Tamiko Thiel: when art augments reality

Pau Waelder

Tamiko Thiel is a pioneering visual artist exploring the interplay of place, space, the body and cultural identity in works encompassing an artificial intelligence (AI) supercomputer, objects, installations, digital prints in 2D and 3D, videos, interactive 3d virtual worlds (VR), augmented reality (AR) and artificial intelligence art. In this conversation, that took place on the occasion of the launch of her solo artcast Invisible Nature curated by DAM Projects, she discusses the evolution of technology over the last three decades, her early AR artworks and her commitment to create art that invites reflection.

Your work is characterized by the use of Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality technologies, with pioneering artistic projects. Which technical challenges have you met over the last decades in the creation of these projects?

My first exposure to real time computer graphics was at MIT when I was a graduate student in 1982. At that point,  writing everything from scratch, you had to program for a semester in order to get a cube that would rotate in three dimensions. Coming from an artistic and design background, I felt that this is not really where I want to create art right now, I’ll have to wait. And then about 10 years later, in 1992, Silicon Graphics came out with OpenGL, an open standard that made it possible to do real time interactive computer graphics on PCs. Then in 1994, I started to work with a company called Worlds Incorporated, which was taking this new potential for doing interactive 3D computer graphics on PCs connected to the Internet. At that time I worked with Steven Spielberg on the Starbright World Project, the first 3d online Metaverse for ill children, a virtual world where they could momentarily escape the space of the hospital. This first Metaverse was running on high end PCs, with fast connections provided by various high tech companies, but it was still unaffordable for people at home. The project ran from 1994 to 1997, and at that time the technology was still unstable.

“It takes maybe 10 to 15 or 20 years to get there instead of the five years that all the evangelists predict.”

So you must jump from that to 10 years later, when Second Life came about and this time people had more powerful graphic cards and ADSL connections at home. Second Life was able to create a much more developed virtual world, which seemed like the next phase of the Internet and all the corporations wanted to move there. Then around 2007-2008, probably due to the financial crisis, but also the rise of Facebook, which allowed people to share photographs on a common platform, the excitement around Second Life fizzled. And then if we jump another 15 years more, we find ourselves with still bigger processing power and faster connections. Now it is much easier to create virtual worlds than it was 25 years ago, partly because it is easier to create 3D objects, or you can buy them online, and also because of the advancements in hardware and software.

So, as you can see, big steps come on later than you think. It takes maybe 10 to 15 or 20 years to get there instead of the five years that all the evangelists predict. People talked about virtual reality at that time in the 90s as being a failure, just as they talked about AI being a failure in the 80s and 90s. And what they don’t realize is that technological change takes longer than you’d want it to. So it’s wrong to call it a failure. It’s more like: “Okay, we have to keep on working on this.” And if you wait long enough, 20 years or so, then you’ll get it.

Video by Tamiko Thiel, Rewilding the Smithsonian, 2021.  Created with the ReWildAR AR app (2021, with /p). Commissioned by curator Ashley Molese for the 175th anniversary of the Smithsonian Institution, in the Arts and Industries Building.

Interactive 3D and VR artworks such as Beyond Manzanar and Virtuelle Mauer have a strong narrative component as they explore historic and political issues. What is the role of the user in constructing these narratives?

Basically, what I tend to do is look for key moments that I think can be expressed and experienced and communicated better in virtual reality than in other media. In Beyond Manzanar, for me that was the moment where you’re sitting in a beautiful Paradise Garden, and  you see the mountains covered in snow around you. This is an image from the book Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston: the author tells that when she was an eight-year-old and she was imprisoned in the camp, she would pick a viewpoint where she couldn’t see any guard towers, any barracks, nor barbed wire fence. And she tried not to move for the longest time, because as long as she didn’t move, she could preserve the illusion she was in paradise of her own free will. As soon as she moved, she saw that she was indeed in prison, she fell out of paradise back into prison. And so this moment occurs in Beyond Manzanar, where you enter a garden which is framed by the beautiful mountains. But if you go too deeply into the garden, then boom! – the garden disappears, and you’re back in the prison camp. 

Beyond Manzanar (2000). An interactive virtual reality large projection installation by Tamiko Thiel and Zara Houshmand.

My second piece, The Travels of Mariko Horo, has a much more complicated structure with several heavens imagined by a time traveling 12th century Japanese female artist inventing the West in her imagination. In this work there is this moment when you enter the different churches, which are in fact liminal spaces between the prosaic everyday life and the world of the supernatural. When you cross that threshold, Mariko Horo takes you to heaven or takes you to hell. But it is always by your own free will, you’re always making the decision and making the motions that all of a sudden present you with the consequences of your decisions. 

The Travels of Mariko Horo (2006). An interactive 3D virtual reality installation
By Tamiko Thiel, with original music by Ping Jin.

Finally, in Virtuelle Mauer/ReConstructing the Wall, I introduced some characters that take you in a time travel through the history of the Berlin Wall. But if you cross over the invisible boundaries of the former Death Strip,, then you fall back into the 80s, the wall appears behind you. So in all three pieces, it’s really about letting you feel like you have the freedom to go anywhere you want and do anything you want to do. But then you must face the consequences of these actions, which might take you to Paradise or they might take you to prison. But you always feel like it was your decision to go there, or to examine this, and therefore you’re sort of complicit with whatever happens to you.

Video by Tamiko Thiel, Atmos Sphaerae, 2022. Created with the Atmos Sphaerae VR artwork, 2021.

Creating artworks in Augmented Reality offers the possibility of intervening in institutional art spaces uninvited, as you did at MoMA, the Venice Biennale, or TATE Modern, or within a curated exhibition, as is the case with Unexpected Growth, which was shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Can you tell us about the creative process in both cases and your experience with “guerrilla” interventions versus curated exhibitions using the same technology?

Let’s start with We AR in MoMA, an augmented reality project created by Sander Veenhof and Mark Skwarek that took place at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on October 9th, 2010. The iPhone had been around since 2007, as well as other smartphone models, and in the course of 2009 both Mark and Sander had been playing around with the technology and developing AR artworks on mobiles in public spaces. And then they realized they could also geolocate the artworks to have them appear in certain spaces, so they came up with this idea of doing the spectacular intervention at MoMA. I knew Mark from the art circles before we had both shown in the 2009 Boston CyberArts Festival, so he dropped me and many of his artist friends an email saying: “Hey, we’re able to do this now. Send me some content and I’ll put it up and we’ll do a flashmob at MoMA.” They were not asking permission from MoMA. They didn’t know about it, and they couldn’t stop us. At that time, people didn’t realize that location based AR could be used anywhere. But then it turned out that they did find out about it beforehand, because Mark and Sander were doing the intervention as part of a citywide public art festival of psychogeography, so it was publicly announced by the festival all on Twitter. MoMA actually posted a link to the festival and said: “Hey, looks like we’re going to be invaded by AR,” which was very forward thinking and embracing this new development in technology. So, that was incredibly good publicity. It was a really exciting moment, when we realized that there were these possibilities that the new technology was bringing about. I would say this was a path breaking exhibit in the history of media. 

After this intervention at MoMA, the artists who took part in it created the group Manifest.AR. We were thinking about where to do the next incursion, and since I live in Munich, which is a six and a half hour beautiful train ride to Venice, I suggested we go to the Venice Biennale in 2011. It was a group of about eight of us. We created virtual pavilions that were located inside the Giardini and at Piazza San Marco, so that people who didn’t want to spend money to enter the Giardini could also experience the artworks in a public space, because the Giardini, with its walls around it is a classically closed curatorial space. The point was that having your work shown at the MoMA or the Biennale is a sign of achievement, of having been able to enter these closed curatorial spaces, but now with AR interventions that was not true anymore, anybody can place their artwork wherever they want. But then people’s reaction was: “Oh, wow, you’re showing in the Venice Bienniale, you’ve made it!” Then we told them we hadn’t been curated and that we were doing this of our own accord, but people would respond: “Oh, that’s even better.” So we thought we were doing this sort of Duchampian breakdown of all sorts of structures that define prominence in the art world. Duchamp exhibited his famous urinal not to say that an artwork becomes an artwork when an artist says it’s an artwork and places it in an art context, but to state that this whole thing is ridiculous. 

“The point of putting our artworks at the MoMA or the Venice Biennale was that with Augmented Reality anybody can place their artwork wherever they want.”

These interventions gave us a feeling of exhilaration that we could hold our own exhibits anywhere, even though no one in the art world was interested in media art at that moment. And we could also play off site. Because AR is a site-specific medium, you’re always dealing with the site. And that opened up whole new possibilities. Interestingly, shortly after that, George Fifield, the Boston Cyberarts director, arranged our first invitational show at the ICA Boston. This was in April of 2011. The ICA curators didn’t understand how the technology works. They said: “Okay, you can do it on the first floor, but not on the second floor. You can do it in the lobby and outside, but you can’t do it inside of the galleries.” And we had to tell them it doesn’t work that way. The artworks are triggered by a GPS location which has a radius of a mile or so.

As for showing Unexpected Growth at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, it was thanks to Christiane Paul, the adjunct curator of media art at the museum. I have known her for quite a while, I think since about 2002, and she has curated me into many of her shows over the years in different venues, but this was the first time at the Whitney. She had of course done the visionary work of creating Artport, a space for net art supported by the museum, but she still hadn’t placed an AR artwork inside the museum. Then in 2014 she commissioned an AR intervention by Will PappenheimerProxy, 5-WM2A, at the Whitney’s final closing gala for the old Breuer Building. So when she contacted me in 2018 to create an artwork to show at the Whitney, she had already gone through the process of introducing this technology in the museum. She invited me to create an artwork for the terrace, which is 20 by 10 meters in size. Since this was a big show, I needed to make sure that the piece would work properly, so I contacted the people at Layar, the AR app we had used in all our previous interventions, but by then they told me they would shut down their servers, so I had to find a solution. My husband Peter Graf, who is a software developer, told me he could write an app for me. We worked side by side on this project, so I realized he should co-author it with me and he came up with the artist name /p, so now the artwork is in the Whitney collection credited to myself and /p in collaboration. Now the artwork is not officially on view at the museum, but if you download our app and go to the terrace you can still experience it.

Video by Tamiko Thiel, Unexpected Growth (Whitney Museum Walk1), 2018. Created with the Unexpected Growth AR app (2018, with /p), commissioned by and in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

There is also the fact that the artworks are invisible, so how did you communicate their existence and solve the technical problems associated with having the proper device, software, and connectivity?

At the Venice Biennale intervention, Sander got in touch with Simona Lodi, director of the Share Festival Turin , and the artist group Les Liens Invisibles, who were together mounting another AR intervention The Invisible Pavilion. We created a common postcard with QR codes to download the app. We also invited people to come to Piazza San Marco and the Giardini on certain days and times and help them experience the artworks. Collaborating with the team from the Share Festival was a huge help, because those of us from outside of Italy had terrible connection issues, and also it was the first Venice Biennale when hordes of people were walking around with their cellphones, overloading the networks. The Vodafone network actually broke down in the Venice area. Gionatan Quintini of Les Liens Invisible loaned me his smartphone to show my work, and this is an example of the kind of collaborative atmosphere that you get in the media art world and that is not that easy to find in the contemporary art world. By connecting our networks with those of Share, we got a lot of publicity for both the interventions in MoMA and in the Venice Biennial, and that put AR in this early time into the media art history books, and therefore into the art canon.

Video by Tamiko Thiel, Sponge Space Trash Takeover (Walk1), 2020. Created with the VR space “Sponge Space Trash Takeover” courtesy of Cyan Planet and xR Hub Bavaria.

The artworks in your latest artcast titled Tamiko Thiel: Invisible Nature all deal with different aspects of our intervention of the natural environment. What has been your experience addressing this subject in terms of the balance between the artistic expression and the message you want to convey? 

Perhaps because I started out as a product designer, with the Connection Machine being what I consider my first artwork, I am always thinking of my audience and how to communicate with them. When I approach political or social issues, such as climate related problems, I know that the really shocking photographs (for instance, a dead bird whose stomach is full of plastic) give you an immediate emotional jolt, and make you realize that this is a serious problem. But I personally cannot look at those images day after day, time and time again. So, balancing my work as an artist with my desire to communicate, sometimes I think that I should be a journalist, so I could write articles that can go into the details in much more depth. But how often do you reread the same article? So I think that what is truly the value of an artist making work about a subject such as these is that the art work can be exhibited time and time again, in different places around the world. And people might see it again, they may be willing to look at it time and time again, but not if it is something horrible and shocking. I’m traumatized enough by what’s happening in the world, so I’d rather create something that is not traumatizing for people, but at the same time it makes you think.

“What is truly the value of an artist making work about a subject such as these is that the art work can be exhibited time and time again, in different places around the world.”

For instance, Unexpected Growth shows a very colorful, bright coral reef on the terrace of the Whitney. And when you look at it more closely, you realize this beautiful coral reef is made out of virtual plastic garbage. So people are confronted with something that is really beautiful, but after a while they realize that they are surrounded by garbage. So my strategy is to seduce people with a strong visual composition that is captivating. And then, when I’ve got their attention, I let them figure out that there is actually something else going on here, if you actually spend the time to look at it.

Video by Tamiko Thiel, Evolution of Fish – Anthropocene Daze #1, 2019. Created with the AR app Evolution of Fish (2019, with /p).

Testimonies: video art at the Berlin Biennale

Pau Waelder

The Berlin Biennale is celebrating its 12th edition with a program of exhibitions and events that take place in six venues around the city, until September 18th. The four main exhibitions are hosted by the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, the Hamburger Bahnhof, and the spaces of the Akademie der Künste at Hanseatenweg and Pariser Platz with a total of nearly 90 artworks by more than a hundred artists. Titled Still Present!, this year’s Biennale is curated by artist Kader Attia, with the support of an artistic team composed by Ana Teixeira Pinto, Đỗ Tường Linh, Marie Helene Pereira, Noam Segal, and Rasha Salti.

View of the exhibition at Akademie der Künste (Hanseatenweg)

The main theme addressed by the current edition of the Biennale is the effect of colonization, in land and history as well as in bodies, people’s lives, identities, and mindsets. This subject touches cultural institutions too, by pointing out the presence of looted artifacts and forms of presenting colonized cultures that only contribute to open the wounds of a history of colonial abuse. In a text written for the catalogue, Kader Attia denounces the hatred of others (whether foreigners, people from nomadic cultures, those experiencing marginalization and anyone not submitting to heteronormative patriarchy) and the invisibility of the wounds that inequality and exploitation have caused:

“Invisibility is discourse’s preferred weapon of control: always in denial of the crime, the enunciator claims victory while disavowing all responsibility.”

Kader Attia, Still Present! Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art (Kunst-Werke Berlin, 2022), p.24

The concepts of wound and reparation are key to Attia’s work, and he finds in the processes of decolonization and the way in which Western societies have sought to build an image of a perfectly homogeneous modernity, in itself blind to the wounds it has created, an ideal framework in which to suggest forms of reparation through art. Art, he claims, can resist political and religious obscurantism precisely because it is unpredictable and constantly aims to reclaim people’s attention. He also states that artists seek to capture the present at a time when algorithmic governance collects data from our past actions in order to predict our future behavior. Trapped in this calculation of probabilities, the present no longer belongs to us, stresses Attia, and for this reason it must be recovered by means of the experience of art:

“Standing before a work of art, the spectator is plunged into another temporality, radically different from that of their environment, inaccessible to the insatiable appetite of algorithmic governance. […] art deconstructs so that it may repair and evolve, generating new forms of interpreting the present.”

Kader Attia, Still Present!, p.34,40
Center for Spatial Technologies & Forensic Architecture, Russian Strike on the Kyiv TV Tower (2022)

Being present

The artworks exhibited at the Berlin Biennale show that artists increasingly use video, 3D animation and data visualization in their portrayal of the present. Reality is captured through live footage, digital images, and all sorts of visual documentation. The exhibition spaces are filled with screens and projectors, sometimes extending their presence in the room with objects and imposing installations. The rooms at the Akademie der Künste, the Hamburger Bahnhof, and the KW Institute are dimly lit and labyrinthine, with displays creating areas of attention, that lend each artwork a space of its own, secluded in itself and rarely enabling a dialogue with nearby pieces. The documentary nature of most artworks also forces viewers to read the descriptions on the wall labels and concentrate on the story that each artist is telling. In this sense, as Kader Attia suggests, the artworks succeed in plunging viewers into a different temporality and making them fully present.

Artists increasingly use video, 3D animation and data visualization in their portrayal of the present

This temporality is both created and controlled by the artwork: as philosopher Boris Groys points out, video and time-based arts determine the time of contemplation. Through moving image and sound, notably the voice of a narrator, the artworks capture the viewer’s attention and force her to remain attentive while the story unfolds. This creates a particular pace for the visitor that demands more time and less distractions: these are not instagrammable exhibitions, in which to portray oneself in front of a tremendously huge object or a fiercely immersive installation, but rather spaces of discussion filled with the voices of the unheard. The enormous amount of footage to watch, the complexity of the narratives and the information one is required to process may seem overwhelming to a regular visitor. However, it is worth taking the time to patiently examine the artists’ exhibits, both in the sense of their public presentation and in the sense of producing evidence in a fictional court. 

View of the exhibition at Akademie der Künste (Hanseatenweg)

Visual records, both images and videos, have been considered irrefutable evidence of a fact until digital technologies and fake news finally put every image into question. Obviously, the depiction of historical events has always been subject to the interpretation of the victors, with visual artists being complicit in the creation of a narrative dictated by those in power. Today, artists addressing social, environmental and political issues are well aware of how images and messages are constantly manipulated, and therefore tend to avoid a position of authority, providing instead bare data, appropriated or filmed footage, witness recollections, and the stories told by those who ask to be heard. In this manner, the artist acquires an aura of neutrality, an actor who exposes facts with fair intentions in the form of a cultural product that, as the space that hosts it, is far removed from the complexities of real life. While this may seem to neutralize the political involvement of the artists and the educational (or indoctrinating) power of the artworks, it is actually the contrary. Art exhibitions enable a space where politics and society can be observed with detachment, as though one was reading a fictional story, and this allows one to confront other voices, other mindsets and realities that would otherwise be quickly ignored or dismissed. Being present thus also means being receptive, and willing to, at least, accept the existence of realities other than those we have created for ourselves.

Fragments of a reality

Fragmentation is a salient feature in many artworks, which rely on a variety of elements such as photos, maps, written documents and found objects. In 24°3′55″N 5°3′23″E (2012/2017/2022), Ammar Bouras addresses the consequences of the so-called Béryl incident, an explosion that occurred on May 1, 1962 while the French carried out underground nuclear tests near In Ekker in the Algerian desert. He creates a photographic montage and a video piece that explore both the geological layers of the area and the long-term consequences for the land through the testimonies of its inhabitants. The multiplicity of perspectives described both by the photographs and the video footage question the official history, which buried this event, and the possibility of an objective truth. 

Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, OH SHINING STAR TESTIFY (2019/22)

Using CCTV footage of an Israeli military surveillance camera, Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme tell in OH SHINING STAR TESTIFY (2019/22) the story of 14-year-old Yusef Al-Shawamreh, who on March 19, 2014 crossed the Israeli separation wall to pick akkoub (an edible plant important in Palestinian cuisine) and was shot dead by Israeli forces. This footage, which circulated online and was later removed, is projected onto a series of wooden panels that capture, distort and hide the projected image in their shadows, as other filmed and appropriated sequences enrich the context of the grainy scene and its crude depiction of the facts. Fragmentation in this case conveys the multiple layers of this event, framing it in a wider social and political context while avoiding the obscene spectacle of death that media outlets have made of drone footage since the Gulf War.  

Poison Soluble. Scènes de l’occupation américaine à Bagdad (2013) by Jean-Jacques Lebel, dives into this morbid spectacle by collecting and enlarging the snapshots taken by US military personnel while torturing and humiliating prisoners at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. With these magnified pictures, the artist builds a labyrinthine installation in which the visitor gets lost, surrounded by horrifyingly graphic depictions of violence and sadism, and the no less upsetting portraits of the proud torturers, smiling at the camera. The artist sought to force an involvement of the viewers, but the harshness of these massively distributed images also calls into question whether Lebel has not created yet another spectacle, this time for an art audience. Such criticism was raised by Iraqi curator Rijin Sahakian shortly after the opening of the Biennale and has finally led artists Layth Kareem, Raed Mutar, and Sajad Abbas to withdraw their work from the exhibition in protest. 

CCTV and drone footage have been used by the media in sensationalist reporting, to a point where their value as evidence is replaced by their effect on the audience

This controversy illustrates the power of the photographic image as both evidence and raw material subject to manipulation. This is particularly true for digital photography. The low resolution snapshots from Abu Ghraib, with their pixelated, badly compressed textures, can be immediately identified as a private record of an event, not meant to be seen outside a closed circle. CCTV and drone footage also belong to this category of images that have been continuously used by the media in sensationalist reporting, to a point where their value as evidence is replaced by their effect on the audience. 

Data speaks for itself

In contrast to the first-hand, visual testimony found in grainy digital footage from CCTV, drone, and smartphone cameras, data analysis and visualization provides a much more detached and abstract, but equally telling, presentation of evidence. Photographs and video clips remain important, but generally as a complement of graphs, simulations, and diagrams mapping the collected data in a meaningful way. 

David Chavalarias, Shifting Collectives (2022)

David ChavalariasShifting Collectives (2022) exemplifies this turn towards data visualization in a detailed observation of the French political landscape. A researcher at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Paris, Chavalarias explores the degradation of democratic values and the trivialization of xenophobia and ethnic nationalism through a timeline extending the long of a wall accompanied by a series of graphs, images, video and sound. The display of information aims to disentangle the complex interplay between political candidates, ideologists, social and workers groups, and the media, in order to provide quantifiable evidence of the rise of populism and right-wing extremism. Again there is here a collage of fragmented documentation, although it is presented under a unifying graph and the authoritative voice of science: the orderly display of facts, names, and numbers builds the narrative by itself.

Forensic Architecture, Cloud Studies (2021)

The collective Forensic Architecture is well known for their detailed research of cases of state violence through the analysis of architectural spaces and materials, using simulation techniques and information collected from witnesses. In Cloud Studies (2021) they address a type of aggression that, unlike bullet holes and broken glass, leaves no visible trace but causes permanent damage: the toxic clouds created by tear gas, airborne chemicals and petrochemical emissions. Fused in a single video, the collected documentation including video footage, 3D animations, fluid dynamics simulations, and countless photographs analyzed using machine learning techniques, is presented in a linear narrative in the form of a lecture that nevertheless includes certain dramatization. As in Chavalarias’ work, the display of information speaks for itself although here it is more scripted and lends itself to aesthetic concerns that confer the video its own identity as an artwork. 

In both artworks the presence of video and computer generated images denote the central role that this kind of imagery has adopted in the depiction of events by news outlets, at a time when the dominating perspective of a satellite or drone view and the tidy simplicity of a computer simulation can provide a much clearer and seemingly indisputable perspective than any number of witnesses’ accounts.



The voices of those who were there, the victims, the passersby, also the perpetrators, the plotters and the followers, tell stories that contain their own truths and commonly share the authenticity of a firsthand account. Every person describes their experiences with a mixture of truth and fiction, as a result of their interpretation of reality mediated by their beliefs. Thus, in every witness account there is a margin of doubt, an uncertainty that artists can explore in the depiction of their stories.

Omer Fast’s A Place Which Is Ripe (2020) presents the testimonies of two former London police officers who explain the ubiquitous presence of surveillance cameras in Great Britain in connection with the murders of two-year-old James Bulger in 1993 and fourteen-year-old Alice Gross in 2014, two notorious crimes that were solved thanks to CCTV footage. The footage showing Bulger taking the hand of one of his murderers was in turn widely distributed by the media and contributed to popularize the notion of the surveillance camera as a reliable witness. Fast films the officers from behind, to protect their identities, and combines their interviews with Google image searches based on their words, all displayed in three smartphones placed inside a drawer. The Google searches illustrate the officer’s accounts with a detachment that echoes the monotone sound of their voices and produces an eerie effect of repetition and normalization. The automated selection of the images also points to the development of surveillance cameras managed no longer by people, but by artificial intelligence programs. The terrible images that have transitioned from unquestionable evidence to morbid spectacle now become simple indexers of events for a computer to identify them.

In every witness account there is a margin of doubt, an uncertainty that artists can explore in the depiction of their stories.

View of the exhibition at KW Institute for Contemporary Art

A different form of indexing can be found in Elske Rosenfeld’s AN ARCHIVE OF GESTURES (2012–22), an exploration of the revolutions and revolts of 1989/90 surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall and the re-unification of Germany. Through the notion of “gestures,” she proposes a blueprint for understanding how these uprisings lead to collective action and how the events are recorded and told. Again, the witness is a camera. The gesture of “interrupting” is analyzed by editing a video recording of the first session of the Central Round Table of the GDR, in which members of the new political groups and citizens movements and of the established parties came together to discuss the role of the Round Table in aiding the democratic transformation of the country. Rosenfeld focuses on a moment in which the meeting was interrupted by the voices of protesters out in the street. Going back and forth through the footage, she divides the scene in two, repeats certain gestures of the participants, captures their reactions and hesitation upon being told what is happening outside. As with Fast’s film, editing is a key element in building the narrative. Both artists, as interpreters of the witnesses’ accounts, make the story their own.

Beyond fiction

Our perception of the present is clearly mediated by the eye of a camera, but not only a photographic or surveillance camera. The virtual camera of a simulated environment in a video game or a 3D animation also creates a reality of its own, that can be experienced as intensely as our physical surroundings. Video game worlds, with their endless possibilities, can also hold a hyperbolical mirror to our reality, making visible those aspects that are hidden or ignored.

Maithu Bùi, Mathuật – MMRBX (2022)

Maithu Bùi’s Mathuật – MMRBX (2022) is a video installation based on a virtual reality game that addresses the Vietnamese diaspora through mythology and magic rituals for communicating with the dead. The virtual space here allows for a suspension of disbelief and the assimilation of a set of cultural codes that belong to the artist’s personal memory and the country’s collective history. The video installation occupies the room in a way that invites to perceive the projected images as a real space and immerse oneself in the narrative that the artist has created.


Zach Blas goes one step further in this direction by creating a theatrical setup in PROFUNDIOR (LACHRYPHAGIC TRANSMUTATION DEUS-MOTUS-DATA NETWORK) (2022). An ambitious installation composed of eight screens and two projections, the piece presents a fictional AI god that feeds on the emotional tears of simulated humans. The tears are transformed into text, images, and sound, in what is seemingly an autopoietic system that seeks to compute human emotion. Continuing his exploration of the politics and imaginaries surrounding facial recognition and predictive policing based on artificial intelligence algorithms, Blas creates a dystopian world in which humans have been replaced by their avatars and emotions have become data. While this overtly fictional story seems to be far removed from the reality depicted by Bouras, Abbas and Abou-Rahme, or Lebel, it is nevertheless deeply rooted in our present. Blas’ subject matter requires a different form of expression, which is more effective as an extravagant fiction than it would be as a collection of documents and people’s accounts.

Media art has often been described as the “art of the future,” but as these works show, it is an art of the radical present.

This selective vision of the artworks on display at the Berlin Biennale aims to point out how artists address the present through moving images, appropriated footage that was leaked online, witnesses’ accounts recorded on smartphones, simulated environments and 3D-rendered fictions. These contents, and the way they are presented, allow in turn to create a different temporality, as stressed by Kader Attia, that leads the viewer to a state of presence. If, as the artist and curator suggests, we must be “still present,” this can only be achieved through art that does not claim to be atemporal, but that is time-based. Media art has often been described as the “art of the future,” but as these works show, it is an art of the radical present.