Adjacent Realities: Mundane, High-tech, and the Narratives in Between

Nora O'Murchú, photo: Christian Werner

Living in Berlin, the annual return of transmediale – festival for art & digital culture is both anticipated and feared: the para-academic institution’s intensiveness of critical thought and curating is only matched by its intense schedule. Overlapping events, spanning multiple disciplinary perspectives and topics related to technology and the media, create a sense of urgency to make the right choice, to elude fomo.

I’ve had the chance to attend transmediale festival as a festivalgoer, member of the press, and participant in the Study Circles partner program with The Institute for Endotic Research. The festival has become an important point of reference, an institution that seems to always have its finger on the pulse of digital culture. I’m reminded of a historical lecture with Laura Poitras, Trevor Paglen, and others, just months after the Snowden revelations of 2013.

A new artistic director has been named for transmediale festival: Nora O Murchú, whose first edition will take place in 2021. She succeeds Kristoffer Gansing, who was artistic director from 2012 to 2020. I took the opportunity to interview O Murchú about her curating and research practice, led by an embrace of narratives and fictions, to learn more about her approach and motivations. She shed light on her interest in broadening the scope of the festival to involve different publics perhaps less art or tech savvy, as part of a practice of institution-making situated in the everyday.

Benjamin Busch: What are the main motivations behind your curating and research practice?

Nora O Murchú: They come from a combination of things  – an interest in art, and to a large extent my background. I developed a curatorial practice in a non-traditional way. I qualified as an Electronic & Computer Engineer (working as an engineer for about four years) and then I retrained as an Interaction Designer.  While studying for a  MSc in Interaction Design at the University of Limerick, I became more interested in exploring art made with technology, and in the impact of technology on curatorial work. From there, I began to examine technological artistic practices as a means to offer commentary on the social and political changes that were currently unfolding.

Following this I began a PhD, through which I explored how curating could be used as a methodology for design, and allow designers to create facilitatory spaces that allow people to take ownership of their own design practice. It involved a three year study of open source communities and was conducted during Tweak, a digital art festival that focused on the practice of hacking, which I curated and organised as part of the research.

This experience with open-source and DIY communities has always been central to my practice and is one of the key influences to my work. At the core of these communities are philosophies of sharing, collaboration, self-education and non-hierarchical models of working. My practice is directly informed by this and is something that I try to incorporate into my own process.

Why are narratives and fictions important?

Most of our lives are made up of narratives and fictions, in some way. I look at them as structuring devices for understanding reality, and for constructing new types of realities as well. Also they sometimes offer playful forms that are quite malleable, so I’m interested in that as well, that there are things that are loose, they can be shifted, and they can be made to work for people. In my own short fiction writing I try to offer a lot of space for ambiguity, so there’s a lot of room for interpretation for the reader.

Alan Warburton, Recipe for Roast Gammon (_Who Killed Snowflake_) 2018. MDF, vinyl, dog bed

B: So I guess you could say that narratives allow you to take on deeper questions through a more approachable format?

Yes, for sure. With my own short fiction writing, a lot of it is very contextualized in the everyday. I write about everyday experiences while simultaneously connecting to complex socio-political issues. These are then embedded in boring everyday scenarios and almost present an adjacent reality – recognisable but directly connected to the sociopolitical realities that are constructed by our participation in computational systems. That’s a key part for how I use fiction within my practice – potentially offering up relatable ways for people to understand their own circumstances, and how entirely political their everyday is. I use fiction as a structuring device embedded in relatable realities that playfully offer people means to step into or back from their own experiences. Most of the time I try to inject some humour into them. For example, I did a show with Irish artists Alan Butler and Alan Warburton at Transfer Gallery [Weird Capitalism, September-November 2018] where instead of a curatorial text I ended up making Terms & Conditions for entry into the gallery.

A lot of my work and curatorial interests over the last five years has looked at labor and work and thinking about that in the context of technology and algorithms, etc. That show in particular was about the impact of capitalism in our lives, in that so much so, we’re now producing evidence of our busyness and our productivity. I think that you would probably know people who are constantly on Instagram or on Facebook showing off how busy they were, what hard days that they have. I wanted to interrogate that and look at the circumstances that arise from those logics of thinking and doing: to critically reflect on the role of productivity in our lives and the weird circumstances that have arisen in response to it. Our architectural space and systems have changed in response to this – you have coworking cafes, zero contract hours, governmental policies around gig economies. So in the exhibition we were exploring how from one perspective people try to fit and participate in these logics and on the other hand how the logic of productivity with the logic of capitalism is so embedded that it creates systems and architectural space to participate in.

For example, in Alan Warburton’s work Homo Economicus he was interviewing queer men who were working on the London stock exchange about their understanding of their own masculinity, and in relation to being queer. In these interviews he was exploring what it meant for them to be male and working in this highly competitive, toxic male environment. In another work Recipe for Roast Gammon, he was looking at the circulation of toxic masculinity through social media, through digital networks, and the ways in which people participate, exemplify and amplify those types of narratives. So in some ways, then, that interpretation of masculinity is what is held up in society. The piece was participative – there were paws in which participants could stand and  have their picture taken in front of it for their Instagram or Twitter, etc. This in particular was about creating an Instagram moment, which is a riff on the institutional Instagram moment, which is now a significant part of any type of blockbuster exhibition planning. So in some part it was intended as a criticism of that. The work was also about how we ourselves are complicit in these structures, narratives and personas, and how through our participation in them – even in things that are sometimes fictional – that we actually amplify them and make them real for ourselves.

Whereas in Alan Butler’s work he was exploring modes of capitalism while connecting back to Soviet culture. He was looking at Soviet Realism paintings, which often depicted optimistic depictions of Soviet life – in particular people working or demonstrating the fruits of their labour. They had people working in fields, a woman being in her nice apartment, all sorts of everyday scenarios. So the pieces he produced were in response to them and updated for the more contemporary technological times that we’re actually living in. They took into account things like dating, work, social media, cats. They were four sculptures in the series and each were different vignettes into the absurdity of the intrusion of capitalism into our work and social lives.

There was one that had a fake Tinder app that he made, another used food delivery backpacks similar to Deliveroo without the logo. So there are a lot of layers to the exhibition. For me, as a curator, it was about performing a type of institutional critique of curating and questioning what curating is – my curatorial essay for a show was “Terms and Conditions” and I’ve also used short fiction as a strategy to commission artistic work. Then also with the exhibition furniture as well, it was commenting on the nomadicity and precarity of artist-workers, and that’s why we used loads of the polystyrene peanuts as a way to bring in the notions of precarity, that we ourselves almost accept, and almost willingly contribute to in order to participate in the cultural field as well.

Generally my exhibitions have had this, one is like a critique of things, and the other is an exploration through humor, through fun, the conditions and emerging systems, and new types of realities that we are participating in uncritically.

More generally, outside this specific exhibition, what experiences have shaped your approach?

That was one of my favorite exhibitions that I’ve made actually. It’s only been in the last four years that I’ve really begun to be like, “I can just have fun with this.” I think it’s because I’ve come to curating unconventionally that I don’t feel as tied to institutional constraints. My institutional work has always been that I’ve been a university lecturer. Before I was the director of transmediale, I was working as a lecturer teaching Interaction Design in a Computer Science department in a University in Ireland. So that was in lots of ways my institutional work, whereas my curatorial practice became a space that was unrestricted by institutional norms, to be able to challenge those. In the last few exhibitions, I’ve been experimenting and playing with these constraints.

What can we look forward to seeing at the next transmediale festival?

I’m interested in bringing work from non-conventional art/tech into conversation with more orthodox things. Also, there will be a more participative and lived dimension to how the festival will unfold that will form from a praxis of care. My previous research interests have questioned the role of productivity in our everyday, and asking why it is central to our everyday and our conception of what is valuable. I’m interested in decentering this and replacing it with forms of care, joy and hopefulness. A lot of my previous work has been somewhere between institutional critique and dealing with societal realities. I often use play, humor or fiction as a means for audiences to understand their own societal realities and how they are shaped through participation and use of technologies. While on the one hand I say my practice is part institutional critique it’s also part institutional making. In lots of ways I don’t feel the pressure to conform to curatorial norms. I’m not trying to set standards, or make policies, but I am trying to reflect on my own work, about working in this context (Berlin, transmediale), and thinking about the types of things that I can do within this space. I don’t imagine that these practices will get adopted by anybody else but that’s not the objective either. It’s about actually making things, systems, processes, practices that afford collaboration, care and non-hierarchical modes of working together.

Nora O Murchú is a curator & researcher whose multidisciplinary practice embraces narratives and fictions. She has curated for institutions including Akademie Schloss Solitude, LABoral Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial, The Science Gallery, and ZKM Karlsruhe. She has been a research associate for the Interaction Design Centre at the University of Limerick, the Interaction Research Studio at Goldsmiths, and CRUMB at the University of Sunderland. O Murchú is currently the Artistic Director at transmediale in Berlin.

Benjamin T. Busch is an American visual artist and architect living in Berlin. Spanning art, architecture, curating, and writing, his work has been exhibited and published internationally in art, architecture, and academic venues. His ongoing research considers spatial practice through processes of urbanization, self-organization, and the everyday, with regard to the growing role of computation across societies. Since spring 2018, Busch co-directs The Institute for Endotic Research (TIER) together with Lorenzo Sandoval.


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