Thursday, February 2, 2012

CultureLab - Exploring technology's dark side

Natalie Holmes, contributor
(Image: Natalie Holmes)

Illuminated in a dark room, a black external hard drive is raised on a plinth. It’s only when viewers are told what the drive contains - five million dollars worth of illegally downloaded content, according to the copyright holders - that the artwork takes on meaning.
The piece, titled 5 Million Dollars 1 Terabyte, forms part of the flagship exhibition at Transmediale - a popular Berlin festival that focuses on the intersection of art and digital culture.
As the new tech-startup capital of Europe, Berlin plays perfect host to the event. This year’s title in/compatible draws inspiration from current social and political turmoil - the economic crisis, Occupy movement and online ‘hacktivism’, as well as technological developments and the resulting cultures - both real-world and virtual - that emerge.
Transmediale’s flagship exhibition Dark Drives: Uneasy Energy in Technological Times, curated by Jacob Lillemose, sets out to explore the price we pay for the conveniences we enjoy as a result of technological progress.
As the storm over intellectual property in the digital age continues to rage, his simple image of a (hard drive) box on a plinth manages to set the bendy reeds of technological dynamism in stark contrast to the static old oak of human institutions.
Lillemose led a tour of his exhibition, explaining how and why he selected the 35 works of art, which consist mostly of videos (Transmediale started life as a video festival), but also include photographs, slideshows and even full music albums.
Entering the exhibition hall, his obsession with obscurity is immediately apparent. Almost pitch black, the cavernous space is lit only by the works of art, which draw you in with flickering, glitchy allure.
Lillemose explained that each piece deals in some way with our relationship with technology. For example, an installation of Chris Cunningham’s Aphex Twin music video Come to Daddy is presented as a dystopian scenario where the television ‘wants your soul’. Despite this, a full 55 minute television programme is on offer nearby, in the form of Jay Dahl’s Web Warriors from 2008. The programme deals with the way both governmental and non-governmental forces are increasingly using the internet to fight ‘cyberwars’.
Meanwhile, in the background, the sounds of Marcelina Wellmer’s work can be heard. Entitled 502, 404, 410, the installation is a cross-section of three working hard disk units. Each unit is named after one of those server responses and has a contact microphone attached. When the drive spins we are confronted with the sound of the error and are encouraged to think of it differently, as a material rather than an invisible, abstract event.
What is perhaps the most affecting work is also likely the simplest. A slideshow sourced from photo sharing website Flickr’s database, the selection features images of an immense Ghanaian dump full of ‘e-waste’. The throwaway culture of today’s technology on the part of consumers, along with a capitalist tendency towards planned obsolescence on the manufacturers’ side, means that hundreds of millions of tonnes of e-waste is produced annually. The vast majority comes from the developed world and ends up in developing countries, where it causes environmental devastation and huge health risks for those working in the burgeoning recycling trade.
Beyond forcing us to contemplate the troubling implications of new technologies, the exhibition offers few solutions. To Lillemose, this is actually a key point. Technology solves many problems, but in doing so it creates new, unexpected and unprecedented ones. Through his thoughtfully curated show, Lillemose highlights the need for new approaches to solving these problems, suggesting that instead of running an unwinnable race against the machines, we should employ our very human ability to stop and reflect upon the complex consequences of our own inventions.
Transmediale festival opened at 5pm on 31 January and runs until 5 February at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin, Germany.

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