One of the most noteworthy moments of Transmediale -the festival for contemporary art and digital culture that opens every year in Berlin during the legendary toe-freezing February- took place in the bus number 100 that goes from the HQ of the festival in Haus der Kulturen der Welt to Alexanderplatz. A group of teenagers were talking about the festival, what they had seen, liked and dis-liked and how participants of the conference were dressed. Turns out that their views and expectations about the festival were strikingly different from mine. Earth shattering experience for naive me. I had never given much thoughts about the audience of events like Transmediale. My attention never went much further than the usual circle of people i know and the people they know. Artists, curators, the press... people whose work involves seeing, discussing and dissecting media art on an almost daily basis. But one does not a festival make with the sole presence and approval of 'insiders'. As media festivals become less of an oddity on the cultural agenda of a city, should directors and curators cater mostly for the usual suspects or should they try and please the broad public? Is it possible and desirable to satisfy everybody's expectations?

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Haus der Kulturen der Welt

I don't have an answer for that but i'm working on it. The bus 100 experience made me realize that the issue of which kind and amount of audience i should attract has ceased to exist for me as an art blogger. I stopped worrying about stats, traffic and incoming links a while ago. I know that's not the smartest thing to do but so far so good. I'm not responsible of an international event after all. I just focus on being a conscientious, subjective and lazy blogger. Anyway, those comments i heard that night on the bus certainly put the main exhibition of the festival into a whole new perspective for me.

The title of the exhibition, Future Obscura, nods to the general theme of the festival, Futurity Now! but it also refers to the camera obscura, an optical device that led to photography.
I wish the title had not been taken so literally: artworks were shrouded into under-lit rooms and black drapes. Sometimes quite unnecessarily.

Guest curated by Honor Harger, the show explores the idea of futurity through a re-appropriation of image-making devices and techniques. Boundaries of the time continuum are broken down by artists. Their work allows us to peer into a (a)temporality that questions this increasingly foggy notion of what we used to think of as the future (Villa Harpeland swift flying cars, anyone?)

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Zilvinas Kempinas, White Noise, 2007 (photo Jonathan Gröger)

Simple and quietly mesmerizing, Zilvinas Kempinas' screen of "white noise" was one of the superstar of the shows. Seen from afar, the screen vibrates and sounds like the fragmented black and white pixels of an untuned video source. As they move forward, visitors realize that the screen is an opening into the wall stretched with horizontal lines of videotape vibrating in the currents of air created by fans. Unlike a magic trick which looses its spell as soon as the artifice behind it is revealed, White Noise gets more fascinating the closer you get to understanding it.

Kempinas' installation breathes new life into an almost 'dead media', reminding us that tape is both a physical object and container of information.

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Julien Maire, The Inverted Cone. Image credit lmlrpt

In his 1896 book Matter and Memory philosopher Henri Bergson explains that the base of the "memory cone" represents the entire collection of memories of our lived past, whilst the peak of the cone is our present condition, and our memory of the past at the time we interact with the world.

Julien Maire's installation The Inverted Cone is the one that, in my view, embedded the best the subject matter of the exhibition by translating Bergson's memory cone into an optical process.

Family pictures, pedagogic images and other slides bought on a flee market are projected with a slide projector. Instead of appearing larger on a screen, the still image is reduced by lenses and is concentrated on a "Digital mirror".

A video beamer connected to a camera films the hand of the performer as he organizes small pieces of paper. Each paper opens a window in the projection. By moving the pieces of paper on a table, the performer uncovers and reconfigures a global memory or performs a selective remembrance of a moment. Old and new media are mixed in one shot.

In The Inverted Cone, digital and analogue images pass through the same lens and viewers experience distinct chronologies simultaneously.

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Julian Oliver demonstrating The Artvertiser. Image by Jonathan Gröger

On the other hand, The Artvertiser, by Julian Oliver, Diego Diaz, Clara Boj and Damian Stewart tackles that technology that screamed 'future' a few years ago and 'where did it go wrong?' today. The augmented-reality project passes urban spaces dense with advertisements through the lens of a binocular device that replaces publicity by art. The Artvertiser software recognises individual advertisements, and uses them as a virtual 'canvas' to display artworks.

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Ken Rinaldo, Paparazzi Bots (photo Jonathan Gröger)

Ken Rinaldo's Paparazzi Bots is very much anchored in the present.

Three autonomous robots move at the same speed of a walking human. Their main purpose is to take photos of people and to make these images available to the press and the web as a statement of culture's obsession with 'celebrity image' and especially our own images. This infatuation with portraits makes us overlook the signs and downsides of surveillance technologies.

The robots don't take pictures of every person they encounter. Instead, they select an individual and ignore other people in the audience, based on criteria such as, whether or not the viewers are smiling or the shape of their smile.

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Yvette Mattern, From One To Many, 2010 (photos Jonathan Gröger)

Yvette Mattern's stunning laser rainbow projection, From One To Many, blazed through Berlin's night sky over three evenings, enabling any Berliner devoid of a festival pass or even knowledge that the festival ever existed to enjoy the spectacle.

The rainbow rose diagonally from the roof of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, crossed a distance of 3 km and reached to a point approximately 250 metres up the shaft of the Fernsehturm (TV tower) on Alexanderplatz.

Another version of the project was shown a year ago in New York City, under the name Global Rainbow.

My pictures from the festival.

Related: Cloud Core Scanner - an artistic experiment in zero gravity.

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Finally kicking off my reports on the last edition of Transmediale. Starting by taking the side door, the one that opens on an exhibition and performance which were part of the 'off' programme of the festival. Both focus on one of the latest artistic enterprises of Agnes Meyer-Brandis. Most of you know by now that there's as much fantasy as science in Agnes' works. This time she played the role of Alice in wonderclouds for a series of experiments in weightlessness.

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CCS Logo

In September 2007, on occasion of the tenth parabolic flight campaign of the DLR (German Aerospace Center), Agnes Meyer-Brandis was invited to participate in one of its zero-gravity flights, which are primarily reserved for scientific purposes, and to work under conditions of temporary weightlessness on her art project Cloud Core Scanner. I don't think i'd have the nerve for the experience. Nor the stomach. The aircraft used for zero gravity flights are given the delightful nickname of Vomit Comet, you see.

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Original image

Here's what happens during one of these parabolic flights: The aircraft lifts its nose towards the sky at an angle of 45 degrees. The plane is 'pushed over' the top to reach the zero-gravity segment of the parabolas. The crew then experience about 25 seconds of weightlessness. At approximately 30 degrees 'nose low' a gentle pull-out is started which brings back everyone and everything on the aircraft floor. Finally, the g-force is increased smoothly to about 1.8 g's until the aircraft reaches a flight altitude of 24,000 feet. The roller-coaster experience is obviously repeated dozens of time.

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AMB working

The objective of Agnes was to study what she calls "cloud cores" in a state of weightlessness. These small particles suspended in the air form the basis for the formation of clouds. The water in the air condensates around these particles/cores. This accumulation of water becomes a drop and many drops generate a cloud. The artist developed probes capable of observing the otherwise elusive cloud cores.

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CCS videostill CCS sphere lab

Agnes took two instruments on board with her. The first one, the CCS, is the first ever picture generating instrument for examining the behaviour of the smallest particles in the clouds' interior - the famous cloud cores- during the zero gravity flight. The second apparatus is the ADM-Filmbox (ADM = Animation Durch Mikrogravitation, in english Animation Through Microgravitation) which she used to capture in images even the fastest among the tiniest cloud cores.

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Cloud Core World

The world of Cloud Core can be observed inside what looks like little snow globes:

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Videostills, Experiment No. 27. Moated castle swimming on water in 2G (double gravity) and moated castle swimming on air in 0G (zero gravity)

Last month, Agnes shared her discoveries in Berlin through an exhibitions and two evenings of performances.

The Cloud-Core-Scanner - In the Troposphere Lab exhibition opened in the Ernst Schering Foundation located on the ever popular with tourists Unter den Linden avenue.

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Agnes Meyer-Brandis, Cloud-Core-Scanner - In the Troposphere Lab, 2010. Installation view. Courtesy of Schering Stiftung, Berlin. © Agnes Meyer-Brandis, VG Bild-Kunst Bonn 2010. Photo: Roman März

The exhibition explored the formation of clouds and the fusion of art and science during zero gravity.

As the press blurb said: The Material, generated under unearthly conditions, mixes and raises the issue of communication structures of contemporary art with some quite surreal forms of science (nanotechnology, Fluid-dynamic research, meteorology). As central metaphor as well as the main focus of the filmed procedures serves the theory of cloud formation.

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Image from the performance

The accompanying performance "Making Clouds, or On the Absence Of Weight - A Contemporary Traveling Movie Show" combined the performance itself with lectures, both by Agnes and by a scientist expert in nephology, screenings of movies, experiments in science and cloud formation.

I'm not entirely sure that i understood everything that was going on that evening but i'd be ready to forget about vertigo and put my head inside the clouds if that's half as exciting an experience as the one we caught a glimpse of during Agnes' performance.

More images and explanations over here, ladies and gentlemen.
Pictures i took at the exhibition and during one of Agnes Meyer-Brandis' performances.

Previous posts about Agnes Meyer-Brandis's work: Biorama 2: the Moon Goose Experiment, Interview with Ulla Taipale from Capsula, Interview with Agnes Meyer-Brandis and SGM-Iceberg-Probe.

GaMe!, a group exhibition you can check out until March 24 at the [DAM] gallery in Berlin, presents positions by six international artists on the subject of computer games and electronic toys.

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Todd Deutsch, a.k.a. KillerJ00, 2005

The show is rather small but it covers a surprisingly large spectrum of game art practices. More importantly, GaMe! is one of those rare exhibitions about game art which favours the artistic approach over the more accessible attractions of playfulness and interactivity.

You'll understand immediately my point when i tell you that one of the games on show is all about mania, melancholia, and the creative process. The unassuming 8-bit graphics and very straightforward gameplay of Jason Rohrer's Gravitation offers a striking contrast to the poignant challenge that the player has to face: find the right balance -if there's one- between family life and creative achievement.

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Jason Rohrer, Gravitation, 2008, computer game

In order to get the stars (your own projects to develop) from the sky, you have to play ball with your kid to expand your view of a screen (aka the outside world) which is mostly dark at the beginning of the game. The higher you can jump, the more you get to discover the screen/outside world. The music closely adapts to your choices. Becoming either more cheerful as your vision of the world expands or colder as it shrinks back to black. As destructoid explains: Grabbing a star causes it to fall back to your home area (home life), where it becomes a difficult-to-move stone with a timer on it. Pushing a star stone into a fireplace earns you the amount of points still remaining on the stone (the quality of an idea deteriorates over time). Getting more than one star at once causes the star stones to build up, separating you from your son, whom you ironically need to play with in order to get more stars. Ultimately, the game shows that pursuing creative exploits both requires and alienates the people you love. Conversely, dedicating all your attention to your child means that your creative fervor will burn out. The morale of the story hurts but the work -which btw is autobiographical- was a great discovery for me.

Gravitation is available as a free download.

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Mark Essen, The Thrill of Combat, 2009, computer game

The Thrill of Combat, by Mark Essen, is much more fast-paced but not less atypical.

The player (or players) controls organ hunters aboard a helicopter with the goal to harvest a number of hearts, lungs, livers, kidneys, pancreata, and intestines. The organs don't just lie around for you. You have to kill their owner first from the helicopter. When you've massacred enough people, you jump in parachute and start to open the corpses and remove the organs you need to complete your list of vital body parts. While keeping tabs on the helicopter. The Thrill of Combat is heartless, cynical, and submersed into a seducing block-coloured urban landscape.

I was more familiar with the work of the other artists invited to participate to the show:
Joan Leandre is showing the film In the name of Kernel Series - Lonely Record Sessions, Tale of Tales presents the eerie and incredibly alluring game The Graveyard, Todd Deutsch's Gamers ignore you superbly while France Cadet brought her wild robotic hunting trophies, the rocking Gaude Mihi and a series of serigraphs detailing her 'genetically-modified' robots.

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France Cadet, Panthera Pardus, series Hunting Trophies, 2008

GaMe! is open until March 24 at the [DAM] gallery in Berlin.

Another game art exhibition currently open is Playlist - Playing Games, Music, Art at Laboral in Gijón, Spain.

Related entries: France Cadet solo show at the gallery numeriscausa in Paris; Homo Ludens Ludens - A conversation with curator Daphne Dragona; Book: Trigger Happy for free, etc.

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The 2009 edition of Transmediale has been by very far the gloomiest i've ever lived. Nothing to do with the quality of the programme, the works selected for the exhibition or anything that could be blamed on the organization. I just didn't manage to make it to Berlin until the last day of the festival. Transmediale was the event where, 5 years ago, i discovered new media art, it's the place where i meet the new media art crowd of Europe, that's where we talk, exchange views about the new direction taken by each edition, disagree and sometimes change our minds. Transmediale is not the biggest new media art festival but, in my experience, it's the one where the most meaningful discussions take place. So here i was on a Sunday, last day of the festival, arriving at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, looking for friends who had all vanished from the premise and feeling immensely stupid. The conference was over, the artists were busy enjoying their last day in the city before dismounting their installation and because my mind was still completely wrapped up in the workshop i had just left, over there in sunny Alicante, i felt disconnected. I did my duty, i visited the exhibition, walked through some presentations and left for some new adventures.

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Then something happened. You know when you go and see a movie, walk out unconvinced but over time that movie grows on you and you catch yourself talking about with other people? Something similar happened with Transmediale. I just flipped through my notes, photos and the catalogue and realized that that damn Sunday had to be re-appraised.

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View of Transmediale Award exhibition 'Survival and Utopia: Visions of Balance in Transformation '. Image courtesy Transmediale

This year's exhibition, titled, Survival and Utopia: Visions of Balance in Transformation, was all about climate change, its symptoms, contexts and possible outcome. And because Transmediale is a festival about new media art the delicate and sometimes absurd relationship between nature and technology was at the heart of the reflection.

I've seen a fair number of exhibitions that engaged with a similar theme over the past few years. Issues of climate change and other eco-conscious topics have been explored time and time again and although there were some good projects at Transmediale, how can the sum of them compare to exhibitions where the medium, new or old, did not play such a key role? That said, i know i had a very partial view of the event, i missed the performances, the lectures and, as i mentioned above, the discussions that they never fail to generate, so don't mind me too much, ok?

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Petko Dourmana - Post Global Warming Survival Kit. Photo: Petko Dourmana

Post Global Warming Survival Kit by Petko Dourmana propels visitors into nuclear winter. A nuclear war, it is predicted, would prompt extremely cold weather and reduced sunlight for a period of months or years as large amounts of smoke and soot would be injected into the Earth's stratosphere.

Post Global Warming Survival Kit is a two-channel-projection but because you supposed to walk through a space covered in ash, you have to wear night vision goggles if you want to see it. The images shows pictures of the North Sea as an apocalyptic scene.

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Petko Dourmana - Post Global Warming Survival Kit. Photo: Petko Dourmana

What you can almost distinguish with your naked eyes though is a 1930s caravan. You will need to don the night vision goggles to see that it contains basic living goods, and technical equipment so that contact can be made with any other survivors who might be out there somewhere.

The artist 'provides the viewer with the opportunity to experience other visual worlds or parts of our reality which would remain invisible without technical aids. Without technology, we would be blind in an ash-covered world. Dourmana ironically perceives the "nuclear winter" as the only concept which man has come up with to prevent global warming: a dystopic look at politics and our future.'

More images.

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Jana Linke's Click & Glue was the absolute crowd-pleaser of the show. A big white balloon filled with helium moves and floats through the air and within the perimeter of a small room. The balloon is connected to a nylon thread and a mechanism that distributes glue. As the balloon moves and bounces against the walls, it leaves a small deposit of glue that momentarily functions as an anchor before the balloon continues its movement through the space. Thread by thread, the installation generates a web that eventually entangles the balloon and prevents it from moving. In this way, Click & Glue becomes responsible for creating a network that locks itself in. I didn't get what all that was about but, Lord, was it lovely to witness it.

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Urs Dubacher - specialità di silicio. Photo: Jonathan Gröger

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Urs Dubacher's performance Specialità di Silicio, melted-down hardware is turned into almost edible-looking food. In his mobile kitchen, similar to the one of a takeaway vendor, the artist melts bits of computer hardware into realistic-looking culinary meals. His work reflects on our so-called 'throwaway society', commenting on recycling, the exploitation of electronic products, and technology's seemingly unstoppable development.
More images and videos.

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In Trilogy, Marco Evaristti travels to various parts of the world to comment on the themes of territorial boundaries and environmental pollution. Using fruit color and fabric, Evaristti spray-painted red an iceberg in Greenland in 2004. In June last year he was arrested while trying to perform a similar trick on the peak of Mont Blanc which didn't prevent him to head off to the Sahara and turn a dune red.

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The Transmediale Camp by Raumtaktik used only recycled materials to build shelters. The material was given away on the last day of the exhibition

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Oh! was about to forget: I did get to see some results of the Climate Hack workshop that playfully reframe the issues at stake using methods outside the traditional political rhetoric. One of the projects developed proposed visitors to make and bake candy based on their own carbon footprint. The impact of your country is symbolized by spoonfuls of sugar. One spoonful can be removed or added to the total amount based on the estimation of your life style. The more you use the earth resources the bigger the candy you have to face.

Hop! My picture set on flickr. Image on the homepage is 5VOLTCORE / Christian Gützer (at) - Grow - Fruits of Kronos (2007.)

Also exhibited at transmediale: Extreme Green Guerrillas, Tantalum Memorial.

Can't believe how late i am in publishing these notes about the Transmediale exhibition. I used to be a young, dynamic and super fast blogger, but that was a long time ago.

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Although i always chose to focus on the good side of exhibitions and other events, i rarely have the opportunity to be so genuinely and totally enthusiastic about a festival. This was the media art festival i was dreaming of: a strong concept, an exhibition that does not confuse new media art with circus of interactivity and electro-gadgets for grown-ups, a conference that calls in so many inspiring artists, activists and researchers.

The theme? Conspire. How could you resist that one? While doing some research on conspiracy theories i passed from the expected to the utterly ridiculous (with a few nuggets in the middle). Conspiracy theories spread faster than ever with a little help of the internet and other communication technologies, but more importantly there is no doubt that we are definitely living an era where suspicion (or should i say paranoia?) reigns supreme.

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Matt O'Dell, New Worship, image courtesy galerie Schleicher+Lange, Paris

"Conspiracy is the 'condition' of our times," told me Stephen Kovats, the Director of the festival. "When we consider information and network culture, when we look at the questions arising from the relationships between politics and culture particularly online ... the loss of authorship - or perhaps authority or belief in universal truths ... the weaving of narrative together with speculation and expanding the results at light speed, where anybody anyplace can become an expert or authority on any issue ... that's where the stuff of conspiracy is born. With transmediale, we were interested in exploring what this 'condition' in the era of digital mobility as a strategy, emotion, aesthetic, cultural state of being or landscape is.

Learning to harness the mechanisms of conspiracy, or those of the conspiratorial act also empower us as creative individuals to better understand the irrational culture of fear and security being imposed on us."

One of the best moment of the festival for me was PN (Power Noise), a electrifying performance by Elpueblodechina and Zosen who turned the data grabbed from Bureau d'Etudes' Bohemian Map into noise.

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Video

The Bohemian Map maps the connections and sphere of influence of some 2000 members of the Bohemian Grove, the high-profile annual Sonoma retreat of the Bohemian Club, a group that counts some of the most powerful men in the world. The club has counted every Republican president since Herbert Hoover as a member. Based in Paris, the Bureau d'Etudes group is engaged in the mapping of contemporary power relations at the institutional and international level.

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Breakfast at Owls Nest Camp, Bohemian Grove, July 23, 1967 (image)

Bureau d'Etudes (whose work i've been admiring for years even if i've never written about them so far, shame on me!) was participating to the Transmediale exhibition with one of their latest projects, the Laboratory Planet. While so far they were producing gorgeous large-scale posters that visualize structures of power and ownership which usually remains invisible, this project uses google maps to reveal the laboratory for experimentation that our planet has become. After the end of WW2, the Earth, along with all its living inhabitants, have become a huge site for all kinds of experimentations.

The development of convergent technologies (bio-, nano-, cogno-, info-, robo-, sociotech) is the magic circle in which biological and mechanical species emerge
from the laboratory and from new periodic tables. Much of this research is today carried
out in secret. That is why an understanding of the present itself remains determined by the limited insight that we can have concerning information which is itself filtered or orchestrated. How can we speak of the present ? How can we know where we are or understand the situation we find ourselves in ?

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Laboratory Planet aims to be a data base which would give us both a broad vision of the phenomenon, but also a local one as you can check the map and see what is happening in your neighbourhood. It's also an instrument that calls for the collaboration of the public to enrich its content.

More details in the PDF of the project.

The exhibition, guest-curated by Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez, requests some effort from the visitor. Nothing is right here right now, nothing comes to you easily, and even if you visit it equipped with the leaflet that describes each work, there are still a number of questions that you'll have to investigate by yourself if you want an answer. This way of experiencing the projects fits perfectly the mysterious streak of the exhibition theme.

The show is organized around several "thematic constructs", each of them explores a different facet of notions such as conspiratorial truths, bio-organic systems and twisted realities.

Back to the theories of conspiracy with Christoph Keller's project Chemtrails.

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The Chemtrail conspiracy theory claims that some trails left behind jet aircraft are different in appearance and quality from those of normal contrails, may be composed of harmful chemicals, and are being deliberately produced, and covered up by the government. These unusual trails are referred to as "chemtrails". Some researchers believe that a chemical and/ or biological agent of some sort is being released. The term "chemtrail" does not refer to common forms of aerial dumping - it specifically refers to systematic, high-altitude dumping of unknown substances for undisclosed purposes, resulting in the appearance of these unusual contrails.

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Photo: Jonathan Gröger

Keller's work includes a video and a collection of photos taken by amateurs. Chemtrails uses the mysterious phenomenon to reflect on superstition and paranoia in the USA.

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Wonder Beirut #1, Greetings from Beirut, 1998-2007

The first part of Wonder Beirut, by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, tells the story of a pyromaniac Lebanese photographer named Abdallah Farah.

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Wonder Beirut #21, Beaches in Beirut, 1998-2007

In 1968 and 1969 Farah took photos of the capital for the Beirut tourist authority intended to promote the city. The resulting postcards depicted an idealized Lebanon in the 1960s. The postcards are still on sale nowadays , although most of the places they represent were destroyed during the Lebanese civil war.

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Latent Images, 1998-2007

In the autumn of 1975, Farah started damaging the negatives of his postcards, burning them according to the destruction of the buildings he saw disappearing because of bombings and street battles.

The "Wonder Beirut" project shows the results of Farahs photographical and pyromaniacal work. Part of the project are also the notes of Farah documenting the photographs which he never developed because of the lack of fixative and photographic paper during the war years. By publishing and distributing these images, the artists try to fight the trend which puts the Lebanese civil war between brackets and includes the Lebanese conflict only marginally in the contemporary history. But is this postcard story a fact or a fiction? (more images.)

The story of Be Prepared! Tiger!, a project by Knowbotic Research in collaboration with Peter Sandbichler, starts with the discovery on the internet of a propaganda video by the Tamil liberation army which shows the glorification of a speedboat that was supposedly financed by North Korea. The boat is deliberately likened to the American F 117 stealth bomber, a myth of invisibility and invincibility. The artists gathered information inside different networks and through private contacts in order to re-engineer and rebuild the boat.

The boat is mysterious in its background, form and tests have shown that it remains invisible for radar systems. Yet, the boat can be seen with the naked eye, it is functional, and it is even a marketable good (the artists put it for sale on various websites.)

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With their project, the artists play on the dialectics of visibility and invisibility present in many of our modern technologies, it stands for the ruses and tactics used to escape from the geo positioning and surveillance technologies of the 21st century.

Also part of the Transmediale exhibition: Chernobyl Project - Images of the Invisible, Amazon Noir - The Big Book Crime, Symbology.

To amuse the crowd on their way to the restaurant, the absorbing Standard Time by Datenstrudel. A 24h clock/video showing 70 workers building somewhere in Berlin and "in real time" a wooden 4 x 12 m "digital" time display: a work that involves 1611 changes within 24 hour period.

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Photo Jonathan Gröger

The spectator looking at Standard Time does not only see the time, but also people tirelessly constructing it. Video.

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And on the way from the restaurant to the bar...

5VOLTCORE's knife.hand.chop.bot uses a knife to s(t)imulate the test of courage - a kind of game known as "Five Finger Fillet". The User puts his/her hand into the Machine and pushes the button. The knife starts to hit the space between the fingers, first slowly then continually getting faster. A sensor guides the Machine so it "knows" where to hit.

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Electric contacts are activated as soon as the first "nervous sweat" is detected on the hand, the sweat turns the skin into a conductor. Disturbed by the electric current that is now transmitted via the skin, the computer changes behaviour: sounds are generated by the closure of the contacts (circuit bending) that can either be interpreted as warning or act as an additional source of stress. On the other hand, they can have an effect on the position of the knife which is controlled by the computer and thereby hurt the potential perpetrator of the disturbance.

All my images are online.

0alittletrevor.jpgThe talk i was looking forward to listen to during the Transmediale conference last week was Trevor Paglen's who was part of Session 4: Techno-Historical Collusions: The Making Of A Trojan Horse.

(Previously, in the same session: Eva Horn's talk at Transmediale)

Paglen works at the border of art and research and is currently completing a PhD in the Department of Geography at the University of California at Berkeley. His artistic work deliberately blurs the lines between social science, contemporary art, and other more obscure disciplines in order to construct unfamiliar, yet meticulously researched ways to interpret the world around us. He has published two books (Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA's Rendition Flights (Amazon USA and UK) which documents the use by the CIA of modified commercial aircraft for extraordinary rendition; and I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to be Destroyed by Me (Amazon USA and UK) about the secret world of military imagery and jargon revealed by patches from classified projects) and is currently preparing the third one (Blank Spots on a Map, 2008/09).

One day Paglen arrived at his office to find man standing in front of his door, looking with intensity at a picture hung outside of the office. At some point, the man tried to pick out the image out of its frame. Paglen intervenes and asks him what he think he's doing. The guy then asks him "Do you know what that place is?" Starts a dialog where the man reveals that he used to be a pilot. He and his companions at the army were instructed that there were places in the desert where they would not be able to fire at all, where they could not land under any circumstance. One of these places was just called "The Box". But one of the pilots ran out of gas and has no choice but land on "The Box." A week later, the guy comes back. He wouldn't say anything. "That place belongs to the Black World." The black World, as military insiders call it, is the world of classified programs, projects, and places, whose outlines, even existence, are deeply-held secrets.

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Tail Numbers/Gold Coast Terminal, Las Vegas, NV/Distance ~1 mile/5:27 pm

Paglen then showed us pages from the Department of Defense Budget Fiscal Year 2008. The document is publicly available but presents some puzzling numbers. For example, a whopping $ 12.3 million is allocated to toilets which, the document states, must provide soldiers with equipment 2 enhance their efficiency and efficacy."

Paglen showed more images from a documents of classified strategic RDT&E programs. Some projects with mysterious names such as "Pilot Fish", "Retract Juniper," "Chalk Coral", etc. receive huge budget but, unlike the toilets do not present any justification. Sometimes the sum allocated to a project does not appear at all, leaving blank spots in the budget. The National Security Agency has mostly blanks in its budget.

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Code Names: Classified Military Programs Active Between 2001 and 2007

One of Paglen's work inspired by the military budget is Code Names is a list of words, phrases, and terms that designate active military programs whose existence or purpose is classified.

So what happens with these "Selected Sites Associated with Classified Military Activity"? Money doesn't disappear like that. Paglen calls them the "Black Dollars". A number of places where these figures congeal are located in the South West of the country, more precisely in the desert. That area has a long history of being an unexplored region. In World War II, these places became useful to hide secret bases where airplanes were tested. Also the Manhattan Project in 1945.

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Manhattan Project, "Jumbo" atomic device being positioned for "Trinity" test at Alamogordo, New Mexico (souce)

This Black World started to get more importance in the '80s. The Black Budget became then a big part of the defense budget with President Reagan, a man fascinated by secret weapons.

Paglen showed more documents to prove his point.

The next issue he tackled was "How do we study something that doesn't exist? Something that must stay hidden?"

Paglen turned to geography to make emerge a negative image of these black spots on maps. That's where he compares his work to the one of an astronomer because he deals with dark matters, with phenomena which are detectable only through the influence they exercise on the visible world.

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Open Hangar/Cactus Flats, NV/Distance ~18 miles/10:04 am

He uses similar instruments as astronomers' to create his Limit Telephotography series.

Many of the military bases and installations hidden deep in deserts and buffered by dozens of miles of restricted land are so remote that a civilian might be able to see them with an unaided eye. In order to visually document these places, Paglen uses high powered telescopes whose focal lengths range between 1300mm and 7000mm. At this level of magnification, hidden aspects of the landscape become apparent. Because of the distance and the heat coming off the desert, these images have peculiar aesthetical qualities that sometimes evoke impressionists paintings rather than photography.

Limit-telephotography resembles astrophotography, a technique that astronomers use to photograph objects that might be trillions of miles from Earth.

Flight Tracking
CIA sets up civilian front companies to hide these "black" operations, making it look like a normal business. But even front companies must produce flight logs, registration papers, and other legal documents. And most of them publicly available. That's the kind of data you check to know if a plane will land on time for example. Now how do you find front companies? Documents such as the Civil Aircraft Landing Permits lists the planes which are allowed to land on military landfills. These are companies you have never heard of. You can get a list of the planes these airlines own and from there track information about where they land and from where they fly.

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Terminal Air

Terminal Air, a visualization system that Trevor Paglen developed together with the Institute for Applied Autonomy tracks the CIA aircrafts. You can register and get an email message when a CIA plane is coming to your city.

These companies leave other traces. They must have addresses. One of them lead Paglen to a law office which is weird for an aviation company. No one would answer his questions. Then there are signatures at the bottom of documents belonging to the companies. He deciphered the names and found individuals which, unlike the rest of us, leave no electronic trace: they have no credit history, no driver license, etc. They all have a single address which is a PO Box in Virginia. Paglen went there and discovered that the PO Box was used by hundreds and hundreds of names. It's a long collection of ghosts, of fictional characters. Which makes sense as these people are in the business of making other people disappear.

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Signature of a non-existing airline company member (image source)

Paglen also practices some Amateur Anthropology.

These people involved in secret activities have colleagues which are the only persons with whom they are allowed to talk about their jobs. They organize reunions and form bonds. They also give awards to each other but they can't exactly say what this award is for. So someone would get an award for his or her "significant contribution in a remote location."

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One of Paglen's slides showing the cryptic information of someone involved in one of the secret programs he's investigating

Paglen is also into Amateur geo-spacial intelligence. He and his collaborators make maps of the world based on those flights.

He then reminded us of the case of Khalid El-Masri, a German citizen who was abducted, flown to Afghanistan, interrogated and tortured by the CIA for several months in one of those Black Sites and then released without charge. The extrajudicial detention was apparently due to a mis-spelling of El-Masri's name. When the CIA realized El-Masri was the wrong guy, they threw him on another plane and freed him in Albania.

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Aerial view of Salt Pit (image)

It is believed that the jail were he was detained was a secret CIA detention center outside Kabul called the Salt Pit. For five months, El-Masri says, he was locked in a solitary cell in the Salt Pit and interrogated by Arabic-speaking inquisitors who asked him repeatedly if he was involved with the Sept. 11 hijackers, if he'd journeyed to Jalalabad on a false passport, if he hung out with Islamic extremists living in Germany (via).

Symbology.

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NOYFB. Fabric patch, Edition of 50, 2006

Military have all sorts of patches, icons and insignia. They reveal anything that they do or are. These markers of identity and program heraldry begin to create a peculiar symbolic regime when they depict one's affiliation with what defense-industry insiders call the "black world".

0aailpooool.jpgThe symbols and insignia shown in Paglen's Symbology series provide a glimpse into how contemporary military units answer questions that have historically been the purview of mystery cults, secret societies, religions, and mystics: How does one represent that which, by definition, must not be represented?

Both the icons and words used on the patches are weird. "Alone and on the Prowl", sometimes with inside jokes "Gustatus Similis Pullus" (Tastes Like Chicken); "Doing God's works with other people's money," NOYFB (None of Your Fucking Business), etc.

You can see some of these patches until February at the Transmediale exhibition which runs until February 24 at the House of World Cultures in Berlin.

Related: Interview with the Institute for Applied Autonomy; Tracking the Torture Taxis; The Captives.

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