Published  16/08/2016

9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art (BB9): The Present in Drag

9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art (BB9): The Present in Drag

Mixing physical locations with digital content, The Present in Drag is a brilliant parody that builds a clever, self-deprecating critique of the present, presenting the visitor less with an experience than with a lifestyle

Cécile B. Evans. What the Heart Wants, 2016. Video still.

Various Venues, Berlin (addresses below)
4 June – 18 September 2016


Sitting uneasily between fiction and reality, parody and truth, prediction and observation, the 9th Berlin Biennale (BB9) is a social reflection of today. The viewer enters a world where surfaces are smooth, genders are fluid, juice is always green, nations are just brands, and homes are interchangeable. Is this the future? No, this is The Present in Drag.

Curated by the online magazine and New York-based creative collective DIS, comprising Lauren Boyle, Solomon Chase, Marco Roso and David Toro, BB9 is also humorous, confident, glossy and seamlessly produced. Usually working with online content, the curators successfully materialise their ideas in the physical world using four gallery locations in Berlin, as well as several unconventional locations, such as BB9’s own newly launched digital platform, Fear of Content, and Anthem, an album, with tracks available for streaming on the biennale’s website. The whole thing is a refreshing change from the 2014 BB8 Universes in Universe, curated by Juan A Gaitán, which was sparse, unfinished and confusing. BB9 is unashamedly enthusiastic about its subject, and there isn’t one part of it that feels unconsidered.

The KW Institute for Contemporary Art, the biennale’s hub, is complemented this year by the Akademie der Künste, the European School of Management and Technology (ESMT), the Feuerle Collection and shipping company Reederei Riedel’s Blue-star sightseeing boat on the River Spree. Each destination is embedded with the city’s history from the second world war to the socialist regime, and while the biennale examines an increasingly digital present, it also shows us the importance of physical location.

Across the locations, artworks can be found in periphery and transitional zones such as corridors, bathrooms, foyers and balconies. In the forecourt of the KW Institute, segmented beds of green plants provide a buffer between the BB9 and reality in a work titled Passage (2016) by Atelier le Balto. Meanhwhile, inside the gallery, stairwell landing platforms are branded with floor-to-ceiling advertisements for the biennale designed by the “Not in the Berlin Biennale” artists (a mysterious category of artists that the biennale listed alongside its 120 featured artists).

Using these spaces, the curators create a seamless journey between the works, and soon the experience becomes more than a visit – it becomes a lifestyle. Viewers of the biennale become “users”, scrolling through this physical reincarnation of a digital experience; one user reclines in a cushioned niche charging her phone from a freestanding wall designed by Åyr, a London-based arts collective exploring domesticity and concepts of ownership in Berlin’s digital communities. Downstairs in the forecourt, users lie in a group of  lifestyle brand 69’s denim hammocks, the material chosen because of its gender-neutral properties.

Videos by Cécile B Evans and Alexa Karolinski & Ingo Niermann can be watched from the surreal environments of floating islands and carpeted curve seats. Evans’s work is set in near darkness in a room where black water swirls beneath a raised platform leading to a central island. On a screen projected above the platform, his What the Heart Wants (2016) builds a picture of a post-digital apocalypse, where characters are trapped in a limbo between real and virtual. The narrative features a group of children with their robot nanny, a collective of disembodied ears, and a pair of lost lovers who all exist in fascinatingly surreal animated sets. While watching the video, there is a splash from behind – somewhere in the darkness, a user has fallen into the water.

Karolinski and Niermann’s The Army of Love (2016) is a documentary-style promotional video about a group of people who aim to combat loneliness through finding ways to love people without judgment. People speak about their experiences of love in this world and why they joined The Army of Love. While the group is fictional, some of the characters are real people, so the accounts feel unscripted and genuine. One character is a disabled woman who floats in a swimming pool supported by her carers, her pearly white skin looks iridescent just below the water, as we listen to her story.

While the biennale is fascinated by the digital, it is also led by human interest, as journalism is, reflecting social movements and phenomena. Different people are introduced along the way, such as Julien Ceccaldi’s comic-style characters presented in a diptych of lightboxes, or Qiu Jin (1875-1907), a communist and lesbian icon from 19th-century China whose story is featured in Wu Tsang’s theatrical video work Dulian (2016). Miniatures crowds of festival-goers populate Anne de Vries’s model Oblivion (2016) and her video work Critical Mass: Pure Immanence (2015), which turns the lens on the crowds, examining their collective behaviour.

Through its storytelling, the BB9 directly translates the mood of a generation of artists who are questioning the values of the present, and showing how social, corporate and economic values have never been so interchangeable. The Akademie der Künste hosts a pop-up juice bar on the ground floor, a work titled MINT (2016) by Débora Delmar Corp that critiques the health-driven capitalism that holds up the juice industry. It is titled MINT, not after the green plant, but the acronym for developing economic powers Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey, the exporters of the ingredients that are whizzed up in juicers to be consumed and captured by lifestyle bloggers as an accessory to their post-yoga Instagram selfie.

Next to this installation, Simon Fujiwara’s The Happy Museum (2016) displays artefacts of today’s Berlin, including Angela Merkel’s face makeup, packaging for Kinder chocolate bars, white asparagus, a pro-EU poster and a lebkuchen (gingerbread) house. These vitrines of politically heavy specimens of nationhood were selected to reflect the economic data of the city. The work was created by Fujiwara in collaboration with his brother Daniel, the founder of Simetrica, a consultancy that quantifies happiness through economic data, yet the result is an uneasy portrait of Berlin, one that seems to be based on the concept of “covering up”, exemplified by Claus von Stauffenberg’s eye patch from the set of the film Valkyrie. Fujiwara reflects his interpretation of the city from this strategic location at the heart of Berlin near the landmarks of the capital – the Brandenburg Gate, the National Library, the Tiergarten, Unter den Linden and Pariser Platz. Is nationhood just another branding exercise?

Many of the other works in the biennale discuss the evolving status of nationhood, including the aforementioned works by Evans and Nierman, which attempt to define what nationality will mean to an increasingly digital community. Christopher Kulendran Thomas’s concept of “liquid citizenship” in the work New Eelam (2016) presents an alternative way of living, through a global housing subscription coined as “luxury communism”. The work is situated halfway up the stairs on a landing platform, where a living room show home has been set up. Visitors can settle in to watch a promotional startup video for the company New Eelam – “a flexible, global housing subscription that is based on collective ownership”. Sitting somewhere between genius and hoax, the project is based on the story of Eelam, the failed Tamil Sri Lankan neo-Marxist homeland and its goal of self-governance.

The architecture of Akademie der Künste is slightly strange and unconventional as a gallery space, always feeling like a liminal zone unsure of its purpose; lobbies, walkways, transitory spaces, balconies, terraces, corporate meeting rooms with glass windows, all make you feel as if you are always being transitioned somewhere but never quite reach your destination. The works each inhabit their zones like floating islands. An installation by Centre for Style, of a messy fashion show aftermath, occupies a suspended corridor that leads above the MINT cafe. Climb up a few more steps and you will reach a rumpled bed of cushions and sheets, which provides comfortable viewing for the video In Bed Together (2016) by M/L Artspace, and, across the way, you can watch works by Lizzie Fitch and Ryan Trecartin in a darkened teen dormitory with bunk beds and foam mats. Upstairs again, this time in a lift, to the top floor, where,  Will Benedict’s I Am a Problem (2016) music video is playing in a small meeting room, and outside on the balcony looking over Pariser Platz visitors can experience Jon Rafman's View of Pariser Platz (2016) through a virtual-reality headset.

Corporate language and the visual vocabulary of branding is another theme explored by the BB9 curators, particularly at ESMT, formerly the site of the East German state council. The building is a grand monument to the socialist history of Berlin, where light cascades on to red carpets through a gigantic stained-glass window of political scenes, representing a place where politics, economy and ideology once met with force. Plexiglas sculptures by Katja Novitskova, in the foyer, upstairs reception room and garden, fit in with the near-religious architecture and ideology of the building. Novitskova’s curly horned fertility gods, sourced from online stock imagery, hark back to a time when religion and economy were closely connected. Upstairs in a high-ceilinged conference room, in his work titled Blockchain Visionaries (2016), Simon Denny creates a mock trade show for three real companies – decentralised monetary platforms Ethereum, 21 Inc and Digital Asset Holdings. With Linda Kantchev, a postage stamp designer born in the former East Germany, he invents a fictional postage stamp for each company in a romantic gesture to the relics of sovereignty that soon may be defunct.

Through a doorway, the patterned carpet has been ripped out and replaced with a six-lane running track that loops into the next large-windowed room and back on itself. The floor around the track is piled with mounds of sand and, at the heart of the loop, a sculpture shows a kneeling woman holding her arms out to a child, performing the “Quantum Touch” gesture, while a calm female voice speaks omnisciently on a loudspeaker about the meaning of this gesture, designed to communicate peace and happiness. Positive Pathways (2016) by collective GCC (which borrows its name from the intergovernmental organisation, the Gulf Cooperation Council) illustrates the “new age euphemisms” of Dubai’s minister of happiness, who was appointed in early 2016 to promote positive energy: he installed running tracks in the city and promoted use of the Quantum Touch. In the biennale catalogue, a series of interviews between GCC and a group of “energy healers” and “life coaches” based in the Gulf countries question the monetary value of this new philosophy, which is meant to have had an economic effect on Dubai and its recent success. Standing alone in this yellow, light-filled room, on a surreal sand dune set, lost somewhere between Star Wars and a future Dubai Olympic Games, dystopia and utopia never felt so confused.

South of the centre, in Kreuzberg, the viewer is plunged into a cool dense darkness at the Feuerle Collection, a bunker located on the Landwehr canal and the new location of a private collection of
Southeast Asian and Chinese art. In contrast to the other biennale locations, the space is an endless rectangle, which gives users an opportunity to drift aimlessly between works. Guan Xiao’s surreal totems of contemporary objects rise eerily out of the darkness; Sunrise (2015) is a tree trunk made of a stack of tyres with an artificial palm tree growing from an exhaust pipe. A miniature graffitied train, the New Media Expess (2014) by Josephine Pryde, shoots off into the depths of the bunker, next to which her display of photographed hands, Hands “Für mich” (2014-16), runs along the length of the long wall. Across the other side of the bunker, Window Seat 10-22F, Yngve Holen’s wall-based glass sculptures shaped like aeroplane portholes, stretches down the space. While still experimental in concepts, the works at the Feuerle Collection feel the most traditional through their interest in material and form, which the empty open space encourages.

The curators succeed in creating a physical homepage and a living archive of the present through the biennale; reporting and recording moments and current moods just like a magazine does. At first glance, what is fearful about the biennale is that its a bit “trendy”, but in fact it is a brilliant parody – and a literal translation of the title, The Present in Drag, which builds a clever, self-deprecating critique of the present. The cacophony of the artists’ works merge into the sound of one individual walking through the streets of Berlin today, speculating about tomorrow.

The BB9 is an amusement park for an on-demand generation hurtling at full speed through the “Age of Access” and the curators are a group of scary clowns, daring you to ask what might be at the end of that curly-wurly slide.

• The main venues for the biennale are: Akademie der Künste, Pariser Platz 4; European School of Management and Technology (ESMT), Schlossplatz 1; The Feuerle Collection, Hallesches Ufer 70; KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Auguststrasse 69; and Reederei Riedel’s Blue-Star sightseeing boat on the Spree river. 

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