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.