Life in Berlin

The curators of the 9th Berlin Biennale, DIS, talk about getting to know the German capital


We first started spending a lot of time in Berlin in the autumn of 2014, when we were invited to curate the 9th Berlin Biennale. We would stay for three months at a time, then go back to New York to keep up our own artistic practices. In the first couple of months, before the weather got cold, we were walking around, riding bikes and taking tours with people who know the city well. We visited a lot of buildings and venues that aren’t otherwise open to the public, but we also did very typical touristy things. 

There’s an inherent irony in inviting four New Yorkers to curate a biennial in Berlin that has a history of making use of unexpected or undiscovered spaces around the city. So, for us, getting to know Berlin has necessarily been something of a crash course. It has also been a case of understanding the city in relation to our own expectations and preconceptions.

The Berlin Biennale really emphasizes the use of venues as a means of engaging with the public and creating a narrative. We didn’t want to do a biennial about history; we wanted to do a biennial that was rooted in the present moment – but there’s barely an inch of this city that’s not historical.

We were immediately struck by areas of commercial and touristic power: from the former no-man’s-land but now thoroughly developed Potsdamer Platz to the fully restored Pariser Platz where the Brandenburg Gate is located. We were also interested in political and transitional spaces like the new Berlin Brandenburg Airport, that was meant to open in 2010 but remains unfinished, which we would have loved to use as a venue. In fact, there were a lot of places that didn’t work out: the Paul-Löbe-Haus – a government building next to the Reichstag – is another one. 


European School of Management and Technology,  Berlin-Charlottenburg. Courtesy ESMT; photograph: Udo Meinel

European School of Management and Technology,  Berlin-Charlottenburg. Courtesy ESMT; photograph: Udo Meinel

We were particularly interested in the new architecture of Berlin, which is recognizable by its glass facades and large, empty atrium spaces. We also considered a number of temporary structures, such as the Humboldt-Box, which was built to inform visitors about the construction of the new Berlin City Palace Humboldt Forum. Arranging to lease any space for four months, however, is difficult. Everyone we’d meet would tell us about a place we should check out but, usually, we’d either already been there or it wasn’t available. This was also at a time when spaces were urgently needed to house refugees arriving in Berlin.

We were mostly looking for state-owned buildings, but many of them have been privatized and continue to be so: the former US Embassy was bought last year, for instance. We also visited a lot of giant, derelict former GDR government buildings. Those haven’t been bought because they’re literally falling apart – many have no running water or electricity, or are full of pools of tepid water. We even went to a former dentist’s office that had blood stains in it. 

For this Berlin Biennale, we wanted people to be able to walk to all the venues. From the outset, we were fascinated by the route from KW Institute for Contemporary Art to the Museum Island, then down Unter den Linden to Pariser Platz. To us, it seemed that typically touristy path was the antithesis of ‘finding new places’. Berlin is a site of projection and fantasy, but Pariser Platz isn’t. What struck us about that area were the hordes of tourists taking pictures with selfie sticks, with a network of unseen power all around them. On that square, right next to the US Embassy, is a building that houses the office of a weapons manufacturer. Across    the street, above the Starbucks, there’s an apartment that’s rented out for snipers to protect visiting world leaders. And, right on the other side of the Brandenburg Gate, there are often protests and demonstrations. So, there’s a really intense energy, and we were struck by the visible and invisible flows of capitalism and tourism there. 

We’ve also selected some places that local people tend to avoid, that we suspect Berliners may never have been to, or that aren’t usually open to the public. For instance, most people probably don’t realize that the DZ Bank building, next to Akademie der Künste, was designed by Frank Gehry – it’s exterior is very austere and severe, like something from a James Bond film. 

Then there were places we immediately fell in love with, like the European School of Management and Technology building, which was once home to the GDR state council. Today, it’s been privatized, but it’s also an important historical monument, so it’s impeccably preserved. Old socialist-realist mosaics and stained glass windows preside over live feeds of the German stock market and ergonomic business chairs. The school’s classrooms still have giant GDR mosaics but now they’re filled with executive students role-playing as CEOs. We’re using the unrenovated half of the building, which overlooks the construction site of the Berlin City Palace. The works we’re installing there deal with the paradoxes that the building embodies. We’re leaving one space completely untouched – the artist doesn’t even want us to remove the dust from the floor. And we’re installing work in Erich Honecker’s former meeting room, which has a giant metal relief on the wall that depicts themes of ‘peace in times of industry’. 


View of Museum Island showing, from left to right: Berlin Cathedral, Humboldt-Box and the Berlin Palace Humboldt Forum, April 2016. Photograph: Oliver Dignal

View of Museum Island showing, from left to right: Berlin Cathedral, Humboldt-Box and the Berlin Palace Humboldt Forum, April 2016. Photograph: Oliver Dignal

We’ve commissioned new works for almost all of the 45 installations in the Berlin Biennale, with only a few borrowed pieces. For certain spaces, we asked the artists to reformulate a concept or work in a way that pertained to the place. In Akademie der Künste, for example, we’re not using the exhibition spaces, we’re just using the glass-enclosed event spaces, so we had to choose a particular kind of work to fit.

One of the venues is a double-decker tour boat that goes down the river Spree, a popular sightseeing activity for visitors to Berlin. Part of the goal of this biennial was to have an    accidental audience. The boat will hold an installation, which will run all summer, and where we’ll have events every Saturday evening. The project includes an audio guide, offering a kind of ‘alternative’ tour of Berlin. 

The biennial website is also a venue. We designed it as another platform, distinct from the exhibition. There will be artists that are represented on the website and in posters – even on the cover of the catalogue – who are not in the physical show. It’s a very uneven and unbalanced exhibition in that way. We wanted people to be able to experience the biennial even if they can’t make it to Berlin. Of course, it will be a completely different experience. 

Through this process of curating the 9th Berlin Biennale, we got into the idea of being tourists – not just tourists in a foreign country but tourists within the institution, and within the biennial. It feels as though we’re going to have a long relationship with Berlin now that we’ve been introduced. 

As told to frieze associate editor Christy Lange.

DIS is a New York-based collective that includes Lauren Boyle, Solomon Chase, Marco Roso and David Toro. They are the curators of the 9th Berlin Biennale, which runs from 4 June until 18 September 2016.

Issue 179

First published in Issue 179

May 2016

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