Kunstsammlung NRW
Transmediale: Still taken from "Le Clocher de Planpraz Climbing - Watch in HD" by Nevets Films on Youtube. © Artwork by The Laboratory of Manuel Bürger
this & that

Transmediale CAPTURE ALL: in search of the digital future

TRACK SLEEP. TRACK STEPS. TRACK HABITS. TRACK LIFE. CAPTURE ALL: even at first glance, the topicality of the motto of this year's media art festival Transmediale is hard to beat. Perpetual surveillance by government and intelligence services and enormous data pooling by Google and Facebook are already facts – just the same, we continue to measure our pulses and count our steps using fitness apps. What comes, then, after full take? Are algorithms are closest friends on Facebook?

By Arnika Fürgut for #32

In recent years, Transmediale (actually launched in 1988 as a video festival on the periphery of the Berlinale) has undeniably established itself as a conference and festival for digital culture and media art – and to such a degree that this year, it was almost completely sold out. Under the motto CAPTURE ALL, the thematic focus of the four-day event at the "Haus der Kulturen der Welt" in Berlin was on the quantification, analysis, and collection of data. The topic of the unusually urgent discussion, which ranged from the artistic to the sociological, was the “full take,” the total gathering of all communication flows. But the phenomenon was not simply criticized in the usual mode of cultural pessimism, but instead illuminated and visualized in multifaceted ways. Panels, screenings, and workshops were divided into three simply and clearly definable strands: LIFE, WORK, and PLAY. Each keyword functioned to characterize and map the coordinates of a field that on the one hand defines our culture, and on the other has – through digitalization, datafication, and the power of digital algorithms – also strongly profoundly transformed it, albeit without our perhaps even being aware of it.

In the CAPTURE ALL EXHIBITION that flanked the conference, the curators Daphne Dragona and Robert Sakrowski showcased eleven internationally known artists who seek to come to terms with the asymmetries, algorithms, and putative delusions of the datafication of the world.

One of these was Laurel Ptak, also invited as a speaker, with her manifesto Wages for Facebook:


In 2014, under the title Wages for Facebook, Ptak – who is a curator and a professor at the New School in New York – published a manifesto about America’s largest social network, which she refers to as “not social at all.” But it is not a question here of the usual monotonous critique of Facebook as data leech, but instead – based on the idea of wages for housework championed by the women's rights movement of the 1970s – of repositioning of user from a mere consumer to a worker and producer of contents through whose exploitation the social networks generate capital and value. Through this page change, Ptak makes it clear that while the big players of the digital economic world, with their server capacity, programmers, and technologies, do in fact create the infrastructure, it is nonetheless we, the users, who produce the valuable contents, the data – which is instrumentalized through a world of seeming happiness that conceals our labor behind concepts such as friendship, gaming, and social networking:

“To demand wages for facebook is to make it visible that our opinions and emotions have all been distorted for a specific function online, and then have been thrown back at us as a model to which we should all conform if we want to be accepted in this society.

[…] By denying our facebook time a wage while profiting directly from the data it generates and transforming it into an act of friendship, capital has killed many birds with one stone. […]

We want to call work what it is work so that eventually we might rediscover what friendship is.”

The entire manifesto, which is well worth reading, can be accessed at www.wagesforfacebook.com. Meanwhile, the media resonance of this initiative was enormous, particularly in the US.


Jennifer Lyn Morone Inc.: “Bye Bye Data Slavery”

Working in a similar vein is Jennifer Lyn Morone: based on the corporate structures and business models of the large digital concerns, the American artist has made herself the founder, CEO, shareholder, and product of her own enterprise.

Her work Jennifer Lyn Morone Inc. investigates the question: “What are you worth?” She gauged and valuated herself, her identity, and all of the information that she generates through herself, and which is continually updated. She also created a price list of her organs, calculated the monetary value of her life, her productive capacities, and her education, and outfitted her apartment and herself with cameras, geotrackers, sensors, pulse monitors, and EKG machines.

Using the same methods of datafication and global surveillance deployed by governments, intelligence services, and corporations, Jennifer Lyn Morone monitored and quantified herself for an extended period of time. Her counterpart is the purchaser and shareholder of her personal corporation: he can purchase data packets she has generated about herself, livestream from her living room, even own her individual bodily organs – as soon as there were a question of removing these from the enterprise, however, he would presumably need to reach an agreement with other shareholders.

Jennifer Lyn Morone herself says that she wants to use this experiment to find out how far these mechanisms can reach, and where perhaps the worst case scenario might dwell: would she cease to exist if someone owns more than 50% of her incorporated identity? Would other shareholders intervene or instead agree if a shareholder wanted to remove one of her organs, for example?

“Did you ever want to be invisible?”

For years now, Heather Dewey-Hagborg, an American artist and biohacker, has dealt in her work with the interface between artificial intelligence, surveillance, the natural sciences, and art. In Stranger Visions in 2012, for example, she began to collect DNA samples in the form of cigarette butts, fingernails, and hairs from the streets of New York and used them to create computer-generated and irritatingly realistic 3-D portraits.

The work Invisible, which was presented at Transmediale, is interpretable as a kind of reply to the first project – in this instance, she developed two substances in the form of sprays. The Eraser can be used to remove one's own DNA from objects, while the Replacer substitutes foreign DNA for the material that has been removed. In this way, traces of DNA on drinking glasses or toothbrushes, for example, can be removed without difficulty, while conversely, every DNA sample must be understood as a possible manipulation of the trace that was formerly regarded as unassailable.

These three works, as well as others, made it clear: it is difficult to draw conclusions from the CAPTURE ALL Transmediale – partly because many questions were raised and discussed there for the first time, a few of which can even be characterized at the present moment by their own unanswerability. How, for example, do we define ourselves in a society of “full takes,” where knowledge, expertise, and information are used, sorted, and evaluated via algorithms? What is the meaning of labor in digital capitalism, and how do we distinguish it from leisure time, during which we ceaselessly produce content? Which portion of the collected information and data about ourselves have we ourselves generated and made accessible? What is the origin of the need to track, to localize, to observe, to record, to analyze ourselves to an increasing degree? Where do we look when all of the cameras are focused on us?

“Anxiety about government surveillance obstructs our view of that which is,” comments the festival director Kristoffer Gansing in Tagesspiegel, hitting the nail on the head: instead of continuing to fuel fear and rejection, this appeal will need to be more precisely examined and investigated. Instead of perceiving computers, technologies, and algorithms as competition and as threat (how can they really threaten us, since they remain machines devoid of their own interests?), we should be directing our gazes instead at ourselves as producers, receivers, workers, players, and consumers and sharpening them. Terms such as friendship, the social, labor, capital, consumption, and knowledge must be redefined. We should be listening very carefully, partly because – as Mercedes Bunz puts it so tellingly in her publication The Silent Revolution (2014) – digitalization has transformed our world in fundamental ways, but without making much noise in the process.

The Transmediale CAPTURE ALL took place from January 28 to February 1, 2015, at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin.
Photos and views of the events are available here.