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  • Communication breakdown: Transmediale 2024 and the “horrors of content”


Communication breakdown: Transmediale 2024 and the “horrors of content”

Artistic director Nóra Ó Murchú discusses this year's Transmediale festival and what it means to live in the age of "content".

Photo: Makar Artemev

Nóra Ó Murchú is an Irish researcher and curator who has dedicated herself to illuminating the intricate sociotechnical systems that govern and shape our lives. Ó Murchú has had a persistent interest in technology from a young age, captivated by early computer games as a child and studying computer engineering during university before transferring that fascination to the world of art.

Her multidisciplinary work delves into online culture and explores the implications of technological advancements, while her ongoing research focuses on the impact of technology on curatorial practices.

Since 2020, Ó Murchú has been the artistic director of the art and digital culture festival transmediale – the first woman in its 37-year existence to hold the position. Ahead of the third festival of her tenure, she tells us about finding inspiration in the Kardashians, the delightful horrors of internet content and the distraction it poses for enacting positive political change.

Photo: Makar Artemev

What can we expect from this year’s edition of transmediale?

This year, we’re looking at the horrors of content and the way it can influence how we think about our politics and our political relations. There’s a duality to content. On the one hand, it’s warm and feels good; it builds community and is a release from stress throughout the day. But on the other hand, by trapping us in its eternal viral loops and its precarious economic models, it creates toxic engagements and a sense of meaninglessness. The festival is very much inspired by the reality of reality TV, and a great deal of performative elements will be taking place throughout the city.

How does content affect our politics?

It can give us a poor version of politics. A good example of that is with former President Donald Trump, who after being arrested recently put his mug shot on T-shirts and cups and rebranded it with the slogan “Never surrender”. Through selling products online, he managed to generate around $20 million in the space of a week for his political campaign. Political realities are being changed as a result of being overwhelmed with so much imagery and sound. And we need to understand the way in which content is serving very particular types of right-wing or fascist ideologies.

Photo: IMAGO / Funke Foto Services

Can it have a positive effect on political campaigning? 

Yes, of course. But if you remember when everyone was showing solidarity with Black Lives Matter and sharing the black square on Instagram, it actually began to cloud the political organisers’ hashtag and impacted their political organisation in a negative way. The constant posting of black squares with the BLM hashtag got in the way of actual, real, on-the-ground organising.

In response to events unfolding now in Israel and Palestine, social media content appears to be funnelling people into simplified, binary political positions…

If you’re tweeting about things, then of course it’s gonna just be one perspective. You lose the depth and multiplicity. Social media is rife with miscommunication and misunderstanding. What online debate over the last like five years hasn’t boiled down to something like this?

Why do you think that’s the case?

It has a lot to do with the fact that there’s no context online. If you’re having a conversation with somebody in your local shop, as opposed to having a conversation online, that locality of context is completely lost. Attitudes, social norms, cultural norms, local norms are removed, and any discussion pertaining to religion, morality and ethics inevitably clashes. Once you go online, the common grounds that we share from living nearby each other are removed.

‘Future Shock’, 2023, Su Hui-Yu, film still courtesy of the artist

What’s the story behind the festival’s title: “you’re doing amazing, sweetie”?

It’s a famous meme from the Kardashians, when Kim is posing for Playboy and her mom encourages her and says, “you’re doing amazing, sweetie.” And for me, it encapsulates the ways we’ve come round to performing and selling ourselves online. How we’re urged to almost embody capitalism!

One of the questions the festival poses is whether we consume content or whether it consumes us…

If you look at TikTok and Instagram, how many videos do you scroll by that are just all doing the same thing? Like “Get ready with me” Or “Get dressed with me”? Mundane videos that blur the line between being online and offline. As if we’re between a liminal space between consuming content and actually performing it. Increasingly, that space between offline and online doesn’t exist anymore.

Kevin Brennan and Laurence Durkin, ‘TerraForma’, Documentary still, 2023, courtesy of the artists

With advances in AI, we’re constantly being told we face mass unemployment. In that case, isn’t consuming content the one thing we can look forward to?

Watching content all day sounds a little depressing, although I’m up for not working that much! But I don’t want to frame it too negatively. I’m very utopic about the possibilities of technology. If we look again at the Black Lives Matter movement, how it spread around the world so quickly – that wouldn’t have happened 10 years ago. And at transmediale, we’re not critiquing platforms or individual producers but rather the way in which issues are solved.

For example, when we have a conversation about the climate crisis, people are led to believe that one of the solutions is to buy paper straws, when we all know that the real way out of the climate crisis is actually to stop large companies drilling for oil or gas. We’re getting distracted, focusing our energy on the wrong space, rather than on real potential solutions.

So would you say we’re just passively consuming the content, unable to comprehend how we’re being manipulated?

They are two sides to how we can think about this technology: there’s this material military surveillance side, and then there’s this Hollywood entertainment side. And they’re both interlinked. And at the festival and in the exhibitions, we’re looking at how the Hollywood side is normalising these forms of surveillance, propagandising forms of power and control.

Corey Doctorow, one of the highlights of this year’s transmediale. Photo: IMAGO / dts Nachrichtenagentur

Is social media addiction a form of control as well?

Yes, especially the endless streams of AI-generated content. There’s this amazing book by Joshua Neves, called Technopharmacology, that looks at the connections between network technologies and bio economies, how this technology is designed at root level to make us addicted to it. We’re always constantly nudged through interfaces to click, constantly encouraged to keep scrolling and spending.

Would you say that with AI, we’re in danger of creating a technology we’re incapable of fully understanding?

Well, it’s always been that way. If you think of nuclear technology, it’s not really something that we have control over or understand. The discovery of nuclear power was one of the defining moments in human history, and now we’re all living through the effects of global radiation. But I think technical knowledge is hugely increasing with the public actually. I was talking to these old ladies at an exhibition in Dublin recently, and they knew all about the implications of AI. And of course the younger you go, they all know all about prompts and ask what data sets you are using. These conversations didn’t happen like five years ago.

‘Uncensored Lilac’, Bassam Issa Al-Sabah, 2023 CC BY-NC-SA, the centrepiece of transmediale 24. Courtesy of: Transmediale

Let’s come back to transmediale. The centrepiece of the festival will be the AI-animated Uncensored Lilac by Bassam Issa Al-Sabah and Jennifer Mehigan at Silent Green. What’s its main focus?

This new video work looks at how crises create breakdowns in our environment but also breakdowns in the way we communicate. It features goddesses who react with vengeance in order to make their dreams and wishes come true. However, their dreams are fairly extreme and as they argue, they don’t realise climate change has completely invaded their way of life. It explores how discourse is compromised through crisis, revealing that there’s no way to be 100% correct. We need to embrace multiplicities, rather than always falling into a singular vision. Over at Kunstraum Bethanien, the group exhibition this is perfect, perfect, perfect features new commissioned works by Laura Lulika and Sungsil Ryu among others.

Another highlight will be a talk by the famous Canadian writer Cory Doctorow, about the “enshittification of the internet”. Can you explain more about that?

It’s about how internet platforms start off serving the users but end up serving the people who made them, finding ways to get as much information and money from consumers as possible. He’s basically saying that the platforms have become unusable for users and looks at the decrease in their quality.

Photo: Makar Artemev

You are the first woman director of transmediale in its 37-year history. Why do you think it took them so long to appoint a woman?

I don’t know, actually. But there’s a perception that women don’t go into maths or engineering. However, I think that I’ve just grown up around like so many women in technology that maybe I don’t see it that way.

With their focus on the intersection between art and technology, organisations like LAS Art Foundation in Berlin are increasingly encroaching on the transmediale terrain. What makes the festival still relevant?

We begin with a thesis, an idea, and create a layer of engagement with the audience that allows for a deeper, more penetrative exploration of the themes. There is a whole ecosystem of programming with the conversations taking place during the conference. But our audience are our peers, and they are highly technologically literate with a huge interest in technology. That’s something quite novel in the context of contemporary culture.

  • transmediale festival 2024 runs January 31st through February 4th, details