»Being boring and complicated is not very engaging.«

Tactical Tech, 2022 © www.perfectprime.com

For almost 20 years now, the Berlin-based NGO Tactical Tech aims to help people around the world to critically reflect on digital technologies and teaches them how to use technology wisely and responsibly. For Berlin Art Week, the award-winning organization teams up with HAU Hebbel am Ufer to create an outdoor exhibition that is supposed to tackle the various crises of today—and how we might use technology to solve them. We spoke with Marek Tuszynski, one of Tactical Tech’s co-founders and a co-curator of the exhibition.

›Everything Will Be Fine‹ is the title of the exhibition that you are co-curating with HAU Hebbel am Ufer during Berlin Art Week. Doesn’t this feel a bit sarcastic, given the constant stream of bad news these days?

Marek Tuszynski: Well, »everything will be fine« is a formula we all use very often, don’t we? Because it is very comforting. Because it offers some kind of hope. And even if we actually don’t believe that things will turn out for the better, it somehow helps to just hear that they might. In the exhibition, which will take place in a circle-like outdoor structure in public space, we talk about climate change, about the pandemic, about the various conflicts of today—in fact, about complex problems on a planetary scale. And of course, in the light of all this a title like ›Everything Will Be Fine‹ sounds a bit sarcastic. But then, it’s an ambiguity we like. In general, we all know quite well what the problems are, and we also have tons of ideas about where they come from and who is behind them. But as a society we still have very little ideas about what to actually do to solve these problems.


What role could digital technologies play in this?

Our exhibition focuses on how technology is essentially shaping not only our understanding of today’s crises, but also our capacity to come up with possible solutions. For now, we simply try and connect the dots. On the one hand, massive crisis is building up everywhere; and on the other, technology is more ubiquitous than ever. Everything we do is mediated by technology. And all we say is: if the causes are dependent on technology, then the solutions are, too.


Isn’t this dangerously close to a Silicon Valley-style ›solutionism‹? To the idea that technological innovation will solve all of mankind’s problems?

I think that we are all techno-idealists, if we like it or not. Even those of us that are paranoid about technology still take it as an essential part of the discourse. There are countless people in the world who have no direct access to digital technologies, people without mobile phones and without internet access. But even they are surrounded by technology. Technology reigns over them, via satellites and surveillance cameras; their vote is being counted electronically; their doctors gather data. I could go on endlessly. Technology is here to stay. But to come back to your question: Of course, we have to criticize an all too easy idea of technology as a solution for everything. And this is what we exactly do.


Will this play a role in the forthcoming exhibition?

With ›Everything Will Be Fine‹, we want to show that there are plenty of people out there—and some of them are artists—who explore our dependency on technology and its context. That’s the first layer of the exhibition. And in the second one we want to raise awareness about many nuances that shape us through the way we use technology. We have to look carefully at the ways technology is framed and by whom and what would happen if we try to exercise coming up with different ideas of it. And by that, I mean precisely not the ideas of Silicon Valley, not all those Western ideas about cybernetics that were prevalent after the Second World War. We have to try and think more creatively, even speculatively. We have to assess things critically and don’t just trust every technology that is being designed and brought to the market. Technology is producing a lot of problems. But at the same time, it is solving problems, too.


In the past, Tactical Tech’s focus was very much on questions of control and surveillance. Did this change in the context of today’s crisis?

The question of surveillance and control is very important. You are right, in the past issues of privacy have been a key topic for Tactical Tech. But the situation is different now. 15 years ago, these questions may have been the major issues. Without wanting to downplay the question of state control and privacy—we still see this as a huge problem—the focus has slightly shifted. When you face large scale crisis, you have to somehow zoom out and look at things sideways. As a society and as individuals we may have to give up bits and pieces of our privacy to find solutions for today’s pressing problems. This is one of the central dilemmas that need to be addressed.


Can you give an example?

Well, when facing large scale problems, we need large scale solutions. And immediately, we are deep in the discussion about big data. Of course, we have to speak about all the actors who do not respect ethical frameworks and use big data for purely making money and nothing else—or even accumulate power and control to worse ends. But we also shouldn’t forget those who use it to solve urgent problems. We actively have to talk about what we need for certain democratic controls to be installed. It is also vital to stop seeing technology as a neutral space. If Silicon Valley, for example, is promising that »everything will be fine«, we always have to ask: fine for whom? And who is saying that?


Then the question becomes quintessentially political.

Yes. Technology is absolutely inseparable from the political. There are reasons to be if not paranoid, then definitely worried and nervous, because things are progressively moving into wrong and random directions.


Would you then say that »Everything Will Be Fine« offers a rather realistic or optimistic view?

We want to take the question away from the dichotomy of utopian and dystopian, positive and negative. We are not saying that everything will be great, but neither are we saying that we are all doomed. If you want to get people interested, engaging narratives are key. And neither utopian nor dystopian narratives are very engaging in the long run, because both make you feel dis-empowered. We want to present things in a fairly ambiguous way instead, interesting and complex. We want to create a dialogue in your head—»I like it« and »I don’t like it« at the same time. If you achieve that, then you trigger engagement.


Where would you place the exhibition in regard to our other Tactical Tech projects during recent years?

First, it is important to stress that we are not doing proper art exhibitions. We are trying to reframe existing ways of engaging the public, so that spaces we create and assemble become public spaces in which we can engage with certain audiences. And here art can help a lot, even though it is far from being the only parameter. Our spaces are designed to be live spaces. Maybe a bit like the Apple Store or so—but reversed. The design of our last exhibition project ›The Glass Room‹ on data and privacy was very deliberately modelled after such corporate spaces; spaces you are used to and were made to feel comfortable in, even if you might not be able to afford anything there; spaces, where you could get a glimpse of the future, though sadly from a verry narrow and predatory perspective.


So, the exhibition format is first and foremost an interface to connect with people?

You may say so, yes. And for us as an organization, it is a mode for creating high quality output, technically as well as conceptually. Here we have full curatorial control, and we can test different narratives and formats. We can assess what works and what doesn’t. And out of that we can create new experiences in the future—to keep the project going through different iterations and reach audiences worldwide.


You just mentioned the Tactical Tech project ›The Glass Room‹—this, too, went through a series of different iterations, right?

Indeed. After a big exhibition we created a set of smaller iterations of the same project that went on to be shown in libraries, schools, or community centers around the world. With ›Everything Will Be Fine‹ we try to go even more public right from the start—it is actually set in a balloon-like structure in public space. We will see how it works. It may travel as it is, but we also plan to translate the content into other formats to be passed on to other entities to work with it.


2016 you and Tactical Tech co-founder Stephanie Hankey co-curated the exhibition ›Nervous Systems‹ together with Anselm Franke at Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) in Berlin. How did Tactical Tech ended-up in the arts after more than a decade of work as an NGO?

At the time, it was 2014 or 2015, there were quite a few exhibitions that tried to bring the concept of quantification, technology and data to different museums and galleries in various cities. From our point of view as an NGO that is concerned largely with questions of technology from a decidedly political standpoint, these shows mostly missed the point. None of them were political or engaging enough and they often presented technology and data in a very narrow or gimmicky way. So, we wrote a proposal—and that was picked up by HKW. Actually, for Stephanie Hankey, with whom I’ve founded Tactical Tech in 2003, and me this was not so new, but rather a chance to go back to where we both come from. Both our backgrounds are in the arts. I for my part, curated a lot of exhibitions before we founded the NGO, but stopped at some point, because doing these exhibitions somehow lacked political impact. Around 2014/15, though, we had reached a momentum, where we had accumulated a lot of knowledge and know-how. And looking at all we had done so far, we realized that a key element of all of this is curation, is creating engaging narratives.


What does the art sector have in stock for an NGO like yours?

Working with established institutions like HKW, Mozilla Foundation or now HAU is of course very beneficial, but it is only one side of what we do. We are always concerned with mixing different audiences, mixing artists with academics, researchers and journalists and so on. But art definitely gives us the biggest freedom for framing things, for experimentation. Also, visual communication is simply one of the most powerful ways of communication. Most of the artists we work with are using evidence-based practices. They work on these issues more or less the same way as researchers, there is massive rigor in their practices. They also have the ability to turn their research into something wholly different that can attract audiences very directly and provocatively. And that’s utterly important, when it comes to tech. Because talking about technology is often quite boring. Technology is complicated. And being boring and complicated is not very engaging.

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