Cities // The Present in Drag: An Interview with DIS

Interview by Alison Hugill // May 03, 2016

With only a month to go before the opening of the 2016 Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, the event website offers a tantalizingly opaque series of suggestions about what we may or may not expect. Spread across five venues, including the newly opened Feuerle Collection, the 9th edition of the Berlin Biennale will be curated by DIS art collective—founders of DIS Magazine. We spoke to the curators about their approach to the biennale and how they plan to transform the city this summer.


DIS, 9th Berlin Biennale curators portrait // Photo by Julia Burlingham

Alison Hugill: Could you tell us about the origins of DIS as an artist collective?

DIS: We were all friends before starting the DIS Magazine. It began with an e-mail blast to a larger network of friends, and at first DIS consisted of seven people. But we didn’t identify as an art collective. One of the advantages of starting our own platform was that we could avoid pre-existing labels, it could be organic, and we didn’t have to prescribe to existing models. After endless e-mail exchanges, meetings, and discussion, DIS Magazine was born. No one was hired, it grew out of friendship, and collective impulses. We saw it as an opportunity to provide visibility to our community, to emerging sensibilities, new ideas, and a kind of haphazard creative energy, initially in New York, and then beyond. At the same time, we as “DIS” created much of the imagery and content for DIS Magazine, and our collaborative and collective practice grew out of this.

AH: What kind of energy do you hope to bring to this year’s Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art as a group of curators with a more youthful audience?

DIS: The Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art has a history of experimentation and playfulness towards the Biennale format. We’re not the first to bring a new and vital energy to the event. Artists and collectives have curated the Berlin Biennale in the past, so it’s in the DNA. If you think of the 4th Berlin Biennale with Maurizio Cattelan, Ali Subotnick, and Massimiliano Gioni, or the 7th with Artur Żmijewski, there is s a history of risk-taking and of pushing the Berlin Biennale to vastly different extremes.

We don’t see it as a question of age or youth: it’s about offering new perspectives and putting a face on the tangle of ideologies and aesthetics that make up the individual experience of 2016. DIS has always had a horizontal approach to culture and music, fashion, parties, talks, performances—these will all co-exist in the Berlin Biennale.


Ryan Trecartin, Seeking Representation: Directions to KW, 2016
Still from: Ryan Trecartin: ‘Center Jenny’, 2013 // © Ryan Trecartin; courtesy of the artist, Sprüth Magers; Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York

AH: The teaser on the Berlin Biennale website suggests we “may or may not” expect a number of reversals of the Berlin Biennale standard – with brand ambassadors ‘The Prancing Elites’ and a possible venue switch from KW to the Mall of Berlin. How do you intend to queer the conventional biennale format to “render the present in drag”?

DIS: This “May or May Not” idea emerged out of a sense of leaving things open, and simply releasing ideas and sensations we wanted for the Berlin Biennale. Many of those things still may or may not be happening. We see the Berlin Biennale as being receptive to the present and its contradictions, to the paradessence of our moment. We’re seeing a rift between hyper-individuality and global crises, happiness being quantified as a GDP, nations performing as brands, and the unstoppable influence of new technologies on how we feel and act. Instead of unmasking the present as though it contains something we have to discover, we want to look at its many faces and incarnations. One way to see it is the present in drag.


DIS logo // Courtesy Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art

AH: The title of your collective and magazine already has a critical stance – how will you incorporate that into the Berlin Biennale?

DIS: DIS has always been about a a hybrid of celebration and critique. It’s not so much about critique as an added value as it is about generating critical perspectives in the body of the public. We’re working with artists whose work allows multiple points of engagement. They are at once entertaining and aggressive, enjoyable and critical. This duality references a paradoxical pleasure principle – selfie sticks and tragic historical settings, or topics of anxiety du jour (i.e. anthropocene) that parallel the sensation of watching disaster flicks and horror movies.


‘Venice Runs’, 2015, Video Still // Courtesy Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art

AH: Will your latest platform, DIS-own, play a role in the event and can we expect to see many of the artists represented there involved in the Berlin Biennale?

DIS: Yeah, there are a few things to DIS-own in the biennale: we are working with Telfar, one of the most exciting designers working today at the crossroads of art and fashion. He created a uniform for all of the exhibition staff and will be taking over the ticketing counters with billboard imagery and outfits for the visitors. Yngve Holen is creating contact lenses and there will be an album of anthems for the present moment, collaborations between artists and musicians, like Isa Genzken with Total Freedom. Of course, lots of artists from DIS’ extended network of collaborators are involved in the Berlin Biennale, as well as many new additions.


Exhibition: Jun. 4–Sep. 18, 2016
Various locations, click here for info

Writer Info

Alison Hugill has a Master’s in Art Theory from Goldsmiths College, University of London (2011). Her research focuses on marxist-feminist politics and aesthetic theories of community, communication and communism. Alison is an editor, writer and curator based in Berlin and a host of Berlin Community Radio show ‘Hystereo’.

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