International Short Film Festival Oberhausen

In its 2017 programme, the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen looks at the history of utopian hope. Catalysed by the US elections and the political rise of Donald Trump, the prevalent topic of contemporary discussion questions whether the internet is a failed utopia. The theme, Social media before the internet 1960-1990, curated by Tilman Baumgärtel, examines pre-digital forms of media, questioning if the current developments were foreshadowed in early technology experiments, and if so, what these can contribute to a re-assessment of the current situation.

Media theorists, particularly those left-wing aligned, had dreamed for decades of the democratic nature of the technology, wherein consumers would be transformed into producers, the power of broadcasters supplanted by the people. The festival explores the various, and mostly unknown, forms of alternative media from the period before the advent of a global digital web. With a chronological approach, it begins in the 1960s, where the emergence of video fuelled the ideologies of a participatory media, with such American companies as the Videofreex and the Raindance Corporation were established to create an alternative public sphere. Dawning in Europe in the 1970s and 80s, a series of public television projects were organised with the same aim. From the mid-1980s, online networking – via mailboxes – stoked the fire of a more democratic media. This led to the first infrastructures for digital connections, most notably CL-Netz, and hybrid media formats combining online with television. The festival feature many examples from broadcasting and art history, include works by Nam June Paik, Paper Tiger Television or Harun Farocki.

In the contemporary state of media, the downside of the communication medium are becoming increasingly evident, characterised by the cover of the August 2016 issue of Time: “Why we’re losing the Internet to the culture of hate.” Racism, conspiracy theories and an unforgiving social media culture now pervade the channels for which theorists had so much democratic hope. The festival takes these features as shedding light on the utopian hopes of the past, raising the question of whether this development was already foretold by early media experiments.

International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, Germany, 11-16 May.

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1. 2014 International Short Film Festival Oberhausen.