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”.

14 kommentarer ↓

#1 benjamin on 3 February 2014 at 11:30 am

to be sponsored by vice magazine and have their logo up (“motherboard”) is also disturbing. vice is a global tool for big corporations to have their brands associated with diy lifestyle and art. which definitely means profiting on others activities.

#2 Geraldine on 3 February 2014 at 11:36 am

I do not know how it was for everyone, i learned my lessons and i do not work for free anymore and i agree to participate only if Transmediale covered my fee and expenses and a fee so i can dedicate some _extra_ time to AHD. I did bring the situation of working for free with the main responsible of the Art Hack Day at some moment where he seemed to not understand what implies to having people working for free under certain constrains. Got not sympathy of course but made it clear. It needs to.

During AHD indeed there was people very aware of this situation and it was discussed. I talked with some people about making a strike in order to not produce anything that could be accumulated or exploited in this context and someone else wanted to document how hard is to work in AHD and maybe getting hired to collaborate in other projects. So the issue was there very present.

AHD definetely could address the economics of this event as yes STILL needs to be solved across the art spectrum- institutional or not – that EVERYONE, small or big, needs to be paid for their work without even ask for it. Is expected and should be taken for granted yes.

#3 COPYRIOT | Some thoughts about the idea of “internet freedom” in times of counter-revolution on 3 February 2014 at 12:01 pm

[…] Art Hack Day at Transmediale: how to get artists to work without pay […]

#4 The internet is not dead. It’s undead and it’s everywhere. | Privately Investigating on 3 February 2014 at 12:59 pm

[…] By the way, as we talk about Transmediale and crisis. Isn’t the concept of “Art Hack Day” basically a way of administrating austerity in art institutions? You can fill an exhibition with artworks without having to paying the artists, while covering it up with glossy language about spontaneity. Maybe I’m wrong, but I wrote down some notes about that as well. […]

#5 Die Geschichte des Internet als Gegenrevolution mit Momenten der Inspiration | Digitale Dämmerung on 3 February 2014 at 1:00 pm

[…] […]

#6 Jennifer chan on 3 February 2014 at 6:07 pm

I don’t know how anyone gets paid for anything these days . I’m not disagreeing; I think paying for creative labor and time is the right thing to do but the money just isn’t there, so artists need to find external sources for it. (Which involves even more work on their part…to write a grant or make perks for a kicks tarter)

I somehow feel like the open/free concept of ahd became problematic within the public institution of transmediale as it sets up a situation of “some paid/some not”. Pay everyone or no one I guess…

#7 Jennifer chan on 3 February 2014 at 6:18 pm

I think free labor is the reality across the board for creative industries though. You only get to pick which avenue to contribute your talents for little or nothing to, selection based on the potential opportunities that would come out of the free work. #cantdobetter

#8 rasmus on 3 February 2014 at 6:18 pm

My aim was not to simply scandalize the fact that people were not getting paid, but rather critique how this austerity is rationalized. Therefore I just decided to chenge the subtitle of this post.

#9 goto80 on 3 February 2014 at 7:39 pm

It’s the after glow! They don’t have to pay, because the workers come anyway. That includes me, who came to AHD in Stockholm last year. I worked for free in order to give Bonnier some creativity cred. Awesome!

The rhetorics of AHD might be a bit dodgy, you are right. But I’m pretty sure that even if they didn’t talk about processes and transparency, visitors would still come to look at the workers. Awesome!

#10 Luca on 9 February 2014 at 2:32 am

I think that the great point of this article is highlight how the term “hack” has become (one of) the frame to manage the transformation of work, not just in art field but in general.
The term hacking has been now convert in a morally acceptable mechanism (even from the leftist movements) to turn over on workers the capitalistic risk and the social responsibility of work itself: we are all entrepreneurs as we are all hackers. If you do not relate the hack (as as fact/action) to the social subjects that perform it, hacking became just a toxic narrative, using concepts such as openness and freedom to masquerading control and normativization.

#11 b on 11 February 2014 at 12:15 am

#12 a on 11 February 2014 at 12:21 am

#13 olofster on 24 February 2014 at 8:56 am

Joining this conversation late… as one of many Art Hack Day organizers it’s worth clarifying both how it’s organized and what it tries to achieve. It’s also important we continue to unpack the underpinnings of the art economy (or the lack thereof).

Art Hack Day is an event for and by the community (of ‘creative technologists’ or ‘new media artists’ or whatever the term currently in vogue is). We get together in an art space and produce an exhibit during 48h that’s free and open to the public for just one night. So far, roughly 40 people have helped organize 7 events for roughly 400 participants and at least 4,000 exhibit visitors AFK (not to mention those online).

Neither participants nor organizers get paid. In fact, Art Hack Day would arguably not even be possible if money were introduced into the equation as it might inalterably skew the dynamics of the event. Participants come to share skills, explore new creative directions and embark on unintended collaborations, not to show off ready-made work at an institution. (On a minor note it might also not be practically feasible since the authorship of works can be hard to establish unambiguously, not everyone ends up exhibiting and 5-10 participants typically crash it). Since it’s a hackathon, the spirit of the event is that pieces are made in 48h and ideally with people you might not even have met before: if someone finishes work in advance they’ve misunderstood the format (although participants generally bring and share their toolkits or scrap materials as was also the case at transmediale).

Transmediale was the first time the exhibit lasted longer than one night which was a compromise with the festival. We may not want to do that again. It raises valid questions of artist fees and brings unnecessary institutional sanction to an event that is fundamentally community-driven. However it does seem like an opportunity if art spaces want to host us and can deal with the insanity for 2 days. So far, they’ve done it for free and provided basic exhibit equipment (monitors, beamers, pedestals etc.). On occasion, sponsors have given away consumables (arduinos, sensors, ethernet shields etc.) As a non-profit, all funds Art Hack Day raises go towards free food and beverages for participants, WIFI, table / chair rental etc. The event ends in an exhibit because we believe that the quality of the exploration increases if it comes to a polished end (“poems not demos” as someone said:). We also believe in disseminating our work with the general public.

Last, I fully agree with one of the commenters that ‘hacking’ can be a way to transfer risk and responsibility to workers. Ironically, Art Hack Day started 3 years ago precisely as a reaction against the corporatization of hackathons, to bring back the joy of the format and preserve the meaning of a term which has been under assault by the mainstream since its inception. It’s a debate that’s age-old in the tech community and shows how far we have yet to go to bridge any gaps between art and technology and to constructively shape the grey area at their intersection.

#14 dia on 13 March 2014 at 5:06 pm

Thanks for the discussion. But what happens to art and artists when it is reduced to 7 events and 400 artists. The TM version with its reduction to 68 artist/hackers from 55 counties (or whatever) to produce some kind of collective show? In the art economy, names kind of matter.

Another way to read hack here is that artist hacked their way into a collective process to exhibit their work (minus a curator) at a festival. At least it seems like this manifestation was product over process and the participants took their chances in spite of the lack of financial benefits. Why?