A pervading feature of the 9th Berlin Biennale is the lack of coherent or cohesive narratives. The exhibition is dominated by image- and screen-based works, often arbitrarily scattered throughout the rooms, while the material and political dimensions of digital culture are generally cut off from its overarching statement. Overall, the exhibition gives a faltering impression that is reflected in the curators’ catalog text, in which disconnected and rhetorical assertions are put together without presenting an intellectually graspable argument.
The curators are the fashion and advertisement orientated collective DIS (Lauren Boyle, Solomon Chase, Marco Roso, David Toro), who already before the opening announced that this would be not only their first, but also last biennale. And it is indeed very consistently carried out: everything from texts to the choice of exhibition venues and spatial dispositifs reflect the idea of the present as a “paradox”. This gives the biennale a philosophical dimension in the sense that it removes the aspect of political conflict to instead contemplate life from a more existential point of view. The present is said to be “incomprehensible” from the perspective of human knowledge. Instead of thinking contemporary art as a historical category, with established genealogies and critical models, DIS approaches the biennial as a format for more timely cultural expressions: the advertisement campaign, the juice bar, the sound track, the fashion show, and so on. Indeed, most participating artists are young, born in the 80’s and after, while the only older artist, Adrian Piper, exhibits stop signs that appear at different dead ends in the exhibition with the laconic statement: “Howdy”.
The biennale’s title is The Present in Drag and the method put forth by DIS can be described as a form of masquerade, in which they mimic different conventions for presenting art in an exhibition. This is possibly also the reason why they have chosen a recognizable biennial format. Instead of relating to the biennial as a place for political activism, or shaping it more traditionally as a white cube exhibition, they have emphasized the city and the different venues where the exhibition takes place. “Pariser Platz is our point of departure”, they write, fascinated by this place as a center for finance and foreign policy, with its embassies and bank palaces, but also as a famous “tourist trap”.
An historical building with a newly-added annex of glass and concrete, Akademie der Künste lies next to Pariser Platz, constituting the biennale’s main exhibition. The annex has the shape of an atrium with stairs and pathways running in different directions between a number of mezzanine floors. Within this ’impossible’ architecture the works are installed directly on the floor, fixed to pillars, or lodged in meeting rooms and social spaces on the different levels. On the sloping floor of the entrance stand a number of large-scale lightboxes that are part of the advertisement campaign Not in the Biennale and LIT, an exhibition within the exhibition where artists have been invited to show their images on the illuminated screens: zombies, a burning «Make America Great Again» cap, youngsters made-up to look like old people and so on. Adjacent is a shop of merchandize developed for the biennial by artists and designers such as Yngve Holen and TELFAR. The latter has designed a clothing line that is also used by the exhibition guards. Further in there is a juice bar by Debora Delmar Corp., and on an outside terrace a few flights up, training equipment by Nik Kosmas. Workout classes are offered throughout the course of the biennale for those that want to join in. Fashion shows, performances and a musical are staged at different times during the exhibition, and so on and so forth.
What is actually happening here? Artistic strategies working transversely toward design and addressing different aspects of the exhibition have been well-known in contemporary art since the 1990s (someone designs the catalog, someone creates a lounge, etc.). But where relational aesthetics sought to create collective experiences based on the notion of political community, however fleeting, DIS’s vision is fundamentally individualistic, having severed ties with the notion of collective action. As a result, even works that could have established closer connections with political reality, such as Hito Steyerl’s films in the basement, appear self-absorbed, formalistic and introspective. Steyerl exhibits two video installations about an observatory in Iraq that was bombed during the war with Iran, and againduring the Gulf War. The first work presents the idea that the observatory was commissioned by Saddam Hussein as a replica of the Tower of Babel, while the other takes place at a point in the future when a group of astronauts inhabit the place, shielded from the permanent war that is raging on the horizon. The introverted dimension of Steyerl’s work is reinforced by the related methods used by Ryan Trecartin, whose hysterical autofictional films are shown in a room on the third floor. Both artists of course exemplify the ambition of the biennale to emphasize the aesthetic potential of contemporary mobile imaging technology and digital networks.
Here DIS presents a critique that is worth taking note of. On the one hand, it regards contemporary art as a place for outmoded or corrupt critical projects, on the other, it views digital capitalism as a new way of life that holds new possibilities and ways of negotiating the political, aesthetic and existential dimensions of contemporary artistic practices. From this perspective, the present is not primarily the result of political forces of the past, but a time with specific qualities of its own that open towards new ideas about the future. The problem is that DIS’s ideas for expanding the biennial and establishing new cultural alliances do not distinguish themselves to a large enough extent from historical models. Approaching the biennial through other economies (fashion, advertisement) could have had interesting consequences, but these gestures fail to gather enough critical mass to establish an alternative to the expressions and conventions passed on by the biennial institution.
The somewhat obliging and unimaginative concept of the biennial thus means that it only occasionally succeeds at producing the “anxiety” that DIS has expressly aimed for. The exhibition at Akademi der Künste sometimes requires an effort to decode the status of its different objects, which results in a disorienting but not very disturbing experience. Most unpleasant are Anna Uddenberg’s dolls presented in distorted poses, one of few sculptural elements in the biennial. Sometimes these are only bodily fragments, torsos secured to suitcases with nylon straps, and placed at different locations throughout the building in a manner that heightens the sensation of an environment without any specific qualities of its own. Probably the exhibition’s most congenial work is Uddenberg’s sculpture of a female mannequin, curled up on a stool and in the process of taking a close up image of her own behind using a selfie-stick.
The other parts of the exhibition take place at Kunstwerke, The Feuerle Collection and The European School of Management and Technology (ESMT), a private business school located in the building that used to host the National Council of the GDR. The two latter exhibitions have in common their relatively modest size, with three or four works each, and that they take the historical, political and cultural implications of the buildings themselves as points of departure. These are, as well, the most conventional exhibitions of the biennial in the sense that they have been exempted from conceptual juice bars, ad campaigns and music videos. At the same time, this is where the curators’ mimetic and site-specific logic is most consistently realized: the exhibit at The Feuerle Collection has been modelled on the way collections are typically presented while the works at ESMT have adapted exhibitional conventions borrowed from industrial trade fairs and commercial show rooms.
Indeed, ESMT in many ways offers a delirious experience of violent collisions between the artworks and the building’s monumental decorations depicting heroic workers, red flags, angels and trumpets. Simon Denny’s installation is actually placed in the room where GDR’s National Council would convene, and consists of presentations of different blockchain companies and their visions for a “truly free” global market. In the next room, Katja Novitskova’s silhouettes on plexiglass represent burning fires and bull horns that cast us back to the heathen symbolic worlds of prehistoric times. If this part of the biennial comes closest to portraying the present as stretched between its different possibilities, the opposite occurs at the The Feuerle Collection. In the dark rooms of a former telecommunication bunker, works relating to different means of transport have been installed around a video installation by the artist duo Korpys/Löffler, which consists of a camera traveling through the European Central Bank. If the exhibition at ESMT to a certain extent breaks with the paralyzing notion of the present as a self-reflective paradox by juxtaposing different past and future perspectives, then order is returned at The Feuerle Collection, where the very purpose seems to be to confirm contemporary art’s purely superficial, decorative function and qualities.
At Kunstwerke, too, the exhibition takes place in darkened rooms containing luminous screens, lightboxes and video installations. On the whole, this gives a somewhat claustrophobic impression, where works that could have disclosed alternative scenarios and less familiar narratives instead point back to themselves with introverted reveries and empty wishful thinking. Although Wu Tsang’s film about two lesbian lovers in China at the turn of the last century seems impelled by passion and a will to revolt, it ends up as a fairly predictable narrative about wretched love. Josh Kline’s digitally manipulated film, in which George Bush, Tony Blair, Donald Rumsfeld, et al. lament and regret their actions is funny, but does not reach beyond the momentary catharsis of the biennialas-entertainment. The same applies to Camille Henrot’s installation, consisting of the artist’s responses to emails seeking to enroll her into different charity projects and political campaigns. The work has comical effects, but caters to predictable notions of the self-absorbed lifestyle of the politically-committed middle class.
In many ways, the biennial appears well executed according to its own premise, incorporating different cultural expressions of the present without constituting a radical break with the established conventions of contemporary art. The problem with this model is that it ignores the discourse on the ’contemporary’ as a complex historical and cultural horizon encompassing different temporalities of what in a wide sense is known as modernity. This becomes especially problematic considering the curators’ highly limited concept of culture and politics. If the internet implies the necessity of rethinking the relations between different art forms, between contemporary culture and politics, then there are certainly other, more dynamic possibilities available than the aesthetics and individualism of contemporary corporate culture. Has the corporate take-over of the internet through social media applications and smart networks made the idea of systemic critique and collective organizing impossible? This is obviously not the case. But it is in these terms that DIS’s concept must be problematized and thought through, beyond the formalism and self-absorbed political paralysis of the biennial.