‘It is the present that is unknowable, unpredictable and incomprehensible – forged by a persistent commitment to a set of fictions. […] Let’s give a body to the problems of the present where they occur so as to make them a matter of agency – not spectatorship,’ write DIS in the catalogue for the 9th Berlin Biennale. By titling their biennial ‘The Present in Drag’, DIS – the New York-based collective comprising Lauren Boyle, Solomon Chase, Marco Roso and David Toro – purports to costume the present so emphatically that we can understand it now, rather than in retrospect. This initially seems retrograde in light of the trend toward more authorial, idiosyncratic curated biennials, which assume this format no longer need measure zeitgeist. DIS, though, are not curators but creative producers who have pushed a specific vision since their inception as a digital publication in 2010: due to the all-encompassing effects of neoliberal capitalism and the increasing reach of corporations into our lives, we are both complicit in their success and bound to stake some manner of resistance against them, even if only in form or affect. (I wish there were better terms to describe this condition than the ham-fisted descriptors ‘corporatization’ or ‘neoliberal society’ or ‘all-encompassing late capitalism’.) DIS don’t approach this through critique – they would consider that outdated – but, rather, by enacting or aestheticizing this new corporatized life.
Yet, this life as it manifests in the biennale isn’t ugly, as one may expect: rather, it is slick and cold, as if posed in a stock image. Take, for example, Katja Novitskova’s flat sculptures of horns and fire springing out of the floor (Expansion Curves [Fire Worship, Purple Horns] and Neolithic Potential [Fire Worship, Spiral Horns], both 2016); or Josephine Pryde’s macro photographs of hands using smart phones or tablets (Hands „Für mich“, 2014–16), which are stock brought to life. This corporate aesthetic reflects DIS’s preference for a critique that is complicated by looking somewhat like approbation.
The everyday lives represented in ‘The Present in Drag’ are defined by contradiction: we’re extorted by our landlords for rent to live in urban centres, yet we Airbnb our rooms in art-world off-seasons to recoup cash while perpetuating gentrifying rent hikes. We talk about MoMA strikes while travelling in Ubers and buy Boris Groys books on Amazon. Social justice has found its home on corporate social-media platforms, and young feminists feel protective of Beyoncé, a multi-millionaire, when she was called a ‘terrorist’ by the black feminist doyenne bell hooks. To some, accepting this state of affairs, or even just witnessing it as form, feels like giving in.
In the biennale, these contradictory experiences take the form of artistic positions that range from plaintive mises en scène to projects tackling new technological advancements. Anna Uddenberg’s fantastic sculptures contort travel-garbed mannequin torsos into suitcases (Transit Mode-Abenteuer, 2014–16); while Marlie Mul’s trompe l’oeil bucket snuffs out cigarette butts in snow (Cigarette Bucket, 2015). Timur Si-Qin’s post-anthropocene A Reflected Landscape (2016) is a diorama littered with garbage, spray paint and vanity billboards, which feeds visitors’ images back to them in real time. Departing from the everyday to a more theoretical, or perhaps pedagogical, level are Simon Denny’s installation with Linda Kantchev, Blockchain Visionaries (2016) – which attempts to explain this technology via the companies that utilize it – and Christopher Kulendran Thomas’s New Eelam (2016), which envisions a fantasy nationless state in a pseudo-documentary that transforms into a real-estate promotional video. That these visions are clad in such untouchably cool drag has perturbed many visitors, though I would argue that what may seem like affirmation is actually solely embodiment, or a study of form. That said, the idea of exacerbating our present conditions to make them more visible and appreciable falters when even banality starts to look interesting.
A languid, layered aestheticization of time flows throughout the biennale, embodied by DIS’s choice of venues: Akademie der Künste, a multivalent tempered glass and stainless steel monstrosity on Pariser Platz, adjacent to the US Embassy, Commerzbank and Starbucks; KW, the Klaus Biesenbach-founded art institution that hosts the biennale; the European School of Management and Technology, which formerly served as the GDR Staatsratgebäude and retains the architectural flair and decor of Socialist realism; the Reederei Riedel sightseeing boat, which snakes through Berlin via the Spree river; and a Kreuzberg bunker housing the Feuerle Collection, meant to represent the influx of collectors to Berlin and the intermingling of private/public art funding.
By housing the exhibition in such history-laden or corporate environments, DIS sets us up to read individual works as the progeny of neoliberalism. The biennale bears a sense of conflicted social responsibility that seeks agency in consumer options and strives, above all, for narrative clarity in the face of ‘non-linear war’ – a term coined by Vladimir Putin’s advisor, and former art critic, Vladislav Surkov, to describe mass-confusion campaigns used by the Russian state to destabilize public perception about political issues, and which DIS sees as a technique gaining traction globally. Perhaps the homogenous aesthetic of the biennale is a byproduct of a desire for clarity: while we usually associate such heavy-handedness with the curator auteurs of yesteryear, DIS’s biennale is a departure, paradoxically pointing to our proclivity for hyper-individuation, though in the form of customizable sneakers.
This narrative cohesiveness comes at the expense of conflating many artistic positions into one. Exemplifying this is the installation ‘LIT’, which installs image-based works by several different artists in a cluster of large lightboxes in the lobby of Akademie der Künste, rendering individual artists’ work indistinguishable from one another. The title of Ei Arakawa’s ragtag hour-long musical, How to DISappear in America: The Musical (2016), playfully anticipates this aesthetic homogeny. Created in collaboration with Dan Poston and Stefan Tcherepnin and performed sporadically over the first three weeks of the biennale, the musical recounts the story of an impoverished painter, Marjory, her break-up with an abusive partner, and a new love affair, ending on a bohemian ‘cyber artichoke data farm’.
If there are complaints about stylistic flattening in ‘The Present in Drag’, the human body it presents is refreshingly non-white, non-straight and not necessarily able or male – although this is, perhaps, taken to the point of camp, in a 1990s-era textbook or corporate advertisement kind of way, in which people from all subject positions (one disabled, one Asian, one black, one Native American, etc.) are convened in perfect harmony. Take, for example, DIS’s series of short promotional videos that depict highly stylized scene of a black woman using an inhaler, or an Asian woman writing on a whiteboard (‘Speculative Ambience/Narrative Devices’, 2016). There’s an unshakeable irony attached to these images, and it sometimes feels difficult to locate any tenderness or vulnerability in them. This in itself is ironic, given that being open to tenderness and vulnerability is the battleground upon which so many of us are currently encamped.
‘The Present in Drag’ errs by so uniformly investing in the corporate gaze that any radical vision of emancipation from this aesthetic comes off as puritanical. Consumer options are tragically offered as real options. How do we reconcile this corporate violence – which reduces our bodies, wants and needs to data with such cruel effect – with its embodiment by artists, however self-aware? DIS has given this query a worthy first shot, though one primed for constant revision in our still-incomprehensible present.