Free the Synapses!

The Berlin Biennale overlooks the fact that art doesn’t need to be didactic.

Yuyan Wang, The Moon Also Rises, 2022. Video still.

The twelfth instalment of the Berlin Biennale extends across six locations in central Berlin, most of them distinguished cultural centres. Titled Still Present!, the biennial aims to show the effects of European colonialism in a broad sense. The French-Algerian, Berlin-based artist Kader Attia – who is often considered one of the foremost exponents of the discourse surrounding decolonisation in art – and his curatorial team have created a sprawling biennial that addresses issues such as the repatriation of objects and remains taken from formerly colonised groups, the living conditions of Indigenous Peoples, resource extraction, and the climate crisis. A significant part of the exhibition is also devoted to feminist works, with emphasis on the experiences of women in countries outside the West. 

On a more general – and original – level, the biennial views colonialism in the context of techno-capitalism: data collection, but also the algorithmic image streams and app alerts that clamour for our attention. At the press conference, Attia talked about how we should not let the apparatus of techno-capitalism, such as social media, control our political awareness. This perspective is undoubtedly present in many of the works on display and can be understood as an extension of the decolonisation movement as it appears in contemporary art, in line with the analyses of Achille Mbembe and others. For example, Mbembe points out that political subjectivity today is very much shaped by media technology, and highlights the need to restore a concept of knowledge that does not reduce knowledge to information processing.

Many of the works in the exhibition are documentary in nature, addressing a single, specific event or the history of a given place. The most well-rounded part of the exhibition is at the Akademie der Künste (Hanseatenweg), where documentary content is accompanied by a more poetic register. It begins in a series of smaller rooms with works that address social and ecological crises caused by colonialism in the broadest sense. Yuyan Wang’s video installation The Moon Also Rises (2022) is an excellent example of this breadth of scope. The video meditates on how man-made light has an adverse effect on the environment. Images of winged insects among scientific instruments slide into images of tunnels and walls decorated with glittering LED lights and recognisable as the type of architecture found in the shopping malls of Southeast Asia. Ammar Bouras’s installation 24°3′55″N 5°3′23″E (2012/2017/2022) connects to a more traditional understanding of the concept of colonialism, documenting the ripple effects of French nuclear tests conducted during the 1960s at In Ekker, Algeria through photo montages and video interviews with locals. Specimen (2014) by Mai Nguyen-Long comprises a shelf filled with laboratory glassware containing doll parts and replicas of tissue samples and mutated organs. A visceral illustration of the consequences of the United States’ use of chemical weapons (Agent Orange) during the Vietnam War, but in the context of the exhibition it can be linked more generally to weapons that strike arbitrarily and inflict damage over generations.

Mai Nguyễn-Long, Specimen (Permate), 2022. Jam jars, found objects, organic matter. Photo:

Further inside the exhibition at Akademi, the documentary and analytical strategies are supplemented by more expressive approaches – without making them less critical in their outlook. In the large open room at the back of the venue, a free-standing wall is filled with drawings done in black ink and pencil, either on paper or directly on the wall. Called The Stray Dogs (2022), this work by Florian Song Nguyen depicts dogs with wild eyes and barking mouths. These animals come across as unruly and alien, in stark contrast to the anthropomorphised animals found in everything from nature documentaries and art to children’s movies. Tuan Andrew Nguyen’s video installation My Ailing Beliefs Can Cure Your Wretched Desires (2017) expresses a similar interest in human-animal relationships, but allows itself to be precisely anthropomorphic in order to speak on the animals’ behalf. Two projections display images of people handling animals in markets, temples, museums, and zoos. A dialogue between two voices – a Javan rhinoceros and turtle – discuss whether it would be right and proper to gather the animals in revolt in response to humankind elevating itself above other species. Extensive use of slow motion and a soundtrack with electronic sounds and distorted Asian string instruments give the video a hypnotic drive. Nguyen prioritises mythology and magic over cool analysis with deliciously creative results.

Placed right next to Nguyen’s work, the investigation/research group Forensic Architecture’s video installation Cloud Studies (2022) feels more didactic by comparison. Part of the work shows how the group constructed a digital model of a specific type of tear-gas canister which it then used to teach a neural network how to recognise such canisters in photographs published online. Overall, the video shows many examples of how the manipulation of volatile atmospheric phenomena – gases and clouds – is used to exercise control. Forensic Architecture’s use of data collection and image analysis is fascinating, precisely because such techniques are used by states and multinational companies to hone their surveillance or marketing. It is one of several works in the biennial that demonstrate how the tools of techno-capitalism can be turned against it.

At Hamburger Bahnhof, the many rooms along the corridor on the west side of the building contain several works which feature visualisations of data. Lawrence Abu Hamdan, a contributor to several of Forensic Architecture’s projects, has been a particular favourite on the biennial circuit in recent years. His work Air Conditioning (2022) is a continuous frieze of photo prints on aluminium plates mounted along three of four walls in a large gallery. The prints depict computer-generated storm clouds against clear skies. Each centimetre of the work represents one day of information on the number of Israeli drones and fighter jets in the air over Lebanon, with larger clouds indicating more aircraft and higher noise levels. Patches with nothing but blue sky indicate that data is missing. In total, the frieze represents a period of fifteen years of military incursions and sound pollution.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Driss Ouadahi, installation view, 12th Berlin Biennale, Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart – Berlin.
Photo: Laura Fiorio

The same gallery contains two paintings by Driss Ouadahi. Aerohabitat (2022) depicts a translucent structure resembling a building surrounded by clouds and dreamlike hints of immaculate urban architecture. It’s rather like a phantasm of the online cloud – or perhaps a visualisation of techno-capitalism’s notions of an ideal society. The contrast between this image and the military-industrial complex represented by Abu Hamdan’s dark clouds points towards the two opposing poles inherent in techno-capitalism: freedom of information for some and subjugation for others.

Ouahadi’s second painting, Neon (2016), mounted on the same wall, is a diptych depicting a tiled corridor illuminated from above by cassettes; it’s a scene which, to me, looks like a train station of some sort. The subject is divided in the middle at the exact point where the lines of central perspective converge. This cleaved perspective may represent how our attention is often divided between a physical space and its digital representation on a device when navigating an urban environment. Given that one-point perspective was an innovation that enabled us to measure and represent the world through rational means, Quahadi’s divided central perspective can also be linked to how digital services perpetuate the West’s knowledge systems at the expense of other ways of looking at the world.

Noel W. Anderson’s monumental textiles hang from the walls and ceilings of several of the rooms at Hamburger Bahnhoff. Line Up (2016–17) is a wall-hung textile depicting a black-and-white photograph, presumably from the 1960s, showing two armed white policemen supervising several Black men wearing only underwear, their hands cuffed behind their backs as they stand pushed up against a wall. Parts of the image are rippled, a distortion that presumably symbolises the mass media’s contribution to the prejudiced notion that young Black men are dangerous and violent. The choice of material for this fabric, cotton, also seems important: distorted notions about Black people have been woven into American culture since the days when the country became an economic superpower through the work of enslaved Black people on cotton plantations.

Noel W Anderson, Praneet Soi, installation view, 12th Berlin Biennale, Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart – Berlin.
Photo: Laura Fiorio.

Jean-Jacques Lebel’s installation Solvable Poison. Scenes from the American Occupation in Baghdad (2013) revisits the repulsive photographs of American soldiers torturing and abusing prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. These images have been enlarged and printed on plastic sheets which combine to form a labyrinth that visitors move through. Whichever way one turns, battered bodies and soldiers with sick smiles and blank stares are just a few centimetres away – blood and gore are smeared across the floor in many of the scenes. The implication is clear: dehumanisation and violence remain the foremost tools of colonialism.

At KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Mitte, the focus is on art with a feminist slant, with emphasis on the life experiences of women outside the West. This part of the exhibition relies rather too heavily on the presentation of research, reproduced on posters or in videos with an explanatory voiceover, often with little aesthetic elaboration. Gone too is the balance between the expansive installations and the more poetic or precise individual works found at the Akademie der Künste (Hanseatenweg) and the Hamburger Bahnhof. The many small upstairs galleries at KW are organised particularly poorly, overloaded with installations without any regard for rhythm or the feel of the rooms. The section of the biennial located at the Akademi der Kunste (Pariserplatz) suffers from a similar predominance of research presented in emphatically didactic packaging. Here, the issue addressed concerns repatriating objects in European museums and the knowledge systems of Indigenous Peoples, but too often the presentation becomes the mainstay of the artwork. Parisplatz features far fewer works than KW in total, so the need for curatorial editing feels somewhat less urgent.

Seven works are shown at the Stasi-Zentrale Campus for Demokratie, all of which address surveillance in some form. Inside a cupboard in the venue’s cloakroom are three mobile phones showing Omer Fast’s video A Place Which Is Ripe (2020), in which two policemen talk about video surveillance of public places (so-called CCTV) in the UK. They talk about CCTV’s contribution to solving  well-known murder cases, as well as the techniques that the police use to recognise people attempting to disguise their appearance, including, apparently, close inspection of the shape of their ears. Zach Blas’s Facial Weaponization Suite (2012–14) includes several grotesque and lumpy masks which are, in fact, aggregates of biometric face information from workshops arranged by the artist. One mask, The pejoratively titled Fag Face Mask, is based exclusively on the faces of gay men. According to an accompanying video, the work was created in response to an algorithm that can assess men’s sexual orientation with a relatively high success rate. A dilemma arises: how much monitoring of public places is reasonable, given that it involves the spread of technologies that can help automate ethnic or sexual profiling?

Zach Blas, Facial Weaponization Communiqué: Fag Face, 2012. Video still.

Haig Aivazian’s They May Own the Lanterns But We Have the Light (2022) is a black-and-white animated film and a beautiful magical-realist story about a couple who go to a bar in a city where, for unknown reasons, all the lights are turned off at night. Their daughter, who is asleep at home, has strange dreams before it all ends with the parents arriving back home again. Some of the animations are new, while others seem to be appropriated from classic cartoons. The work creates associative connections between light, dreams, animation, and film, while also addressing the practicalities of life in places with an unstable power supply, such as Lebanon.

Critiques of techno-capitalism tend to regard its constant claim on our attention and its profit-motivated collection of data as a neo-colonial totalising entity, one that is almost impossible to oppose, whether collectively or individually. In his most recent book, Scorched Earth (2022), art historian Johnathan Crary describes the internet as more or less worthless. To Crary, the web is “the digital counterpart of the vast rapidly expanding garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean,” something that is not even worth trying to save from the clutches of tech companies, a structure best shut down. In the pamphlet Psychopolitics (2017), German philosopher Byung-Chul Han writes that “abrupt change from image to image, from information to information, has made any contemplative conclusion impossible.”

Might the art experience offer a return to a more contemplative mode beyond the distractions of techno-capitalism? Attia claims something along these lines in his curatorial essay: “Standing before a work of art, the spectator is plunged into another temporality, radically different from that of their environment, inaccessible to the insatiable appetite of algorithmic governance.” Attia’s reminder of art as a break away from the screen’s ceaseless theft of our attention is certainly sympathetic, and I often “use” art in this way in my own life. At the same time, I believe that Still Present! misses an important point, namely that art does not need be politically didactic to offer an effective break. The cognitive investment in art is in and of itself a political act, one which does not depend on the concrete “content” of that art.

Haig Aivazian, They May Own the Lanterns But We Have the Light, 2022. Video still.

Translated from Norwegian.

Still Present!
Berlin Biennial, Berlin

Participating artists: Alex Prager, Amal Kenawy, Ammar Bouras, Antonio Recalcati, Enrico Baj, Erró, Gianni Dova, Jean-Jacques Lebel, Roberto Crippa, Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, Asim Abdulaziz, Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, Binta Diaw, Birender Yadav, Calida Garcia Rawles, Christine Safatly, Clément Cogitore, DAAR—Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti, Dana Levy, Đào Châu Hải, David Chavalarias, Deneth Piumakshi Veda Arachchige, Driss Ouadahi, Dubréus Lhérisson, Elske Rosenfeld, Etinosa Yvonne, Florian Sông Nguyễn, Forensic Architecture, Haig Aivazian, Hasan Özgür Top, Imani Jacqueline Brown, Jean-Jacques Lebel, Jeneen Frei Njootli, Jihan El-Tahri, João Polido, Khandakar Ohida, Lamia Joreige, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Layth Kareem, Mai Nguyễn-Long, Maithu Bùi, Marta Popivoda/Ana Vujanović, Mathieu Pernot, Mayuri Chari, Mila Turajlić, Mónica de Miranda, Moses März, Myriam El Haïk, Ngô Thành Bắc, Nil Yalter, Noel W Anderson, Olivier Marboeuf, Omer Fast, PEROU—Pôle d’Exploration des Ressources Urbaines, Prabhakar Kamble, Praneet Soi, Raed Mutar, Sajjad Abbas, Sammy Baloji, Simone Fattal, Susan Schuppli, Susana Pilar, Sven Johne, Taloi Havini, Tammy Nguyen, Taysir Batniji, Tejswini Narayan Sonawane, Temitayo Ogunbiyi, The School of Mutants (Boris Raux, Hamedine Kane, Lou Mo, Stéphane Verlet Bottéro, Valérie Osouf), Thùy-Hân Nguyễn-Chí, Tuấn Andrew Nguyễn, Uriel Orlow, Yuyan Wang, Zach Blas, Zuzanna Hertzberg.


Curator: Kader Attia.