Saturday 01 October 2016 – Sunday 01 October 2017
Postcard from Berlin Biennale 2016
The VASW trip to visit the Berlin Biennale 2016 for curators from the South West was not only worthwhile, but felt timely and a much needed post-Brexit shot in the arm. As the ten VASW bursary recipients boarded the plane, an unelected Prime Minister was entering Number Ten. This was to be the least traumatic event of our trip.
Any visit to Berlin is a worthwhile experience. The city, rightly or wrongly, constantly changes and each visit is to relearn how to navigate, or more likely, to get lost in the mash up of Berlin’s past, present and possible future. Walking between the five Biennale venues, with inevitable wrong turns, pit stops and going the wrong way on the U-Bahn when the feet gave up meant that I saw a lot of Berlin. From the cosmopolitan to the overlooked, from the hip to the down at heel, Berlin’s history is cheek by jowl with its fast forward button. This has also been a rich context for the Biennale in the past and still offers up the chance for artists to play with the city, to use it as a blank canvas. That opportunity seems to have been lost.
Whilst Berlin and the world hustled and bustled around us, the art struggled to keep up and at times seemed out of date with technological advances and the consumerist online world which influence many works. Similar contradictions appeared like fashionable post-internet glitches across the biennale, to the degree that such inconsistencies seemed like intentions, as described by curators DIS. More often than not, they felt like annoyances, adding further alienation to the mix.
When the Biennale did face Berlin directly, it offered a guilty sense of decadence. A Post-apocalyptic tourist boat trip featured the work of Korakrit Arunanondchai and Alex Gvojic. After watching a nightmare vision of the future (tomorrow, next week, next year?) and our evolution into giant rats, we gathered on the top deck of a burnt out hull for drinks, floating past the Reichstag, banks, shopping centres, museums and waved at other boats and tourists. It felt elegantly dirty, as if we were both complicit and compliant to the end of the world.
The European School of Economics sits behind Berlin’s historic cathedral and museums, themselves surrounded by new developments and temporary structures sponsored by mobile phone companies. The School is in the former building of the East German State Council and retains an austere authority. Although possibly underused, the building hosted a mock trade fair (Simon Denny and Linda Kantchev) and an impressive installation by art collective GCC, where a sculpture of a woman and small child was surrounded by sand and a running track, to a soundtrack of positivity.
Such moments, whether they be man hugging a giant rat or disabled men and women discussing their sexuality (Alexa Karolinski and Ingo Niermann), hosted in institutions of education, money and power were one of the few tender, human moments. Elsewhere, I watched jars of mayonnaise being psycho analysed whilst sitting on a floating pontoon and saw jailed world leaders apologise via face replacement technology.
I squirmed, albeit from the comfort of a bed, as Ryan Trecartin & Lizzie Finch’s glittery dead eyed cast threw razor sharp and slack jawed abuse at each other in equal measure. It left you feeling happy and disgusted, like stabbing yourself in the eyes with a rusty compass whilst sucking on helium.
Marco Rosso and Lauren Boyle from curators DIS gave us an insight into the planning, thinking and themes of the Biennale. I’ve never seen a talk prefixed by a harsh Guardian review, something that obviously hung heavy over them, and had put a large amount of doubt in our minds before visiting. They spoke of difficulties in sourcing venues, along with some of the contradictions on show, which like much of the Biennale, led to further questions rather than answers. The Biennale they describe should be on the streets, in shopping centres and cinemas, in the parks, schools, and a more direct and radical engagememt with a wider audience, be it physical or online.
Their openness and accumulation of unresolved ideas felt like an editorial meeting (DIS run a online magazine), with their own preferences and disputes out on display. As we looked across Brandenburg Gate that morning, Jon Rafman’s disturbing Oculus Rift art work was a frightening lament of the world around us. As DIS talked, Autonomy Cube, a router for the anonymous internet software Tor, sat disguised as sculpture on a plinth under a glass case, silently available as a secure anonymous hotspot to share information, from the powerhouses outside to the American tourists taking pictures of news crews filming the French Embassy.
That morning, we’d gathered in front of the Akademie der Künste, surrounded by embassies, the EU Commission Office, tourist shops and tours and the remains of a Bastille Day celebration. People gathered outside the French Embassy taking photos, its flag at half-mast in remembrance of the events of what had unfolded overnight in Nice as we checked online for updates.
Back home, Leave had left, racist attacks were up to 6000 and a privileged clown had taken over as Foreign Secretary. People were roaming the streets searching for Pokemon.
At various times in Berlin, I felt like my teenage self, sat in my bedroom, listening to thrash metal and scaring myself silly by watching Threads and Protect and Survive videos; reading horror and science fiction. Max Headroom chattered away in the corner, whilst I prodded a Commodore 64 to make my name appear across the screen. This nostalgia reminded me of the already out of date today and tomorrow the Biennale attempts to describe.
The Berlin Biennale 2016 felt like being in a Douglas Coupland novel, one that was constantly rewriting itself for a new accelerated culture. It reminded me to be more optimistic, to try and be more human.
Gordon Dalton, VASW, Network Manager
Postcards from Berlin from some of the VASW bursary recipients:
Video diary from Helen Kincaid, Index Gallery
A week on from visiting the Liverpool Biennial, there were startling contrasts between the two events, which both claim to be in some way 'for the people' of the cities they inhabit. Liverpool's approach is a colourful and accessible style of marketing and a free programme which takes visitors out of the galleries into the shopping centre and on to now abandoned residential areas. Berlin on the other hand has adopted a corporate style of branding which doesn't feel designed to appeal to any particular non-art audience. The exhibitions are tightly bound within the five venues, cost €26 to visit and don't really engage visitors in any dialogue about who you are or where you've come from. Vickie Fear, Plymouth Arts Centre
The biennalehad a weirdly narcissistic feel to it. It was possibly a comment on how connectivity flattens culture and how everyone is broadcasting but not listening. Phil Rushworth, Tamar River Project.
DIS ask themselves many questions, like “If this is the future, what is the future?” Meta musings on consumer culture in a post-internet present that is being rebranded and currently micro-trending on a platform that possibly hasn’t been launched yet. Blair Todd, Curator, Newlyn Art Gallery & Exchange, Cornwall
It didn't feel radical enough to me. It felt really institutional; objects were in gallery spaces for us to look at and the information was, mostly, only going one way. That didn't feel like the future to me. Phil Rushworth, Tamar River Project.
The now we are confronted with is not looking good, the present we are living in is, or should I say was, both incomprehensible and unimaginable. The work that sticks in my head is View of Pariser Platz, 2016 by Jon Rafman. Standing on a balcony of the Akademie der Kunste, looking out at the Brandenburg Gate on my left and the French Embassy, on the other side of Pariser Platz, the morning after the truck drove through people on the streets of Nice, was a sobering experience. To don an Oculus Rift headset that merged the virtual and the real was more potent due to the events of the previous night. Carolyn Black, Flow Contemporary Art Projects
Whilst we were there, Pokemon Go became and unpredictable phenomenon. It may not claim to have any intellectual clout but I think it's a better cultural touchstone for the present and future of digital connectivity. It's mobile, viral, interactive, a source for memes and it's even proven to be a bit dangerous. It's not boring either. Phil Rushworth, Tamar River Project.
A collection of youtube videos in response to times spent in Berlin with VASW by Jack Wilson aka lewdjaw of East Bristol Contemporary
being denied a ride on josephine pryde's miniature train
cecile b evans film at kw (what the heart wants) feat. drake
meeting the 5th member of the curation team behind the berlin biennale (dis)
the DIS team talk about being denied access to various venues where they wanted to stage the biennale
julia stoshek collection feat. ed atkins
alexandre singh at spruth magers gallery
Working towards a South West where talented artists thrive, and a resilient and connected visual arts ecology that inspires more engaged and diverse audiences to value and advocate for its work.
Part of the Contemporary Visual Arts Network