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Explorations of the Body, Digitally & In-Person: KW Berlin Biennale Opening

“You know, these are like the coolest people in Berlin, all here right now,” was the first thing my friend Clara said as we arrived at the KW Institute of Contemporary Art on Friday evening. A mix of hipsters, gallerists, dancers, actors and a veritable feast of consignment store buys and quirky trends were the first taste of contemporary “art” on June 3rd. The event was the opening of the Berlin Biennale, now in its ninth year. Beers and Aperol Spritzes abounded as people gathered to discuss the works of Alexandra Pirici and Cécile B. Evans on display at KW for the Biennale. Meanwhile, further event venues include the Akademie der Künste, ESMT European School of Management and Technology, the Feurle Collection, and Blue-Star sightseeing boat.

At the KW I was riveted by each work’s exploration of the human body, both digitally and in person. Both artists relied on digital media as well as the physical form as instruments for their study, but the extent of the gendering and sexualization of said bodies was where the artists expressed their variation. In Pirici’s exhibition, the performers’ bodies were vehicles for further messages. Whereas in Evans’ work the exploration was the body itself, more specifically, the female body, both gendered and sexualized.

Signals” by Alexandra Pirici is a performance piece with eleven performers. It is an ongoing action wherein, through a content-ranking algorithm, a live feed is determined and then physically interpreted by the performers. Their prompt response to each stimulus demonstrates the forethought of this physical score. The performers are dressed in black motion-capture suits, and although no actual motion is captured, their costuming further contributes to a desexualization and simultaneous near-objectification of their bodies. They are in and of technology desexualized vehicles for the viewer’s preference-based live feed score. The darkness of the room, its small physical dimensions, and the necessary crouching of its viewers evokes an intimate, ritual atmosphere.

This highly-coordinated ambiance contrasting with the sometimes obscene vocal cues—things like “Boston Dynamics four-legged robot kicked aside”—creates a vivid atmosphere of confusion. Indeed, juxtaposition runs rampant in this piece as the song “Hell You Talmbout”, a protest song by Janelle Monáe, mentions names like Trayvon Martin, Emmett Till and many more victims of police brutality. This song is set in direct contrast with the cheerleader-like clapping and rhythmic pacing of the dancers’ chant. Meanwhile, their expressions are blank and uncompromising, and the steady rhythm of their clapping evokes a grotesque sense of expectancy, a kind of resignation to the horror of the events to which they allude. Directly thereafter, in the “Donald Trump rally song”, we witness another powerful juxtaposition in the xenophobic song lyrics contrasted with the dancers’ cheerful Rockette-like movement vocabulary. All of this meets yet further contrast with the depersonalized and desexualized nature of the movers’ bodies. Are they human? Or are they simply the vehicles of the viewers’ preferences? Like your Facebook newsfeed, these performers exist due to the algorithm of your choosing: they are at your disposal. The obscenity of each stimulus—now “Wailing Wall of Jerusalem”, now something else—further demonstrate the meaninglessness and lack of coherence of the daily stimuli we all experience in this modern, digital age.

The second piece on display at the KW Institute was Cécile B. Evans’ “What the Heart Wants”. Here you enter a darkened room with a large screen playing Evans’ film, which is surrounded by water, and you have to queue in order to be admitted onto the viewing platform. Once you’ve been allowed onto the catwalk you are immediately immersed in Hyper’s world. Hyper is the “main character” of the piece, a Laura Kroft-esque sex kitten who is actually a system. Her lips and breast are voluptuous and her voice is husky and languid, and yet she is faceless. Her facelessness furthers the objectified, overtly-sexual nature of her being. She radiates gender stereotype and sexuality, and her facelessness speaks to the dysfunction of this hypersexualization.

Female objectification is alive and well, but it leads to dysfunction in Evans’ universe. It seems that Evans is attempting to explore how the cultural constructs of masculinity and femininity function in our digital age. Hyper navigates a defective world. An apocalyptic event has befallen this universe, an event which has left each inhabitant unable to communicate effectively. These communicative dysfunctions are exemplified by a romantic letter which is then answered by a suicide note, floating ears, disfigured lovers, and floating microbes. Amidst this, the only system which seems to continue functioning is faceless Hyper. Just as the communication between characters is fragmented, so too is Hyper’s physicality, expressed in the absence of such an integral part—her face. The audience is thus forced to examine their own attempts to carve meaning out of a digital world dictated by overstimulation and oversimplification.

Both Pirici and Evans have created topical works of complexity which lay bare the objectification and sexualization of our digital age. The efficacy of these two pieces is a testament to the careful curation of the Berlin Biennale. Furthermore, the KW Institute’s facilities—and reasonably priced Aperol Spritzes—create a contemporary art space worth a visit any time of the year!

By Katrina E. Bastian
Photo by Rosmarie Voegtli and Ralf Difoggia
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