Transmediale 2016 / Reflections on Tech, Presence and Intimacy

February 25, 2016 § 1 Comment

Attendees of Transmediale taking a selfie

Foyer installation at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) encouraging conversation and informal exchanges. Credit:

Berliners told me it’s a highlight of the year so I stayed for Transmediale ‘the post-digital culture event’ held annually at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt.

The programme was not compatible with my simple 8-bit brain. Even the veterans I petitioned for guidance admitted to information overload, apt considering this year’s theme of anxiety. My final strategy was to neglect most lectures and prioritise hanging out, absorbing installations and workshopping. From these I’m teasing out one strand of interest but for more on the wider experience, read Renee Carmichael’s review.

Anxious to Act – keynote

Hito Steyerl presents an image of static noise from the Snowden files

Keynote Conversation: Anxious to Act – Hito Steyerl, Nicholas Mirzoeff, Oliver Lerone Schultz

Filtering meaning from noise
My information anxieties are a drop in the ocean of global overwhelm. Hito Steyerl at the Anxious to Act keynote contemplates an image from the Snowden files:  …most images and data information, sounds, whatever, exist in a form that is not accessible to the human senses. It is invisible, you cannot feel it, see it, smell it .. not hear it. And this of course creates the problem that is hinted at in this picture… How do you filter a signal, or any sort of information, from this kind of invisible surroundings  As we and the NSA drown in a sea of data… “The act of filtering noise… is a hugely political act.

Working Anxiety – rapid prototyping session


Prototyping an app called ‘Presence’. Doireann, Serina, Natasha and Carmin.

O Computer: make me fine
Technology’s mandate is to fix our problems. Nishant Shah at the Everything Will be Fine –Working Anxiety Session asked if they really are ‘problems’ at all, or simply aspects of humanity? When unresolved; it is considered the human being’s ‘fault’. Resolved; there are unintended consequences and new anxieties arise.

‘My Invisible Boyfriend’
The need for connection and relationship is addressed by My Invisible  (and girlfriend). This provides “an always on, always available companion who listens and responds to your every word so you can have meaningful conversations.” Outlandish? It currently has 600K users paying $25 a month.

The flirt borg has arrived
BELIEVABLE SOCIAL PROOF. Have text conversations, share photos, and tell a believable story about your ‘invisible’ boyfriend”  The returned messages aren’t automated as you may imagine but are from hundreds of working humans, a kind of affectionate mechanical turk. The continguency, Nishant explains, being the affection-burnout of its employees.

Five provocations
Discovering this recent frontier of intimacy was but one part of a 3 hour session including four other ‘provocations’ on tech and anxiety. How are AI, consciousness and femininity portrayed in ‘Her’ and ‘Ex Machina’?. How do search results differ on Google and Tor? Educator Johnathan Worth asked ‘are we teachers or data farmers?’ Finally Elizabeth Losh challenged us to reframe the approach to rapid prototyping using feminist critique.

Designing touch-free fleshtime
Working in groups we were asked to create a ‘survival tool’ for ‘a form of invisible vitality.’ My table had a conversation about online communication, friendship, loneliness and human needs. It’s been on my mind lately.  We decided that a form of vitality is being in the presence of another human being. After immersion in chat rooms, avatars and social networks, now we need fleshtime.

We prototyped an app called Presence. Without a requirement for speech or touch, users can designate a drop area in a real environment and gather to simply be in the presence of others.  Alternatively one can discover an existing Presence Area on a map. It was constructive to work with a mix of architect, sound designer, early internet user and film artist, which I feel brought a more reflective and deep response.

Haus der Kulturen der Welt

Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, February 2016.

Affection Systems – physical interaction workshop

Landing barely on time ( Sunday morning! ), I downed a filthy coffee at the door and noted the tranquillity of those already inside. A sparkly-eyed Nina Runa Essendrop gave instructions to avoid eye contact while gently sanitising my hands.

Now it’s getting physical
Essentially a participatory art experience, the workshop explored “intimacy simulation, facilitated by the immaterial presence of a fictional AI” which was Brody Condon’s  spoken word instructions. This was a novel experience of sustained contact from shoulders to hands with ‘organisms’. At one point, eyes closed, both my hands were touched and I had no idea by whom or from where. Weird but interesting.

What’s going on!?
Touch hands as if kissing someone you’ve just met … known a long time …saying goodbye to forever … in a discussion … in an argument…” Apparently this was not a meditation, but it did require monitoring sensations and any self censoring thoughts. Through simulating signals of affection, we explored closeness without attraction. Literal and psychic distance was maintained through playful rules and conditions ( no eye contact, arms only, constant partner changes ) allowing focus on the subjective experience – freed from typical self consciousness.

By the end of the session my boundaries and resistance to contact with others was somewhat rearranged and opened my curiosity. Brody explained the decoupling of intimacy from attraction. His art practice is inspired by a combination of the Nordic live action role playing movement (Larp), performance art, psychotherapeutic processes and the human potential movements of the 60s and 70s . This particular session took its basis from the Ars Amandi role play.

Teresa Dillon contextualised further with a comment on the acceleration of technology. Considering gaming culture and virtual realities it starts coming into perspective and a longer conversation with Brody and Nina afterwards gave me material to consider.

Sex with aliens?
Anxieties around intimacy are tied to norms of romance, porn and youthfulness but now confronted by accelerated alternatives. There are deep implications here for post-gender, post-body and post-terrestrial futures. How will intimacies and subjectivities be experienced in environments and years to come?

In the electric age we wear all mankind as our skin.
Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage


Technology is presenting ‘fixes’ for loneliness and disconnection but who and what are framing these ‘problems’? Let’s pause between rounds of development, allow for depth and reflect on possible contingencies of these rapidly made ‘solutions’.

New touch–smell–taste sensory inputs are inevitable. How will flesh and bone users adjust? What kind of literal and psychological algorithms will convert these into meaningful signals?

Experiences and concepts of the body are increasingly complex. Art has a central role in proposing alternative paradigms and critical re-calibrations. There is opportunity for designers to play with deeper emotional connective experiences.


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