The Conversation Starts by Not Talking at All

Thoughts about Transmediale 2016: Conversation Piece

I couldn’t help but relate conversation starters to the theme of conversation, to link what was being said to what I felt (yes felt, the body appears too) about during Transmediale 2016. This year’s, Transmediale was claimed to be different: there was no exhibition but instead a series of conversation starters in the form of hybrid events and spaces that encouraged conversation such as a popular fake grass picnic area. And it’s true, around me and through me there were murmurs happening everywhere and at every level — personal connections with people I haven’t seen in a while, larger talks with strangers, familiar yet unknown faces (albeit maybe too familiar, but I’ll get to that later), the speaking of one to many. But this was similar as in previous Transmediales, and I am and was just as critical. What is the point of all this talking anyway? I‘m going to ironically keep the conversation starters going to find out.

Exclusion, Inclusion and Trust

Transmediale is a bit like a club — you are either in or you’re out, but from the outside you can attempt to join (or rather pay into) the conversation. Actually, my biggest rant for Transmediale is that sure the topics such as security and big data are still relevant, but do we really have to have the same people talking and in the same way every year? Bring in the idea of conversation and there is hope (I’m a bit of an optimist after all). But alas, it still seemed a one to many talking stream of information overload. The question then becomes, can you really be included? (And I mean more than a scanning in and out of passes).

Many of this year’s conversations, both in their content and their structure, attempted to work through this idea of exclusion and inclusion in relation to technology. I attended all of the panic room sessions for at least an hour. The panic room sessions were for pass holders only (if you had a day pass, or were buying based on event, sorry you’re out, excluded from the conversation). The three sessions lasted 4 hours each, and were meant to be more open to facilitate discussion around themes of imbalanced technology, post-digital anxiety and market uncertainty. They were a place to come and re-orientate yourself, to panic and to escape from panic. The moderators were in charge of organising the sessions as they wished. And within this room, I did indeed scribble the most notes and link the most ideas to my own projects— at least in terms of content I was included, part of the club.

But I was silent, my voice unheard, a bystander to the structure. The first panic room session on imbalanced technology attempted to come up with a clear structure to work through. I was the most uncomfortable, yet got the most out of it. The last panic room session was the most calm, seemingly relaxed, and also the most standard. Here I would have spoken, and yet I didn’t. The conversation remained on a sort of meta level, a level of defining. Perhaps it all could have come back to personal experience. My voice discussing my own uncertainty of trusting the market.

Transmediale was broken down to four motives of anxiety: anxious to act, anxious to make, anxious to share and anxious to secure. But what about just that feeling of being anxious — after all, that’s something that we can all relate to, we can all use as a starting point for conversation: simply, it includes us.

In the keynote for the Anxious to Share stream, Eyal Weizman was asked a question from the audience: when will these tools of forensic architecture be available for wider use? No real answer was given. And I’m left anxious about that. If we keep excluded the knowledge of technology to small clubs, why bother talking at all? (flag conversation starter here).

Trust

I am critical, and yet I still go to Transmediale, and I still will always get something out of it. I trust that. Just as many of us trust the technologies we use everyday without the knowledge to really understand them. And trust seemed to come up throughout many of the talks, especially in the panel on inner security. ‘Hands up don’t shoot’ was mentioned in Nicholas Mirzoeff’s keynote on the black lives matter movement — a moment of giving way to vulnerability in order to get back power. I trust Transmediale: I put my hands (money) up to them to join the conversation. I trust the descriptions they give to choose one talk over another. But do they trust us?

I hoped for more knowledge transfers, more workshops, more spaces where theory could be combined with practice. Perhaps, we should have been trusted more to be left to our own devices instead of being left as eavesdroppers to the conversation. But wait — is that just my own anxiety or yours too?

Time, Timing and Schedule

Speaking of eavesdropping, I sometimes felt like an eavesdropper. This year the schedule was packed. I found myself hopping from one half of a talk to another, catching the tail ends of thoughts and ideas. In fact, in almost all cases, I had to miss the q and a — ironically the conversation — of the talks to make it to another. Time was of an essence, and of importance for the invited participants too. As mentioned in the panic room, there is no real urgency and yet we are always rushing. Instead of having time to have conversations with others during breaks, I was left to fill in the pieces of other people talking to (at) me.

The speakers addressed time in terms of movements being reduced to the instant and the performativity of technology. My time was divided into instants, and I found it hard to become a part of the performance fully. As mentioned in the Disnovation Research panel on Thursday, techno-critique should become mainstream and discussed in all layers of society. I was missing those coffee breaks to discuss technology while complaining about the over priced coffees in the cafe. I decided that Saturday was the day of liquidity, the term kept coming up and it seemed everyone in HKW had a headache. We didn’t have time to drink enough liquids, clearly.

But then again, as Keller Easterling mentioned in her keynote in the Anxious to Share stream, the idea of the loop has a violence of remaining intact. I was an eavesdropper but happy to make my own path and interact in my own way. I was left free to my own looping and could build my own narrative. Perhaps that really is me adding techno-critique to the layers of my day?

Scale, Scaling Small Talk and Love

By chance, just before the start of the last keynote, I came across an article titled ‘The End of Small Talk.’ In it, the author discusses dating and making a no small talk rule, getting to the depths of conversation. Coincidentally, Nicholas Mirzoeff a few minutes later talked about what ‘matters’ being connected to materiality, it is embodied and for him that is symbolic of love, he then linked this to the images of protest movements. The body and embodiment were discussed, but I had an urge for more depth, for a real return to the body.

And in the end it’s all a question of scale. And scaling seemed to be a question of this years Transmediale. (The word may have even been mentioned at least once in every talk that I went to). But the best experience I had was one where my body became a sort of scale of zooming in and zooming out — I literally took theory and brought it to the scale of my body.

This happened in the workshop ‘Unpatentable Multi-Touch Areobics’ with Liat Berdugo and Phoebe Osborne. It was an actual aerobics workshop, we zoomed and swipped our bodies in and out taking back control of the gestures patented by apple to the beat of energetic music. And here my anxieties really came to the front — I was thrown into the uncomfortable actions of moving my body. Scrolling up and down on a computer is natural, but which way is up and which way is down when you actually move your body to a beat? I was sure I was doing it all wrong. And yet I too became an expert, my opinion ready to come out. We had our own proof and experiences to get critical. We took the theory and worked it out and then talked of our sweat.

Source: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10153482368679426.1073741833.134274379425&type=3

And we were all part of the club, wearing the same red sweatbands, because we all could relate through these anxieties. Perhaps Transmediale could have used a lot more of moving and a lot of less of talking. Because in the end, it is in this workshop where talking was done the least that I felt the most like I could talk. The conversation began through other means and carried on through other rhythms.

It was mentioned somewhere during Transmediale, I can’t seem to find it in my notes now, but when you invent something you also invent its failure. The conversation may not have really started at Transmediale. But here I am writing and thinking about it. So let’s take the ideas from Transmediale and bring them back to scale and back to our own voices and bodies.

Let’s move. Let’s dance. Let’s sing. Or not. The conversation sometimes starts by not talking at all.