Whether or not states have managed to use art to their benefit in the years since is probably up for debate. What’s certain is that the rigorousness of artistic practices that have emerged since that time have led to some of the greatest artworks ever made, and spawned meaningful inquiry into human existence and the structures that surround it. (Not convinced? Read Isaac Kaplan’s great piece
from earlier this year.) Conceptual art in its classical formulation, however, has also often alienated the uninitiated—privileged or not. This is one among a number of factors that would suggest it may not be the best form of practice to wrangle with our more multiplicitous and inclusive present.
At least in the West, we no longer live in an era of stable power structures, identities, or labor conditions. We no longer exist within a binary framework. We swap identities with each subsequent Snap. We work on laptops from Airbnbs. Politics has, for the worse, become equal parts brand-building and reality TV. At the core of much of this shift—and of DIS’s “The Present in Drag”—is technology.
Many in the intellectual community, both within the art world and the world at large, have derided Big Tech’s growing role in our lives and the influence wielded by the data it collects. But much of this Berlin Biennale, and the tech sector at large, takes a different tack: How can technologies overcome scarcity, break down borders, and place power in the hands of citizen-users? How does art reflect that new world? That’s what many of the biennale’s artists are out to answer. So to claim that what is on view across the Berlin Biennale’s five venues is not art, or is pure surface and sarcasm, is essentially to plant a flag in the land of those who have chosen not to move with the times. Personally, I’d rather be a cyborg than a luddite any day.
For a New Present
Many of the most compelling works at this Biennale demonstrate something of a swap from the revolutionary Marxism (and its derivations) that dominated 20th-century discourse around conceptual art, to an earlier Marxism focused on societal evolution through technological revolution.
Take Christopher Kulendran Thomas
’s installation New Eelam
(2016) at the Akademie der Künste as case in point. The installation has generated some controversy for its appropriation of “Eelam,” the name that the neo-Marxist Tamil Tigers gave to their homeland and sub-state before being wiped out by Sri Lankan armed forces. A 26-year-long struggle that ended in 2009, it has since been labeled an act of ethnic cleansing by human rights groups.
The archive-based art that we’ve worthily adopted as paramount since Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s dOCUMENTA (13) might have approached Kulendran Thomas’s subject through a dimly lit room filled with artifacts and ledgers documenting the civil war while a series of 16mm projectors hum away, playing footage of the atrocities. Many, including myself, would likely have applauded such an installation’s serious and meditative look at this tragedy of human morality. Then, we’d just as likely have moved on to the next room and left the horrors of genocide in our wake (and maybe on our Instagram feeds) as something for the United Nations to deal with. #activism.