The Unexpectedly Geeky Transmediale 2009

Transmediale is a long-running festival for "adventurous music and related visual arts" and is quite a big deal in these parts (namely Berlin, Germany). Its two main venues are the large House of World Culture in a pleasant and leafy (well, branchy - it's winter), but isolated spot, and the well-known Maria am Ostbahnhof. We went to the House of World Culture first to collect our passes and check it out.

It's a campus-like place with a river behind it and parkland around - quite nice. The building is early modernist, spacious, and easy to deal with - and there are geeky doings within.

Installations, for example, often seem geeky, with their ingenious electro-mechanical contrivances. The ones we see are certainly that and mostly relate to ecological concerns.

There are some talks and conferences and the English language ones are accompanied by IRC chat channels - can't get geekier than that!

And so we spent a few happy hours looking at installations, watching arctic light shows, sitting in on a talk about water (?!), having coffee and cake, talking to from Amsterdam, and generally loafing. And then hunger overcame us and the lack of food alternatives started us on our trek across town to Maria.

Maria am Ostbahnhof is also by the river. It is quite large with nice big sound systems and with the kind of bombproof decor one might expect... although nicely gussied up with video projections on the walls and the like. A slight hitch that almost had us heading straight to bed was that we were sent to the back of an enormous queue because we didn't have a wristband already - a very slowmoving queue. But we persisted.

Metal drone madness! It seems that the answer to Noise musicians' problems in getting an audience is a little rebranding. This is Noise Music par excellence - super loud, grinding low and mid-frequency static, distorted voice and bass, a pounding drum kit.. and a big crowd! Being at Transmediale and not being called Noise was obviously a help. The ones we heard were from the US and called Lichens. In the other room, Evalina Domnitch and Demetri Gelfand were providing more low-key scratchy sorts of things. Every night there are ten or so artists in the two rooms, and every day there are talks and films. The whole festival is quite huge.

[An alternate route from Hauptbahnhof to the House of World Cultures is across the bridge and along the river by a little path. Earlier in the morning there had been a dusting of snow and all the surrounds had a soft covering of white. Looking across the river to the frosted trees felt like being in the country - peaceful and beautiful.]

The next morning we set off for a session under the heading of Re-Hacking Your World titled Sensible Software. Unfortunately, this turned out to be mostly about the likes of fiber-optics in Africa and so we tested to see what IRC clients would run on a Nokia 770 running OS2007HE - Gaim was terrible (did anyone ever test it?), Pidgin crashed on startup, Irssi has disappeared, but Xchat actually works - hooray. That brought in the interesting part of the session as people in Africa were watching the streams of us and chatting. A Skype video call from a fellow in Ghana talking about software development there was interesting as well. And if you're asking what on earth this has to do with adventurous music and the like, it beats us as well, but, whatever.

[The negatives: You have to pay for a press pass? And public transport isn't included? Or in general tickets either? And it's really not obvious at all how on earth you get to the main venue. You're serious about the WLAN where it takes ages to get a connection at peak times and there are no press terminals, or even a cup of coffee? The people on the desks are, however, extremely pleasant and as helpful as circumstances will allow. ]

Heh, on with the show ...

In the afternoon was another session called Fair Trade Hardware and this was actually about Open Source hardware, and featured the Arduino project which is a circuit board that can do many things and which anyone can use, including companies. This is DMCA defeating stuff, which is good, and it is somewhat enabling which is also good but it is part of the way forward, not the way.

There was also some software that decreased the level of knowledge needed to put together a PCB but there was certainly some knowledge required along with some sort of idea of what you wanted to do. More enablement.

There was an artist too with a sort of lab and a sort of random idea of how technology and art might interact. Yes, this is getting back on track here in fuzzy sort of way.

Enablement seems frequently to be about dumbing down - a simplification that makes people feel better but doesn't accomplish much more. There is no substitute for learning in the acquisition of wisdom.

In this line, art can be a propaganda tool as well as a purveyor of truth.

That night we went along to c-base where we had a Bleepfest in 2007. They had some live game-playing where pretty girls played Wii tennis on a little court watched by an admiring crowd of beer drinkers.

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[It is snowing lightly on Saturday but the old lot has mostly gone and the ground clear except for a few ice patches. The sky is dark grey and the temperature about 0C. It is pretty in that bleak winter seashore sort of way. ]

We missed Friday due to Mstation commitments but were back on Saturday for more talks and hanging out. The feature was a series of talks around the edges of climate change - a woman who talked about the data from privately funded weather stations being used by artists; a guy who was involved with which shares environmental data (ie put in electricity meter data to compare with others ..) and also the idea of plants as fuses in that if your carbon footprint exceeded the plant's ability to absorb then you needed to buy more plants. This sort of thing is made possible by new metering systems which are being introduced in the US. was a related site that came in by IRC.

All this was accompanied by an IRC chat with a big screen on the stage so that everyone there could see. This was the best IRC discussion so far with points being made about the energy costs in these projects. Looking at the projects as educational puts a different light on things.

The music started that night at 11PM at Maria and we ambled off to get a late dinner and arrived at Maria a few minutes before 11. This is sort of a compromise time to start as real party people don't get out much before 1AM and people with jobs and such would probably prefer something closer to 10PM but then they don't actually go out all that often. At 11 there aren't many people there but they soon mount up and two DJ's, one in each room, are doing their things which are variations on the Beat thing and not really all that interesting. After 3/4s of an hour we've had enough for the night and go elsewhere to have a cheaper beer.

[It's freezing outside! Being made to wait outside is extremely antisocial.]

Well, we came for music, and instead we got a pleasant geek-out in addition to music... and we could have had oodles more music if we'd wished or if we could have been in more than one place at a time. It's a cheap shot to quibble with the playing list, so we won't. If you're planning to go, you should check out first if there's anything you want to see or hear... but allow yourself to be surprised as well.

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