logic of social activity, and what the transmediale participant identified as the need for ‘being present.’

Image: Marshall McLuhan Speaks, image by cea+. Sourced from Flickr, Creative Commons licensed.

[1] Marshal McLuhan ‘The Medium is the Message’ Part I, Monday Conference on ABC TV, 27 June 1977

Fragment from Pierre Huyghe’s exhibition at Centre Pompidou, December, 2013. Photo sourced from Contemporary Art Daily.

The post-human thinking at the time of Anthropocene is not only an accelerating direction in art but also an influence on art museums. Comprehending the connection between humans, objects, animals, technologies and nature is an issue that moves into the center stage of art. The key requirement for this critical thinking and practice is the position outside of predetermined conceptions of existing  knowledge and social value mechanisms. As Keith Armstrong distinguished, when it comes to the realm of “ecological art practices” – it is not about “management” , but a completely new image of the human or rather a form of self-realization as part of broader processes that will then guide our engagement with the world. [1] Ecological disasters and the concrete effects of global warming make it urgent to feel and to operate within “the real,” – and the last years have seen art production that is occupied with the material environment.

New media art cultures and public art practices take up active and problem-based positions in order to re-orient human knowledge – to make sense of the human interrelations with non-human agents on the basis of praxis and empathy. It is useful now to apply imagination derived from science-fiction and tales such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland or Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince to be able to sometimes expand and sometimes – shrink the perspectives of the human. With their project “On Becoming Earthlings: Shrinking and Expanding the Human” the Council followed this wisdom while bringing together experts and non-experts for one-to-one dialogues with the goal to create multi-dimensional and “hallucinatory knowledge space.” [2]

When we look at the classic exhibition format within art institutions, it is interesting that representational aesthetics grounded on inquiries for new knowledge enter these social institutions that have their conventional role to embody and transfer humanity’s knowledge. Nicolas Bourriaud claimed that human consciousness literally left forms of representation in the event of Mark Leckey’s The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things (2013) and Pierre Huyghe’s exhibition at Centre Pompidou (2013). [3] Bourriaud discussed these two major exhibitions with respect to the theme of art in Anthropocene. According to him, Leckey related to the objects without human mediation in order to connect with them sensually, whereas Huyghe proposed a “world without humans.” [4]

On the one hand, these practices are reminiscent of Marcel Broodthaers’ fictional project Museum of Modern Art, Eagles Department  (1968-1972) that, through its perfect system of object gathering and classification, achieved elaborate and sophisticated deconstruction of institutional knowledge systems (in the frames of the museum itself). On the other hand, Leckey’s systems of objects that may produce “weird complexities” [5] and Huyghe’s interest in constructing situations that “take place within reality” [6] resonate with contemporary cabinets of curiosities, a widely celebrated trend of self-reflection and re-interpretation following the model of MONA in Hobart (as predicted in my blog post back in 2013).

Strictly speaking, the perspective of Anthropocene eliminates the existence of museums as we know them, yet of course they will exist, and the state of Anthropocene comes with opportunities for museum interplay with antithesis.

Image: Fragment from Pierre Huyghe’s exhibition at Centre Pompidou, December, 2013. Photo sourced from Contemporary Art Daily.

[1] Keith M. Armstrong. “Grounded Media – Expanding the Scope of Ecological Art Practices Within New Media Arts Culture.” QUT Media-Space-Journal (2008). http://eprints.qut.edu.au/8802/.

[2] Council. “On Becoming Earthlings: Shrinking and Expanding the Human, 25/4/2015.” Council,  http://www.formsofcouncil.org/en/inquiries/115_on_becoming_earthlings/737_on_becoming_earthlings_737.

[3]  Nicolas Bourriaud – Art in the Anthropocene: Humans, Objects and Translations, YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TgBQUE-ZaY4.

[4]  Nicolas Bourriaud – Art in the Anthropocene: Humans, Objects and Translations, YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TgBQUE-ZaY4.

[5] Kathy Noble. “The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things, curated by Mark Leckey: in Conversation with Mark Leckey, 2013.” Goldsmiths – Research Online, https://research.gold.ac.uk/9375/.

[6] Contemporary Art Daily. “Pierre Huyghe at Centre Pompidou, December 30th, 2013.” Contemporary Art Daily: a Daily Journal of International Exhibitions, http://www.contemporaryartdaily.com/2013/12/pierre-huyghe-at-centre-pompidou/.