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Berlin 2019: Music, Tech, Audiovisual Sci-Art scenes

Part Two: Algae, Artificial Intelligence & Make Believe

Kapitel Zwei* from my 2019 creative research trip to Berlin.

This year Germany celebrates 100 years of the BAUHAUS with a nationwide programme of events celebrating the radical art school that transformed design, architecture, photography and art-school practice. Back in January, my arrival chimed with the opening of 100 jahre bauhaus; the light, sound and motion exhibition at the Akademie der Künste seemed a befitting start to my research into transmedia programmes in the city. The Licht.Schatten.Spuren show featured kinetic, sculptural and sonic works by Lázsló Moholy-Nagy and contemporary artist-scientists exploring the interplay of light and shadow. An ensemble of original artworks, remodelled pieces (including my favourite ‘Light space modulator’) and new commissions from contemporary artists including Christian Boltanski and Tim Otto Roth. The exhibition traced the lineage and influence of the Bauhaus upon today’s interdisciplinary artworks, and how even in the era of technological advances in AR, VR and AI, this spirit of making work at the borders maintains the potential to produce the most visceral art that depicts the culture of our times, the true meaning of zeitgeist.

*Chapter Two! You can read part one of my Berlin adventures with the Artists’ International Development Fund here.

State Studio

A present day example of this critical dialogue at the borders of art and technological is STATE Studio in west Berlin. Occupying a new gallery space on Hauptstrasse, STATE is a ‘festival, gallery and agency for science, art and innovation who connect people with science in novel ways’. My first visit was for the opening of ‘Field Experiments’ an exhibition series showcasing provocative artistic works across the fields of science, art and society. The centerpiece of the exhibition was ‘Living Canvas’ an installation by artist and designer Faro Peluso. The piece is a giant living canvas-sized algae experiment (complete with water irrigation system), a piece of speculative design challenging the viewer to contemplate the importance of sustainable energy in cities and how algae could be harnessed in urban design to breathe air into our future cities. Faro collaborated with Solaga, a Berlin-based biotech firm to create the algae biofilm. A few days later I got hands on attending the ‘Algature Workshop’ learning how to grow your own algae biofilm and discussing Solaga’s bio-technology work making ‘living walls’; panels of microalgae biofilms that are low in energy and suitable for cleaning at low concentrations that offer potential for urban and biological air purification. Imagine a future city with giant architectural algae structures or hanging an algae picture in your front room to cleanse the air.

I met with STATE Director Christian Rauch, who is passionate about this approach to connecting artists, research and the public in critical dialogue around science and society, and is building a really dynamic programme at the space, exemplified by their new ‘Artist in Lab-Dualität’ an applied research programme where artists and designers link with Fraunhofer institutes to create and disseminate work. I kept returning to STATE during my trip for free talks and meet ups including the Disruption Network Lab and a CTM Music Makers Hacklab talk on cybernetics, I highly recommend checking out STATE Studio’s fascinating programme.

The Work of Art in the age of Artificial Intelligence

Conceptual Research Project: Programmed by CTM Festival, hosted by Art Laboratory Berlin

Led by curator Natalia Fuchs, media art historian and founder of Artypical, and new media artist Helena Nikonole who’s piece ‘dues X mchn’  explored networked surveillance cameras, IoT and sacred texts was currently on show as part of CTM Festival’s ‘Persisting realities’ exhibition, I was one of ten artists to take part in the programme, the criteria being to propose a project utilising AI. For me relatively new to this discipline it was a chance to learn about the history of AI within arts practice and gain an insight into the tools, contexts and contemporary perspectives surrounding the field.  My proposal was to create an AI performative sound sculpture that used concrete objects, sampled sound, live radio and machine learning to reflect on Walter Benjamin’s critique around the ‘cult of the original object’ in his essay ‘The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’. 

The programme was fascinating, Natalia versed us in the role of the artist as interface and activist, using art to navigate and interrogate contemporary contexts and dynamics around AI including power and surveillance, dataset bias, ecology,  control and manipulation. 

AI as an artistic field is growing so fast due to big data, computational power and ready access to machine learning tools. We discussed the aesthetics and growing field of the ‘AI artwork’ from a visual perspective and the ‘hype curve.’ In a rapidly evolving field where the technology is advancing so fast, a very real concern for artists is that of producing work which has the potential to date very quickly as the technology and critical discourse advances.

With this in mind, Natalia shared insight from a curatorial perspective where models for AI exhibitions such as ‘Open Codes’ at ZKM, and the ‘More than Human’ exhibition at the Barbican are addressing this by implementing innovative strategies for the exhibits and exhibition content to evolve over time to respond to these changes. This summer Natalia, Helena and Peter Kirn hosted Gamma_Lab AI bringing together musicians, coders, mathematicians and computer scientists with live outputs performed at St Petersburg’s Gamma Festival.

AI and music are hitting the headlines in 2019 with leading electronic musicians such as Actress and Holly Herndon exploring this field in their new live shows. I’m interested in continuing my learning from this AI course and the ‘Machine learning for sound artists’  course at Koma to develop my skills. One thing that stuck with me was the idea that artists can play a role in imagining future social purposes for AI – subverting the power hierarchies of tech companies and how AI could be a democratic source of power for the people.

School of Machines, Making & Make Believe

Micro-dosing diaries, consciousness and collectivised communist role play in video games, just some of the topics and presentations at the ‘Cake and Conversation’ event at School of Machines, Making and Make Believe headquarters at ACUD, Prenzlauer Berg. Our host School of MA founder Rachel Uwa welcomed us to the studio space, an arts & tech den packed with equipment, books and sculptures including some giant fluffy heads from a previous augmented reality project! The attendees listened to fascinating presentations on the above subjects and discussed the themes over cake. Sounds like a simple concept, it was … and it was great. As Rachel said  “I hate small talk, let’s make time to talk about ideas and things that matter with strangers.”

A couple of weeks later I visited Rachel to find out more. School of MA has a stellar programme based around four week projects bringing creatives together over contemporary technological and societal issues, as it states on their website, ‘ Technology is fascinating but, more importantly, who are we and what do we care about?.’ Usually held in Berlin over the summer, themes have included experimental gaming, eco acoustics, data surveillance and future cities. 2019 sees the School of MA go international with their courses ‘Made in China’ in Shenzen in collaboration with SEEED Studios and ‘Future Landscapes’ at the National University of Ireland. Tutors are selected as world leaders in their field and the programme attracts participants from all over the world.

Rachel is interested in continuous learning, what we once called ‘life-long learning’ in the UK before (before our creative adult education provision was drastically cut.) Tired of one or two day courses where you learn a new skill, software platform or thematic area, Rachel devised the four week programme structure which enables the acquisition of practical skills in say coding, machine learning or AR/VR which is then applied practically through the realisation of a  creative project or collaboration – embedding what you have learnt. It also allows for a more in depth conceptual discussion and rigour with experts and fellow artists. Projects coming up include ‘Evidence’ introducing critical discourse around citizen forensics and ‘Waiting and Escaping’ on the fundamentals of spatial design. Above all you are encouraged to make believe.


I met up with my friend Rania aka musician and artist PortraitXO, who gave me a tour of Factory, a new space at Görlitzer park for creative tech startups and increasingly arts production. Described on their website as an international community of innovators – the brightest minds from tech, politics, art, and science together into one collaborative ecosystem’, the building is one of two large campuses in the city (main space in Mitte), reflecting Berlin’s reputation as startup capital of Europe. Named after Warhol’s New York Factory, this is coworking on heat with an elegant library, playground (including ball pool, sleeping pods and obligatory ping pong), exhibition spaces and I spotted people quaffing lattes sitting in dolled-up wheelie bins (true).  As members; organisations and individuals have access to network and pitching opportunities, training, skill-sharing and a whole host of social events made to aid collaboration.

Rania is the first artist in residence at Factory and is keen to bring in creativity and art to the building in spades. When I went to meet her she was testing a new AR app on her phone made by one of the neighbouring startups, animating the environment. I first met her at Music Tech Fest Stockholm last year, listening to her talk as a music artist with synaesthesia between taste and sound. That week she was working on an audio-visual installation in the cafe and performance spaces based on this work and recently has collaborated with Dadabots on an AI/Vocal duet as PortraitXO. I’m interested to see how she continues to explore the dynamics of the communities, companies and start up technologies artistically in the space, and how the artistic and commercial innovation models play out. With interesting programming such as music tech event The Creative Code, talks such as ‘Consumed by the internet, an event on digital addiction’ plus recently launched artist open call with links to Sonar festival in Barca, things are looking sparky over at Factory.

Here concludes my insight into the music tech and art-science scenes in Berlin 2019. I’ve loved the opportunity to spend a prolonged period of time in my favourite city, making music and meeting friends old and new. The streets, the humans, the machines the spirit of the place, it’s been an incredible experience I’ll never forget. 2019 marks the 30 year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, plus 100 years since the German revolution with ‘100 jahre Revolution Berlin 18/19’, a city wide programme of events and exhibitions exploring democracy, freedom and protest. Coming from Manchester another politically and culturally radical city, i’ve been thinking a lot about just what gives a place cultural significance and creative dynamism. I finished my trip with a visit to the British Council at no. 1 AlexanderPlatz, to share my findings and provide insight into the art scene of my home town, re-energised In the knowledge of the power of cultural exchange and understanding through art. Thank you Arts Council England and British Council for this Artists International Development Funding.

Berlin, Bis Später x

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