Photos by Bruce Sterling
Berghain in Berlin is a very famous night club, but the bouncers didn't like my attitude. When I cheerfully walked up to pay the entrance fee and hear some techno, one of the bouncers suddenly shoved me aside, so hard that I almost fell.
Later I heard that Lady Gaga and Paris Hilton got a similar swift rejection, but this didn't make me like it any better. What happens inside Berghain stays in Berghain because its border guards are worse than East German police.
This year's Transmediale, Berlin's festival of media art, was named "Afterglow." The presentations, workshops and art had a retrospective feeling. The mournful realization is here that the Internet is now the post-Internet, that Western democracy is post-democratic, and that people might even be verging on the post human.
The hottest topic in Berlin was, of course, NSA, Snowden and company.
So much for the network utopias of the pre- dot-com Internet; the business world and government alike have finally found their own use for this great innovation: the post-Internet is the ideal surveillance network. Philip K Dick, always one of Europe's favorite science fiction writers, gets a brisk revival in this air of paranoid irrational oppression.
The devil demands his due as everything is turned on its head. In the post-Internet "anti-panopticon," everybody knows they are being secretly watched, anonymous geeks become the post-Internet's star activists and jailed martyrs; yesterday's ultra-secret agencies become globally notorious. There seems to be nothing more to say or to lose. Everybody knows the truth now, but nobody knows what to do about it.
The hacker lab in the basement of Transmediale's weird "Oyster" building served as our dungeon of despair. It was also by far the most lively space in Transmediale. Given 48 brief hours and no budget at all, the feverish hacker artists created their exhibits out of trash and debris: working devices, exhibitions, performances, objects, most of them with themes of surveillance and critical self surveillance.
Wading through that loud, trashy interactive space was like clear-cutting an electronic jungle -- the tangled mess that humans have made for themselves in the name of cyber-progress while forgetting entirely about civil rights. Art is always critical, self conscious and cathartic: but tech art nowadays is political and confrontational.
An artist hacked our cellphones sending us weird messages. Spanish girls self inflicted electronic tattoos on their nude bodies. Google's fancy network hardware arrived in a cheap cardboard box, entire high-tech router units smashed and shredded into tiny chunks and flakes, so that Google's precious algorithms could never be reverse-engineered.
A "hacker honey-pot" appeared as a golden pot full of sticky honey in which mobiles were suspended as fossils in amber.
A surveillance camera embedded in goggles allowed you to surveil your own movements from a distant, third person point-of-view. Virtual stones were flung against webpages to smash the information, while glitch art offered a randomized exit strategy.
A hysterical robot bird in a cage circled endlessly over a heap of techno-debris, until the battery slowly failed and her flight stopped entirely.
For my own part, I sang inside the Transmediale hack lab. I publicly performed the old war song, "Lili Marlene," which is all about the tender darling who loyally waits for her national soldier under a street lamp. My hacked 2014 version of "Lili from Belgrade" is fed up with that aggressive, sexist rubbish, and she isn't going to wait around for anybody any longer.
It's been a long 25 years since the demolition of the Berlin Wall. Berlin in 2014 is an extraordinary modern city, a global safe-haven for leftists marxist feminists artists conceptualists dissidents & activists. It's as if Berlin's heavy history of terror against the other has given it a healthy immunity; when the network society turns upside down, and all that once meant pure freedom means pure surveillance, Berlin knows all about that. Berlin has abandoned depots where the Cold War NSA once built their very best radio aerials. Berlin's rusty NSA stronghold is the paradise of graffiti street art people nowadays.
I like everything about Berlin, except for bouncers, the demons of the techno disco, world famous for sexual tolerance, weird design, and ear-shattering 48-hour techno-music orgies, which they judged must be beyond my understanding.
As a veteran of the 20th century, its wars and miseries that I've been through I doubt that.
But, maybe they have less to hide than I do. An exclusive nightclub keeps its secrets just for the sake of the allure of secrecy: no mobile photos allowed in there, no Google Glass, no Angela Merkel with her compromised smartphone. There's nothing much to show or hide in a mere nightclub, except for the basic cabaret principle of who gets to look, and who is on display. Berlin has never lacked for mystery, or horror, or decadence, or cabarets either. There is only one banal issue left: how to avoid repeating the same story over and over.
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