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