Do users have a right to understand, see, and even manipulate the infrastructures that run their lives? The curator of transmediale’s new Co-Curricular program, Daphne Dragona, describes how the events in her series questioned the current technological infrastructures that we rely on—and in the process formed a new network, or infrastructure, from the Co-Curricular program itself.
Today’s connected world is an obscure world; it is shadowed by what users can’t know about the networked platforms, systems, and infrastructures their communication is based upon. Having reached the point where the “internet does not exist” and the presence of the invisible cloud/s is paramount, users enjoy a constant connectivity that is directly linked to new forms of anxiety.
How can users today freely act, make, share, and secure when the processes and topologies of networked systems remain unknown? How can they surpass the mystification and sovereignty of the cloud/s and move towards different systems that they themselves can own and control? Is there a right to infrastructures and if so, how can it be reclaimed? What new forms of media literacy can empower users and how?
To address these questions, transmediale 2016 initiated a new Co-Curricular program with the support of Allianz Stiftung. In accordance with the activity of the festival in the past, my aim as curator of the program was to foster media literacy while also strengthening the sharing of experience and knowledge among artists, scientists, activists, and theorists from different fields and generations. The title, Co-Curricular, reflected, on one hand, the opportunity for young artists and researchers to engage in new forms of non-formalized education lying outside the usual academic curriculum and, on the other, a challenge for transmediale itself to broaden its network of collaborators in the field of research. In response to the anxieties of the post-digital culture that this year’s edition tackled, the program offered a common ground where the possibilities for a new form of infrastructural literacy were explored by an active community of people working on autonomous networked systems and infrastructures.
The program included workshops, seminars, and other participatory formats, involving both theory and hands-on practice, and had a dual scope: to raise awareness about the opaque processes of data aggregation behind today’s systems of networked connectivity; and to discuss existing and emerging alternative systems and infrastructures that users themselves can sustain, own, and control. Community networks, offline sharing archives, and autonomous distributed systems became a focal point, introducing infrastructures on the scales of the smart city to the smart home. For their projects, the invited artists, scientists, and network practitioners embraced different practices and methodologies, including elements from the fields of media archaeology, critical design, commoning, DIY networking, and activism.
The Co-Curricular program kicked off with the live performance Hello, City! by the “speculative architect” Liam Young, who focused on the role of smart city infrastructures and the ways they will affect everyday life in the near future. Young “took the audience in a tour in a driverless taxi,” inviting them to see a future city through the eyes of the robots that manage it. He presented an urban environment where all could be captured, correlated, and predicted, thanks to the advanced technological infrastructures. The problematization of the smart city was also explored by sociologist Jennifer Gabrys together with artist Helen Pritchard. For their Rethingifying the Smart City workshop, they invited the participants to “repurpose and re-infrastructure” the processes of the smart city with emphasis on environmental concerns. Participants used a range of video, photographs, source code, network infrastructure, sensors, speculative designs, and artworks to discuss possible models and prototypes.
Other new practices emerging in response to the black-boxing of ubiquitous computing and smart-city infrastructure were foregrounded during the Co-Curricular panel. In Reprogramming the Internet of Things, which was moderated by Dimitris Charitos and Iouliani Theona, participants Jennifer Gabrys, Jaromil Rojo, and Soenke Zehle discussed the challenges and possibilities of the asymmetrical logic of the Internet of Things. The speakers highlighted the new forms of hierarchization and colonization appearing behind the grand narratives of the smart city. Smaller scale, user-controlled systems were introduced as tools of awareness and emancipation.
But to what extent is it really possible for users to regain their rights to infrastructures? Off-the-Cloud Zone, the biggest Co-Curricular event, emphasized the size of those challenges. Researcher Panayotis Antoniadis, network practitioner James Stevens, and I collaborated to organize an event that brought together a community of artists, engineers, theorists, and practitioners who work on systems that oppose the centralization of data aggregation. Models of community networks, ad hoc mobile networks, offline sharing archives, and autonomous systems of sensing and data collecting were presented and discussed. The event featured, among others, the team of dyne.org, who presented Dowse, a hub for local networks that provides a counter-proposal to the IoT, as well as the team of the community network of Sarantaporo, who presented the a network that connects the inhabitants of a group of villages in Northern Greece.
Building networks of trust for communities of users is one of the main goals of “off-the-cloud" systems. The artists Cristoph Wachther and Mathias Jud, during their seminar Infrastructural Violence, discussed the possibilities of empowerment and emancipation when power is exercised through networked infrastructures. Having worked with minority groups and marginalized communities to develop autonomous community networks, the artists underlined that this new form of infrastructural violence can be opposed only when the individuals are no longer dependent on imposed systems for communication. Examples of networks in Syria, Turkey, China, and Iran built by the artists in collaboration with activists emphasized the potentials of alternate communication routes.
The DIY Packet Radio Workshop also looked into community media, but from a different angle. Inspired by wireless radio, artists Dennis de Bel and Roel Roscam Abbing decided to explore the older medium with participants. Following an artistic practice that embraces media archaeology, the artists reminded participants of the plurality and the possibilities of different networks that can be autonomous and resilient. During the workshop they also demonstrated their own DIY radio system and explained how it could be set up on the spot.
In general the Co-Curricular program aimed to actively reinforce the dynamic of a growing community working on new autonomous infrastructures. A team of postgraduate students from the Faculty of Communication and Media Studies of the University of Athens, the partner institution for the program, traveled to transmediale to attend the events. The students were later interviewed to describe their experience and provide feedback, and their responses emphasized the following: the usefulness of hands-on demonstrations and workshops to complement theoretical knowledge; the importance of the immediacy of the artists in the participatory workshops and events; the necessity for critical awareness in relation to the comfort of centralized connectivity; and the necessity for this vivid community of thinkers, artists, scientists, conscious users to expand and grow. As one of the students said: “It is very important that a festival sets up a program, a space, featuring the infrastructures we would like to have in the near future. You can try the systems, talk to the creators and ask yourself: how mature are we and what can we change?”
Perhaps this is one of the most honest questions we should all be asking ourselves. How can we pass from the aware-and-anxious condition to the very much discussed critical empowerment and emancipation in the era of connectivity? How much of our time and comfort can we really sacrifice to become skillful and conscious users? When curating such a program there is a risk that it might be read as purely educational or as addressing a specific festival audience. By underlining the urge for infrastructural literacy, though, I aimed for something different. The “ability to act” that any literacy refers to is in this case dependent on the rights that users have to today’s infrastructures. This does not only refer to the “opening of the black box,” making systems visible and tangible, but also to the accessing of information related to the politics and the power behind those infrastructures. It is on this ground that the work of this interdisciplinary community of artists, engineers and theorists is of great importance. Their work comprises a broad spectrum of user-owned and controlled systems, while encouraging a problematization of today’s commodified “smart” world. What Co-Curricular aimed for was specifically to embrace their activity and to explore the possibilities for new prosperous collaborations among independent actors, cultural organizations, and universities, which will hopefully transcend the limits of the festival and continue in various networks and locations.