The highly anticipated 9th edition of the Berlin Biennale is the type of digital media feast we’d all hoped it would be. Inexplicable and new, no compromises have been made for those unable to keep up with its ambitious if sometimes convoluted theme.

The curators behind this year’s Biennale, DIS, have avoided the desperate tone of “the present”, by instead presenting “The Present in Drag”— the title of the 2016 edition. It brings into sharp focus the unresolvable contradictions that characterize our daily lives, and all with an optimistic thrust to provoke a whole new set of questions about art.

DIS have stated that the “age of the customized sneaker… algorithmic taste, and individuated diet regimes has splintered the universal into a multiplicity of differences.” At a time when the individual is of more significance than ever, individuality has been shattered into fragments by contradictory forces. As though reflecting this statement the ground floor hall of the Akademie der Kunste has been transformed into a concept store, with the consumer products presented as artworks. Artist Débora Delmar Corp. is promoting a drink called Mint and made a juice bar to sell it. Surrounded by enormous banners with the heads missing from the tabloid style photographs, the work comments on the obsessive marketing structures that lie behind health products. With food now a luxury product, the project explores how social consciousness is “reinforced by consumer habits.” At Berlin Biennale 9, a translucent version of the liquid is sold together with the catalog.

Rare Candy, image from Centre For Style USA TOUR: NY, 2015, Right: Debora Delmar Corp., MINT Juice Ad, 2016, digital image

The mandate behind this Biennale materializes the multifarious contradictions that make up the world in 2016; the private versus public, the virtual as real, nations as brands, people as data, and happiness as GDP.

Simon Denny and Linda Kantchev’s compelling piece based on fair booths is in a typically well-chosen and provocative location in the European School of Management and Technologies, formerly the East German State Council. In Blockchain Visionaries, 2016, the artists highlight the manner in which human connectivity and interaction is broken down and monetized, showcasing three actual companies at the forefront of digital monetary platforms that use blockchain—a database technology that forms the structure of the denationalized cryptocurrency BitCoin. Making use of the postage stamp, an almost defunct technology and a literal image turned currency, Denny reveals the supranational economic schemes practiced by potential multi-nationals. Located in the former site of the East German State Council, the backdrop of the installation is a large Socialist Realism mural featuring the chimneys of a past industrial age—a reminder of the promises once offered by older technologies, in this case the same non-hierarchical promises that became betrayals. 

Simon Denny with Linda Kantchev, Blockchain Visionaries, 2016, mixed media

Simon Fujiwara’s installations often question the way we conventionally experience artwork, and in his work Happy Museum, 2016, made alongside his brother, an economist working in the field of “happiness economics”, objects indicating the wellbeing of Berliners are presented in vitrines or on plinths. Part archaeological display and part high-end shop, they form a carefully selected and crafty materialization of econometric data. These objects offer a view of a reborn Germany, beloved in the world, featuring regional white asparagus and Lufthansa employees with their uniforms painted directly onto their skin. The random collection presents a country satisfied and at ease, a country that, according to economic and happiness indications, is altogether a little too pleased with itself.

Simon Fujiwara, The Happy Museum, 2016, Mixed media

Anna Uddenberg’s sculptural figures form a contorted dehumanized ring throughout the Akademie der Kunste. Focusing on the self-reflexive narcissistic behavior of contemporary society, one figure (pictured top) takes an intimate selfie of her butt with the aid of a selfie stick. Another does the splits in front of the mirror. As though unable to exist without an audience, Uddenberg seeks to capture the aspirational persona—as opposed to the people—that dominate social media. Offering amusing yet critical observations about the presentation of the self, the viewer is left to answer the question of whether these works pieces are satire or homage to contemporary lifestyles.

Also featured in the AdK is the work Dress Rehersal, 2016 by the Melbourne-based Centre for Style, a curatorial fashion platform run by Matthew Linde. Its ephemeral arrangements and haphazard DIY feel is a welcome contrast to the Biennale’s overall slickness. It gives a compelling articulation of what fashion might look like outside the parameters of commerce and the “high-definition gloss of the post-internet.” Filled with detritus, shreds of clothing, and deconstructed chairs, we are reminded that fashion produces communities, not just clothes.

Cécile B. Evans, What the Heart Wants, 2016, HD video

DIS recognizes the desperation involved in taking hold of the present and by embracing art’s redundancy they seek to celebrate our complicity in its fictions—“A world in which investing in fiction is more profitable than betting on reality.” More than anything you get a sense that within this uncertainty DIS have brought together artists energized by it. Anyone can begin to build an “alternative present”, anyone with the tools of visual and political persuasion can distort the present, even in drag.