‘We Had to Create Something New’: Klaus Biesenbach on Inventing the Berlin Biennale

Carsten Höller presented his first two slide works at the first Berlin Biennale, in 1998.


On Saturday, June 9, the latest edition of the Berlin Biennale will open to the public, curated by Gabi Ngcobo with Nomaduma Rosa Masilela, Serubiri Moses, Thiago de Paula, and Yvette Mutumba. This marks the 10th iteration, and the 20th anniversary, of the show, which Klaus Biesenbach began planning with a number of arts patrons in late 1995, a few years after working to form the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin. (He detailed KW’s founding in these pages in 2016.) Over its long run, the biennial has been a proving ground for freethinking artists and curators, a source of not a few controversies, and a cornerstone of the city’s rich art scene. In the piece below, Biesenbach, who is the director of MoMA PS1 and chief curator at large at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, narrates the founding of the Biennale and its first edition, working with artists like Sarah Sze, Christoph Schlingensief, and Carsten Höller in a very different Berlin. —The Editors

Many of the art spaces in early ‘90s Berlin were located in vacant, abandoned, often ruined buildings that artists had taken over. Artists were running studio collectives and co-ops, outfitting surprising storefronts, and creating nightclubs and music programs. One very influential artist for me was Daniel Pflumm, who was organizing the experimental club Elektro and at the same time working on his light sculptures, logos, and video works.

In the Berlin of the 1990s, you could often find a bar through a hole in the wall and in a basement without electricity; you could go to a rave in the middle of the day on the river or go to a dance club on Friday and not reemerge into the outside world until sunrise Monday morning.

The Venice Biennales of 1991 and 1993 were the first biennales that artists, curators, and gallerists from the small emerging art community in Auguststrasse in Berlin Mitte attended.

Biesenbach sitting on Eike Becker’s “hybrid workspace,” which appeared in Documenta X, in 1997.


In 1993, I went to my first Venice Biennale on an overnight train where, after a stop in Innsbruck, I first met an unusual stranger, who shuffled through his bags of books and papers, working and making notes all night while I tried to sleep. It turned out to be a young curator named Hans Ulrich Obrist.

We were so fascinated by Aperto, the younger artists’ section of the Biennale. It was terrible to hear that, in the centennial edition of the show two years later, in 1995, the artistic director would not have this Aperto, this loophole, where we from Auguststrasse felt that even the emerging artistic scene in Berlin could have a presence.

With Pflumm, Monica Bonvicini, Mercedes Bunz, Pit Schultz, Geert Lovink, guests of honor Dan Graham and Katharina Sieverding, and so many others, we created a 72-hour marathon music video performance called Club Berlin in an old abandoned opera house during the Venice Biennale in 1995. There were beanbags by Angela Bulloch. Marina Abramovic did an experimental cocktail. When we went back to Berlin, we realized it would have been much easier to showcase such emerging art in Berlin. Because the city didn’t have a large-scale institution that regularly focused on international contemporary art, we had to create something new.

In 1996, with some of the individuals who had already supported Club Berlin in Venice, most importantly Eberhard Mayntz, but also Raymond Learsy, Annette Weber, and Erika Hoffmann, we founded a Berlin Biennale Association and we invited Hans Ulrich Obrist and Nancy Spector to help shape and conceive of what a Biennale for Berlin could be.

The thread of the “club” ran from the early days of KW with its Pogo Club in its basement through Club Berlin in Venice to the “hybrid workspace” that German architect Eike Becker presented in Documenta X in 1997 into the whole first Berlin Biennale, with its Congress 3000 and its many activations throughout its run.

Being faced with the idea that Berlin had been a divided city, we came up with the title of “Berlin/Berlin,” the two Berlins in one, and conceived a Biennale based on the many artists who were living and working in the city. Focusing on artists living and working in Berlin for the first Biennale had a huge advantage. Travel costs were typically a huge expense for organizing international biennales, but we could also do endless numbers of ever-so-surprising studio visits with artists living in and visiting the city.

Dan Graham’s Cafe Bravo at KW in Berlin.


Dan Graham and Katharina Sieverding

One of the activities in Katharina Sieverding’s incredibly influential art school class—of not only artistic and social practitioners, but also curators, theoreticians, writers, and eccentrics at the Hochschule der Kuenste, the Art Academy in Berlin—was to invite artists from all over the world to participate in a lecture series called “Never Mind the Nineties.”

There were a lot of such exchange programs that brought artists to Berlin—like Der Deutsche Akademische Austausch Dienst, the German Academic Exchange Service, KW, Kuenstlerhaus Bethanien—and most of them offered apartments, stipends, and studios. Those invited stayed for a year or longer, or they stayed forever. These programs were lifelines for the city. Sieverding’s class had some more experienced artists visit, but also focused on artists that were barely older than the students in the school, like Christoph Keller and Heike Baranowsky. I remember one of the accomplished and admired artists we invited was Dan Graham. He talked about architecture and art and media. During the lecture he mentioned that he at that time had never built a functioning building. The idea immediately came up that he could renovate part of the abandoned courtyard at KW. Then, from 1993 to 1998, we embarked on a five-year collaboration, looking at architecture from Vienna to Tokyo. For the first Berlin Biennale in 1998, we opened his pavilion, Café Bravo, a functioning café and a sculpture pavilion that is still in use today and hasn’t aged a day.

Monica Bonvicini

Early on, KW did an exhibition with Monica Bonvicini in an abandoned storefront that used to be a liquor factory. She had just come from California, and she very much dealt with reflections on architecture in an ever-changing city. New buildings were going up all over Berlin at that time. She did a very important work called Wallfuckin’. It was a female torso in an intimate interaction with a newly built piece of drywall, presented as a video. It was placed near a re-creation of that wall that functioned as a bodily counterpart. She wanted to create a monumental work for the main exhibition hall at KW, but since Berlin was one large construction site, and Berlin is Berlin, construction ran behind and the exhibition hall wasn’t ready. At first it looked like a big disaster. But she just created a clear, completely clean window from the exhibition space into the mess of the exhibition hall construction site, and that was her participation. And next to it was this early piece, Wallfuckin’, which connected to the idea of a utopian new Berlin where so many people were imagining and projecting the city to come. And so Monica’s piece was actually an important reality check.

Still of a video piece by Christoph Schlingeinsief shown at the first Berlin Biennale.


Christoph Schlingensief

In the very first years of the artist scene in Auguststrasse in Berlin Mitte, cafes and movie and music clubs played a very important role. There often was no heat or functioning appliances in the first occupied apartments and studios. There were definitely no phones, and in order to meet somebody you had to leave a written note on their apartment door, or, even easier, you would go to your regular daily breakfast cafe or routine evening place or after-hours club. So it made sense that one of the very first iterations of the Berlin Biennale would feature some sort of meeting place—the “hybrid workspace” that the architect Eike Becker designed and premiered as a Berlin Biennale prequel during Documenta 10 in Kassel in 1997. It was built as a way of imagining the space of the internet. If the internet was a physical space, how would that look? Like a news or TV studio? Or a stage? Like a projection surface with moving walls and furniture on wheels? All of these visions became reality in its design.

We hosted discussions in the space in Kassel about bandwidth and the accessibility of the internet, but also music performances, interventions, and theatrical performances—and, infamously, Christoph Schlingensief’s performance in 1997 that resulted in him being arrested for evoking a moment of chaos the morning after Lady Diana had died in a tragic car crash. An alarmed guest in a café nearby had called the police when listening to the large outdoor speakers that projected the voices of Schlingenief’s performance into the public park, a mixture between “Lady Di is dead” and then “German Chancellor Kohl should die,” was apparently too alarming. The police imprisoned Christoph Schlingensief and several of his cast members. In Christoph’s work, it was always unclear what was actually part of the performance and what was real life, so the police basically got caught in this unclarity, in this performance space, in the midst of Documenta. One of the German police dogs bit a performer, and then Christoph was brought to the central police office, and we as the organizers and guests and artists had an impromptu procession and protest to the front of the police station until Schlingensief was released from prison. A year later we invited Schlingensief to participate in “Berlin/Berlin.”

At the time, Schlingensief was a very famous, recognizable media, TV, and theatre star and public persona. He was hosting a regular talk show from a subway train in Berlin, working with MTV, and he had a talk show on a rotating stage in the basement of the famous Volksbuhne theatre that aired on TV. He was known to be a provocateur. At that time, he decided to become a politician, to go on a national campaign, and run for public office. This sounds like a premonition of what we have worldwide now, but it sounded very unrealistic at the time. He even had his own political party called Chance 2000.

At the large-scale symposium and festival Congress 3000, which was part of the opening of the Biennale in the Haus der Kulturen de Welt, Schlingensief evoked Joseph Beuys’s I Like America and America Likes Me (1974), where Beuys was taken from JFK to his exhibition in SoHo on a stretcher in an ambulance, but Schlingensief was instead put into a coffin on stage through the back door of the Haus der Kulturen de Welt, and brought in a hearse, driven across the city in the middle of the night into the main exhibition building, the Postfuhramt, where all his party and promotional and rally materials were being stored as an installation, a memorial to an election lost. Schlingensief would not be elected to Parliament! Schlingensief’s vision to move from being an artist and a reality TV star to becoming the leader of a large country seemed so absurd then. Time would prove him a visionary.

Andrea Zittel

While planning the Biennale, we of course had a Monday evening lounge in KW that reflected many of the clubs that were frequently visited. I was living at KW at the time, and the club was in the front part of my apartment. We asked the participating artist Andrea Zittel to create a sculpture that would separate the rest of my apartment from the club so I could have some sleep and a sane life in separation and addition to the all-consuming preparations for the Biennale. She created a beautiful work that consisted of a mirrored cabinet that filled one complete wall. One of those cabinet doors was floor to ceiling; it looked like shelves and drawers but was actually a secret door with a circular mirror. It was called Berliner zimmer, like the typical corner room in so many Berlin apartments that is the separation of the larger front rooms from the sequence of smaller rooms in the seitenfluegel—the narrow sides that frame the typical Berlin courtyard.

The Monday club became all too popular for the artists and the whole curatorial team leading up to the Biennale. It was always open, drinks were free, and since it was in the second floor, not too many nightlife tourists ever made it up there…

Installation view of Jonathan Meese’s contribution to the first Berlin Biennale.


Jonathan Meese

One important, unconventional, transgressive “studio visit” was with Jonathan Meese, who met us in a street café to explain his work. He left after we finished meeting, and then came back and said, “Oh, I don’t know if I was really saying goodbye, and I just want to thank you for the time I spent discussing my work. I know it’s performance based. I know there’s not much to see in a studio, but I just wanted to thank you for the opportunity to explain my work.” So, he left again, went perhaps 30 feet, and came back to basically say the same thing. So we were very appreciative, and thanked him profusely, and reassured him that it was a great visit. Then he would go again, and he would go perhaps 45 feet, and he would come back and do the same and the same and the same. The whole goodbye at some point seemed longer than the conversation we had had before. This was actually such a convincing, over-the-top gesture, and Jonathan became a fixture in our community and his work became a very important part of the Biennale. His space was something like a juvenile delinquent’s bedroom, a studio, a devotional space to his idols and ideas. He brought all his literature and music materials and posters, and built this whole world that made his artistic mind and obsessive production visible.

Sarah Sze with her work at the first Berlin Biennale.


Sarah Sze

The concept of “Berlin/Berlin” was artists living and working in the city. I had just worked with Sarah Sze a year before on her first institutional project, in a broom closet for the reopening of MoMA PS1, then still P.S. 1, after it had undergone an extensive renovation. She built an immersive, compulsively detailed monumental miniature installation in that broom closet. When you opened it, it looked like a whole world, like a whole city had been urbanizing and colonizing the broom closet. We were already preparing for the Berlin Biennale, and I had invited her to be our first artist-in-residence at KW in Berlin and to create work for the Biennale. She came with a shower stall that was shipped to Berlin and unpacked. The former studio of Albert Speer—the ominous, notorious architect of the Third Reich—was one of the venues. It was important for us to deal with German history. His studio had nearly 40-foot-tall ceilings, and it’s at Brandenburg Gate, so we really wanted Sarah to do one of her fragile cities. The opposite of an Albert Speer. She worked every day, night and day, in this studio, his former studio, her temporary studio. We installed the already prepared shower stall on the ceiling, and then Sarah created multiple and complex fragile tentacles reaching down from the shower into the exhibition space that also held Manfred Pernice’s large but fragile looking towering sculpture.

Next to that was a work by Thomas Demand, another production made in Berlin in the studio program of KW. Early on while Dan Graham was working on Café Bravo, he mentioned that his former student was moving to Berlin. So we gave Thomas the third floor of KW where he started building the paper model of an  “architecture studio.” At the same time, we were working on KW, trying to get the building ready for the first Berlin Biennale and I invited Thomas to have a coffee. When he came back to the studio, a metal beam had fallen right onto his desk while he was away. Had he been there, he could have been seriously hurt. But the artist was fine and he completed the “architecture studio” that showed in Albert Speer’s former architect’s studio for the biennale.

Carsten Höller

We were visiting Carsten Höller in his studio, and he told us about a building in Brussels, a home that had an emergency slide from an upper floor so that people could escape in case of an emergency. We asked if he had ever thought of actually making one of these slides as an art object. He said “no,” but this was the inspiration for the first Carsten Höller slides, which were made for the first Berlin Biennale, a prototype of so many that he has since installed all over the world.

We looked at different materials and had to consider safety, the inclination angle, the smoothness of surfaces, and engineering so visitors wouldn’t get stuck or hurt in the slide. We actually produced two slides: one was an indoor slide going from the third floor to the second floor inside of the KW building. Then, you would literally jump out of the window, onto a slide that had a translucent upper half. It was beautiful that the reflective surfaces of the slide mirrored those of Dan Graham’s pavilion, Café Bravo.

Olafur Eliasson

It was very difficult to get permission to use the Postfuhramt, the large former central post office in Berlin, for the Biennale. The space had this beautiful cupula in the middle and a spacious lounge in the entrance that brought you into a completely different sphere. In the cupula we had a great sculpture by Tobias Rehberger, but it still felt too empty. We hadn’t yet figured out what to do, and it was relatively late. So we sat on the floor together and Olafur Eliasson came up with the idea of using an industrial ventilator. It was just a regular, off-the-shelf large metal fan hanging from the ceiling of this dome, swinging like a pendulum, pulling itself up to move like a propeller without a plane, only to be caught back by its own weight and gravity, falling back like an endlessly swinging moody pendulum—just high enough above your head so you would feel its wind but not get hurt.

The Postfuhrramt became such a labyrinth of spaces. Christine Hill’s listening music studio, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s reconstruction of Fassbinder’s bedroom, and three deluxe cocoon-like lounges by3 De Luxe in the entrance. Ugo Rondinone and Pipilotti Rist’s made immersive environments of colored light and surrounding sounds. The whole Biennale opened with a gigantic cooking feast for everybody who came to the artists’ opening in the former gymnasium of the Postfuhrramt, which Rirkrit Tiravanija turned into a Thaci street-food fair.

We had expected thousands of visitors every day and were disappointed it was only hundreds per day. Only once we started activating the lounges and clubs and social spaces in the Biennale did they became alive and regularly inhabited and visited, becoming more and more popular, like the clubs and social spaces that had been our points of departure before that autumn of 1998.

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