When American Radicals Take Over the Berlin Bienniale

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At this year’s Berlin Bienniale, the organizers address war, terror, and migration via virtual reality and drones—while elevating the voices of refugees.

By Kaya Genç

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Josh Klein’s Crying Games at the 2016 Berlin Bienniale. (Photo: Timo Ohler)

In a basement room in Berlin last week, I listened to Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and George W. Bush as they apologized for having invaded Iraq. “Oh I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” Dubya said in a tremulous Texan accent. “Oh God what have I done? All those people….” The ex-president’s voice shook, and his posture signaled an impending meltdown, and for a moment you forgot you were looking at a hologram. “Dubya,” of course, was what they call a virtual actor or a digital clone, and we watched as this pixelated doppelgänger of the 43rd president braced for a panic attack.

The installation, Crying Games, occupies a bunker-like space in the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, one of the main venues of this year’s Berlin Bienniale. Josh Kline, the New York-based artist who conceived the piece, has covered the floor with sand, and the result feels at once like a chapel, a desert, and a prison cell.

Berlin, that citadel of European hipsters, is achingly cool, a city of refuge for contemporary artists who want state support and affordable rent, and one of the results of this influx is seen in the changing face of the Bienniale. Alongside the Kassel-based documenta exhibition, the Berlin Biennale is one of Germany’s two leading contemporary arts events. First held in 1998, it presents Berlin as a city on the move. The event was born from a simple idea: If Germany’s cultural capital would be home to a hybrid culture, it would need the Biennale whose form nicely accommodates the hybridization of arts.

This year’s Bienniale takes the technology of war and repurposes it to make sense of contemporary terror.

I suppose I felt pulled in two directions as I watched the former architects of American foreign policy coming close to tears in front of me (Condoleezza Rice joined Rumsfeld and Cheney shortly after I arrived). True, the apology was merely a computer-generated illusion, effected on the blank heads of actors via face-substitution software. Yet there was still meaning, as a Middle Easterner, in hearing words of remorse from politicians, just for once. Even as a hologram.

New York’s art establishment has taken over Berlin this year. In the first week of June, curators of leading American contemporary art museums could be seen rushing through the city’s touristic heart; at a party in SAVVY, a contemporary art space located in a former crematorium from the 1910s, docents and directors burned calories while dancing to the tunes of local DJs. Also present at the former crematorium were editors of DIS, the “post-Internet lifestyle magazine” famous for its sub-sections that begin with the oppositional prefix: Dysmorphia, Dystopia, Distaste and so on.

Contrarianism is at the heart of the current festival, which makes sense, since the editors of DIS occupy the curatorial seat at this year’s Bienniale.

DIS’s fantastical take on issues, from virtual reality to Big Data to immigration, has not pleased all comers. A leading Turkish curator called their show “the most intolerable Bienniale I can remember from the last 25 years.” The Guardian’s Jason Farago complains of the show’s digital nihilism and focuses on a slogan used in its advertising campaign (“Why should fascists have all the fun?) — “so shameless it treats even the comeback of fascism as a joke.” Hyperallergic’s Dorian Batycka laments that the Bienniale “negates any positive social vision in favor of fantasy, spectacle, and commodity fetishism.”

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Jon Rafman’s View of Pariser Platz. (Photo: Timo Ohler)

In a more genial vein, the artistic directors of the German Federal Cultural Foundation, who fund the event, call the DIS curatorship of the Bienniale’s ninth edition “a friendly takeover.” (DIS was picked for the job by the Bienniale’s selection committee.) The idea, according to GFCF directors Hortensia Völckers and Alexander Farenholtz, is to show Germans “what today’s Berlin looks like as viewed from the Big Apple: a global metropolis, nervous, tech-savvy, populated by tourists, polyglot, in love with new beginnings,” and so on. Far from treating totalitarianism as a mere joke, this year’s Bienniale takes the technology of war, including drones, and repurposes it to make sense of contemporary terror.

In Jon Rafman’s View of Pariser Platz, it is a virtual-reality headset that defines our experience of Berlin. Rafman’s View is installed on the fourth floor of Akademie der Künste, in a terrace overlooking the Brandenburg Gate and the Pariser Platz. It is an unsettling and dizzying work and features sculptures of animals (a dog, an iguana, a lion, and a sloth, lined up on the terrace like uncanny signposts) that come to life once you put on the virtual-reality headset. Moments after putting on my own headset I inadvertently started walking toward the Pariser Platz. (Had I continued, I would have walked into a fellow visitor and, shortly thereafter, off the ledge.) The view of the Brandenburg Gate and surrounding protestors suddenly transformed before my eyes: The sky darkened, bodies started flying in the air, and I could hear myself asking aloud what the hell was going on. A few moments later, the floor of the terrace crumbled — in this manufactured reality, I fell down into a deep hole and arrived at a field populated by an endless army of mannequins. Some people fainted while interacting with Rafman’s video. Small wonder. The work doesn’t just exploit an iconic tourist trap—it turns that “tourist trap” into a literal, and terrifying, experience of falling into an abyss of ruin.

Following me throughout my visit was a line from a piece by Adrian Piper, a New York artist, one of whose installations feature this quotation from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: “Once you have taken everything away from a man, he is no longer in your power. He is free.”

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Video still from Halil Altindere’s Homeland. (Photo: Halil Altindere/Pilot Gallery, Istanbul)

Solzhenitsyn’s negative understanding of freedom finds a fascinating expression in Homeland, the new video by Turkish artist Halil Altındere whose work runs strongly counter to the portrayal of the Biennale as apolitical, cynical, or crypto-fascist. The nine-minute video opens with the view of a war-torn Syrian city as seen from a camera mounted on a drone. From the rubble of destroyed apartment blocks, the video cuts to an Edenic scene by the sea, where a group of serene-looking women do yoga on a wooden pier. “We take a deep breath,” the yoga instructor says, watching the beautiful Aegean sea just ahead of them. “Feel your body…. Focus on your breath….” The peace-filled moment is cut short, though, with the sudden appearance of Syrian refugees who materialize, wearing life vests, on the beach: The viewer reads a strong and desperate determination on their faces — so different from the yoga crew’s blithe quest for tranquility. The soundtrack comes from Mohammad Abu Hajar, a Berlin-based Syrian singer, who raps about his journey from Syria to Istanbul’s Bosphorus Bridge and, from there, to Angela Merkel’s Berlin. In the second part of the video, we watch Abu Hajar as he jumps and flies in the air like a comic book superhero. “Here is Sykes-Picot under my foot / I step on your border fence,” he raps, name-checking the controversial agreement that drew the borders of the Middle East and is often blamed for having helped foment the region’s modern problems.

Premiering exactly a century after the signing of the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916, Altındere’s video feels insistently relevant in 2016. Its technique, too, feels significant. In Homeland, multiple drone cameras film refugees in a variety of spots: on war-torn streets, in front of the Troy War Horse in Turkey (a great poke at those who accuse immigrants of being “Trojan Horses” for terrorism), in the underground tunnels of Istanbul’s Basilica Cistern, and in Berlin’s Tempelhof airport, which now serves as a refugee camp. The piece is a fitting capstone to the 2016 Bienniale, where the computerized apologies of politicians were overshadowed, finally, by the voices of the disadvantaged and desperate.

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