9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, Berlin
What has the notion of “self” become, in times of growing “self-likeness”—that is, seeing ourselves digitally mirrored in other people? The 9th Berlin Biennale, signed by the New York–based artist collective DIS (Lauren Boyle, Solomon Chase, Marco Roso, and David Toro), puts itself over as “a stage for this actor of the self to roleplay her own obsolescence,” as the introductory statement explains. It is a profusely self-aware, self-conscious, and self-referential show, and it’s evident that the curators are not trying to draw lines of demarcation or judgment.
“We are not oppositional in the traditional sense,” Roso told me, “as we are living in the most contradictory of times.” Like the pool of water that surrounds the monumental projection of Cécile B. Evans’s new video What the Heart Wants (2016), which many disoriented visitors ended up falling into during the press preview, DIS reflects and amplifies its surroundings. And their biennale frames as zeitgeist the cultural perspective of a generation (most participating artists were born in the late 1970s and 1980s and are based in New York or Berlin) imbued with corporate aesthetics and obsessed by the dysfunctions of online life—its artificiality, individualism, self-branding, prosthetic optimism, and emotional underbelly—so easily tapped into by populism.
Traumatic occurrences and conflicts seem far away, with Hito Steyerl’s video ExtraSpaceCraft (2016), shot at the actual site of the former National Observatory of Iraq, now in the territory of the Kurdistan Regional Government, proving quite an exception. And yet the aspiration is to make visible what lies below the surface of communication, as in Simon Fujiwara’s The Happy Museum (2016), which includes Foundation (2013), a sample of the makeup worn by Angela Merkel, designed to perform the best “natural” skin condition under the scrutiny of high-definition camera lenses. “The world has never felt more radically left or more right-wing reactionary. You are not your shirt or your religious affiliation. “Transparency can’t hide the shade,” says the DIS statement spelled out at the entrance of the Feuerle Collection, in a chilling concrete bunker along Hallesches Ufer. The fact that “the world” may not entirely coincide with a US/Western-centric, capitalistically advanced and market-oriented viewpoint is one of the serious problems at play.
Spread across four sites (plus a Blue Star boat cruising along the Spree river, taken over by the dark fantasies of Korakrit Arunanondchai and Alex Gvojic), the biennale generates a claustrophobic overload of redundancy that mimics digital media: the network of friends, accomplices, and collaborators invited on stage by DIS all share a vocabulary of seductively slick surfaces in vivid colors, where the natural and the artificial, the fictional and the real, continually collide. Digital images and subjects replicate virally like memes: we keep seeing falling bodies, yoga, drones, masks, refugees, surveillance devices, concerts, forests, data farms. Especially at the Akademie der Künste, the biennale feels like a cohesive, allover installation, impeccably designed and branded (the BB9 visual identity was developed by Babak Radboy), expanding to passageways, billboards, cafeterias, toilets. A lot of work has been ostensibly poured into shaping formally convincing translations of this “disembodied” imaginary and its hyperlinked, nonlinear format, as well as into undermining its credibility. Ei Arakawa, in collaboration with Dan Poston and Stefan Tcherepnin, turns Seth Price’s book How to Disappear in America into the musical How to DISappear in America (2016), which parodies post-Internet lingo and fixations. Alexandra Pirici’s ongoing action at KW, Signals (2016), makes a group of dancers dressed in motion-capture suits perform the equivalent of a live feed of users’ preferences. In the dark, their dotted bodies interpret some of the “Top 30 Most Relevant Stories” trending among the BB9 public: in my case, they involved Donald Trump’s rally song, the Great Pacific garbage patch, and the stabbing at Art Basel mistaken as performance art. Scary, at least.
There are strong moments. One is the top floor of the Kunstakademie, an open space cum terrace overlooking the Brandenburg Gate and the same Pariser Platz that features in Jon Rafman’s immersive world—to be entered via a VR headset—where the panoramic view overlapping with reality is blown away by an explosion and lost in a hazy cloud of dust. The American embassy (which hosted an official reception for the American artists during the opening) is just across the square, while in the background hundreds of tourists spiral up the glass dome of the Bundestag. Memories of the NSA spying on German Chancellors Kohl, Schröder, and Merkel are just around the corner. Calla Henkel and Max Pitegoff “violate” the privacy of the American ambassador’s own residence, where treatises can be signed and sealed behind closed doors, with a series of photographs (integrated in a mirror installation) that make its interiors public, while artist Trevor Paglen and security researcher Jacob Appelbaum open access to their Autonomy Cube (2015), a Plexi-encased router for Tor, a network for anonymous?online navigation.
A personal favorite was the short circuits between the massive metal mural in Social Realist style, once a decoration in Erich Honecker’s office room at the DDR State Council (a building now housing the ESMT European School of Management and Technology), Simon Denny’s installation Blockchain Visionaries (2016), showcasing the visions of three real companies operating with BitCoins, and Katja Novitskova’s Growth Potential (fire worship) (2016), an installation depicting a pair of devilish horns and burning flames set against a panoramic view of the new, gigantic, Disneyfied Schloss under construction in the area once occupied by the Palast der Republik. In 2016, East Berlin and its symbols are almost entirely vanished, replaced by the shiny face of the “new” Berlin, with its glass facades perennially under construction and covered in gigantic billboards magnifying the joys of mobile communications and Fluo sneakers. If the layered history of the city was part of the attraction offered to visitors of previous biennales, its consistent absence is what characterizes this edition, The Present in Drag. The title refers to our “post-contemporary” condition, where all time is projected ahead, along a paradigm of quantifiable predictions and anticipations (data mining, the “futures” of finance, et cetera), while today has become “unknowable, unpredictable, and incomprehensible—forged by a persistent commitment to a set of fictions,” DIS writes. So farewell, archive fever: history now dubs as nostalgia and memory capacity is measured in petabytes.
Looking forward instead of looking back has, of course, alternating fortunes in the art world. It occurred to me that a very similar, carefully packaged “shock of the new” was paraded at the 1964 Venice Biennale, where Pop art landed in Europe and Robert Rauschenberg’s Combine paintings (exhibited at the American Consulate), which incorporated everyday objects and hybridized art and consumerism, immediately won him the Golden Lion. Old critics frowned at the death of painting and New York’s takeover of Paris as the capital of contemporary art, while young critics enthused about the new consumer-friendly surface aesthetic, miles away from postwar traumas, angst, and “expressionism.” And collectors started to flock en masse to secure the new trophies. The BB9 has been marked also by the opening, on Leipziger Strasse, of the new local venue of the Julia Stoschek collection. There the group show Welt Am Draht (World on Wire), presenting thirty-eight video and sound installations by several of the same artists participating in BB9, serves as an official crowning of the success of post-Internet art—an already obsolete definition which nonetheless perpetuates itself as a perfect brand, like YBA did for the British art of the late 1990s, likewise sponsored by a star collector, in that case Charles Saatchi. This too is, pretty obviously, a constellation of visible signals of shifting territories within Berlin, its spaces and policies. Like it or not, the future is here, and not very much in drag.
until 18 September 2016
Above, top: Ryan Trecartin, Permission Streak, 2016, installation view at 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, Berlin, 2016. Courtesy: Lizzie Fitch/Ryan Trecartin; Sprüth Magers; Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York. Photo: Timo Ohler
Above, bottom: Anne de Vries, Critical Mass: Pure Immanence, 2015, installation view at 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, Berlin, 2016. Courtesy: the artist. Photo: Timo Ohler
69, R&R, 2016, installation view at 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, Berlin, 2016. Courtesy: the artists. Photo: Timo Ohler
Cecile B. Evans, installation view at 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, Berlin, 2016. Courtesy: the artist; Galerie Emanuel Layr, Vienna; Barbara Seiler, Zurich. Photo: Timo Ohler
Hito Steyerl, installation view at 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, Berlin, 2016. Courtesy: the artist. Photo: Timo Ohler
Simon Denny, Blockchain Visionaries, 2016, installation view at 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, Berlin, 2016. Courtesy: the artist; Galerie Buchholz, Cologne/Berlin/New York. Commissioned and coproduced by Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art with the support of Galerie Buchholz, Cologne/Berlin/New York; Creative New Zealand. Photo: Timo Ohler
Jon Rafman, installation view at 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, Berlin, 2016. Courtesy: the artist and Future Gallery, Berlin. Photo: Timo Ohler
Yngve Holen, installation view at 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, Berlin, 2016. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Neu, Berlin. Photo: Timo Ohler