Berlin Biennale 2016: last goodbye to the prematurely dead post-internet label

Piero Bisello

It was two years of scepticism about Berlin Biennale 2016, or at least since the announcement that collective DIS would curate it. Their reputation as shallow fashionistas didn’t leave room for doubt to the contemporary art apologists. What a surprise seeing the same scepticism amazingly fading away the very moment when commentators stepped inside the Akademie der Kunst. By the time all the other venues were crossed off the “to-visit” list, this “DIStrust” had turned into deep admiration, or at least to scaling down the forecasted disappointment. Regardless of what we thought Berlin Biennale 2016 would be, we can now claim it is for us a milestone in art history, whether by that history we mean the last centuries, the last years, the last days, the last hours, the last fashion seasons.

The show in its entirety does a number of things. It gives the last goodbye to the prematurely dead post-internet label, which won’t be missed; it sanctions video installation and digital art as the quintessentially contemporary mediums; it delivers a political message that differs deeply from the one most theorists would expect.

It is finally confirmed: post-post-internet is more interesting than post-internet. Timur Si-Qin’s installation “A Reflected Landscape” is conceptually more focus than his previous work and its too generic aim. Mix of artificial and real plants, this indoor garden at ADK includes a monitor in which the organisms look at themselves. A camera is installed in the garden and sends the images to the monitor, creating a mirror effect. The symbolism is clear, pointing to the very current topic of emancipation of life on earth beside that of humans.

Post internet often meant lack of tales in the artworks, and the case of Yngve Holen’s “Evil Eyes” shows how artists seized the occasion of the Berlin Biennale to change that. Notorious for his use and misuse of industrial design, Holen’s new pieces instead start from mysticism and historical motif. The work centres around nazars, talismans protecting from the gaze of the devil that went from spiritual props in millennia-old cults to tourist souvenirs. Holen transforms these pupil-looking glass objects into aircraft portholes, proposing one of the most bizarre semantic twists of the entire show.

Jon Rafman’s “ethnographic” exploration of the dark and utmost hidden corners of the web is put on hold to give space to what might sound like a contradiction: a site specific virtual reality experience. After a (long) wait, the viewer can look at the history laden site of the Brandenburg port and Pariser Platz from the balcony of the ADK and through Rafman’s imagination. A true psychedelic trip, “View of Pariser Platz” appropriates the city iconic places to suggest that the collapsed division between virtual and physical is now involving both the way we regard historical events and our definition of what historical events are.

A champion in making physical structures for the viewer to engage with HD video in galleries, Rafman might have been the inspiration for many artists of the Berlin Biennale that have used the same strategy. Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch’s videos, which go by the umbrella name of “untitled work in progress”, are not only a very solid exercise in contemporary cinematography and use of English (perhaps the literary quality of the artists’ semi-improvised scripts remains their greatest achievement), it is also a physical space designed in the form of a bar and a series of bunk beds.

Speaking of beds, a giant one, covered with custom made textiles, is where one is asked to lay down to enjoy the socially-grounded video work of collective M/L Artspace. Artist Will Benedict instead uses an office and desk in the building of ADK as a found site for the viewer to experience a Wolf Eyes music video. Titled “I AM A PROBLEM”, the piece follows an alien coming to earth, attracted by a broken Tour Eiffel, being interviewed in a TV talk show and bearing the status of illegal. The link with present issues of migration comes quite naturally.

As mentioned, the preferred medium across the exhibitions was HD video. The special attention to the moving image is consolidated by a large show of video pieces from the collection of Julia Stoschek, who took the occasion of the Biennial to land in Berlin after years of activity in Dusseldorf. In this exhibition titled Welt Am Draht, our pick is one of the structures/sculptures Neil Beloufa made for his films. The spectators have to come two at the time into a strangely shaped ring, decorated with references to primitivism and with cigarettes as control knobs. An extra screen records them watching the films and shows their reactions to the visitors outside the structure.

Same care for displays continued at Kunst-Werke, the other major venue of the Biennale. Wu Tsang’s last short film “Duilian” is shown in a very effective space. The video features the story of Qiu Jin, a martial art passionate sometimes mentioned as the Joan d’Arc of China. The plot alternates her love story with a female calligrapher with rites of initiation of an undefinable community. Inspired by Kung Fu, the dance scenes break into the exhibition space via a circular “paravent” for the spectator to sit or even to hide, which recalls the aesthetic of what we see in the projection.

Cecile B. Evans and Hito Steyerl also made sure their new video work would act concretely in the physical space: along with the projections, they both installed sculptures and used the room to strengthen their films. Evans’ “What The Heart Wants” screening is surrounded by water, which is a recurrent image in the film; Steyerl’s “ExtraSpaceCraft” is presented along with space suits. They belong to the fictional space agency featured in her video, which deals with drone training in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Can it be said that all these videos would be digital works if it wasn’t for their sophisticated environments? If so, a distinction should be still made between them and what we above called digital art. Digital art is not digital because made with the help of computers. In this sense, a projected CGI animation is as digital as an Instagram performance. Rather, the difference lays in our very relationship with the moment of viewing these works, where digital often means what is best seen in private, with the sole company of our computers/phones. We felt the curators were well aware of this difference and framed an entire section of this Biennale as an online only exhibition.

Some of the most interesting artworks are actually in this section. Our favourite is the last series of New Scenario, a project initiated in 2015 by artists Tilman Hornig and Paul Barsch. Their curatorial approach is to produce high resolution images of artworks in unusual contexts. From a Jurassic jungle to a limousine, all their set ups have tried to challenge conventions of how artworks are presented. For the Berlin Biennale 2016, they gave themselves the difficult and physically demanding task of transforming body holes into exhibition spaces. Anuses, belly buttons, vaginas, penises, nostrils, ears: they all become galleries spaces to present contributions from 44 artists via the sleekest close-up images.

Berlin Biennale 2016 is filled with this kind of noisy and apparently shallow gestures. Funny enough, the whole section of digital art is called “Fear Of Content”. It is not hard to guess that this curatorial attitude is exactly what prompted a series of negative opinions about DIS. Tess Edmonson, writing on Art Agenda, rightly claims that DIS’ work is misunderstood as politically neutral. She later concludes that “the biennial articulates the sense that disengaging from networks of capital […] is neither effective nor interesting nor possible”.

It is hard not to hear the negative undertone of this conclusion. DIS and many of the artists they sponsor are disliked because they engage too much in the present and dominant economic model, because they might even regard it with admiration.

Taking the multimedia installation “New Eelam” by Christopher Kulendran Thomas for example, in which the artist presented the story of how the economic liberalisation that happened in Sri Lanka after the civil war led to new models for citizenship and political identity, can hardly be seen as critical of the process of the usually hated globalisation. In the artwork, Eelam (Sri Lanka) is the failed state, whereas the New Eelam takes the shape of a large utopian company that manages to take care of its citizens (employees) in a more functional way.

If Kulendran Thomas links this fictional startup to real examples of companies such as Amazon, Simon Denny’s new work called “Blockchain Visionaries” starts from real businesses that are trying to implement political change through technology. Consisting of three large promotional booths, Denny presents three companies working with the blockchain, the electronic ledger behind BitCoin that through its system of cryptographic authentications could modify how trust among humans works. Spanning money, copyright, exchange of information, block-chain promises to get rid of a centralised systems of control, which in most cases mean large banks and nation states. Besides the amazingly crafted “sculpted” booths, Denny’s artistic contribution differs from a mere commercial only by two interventions: the first are custom designed postage stamps, embedded in the company communication just to symbolise that this state-based system of circulation is what needs to be surpassed. The second is the simple yet highly significative choice of placing the booths in the former State Council building of East Germany, now turned into a business school. Similarly to what the artist did for the New Zealand pavilion in the last Venice Biennale, his pieces meaningfully communicate with the existing artworks present in the space: old master paintings from renaissance modernity in Venice, a metal mural from the Socialist Realism era in Berlin. In this latter case, what we see is technology’s promise for a better future speaking as loudly as decades-old ideologies.

Next to Denny’s installation, GCC’s work “Positive Pathways (+)” features a running track and the statue of a woman dressed in typical gulf state clothes, reaching for a standing child. As the catalogue explains, the track was chosen to symbolise the self improvement ideology common in business schools, while the woman is performing the act of channelling positive energy to a young boy. The red line crossing all the works of GCC is the investigation into the changing spirituality and moral values in the Gulf State countries. Previous pieces as well as “Positive Pathways (+)” never give away much of the artists’ political position. Neither a praise nor a critique, the installation rather illustrated how Western economical models can be powerful enough to challenge even the strongest religious identity.

Critics accusing DIS and their artists of political naivety because of their “compliance” with the dominant economical systems, seem to ignore that the political spectrum is wider and more complicated than they wish. For example, issues such as the role of the state in our life, imposed citizenship and identity can be easily addressed through an apology of capital. Or at least by putting aside the orthodox and by now slightly reactionary political theories formulated decades ago. Perhaps afraid of breaking taboos of the art world intelligentsia, DIS and some of the artists of this Berlin Biennale can be sometimes accused to hide behind a way too aesthetic language. Except realising this might be a conscious political choice that suits perfectly their “cool” agenda.

September 29, 2017