November 30, 2021
THE EXHIBITION “MIGHT FEEL A LITTLE LIKE A FUN HOUSE,” Lauren Boyle tells me at the Centre d’art Contemporain Genève. Boyle, alongside Marco Roso, David Toro, and Solomon Chase, is part of the collective DIS, which, with the Centre’s director, Andrea Bellini, has curated this year’s Biennale de l’Image de Mouvement, titled “A Goodbye Letter, A Love Call, A Wakeup Song” and billed as “an exit from our human-centered, capitalist death drive.”
In preparation for it, each of the show’s three floors was divided into viewing rooms connected by dark, twisting halls. Visible from circular windows, these corridors are lit only by a multipronged installation of pulsing, “pixel-shaped” spheroids called Fire, by German conceptual design collective GRAU (all works 2021). As Melchoir Grau, half of the two-brother outfit, points out, its beckoning glow feels more “haunted” than “fun.” To me, though, the bulk of the exhibition feels more like a planetarium. We are, after all, in Geneva, city of diplomats and physicists—hub for projections about our world and beyond. This city boasts the highest number of international organizations on the planet, including CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider, where inferences about the very makeup of reality are tested.
Emily Allan and Leah Hennessey, whose video Byron & Shelley: Illuminati Detectives is featured at BIM, wrote its script during an artist residency at CERN. Before they were even accepted, Allan and Hennessey had been discussing a video project that reimagines poets Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley as X-Files-style agents. It was not until they were planning their stay that they learned where Byron and Shelley first met: a villa just across the tip of Lake Geneva, a twenty-five-minute drive away. “‘A strange coincidence,’” quoth Byron, “to use the phrase by which such things are settled nowadays.”
My second evening in Geneva, I go to a group show opening at a small, unmarked gallery called Cherish and then to Bains des Pâquis, a fondue hall and bathhouse built into a Lake Geneva pier. “Only drink wine,” says the director of Cherish, repeating some old wives’ tale about cold water solidifying the melted cheese in our stomachs, making it even more difficult to digest. Four cafeteria-style tables are filled with artists, curators, and press conversing excitedly about the futures of art and commerce. The cheese seems impossibly thick, and yet it is quickly devoured, if not easily digested.
After dinner, we split into groups, one going to a karaoke bar and the other to an after-party for the group show. “Are you okay?” someone asks artist and poet Sabrina Röthlisberger Belkacem, who is leaving the party as we arrive. She shakes her head no. “I hope you feel better,” he offers. “It will take years,” she calls up the graffitied stairwell, laughing, I think.
“Sorry about your publisher,” says Brad Troemel, shaking my hand as I enter a room bathed in red light. He’s in Geneva with his partner, producer Meg Murnane. “Did Sylvère die?” I ask. It had to be that. It is that. Sylvère Lotringer, founder of Semiotext(e) and the reason Troemel started reading Baudrillard, he tells me, passed at eighty-three while I was on a transatlantic flight, it turns out. I never got to meet him. But the subject must change, since partygoers are offering us “ecstasy” and “speed.” Is this another ’90s revival, or are the old names used to describe newer drugs?, I wonder. “I heard that there’ll be twenty billionaires at the dinner,” says Murnane. Who here is single? I offer to wing for artist Fiffany Lu, although I admit I can never spot a billionaire. “Ugly clothes,” Lu says.
The party empties out on the early side, as everyone has work to do the following morning. DIS themselves have created a short film for their own exhibition, produced by Murnane, and as of the day before the opening, haven’t yet received the final render from their editor, who had to stay in New York due to a positive Covid test. The cops are waiting outside when I leave at 1 a.m. They ask what’s going on upstairs. “An art opening,” says Andrea Lazarov, features editor at Buffalo magazine. “Ah,” they nod, and get back into their car.
Two video installations, by Riccardo Benassi and Giulia Essyad, respectively, are shown off-site at a train station. Benassi’s casts green light and an angelic audio loop around the underground’s reflective surfaces. “Some people say site-specific; I prefer site-defining,” he says, referring to the paths that people might take in order to see (or avoid) his piece, which updates at midnight for the next 365 days with a new poetic message partially written with autocorrect technology. Today it says, in several languages: “In the world there is a single yawn that continues by contagion to spread in search of another yawn to fall in love with.”
BIM ’21, like all BIMs, consists mostly of video art; this time, most of the works are shorts, or “pilots” that might begin a miniseries or a season, like the shows DIS has been commissioning and hosting on its subscription-based streaming site, dis.art, since January 2018. Will Benedict and Steffen Jorgensen’s “twenty-first-century cooking show” The Restaurant was the first series to premiere on the site. Here, two episodes of its second season are projected onto a wall with a working door. From behind a two-way mirror, one can covertly spy on other visitors as they enter the room and become part of the act—animated aliens and flatulent animals discussing the history of fat, interspersed with a live-action interrogation room plot concerning modern eating habits.
Many of the BIM ’21 pilots, like Hannah Black, Juliana Huxtable, and And Or Forever’s Penumbra (an animated version of their live courtroom drama at Performance Space New York in 2019), and Simon Fujiwara’s Who Is Who? (a stop-motion music video starring the artist’s recurring character Who the Bær) draw allusions between people and animals while questioning the shortcomings of language, especially that pesky word identity. “The Who the Bær project was born during the first lockdown,” says Fujiwara in an interview accompanying his Fondazione Prada show, where the character was introduced earlier this year. “I had to decide things like, does the bear have a gender? Does the bear have a sexuality? Does the bear have an origin or a race, even? And trying to make any of these decisions on the bear and then draw them out started to feel very violent.”
DIS’s Everything but the World feels like the centerpiece of the show, complete with a Cro-Magnon reenactment, blue screens exposed; a satirical guided tour of witchcraft sites in Rome; a rant by a White Castle worker involving chicken bones as future artifacts. A section filmed and edited by Ryan Trecartin stars himself and Lizzie Fitch as YouTuber fossil experts. (“We gave him carte blanche,” says Boyle.) Trecartin edited another video in the show, too—a new episode of dis.art’s reality series Circle Time, which turns artists and activists into kindergarten teachers for a day. This premise became Boyle and Roso’s reality over the pandemic while their twin boys’ public school was closed. “It…got a little Lord of the Flies,” Boyle said, over fondue. “Sounds cool?” asked Trecartin.
For Mandy Harris Williams’s Couture Critiques, the theater is set up like a classroom with desks and inspirational posters. Here, the artist, in the style of a girl boss brand ambassador, reinterprets Edward Said’s 1993 BBC radio lectures on Representations of the Intellectual, urging that we, the viewers, “celebrate, amplify, and glamorize the intellectual” because “that which is glamorized becomes the ideology of the day.”
We sit on pews and wear 3-D glasses for Camille Henrot’s Saturday. Colorful clips—of televangelism, of a Botox demonstration, of a crustacean specimen—are voiced over with collaged descriptions of social conditioning, baptism, and rebirth. With his three-panel projection Social Cohesiveness, Akeem Smith continues last year’s exploration of the human impulse to document and be documented in “No Gyal Can Test,” (the final show at New York’s now-shuttered Red Bull Arts). Jubilant archival footage of his family’s dancehall collective—sometimes timestamped 2001—is abruptly cut with video of the 9/11 attacks. In a clip of a hairdresser’s salon, a large sign reads “No gossip allowed here please,” and in this context, it looks foreboding.
Smith, Henrot, Black, Huxtable, and Telfar Clemens—whose contribution to the biennial is TELFAR.TV, a new twenty-four-hour steaming network of crowdsourced content—are noticeably absent from the opening party in the museum’s lobby, but Aria Dean, who will have a solo show at the Centre next year, is present (“This is a ‘site visit,’” she tells me). Filmmaker and former Hood by Air CEO Leila Weinraub, who acts as Everything but the World’s narrator, made it just in time for the opening from Los Angeles, surprising even the curators. Spotting Trecartin, she tells him how endeared she is to his new characters, named Branch and Banter. “I feel like that’s actually you and Lizzie,” she teases.
A group of us walk a few blocks to Les Sales Gosses. Before I take my seat, I ask the two Ion Pod hosts when they decided to quit being incognito. (On their podcast, their voices are modulated, their identities never revealed to guests.) “It’s an open secret,” they tell me, but officially they are still anonymous, waiting for a magazine exclusive. My name card is next to Trecartin’s, and after the Ions, as they call themselves, profess their longtime fandom, I ask if they want to meet him. The conversation immediately turns to getting the artist on their show. Trecartin isn’t exactly shy, but he’s weird about press. He tells the story of how he got the New Yorker to publish a self-portrait, which they never do. But podcasts aren’t really his thing. What if, I suggest, he did one that he edited himself? The three of them agree to my idea, even making tentative travel plans as I wonder about what I might have inadvertently set into motion.
I don’t even try to spot the billionaires. Lu doesn’t either. “They all went home. They’re married,” says Murnane later at the afterparty, which is at a packed, sweaty Art Nouveau–adorned bar and DJed by Dese Escobar, among others. Art students are dancing; people are peeling their clothes off. I have a flight to catch in the morning. Walking back to my hotel, a man on the street speaks to me in French, inviting me to a club called Neuf Cent Onze (their Instagram bio: “What happens in 911 stays in 911”).
I think of those plane crash clips in Social Cohesiveness. I think of the clear lake of icy water under vats of hot cheese and saunas, this wealthy city and its quiet streets, the billionaires with ugly clothes. There’s uncanny cohesion to be found in all of this art and the money that brings it here, a balancing act of sincerity and self-awareness. I think of Hennessey talking about having toured the world’s most powerful particle accelerator: “It’s like having a peek behind the veil at something that is undeniably important, but it’s also maybe useless.”
— Natasha Stagg