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“Software Garden” at transmediale 2019Laura Fiorio

These artists look at what motivates and manipulates us in digital culture

Radical Berlin-based art and technology festivals transmediale and CTM held a series of events which explored how we empathise digitally

“What do you think is a good way to express love?” asks an audience member at author Shaka McGlotten’s performance lecture “Knitting and Knotting Love” with artist Erica Scourti. This year, transmediale and CTM unravelled empathy and the algorithms that run it; leaving us to reflect on what motivates and manipulates us in digital culture. Are our emotions our own? How are they used against us? Clickbait, machine learning, and online social etiquette are being used to collect our emotional data. We know it’s wrong, but we can’t bring ourselves to log out. So instead we must ask, “how can we seize these tools to form a system of care?”

Author Jackie Wang became fixated with time as a result of her brother’s imprisonment. At transmediale, her lecture “Carceral Temporalities and the Politics of Dreaming” discussed the weaponisation of time both in prison systems and online. Social media platforms focus on constantly updating news feeds to encourage the most efficient consumption. Time is being condensed to keep us plugged in, so how can we fight this relentless pacing? Wang proposes using poetry as a source of activism against these sociotechnical rhythms. Calling on sentimental rather than succinct language to instil a desire for change.

When communication aims to be emotive rather than practical, we can begin to redistribute the flow of our online lives. During a performance by artist Rory Pilgrim called “Software Garden”, Carol R Kallend sits in her living room reading poetry over Skype. The live stream was strangely intimate. As disco lights swirl around her, through the screen, she broadcasts a political space; one that advocates unconditional inclusivity from the comfort of her own home. Through the screen, she is able to communicate to many.

Kallend’s presence is emotionally intimate yet fragmented by lags and freezes. She juxtaposed softly with the dancers as they weaved through the crowd imitating one another's actions. Whilst they caress and embrace to operatic serenades, their presence alone serves as a reminder of the importance of physical touch. Simple face-to-face gestures and mimicry become a form of non-verbal communication; how often do we attempt to physically embody each other? “Software Garden” shows us how we can subvert these platforms for political collaboration and use them to advocate empathy.

When building these pockets of intimacy, we also need to consider the nature of this change. Dorine van Meel’s video installation at the CTM 2019 Exhibition shows a CGI sun slowly rising through the exhibition room while the voiceover narrates the story of a phoenix who comes to Earth to die, only to be born again out of her own ashes. The video encompasses the viewer in celestial empowerment through themes of maternity and rebirth. “‘Phoenix's Last Song’ proposes that the old world must burn in order for a new world to be born,” says Van Meel. “I find that vision helpful because it points to the fact that gradual improvements of the systems we live in will not bring about meaningful change. We need to dismantle these systems altogether.”

Both festivals left a resounding cry to recognise care as a universal act. What we need is not a naive uprising but an analytical one: one that is aware of how we are being manipulated, one that is finding ways to use these technologies for a tender disruption of the way things are, and one that is building a sense of collective nurturing for our future. We can utilise these platforms as spaces for collaboration, poetry and activism, to encourage expressions of love and care.

Phoenix’s Last Song shows at Hotel Maria Kapel until March 31st, find out more here