STEPPING OFF MY FLIGHT from Los Angeles and into Tegel airport, my eyes serendipitously met the Aviator shades of artist-comedienne and fellow Angeleno Casey Jane Ellison. She was delighted to light a cigarette only feet from the arrivals hall. Extinguished, we got a taxi to Mitte while she explained the “Google Roast” she was in town to do, which was Not in the Berlin Biennale. That’s a proper designation for a series of acutely tangential performances and activities planned throughout Berlin this summer, which in fact are organized under the auspices of the DIS-curated ninth edition, #BB9, “The Present in Drag.”
But that evening, all eyes were on Düsseldorf video art collector extraordinaire (and KW board member) Julia Stoschek, whose Leipziger Straße pop-up space was inaugurated with the assistance of countless models and BMWs starkly branded JSC. Only the latter, sadly, whisked us down the street to a dinner for the artists, who included Josh Kline, Rachel Rose, Ed Atkins, and Neïl Beloufa. The show is called “Welt am Draht” (World on a Wire), after Fassbinder’s cult 1970s sci-fi TV movie, in which the protagonists discover they the technology they are perfecting—a total simulation of the world indistinguishable to its participants from actual reality—is only a new version of a similar computer program they are already living inside.
As parallels go, the aggregation of the very good, very popular media artists in this show also seems microcosmic, in that they are so frequently grouped as delegates of the zeitgeist in exhibitions anywhere else in the world, not to mention the biennial, set to preview in the morning. The site of dinner also presented an ironic simulacrum of iconic Berlin: Crackers, a legendary technoclub that has been converted into a palatial farm-to-table restaurant. Stoschek ascended a decommissioned DJ platform to deliver an address in German, followed by remarks by new Berliner Chris Dercon of the Volksbühne, who eloquently cautioned how cities have destroyed themselves—Barcelona with tourism, Paris with luxury, and London with finance. He praised Berlin as a “city of transformation,” and Stoschek as a collector who is “preparing us for different futures… not an Einzelganger, thank god”—which, meaning “lone wolf,” was translated for me as something that could imply “gentrifier.”
The Berlin Biennale press conference the following day was held somewhere immune to gentrification: the Allianz Forum at the Brandenburg Gate, the very nucleus of Berlin tourist activity. Across the platz was the Akademie der Künste, which with KW is one of the two largest venues of the exhibition. On site, ploughing through the racks of actual/conceptual Telfar merchandise to the cafe serving artist-curated green juices I spotted Pin-Up editor Felix Burrichter, another native Düsseldorfer, who was giving and receiving air kisses from all angles—“This is like a destination wedding!” On the roof, a stable of Jon Rafman sculptures depicting animals gulping one another were the analog counterparts to a VR demonstration that had Biennale founder Klaus Biesenbach and a phalanx of MoMA trustees ambling toward the edge with arms outstretched. Stuart Comer echoed the earlier sentiment—“This is a glossary of post-internet”—not just the works on view, but the throngs of artists who were making their way up and down the skywalks connecting the uncannily corporate-looking art school, the most apt setting imaginable for DIS.
Some took the near tropical weather as an excuse to lunch outside the Adlon (from which Michael Jackson once dangled his baby son Blanket) next door, before moving on to other venues. Telfar sat with the quasi-anonymous designer of the label 69 and creative director Babak Radboy, also the brains behind the Not in the Biennial sidebar. Radboy insinuated that he was contractually prevented from explicating the meaning of his program to the table belonging to New Museum trustee Laura Skoler, Defne Ayas, and a number of other Dutch curators.
There was a bustle across Mitte at KW, the ancestral home of the biennial. Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, Sarah Arison, and several other members of the MoMA squad were arriving at Cafe Bravo as a constant stream drifted past Colombian artist Juan Sebastián Peláez’s towering cutout of a headless Rihanna and through the front doors of the museum. It was reported that more than one person slipped and fell into the pools of water flanking the path to Cecile B. Evan’s otherworldly installation. The kitty litter lining the floor around Josh Kline’s video in the basement sopped up any residual wetness: Weeping avatars of villains like Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice were digitally grafted onto anonymous actors’ faces using facial-replacement technology.
Whiplashing back to Brandenburger Tor in what seemed like the city’s only Uber with the Museum of Art and Design’s Katerina Llanes, we came across a high-security afternoon toast at the American Embassy. (In general, Berlin seems to have beefed up its doors in anticipation of an unprecedented crush of pushy American hipsters.) USA-Germany art-world diplomats Calla Henkel and Max Pitegoff were joined by all the other Americans in the show, along with the curators, who as individual citizens are known as Lauren Boyle, Solomon Chase, Marco Roso, and David Toro. Klinking gave way to remarks by the ambassador, John B. Emerson. “The ambass-adorable” referring to his wife, Kimberly Marteau Emerson, “and I wish you a fabulous, paradessential Berlin Bienniale!” The second neologism, combining paradox and essence, is a vocab word central to DIS’s framing of the exhibition, a certain quality they hunted for in their curation of venues, which, in addition to KW and AdK, included the European School of Management and Technology (with an airtight trio of works by Simon Denny, Katja Novitskova, and the collective GCC), a former bunker which now hosts the Feuerle Collection (where a fashion show by local designer Nhu Duong and Karl Holmqvist took place), and a tourist riverboat tricked out by Korakrit Arunanondchai and Alex Gvojic into a floating club (smoke, lasers, strobes) and belowdeck cinema for a new work made with Boychild.
The artist dinner that night at the kitschy grown-up dancing establishment Clärchens Ballhaus, across Auguststrasse from KW, was heavier on the wine with ice cubes than food. Biennale director Gabriele Horn presided over a room of sweaty, merry people who danced their way away from the art-world jet-set small talk of the morning and into a state of after-darking more appropriate to Berlin.
For most, Friday, whenever it began, was for galleries. A spate were opening shows that evening, and coupled with those that had already done so with Berlin Gallery Weekend, a laundry list—Galerie Guido W. Baudach, Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Galerie Buchholz, Buchmann Galerie, Carlier | Gebauer, Mehdi Chouakri, Delmes & Zander, Galerie Eigen + Art, Konrad Fischer Galerie, Michael Fuchs Galerie, Kewenig, Kicken Berlin, Klemm’s, König Galerie, Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Meyer Riegger, Galerie Neu, neugerriemschneider, Galerija Gregor Podnar, Esther Schipper / Johnen Galerie, Supportico Lopez, Galerie Barbara Thumm, and Wentrup—hosted a banquet at the Spree-adjacent Grill Royal, famous for its opulent meats. Lacking the bloodthirst of more vertical market cities, everyone just got along splendidly. Curiously, a tapestry hung over the tufted banqueters that read BERGHAIN, and, more to the point, a neon sign over the riverside terrace, replete with smokers, flickered CAPITALISM KILLS LOVE. Between this and the official Berlin Biennale album release party–cum–shopping event at the ground-floor boutique at Soho House the following night, it was evident even to the only occasional visitors that Berlin, too, struggles with the cushy plagues that Dercon had named at the Stoschek event.
After dinner, Flash Art hosted a Berlin edition of Venus X’s Ghe20 G0th1k party at another ballhaus on Chausseestrasse, this one with limited capacity. So in the courtyard, roughly a thousand folks unable to impress the severe bouncers (or to penetrate the layers of bodies cocooning them) drank beers and did other things in the perfect summer air. Around maybe 3 AM I bumped into artist Britta Thie, whose work at the Stoschek Collection deals explicitly with the colonization of her city by English-speaking arts professionals. “This is like the season finale!” she said, surveying the hof. “The last episode of the eight years I’ve lived here.”
Wherever you lived, as long as you had a pied-à-terre online, there were enough familiar faces to imagine all kinds of montages and credit sequences. The exhibition, too, felt like a culmination to something that would probably resist calling itself a movement. With artworks, performances, talks, writing, an album, comedy, marketing, the works, “The Present in Drag,” as flamboyantly immoderate as it purports, is an exhibitionistic Gesamtkunstwerk, produced in a total way that most shows today are still too self-conscious to be.