9th Berlin Biennial
The Present in Drag
Curated by DIS Magazine
KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin Germany
June 3 - September 18, 2016
Taking place in Berlin this summer is The Present in Drag, the city’s ninth biennial (BB9), this year curated by New York’s DIS Magazine. While the exhibition takes place in the German capital, its sense of place in general, and its connection to Berlin specifically, is acutely decentralized. Favored instead within the schema of the exhibition is our shared, palpably contemporary moment, and its accompanying feelings of tension and at times regrettable complicity with the realities of the present day, with which we are silently all too familiar. The exhibition’s title, with its reference to the opulent performativity of drag culture, points to a masking of an unappealing social and cultural underbelly. What the works in this show lay bare are precisely the fragility, imperfections, contradictions and flaws of personal identity. DIS is a collective whose own aesthetic is known to be surface-centric, commercial, or almost too polished and free of defect; yet their work, and their biennial, is a discussion of the overbearing corporatization of contemporary life, as it is tethered perhaps more now than ever before to larger, technological systems and capitalistic networks. This effort is also a discussion of an inherent effect of this corporate digital age: a crippling and devaluation of the body, of physicality altogether, of interpersonal relationships, of love, compassion, and pain—the realization of which reveals and intensifies a particular brand of shame and regret.
DIS is best known as an online magazine that covers all aspects of culture, contemporary art being only one relatively small section; while their overall project is a curatorial one, the core, founding members that make up DIS are, in the end, artists -- not curators -- and their Biennial reflects the global conditions within which they operate as such. In that sense, The Present in Drag does not represent a macro-perspective on what it means to be an artist or even a citizen in 2016 Berlin, or anywhere else in the world. It does not reflect the ideals or interests of an expansive or highly diversified cultural avant-garde. It is, genuinely, the point of view of four unique collaborators who have grown together as artists and as friends, and whose work is not fundamentally driven by contemporary art itself.
Following the closeness among these tight-knit collaborators, the show brings together many artists with whom DIS has worked before. The proximity of their works to one another, however, in most respects feels neither natural nor familiar as one might expect. Behind every door of the four main venues of BB9, the only predictability in the sculpture, photography, video, new media and installation works encountered is that each one looks and behaves rather unexpectedly. Perhaps this has to do in part with the fact that most of the exhibition is comprised of new artist commissions. Among these original works is an enchanting video installation by Belgian-American artist, Cecile B. Evans, titled, What the Heart Wants (2016). Situated in the basement of the Kunst Werke museum, the Biennial's main venue, Evans' large, central projection is surrounded on all sides by shallow pools of dark water. At first glance, What the Heart Wants appears to mirror DIS' familiar aesthetic and conceptual framework, as the video opens with an image of a dark-haired female avatar with a blurred face, while her neutral, automated voice-over begins to slowly say introduce the scene with the hypnotic phrase, "This is a system..." One general narrative engaged here is that of the all too common gripe that humanity has altogether been replaced with building increments of digital information via data servers and virtual bodies. Indeed, the curatorial statement accompanying The Present in Drag references this ominous, futuristic vision, in which DIS postulates an inevitable collapse of the present into the future, fueled by society's, "persistent commitment to a set of fictions." Accordingly, they go on to claim that, "there is nothing particularly realistic about the world today." Despite the over-hashing this view of our contemporary condition , as Evans' video progresses, the narrative takes on an unsuspecting intimacy; at its core the story is about love, longing, loss and the desolation of war. Through the odd journeys that the audience takes with Evans' virtual characters humanity does seem to prevail, focusing not on the beauty or ease of newly rendered environments, but instead on our human need to be needed -- even in future realities that cast out things that we once considered essential to our very being, such as ears, for example.
Evans’ installation steeps viewers in a vast dark cave-like space that glows with the light of bright blues and pinks; further along, a short, sterile, brightly lit hallway brings us toward a door, behind which is a intimate but utilitarian, cement-walled room, its floor is piled high with chunky, grey cat litter. A single white bench is wedged into this “sand,” facing a video projection of Crying Games (2015), a work by Josh Kline that features images of George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice, Dick Chaney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Tony Blair, each sobbing, wearing stereotypical prison jumpsuits. They repeat, through stammered, blubbering gasps for air, “I’m sorry… I’m so sorry… All those people… What kind of person am I?” Their skiddish, twitching faces are partially composed of real footage and superimposed with features generated using face modeling software, creating a sort of warbling digital mask. These faces are hard to look at, hard to visually process and to stay focused on, but the politicians’ voices sound all too real, and intensely full of heartache. Again, this is a flood of seemingly “real” emotion at play in BB9, observable as it pours through works that might otherwise be understood as cold, flat, products of impersonal technologies of the very corporate, governmental, and social systems that they claim to critique.
In stark contrast to Kline's and Evans' emotive works, just upstairs from the lower enclaves in which they are exhibited, is the entrance desk to the rest of the exhibition space at KW, where visitors wait in line to buy their tickets as video art-cum-advertisements play silently above their heads. These works, produced by DIS and art directed by Babk Radboy, are part of "Not in the Berlin Biennial," a sector of the exhibition that serves as the jurisdiction for all of its original promotional and campaign imagery. Here, DIS -- in their typically DISassociative fashion, use the collective's own terms -- harnessing the impersonal superfice of commercial video that features uncannily friendly faces, gazing both deeply and blankly into thin, clear plastic tablets.
A door to the let of the entrance desk leads directly into a room outfitted as a black box, with curved corners that make ideal spots for idle leaning, cuddling or curling up to watch, The Army of Love, a video work by Ingo Niermann and Alexa Karolinski. Shot in a Berlin spa, this work goes against the concept of drag, or perhaps it takes up the undressing aspect of the drag/performance ritual. Army of Love reveals our physical, emotional and psychological differences, laying them completely bare. Inside a dimly lit indoor pool area, a mix of "real" people and actors engage in sexual and affectionate acts that are in fact exercises in tenderness, carried out by a proposed militia of lovers of all ages, body types and physical abilities. The Army of Love, which references a philosophical text of the same title, is thus formed to combat the lack of compassion, romance, sensuality and respect in a world in which love, like most other values, has been caricatured, commoditized and hijacked by a mindset of domination and violence. The video features performers using wheelchairs and other assisted mobility devices along with sex surrogates, engaging in sensual and intimate encounters, again exemplifying ways that BB9 taps into an underlying theme that deals not with the veneer of perfection, with which millennial and post-digital artists have come to be associated, but instead with notions of beauty and achievement that transcend able-bodied, commercially acceptable norms.
The emotionally-driven works exhibited within the KW, which is located in the increasingly family-chic neighborhood of Berlin's, Mitte, find more analytical counterpoints at the Akademie der Kunst in Pariser Platz, another major BB9 venue, where artists explore an expanded field of digital and consumer/prosumer culture, branding and marketing lingo, virtual and augmented reality, gaming, product design and tourism. This site is adjacent to where both the French and American Embassies are housed, and is situated within a hub of sorts in Berlin's "government district." In turn, the works on view at the Akademie appropriately look to our prevalent political and corporate systems and the cultural and communicative strategies that emerge to create and maintain autonomy within them. Exhibited here are works spanning several disciplines by artists whose practices are far-ranging despite their shared content interests, such as, Simon Fujiwara, Christopher Kulendran Thomas and Trevor Paglen, who collaborated for the first time with security researcher, Jacob Appelbaum, to create Autonomy Cube (2015), a useable sculpture that turns the room in which it is installed into a secure wireless hotspot where visitors can surf anonymously. These more didactic works on view at Akademie engage with BB9's drag theme more closely, in that they interrogate the outward-facing scaffolds of global consumer life, which attempts to appear as interpersonal and individualistic as possible in order to seem relatable to singular consumers on a one-to-one basis, even though they are in fact built out of mass corporations that consist of just the opposite.
This portion of the exhibition includes work by Anna Uddenburg, whose Journey of Self Discovery (2016), a sculpture of a female figure using a selfie stick to photograph her thong-clad ass, may have been the most photographed and "virally" re-posted work in the show. This was not the only one of Uddenberg's works on view, others littered the various floors of the Akademie, where her twisted and corporally self-reflexive sculptures engaged what the exhibition text calls, "the feedback loop of consumer culture," not to mention the body politics and performance that it inspires. Jon Rafman's View of Pariser Platz (2016) created an experiential Occulus Rift mindfuck on a terrace overlooking the square below, complete with accompanying L'Avalee des Avales (2016), a set of colorful sculptures of wild animals swallowing one another -- a somewhat direct depiction of consumption. In two adjoining, curated rooms nearby, were video and interior decor installations by Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch, which, per the duo's usual M.O., confuse viewers by sucking them into an alien world that, nonetheless, feels poiniently superimposed onto the familiar, not, in fact, all that unlike the disorienting effects of Occulus Rift itself.
Unlike so many biennials, The Present in Drag does not tell a theoretical or moralizing story about what has been happening lately in contemporary art, culture or politics. It is not quite a cautionary tale of what is to come either. Instead, its stance is far more experiential, and insomuch, surprisingly, rather personal. Positioning itself squarely within the hypocritical, dichromatic and blurred reality that is the predicament of contemporary moment, BB9 aims not to be definitive, reveling in pluralities, paradoxes and cultural oxymorons. This exhibition thus forces us to confront the fact that, when it comes to the ethical issues we often take with cultural and corporatized production and economics, much of our problems could be at least tangentially resolved by relinquishing the hand-held devices and various technologies that have come to fuel the streamlined and imbricated ways in which the privileged-set live and work. BB9 is also suggestive of the more fundamental social problems, which are now dressed up, so to speak, by these technologies and their ever-increasing number of platforms and outlets, that might be revealed to us were we to peel back their overglossed, consumerist disguises.
Other critiques of BB9 have questioned whether or not the works on view in the exhibition, and the ways in which they are juxtaposed and presented as a cohesive set if ideas, are effective enough to convey such pressing concerns. Does this show adequately problematize the cycles and corruptions of capital and information, from which it takes its cues? Certainly it is clear that entering into DIS' context, as they have constructed it here in Berlin in 2016, without any prior knowledge of their work -- its dissimulating humor and transgressive sensibilities -- might pose a significant challenge, the kind that most curators look to diffuse through curatorial, artistic and organizational mediation. However, this kind of insularity is not new to DIS when it comes to exhibition-making, as we can recall the slogan for their 2014 exhibition DISOwn, that proudly read, "Not For Everyone." There are certainly ways to curate a show that will make it pleasing to most, but DIS has instead, intentionally produced a project that speaks to, and about, their own peers. In doing so, though, The Present in Drag successfully calls out the capitalist corruptions of the environment we all inhabit -- and particularly these corruptions' iterations within the supposedly "free" zone of contemporary art, critical theory and academia. In this way, viewers, admittedly many of whom are de facto members of this expanded peer group, are forced to acknowledge their complicity within the very problems and hypocrisies that they might claim to abhor -- ideally, to better address them.
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
January 23 – April 5, 2015
Nate Boyce is known for his hybrid sculpture-video works, which use slick three-dimensional, skeletal structures to support flat screens slathered from edge to edge with opaque, muted colors. The San Francisco-based artist’s recent solo exhibition, Polyscroll pairs abstractionism reminiscent of Willem de Kooning with futuristic forms that mimic the imagined bone and muscle tissues of alien animals of science fiction films or otherworldly video games. These sculptural elements, which appear in both the main gallery of YBCA's upper level gallery, and affixed to the white metal industrial railings along the space’s hallways and staircases, are a clear nod to the late artist and set designer H.R. Giger (of Alien fame)—celebrating a post-apocalyptic aesthetic still resonant within design lexicons of the fetish industry, its jewelry, accessories, and other binding appendages. Unlike Giger’s metallic, dark color palette, however, Boyce’s is cool, with tempered grey-blues, dusky beiges, sallow yellows that recall the dullness of the dentist office waiting rooms, and earthy putty hues. His textural schema is similarly attenuated, projecting a certain flatness that dominates his plastic and fabricated surfaces. As such, Polyscroll is a fitting edition of YBCA assistant curator, Ceci Moss’, ongoing exhibition series, Control: Technology in Culture, exacting a curious discipline upon the typically flashy vernacular of science fiction while reveling in the performative, if subtle, nuances found in the metal- and leather-clad sub-cultures of BDSM.
Coupled with the slow, methodical pace of the exhibition, these works indoctrinate viewers with a hypnotic rhythm, broadcast through the large-format flat screens hung vertically on the walls that play Boyce’s digital paintings, which constantly scroll upwards. This “scrolling” is about more than what is implied in the exhibition’s title. Continuous input—linguistic, visual, or otherwise—moving gradually upward, originating as if from nowhere at the bottom of a frame and disappearing into its summit, ad infinitum, is now an essential part of our mode of processing information. We scroll through practically everything of substance in our lives; most things of importance are in one way or another visually captured and essentialized to be encapsulated within a framework that fits comfortably within our hands, or rests buoyantly atop our laps. Boyce has taken that endless upward motion and filled it not with the names, dates, keywords, or images through which one would normally scroll, but instead with dense smears of color, free-flowing lines, and CGI-rendered 3D objects resembling hooks, bones, and masks, all smashed flush against the flatness of the ever-present screen.
In addition to Boyce’s videos, in which jagged, decorative sculptural elements jut up against an unabashedly painterly approach to colors and lines, Polyscroll presents several free standing sculptures, whose flatness and plasticity mirror the qualities of his digital imagery. The off-kilter, geometric bases for these sculptures look like they were sourced from a medical supply discount store; shiny, metal configurations sit precariously atop them, recalling the bondage-inspired adornments that creep out of Boyce’s plushy video paintings.
Boyce’s swirling and morphing colors and shapes bolster the mesmerizing, cyclical atmosphere manifested within this exhibition, connoting yet another way Boyce comments on the omnipresence of scrolling motions. Swiping our fingers across our touchscreens is an embodiment of our cycling and recycling through referents. By interjecting into this repetition – and thus imposing the biological onto the digital, matte onto gloss, stasis onto devices of endless motion – Boyce creates inexplicable, often intriguing transmutations.
Curated by Ceci Moss
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
November 7, 2015 - February 16, 2016
Sorting, sitting, answering, filing, calling, typing and clicking are all actions common to the everyday routine of the average employee in the conventional workplace. These are interchangeable cycles of motions and behavior that are so familiar, even to those of us who don’t punch a clock at a typical day job, that they represent a whole, significant percentage of a certain type of person who time is regulated and quantified by a certain, rather dull and repetitive, type of environment. Office Space, with 25 artists whose dates of birth range the 50 years between 1938 – 1988, not only emulates some of the imagery, tools and architecture of such mind-numbing environments, it brings works of such a corporate, formal nature into the white cube as a way to call into question the current and ongoing transitions taking place within this widely populated realm. The works on view visually emblematize the kinds of key phrases oft-associated with the standard workplace, like “productivity” “efficiency” “speed” “organization” and the like.
By positing artworks with this type of demeanor into the framework of an art institution -- a place where people come to look at objects that embody no “real life” function to speak of -- the exhibition questions the indoctrination of “the grind” lifestyle. Furthermore, as one moves through the show, finding more and more familiar components of “work life” incorporated into works of art, the glaring reality that work has become more and more embedded into the even the private lives of many adults is increasingly palpable. It is clear that these now intensified levels of connectedness to employers, colleagues and work related information on an unending basis, is at least in part the result of the previously unthinkably intimate relationships we currently engage in with our multiple, mobile, technological devices.
In Office Space we see the familiar tropes of typical office life at play in all of the works on view, but at closer inspection each work reveals itself to have slightly reconfigured or eschewed such symbols, turning the logic of the hum-drum daily routine on its head. There are large, potted ferns (Mark Benson’s scrunched plant installation Open Fields (2015)); small, cluttered desks (Sean Raspet’s three part installation that includes Folder (A Novel) (2010) that utilizes basic manila folders and his own work-related e-mail print-outs, 2Registration:LUntz’tled (Police Incident (8[e.)) 7], (((2007-2012) 2007-2011, ‘) ‘) 2012) 2014) 2015) (2015) a haphazard cluster of ceramic mugs and their Styrofoam shipping containers atop the desk, and OBSENITY TRIAL (2010) two rows of four square office ceiling panels hung on the wall behind the desk); swiveling brightly colored chairs in front of desktop computers (Pivli Takala’s video installation, The Trainee (2008) that presents footage secretly taken during her covert infiltration as an employee in the marketing department of a company called Deloitte); accompanying computer mice (Joseph DeLappe’s floor installation, The Mouse Mandala (2006-15), a large swarm of the handheld tool in an assortment ranging all the way from the most rudimentary models of the very early 1980s to the current innovation of the swivel ball); and the ever present containers of the fuel that drives it all, coffee makers (Josh Kline’s Coffee Co-pays (2011), three glass French presses on a large light box pedestal, one filled with Blue Listerine infused with Dentyne Ice gum, the second filled with Mountain Dew infused with Claritin-D, and the third filled with RedBull infused with Vivarin).
By presenting works that resemble interiors and objects endemic to the quintessentially bland office or cubicle, aptly titled, Office Space, brings to the fore many issues raised by the epidemic of overworking and stress. This widespread problem of course in turn leads to the mass consumption of unhealthy products marketed as remedies for the physical manifestations of such a relentless lifestyle, ie. Advil for headaches and the dreaded Carpel Tunnel, Unisom to get to sleep, caffeine and nicotine to perk up, etc. However, this show also goes one step further, clamping one of its crucial tentacles into the unmotivated waters of existential questioning. This turn towards the understanding of life’s inherent vacancy is akin to the realizations made by the protagonist of the exhibition’s namesake film. In the movie “Office Space,” once Peter Gibbons infamously sees the meaninglessness of his mid-level clog-like corporate position, he responds by sawing off the enclosing walls of his cubicle and repeatedly missing deadlines in favor of more fulfilling pastimes like using his desk as a surface upon which to gut a freshly caught fish.