Offering critical insight into the wide array of professions in the industry of contemporary culture, the Producers series presents thinkers and practitioners who stand out and leave a mark. In this issue, Carson Chan interviews NY-based art collective DIS, appointed as curatorial team of the 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art.
Aric Chen, the architecture curator at M+ in Hong Kong, has compared curating to publishing, as both media aim to communicate to large audiences. DIS is best known for its online magazine. In organizing the 9th Berlin Biennale, titled “The Present in Drag,” which competencies have you brought from the magazine? Were there any that didn’t translate?
We haven’t taken a linear approach to the 9th Berlin Biennale. It’s structured less like a book and more like an online magazine, a hyperlinked way of thinking that doesn’t follow a sequential chronology. We’re living in a moment when people are coming to an understanding of history and identity that is shaped by Wikipedia, Facebook and Twitter feeds. The result is not stable or self-contained; it’s more porous. It leaks.
DIS has always been involved in building platforms: the magazine, DISimages, DISown, live events. We saw the Berlin Biennale as another, larger platform for us to work with. Within the 9th Berlin Biennale, there are various shows within the show, involving collectives and groups of artists and creatives. There’s Centre for Style from Melbourne, a curatorial and exhibition platform for fashion that blends performance, music, commerce, fashion and design. CUSS Group, a South African collective, are setting up a kind of inverted South African cultural institute in Berlin, as a reflection of the dependency and influence of public/private European cultural foundations in Johannesburg. The visual identity of the 9th Berlin Biennale, overseen by creative director Babak Radboy, is Not In The Berlin Biennale and involves artists, photographers, stylists and writers that are technically Not In the Biennale, but are contributing to it’s identity. This is hyperlinked thinking embodied.
To my mind, the audiences you’ve cultivated through DIS magazine are discerning observers of the contemporary condition—people who often grew up and are comfortable with the non-linear, composite, often surreal experience of the Internet. (Fan Zhong from W Magazine called them “a subsection of art world observers who get the conceptual joke.”) Will the exhibiting be pitched to the larger art going audience? Tell me about the “anthems” you commissioned.
Yeah, DIS has a specific audience, and with the 9th Berlin Biennale, we’re looking at ways of capturing an accidental audience beyond the biennial circuit. We’re interested in art that is accessible on multiple levels. This is partly why we chose Pariser Platz, the tourist trap of Berlin, and one reason we are so attracted to commercial formats and imagery. It’s something easily recognizable that you instantly engage with, but then, as you sit with it, your perception begins to shift, your relationship to it becomes more complex, and you realize it’s not as it seems. We wanted to intercept a non-art world audience in a very physical way—for example, by using a tourist boat as a venue. Korakrit Arunanondchai and Alex Gvojic have converted a Blue Star sightseeing boat into a floating duplex post-extinction installation complete with a sculptural cinema and a post-apocalyptic wedding performance arena.
There are a lot of familiar formats in the 9th Berlin Biennale. One of these projects is an album of collaborative anthems between artists and musicians: Kelela with Adrian Piper and Elysia Crampton, TOTAL FREEDOM with Isa Genzken, Fatima al Qadiri with Juliana Huxtable, and Hito Steyerl. These anthems can exist on more than one plane of comprehension—a pop song, a poem, a critical statement, a conceptual artwork, a soundtrack for the present,. It doesn’t really matter. They’ll be dispersed online, and as 12”s on Vinyl Factory records. We love the idea of a biennial you can’t get out of your head, that can extend beyond itself in a viral way and isn’t grounded in any city or country.
In your exhibition text for “The Present in Drag,” you cite an anxiety of the current moment’s catchphrases: “big data,” “post-internet,” and “anthropocene.” They operate more like slogans than descriptions. What do you hope the exhibition produces out of this anxiety?
There’s a pleasure principle in these biennial topics that constructs a release-valve of tensions, not so dissimilar from watching a horror movie, where you enjoy the feeling of fear. Instead of acting as this release valve, we want the audience to feel implicated. We’re approaching these anxieties on a visceral level. Instead of talking about anxiety, let’s make people anxious. Rather than organizing symposia on privacy, let’s jeopardize it.
Fostering anxiety and crafting confusion are notorious tools of political control. But this condition of uncertainty has also given way to a state of mind that is open to new perspectives and a potential for recrafting dominant narratives. We were inspired by Adam Curtis’s 2015 documentary Bitter Lake. At one point, he talks about Putin’s longtime advisor Vladislav Surkov and his mass-confusion tactic called “non-linear war.” The fascinating thing about Surkov is that he used to write essays on conceptual art, and later on imported those same ideas into Russian politics.
I’m fascinated by the idea of the present moment “in drag.” To be in drag is to role-play, to create a momentary fiction. You cite a necessary shift from the logic of science fiction to one of fantasy. Fantasy seems like a more radical way to break from our cultural anxieties than science fiction. Beyond the exhibition, how does one perpetuate this position?
We love the ambiguous gender connotations of the word drag, but we’re applying it in a metaphorical sense, referring to ever-shifting possibilities for self-representation and to elusive surfaces, facades, and various tools of persuasion. Role play and simulation are very present in the biennale, from Brody Condon’s self-actualization LARPs, to Hito Steyer’s gaming documentaries, Johannes Paul Raether’s research avataras, or Alexandra Pirici’s news-feed-like enactments performed throughout the summer by a group of performers in motion capture suits.
This present is a moment layered with conflicting ideology, where even one product, image, or work of art inhabits self-contradictory positions. Referring to the function of drag, RuPaul said in a recent interview, “The function hasn’t changed. It’s been the same since the beginning of time when shamans, witch doctors, or court jesters were the drags. Which is to remind culture to not take itself seriously. To remind you that you are not your shirt or your religious affiliation.” Instead of unmasking the present as though it contains something immutable and innate that we have to “discover,” we want to look at it’s many faces and incarnations. One way to see it is the present in drag.
One of the most memorable videos I’ve seen in the past years was DIS’s campaign for Kenzo men’s Fall/Winter 2012 collection. You exaggerated the gestures and aesthetics of stock video—video at its most commercial—in turn both endorsing and critiquing the very form you were tasked to create in. Can this position be maintained? At what point does a self-aware compliance simply make us complicit?
It is precisely this complicity and complex relationship with the world that we’re intent on highlighting. One of our BB9 participants and long-time collaborators, fashion designer Telfar Clemens, calls this an “aesthetics of compromise.” It’s the reality of being in “art,” of creating something like DIS that has no ads and no limitations, while also having day jobs working at ad agencies or freelancing for Apple. We don’t want to hide these realities and compromises in our endeavors.
We are fascinated by the rise of hyper-individualism in the face of the utter powerlessness of the individual, the shift to a personalized, wireless world of networked individualism, with each person switching between ties and networks. At the same time, complex global concerns are more pressing than ever, and these are often difficult to process on an individual scale. If you open your inbox, you might see a message or notification from your boss, your Tinder date, followed by an imploring call to arms about greenhouse gases, the Zika virus, and voting in the next election.
We’re considering several different ethical contradictions with the 9th Berlin Biennale. Think about the way words and expressions are co-opted and re-branded by corporations and interest groups, like Patagonia’s “Don’t buy this jacket” campaign, which uses anti-consumerism to sell jackets. Or the word freedom championed by the US religious right, free market liberalism, and Nike’s recent slogan “Join the Free Revolution.”
GMOs are another controversial debate; they’re illegal here in Germany. The cover of the BB9 catalog is actually a giant sample of Soylent, a GMO product named after the 1966 sci-fi cult classic that’s become popular in Silicon Valley and tech startups. It’s technically not for human consumption in Germany. But if you’re thinking about the long-term health of the planet, many people argue that food should really be manufactured in a laboratory. Following this logic, the push for all natural, organic and local food is retrograde shamanism: unsustainable, and an unviable return to the past. We’re interested in how these contemporary paradoxes and uncertainties manifest as personal, internal conflicts. On one hand you’re critiquing technology, but you might still be taking an Uber or using Gmail. We want to show how we are all entangled in the critique, rather than point fingers.
Ahead of the New York vote for the Democratic nominee for President, the DIS magazine team published an article endorsing Bernie Sanders. How did you decide to engage directly in political opinion, rather than through allegorical means?
Politically, this is a very critical moment in the US. We thought it was important to make an explicit statement at a moment right before the New York elections. Because of how little time we had, and how crucial the moment was, it was a moment for clarity, not allegory.
Almost all of the Biennale’s participants are easily associated with the post-internet, or post-contemporary, as you say. Furthermore, one could say that this show celebrates the generation of artists who have emerged from the Berlin scene since the mid-2000s. I was curious to see Adrian Piper included in the roster. I recently discussed with her the role selfies currently play in our engagement with art, and she argued that art should provide distance from and challenge our viewing habits rather than acquiesce to them. How does she fit in?
We met Adrian in 2014 and were taken with her energy. She prefers not to discuss her work with language, and described to us how, as a philosopher and artist, she chooses not to ascribe theory to her artwork, and sometimes hesitates to even explain it. Rather, she’s open to the viewers’ diverse interpretations and instinctive reactions. Adrian showed us a video she made of herself dancing to techno in Alexanderplatz when she moved to Berlin—she’s an amazing dancer. The contrast between the sheer joy of her dancing and her theoretical work in philosophy is remarkable. Franco Berardi talks about this dichotomy between an obfuscating hypercomplexity (finance, data) versus the irreducible, interpretable, emotional (poetry). Many of the artist’s work negotiate these two ends of the spectrum.
At the same time, Adrian’s work is concerned with an untangling of contradictions, and follows a certain drive for clarity that’s prevalent in the Berlin Biennale. She’s interested in the realization of the self within and beyond the binds of society, and one way to understand this is to examine forms of confusion and fogging that are prescriptive and control-oriented.
DIS is a New York-based collective composed of Lauren Boyle, Solomon Chase, Marco Roso and David Toro, which serves as curatorial team at the 9th Berlin Biennale, on view through 18 September.
Images: Narratives Devices (stills), 2016, Courtesy of Berlin Biennale für zeitgenössische Kunst/for Contemporary Art.