4 Jun 2016 – 18 Sep 2016

KW Institute for Contemporary Art Berlin

åyr | DIS | GCC

Berlin Biennale 9

Mixed media
1700 × 305 × 178 cm

Positive Pathways (+)
Mixed media
Dimensions variable

Installation view: Berlin Biennale 9

Positive Pathways (+)
Mixed media
Dimensions variable

Mixed media
1700 × 305 × 178 cm

View of billboards featuring Untitled (Not in the Berlin Biennale), 2016, © Roe Ethridge, Chris Kraus, Babak Radboy, photo: Julia Burlingham

Mixed media
1700 × 305 × 178 cm

Positive Pathways (+)
Mixed media
Dimensions variable

SUPREM(E), 2016, photograph Jason Nocito, Creative Director Babak Radboy, styling Avena Gallagher, courtesy Bjarne Melgaard

Mixed media
1700 × 305 × 178 cm

Publication The Present in Drag, photo: Julia Burlingham

Positive Pathways (+)
Mixed media
Dimensions variable

Video still from Speculative Ambience/Narrative Devices

The 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art seeks to materialize the digital condition and the paradoxes that increasingly make up the world in 2016: the virtual as the real, nations as brands, people as data, culture as capital, wellness as politics, happiness as GDP, and so on. With its selection of exhibition venues it aims to shape-shift across multiple sites, each one releasing a whiff of contemporary “paradessence” (paradox + essence).

The Berlin Biennial is curated by DIS

Creative Direction by Babak Radboy, styled by Avena Gallagher, co-presidents with Cyril Duval of Shanzhai Biennial

åyr @ KW Institute for Contemporary Art
Auguststraße 69, 10117 Berlin

GCC @ ESMT European School of Management and Technology

Schlossplatz 1, 10178 Berlin


30 Nov 2016

åyr :: The Berlin Biennale explored how architecture defines us today

The 9th Berlin Biennale, The Present in Drag, is “more rooted in a time than a place,” explained curator Lauren Boyle of the New York–based collective DIS. For this citywide art exhibition, the DIS team wanted to expose the contradictions and sheer spectacle of today’s hyper-networked, content-saturated culture. The exhibition breaks from many past Berlin Biennales, as it does not, on the surface, take an immediate political stance. Instead, it acts as a platform for artists to perform the present, in a sense, caricaturing and parodying it in order to tease out the contradictions and confusing realities of contemporary culture. DIS assembled a list of young artists and collectives, including 69, Cécile B. Evans, Simon Denny, Hito Steyerl, and more to show across five venues in Berlin.

Many of the works confront the Internet and the effect that it has on our lives and the way we create our identities. Three of the works explicitly deal with architecture, and how it is being affected by changes in technology and new social cues in an evolving world.

The first and most outwardly architectural is “#3” by architect Shawn Maximo. In collaboration with German kitchen- and bath-fixture manufacturer Dornbracht—famous for its ongoing forward-thinking collaborations with artists since 1996—Maximo created a room based on the idea of a “comfort station” where you can get all the comforts of home, such as going to the bathroom, getting a drink, or taking a nap…but in the Kunste-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art. In the installation, a squat toilet, a kitchen sink, a large-screen monitor with digital videos and illustrations, and light boxes illuminated with images of nature create a place where the most intimate, private ritual collides with a social gathering space—a place for both comfort and information. The title, “#3” suggests a new way of thinking about the bathroom as a place where maybe you can use the toilet while your friend washes dishes and watches a movie. Maximo wanted to tackle some of the taboos and boundaries that we hang on to despite their lack of usefulness today. “The bathroom is a place where there is a lot of potential to make more of an impact in terms of design and aesthetic,” he explained.

Another installation at the Kunste-Werke is “ARCHITECTURE,” a long, thickened wall that incorporates six nooks filled with pillows, by London-based åyr. These cozy spaces are outfitted with outlets for phone charging and are meant to challenge our assumptions of “openness” and “crossing boundaries” common to both the sharing economy and corporate architectural discourse. The work also makes reference to Rem Koolhaas’s Berlin Wall studies and Testo Junkie by Paul B. Preciado, which conflates spaces of protection and incarceration.

Completing the trifecta of architectural, boundary-challenging works is a deconstructed showroom apartment in the Akademie der Kunste by Christopher Kulendran Thomas titled “New Eelam.” In the apartment, a video explains the concept of a new app that would utilize the sharing economy to introduce users to a network of luxury communal housing units. The app—named after the failed neo-Marxist movement in Eelam, Sri Lanka—breaks out of traditional borders, operating outside the traditional power networks of late capitalist, neo-colonial influence. By establishing a collectively owned network of housing inside the existing system, Kulendran Thomas hopes to create a new way of living through the “luxury of communalism rather than private property.”

Combined, the three artworks attempt to make sense of the architectural implications of the political and technological forces that are swirling around us, but are hard to pin down in an architectural context. Contemporary art succeeds where architecture struggles in this exploration, perhaps because art can more adeptly capture these subtle forces not necessarily embedded in actual buildings.

1 Sep 2016

DIS :: Review of Berlin Biennale in Artforum

ADRIAN PIPER’S WORK Everything #5.1, 2004, installed in KW Institute for Contemporary Art for the Ninth Berlin Biennale, is a hole excised in a wall in the shape of a tombstone. A Plexiglas sheet is installed over the gap, printed with the text EVERYTHING WILL BE TAKEN AWAY. The phrase is adapted from a passage in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1968 novel In the First Circle: “Once you have taken everything away from a man, he is no longer in your power. He is free.”

The title Everything #5.1 suggests that the “everything” that constitutes a person can be continually revised and updated, like software. Yet the words printed on the Plexiglas render this adaptability ambiguous, perhaps less an escape from the world’s determinations than an endless vulnerability to redefinition that means one can never become free. Piper’s work draws on her limit-case existence as a light-skinned Black woman who could have passed as white but chose not to. Through choosing to be Black, because she was unable to choose anything else, she chose to stand for the ineluctability of blackness: blackness as what remains when everything is taken from a people, which is the history of blackness and of its survival. Piper’s 2012 work Thwarted Projects, Dashed Hopes, A Moment of Embarrassment announced that she had retired from being Black. The ironies of this gesture are heavy-handed but instructive: Once pickled in the white cube, or through the work of an individual artist, blackness often ends up standing only for its use-value, and not for its implacable persistence as exchange.

This question of the limits of commodification permeates the biennial, which was curated by the New York–based collective DIS, composed of Lauren Boyle, Solomon Chase, Marco Roso, and David Toro. The show has been pummeled by critics for its vacuity and cynicism, but in fact it comes across as relentlessly anxious about the conditions and possibilities of art and life. Taken together, the works on view express the despairing atomization, and the compromised longing for solidarity, of a postbourgeois creative class hovering on the brink of its own obsolescence. The paradigmatic racial and class position of this despair goes without saying.

THE WORKS that go beyond fear of impotence do so by means of an attachment to life outside the hegemonic center. At Akademie der Künste, the video Homeland, 2016, by Halil Altındere features Syrian rapper Mohammad Abu Hajar delivering luminously angry bars over footage of people leaping border fences. Nearby, Christopher Kulendran Thomas’s installation New Eelam, 2016, uses the recent history of Sri Lanka to ambivalently propose an Airbnb-style, pay-as-you-go transnational citizenship as a replacement for revolutionary struggle: the apex of “There’s an app for that!” The promise of diasporic belonging in homelessness is skewered on the point of Thomas’s accelerationism or irony (the two feel functionally indistinguishable here). Altındere’s video and Thomas’s installation face each other bleakly over sculptures by Anna Uddenberg of mannequins fused with suitcases on wheels. The parts are all moving but nothing flows.

In Cécile B. Evans’s elaborate video installation What the Heart Wants, 2016, at KW, a globally powerful Kim Kardashian–like figure has appropriated the immortal genetic material of a Black woman—a reference to Henrietta Lacks, a real person whose tumor cells were stolen by scientists for experimentation shortly before she died of cancer in 1951. This work continues Evans’s interest in the technologization of the social: Is there something irreducibly human that resists technology, or is this apparently irreducible core just as subject to changes in the relations of production as anything else? The presence of a famously appropriated Black woman and a famous appropriator of blackness suggest that the question of the commodification of life is related not only to technology as such, but more deeply to the social technology of race.

One reviewer singled out Evans’s maximalist video as the only truly serious work in the show, but in fact its worldview is consistent with the politics that imbue the biennial as a whole. DIS’s position, worked out over the course of a six-year-long collaboration, amounts to something like this: After the violent repression of real and imaginary alternatives to capitalism, we are left with a social field entirely dominated by value; the increasing mediation of social life by advanced technology is one manifestation of this situation. Pragmatically rather than programmatically, this total rule of the commodity form means that political struggle cannot oppose the commodity, but has to pass through it. The bleak but playful realism of this viewpoint has unlikely resonances with ultraleft theories of communization, Derridean Marxist philosophers, and Black radical thinkers such as Fred Moten. The point is to imagine radical struggle without predicating it on a simple negation of the commodity or on the idea that use is morally superior to exchange. As Moten said in a 2015 interview, “I don’t think commodities are dirty. . . . [I]nsofar as I’m the descendent of commodities and bear the trace of that commodification in my own flesh—I don’t see that I have any standpoint from which to be moralistic about what it means to be a commodity or to be in relation, so to speak, to, or even through, commodities.” After the 2011 London riots, which the people involved said over and over again were a protest against the police’s killing of Mark Duggan and racist stop-and-search strategies resembling those of US police, inane white leftists lined up to scold the rioters for their “consumerist” acts of looting. A similar moralizing position curiously surfaced in the biennial’s critical reception. No one is living in ecstatic poverty on a mountain here, OK?

As Moten suggests, no collective being is more marked by histories of capitalist commodification than that of Black people, a situation not unrelated to the fact that blackness, which stands for survival and more than survival, appears again and again in this biennial as a prophylaxis against the fear that life has become entirely subject to impersonal global forces. Like Evans’s piece, many of the works in the biennial, mostly by non-Black artists, are preoccupied with Black cultural production: The phenomenon is most acute at KW, where Juan Sebastián Peláez’s horrible Rihanna sculpture greets visitors in the courtyard; Alexandra Pirici’s performance work Signals, 2016, features renditions of songs by Beyoncé and Janelle Monáe; a video by Babak Radboy incorporated into a bathroom installation by Shawn Maximo invites viewers to imagine a biennial with only Black women or with no Black women; and Amalia Ulman’s installation PRIVILEGE, 2016, features footage of the artist singing along to Fetty Wap’s radiant love song “Trap Queen” while inexplicably holding a pigeon. This last installation is so inscrutable that I took refuge in reading it as a commentary on the emptiness of the concept of privilege, a term that is meant to describe the effects of structural violence but often ends up as little more than a shallow shorthand for difference: The individual privilege of producing art, for example, becomes analytically indistinguishable from the collective privilege of being white, in a way that renders the concept pretty much politically useless.

THE COLLECTIVE LIFE that is traditionally the precondition and horizon of political activity is in an uneasy relationship with the art system’s reliance on the name, the individual, the consistent practice, the salable work, the fundable project. This is why for DIS it would be anathema to valorize the kind of social-practice or research-based art that might have reassured critics. The biennial’s location in Berlin has given their criticisms of conventional anticapitalist discourse a convenient additional prop in the ghost of the DDR. Simon Denny and Linda Kantchev mobilize this backdrop to particular effect with their piece Blockchain Visionaries, 2016, installed in a building that used to host the East German State Council and is now the European School of Management and Technology. The work explicates the revolutionary potential of blockchains—the public, distributed databases that power technologies such as Bitcoin—under the ambivalent gaze of a Communist-era mural, original to the room. In concert with the venue’s exotic ironies or facts, Denny conflates the promise of the blockchain with the promise of a unified proletariat: “A world without borders . . . this world is already here, embedded in the blockchain . . . a code belonging to all, reflecting all,” intones a video playing on a grid of nine flat-screen monitors. Blockchain Visionaries splits the difference between irony and celebration, rendering both void in a move that is characteristic of the biennial and loops back to the central problem of a perceived failure of politics.

Introductory texts at each site refer to a mildly paradoxical condition of relatable alienation, addressed to the second person: “You look at your phone, have full bars, but no connection,” says a sign at the Feuerle Collection. At KW my situation is no better: “The promotional emails in your inbox contain the emotional language that’s missing in your personal life.” Is the social itself becoming obsolete, becoming fully reified as content? It’s a heartfelt not-quite-problem. A few weeks after the biennial’s opening, with videos of US police brutality circulating alongside Brexit’s conjuring of the spirits of fascism, some of this hand-wringing about the impossibility of politics looked a little quaint, but the problem remains: Not only is art useless in the face of all the things that artists might want to be useful for, but the violence of states and the capitalist assault on proletarian social life suggest that politics as such is mostly doomed. What art is sometimes good for is affirming that life continues even if lives fall apart, but what does that mean?

In Lizzie Fitch and Ryan Trecartin’s video Mark Trade, 2016, a white person in Lady Gaga–style camo fatigues prances in the desert and intones lines like “Terra non conforma . . . My favorite color is hell. . . . They’re disputing my blood type as we speak. . . . If there’s one thing I know, it’s America, well, not really. . . . There’s a lot less gravity here.” The characters in the video hover between canceled genders, resembling outlaws of a deleted law. Fitch and Trecartin are great poets of settler colonial society, which is to say, of an infantile glee mounted on a grand historical violence for which atonement is impossible.

Meanwhile, Guan Xiao’s sculptures assembled from more or less arbitrary online purchases suggest that the role of the contemporary artist resembles that of the online consumer: I’ll give you my data (my concerns, tastes, contact details, identifications) in exchange for access—a commodification, sure, of self and world, but anyone who believes that the commodification of being is new has not been paying any attention at all. If race, which has long been a structural condition of capitalism, appears so prominently now in the discourse of Europe and its settler colonies rather than just in their acts, it is perhaps because capitalism is so depressed. One key symptom of this malaise is that the only thing the capitalist class has to offer workers is a shared dream of whiteness. Yet this whiteness, because so deeply linked to capitalism, is itself in crisis. Though it proliferates automatically, the deracinated lifeworld of capitalism is arid. The apocalyptic emptiness that critics perceive in this biennial is the index of a real emptiness in the world outside it.

Yet there is joy in the apocalyptic perspective. Korakrit Arunanondchai and Alex Gvojic’s romantic video installation There’s a word I’m trying to remember, for a feeling I’m about to have (a distracted path towards extinction), 2016, implies that love might last forever, and not just the sad forever of a lifetime. Viewable only on a tourist boat that also hosts weekly performances for the duration of the biennial (I was involved in one, as part of an event organized by Berlin Community Radio), the floating installation seems happily unmoored from the anxiety that social life will disappear, instead imagining a post-apocalyptic earth populated by giant rats who are just as full of clumsy mammalian affection as we are. This disaster is full of sweetness: a planet populated by sentient trees, an interspecies hug, a wedding . . . The undeserved salvation of Europe and America, which its politicians are incapable of recognizing, is that the desire to live keeps coming by boat, smuggled in as contraband.

Couched in airy naïveté and ironic enthusiasm, DIS’s biennial reflects the conditions of the situation in which the collective find themselves as white cultural producers. That situation is a world dominated visually, ethically, and ontologically by capital, in which long-standing forms of struggle—the protest, the union, the political party, even critique—seem like nostalgic curiosities or reenactments, ultimately doomed to fail. DIS have addressed this, in turn, by reenacting a long-standing modernist strategy: staging art’s dissolution into life (in this case, into the omnipresence of media). They have been greeted, just like the modernist avant-gardes were in their time, with accusations of bad politics and even worse taste. Perhaps these critics haven’t noticed: The world is a ruin, but we go on living in it.

Hannah Black is an artist and writer from the UK. She lives in Berlin.

Hannah Black Artforum September 2017

9 Aug 2016

DIS :: Berlin’s Belated Biennale

A response to the responses

When I walked into the Akademie der Künste to attend the press conference of the 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art—titled The Present in Drag and curated by the online collective, DIS—I wondered if it would be possible to locate a grounded position from which to take a pragmatic look at the exhibition. The difficulty of...

When I walked into the Akademie der Künste to attend the press conference of the 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art—titled The Present in Drag and curated by the online collective, DIS—I wondered if it would be possible to locate a grounded position from which to take a pragmatic look at the exhibition. The difficulty of reviewing a large exhibition in which your friends are participating and its curators are people you know is not something to look forward to, in today’s global contemporary artplex, where everybody knows everybody. Nowadays, when people are aware of a critic’s personal connection to their subject, they will dismiss any pretence to objectivity: their praise will be considered a favour, and their objections a sign of envy.

In the past, both Artur Żmijewski's Occupy-inspired iteration of the Berlin Biennale in 2012 and Juan Gaitán’s 2014 foray into museological critique had their own friends and enemies, provoking positive and negative responses from a wide range of expected and unexpected positions. Having read most of the reviews of the current Berlin Biennale, I would like to chart a modest position in regards to the latest edition. But rather than repeat claims and opinions, I will try to fill in the gaps surrounding the critiques of this Biennale instead.

Image: DIS. Photo: Julia Burlingham.

When the Berlin Biennale selection committee—headed by Gabriele Horn, the Director of both KW Institute for Contemporary Art and Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art—picked DIS as the curators for the 2016 edition, it was clear to those of us familiar with the collective that the exhibition, both in form and content, would deviate from expected norms. In choosing DIS, the committee took a risk: they entrusted the Biennale to a band of outsiders who don’t owe their reputation to the art world's own industrialised system, but are instead known for their accomplishments at forging connections between advertising, fashion, communication and popular culture via the Internet. Given the ideological and professional distance separating DIS from the regular art world apparatchiks, grandiose dismissals of the show by the art press are misdirected if not unfair. Expressing shock or approaching the show as a usual biennale, a position that most critics so far have taken, does not get to the heart of what this Biennale both accomplishes and signifies.

In my opinion, the 9th Berlin Biennale is the first large scale institutional attempt to integrate contemporary art, not only materially—this was achieved decades ago by the total industrialisation of the production and dissemination of art—but also philosophically into the larger frames of creative design, commerce and popular culture. (A similar integration occurred with New York's MoMA PS1 under the direction of its chief curator Klaus Biesenbach, who also happens to be the co-founder of both KW and the Berlin Biennale). Certainly, DIS has created an exhibition version of what they do best online in their eponymous magazine where they blur, if not all together remove, the distinctions between art, theory, advertising, fashion and start-up commerce. But while DIS is often misunderstood to be an ambassador of ‘post-internet art’, given the central role new communication technologies play in the violent insertion of real life into art, their exhibition does little to dismiss such a misunderstanding. The Present in Drag both indexes Post Internet art and applies the logic of digital immanence to the organisation of the exhibition by offering a contemporary history of the rise of the Internet aesthetics through its artist selection. This ranges from Ryan Trecartin, Timur Si-Qin to Jon Rafman, and Cecil B. Evans, Guan Xiao and Juan Sebastián Peláez.

Image: Installation view, Positive Pathways (+), 2016. Courtesy GCC, Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin, Project Native Informant, London and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, NY. Photo: Timo Ohler.

Touted as the exhibition of the digital zeitgeist, BB9 also overthrows the white cube’s mandate and instead opts for spatial forms that fit seamlessly within the aesthetics of our socio-political built environments, such as the corporate setting of two Biennale venues, the Akademie der Künst and the European School of Management and Technology (ESMT), the former seat of the Communist East German Government. The exhibition transforms these spaces into environmental experiences; in the latter venue, GCC's Positive Pathways (+) (2016)—which comprises of a running track, a sound installation, and two sculptural figures installed in a large boardroom—maximises the possibilities of installation art. It cleverly reflects on the forced construction of positive thinking as a new ideological paradigm for Middle Eastern monarchies, many of who are suspected of financing Islamist extremists.

Of course, the transference of DIS-thetics from an online magazine to the physical space of contemporary art remains both politically and formally bumpy, yet the curators don’t seem to shy away from this awkwardness. In fact, these interruptions are where the exhibition’s politics might well be located. The inclusion of a number of business ventures, or works that allude to commercial activities—the green juice bar by Debora Delmar Corp, the outdoor furniture by fashion and lifestyle brand 69, and Simon Denny and Linda Kantchev's Blockchain Visionaries, for example—leave no choice for professional viewers who follow the theoretical developments of contemporary art but to automatically identify the show’s politics somewhere to the right of their own. Normally, the emancipatory spirit of DIS can be heard in the voices of their writers and contributors on the internet. And while the flat and digital representation of office equipment, luxury brands and fashion stereotypes can function as auto-critique in the online universe, their actualisation in the gallery space via commercial materials can come across as a phenomenological affirmation of capitalism. This results in the show becoming quickly misidentified as a celebration of what we have been accustomed to call the worldwide ‘neoliberal’ order.

But if we resist the habitual instinct to immediately see evil, The Present in Drag does offer a way to productively use contemporary art’s disappearance into technocapital for emancipatory objectives. The verisimilitude between the exhibition's materiality and the world of commerce makes it quite clear that DIS is not attempting to critique our sociopolitical systems, but is acting out its very machinery. An example of this process can be seen in Trevor Paglen's and Jacob Applebaum's slick and expensive Autonomy Cube, a functioning Tor server which provides online anonymity to users within its vicinity. In addition, Yngve Holen's beautiful Evil Eye Bildsuche accessories and contact lenses, and Shawn Maximo's #3, a functional and entertaining transformation of one of KW's bathroom into an information booth, make the viewers feel fine, even if our epoch is marked by the end of freedom as we know it. In presenting works such as these, The Present In Drag essentially puts an end to contemporary art’s theatre of autonomy, thus liberating art from performing the tedious ritual of critical distance by fully embodying the problem.

Image: Installation view, Shawn Maximo, #3, 2016. Courtesy Shawn Maximo. Photo: David von Becker. 

Indeed, if each exhibition frames its visitors like specimens in a petri dish, reflecting the climate in which they are contained, then two terms from the contemporary cultural dictionary that best describe the 9th Berlin Biennale are Normcore and Health Goth. In the last five years, these trends have been a large part of DIS's appeal. At the opening events, most visitors were dressed in uniform colours of black and white, wrapped in a blend of generic-looking garments and sporty accessories. This spatial articulation in and around BB9’s exhibition spaces functioned like Amazon predictive analytics: If you already wear this particular fashion, this is the art show for you. (And visitors were were literally buying it up, forming queues to purchase well-priced t-shirts and other items from designers like Hood by Air at the concession stand.)

So is the 9th Berlin Biennale a show ‘by kids, about kids and for kids?’ Yes. But in particular, this exhibition has a complex relationship with young people. It carries an almost synthetic youth unconscious, with the curators utilising a self-aware but eerie innocence normally attributed to youngsters. The strategy of cultural juvenilia is nowhere more visible than in some of the marketing materials produced as part of Babak Radboy's Not in the Berlin Biennale programme, the most provocative being the Biennale’s infamous slogan, memefied in Instagram and Facebook posts: ‘Why should fascists have all the fun?’ The question seems to belong to a 5-year-old reacting to the rise of extreme nationalism worldwide: it points to the naïve youthfulness the exhibition plays up by consciously placing the art world’s ‘adults’ in the position of parents unwilling to hand over the car keys to their kids.

Image: Babak Radboy, Untitled (Not in the Berlin Biennale), 2016. © Roe Ethridge, Chris Kraus, Babak Radboy; image from Not in the Berlin Biennale. Photo: Roe Ethridge; special thanks to Andrew Kreps; Capitain Petzel, Berlin.

But we need to take this ‘youthing’ with a grain of salt. Youth culture itself is highly lucrative, and while the lines separating marketing, commerce and art were once bold and impenetrable, the situation in today’s hypercapitalised art ecology is different. The precariats of today's indebted and unemployable labour market tend to valorise the virtues and forms derived from the corporate world’s infrastructure. The strategy of losing oneself in the possibilities of commerce is the new black; and institutions have been following suit. Perhaps this is exactly why one of the most successful aspects of the show is its failure to make the transition from an anti-capitalist to a pro-capitalist position as smooth as one imagines Biesenbach & CO would have liked. The result is a biennale that becomes politically challenging precisely because it has put art’s tendency to avoid direct political messaging into conflict with the glaringly political essence of cultural production itself. In this respect, the beautiful disconnect between aims and means is where The Present in Drag finds its redemption. The curators do not cover up the deep contradiction between what things are and how they come across; rather, they underline them.

Looking at this theoretically, there is no way to unleash capital’s emancipatory potential without first introducing a bold new concept. Yet, The Present In Dragstops short—or rather intentionally stays shy—of theorising, and instead outsources its conceptual production to other writers like Suhail Malik and Armen Avanessian, who were invited to guest edit an issue of DIS magazine concurrent to the Biennale. As vocal critics of the ideas and practices of contemporary art, Malik and Avanessian introduce two related theoretical lenses for the exhibition: the time complex and Post-Contemporary. To paraphrase the writers, the time-complex refers to the loss of human agency and experience within today’s social organisation of time. For them we are now governed by, ‘complex systems, infrastructures and networks in which the future replaces the present as the structuring condition of time’. This leaves both the political left and right incapable of dealing with the present; in short, ‘we are increasingly wholly pre-empted and post-everything’. Malik and Avanessian then introduce the Post-Contemporary as a new temporal state in which the future constantly invades and forever haunts the production of both the present and past.

These arguments seem to be little more than a repackaging of Nick Land and Reza Negarestani's concept of ‘hyperstition’—altering the fabric of reality through the insertion of fictional elements so as to bring about demonstrable change. They are also left unsubstantiated by most of the works included by the curators in the exhibition. In fact, the Biennale's active consciousness of practices, theories, and philosophies from the last 10 years only acknowledges, if not also reinforces, the vacuuming power of ‘the contemporary’ in the process of exhausting everything, including all thoughts and practices surrounding futurity. 

In the end, it is the accelerated contemporaneity of The Present in Drag that enables the DIS debut to matter both politically and aesthetically. The exhibition assertively manifests the problems and contradictions of contemporary art in the full glare of the present, and reframes that which is already hyper-contemporary. It is an original attempt at periodising the present and making it palatable for the future. Instead of acting the role of delusional emperor without clothes (the state of most internationally acclaimed curators), DIS is caught naked changing into drag on a world stage, leaving the state of contemporary art bare for all to see.

Mohammad Salemy Ocula 9 August 2016


20 Jun 2016

DIS :: 3 Questions with Berlin Biennale Curators

The avant-garde New York collective known as DIS have picked up the curatorial reins for this year’s Berlin Biennale, showcasing their artistic presence across the German festival. Exploring popular culture and post-contemporary realities, the foursome (Solomon Chase, Lauren Boyle, Marco Roso, and David Toro) established the theme as “ The Present in Drag.”

DIS taps into the paradoxes of “the virtual as the real, nations as brands, people as data, culture as capital, wellness as politics, happiness as GDP, and so on,” they explain.

The Berlin Biennale continues to be an essential experience for contemporary art lovers. Founded by Klaus Biesenbach in 1998, it was inspired by the success of the Venice Biennale. Previous curators include well-renowned art folk such as Kathrin Rhomberg, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Juan A. Gaitán.

A lot has changed since 1998 and many of use are questioning the very notion of reality in our highly configured post-Internet society. Across various locations in Berlin, DIS-selected artists offer their answers to this query. The exhibition will run until 18 September 2016. The collective says, “Our proposition is simple: instead of holding talks on anxiety, let’s make people anxious. Rather than organizing symposia on privacy, let’s jeopardize it. Let’s give a body to the problems of the present where they occur so as to make them a matter of agency—not spectatorship.” We spoke to the DIS art collective to find out what viewers can expect this year, what keeps the foursome creatively fulfilled, and the message they aim to send.

1. What are your thoughts on being appointed the curators of the 9th Berlin Biennale and what can viewers expect from this year’s event with a theme like “The Present in Drag"?

Instead of unmasking the present as though it contains something we have to ‘discover’, we want to look at its many faces and incarnations. One way to see it is the present in drag. When we got to Berlin, we realized the irony of a New York collective temporarily moving to Germany and making a comment on Berlin through this exhibition. But we wanted to embrace the positive consequences of being ‘amateurs,’ ‘tourists’ and ‘outsiders’ in Berlin and in this institutional world of curation. Rather than try and become ‘Berliners’ we focused on the flow of tourism and capital that passes through Berlin and every major city at any given moment.

2. As a collective, how has your work evolved from the beginning and what keeps your creative juices flowing in order to keep producing unique and vibrant platforms and projects?

Collaboration leads to endlessly new configurations. DIS has always been about working from a place of hyper-receptivity to the present. Everything is a response to the moment, which means some things can become dated, which we embrace. DIS has become something like an alternate institution, and with the Biennale we are an alternate institution within a legitimate platform. We tried to include people who have been part of our community. DIS Magazine is not just the four of us, it got recognition only because of our network of collaborators. Some collaborators of ours who were art school students in 2010 are now Berlin Biennale artists—we wouldn’t be here without them. It’s almost uncanny. At the same time the Berlin Biennale also feels like the end of something. There’s an uncertainty about what comes next.

3. As you approach the issues of today through a variety of facets does the idea of new technologies play a major role and what kind of energy and message do you aim to showcase for 2016?

We’re interested in technology, not as the sum of its artifacts and gadgets, but as an unstoppable digital influence on the way we think and feel, and something with immense material impact on ideology, economic and political structures, and our natural world.

Jane Fayle FORMAT 20.06.2016


3 Jun 2016

Babak Radboy :: the dis-curated berlin biennale will be as powerfully weird as you’d imagine

Artist and creative director Babak Radboy discusses installing 20 lifesize models of the designer Telfar Clemens ahead of the contemporary art fair’s opening tomorrow.

"We all just want to have fun!" says artist Babak Radboy. As the creative director of this year's Berlin Biennale, curated by pioneeringly strange online magazine DIS, Radboy's contribution includes an immersive retrospective, at the Akademie Der Künst, of the cult New York clothing brand Telfar (of which he is also the creative director).

Radboy's involvement with the biennale ("it's a kind of very transgressive consultancy," he says) is deep-rooted and a little hard to define — much like the trippy post-internet creative universe that orbits DIS and its community of artists, brands, and friends, including Ryan Trecartin, Hood by Air, and Juliana Huxtable.

For Radboy, this biennale is a culmination of the DIS perspective, which he defines as "post-contemporary." And revisiting the work of Telfar, whose pieces have shown up repeatedly in videos by Trecartin, as well as in the everyday wardrobes of many artists in the scene, seemed fitting. "I feel like a lot of what we've all been doing crystallized in this moment. And that's just always been Telfar's perspective. He was the heart of the scene we all come from. A lot of us had to really intellectualize what it meant and he'd just been doing it since 2003."


Radboy doesn't see a disconnect in presenting a fashion brand at a contemporary art show. "Telfar actually started as an artist," he says. "Back in 2012, the whole collection was being sold as a single work." But when it came to finding a way to communicate the brand's vision — which, Radboy admits, has proven notoriously difficult to explain — he decided to focus on something more accessible: Telfar's work with the T-shirt.

"Part of telling the story about Telfar is telling the story about a lot of things that he isn't and doesn't do," says Radboy. And so he wanted to explore Telfar's "relationship to the expectations for a black designer, for a gay designer, expectations of gender or even being post-gender. He doesn't do any of that. Everything is kind of fed through this ambivalence. Part of that is an ambivalence towards luxury. He loves core materials, and raw construction methods."

The installation will display years' worth of Telfar's experiments with T-shirts across 20 mannequins, made in collaboration with Penther Formes and all modeled after Telfar himself and. "We had just made this anime video that had 45 Telfars in it, and I wanted to create that in physical space," says Radboy. The doppelgangers will sit on benches, lean against pillars, and hang out among the real-life visitors in the Akademie's atrium. To confuse matters, the staff at the institute, and all the fair's venues, will also wear uniforms designed by Telfar.

Continuing the idea of multiplying Telfar, who has always been the very visible face of his own brand, a large billboard will hang in the space, displaying larger-than-life portraits of Telfar's family (digitally altered to look eerily more like him), wearing Telfar's designs.

What do Telfar's family members think about appearing in one of Europe's most progressive art events? "I think everybody comes from a different place," Radboy says, cautiously. "They're Liberian, and some of them are quite conservative, and I think they struggled to accept Telfar but they're more and more impressed with what he's doing. And he has a whole gaggle of aunties who are just in love with him."

As a clothing brand, Telfar's work has routinely confused the fashion world. But in a museum setting, it all seems to make more sense somehow. "Last season, we made a collection that was so off trend on purpose," says Radboy. "We figure the further you go from trend, the more likely you are to made something new. But the reaction from the buyers was, 'Well, this doesn't look like anything from the store.' So we're thinking about ways to work more with museums and create our own stores."

Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch are currently designing a mobile, shoppable installation for the brand that will travel around the country. If you can't be in Berlin this weekend, you'll be able to shop Telfar this summer on Fire Island, where the pop-up will make its first stop. "We're going to do it on the 'dick dock' and the 'meat rack,'" says Radboy smiling.

Alice Newell-Hanson I-D Magazine 3 June 2016

1 Jun 2016

Babak Radboy :: Berlin Biennale 9: ‘We’re Making Art Fun Again’

Tilman Hornig BB9
BB9, “Feet typing”, courtesy Berlin Biennale. Courtesy Tilman Hornig


Even before opening, the Berlin Biennale is already proving to be a polarising affair, yet no one seems indifferent. Strongly focused on the post-contemporary condition, the event has gathered the DIS family to question a time we all struggle to grasp – the here and now. SLEEK speaks to Babak Radboy, the (Not) Creative Director who’s not actually in the Biennale but behind, under and maybe all over it too. Babak is an artist and the creative director in a multitude of projects including Telfar, Bidoun magazine and the artist Bjarne Melgaard. He’s also the co-founder of the Shanzhai Biennial but the 9th Berlin Biennale is his first “real” Biennale. Being a multihyphenated professional, Babak is not prone to give simple answers. But we’ve challenged that and coaxed him to get real about the post-contemporary, why this is the most fun biennale Berlin has ever had and why Telfar is the most forward-thinking fashion label of the present.


SLEEK: You have your fingers in many pies at the BB9 but one of your main projects is the Telfar installation at AdK. You’ve been a long time collaborator so why is Telfar so relevant?
Babak Radboy: So many people in the Biennale have known each other for a very long time. So for us, maybe Telfar was the one who knew what he was doing first, and he was the one that everyone looked to in establishing a certain perspective. He did it without self consciousness — it was just what he liked and wanted to see. This whole Biennale has been an interesting culmination of a certain perspective — for a generation I think it has all crystallized here into this idea of the post-contemporary.

What is the post-contemporary?
It’s great that post-contemporary has the word contemporary in it and threatens it with obsolescence. I love to imagine the end of the contemporary and especially contemporary art, but it’s myopic to think this is about art. For me it’s a shift on the cognitive level — on time as a temporal index — on the meaning of time and the ability of time to produce meaning.

It’s stupid to conflate that with an aesthetic and call it post-internet.


Berlin Biennale 9
Not in the Berlin Biennial, Roe Ethridge, Chris Kraus and Babak Radboy, 2016.


Back in the mid 00s I also grappled with the idea of what came next..
I’m indifferent to the aesthetics of it but at the same time I love how insecure it makes serious people. You can’t conflate the two. Look instead to the material circumstances: it’s a generation born into an economy based completely on speculation. When the present is structured as a perpetual hedge towards an immediate future — what does that do to experience?

The future starts to feel immutable and familiar as if it were the past and the present becomes unknowable, shocking, incoherent — as if it were the future. We all know we will have clear phones soon — but we don’t know if Iraq is a country… or ten countries. Donald Trump can never be president in the future — but he may become president today. We should learn from Trump. He presents a cognitive short circuit. Since he can never become president it is OK to vote for him. It’s the actual moment you’ve been living in that has been divested of any kind of coherence.

So when you’re a fashion designer, you’re making clothes for next season and you always have this futural frame. In the 20th century this was about the future — but Telfar’s vision of the new is to look really, very closely at how the world looked four weeks ago. The most normal things are the most impossible to see. Last week is sci-fi. I think that runs through Telfar’s practice. That’s what makes him so hard to read for fashion.  But this is why so many artists pull Telfar for videos and performances, because they’re trying to say something about the phantasmagoria of the present and it quietly says it. The fashion world doesn’t seem to clock what Telfar is doing. It’s the thing I am proudest of — everything he won’t do. Anyone can make clothes that people like. Anyone can choose fabrics, and colors and cuts and swipes from instagram screenshots. A fashion designer is not someone who chooses — it’s someone who can’t choose. Someone who has a singular vision.

Telfar is subtle and that’s a statement in itself.
Yeah, he manages somehow to provoke fashion essentially because he is not provocative. He does not fill a niche in regards to the desire or expectation of ‘otherness’ fashion loves so well. Whether that is in regards to race or sexuality or gender. Telfar is a unisex line since 2004 — but its relationship to gender is pure ambivalence. It does everything wrong: it’s avant garde but has no interest in luxury; it’s a street-wear line but the streets we are talking about are like 42nd street or Friedrichstraße!


Berlin Biennale 9
Telfar Installation at AdK for Berlin Biennale 9


What else have you done in this Biennale besides Telfar?
I’ve worked on lots of stuff for over six months. I have forbidden any kind of press release or collected information about my involvement.

OK, it sounds confusing.
Essentially I am creative director of Not in the Berlin Biennale and also Not creative director of the Berlin Biennale. For example in the catalog I am credited “not the creative director”. I’ve had a kind of basically illegitimate role that I’ve used to my advantage. One effect has been people never knowing where they stand in relation to me within the professional hierarchy. I think it’s effective? You know Moa Zedong never held an official title? He was just hanging out (laughs).




How would you define yourself as a professional?
I’m not, ‘not an artist’ in the usual sense. I’m not an artist as a practice. But that practice is completely private to me. It’s a private practice.

Every project I’ve organized for Not in the Biennial is published under someone elses name.

I feel like I’ve found a way to work more or less how I want within a cultural sphere that I am really truly ambivalent about.

You’re in a quite privileged position in a way.
I would love that. I would love to be privileged. I think it’s the opposite because I am choosing an idiom of service where there is no expectation of carte blanche or creative freedom. I really have to fight or persuade or just deceive my way through things. There’s tons of compromise — but then you turn compromise into a medium. You can come up with ideas so bad no one can ruin them.

But also you can really work together with people. Really collaborate and be part of a process that is incredibly respectful — where you actually have a dialog and you don’t remember if it’s your work or someone else’s? Or a commission or a commercial or something else? It’s been a bit amazing to be honest. Who stands in an artist’s studio and calls bullshit from the sidelines in mid painting? Isn’t that secretly what we all want? Maybe we want that more than our name in vinyl or in a gallery catalog.


Berlin Biennale 9
Not in the Berlin Biennial, Roe Ethridge, Chris Kraus and Babak Radboy, 2016.


If you don’t get any credit, what else do you get out of it beyond the personal satisfaction of doing things?
I get to actually do things; that’s it! And that is the point. So I’m alive in a place and time and I can put a chain of events in motion, or ideas into play, create and distribute objects and images, change spaces and I really don’t believe I could do any of it if I were an artist.

Do you think the future will be about the process rather than the end product?
What the future is about and what the future is are two different things. Just because something is burningly relevant doesn’t mean that it will happen. Just because something is completely dysfunctional doesn’t mean it will collapse. You learn that in fashion every season. You can make the most relevant collection of the year, and nobody likes it or buys it. So the question is does that change the fact that it’s the most relevant collection of the year? For me, Telfar is the most important designer working today. That is true objectively period — it doesn’t matter if no one agrees. Being celebrated means nothing — you are a journalist — you know: there is no discourse in this world, that’s why personal experience is actually all I’m interested in at this point. I work with Telfar, because it is meaningful. The fact that it’s so fucking hard for people to grasp Telfar is proof that it is good.




Do you think this will be the best Berlin Biennale yet?
I think it will be the last Berlin Biennale (laughs).

I hope you won’t let me down.
I think it’s going to be fun and it’ll be interesting how the Germans will take it. It’ll definitely be fun. This whole process has really gotten me into “fun.” Why should fun be left out? Or—as we said in one of the ads for the Biennale: why should fascists have all the fun?


Berlin Biennale 9
Not in the Berlin Biennial, Roe Ethridge, Chris Kraus and Babak Radboy, 2016.


So this is going to be a hilarious Biennale. Are you bringing fun into art?
We are making art fun again! Make art fun again! Curators, Museum Directors, Gallerists, Artists: there is nothing to worry about — no critique, no discourse, no stakes. No reason to move something over a millimeter — it won’t change the dynamics — there are no dynamics. The way I’ve tried to play my role as communications consultant for the Biennale is to always keep in mind that everyday working people in Berlin don’t seem to know or care about the Berlin Biennale. Definitely the people I encountered at airport customs have not heard of it. That is a good starting point: you do what you want.

Will Furtado Sleek June 2016

1 Jun 2016


The 9th Berlin Biennale is the first biennial exhibition curated by DIS, the internet-centric art collective, and, by their own admission, probably the one and only. In the past six years, the group has been at the helm of multiple projects at once: DIS Magazine, its original online magazine; DISOWN, a collection of artist-made wares; and DISimages, a stock imagery project, all coalescing around readings of fashion, music, contemporary art, and culture. The biennale, running this summer from June 4 through September 19, features more than 50 artists (the majority of whom were born in the 1980s) and takes place at five sites around the city: the Akademie der Künste, the KW-Institute for Contemporary Art, the Feuerle Collection, the European School of Management and Technology, and a Blue-Star sightseeing boat. Following the collective’s multidisciplinary approach, the show’s interface will also seamlessly blend into everyday life in the city and beyond, in the form of an ad campaign featuring artists who are “Not in the Biennale,” light boxes distributed all over the biennale with imagery by even more artists (LIT), daily posts on the biennale website, and a soundtrack of artist-musician pairings to be released throughout the summer (Anthem). “We liked the idea of a biennale you couldn’t get out of your head,” Solomon Chase said at the press conference, about the numerous platforms where the biennale will appear. Later, Alexandra Pechman met Chase and David Toro, two of the four members of DIS, at KW Institute to talk about their thinking behind the show.

Alexandra Pechman:
 The ESMT location is such a cool space, and it’s never been used before for the biennial. 

Solomon Chase: No, it [that wing] has been empty since, basically, when the GDR ended. They renovated the half on the left and then they were going to renovate the half on the right, but then they ran out of money and just stopped. That’s where the installation is and where Simon Denny’s installation is. Simon’s room is actually the GDR State Council room. The council took place in that room with a long table and seats all around it.

AP: How did you get to use that location? 

SC: One of the parts of the Berlin Biennale always is finding spaces around Berlin. When we got here we didn’t want to leave the center because we didn’t want to contribute to the art gentrification in a way. At the same time, this area of Berlin was that. After the wall came down, this was the cool area where things started to happen; of course, it’s not anymore. Now it’s fully built up and part of the speculative real-estate market here. In the archives of venues they had used in the past for other biennales, one after another, it was like: oh, that’s a gym now. There’s the amazing post-office down the street where they’ve done a lot of the biennales; that’s becoming a hotel now. Even the spaces that are empty serve the Berlin event culture. That all definitely contributed to our being interested in political spaces. We wanted places that were charged in some way. 

AP: And the entire Akademie der Künste building. 

SC: The Akademie der Künste fulfilled those things because it’s a museum and a public institution that just never has exhibitions because it’s perpetually under construction, like Berlin itself. It’s one of the oldest museums in Germany, but the only thing left of it is the one gallery that Simon Fujiwara’s Happy Museum is in. A year after we had booked the Akademie, we found out the galleries were under construction. It worked out perfectly because we got to use all these spaces they use for events, and replicate things like the development of commercial spaces but also this state aesthetic of transparency, of glass and façades, which was a big part of the biennale. All of the other buildings around the Akademie on Pariser Platz are these façades, these face-of-the-nation, flagship places, that you can’t actually access. The only place you can actually access is Starbucks. Even during the last few days before the event, they were having all these corporate events at the building while everyone was working, which was really interesting since a lot of work was reflecting this corporate and political culture manifest in these kind of events. The top floor with Max Pitegoff and Calla Henkel, Jon Rafman, and Jacob Appelbaum and Trevor Paglen, is the Akademie’s main event space. 

David Toro: It’s also where they shot an episode of Homeland. That was supposed to represent the United States Embassy, which is next door. 

AP: With that top floor it was almost like you had to find it. There were a lot of places here, too [at the KW-Institute], where there were rooms inside rooms, installations embedded inside installations. 

SC: It’s part of the experience design for us. At the Akademie, it more so just happens to be the case with all these private spaces. There’s a VIP-feeling in the hierarchy of the building. We liked the idea of giving access to people to places you wouldn’t usually access, into these spaces of unseen power. Here [at KW], the work is more about personal space. We put doors for that reason to divide it so that everything became really separated. We wanted to have many discrete experiences that you are arriving at, with the feeling that what is beyond is not what you would expect it to be. 

AP: Dovetailing with those doors, you’ve done a lot of work with producing objects for the biennale, like previously with DISOWN. There’s fashion pieces with Telfar; there’s the soundtrack, Anthem.

SC: Fashion is really a part of our DNA and we wanted that to play a big role, in a way that became enmeshed into the rest of the exhibition, not something that was just auxiliary. Telfar made all the uniforms for the guards, he did the “merch”, there’s also this retrospective of ten years of his white T-shirts. That really reflects the loosely collaborative nature of the biennale, because Babak Radboy, who also did the entire visual communication of the biennale, worked on the Telfar campaign and Frank Benson made the mannequins. The other project is that Yngve Holen made evil-eye contact lenses that reference the evil eyes in his installation at the Feuerle Collection. There’s other people who did things we’re not selling, like M/L Space made bed sheets are a retrospective of their shows. 

AP: You’ve talked about countries acting as brands in the show, and you have artists from Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, in a biennale that originally about artists from or working in Berlin. What do you mean by “countries as brands” in this context? 

SC: We don’t even know necessarily where people live. For us, it’s more Internet-based. Like CUSS Group, which is a collective from Johannesburg: we know them from online. Many people we’ve worked with in the past but personally didn’t know, and a lot of those artists are playing with these references to nationality and the state’s relevance within culture. CUSS Group wanted to invert the relationship that European cultural foundations have in Johannesburg, like Goethe Institut. It’s sort of this colonial situation. So they wanted to create a cultural foundation for South African artists in Berlin. Or the collective GCC: all of their work is about how power manifests itself aesthetically as these often illogical cultural rituals of states in the Middle East. We’re doing this as a state-sponsored event, so it’s about a kind of tourism and the image of the country. That’s something we wanted to play with in the marketing and the visuals and campaigns we did, which we worked with Babak Radboy on. All these people who are “Not in the Biennale” are sort of exploited in this skin, which is an ad campaign for the biennale which will be on billboards in Berlin. 

One of the influential things for the biennial for us was thinking about the lifestyle that actually came about at a certain point after the 1980s, like how Bill Clinton was the first president to use focus groups. Using marketing mechanisms in politics is something that has accelerated since then. Everything going on in the U.S. was influencing us. 

AP: Right, you guys had an endorsement. 

DT: We did that. 

SC: We endorsed Bernie. People were really surprised that we did that. 

AP: I don’t know that I would say “surprised”… 

SC: For us, it was the New York election, and New York is our place. 

DT: I don’t know if that would have happened if we were living in New York at the moment. But when you’re far away things seem different seeing it from the outside. From over here, it seems really out of our control. Like, what is happening? 

SC: The Simon Fujiwara piece actually is really about that. He’s been working with Angela Merkel’s makeup artist for years. He makes these paintings with tiny pieces of her face, with her HD makeup. Today, we actually did a tour with the German minister of culture and she loved that room. We really wanted Angela to come and do a tour…

AP: I can only imagine. A tour with Angela Merkel and DIS…

DT: That photo-op would be amazing.

Alexandra Pechman Visionaire

31 May 2016

DIS :: 500 Words on Curating the Berlin Biennale

DIS are a collective whose activities flirt across many spheres of contemporary culture —art, fashion, publishing, and now curating, in which their first major outing is the ninth edition of the Berlin Biennale, “The Present in Drag.” The show opens on June 4 in various venues across the city and runs through September 18, 2016. Here the members of DIS discuss their new curatorial role, the process of putting together the exhibition, and a few projects one can expect to see.

THIS IS OUR FIRST AND ONLY BIENNIAL, and in a sense it is a materialization of concepts, themes, and aesthetic interests embedded in the last six years of the DIS magazine website. This biennial is not a DIS piece, but we think that the way to approach it is not dissimilar to the way you might approach our site—it’s a hyperlinked landscape in which artists have set about restructuring and twisting existing narratives in response to the contradictory nature of the present, and the unstoppable digital influence on the way we think and feel. It is grounded in the idea that you exist online, but your ass still hurts and grinds. The biennial artists probe how layered, conflicting ideologies manifest in society, where even one product, image, or work of art inhabits self-contradictory positions. In the context of the Berlin Biennale, it becomes very clear how even something as basic as juice can also embody the uncertainties of the moment. Mexican artist Débora Delmar’s geopolitical juice bar, named after emerging global economies—Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, Turkey—links green juice to labor, economic shifts, aspirational lifestyle, celebrity culture, wellness, greenwashing, eco- confusion, and environmental degradation.

One of our favorite projects for the biennial is an album of anthems produced by Ashland Mines, aka TOTAL FREEDOM, and published as twelve-inch records by Vinyl Factory. We liked the idea of a biennial you couldn’t get out of your head, and that had a component that could spread as a dispersed, viral extension of the show. Each song is a collaboration between artists and musicians: Kelela with Adrian Piper and Elysia Crampton, TOTAL FREEDOM and Isa Genzken, Fatima Al Qadiri and Juliana Huxtable with Hito Steyerl. Babak Radboy’s visual and textual communication strategy for the biennial itself includes an array of participants like Chris Kraus, Roe Ethridge, and Bjarne Melgaard, who are all in the part of the biennial called Not in the Berlin Biennale. They are not in the show but simply in front of it as a skin, the largest organ of all. Our idea of the body of the Berlin Biennale is about the relationship between its physical or social existence, and its online presence and outward communication. Who we are and what we project, our drag, our self as content—these are at once blurry and distinctly separate categories. Artists play with this performance and construction of personal identity, and we thought it was interesting to consider this in terms of a biennial, an entity swarmed by state and market, art and commerce.

When we got to Berlin and had to choose venues to use, we looked through all the venues that have been used for the Berlin Biennale since its first iteration, in 1998, and one by one we were told, “Now that’s a spa, that’s a hotel, that’s a gym, that’s a bank.” Every abandoned building here is available for event rentals—this had a profound influence on our relationship to the spaces we looked at, and ultimately to the themes and work in the show. In all of the venues, there’s a dichotomy between the hyperpersonal and the globally complex, from privatized public spaces, like the ESMT, a business school housed in the former and perfectly intact GDR State Council Building—which will host projects by GCC, Simon Denny, and Katja Novitskova, all of whose work addresses capitalist business, state ideology, and their aesthetic manifestations—to the residential. The KW Institute, for example, is in Mitte, a neighborhood of permalancers and Airbnb. It’s a domain that was once circumscribed as personal and residential and is now a gray zone of public/private profit.

We were drawn to the aesthetics of transparency and glass facades, with their blatant visual similarity to airports and shopping malls, because of the paradox of transparency as architecture or ethic. This feeling of private spaces with public faces has been really important—our central venue, Akademie der Kunste in Pariser Platz, is surrounded by the US, French, and British embassies, the DZ and Commerz banks, and Lockheed Martin, among other buildings. But the Akademie and the Starbucks are the only two buildings the public is able to enter around there, which is a hard-core tourist zone. The biennial will be infiltrating the Akademie’s passageways and event rooms. These glass spaces emulate the surrounding corporate buildings, and they are actually rented out regularly for corporate and government events. We’re trying to make people forget they’re in a biennial—most of the installations there don’t initially connote art and many have adopted commercial formats. For instance, Christopher Kulendran Thomas has created an experience suite for his start-up New Eelam, which imagines the future of citizenship in an age of technologically accelerated dislocation by charting an alternative trajectory for Sri Lanka’s recent history. Trevor Paglen and Jacob Appelbaum’s Autonomy Cube is a usable sculpture that turns the space where it is installed into an open wireless Tor network, an anonymous relay router for Internet traffic, revealing the usually invisible mechanisms behind digital surveillance and how they can be eschewed. It’s especially relevant because this piece is directly across the street from the French embassy, at a moment when TOR has been particularly contentious in France.

The surreal used to be the domain of the future—but today it more accurately describes the present.

— As told to Paige K. Bradley ArtForum 31 May 2016

2 Jun 2016

åyr :: When Harry Met Sally

Interview with Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Rem Koolhaas

åyr We wanted to have this conversation to revisit an interview that you did together in 1998 for the 1st Berlin Biennale catalogue. Back then you talked about your projects in Berlin at a time when the city was undergoing a dramatic transformation. The interview started with your research from the early 1970s, “The Berlin Wall as Architecture.” In some ways the installation that we are doing for the 9th Berlin Biennale at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art is a response to a number of the ideas you discussed. We want to address the ways in which access, separation, and protection are structured beyond the archetypal architectural element of the wall; we are shifting its classical utilization as a divider and nuancing that legacy by looking at the wall as a technology also providing protection and intimacy. These different ideas about walls seem to follow an evolution from your research in early 1970s to some of your most recent projects in Berlin, such as the Axel Springer Campus. Do you remember what you talked about in the interview for the catalogue in 1998?

It’s one of these cases in which a situation with a theory is by definition better than a situation without a theory.

HANS ULRICH OBRIST The catalogue of the first edition of the Berlin Biennale, which Klaus Biesenbach, Nancy Spector, and I curated, was a subverted city guide. We wanted to have Rem’s view on what was and wasn’t happening in Berlin at the time. Back then you were comparing Berlin to a Chinese city, claiming the master plans had failed and that Berlin had produced too much building volume in too short a time for any sort of traditional sedimentation to occur. Eighteen years later, the obvious question is whether Berlin really has become a Chinese city!

REM KOOLHAAS I would say yes and no. Yes, in the case of the extremely rapid production at Potsdamer Platz. The accumulation and assembly of building volumes results from a situation in which architects barely communicate with one another— because they are all driven by commercial interests. This has lead to similar results almost everywhere. But I have to admit, my opinion about Hans Stimmann, who was Berlin’s Secretary of Planning and subsequently Building Commissioner from 1991 to 2006, has completely changed since then. I no longer think that he frustrated creativity, and I actually think that by being so conservative and intolerant he actually saved the city from a lot of garbage. It’s one of these cases in which a situation with a theory is by definition better than a situation without a theory. Or to put it in other words, to a certain extent a strong and dogmatic regime is better than a free-for-all.

åyr Do you think it is possible to draw a parallel between the Berlin Wall and contemporary digital platforms, both being apparatuses or technologies that intensify communication while creating spatial obstacles?

RK The Wall obviously intensified the meaning of the two sides—by creating a reason to communicate.

åyr Your current project, the Axel Springer Campus, is defined by an absence of walls and an immense atrium running across an area on the property once occupied by the Berlin Wall. Openness and communication are achieved through visual connection but not through separation, not through walls.

RK What you are saying just implies that if you had a wall in an office, people would be desperate to know what the people on the other side are doing, but that is not the case. This is not an ideological situation; this is a post-ideological
situation. Within an office space, walls wouldn’t have the slightest impact on people’s eagerness to communicate.

åyr When we first proposed our project to the 9th Berlin Biennale curatorial team, we started talking about the Wall as an architectural archetype and as something that is part of Berlin’s DNA. In a way, they actually got a bit scared.

RK I think that the art scene is one of the most conservative at this point in time, and the Wall is one of the few elements that everyone agrees should really not have been where it was.

There’s hardly any loyalty to a place in digital culture.

åyr For us, focusing on the element of the Wall was a paradoxical situation, and I’m wondering if it was the same for you in terms of the Axel Springer Campus, even though your client chose the site. In a way, you did choose to work with that context, because you took the Wall’s original path into account when designing the building. Perhaps this was a pragmatic choice.

RK I’m not saying it’s pragmatic. It really just deals with the consequences of deterritorialization.

HUO When we did our interview in 1998 it was just when the Netherlands had commissioned you to build the Dutch Embassy in Berlin, a major public commission. Now you have more private commissions, such as the Axel Springer Campus with its focus on what you call “digital bohemia.” It would be great to hear more about this new subject.

RK Mathias Döpfner, CEO of Axel Springer SE, explicitly requested us to find a way in which the building could be inviting and make the case for the digital elite of what he calls “bohemia.” This is interesting, because there’s hardly any loyalty to a place in digital culture. Place is always shifting. He thought he needed a building that articulated this shift, and that its deliberateness would act as a tool for mobilizing the brightest people from that context.

åyr We see the Springer project as embodying the transformation of Berlin into a kind of European Silicon Valley, a place where there is a strong start-up culture. Is this project trying to address that condition in terms of office design?

RK What I really appreciate about Mathias Döpfner is that although he is totally European, he has steered the company towards the digital, almost without hesitation, which is extremely rare. They are clearly fascinated by Silicon Valley, almost to the point of caricature. Yet they didn’t import Silicon Valley culture wholesale. I think they are really at the forefront of wanting to define a European opposition to the imperialistic dimension of Silicon Valley. Start-up culture is by definition a culture that can invade any environment and feels most at home in buildings that are not new. Our building has a European approach. Informality and domestic pampering are not present in this building at all. In a sense, it’s a Prussian building of the digital era.

åyr The Springer project is one of the very few contemporary projects that tries to deal with the digital, not in purely aesthetic or technological terms but as a “form of life.” There is a strong emphasis on this building as conceived for people who are constantly connected. We’d be interested to hear how this has affected your design. Orientation, communication, experience— all these things are transformed by devices, whereby architecture often seems to stay the same.

RK That issue is totally unconnected to Springer. Maybe it is relevant to a series of projects that started with the Universal Studios headquarters in Los Angeles. We are addressing two questions here: How does a very complex organization function as a whole without suffering from total fragmentation? And how can one address the danger of fragmentation present in any digital office? Today fragmentation is not dependent on physical isolation. For example, in OMA’s recent project for the G-Star Raw Headquarters we created a quite complicated split-level situation. In the end, they told us that the entire company sent 60 percent less emails. For me this is the greatest compliment, but it also points to the greatest potential achievement for architecture now—reintroducing physicality into this endless flow of information, which is not only so incredibly redundant, incredibly irritating, incredibly exhausting but also gives everyone a false sense of real productivity.

åyr So how do you think the administrative or organizational role of architecture has moved onto digital platforms? Is architecture now able to be a bit freer, more liberated? Now that digital platforms have become more mature, one can observe a return of materiality—or, more precisely, the possibility of a return of the wall, but a wall which is friendlier, stripped for some of its modernist violence. In the 1990s architecture was dominated by parametric dreams and the rhetoric of openness, unpredictability, and newness. All of a sudden we don’t want this so much anymore. There is a greater interest in small rooms, a booth, a nook— more legibility, more intimacy, another materiality. This is the genealogy we are showing—from “The Berlin Wall as Architecture” to the pierced cozy wall of contemporary office design.

Our building has a European approach.

RK It’s not simply that architecture is becoming digital or that we can use the digital to make interesting architecture. The digital world is a world of totally different adventures, of conceptual, mental spaces. So maybe architecture can focus on exactly what you’re describing—physical and material experiences and the various emotions generated or offered by those experiences and not available in cyberspace.

åyr We are skeptical of chaos as a means of creating the unexpected—and causing people to shop more, talk more, and communicate more. We would speculate that maybe now we have enough solicitation coming from our devices, and therefore what is somehow desired are quiet spaces. I was just reading this morning on Facebook that most video adverts on Facebook are played without sound. This is a new approach that could be applied to architecture. Not to the degree of Peter Zumthor though ... [Laughs]

We guess this comes from a certain frustration of our generation, which has grown up in the architectural discourse of the mid-nineties and the early two-thousands, when the canonical architectural values of institutions and collective spaces were guided by the intention to smooth boundaries, open up, and enhance communication and visibility.

RK Well, larger obstacles keep arising, of which security is one. This presents some very serious contradictions: the aesthetic of continuity and the security- thinking of enclosure and protection.

HUO I have one last question: In our conversation in 1998 you said that Berlin was very scary in the way its modernism was performing an exorcism on the city. So, is Berlin still scary eighteen years later?

RK I’m surprisingly indifferent to it. I’m not outraged by it.

åyr What about your own relation to technology. Do you have daily experiences with Uber, Airbnb, these kinds of things. In terms of your identity, is this part of your experience?

RK Not really, because I have no real need for it. Well of course in terms of getting tickets, in terms of making reservations, of course. OK, next question.

åyr On a more general level, what is your relationship to contemporary art? Are you interested in it?

RK Your question is really crazy. Why are you asking this? This is just gossip: But anyway, I think your projects are really interesting, but as I said earlier, I feel more like a participant than a subject.

This conversation is the edited and condensed version of two conversations between Rem Koolhaas, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and the members of åyr on February 12, 2016, at the OMA offices in Rotterdam and on February 21, 2016, at the Ambassade Hotel in Amsterdam. åyr (formerly AIRBNB-Pavilion) is an art collective based in London whose work focuses on contemporary forms of domesticity.

åyr was founded in 2014 by Fabrizio Ballabio, Alessandro Bava, Luis Ortega Govela, and Octave Perrault. The collective was formed in occasion of an exhibition inaugurated during the opening days of the 14th International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, which took place in apartments rented on a flat sharing website. Through performances, installations, and writing, åyr investigates the relationship between objects and their environments and the effects of the internet on the city. åyr is not connected to or endorsed by Airbnb, Inc. or any other Airbnb group, company, or affiliate.

REM KOOLHAAS founded OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture) in 1975 together with Elia and Zoe Zenghelis, and Madelon Vriesendorp. He graduated from the Architectural Association in London and in 1978 published Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan. In 1995 his book S,M,L,XL summarized the work of OMA in “a novel about architecture.” He heads the work of both OMA and AMO, the research branch of OMA, operating in areas beyond the realm of architecture such as media, politics, renewable energy, and fashion. Koolhaas is a professor at Harvard University where he conducts the Project on the City. In 2014, he was the director of the 14th International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, entitled Fundamentals.

HANS ULRICH OBRIST (born 1968) is a curator, critic, and art historian. He is Codirector of Exhibitions and Programs and Director of International Projects at the Serpentine Gallery, London. Obrist is the author of The Interview Project, an extensive ongoing series of interviews. He is also coeditor of the Cahiers d’art revue.

17 Nov 2016


GCC’s latest solo show Positive Pathways (+) at Mitchell-Innes and Nash features mixed media installations, thermoformed wall reliefs, and sound works. The show is an elaborate tongue-in- cheek reflection of the Arab Gulf States’ recent investment in New Age spirituality trends, from personal holistic remedies, natural healing energies, and positive life-coaching, to governmental policy making such as implementing Feng Shui techniques in ministry offices and the UAE’s recent forming of a Ministry of Happiness. The regional unrest of the Arab Spring barely scratched the surface of the oil-rich Arab Gulf countries, not withstanding the political protests in Bahrain. Yet, it has curiously manifested into vast resources being funneled into self-branding and positivity propaganda—seemingly at odds with the cultural and religious frameworks of the region.

GCC’s members (or delegates*, as they call themselves) grew up in the Arab Gulf countries (namely Kuwait and Bahrain) but navigate highly mobile itineraries that can be followed through their social media accounts. They formed as a collective in 2013 during a visit to Art Dubai’s VIP lounge. In their recent talk at Anthology Film Archives, the group mentioned that becoming a collective was almost happenstance: border control personnel in Dubai had asked them if they were traveling together as a band. Rarely together in the same place, their creative process takes place largely through mobile applications such as Whatsapp.

The acronym GCC loosely references the Gulf Cooperation Council, an intergovernmental union that binds together the Arab Gulf States. According to the group, it also provides them with a layer of opacity. In an interview with Christopher Y. Lew, who in 2014 curated their first US show Achievements in Retrospective at MoMA PS1, they suggested that GCC could mean anything, such as “Glendale Community College or Grupos Cementos de Chihuahua. It gives us a bit of a shield so that we are not just referencing political bodies.”

One of the works of Positive Pathways (+) revisits an installation shown earlier this summer at the Berlin Biennale. Titled Positive Pathways (+) (Version II), it features a plaster sculpture of a woman (wearing a hijab and typical hijab attire) performing a Quantum Touch exercise—a non- contact touch therapy —on a young boy in front of her. They are surrounded by sand, and a running track, a reference to the designated walking areas for exercise common in some Arab Gulf countries. As alternative healing methods such as Quantum Touch and Reiki gain popularity in the Middle East, they have been coopted into everyday life, practiced and endorsed by everyone from government officials to dilettante practitioners and housewives on Instagram.

The exhibition features a number of thermoformed wall reliefs titled Gestures (I-V) that are covered with a brazen red, velvety surface. The complex industrial process of thermoforming plastic is eclipsed by the banality of the images on the reliefs. TV presenters, audiences and random hand gestures, based on stills from YouTube, are placed against different backdrops including columns, plant pots, and dissonant phrases in Arabic and English. For example, Gestures I presents us with an image of a man wearing traditional headgear set against a backdrop of Grecian looking columns, partially covered in what seems to be algae. With a microphone in one hand, he holds out his thumb, index and middle fingers towards us. The English text asks, “what is the secret behind it?” The Arabic reads: “the consultant Salim Hadeed.”

In Gestures V, an obsession with social media celebrities, TV and Twitter clerics, foreign brands, and lifestyles is perfectly distilled in its contradictory relation with conservative identity politics. Seated women and men look up towards the ceiling. The women are in traditional clothing—hijabs and abayas—while the men seem to have more options: some are in suits, others in dishdashas. Despite the sartorial differences, they appear to be uniformly hypnotized.

GCC’s work seeks to bring the invisible and under-recognized popular culture of the region into conversation with contemporary art practices and discourse. The group often finds inspiration in found footage from YouTube made for branding purposes, content particularly fixed toward Gulf nation-making that in recent years has been premised increasingly on what could be called the tyranny of cheerfulness. The intentional opaqueness and playful ambivalence of the collective’s name are qualities that extend throughout their work. For example, one of their previous exhibitions, Achievements in Swiss Summit, 2013, focused on rituals and cultural trends that are immediately identifiable to an audience from the Arab Gulf, such as ribbon cutting ceremonies and trophy productions. GCC is quick to point out, however, that the fanfare of self-congratulatory ceremonies are neither imported nor local. They combine stock imagery made for global commercial campaigns; recreate official summits and ceremonies (with some members in drag) in Morschach, Switzerland; and make actual trophies for the exhibition with the typical language (in Arabic) found on these commonly seen and distributed awards. What remains largely unseen—and what GCC effectively presents—is a critical reflection of the rituals, trends, and luxury brands that are subject to hyper-consumption in the region.

It is often rather hard to make out the difference between the sardonic undertones of GCC’s own work and the frequently hyperbolic found material that serves as their point of departure. It is exactly that moment of misrecognition in which I find GCC’s work at its strongest: as they call the Gulf region’s ideological regimes into question, without ever posing a question or even attempting to unpack the work for any audience, native or otherwise. As I walk away from the show I find myself wondering whether this is the Middle East that I know and inhabit, or some dystopian version of it? I cannot tell.

GCC’s Positive Pathways (+) is currently on display at Mitchell-Innes and Nash, 534 West 26th Street, New York, through November 23, 2016

HEND F. ALAWADHI Artslant 17 November 2016