The Corporate Illusion

Reviewing the 9th Berlin Biennale
Originally published by Centre for Curating the Archive ︎

I went for dinner one evening in Berlin with a friend of mine to a small Korean restaurant in Kreuzberg. Known for its #hip #urban #rustic atmosphere and bustling youthful population I looked forward to exploring some of the former West Berlin. The first thing I realized was that no matter where you go in this culture game, it’s easy to get fooled. On our evening stroll through the area my friend flippantly pointed out how a billboard announcing ‘improvement constructions for the area’ had aggressively been marked with “Niemand hat uns gefragt” (Nobody asked us). Loft apartments are being bought out, refurbished, and rented out at sky-high new prices, such that even renting your whole apartment on Airbnb is now illegal in Berlin. Interestingly, ordering some Bibimbap at the new Korean restaurant in the area, they charged an extra 2 Euro to have your meal served in a heated bowl (as opposed to a regular, cold one) if you wanted the “authentic Korean experience”. Which was a funny thing to notice since I didn’t see any Korean people in the restaurant – customers or staff, or in their open plan kitchen. In contribution to their efforts of fitting the #rustic aesthetic, they neatly made some chairs out of supposedly scrap wood and crates – even though the crates seemed very clean and actually unused for recycled material. Who are they trying to fool? Behind what façade were they trying to convince me?

Where does this put the Biennale? In the capital city so uniquely established, some residents described it to me as a country in itself. For its #meltingpot of cultures, people from world-varying backgrounds and its placement in history, Berlin is seen today as one of, if not the biggest ‘art hubs’ in the world. In our Modern age as more countries strive for ideals of democracy, and multiculturalism; this cosmopolitan city sets the ideal venue for an international exhibition such as this year’s biennale. However, the 9th Berlin Biennale (BB9) was met by critics with confusion, frustration, and ironically, sarcasm. Curated by four young New Yorkers (Lauren Boyle, Solomon Chase, Marco Roso, and David Toro collectively known as DIS) #BB9 spreads across four main venues throughout the city. The collective run an online magazine, which covers varying topics of cultural discourse, criticism and analysis within fashion, art, film, design, pop culture, consumerism and politics. Their curatorial approach seemingly functions outside of the boundaries of ‘just art’ but rather as a reflection of our current cultural paradigm and where it sits within the globalised late-capitalist digital age. They’ve titled the biennale The Present in Drag and through this they attempt to subvert our perceptions of contemporary society with exaggerated performative tongue-in-cheek gestures, often interpreted as ‘millennial nihilism’, but which to me seemed quite refreshing and poignant.

The first venue our class attended was the Akademie der Künste in the strangely cosmopolitan area of Pariser Platz, surrounded by business headquarters, international embassies as well as the tourist haven of the Brandenburg Gate. The modern glass architecture of the building lit up what seemed to be a new age hangout spot with large poster installations, slow-motion stock footage on televisions, and a juice bar covered in wood and wheatgrass. The varying levels contained corporate-funded installations of a rather playful nature: Timur Si-Qin’s A Reflected Landscape involves a large LED-screen placed amongst a Canal Walk-esque plant arrangement with different CCTV cameras recording the area around the installation, and displaying the different recordings on the screen on rotation (image, right). It turns out people love being on screen. M/L Artspace’s In Bed Together invites users to lie in their bed (sponsored by Bed Bath & Beyond™) amongst text pieces screen-printed on duvets and pillows, to watch a video installation displaying ‘pre-social media’ teen life. Nik Kosmas’ installation of works in the courtyard ranging from Power Rack to Rig to Squat is really just an outdoor gym. Described in the catalogue as “neither an ironic commentary on the fitness industry, nor is it a cunningly guised reference to abstract sculpture” – didn’t Rick Owens say “working out is modern couture”?

Several works played with humour but were able to address ‘serious’ issues in doing so, for example Will Benedict’s hypothetical music video is part of an installation in a typical corporate boardroom featuring even a sink and mugs between the cream-coloured cupboards. Spectators take a seat at the meeting table to watch on television how an ‘illegal alien’ essentially negotiates with a news anchor his terms for ‘taking over the earth’. Challenging our idea of the ‘other’ I AM A PROBLEM seeks to subvert perceptions of power in relation to our understanding of ‘taking over the world’ – whether it refers to global corporations, social network dominion or the violent nature of colonialism and how comfortably it can sit in the narrative of pop culture. Hito Steyerl’s installation takes the viewer 3 floors below ground level to a cold and damp cement-smelling basement with two video installations on surround-vision flat screens (as if to be in a military headquarters) with a hypothetical corporate proposal of a brand TOWER which ‘takes on outsourced virtual renderings’. Her videos compare zombies to drones and her narratives speak of corporatization of military strategies, global powers and how our everyday activities contribute to the military-industrial complex.

After the Akademie der Künste we ran to catch the Blue-Star sightseeing boat which in itself was a site-specific video installation by Korakrit Arunanondchai and Alex Gvojic. The entire boat, especially the basement, was completely transformed into an urban, sci-fi, dystopic mess with melted black rubber, red neon, fur and prosthetic body parts coming out from all angles. In the basement with blocked out windows, a large flat screen projects the duo’s 30-minute film titled There’s a word I’m trying to remember, for a feeling I’m about to have (a distracted path toward extinction). The film deals with ideas around human extinction, genealogy (and its future counterparts), souls as software and how the earth is run as an interconnected digital organism – an incredible contrast when walking out into the bright sun on the deck as the tour boat took us past the looming über-clean German governmental buildings.

The KW Institute for Contemporary Art provided a maze of different worlds as one ventured from room to room. The courtyards café fashioned the biennale’s iconic 2-storey cardboard cut out, Ewaipanoma (Rihanna), by Juan Sebastián Peláez – a headless Rihanna in her bikini, her face emblazoned on her chest. Cécile B. Evans’ video installation What the Heart Wants was set up in what seemed to be a flooded theatre with a runway-jeti shooting out over the water where viewers could sit on cushions and watch the large overhead display. Emerging out of the surrounding dark waters were smaller LCD screens on lit-up crystal pedestals screening small motion graphic extensions of the film. Opening the next door transported us into an underground bunker filled with ‘kitty litter’ sand with another video installation: Josh Kline’s Crying Games uses a previously existing project where American veterans were given the chance to apologize on camera for their acts of war. In attempts of reconciliation, the soldiers sobbed on screen with long moments of silence. The artist however uses face-swapping technology recently popularised by the likes of Snapchat, and superimposed the faces of politicians such as George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Dick Cheney amongst others to produce a jumpy glitch of emotional dissonance with quasi-crying politicians in a world where remote-controlled drone warfare is an everyday reality. Local CUSS Group’s  Art Festival and Triomf Factory Shop displayed a small hypothetical store – aesthetically very familiar to the South African eye, hilariously ‘exotic’ to the European – which sold grooming products, beer, fragrances and screened a fake news channel on the roughly displayed LCD screens. Shawn Maximo’s video Narrative Devices on the future of our personal hygiene and corporate desires within that was played in a shiny new-age bathroom built with his experience of having designed storefronts for Gucci and MAC Cosmetics. One room after another was transformed to produce fully immersive, curated spaces to engage with the installations.

The Feuerle Collection – a former Second World War telecommunications bunker – provided the third venue. Underground concrete with systematically laid out pillars; sculptures and installations were scattered in amongst the large room, which prior to housing art and its renovation, held several underground techno parties (obviously). The long walls provided space for Josephine Pryde’s long photographic series Hands „Für mich“ which explores the relationship between our hands and our daily objects and devices. Yngve Holen’s installation of glass ‘nazars’ (eyes) in the shape of aeroplane windows sits on the opposite end of the room. Titled Evil Eyes the work spoke about the modernization of tourism in global capitalism and how these culturally significant objects have lost their prescribed meaning in contemporary culture.

The last venue was hosted in the European School of Management Technologies (ESMT). In 1960s socialist style architecture it used to house meetings of the East German government. Socialist realism stained glass windows depicting families & industry, and outside surrounding buildings are adorned with large Marx motifs – but today it’s a business school. Walking into ESMT, we thought we’d found the wrong venue since the building seemed like a typical corporate headquarter. The helpdesk kindly indicated that the ‘biennale was upstairs’. Passing company banners and advertisements on flat-screens on the stairs had me thinking we were already in the biennale – only to realise the slow motion stock footage of white men smiling with clipboards were genuine attempts at swooning me into investment opportunities.

Two of the installations taking place in this venue were GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council)’s Positive Pathways (+) and Simon Denny’s Blockchain Visionaries. The former, a breath-taking space with a looped Olympic athletic track surrounded by sand with a figure of a mother leaning in to her child, ‘channelling a force of life and healing’ by performing a Quantum Touch. The overheard self-empowering audio of the mother’s voice echoes in the high ceilings of the ESMT. The latter installation by Simon Denny, posed itself literally as a corporate indaba. My classmates were convinced we had walked into the wrong room (again) but reading some of the captions and ‘brand proposals’ (commissioned by real companies) around the stalls we began to see how far-fetched and fantastical the ideas were, yet they still played into a plausible narrative granted the progression of technology and unashamed ambition of some brands.

The biennale was fun. It was thought provoking and was personally my highlight of the trip to Berlin. I found it frustrating reading reviews simply knocking the installations down as a complete joke of youth and apathy. The sarcasm and tongue-in-cheek gestures made for an entertaining glimpse into a very real condition of our world. Gathering responses from different people, there seemed to be a pattern: mostly older generations found this shift of interconnected art, ideas as commodity (rather than the art-object itself) and self-referential art as frustrating and degrading to the art world. If I were to guess, the same people sarcastically calling the biennale a ‘LOLhouse’ are those who could still believe selfie culture is purely born out of narcissism, and rather not a culture of radical self-love. In the modern age of comparison and unobtainable standards set up by industries, to unapologetically love one’s self (especially if you fit outside of the white heteronormative status quo) is a very political act, and a rejection of the violent systems of capitalism. Will Benedict’s portrait of his rockstar alien in Comparison Leads to Violence at Akademie der Künste, spoke true to this.

The concept of ‘the biennale’ grew out of the Venice Biennale, which in the dawn of the 20th century functioned essentially like an international art Olympics with different pavilions punting their local talent in a nation-state show-off, possibly rooted in the same ideas as the colonial expeditions of the Crystal Palace happening at the same time. Why is it so crucial for biennales to maintain this model? If anything, DIS’s biennale spoke true to how countries are being run as brands – flags and logos, nationalism and aspirational advertising all function in the same vein of propagandist emotional manipulation. Art is just another exchange of ideas and it doesn’t need to sit by itself and only exist in itself. Autonomous ‘art-objects’ such as sellable sculptures and paintings fit just as much into an exclusive, elitist profitable market as corporate-sponsored installations. Klaus Biesenbach, director of MoMA PS1 and founder of the Berlin Biennale in his introductory commentary writes how in 1997 HybridWorkSpace at documenta X was “an attempt to configure the Internet as a physical, social space for performances and discourse” and was essentially the trial period for the 1st Berlin Biennale. Understanding the Internet as a root for BB9, for my class and me, Berlin was the perfect setting for a perception-shifting biennale challenging the corporate status quo in a so-called ‘cosmopolitan hub’. Engaging well with the ground level locations as well as speaking to an international audience, the biennale served as a fantastic expedition in understanding the multiplicity of curation in this day and age.