The broad scope of media art can often make it hard to pin down. But organizers of Berlin's Transmediale festival argue media art's diversity is ideal to explore technology's societal impact from a critical perspective.
Entry "Untitled 5" was one of three Transmediale winners
As its name would suggest, the Transmediale festival takes an interdisciplinary approach to the world of international media arts. Already in its 18th edition in 2005, the festival, which kicked off on Feb. 4, has brought four days of art installations, seminars and a competition to Berlin. It runs until Feb.8.
Nearly 900 artists from 51 countries applied for the prize endowed with €8,000 ($10,226), but the international jury couldn't decide on just one winner. Three separate entries shared the award, which for the first time this year did away with categories.
Gravicells - Gravity and Resistance - Seiko Mikami, Sota Ichikawa (jp) transmediale.05 Exhibition Photo: Jonathan Gröger 3. Feb. 2005
"Having categories in the past frustrated the jury," festival director Andreas Broeckmann said. "Now they can focus just on the quality of the entries and this year they decided three were worthy winners."
American artist Camille Utterback won for her submission "Untitled 5", which used sophisticated software that enables audience members to become interactive participants in a multimedia painting. The project focuses on the rules software can place upon those using it.
"It's great to be part of the Transmediale," said Utterback. "The people in the audience are really thinking about the issues behind the art."
The other two winning entries were "Suburbs of the Void", a video work by German artist Thomas Köner, and "Shockbot Corejulio", a computer installation from Austrian outfit 5voltcore. Köner's submission looked at the passage of time through the perception of image and sound. He used subtly changing images from a surveillance camera in northern Finland to increase viewers' perceptions of an intense soundtrack.
5voltcore, consisting of Emanuel Andel and Christian Gützer, built a computer that short-circuits itself via a robotic arm to create changing digital images. "You can't control it, the pictures emerge from errors," Andel said.
Showing how the robotic arm operated on the exposed circuit board, he said the computer would eventually cause itself to crash -- effectively committing suicide.
How to fix the world - Jacqueline Goss, USA, Transmediale 2005
Media art can be notoriously amorphous, which is perhaps why the organizers picked "Basics" as this year's festival theme. The focus is meant to highlight artwork that deals with the often contradictory nature of modern technology and society.
"This time we consciously wanted to focus of the foundations of the artistic process and reflect upon the basic ethical principles of our society today," said Broeckmann. "But we're not talking about 'back to basics', we want to develop 'next level basics' to update our moral and cultural foundations for today."
Broeckmann said the interdisciplinary nature of media art was especially well suited to look at society's still evolving attitudes to the controversial fields of biotechnology and security technology, as well as the relentless nature of our modern consumer-oriented world.
"The festival, of course, won't come up with ultimate answers to these issues, but we hope to contribute to a fresh, forward-looking debate about the foundations of culture," he said.
transmediale.05 Exhibition Photo: Jonathan Gröger 4. Feb. 2005
But that's not to say that this year's Transmediale was strictly a heavy affair addressing only serious ethical topics. Besides club events, where electronic music met visual media art, there were numerous workshops and performances that the public could take part in.
The festival was officially opened last week with Sky Ear, a project involving several helium-filled balloons and electromagnetic fields. Tethered together to form a floating cloud 100 meters in the sky, the balloons were equipped with ultra-bright LEDs that changed color and intensity as they interacted with electromagnetic waves from television broadcasts, police radios and other wireless communication devices. Transmediale visitors got in on the fun since mobile telephones were attached to Sky Ear, allowing them to manipulate the electromagnetic field with a call or text message.
transmediale.05 Sky Ear Sky Ear - Usman Haque (uk) transmediale.05 Performance Photo: Jonathan Gröger 3. Feb. 2005
"Sky Ear is about making visible the invisible, giving form to an electromagnetic space that is just beyond reach of our natural perceptions," said Usman Haque, the UK-based artist behind the project, describing it on his Web site.
And at a workshop entitled Chirping and Crawling, participants built primitive robots from solar panels that made tiny sounds from electrical currents. Other little robots were made so they could crawl around autonomously. Those taking part even got to take their new robot buddies home with them.
This year's Transmediale was the first one to take advantage of being designated by the German Federal Cultural Foundation as one of six "cultural beacons" that are meant to represent the entire spectrum of Germany's contemporary art scene. The annual €450,000 ($587,000) grant for the years 2005 to 2009 will enable the organizers to place a stronger focus on the festival's conceptual development.