THE DIS BEHIND THE BERLIN BIENNALE
By Alexandra Pechman
The 9th Berlin Biennale is the first biennial exhibition curated by DIS, the internet-centric art collective, and, by their own admission, probably the one and only. In the past six years, the group has been at the helm of multiple projects at once: DIS Magazine, its original online magazine; DISOWN, a collection of artist-made wares; and DISimages, a stock imagery project, all coalescing around readings of fashion, music, contemporary art, and culture. The biennale, running this summer from June 4 through September 19, features more than 50 artists (the majority of whom were born in the 1980s) and takes place at five sites around the city: the Akademie der Künste, the KW-Institute for Contemporary Art, the Feuerle Collection, the European School of Management and Technology, and a Blue-Star sightseeing boat. Following the collective’s multidisciplinary approach, the show’s interface will also seamlessly blend into everyday life in the city and beyond, in the form of an ad campaign featuring artists who are “Not in the Biennale,” light boxes distributed all over the biennale with imagery by even more artists (LIT), daily posts on the biennale website, and a soundtrack of artist-musician pairings to be released throughout the summer (Anthem). “We liked the idea of a biennale you couldn’t get out of your head,” Solomon Chase said at the press conference, about the numerous platforms where the biennale will appear. Later, Alexandra Pechman met Chase and David Toro, two of the four members of DIS, at KW Institute to talk about their thinking behind the show.
Alexandra Pechman: The ESMT location is such a cool space, and it’s never been used before for the biennial.
Solomon Chase: No, it [that wing] has been empty since, basically, when the GDR ended. They renovated the half on the left and then they were going to renovate the half on the right, but then they ran out of money and just stopped. That’s where the installation is and where Simon Denny’s installation is. Simon’s room is actually the GDR State Council room. The council took place in that room with a long table and seats all around it.
AP: How did you get to use that location?
SC: One of the parts of the Berlin Biennale always is finding spaces around Berlin. When we got here we didn’t want to leave the center because we didn’t want to contribute to the art gentrification in a way. At the same time, this area of Berlin was that. After the wall came down, this was the cool area where things started to happen; of course, it’s not anymore. Now it’s fully built up and part of the speculative real-estate market here. In the archives of venues they had used in the past for other biennales, one after another, it was like: oh, that’s a gym now. There’s the amazing post-office down the street where they’ve done a lot of the biennales; that’s becoming a hotel now. Even the spaces that are empty serve the Berlin event culture. That all definitely contributed to our being interested in political spaces. We wanted places that were charged in some way.
AP: And the entire Akademie der Künste building.
SC: The Akademie der Künste fulfilled those things because it’s a museum and a public institution that just never has exhibitions because it’s perpetually under construction, like Berlin itself. It’s one of the oldest museums in Germany, but the only thing left of it is the one gallery that Simon Fujiwara’s Happy Museum is in. A year after we had booked the Akademie, we found out the galleries were under construction. It worked out perfectly because we got to use all these spaces they use for events, and replicate things like the development of commercial spaces but also this state aesthetic of transparency, of glass and façades, which was a big part of the biennale. All of the other buildings around the Akademie on Pariser Platz are these façades, these face-of-the-nation, flagship places, that you can’t actually access. The only place you can actually access is Starbucks. Even during the last few days before the event, they were having all these corporate events at the building while everyone was working, which was really interesting since a lot of work was reflecting this corporate and political culture manifest in these kind of events. The top floor with Max Pitegoff and Calla Henkel, Jon Rafman, and Jacob Appelbaum and Trevor Paglen, is the Akademie’s main event space.
David Toro: It’s also where they shot an episode of Homeland. That was supposed to represent the United States Embassy, which is next door.
AP: With that top floor it was almost like you had to find it. There were a lot of places here, too [at the KW-Institute], where there were rooms inside rooms, installations embedded inside installations.
SC: It’s part of the experience design for us. At the Akademie, it more so just happens to be the case with all these private spaces. There’s a VIP-feeling in the hierarchy of the building. We liked the idea of giving access to people to places you wouldn’t usually access, into these spaces of unseen power. Here [at KW], the work is more about personal space. We put doors for that reason to divide it so that everything became really separated. We wanted to have many discrete experiences that you are arriving at, with the feeling that what is beyond is not what you would expect it to be.
AP: Dovetailing with those doors, you’ve done a lot of work with producing objects for the biennale, like previously with DISOWN. There’s fashion pieces with Telfar; there’s the soundtrack, Anthem.
SC: Fashion is really a part of our DNA and we wanted that to play a big role, in a way that became enmeshed into the rest of the exhibition, not something that was just auxiliary. Telfar made all the uniforms for the guards, he did the “merch”, there’s also this retrospective of ten years of his white T-shirts. That really reflects the loosely collaborative nature of the biennale, because Babak Radboy, who also did the entire visual communication of the biennale, worked on the Telfar campaign and Frank Benson made the mannequins. The other project is that Yngve Holen made evil-eye contact lenses that reference the evil eyes in his installation at the Feuerle Collection. There’s other people who did things we’re not selling, like M/L Space made bed sheets are a retrospective of their shows.
AP: You’ve talked about countries acting as brands in the show, and you have artists from Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, in a biennale that originally about artists from or working in Berlin. What do you mean by “countries as brands” in this context?
SC: We don’t even know necessarily where people live. For us, it’s more Internet-based. Like CUSS Group, which is a collective from Johannesburg: we know them from online. Many people we’ve worked with in the past but personally didn’t know, and a lot of those artists are playing with these references to nationality and the state’s relevance within culture. CUSS Group wanted to invert the relationship that European cultural foundations have in Johannesburg, like Goethe Institut. It’s sort of this colonial situation. So they wanted to create a cultural foundation for South African artists in Berlin. Or the collective GCC: all of their work is about how power manifests itself aesthetically as these often illogical cultural rituals of states in the Middle East. We’re doing this as a state-sponsored event, so it’s about a kind of tourism and the image of the country. That’s something we wanted to play with in the marketing and the visuals and campaigns we did, which we worked with Babak Radboy on. All these people who are “Not in the Biennale” are sort of exploited in this skin, which is an ad campaign for the biennale which will be on billboards in Berlin.
One of the influential things for the biennial for us was thinking about the lifestyle that actually came about at a certain point after the 1980s, like how Bill Clinton was the first president to use focus groups. Using marketing mechanisms in politics is something that has accelerated since then. Everything going on in the U.S. was influencing us.
AP: Right, you guys had an endorsement.
DT: We did that.
SC: We endorsed Bernie. People were really surprised that we did that.
AP: I don’t know that I would say “surprised”…
SC: For us, it was the New York election, and New York is our place.
DT: I don’t know if that would have happened if we were living in New York at the moment. But when you’re far away things seem different seeing it from the outside. From over here, it seems really out of our control. Like, what is happening?
SC: The Simon Fujiwara piece actually is really about that. He’s been working with Angela Merkel’s makeup artist for years. He makes these paintings with tiny pieces of her face, with her HD makeup. Today, we actually did a tour with the German minister of culture and she loved that room. We really wanted Angela to come and do a tour…
AP: I can only imagine. A tour with Angela Merkel and DIS…
DT: That photo-op would be amazing.