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BB9 – paradoxes posing questions on virtual space

C-print contributor Nora Hagdahl turns the spotlight on the ongoing 9th Berlin Biennale curated by creative collective DIS.

“Capitalism is based on consent,

but I didn't ask to be born”

- From the 9th Berlin Biennale catalogue

Akademie der Künste, one of five venues for the 9th Berlin Biennale, is located at Pariser Platz, an iconic tourist trap where networks of corporate and national power seem omnipresent. Entering, visitors are confronted with large-scale lightboxes spread across the lobby. Also, there is a pop-up store with multiples and products produced by the participating artists. The place has an undeniable corporate feel to it with its open layout, big glass fronts and polished floors. The impression is accentuated even further by how the exhibition itself is presented. The artworks on show seem to merge seamlessly with commodities and goods by their scattered placement and appearance. Christopher Kulendran Thomas's new work 'New Eelam', a propositional nationless state, is presented as an interior that could easily be mistaken for a relaxation lounge in any office. Like a luxurious suite, the work has occupied a mezzanine at the premises. Halili Altindere's work 'Homeland', a hard-hitting music video about contemporary notions of refugee crises and tearing down boarders, is shown on a medium sized flat screen placed on a pillar in the middle of the open space. This seemingly dual strategy makes you wonder – art or interior and exhibition or office?

Instead of highlighting every artistry and piece as singular units, the curatorial approach rather simulates a social media feed. I seem to be scrolling rather than strolling in the non-hierarchical landscape of Akademie der Künste, a concept that applies for the rest of the exhibition as well. Anna Uddenberg's characteristic sculptures are spread across different floors. Women bending in impossible angles; one with drastically spread legs, lying in front of a mirrored wall and another bending over backwards while holding a selfie stick. The sculptures which bring mannequins to mind, become a commodification of familiar intimate situations. Unveiling the discomfort behind that seductive image floating on social media feed.

Can you criticize the system from within? This is a recurring issue in the all-encompassing digital, virtual, cyber-based world of today, where online is as real as IRL. Can you plot against Facebook on Facebook and is it possible to be anti-capitalist in virtual spaces, where every click collects data of you as a consumer? Paradoxes seem to be inevitable, something that is stressed in the 9th Berlin Biennale. The exhibition, 'The Present in Drag', is a seductive and slick simulation of the present. Today, Instagram feeds are full to the brim with bold selfies of half naked women. The images could be connected to feminist practices in line with Cindy Sherman’s work. On the other hand, social media in itself bears components of creating value, self-branding and an ever-present male gaze. Like Anna Uddenberg, Amalia Ullman, also exibited in this year’s biennial, has dealt with this theme in her practice ever since 2014 with her performance 'Excellences & Perfection'. The work explores female clichés, showing how a technocratic, egocentric and exaggerated culture industry requires the performance of an equally contradictory and fabricated persona. Her new work 'PRIVILEGE', installed at Kunst-Werke, continues to explore fake identities on social media.

Before even entering the biennial, Babak Radboy’s and Roe Ethridge's photographs frame the overall exhibition “brand”. The series titled 'Not in the Berlin Biennale' mimics an advertising campaign while also serving as such. The portraits, spread over billboards around town, are also found in the catalogue, folders, the website and cover the walls of the staircases at Kunst-Werke. Texts are paired with photographs. A cohesive visual identity, the accompanying texts, cliché-like quotes, together with anonymous, distorted portraits, with just enough diversity, make the images look like generic commercials. The pictures allude to stock photos with an utterance between personal and impersonal. But here, and as a recurring idiom of the exhibition, built-in contradictions disturb the polished surface. For instance, the quote "Capitalism is based on consent, but I didn’t ask to be born". As in many of the works, Ethridge's photographs depict a familiar reality, distressed by irony. In a similar fashion, Juan Sebastián Peláez has made a gigantic two-dimensional sculpture portraying a picture of Rihanna, placed in the yard outside Kunst-Werke. The work, having already flourished on the Internet, distorts the artist it depicts – Rihanna - making her face appear on her chest.

BB9 is curated by creative collective DIS (Lauren Boyle, Solomon Chase, Marco Roso and David Toro). The group is known for their magazine, floating in the junction of fashion, art, design and internet. The biennial is spread over five venues in Berlin – as mentioned KW Institute for Contemporary Art and the Akademie der Künste - but also the ESMT European School of Management and Technology, The Feuerle Collection and the Blue-Star sightseeing boat of Reederei Riedel. As stated by the curators, the sites are chosen for their “paradessence” (paradox+essence), evident when looking at Akedemie der Künste’s inherent duality, oscillating between corporation and exhibition. Artists Korakrit Arunanindchai/Alex Gvojic have also turned The Blue-Star sightseeing boat into a hybrid space which will be floating on the Spree River during the biennial, hosting performances and events.

A plastic lawn serves as a carpet on the deck in the artificial and trashy tropical island. The gallery downstairs is turned into an anthropocentic dungeon, showing a video work on human extinction and the relation to the collapse of civilization. I walk down the stairs to have a seat in one of the big zebra patterned bean-bags in a sparingly lit room. Just like Cécile B. Evans’s installation at Kunst-Werke, a dimmed room with a catwalk floating on water, or Josh Kline's video 'Crying games', exhibited in room filled with sand, the installation on the boat is enclosed. The interiors are something between a cozy corner and a sanctum; where the zebra bean-bags face an altar consisting of a gigantic dead rat, a meditating statue and with the screen as its epicenter. Loud dance music blends together with the hysterical sounds from the humans in the video captured in a dinosaur diorama coming to life. Like a ship of fools, the sightseeing boat floats on the river as a heterotopia, seemingly not caring about the outside world. In this apocalyptic post-human condition, this private enterprise is still standing tall, following the main route frequented by tour boats on Spree.

Back to Akademie der Künste, Debora Delmar Corp.’s juice-bar MINT serves as commentary on our health-driven life-style. As I have a sip of one of the green healthy juices it brings my mind to the exhibition as a mall. Walking by the "open-air" café, I end up at Timur Si-Qin’s artificial landscape. Between the plants and the grass, there's a big LED screen. Walking around the panorama you see yourself on the screen, live-streamed. The green oasis together with the trendy juice-bar resonates with the contemporary ideas of the mall or corporate landscapes. Ideas, where outside is inside in a universal, "everything under one roof" sort of space and where real and artificial seem to be sliding together.

As in many other works in the exhibition, Si-Qin and Debora Delmar Corp.'s works, rather than posing obvious questions, poses realities. The same strategies are used in Babak Radboy’s and Roe Ethridge’s fake advertisements or Camille Henrot’s installation 'Office of Unreplied messages', where the artist has made hand-written, emotive and personal responses to all the unanswered mails in her inbox. It puts contemporary actualities on display, pushing them to repulsive extremes, to decay in social critique. Instead of criticizing the systems from the outside; the critique is forwarded from within. Portraying the interfering paradox with glossy, viral, healthy and superficial, BB9 does not take a stand as to what is right or wrong. 'The Present in Drag' leaves me with a feeling of; "what a sick world we live in but what can we do about it?". A world in status quo, where screens, Donald Trump, refugee crises, Facebook, Instagram, advertisements and capitalism, seem to remain unruffled.

The 9th Berlin Biennale runs through Sep 18th at five sites around the city.

For more info, please visit:

Photo credits:

1) Installation view: Amalia Ulman, PRIVILEGE, 2016

Performance; HD videos, color, sound; animatronic, carpet, drapes

Courtesy Amalia Ulman; Arcadia Missa, London

Photo: Timo Ohler

2) Installation view: Timur Si-Qin, A Reflected Landscape, 2016

Mixed media; HD video, color, sound

Courtesy Timur Si-Qin; Société, Berlin; Studio Ramos

Photo: Timo Ohler

3) Installation view: Anna Uddenberg, Journey of Self Discovery, 2016

Mixed media

Courtesy Anna Uddenberg

Photo: Timo Ohler

4) Installation view: Juan Sebastián Peláez, Ewaipanoma (Rihanna), 2016

Mixed media

Courtesy Juan Sebastián Peláez

Photo: Timo Ohler

5) Installation view: Korakrit Arunanondchai/Alex Gvojic, There's a word I'm trying to remember, for a feeling I'm about to have (a distracted path toward extinction), 2016

Boat, mixed media, HD video, earth from various places, objects from various places, audio guide

Courtesy Korakrit Arunanondchai/Alex Gvojic; C L E A R I N G, New York/Brussels; Carlos/Ishikawa, London

Photo: Timo Ohler

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