The 9th Berlin Biennale, The Present in Drag drew early anticipation with the appointment of its curatorial team. From the start, the appointment of DIS – a collective of digital producers from New York whose online platform boldly informs and reflects cultural agency today – stirred controversy and raised eyebrows, and bb9, also known by some as the ‘LOL Biennale’, became one of the most talked about biennales to date.

My approach was to visit bb9 with moderate expectations, and with a summary of public opinion in mind. It’s a bit of fun, though not without major flaws regarding its relevance to the current political landscape. In this biennale, the present is non-binary and the emphasis is on high-production values blurring the line between fiction and reality. Most importantly, the artist line-up is killer.

It was obvious that bb9 lacked nuance and depth of context, and that the proposition DIS put forward was overly simple. While the curators set out to respond to and facilitate manifestations of the present, rather than dwell on it, this curatorial premise lacked broader relevance, however the artworks made up for this.

Cécile B. Evans, ‘What the Heart Wants’, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 40‘; water, wooden platform. Photo: Timo Ohler

Most spectacular was Cecile B. Evans’ What the Heart Wants (2016), a floating runway surrounding by water, an oasis shattered by the video work, which presented the grim reality of the future ahead. Running a close second, Lizzie Fitch and Ryan Trecartin’s Mark Trade and Permission Streak (both 2016), combined social commentary and pop culture on acid within a slick immersive sculptural theatre. Simon Denny’s Blockchain Visionaries (2016), produced in collaboration with Linda Kantchev, consisted of trade fair stalls, equipped with personalised stamps proposing potential directions for decentralized transaction database technology. Political opinion crept in with Josh Kline’s video installation Crying Games (2015). Using facial substitution technology, he replaced actors with the like of Tony Blair, George Bush, and so on, repeating the words ‘I’m Sorry’. More interesting was the install, though, a dark orifice filled with kitty litter. Suitably misleading and at times frustrating was Adrian Piper’s Howdy #6 (2015), a projected image leading to locked or non-existent doorways.

Lizzie Fitch & Ryan Trecartin, ‘(As yet untitled sculptural theater)’, 2016. Photo: Timo Ohler

The Present in Drag is redundant as a title. The 9th Berlin Biennale pushed no specific queer agenda, but rather produced sheer spectacle. The configuration of artworks was overstylised and lacked real emotion, which created neutral spaces, and as a viewer this was a welcome reprieve to what would usually be a saturation of the senses. I was left to draw on my own conclusions, and consider what was art and what was advertisement within the gallery space.  

Megan Monte, 2016

The 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art was held from 4/6 – 18/9/2016 at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Akademie der Künste, ESMT European School of Management and Technology, The Feuerle Collection, and the Blue-Star sightseeing boat by Reederei Riedel.

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