transmediale’s Ben Vickers: ‘We Need to Pause and Reflect’

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Hatsune Miku – Still Be Here, copyright Image: LaTurbo Avedon / Crypton Future Media Inc. 2007

This year transmediale, the post-digital culture event, will reflect on the past 29 years of discussion within the programme, using four thematic streams: Anxious to Act, Anxious to Make, Anxious to Share, and Anxious to Secure, programmed by seven curators over five days. Sleek talks to co-curator Ben Vickers about the future of sharing economies and art that can only be seen from space.

Sleek: How do you fit into transmediale this time? As it’s your second year running in participating in the programme.
Ben Vickers: This year I’m part of the curatorial team tasked with the “Anxious to Share” stream, focused on cultivating a conversation. Coming at a moment where it feels that we need to pause and reflect, rather than churn through the same arguments and proposed solutions.

Anxious?
Well yes, take for example Oliver Lerone Schultz’s programme “Anxious to Act” which touches on  “five years after” the Arab Springs, and what do we have, after these insurrections, an overthrown government and Egypt under a military regime, a sense that a possible alternative is over. Or the situation of compromised sovereignty by financial means in Greece and enforced austerity. Given this situation what the fuck is left to do?

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Hatsune Miku – Still Be Here, copyright Image: LaTurbo Avedon / Crypton Future Media Inc. 2007
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Hello, City! by Liam Young, copyright Liam Young

In some ways the words reflection and conversation set us up for a juxtaposed event?
I guess that’s where my anxiety lies (laughs).

Your programme will offer a critique of the sharing economy, how would you define it today?
I don’t think I can say that I approached this in a straightforward manner, early on in the conversation there were a number of pillars of thought which the “Anxious to Share” programme was built upon; loosely summed up as the the dark global insurgency, the open source self-replicating futures and then the incumbent class,  three forces shaping the world in strange ways.

The dark global insurgency would be something like ISIS or Boko Haram, entities that will benefit from creating enormous chaos at the cost of adversaries. The open source self-replicating future could be the hackerspaces or Google, though it may now be shifting into the incumbent class. Whilst this framework is now completely invisible, serving only as spectre of thought, it was useful for trying to elucidate what’s at stake in the disposition of certain technologies that are geared towards decentralisation or what those startups capable of extracting enormous value globally with software will look like in a decade.

This gave rise to a number of concerns or areas of focus, for example the advent in the causal discussion of “planetary scale systems”, libertarian fiefdoms, or a pure rental economy through the Airbnb-fication of everything in our private sphere.

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Drone-2000 by Nicolas Maigret, copyright Eastern Bloc & Luce Moreau
Cradle Selfie by Ben Vickers
Cradle Selfie by Ben Vickers

Is there an alternative?
I think within different conversations that have unfolded over the past months that there’s an ambivalence about offering possible solutions or shining to much light on a particular alternative. I think there are options, sure, but we’ve yet to really comprehend the potential ramifications.

It’s here that in some ways it seems wise now to accept a not knowing, and acknowledge certain failures for what they are. Clearly there are new contenders and possibilities in emergent technologies such as blockchain to start to develop a totally different concept around the sharing economy, perhaps embodied best in the recent declaration from the Platform Cooperativism event, “cooperative ownership is the new sharing”. But let’s see where the conversation goes, and be careful to observe the bias and specifics of previous mistakes.

How does this connect to the hybrid event “Making Planetary Scale Gestures”?
Well, this evolved indirectly out of a series of connections, that created the workshop “Exploring Planetary Scale Design” with Sarah T Gold, Carina Namih and Ola Möller, which is focused on trying to build shared ways of seeing these “Planetary Scale Systems”. The word design implied some degree of agency, which isn’t necessarily there, and is potentially dangerous. So for a public event, “gestures” felt more apt. The use of gesture as a strategy though was inspired by a conversation with one of the participants, James Bridle, which focused on the history of land art and Robert Barry’s “Inert gas series”, where he released jars of gas in the desert in the late 60s to create a sort of planetary scale sculpture.  

James has in recent work been returning to these considerations of land art, and what that might mean in the context of satellite imagery, or what marks on the earth’s surface might mean in a moment of total surveillance. So in some ways this event is an attempt to imagine and evidence something different, to shift the conversation away from purely rationalised and utilitarian perspectives on what emerging technologies and ecologies might mean to us on spaceship earth.

Text by Penny Victoria Rafferty

transmediale takes place in Berlin until 7 February 2016

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