Even before opening, the Berlin Biennale is already proving to be a polarising affair, yet no one seems indifferent. Strongly focused on the post-contemporary condition, the event has gathered the DIS family to question a time we all struggle to grasp – the here and now. SLEEK speaks to Babak Radboy, the (Not) Creative Director who’s not actually in the Biennale but behind, under and maybe all over it too. Babak is an artist and the creative director in a multitude of projects including Telfar, Bidoun magazine and the artist Bjarne Melgaard. He’s also the co-founder of the Shanzhai Biennial but the 9th Berlin Biennale is his first “real” Biennale. Being a multihyphenated professional, Babak is not prone to give simple answers. But we’ve challenged that and coaxed him to get real about the post-contemporary, why this is the most fun biennale Berlin has ever had and why Telfar is the most forward-thinking fashion label of the present.
SLEEK: You have your fingers in many pies at the BB9 but one of your main projects is the Telfar installation at AdK. You’ve been a long time collaborator so why is Telfar so relevant?
Babak Radboy: So many people in the Biennale have known each other for a very long time. So for us, maybe Telfar was the one who knew what he was doing first, and he was the one that everyone looked to in establishing a certain perspective. He did it without self consciousness — it was just what he liked and wanted to see. This whole Biennale has been an interesting culmination of a certain perspective — for a generation I think it has all crystallized here into this idea of the post-contemporary.
What is the post-contemporary?
It’s great that post-contemporary has the word contemporary in it and threatens it with obsolescence. I love to imagine the end of the contemporary and especially contemporary art, but it’s myopic to think this is about art. For me it’s a shift on the cognitive level — on time as a temporal index — on the meaning of time and the ability of time to produce meaning.
It’s stupid to conflate that with an aesthetic and call it post-internet.
Back in the mid 00s I also grappled with the idea of what came next..
I’m indifferent to the aesthetics of it but at the same time I love how insecure it makes serious people. You can’t conflate the two. Look instead to the material circumstances: it’s a generation born into an economy based completely on speculation. When the present is structured as a perpetual hedge towards an immediate future — what does that do to experience?
The future starts to feel immutable and familiar as if it were the past and the present becomes unknowable, shocking, incoherent — as if it were the future. We all know we will have clear phones soon — but we don’t know if Iraq is a country… or ten countries. Donald Trump can never be president in the future — but he may become president today. We should learn from Trump. He presents a cognitive short circuit. Since he can never become president it is OK to vote for him. It’s the actual moment you’ve been living in that has been divested of any kind of coherence.
So when you’re a fashion designer, you’re making clothes for next season and you always have this futural frame. In the 20th century this was about the future — but Telfar’s vision of the new is to look really, very closely at how the world looked four weeks ago. The most normal things are the most impossible to see. Last week is sci-fi. I think that runs through Telfar’s practice. That’s what makes him so hard to read for fashion. But this is why so many artists pull Telfar for videos and performances, because they’re trying to say something about the phantasmagoria of the present and it quietly says it. The fashion world doesn’t seem to clock what Telfar is doing. It’s the thing I am proudest of — everything he won’t do. Anyone can make clothes that people like. Anyone can choose fabrics, and colors and cuts and swipes from instagram screenshots. A fashion designer is not someone who chooses — it’s someone who can’t choose. Someone who has a singular vision.
Telfar is subtle and that’s a statement in itself.
Yeah, he manages somehow to provoke fashion essentially because he is not provocative. He does not fill a niche in regards to the desire or expectation of ‘otherness’ fashion loves so well. Whether that is in regards to race or sexuality or gender. Telfar is a unisex line since 2004 — but its relationship to gender is pure ambivalence. It does everything wrong: it’s avant garde but has no interest in luxury; it’s a street-wear line but the streets we are talking about are like 42nd street or Friedrichstraße!
What else have you done in this Biennale besides Telfar?
I’ve worked on lots of stuff for over six months. I have forbidden any kind of press release or collected information about my involvement.
OK, it sounds confusing.
Essentially I am creative director of Not in the Berlin Biennale and also Not creative director of the Berlin Biennale. For example in the catalog I am credited “not the creative director”. I’ve had a kind of basically illegitimate role that I’ve used to my advantage. One effect has been people never knowing where they stand in relation to me within the professional hierarchy. I think it’s effective? You know Moa Zedong never held an official title? He was just hanging out (laughs).
“This idea of artistic freedom and authorship is the most annoying thing.”
How would you define yourself as a professional?
I’m not, ‘not an artist’ in the usual sense. I’m not an artist as a practice. But that practice is completely private to me. It’s a private practice.
Every project I’ve organized for Not in the Biennial is published under someone elses name.
I feel like I’ve found a way to work more or less how I want within a cultural sphere that I am really truly ambivalent about.
You’re in a quite privileged position in a way.
I would love that. I would love to be privileged. I think it’s the opposite because I am choosing an idiom of service where there is no expectation of carte blanche or creative freedom. I really have to fight or persuade or just deceive my way through things. There’s tons of compromise — but then you turn compromise into a medium. You can come up with ideas so bad no one can ruin them.
But also you can really work together with people. Really collaborate and be part of a process that is incredibly respectful — where you actually have a dialog and you don’t remember if it’s your work or someone else’s? Or a commission or a commercial or something else? It’s been a bit amazing to be honest. Who stands in an artist’s studio and calls bullshit from the sidelines in mid painting? Isn’t that secretly what we all want? Maybe we want that more than our name in vinyl or in a gallery catalog.
If you don’t get any credit, what else do you get out of it beyond the personal satisfaction of doing things?
I get to actually do things; that’s it! And that is the point. So I’m alive in a place and time and I can put a chain of events in motion, or ideas into play, create and distribute objects and images, change spaces and I really don’t believe I could do any of it if I were an artist.
Do you think the future will be about the process rather than the end product?
What the future is about and what the future is are two different things. Just because something is burningly relevant doesn’t mean that it will happen. Just because something is completely dysfunctional doesn’t mean it will collapse. You learn that in fashion every season. You can make the most relevant collection of the year, and nobody likes it or buys it. So the question is does that change the fact that it’s the most relevant collection of the year? For me, Telfar is the most important designer working today. That is true objectively period — it doesn’t matter if no one agrees. Being celebrated means nothing — you are a journalist — you know: there is no discourse in this world, that’s why personal experience is actually all I’m interested in at this point. I work with Telfar, because it is meaningful. The fact that it’s so fucking hard for people to grasp Telfar is proof that it is good.
“We are making art fun again! Make art fun again!”
Do you think this will be the best Berlin Biennale yet?
I think it will be the last Berlin Biennale (laughs).
I hope you won’t let me down.
I think it’s going to be fun and it’ll be interesting how the Germans will take it. It’ll definitely be fun. This whole process has really gotten me into “fun.” Why should fun be left out? Or—as we said in one of the ads for the Biennale: why should fascists have all the fun?
So this is going to be a hilarious Biennale. Are you bringing fun into art?
We are making art fun again! Make art fun again! Curators, Museum Directors, Gallerists, Artists: there is nothing to worry about — no critique, no discourse, no stakes. No reason to move something over a millimeter — it won’t change the dynamics — there are no dynamics. The way I’ve tried to play my role as communications consultant for the Biennale is to always keep in mind that everyday working people in Berlin don’t seem to know or care about the Berlin Biennale. Definitely the people I encountered at airport customs have not heard of it. That is a good starting point: you do what you want.
The 9th Berlin Biennale opens on 4 June 2016 and runs through 18 September 2016