Installation view of Hito Stereyl’s Extra SpaceCraft (2016). Courtesy of Hito Steyerl. Photo by Timo Ohler, courtesy of the 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art.
In the nearly one month since the 9th Berlin Biennale opened, I’ve seen a lot of articles about a slick show curated by a fashion collective from New York called DIS. I read one particularly scathing review in which Jason Farago suggests that the only responsible biennale to curate at this time of humanitarian crisis would be one that sincerely reflects on the refugees whose lives have been upended. But I haven’t read much, if anything, about what I saw this week, admittedly late in the game. DIS’s 9th Berlin Biennale, “The Present in Drag,” actually does offer pathways to break down the power systems that have contributed to the refugee crisis and the resurrection of pseudo-fascist politics. It also demonstrates a new future for art that jibes with our present.
A New Kind of Art
For the better part of the last century, art, and particularly conceptual art, has operated with a seriousness and clarity of content, yet hesitancy towards overly prescriptive or prognostic positions. You might trace this back to Theodor Adorno writing in 1950 that “there can be no poetry after Auschwitz,” and later that no art can exhibit “commitment” that could be co-opted by a fascist state or might compel an individual to act in a certain way.
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.
Installation views of Christopher Kulendran Thomas’s New Eelam (2016). Courtesy of Christopher Kulendran Thomas; New Galerie, Paris. Photos by Timo Ohler, courtesy of the 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art.
Instead, Kulendran Thomas founded a startup. It proposes a new future of the commons in which real estate is collectively owned and citizenship fluid. For a monthly subscription fee, you become a part of New Eelam, and are able to unlock the doors to homes around the world hung with work by hot young artists like Brent Wadden and Przemek Pyszczek, and furnished with hip designers like Berlin’s New Tendency, some of whose furnishings make up the model apartment in which you watch the artist-cum-founder’s pitch film.
Not one of the numerous utopian revolutions over the last 100 years, including that of the Tamil, has succeeded in permanently establishing a new order of society. So, proposes New Eelam, let’s innovate our way to zero-scarcity instead. Does it smell ever so much like Eau de Menlo Park, a largely white and largely privileged Silicon Valley form of idealism? Absolutely. If you’re prone to think that tech founders are actually evil, data-mining capitalists with altruism that only runs as deep as their Rapha cycling gear, will you also immediately recoil from this piece? 100%. But I’d also venture that’s a point of view far more cynical than any piece DIS selected for their biennale. Progress has to start somewhere and grow from that point. And it has.
Where the Future Is Near
Simon Denny and Linda Kantchev’s installation at the European School of Management and Technology gives a look at this kind of progress already in motion. Titled Blockchain Visionaries (2016), the work presents three companies currently working in the blockchain space (the distributed database technology on which the cryptocurrency Bitcoin was built): Ethereum, 21 Inc., and Digital Asset Holdings. These are real companies that you can transact with or invest in today. Each has a different take on how to utilize the blockchain at scale, which Denny has translated into a convention-style display. For each, he has developed a postage stamp, representing the company on a backdrop of different nationalist entities that developed in the course of the 20th century.
Installation view of Simon Denny and Linda Kantchev’s Blockchain Visionaries (2016). Courtesy of Simon Denny; Galerie Buchholz, Cologne/Berlin/New York. Photo by Timo Ohler, courtesy of the 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art.
At its core, blockchain is an indelible, tamper-proof, and perfect ledger of all transactions that take place through it. In an accompanying video to Denny’s installation, a narrator presents a vision for the future in which all transactions take place on this stateless, open system, and are visible to all participants. Because the blockchain system is entirely peer-to-peer in its formulation, it eliminates the need for central banks (among many other service providers and intermediaries of our current economic system), which in their attempt to capture and direct an economy as a whole often distort economic realities at the level of the individual. Among its many positive impacts, blockchain is already being used by technologists to help facilitate transactions in the developing world where the current economy is too unstable, corrupted, or otherwise inaccessible. And it has the potential to create a frictionless economy if adopted at scale.
In presenting this latter benefit of the blockchain, Denny’s video calls up the images of the economists Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek, once again pointing the biennale to the shifts in our current and near-future paradigm, which necessitate a change in our perspective on the world. These standardbearers of neoliberal economics are usually met with prickled neck hairs from Bernie Sanders supporters—and from most progressives within the art world, too. But a system like that offered by applications of blockchain technology, where capital is collectively managed rather than held in the hands of bankers and barons, calls for a rereading of the Smith/Hayek vision of a perfect free market economy, one where, as Smith wrote, “every individual...necessarily labors to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can,” and that revenue goes directly and transparently back into that system rather than into the profit margins of service providers.
Blockchain technology also helps solve one of the core anxieties of our current moment: data and its ownership. (Because it is a distributed network, data is not collected in for-profit servers but across the entire network of users.) This is, of course, a particularly prominent topic in this country and in Berlin, where only slightly more than a quarter-century ago, information was routinely collected on citizens by the government and used against them. It has led to some of the strictest privacy laws in the world and to a population generally distrustful of technology companies’ collection of their data.
It’s perhaps partly because of this that DIS chose to give Cécile B. Evans’s remarkable video installation What the Heart Wants (2016) pride of place in their biennale, devoting the entirety of the KW Institute for Contemporary Art’s central exhibition space to the work. (One might have expected the honor to be given to Hito Steyerl’s equally excellent works The Tower (2015) and Extra Space Craft (2016), which are instead located in the Akademie der Künste’s sub-cellar.)
Installation view of Cécile B. Evans’s What the Heart Wants (2016). Courtesy of Cécile B. Evans; Barbara Seiler, Zürich; Galerie Emanuel Layr, Wien. Photo by Timo Ohler, courtesy of the 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art.
What the Heart Wants (2016) requires viewers to descend onto a catwalk-like platform surrounded by water to watch the film. It takes place in a near-future where technology has changed the very fabric of what it means to be human. Children are cared for by a robot. A pair of cyborgs explore a datacenter. Images have proliferated to the point where they’re discussed as a currency. The omniscient computer narrator of the film, known as HYPER, describes the process of having to go to “pages” (online articles) to get more images of J. Lo’s famously ultra-low-cut dress from the 2000 Grammys. (Alphabet’s chairman Eric Schmidt said last year that this dress sparked the creation of Google Images.) She recalls a time when there were so many famous people that famous people were dying every day, followed by a time when no one was famous. The end of the Influencer, or everyone becomes an Influencer?
Principally, the installation is about technology’s colonizing effect on emotion. It appropriates a portion of the viral Craigslist Missed Connection from Boston in 1972, in which a Vietnam veteran describes the woman who unknowingly prevented him from committing suicide and allowed him to go on to live, love, and travel. In HYPER’s overlaid narration, there’s a sense that this kind of expression doesn’t quite fit into their paradigm. Evans’s cyborgs and AIs express seemingly emotive thoughts with blank stares. Whether emotion will be part of a post-Singularity world of superintelligence remains up for debate among futurists. In Evans’s world, the answer seems to be “no,” or “only among some—the rest imitate.”
Or the Future Is Now
Evans’s work is among a number across DIS’s biennale that offer a somewhat cautionary perspective of how to move into the future. Refreshingly, none advocate that progress should slow, but rather that progress be led by intention and mindfulness of its potential pitfalls. Anne de Vries takes a similar approach but collapses the future and present in his 2015 video Critical Mass : Pure Immanence. In it, footage of hardstyle electronic music festivals are interspersed with a CGI-ed crowd.
These hyper-produced events grew out of a largely queer, alternative scene in late-1990s Netherlands. Now, they’ve been overlaid with cinematic music and a voiceover by de Vries, making festival culture appear like something out of Mad Max. That has the complicating effect of both realizing that what we think of as the future is actually part of our current present, but also (per the voiceover) the dangers of creating any sort of large constituency—political, economic, or otherwise—that feeds groupthink. This particularly strikes a chord now, given the rampant populism on both the right and the left.
Left: Anne de Vries’s installation at the 9th Berlin Biennale. Courtesy of Anne de Vries. Photo by Timo Ohler, courtesy of the 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art; Right: Amalia Ulman, PRIVILEGE (2016). Photo via Instagram.
Turning cultural events that promote collective transcendence into a nefarious force sounds a little bit like the CIA’s Project MKUltra. But mobilizing collective action or disseminating false information online is quite a bit easier, whether harmlessly, as in the case of Amalia Ulman, or to disastrous effect, like ISIS’s use of the web to inspire lone-wolf terror. Ulman has staged a fake pregnancy for her work PRIVILEGE (2016), which takes place across her social media feeds. It features a heavy dose of Snapchat this time around, as opposed to her career-making Instagram performance from 2014.
Even putting Ulman and ISIS in the same sentence—or writing “Why should fascists have all the fun?” as a generative gesture, as Babak Radboy did for part of the Berlin Biennale’s promotional campaign—offends certain sensibilities. (One imagines Radboy’s sentence has been, or at least should be, ringing through the halls of DNC headquarters recently.) Bringing the aesthetics of advertising and sarcasm into serious discussion offends others (even though it shouldn’t, because Pop).
To be fair, this is a very New York show coming from the most New York of collectives. But it’s a show that belongs in Berlin, a city that has been and needs to fight to remain on the forefront of culture, and which is also in a country that deals with these issues with much greater thought than does America. It’s a show that would be a relative shruggy at the New Museum or PS1 today—among other reasons due to its resonance and number of shared artists with the NewMu’s 2009 triennial “Younger than Jesus” and DIS’s own ubiquity on the scene there. But in Berlin, where it angers some, confuses others, and delights still more, “The Present in Drag” proves historic in pushing the conversation in the art world ever more into that of the world at large.
To do it justice, I probably shouldn’t have written a tl;dr review but instead blasted out a few Snaps.
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