Art Hack Day at Transmediale: how to present austerity as spontaneity

It was six years since I last visited Transmediale, the annual festival for Medienkunst (new media art) in Berlin. Already last time, in 2008, it was obvious that the concept of new media art is in a crisis, simply because the artistic interest in new media is no longer limited to a distinct current within the art world. Instead of using the label “new media art”, Transmediale now has a much looser self-definition.

The revolution is over. Welcome to the afterglow.” That was the motto for this year’s Transmediale, with lots of discussion about the “post-digital”, a concept which now has a myriad of definitions. More specifically, many participants talked about the post-Snowden depression and whether artistic practice is able to provide relevant reflections on the arcane levels of surveillance on today’s internet.
Compared to earlier years, it is clear that futurity and optimism is out in this scene. Instead, the attempts to reflect over the state of the net and the state of the world are now permeated by a sense of crisis.

In other words: a crisis of the form, and crisis as a main content. These are two aspects of crisis which are explicitly and thoroughly discussed at an event like Transmediale.

But there is a third aspect of crisis which you don’t hear much about. That is the much more boring fact that the economic crisis is resulting in budget cuts also for events like this. Last time I was at Transmediale, in early 2008, that global crisis was just about to break out. When comparing that year’s festival and this year’s, I can sense the shrinking economy.

In 2008, the exhibition at Transmediale was not exactly great. But it did feature artworks from a lot of the big names in the new media art scene, selected by a curator. Most of these artworks were based on thorough research and it was clear that the artists had been working on their projects for a long time. I take for granted that the featured artists was paid by Transmediale.

In 2014, Transmediale has abolished that kind of curated exhibition in favour of a so-called Art Hack Day. This was presented as a collaborative “grassroots event”, intented to “make transparent the production process of art”. I don’t buy that talk about transparency, as long as they aren’t explicit about the economy behind the exhibition. As far as I understand (from talking with several participating artists) the concept of Art Hack Day boils down to this: artists work for free.

More than 80 artist/hackers have been invited to create an exhibit from scratch during 48 hours

And they get paid zero. It’s actually the artists who pay to participate in the exhibition at Transmediale, as they have to finance their materials themselves.

That the artworks were produced in 48 hours is obviously a myth. Some of the best installations were made with e-waste that the artists had made considerable efforts to collect. Nigerian dumps provided material for “Data retention – the resurrection” (by Bengt Sjölén & Nicklas Marelius), in which flashes from the web cache of a found hard disk are presented on a screen, as well as for the installation “Back to sender” (by Dani Ploeger & Jelili Atiku). Neo-colonialism was also thematized in relation to the mining boom in northern Sweden in “Mobile mining” (by Kristina, Lindström, Åsa Ståhl & Nicklas Marelius), yet another work which involved the process of collecting e-waste on another place.

These and other examples makes it obvious that the “Art Hack Day” was not the spontaneous creation of art during two days. Rather, it was an exhibition of artworks which were already finished before the start of the “hack”. Many of these works took lots of time for the artists and also involved significant costs for materials and travels. If the aim is to “make transparent the production process of art”, this should have been made clear. The glossy talk about art as a spontaneous “hack” is rather concealing the real process.

So let’s be honest: “Art Hack Day” is a way for art institutions to get artist to work for free.

I am not saying this to condemn neither the Transmediale arrangers, nor the participating artists. But if an art festival which talks about transparency on the one hand, and crisis on the other hand, it should first of all be transparent about its own austerities.

And what happened with those big names of new media art, formerly featured in exhibitions like Transmediale’s? My impression is that many of these have been moving from art to academia during the years of crisis. They are probably spending more time teaching and researching at universities, less with presenting stuff at exhibitions. They still participate at festivals like Transmediale, but not in the exhibition part but the conference part. While their art students are the ones who are expected to work for free to produce artworks that fill the exhibition.

Update: I have now changed the subtitle of this post. “How to get artists to work without pay” is not only a boring title, but also misleading. My aim was not to scandalize the fact that artists and others are working without pay for art institutions; that is routine, after all. I may add that I myself accepted to give a small talk at Transmediale for no pay (and only some expenses covered).
The reason that I bothered to write this post was rather how this administration of austerity is rationalized. The language of “hacking” is used to present the art production as way more spontaneous than it really is, which adds another level of hypocrisy in the talk about transparency. For these reasons, I instead choosed to subtitle this post “how to present austerity as spontaneity”.