Interview with Kristoffer Gansing, Artistic Director of the Transmediale Festival
Above: Kristoffer Gansing, Artistic Director transmediale
As a curator and researcher, Kristofer Gansing is interested in the intersections of media, art, and activism. He is co-founder of the festival The Art of the Overhead (2005) and from 2007-2010 was an editorial board member of the artist-run channel tv-tv in Copenhagen. From 2001-11 he taught the theory and practice of new media at the K3 School of Arts and Communication at Malmö University. In 2013 he completed his PhD thesis, entitled Transversal Media Practices, a study dealing with media archaeology, art, and technological development.
From 2011 to 2020, Kristoffer Gansing was the artistic director of the transmediale — an annual Berlin-based art and digital culture festival. For over thirty years, transmediale has aimed to challenge people to explore and rethink their everyday relationship to technology and encourage the critical understanding of art, culture, and politics in a society shaped by the media. Initially founded as VideoFilmFest in the context of Berlinale’s International Forum of New Cinema in 1988, transmediale has grown to be one of the most important art and digital cultural events worldwide.
Beyond the annual festival, transmediale is also a dynamic platform with a vibrant community and a strong network that facilitates regular publications and year-round activities including commissions and artist residencies. transmediale has addressed issues of emotions and cultural emergence in digital culture, the political, economic, and cultural divides of our time and the elusiveness of perpetually transitioning media cultures at the festival.
Kristoffer Gansing’s approach at transmediale constantly balanced dealing with a rapidly-shifting present while carefully evaluating the past and anticipating an inevitable future. Under his guidance, transmediale has evolved to become a place for critical reflection of the everyday.
.ART spoke to Gansing about his time at transmediale, the direction of the festival, and “The Eternal Network”, an exhibition curated within the framework of the 2020 edition of transmediale, the last under Gansing’s direction.
Can you tell us how your journey into the art world, specifically the realms of digital art and technology, began?
I was a part of the video game culture from my early years, and later got into programming computer games. As an adult, I took an interest in filmmaking and film studies. Originally, I was very interested in experimental underground cinema, and that’s actually how I got into net art. At some point in the late 1990s, the new media net art scene was a kind of continuation of experiments in non-linear storytelling and conceptual audio-visual art. This is how I came into it, as a combination of theory and practice, which is what I’m still doing: combining my expertise as a media theorist with curatorial and cultural projects like transmediale.
In a way, then, your personal biography and transmediale’s biography go hand in hand, because transmediale was initially a film festival.
From 2005 onwards, I began working with a much smaller festival in Denmark and Sweden called “The Art of the Overhand”. It was a combination of analogue and digital media and overhead projectors, as an overlooked school of technology. I curated the festival together with artist Linda Hilfling Ritasdatter; it acquired a bit of a cult status within the German media art scene. In 2011, I applied for the job at transmediale and surprisingly I got it.
How do you think the festival changed throughout the years?
It might be difficult for me to evaluate. I would say it has significantly changed and developed on several levels. One of the things I wanted to do when I started working with transmediale was to focus more on curatorial coherence; I tried to strengthen the exhibition program and tie it to the key festival theme. I got rid of the award and the jury that evaluated the nominated works to help create a more curatorial, thematic framework for everything. The festival probably became more biennial-like in the first years of my direction. Together with guest curators, I also began to experiment with doing something that I like to call a post-digital festival.
It reflected not only on the digital technologies and the transformations that they bring on the scale of technology itself, but also the role of the festival in an age where so much culture and content is available via digital networks. The festival’s intent should not necessarily be to showcase and thus try to represent “the best of” media art, but instead to be a transdisciplinary meeting place, where people are challenged to reflect on their practice. I always emphasize that the festival is a site for discussion. For two years, the festival was held without a traditional exhibition. There was a lot of art, but it was happening live, within the events, mixing performances, workshops, and screenings. This format was trying to go beyond the representational mode of the festival. Since 2014, the festival’s audience has grown and we’ve seen an increased interest from the broader public. In the earlier days, the festival was more niche.
This increased interest might also have something to do with our contemporary life being so affected by the digitalization.
Exactly! The first big surge was after the Snowden leaks in 2013, and the consequent debates on and the impact of digitization on our everyday life.
How would you describe transmediale’s manifesto?
The name of the festival itself has a transmedial aspect to it. For me, the idea of transdisciplinarity was equally important – working across different fields of cultural practice and institutions. In a way it’s hard to pin it down, but it’s a place where people from different fields are able to come together, providing an overview of culture under the influence of technological transformations.
When you talk about institutions, do you have regular partners or collaborators? Have you ever collaborated with other digital art festivals like IMPAKT or Ars Electronica?
Yes we have, in various ways. A couple of years ago, we had something called “The New Networked Normal” — it’s not “The New Normal” by Benjamin Bratton, but it was conceived in parallel. This was a network we had with the Abandon Normal Devices festival in the UK, the STRP festival in the Netherlands, the Influencers in Barcelona, among others, and it was a way to support and commission works across these organizations. transmediale has had partnerships with various universities, like the University of the Arts in Berlin, the Winchester School of Art in the UK, and Aarhus University in Denmark. Sometimes, we partner through EU network grants, like Creative Europe. In addition to these partnerships, we also host annual workshops with young Ph.D. researchers and artists from Hong Kong, the UK, and Germany.
What would you say defines your curatorial approach?
I wrote my Ph.D. on cultural production and curation as a form of artistic research (Transversal Media practices, 2013), and it is still very much linked to my approach today. I have some experience with artistic work and making something that performs the theory and the concepts. It all comes back to trying to develop formats that reflect the themes in the way that they are carried out. Concepts and theory play a big role, but I try to make them performative within the way the festival is carried out.
Could you tell us a bit about your recent exhibition, The Eternal Network?
The initial inspiration for this exhibition came from the fact that I wasn’t aware of any exhibitions that dealt with the histories of so-called critical net cultures. I noticed that .ART interviewed Geert Lovink — he is one of the most important protagonists of this network of artists, working within net art, media activists, and early internet collectives. I wanted to do something that would reflect these histories, but also to think about the limitations of these types of projects and practices within the more tangible idea of networks that we have today. The ’90s presented a lot of possibilities for self-organizations within networks. Today, we have this backlash against networks, because we have so many debates around propaganda, manipulations, fake news, and hate speech. I wondered whether it was possible to have a more progressive network practice and whether we could learn something from these histories.
The Eternal Network wasn’t necessarily a historical exhibition — it mostly showcased new works and 9 historical touchdowns. We call them revisions, where archives and previous projects, mainly from the ’90s, were showcased in different ways. Some works map out the tangible limitations of the internet, like the “Critical Atlas of the Internet” by Louise Drulhe or “The Net Wanderer” by Guo Cheng. Then, we had pieces that were proactively creating their own networks: some explored the polarized Internet culture of today, like Aay Liparoto’s online knowledge network for feminist queer arts and social practice. Rather than focusing on the idea that everything is connected to everything else, the exhibition focused on networks in a more intimate way.
The title of the exhibition comes from the Fluxus movement. The idea was to connect this pre-imagination of the early practice of network culture to the relived experience that we have today — perhaps, a more realistic take on networks and the internet, and then to re-think and re-formulate.