The Telfar installation at the Berlin Biennale, with photos by Asger Carlsen and mannequins by Penther Formes, sculpted by Frank Benson.



Inside The Berlin Biennale With Its "Not" Creative Director, Babak Radboy Of Telfar

Babak Radboy has an impressive resume: international artist, creative director of both cult-fashion label Telfar (a member of the MADE family) and art magazine Bidoun, and now, “not the creative director of the Berlin Biennale.” The catch is that this last title isn’t just cheeky and self-appointed, but actually official, and listed on the Biennale website. He’s not “not the creative director” in the way that you (assumedly) and I are: he is involved in the Biennale, at least in some ambiguous capacity, if not simply in the media, which Radboy asserts is an art medium in its own right. (You’re welcome).

Now in its ninth iteration, the major contemporary art fair has taken on the theme “The Present In Drag,” which has invited questions of time and history,  identity and self-representation. “Whenever you feel closest to ‘you,’ you’re actually in drag,” declares the fair’s catalog: i.e. ‘you,’ at your core, are a disguise or a costume, just like Radboy’s officially unofficial post. I guess. Pithy dictums remain art’s new vogue. (Wink).

Photo: Babak Radboy
Extremely normal fashion: Telfar Clemens' "SS16 mainstream fluid", 2016

(L) A work from ‘Not in the berlin biennale.jpg’. (R) Telfar Clemens

The Biennale, in any case, has generated buzz for its ‘post-contemporary’ work, (namely a giant, headless Rihanna statue), curated by arty Internet mystery magazine, DIS. Radboy, for his part, in addition to helming the fair as pseudo-nonentity, helped organize a retrospective of Telfar’s ongoing engagement with the T-shirt. A runway show this is not: 20 mannequins are arranged around the Akademie Der Künst’s atrium, each one bearing an eerie resemblance to the label’s eponymous designer. For a fashion brand that deliberately labels itself “Extremely Normal™,” the display is anything but. It’s a cult of personality come to life, but the real Telfar is nowhere to be found: deceit and decoys abound. As Radboy told us, however, that seems to be the whole point.


The Telfar installation view, with mannequins by Penther Formes and photos by Asger Carlsen. We find it both witty and disconcerting!

You’re listed as both “Not the Creative Director” of the Berlin Biennale and the “Creative Director of Not in the Berlin Biennale.” Are you not Not (the creative director)?

It was a condition of the project that there be no explanation, no press release, etc. for Not in the Berlin Biennale. For a while now, I’ve worked in an idiom where a press-strategy is integral to what I do–the reception of a work is premeditated–maybe even the work is reverse engineered from its desired effects in the media, or the media constitutes the medium of the work more than whatever it looks or feels like. I’d say that this is a soft and generalized form of deceit–even if it’s also simply the way things are done in both fine art and advertising.

I’ve become obsessed with the way that this deceit functions, and I think that what really attracts me to it is the way it manages to preserve a kind of truth and a kind of privacy. A lie forms a protective shell around something true–and sometimes you can just wrap the truth around a lie to bate people into ignoring the obvious to get at the carefully planted fabrication.

“Not in the Berlin Biennale” was conceived as a kind of skin or shell for the Berlin Biennale.


Another shot of the Telfar installation, including images of Telfar’s family that have been digitally altered to look more like the designer, shot by Asger Carlsen.

Can you define your role a little more? How’d you get involved?

I was asked to participate as an artist and my proposal took the shape of an SOW, a contract making me the creative director and outlining my responsibilities. The proposal was a contract–the work described was an immaterial communications scheme called Not in the Berlin Biennale, which legally I had completed the moment they signed it. I don’t have ownership or authorship over anything else produced except for the contract.

Due to protocol they couldn’t name me the creative director since this is now what curators are calling themselves–so violá–I’m creative director of not in the bienniale and not creative director of the biennale.

Telfar often appears in promotional materials smiling and clapping, and in doing so has created what the New York Times calls a “cheerful alter-ego.” This character, along with the retrospective’s mannequins, raises certain questions of authenticity: which one, if any, is the real Telfar, and what does it mean that they all look like him? Does fashion, in your opinion, allow for the truly free, independent expression of self, or perhaps just the codification of “repeatable tropes?” Are the two mutually exclusive?

The question of authenticity has come up before and I’m honestly completely dumbfounded by it. I’m imagining a kickstarter video with a 70’s film grain and after-effects light leaks, voice over about what someone has always wanted to do since they were a kid over images of them kicking pebbles on a beach. I’m imagining every inane thing that is said in this city over brunch. The Telfar we present is a decoy that is necessary because he is a private person and minds his own business.

“Drag represents someone’s deeper truth as a surface and as a performance — the identity ‘underneath’ is the real drag.”

You have called DIS’s perspective “post-contemporary.” This is also the title of the Biennale’s “Young Curator’s Workshop.” On the topic, the Biennale’s press kit says:

“contemporary art has… become a booming decorative-cognitive industry, because of the strong alliance it has built with the politico-economic reality of neoliberal capitalism over the past decades….  Critique has itself become institutionalized and…  a younger generation of artists and curators increasingly accepts art first and foremost as an economy, exploring the institutionally transformative potential of artworks (or indeed art itself) in the context of a brand.”

Is there any danger in art actively courting/mimicking/becoming business, or is it perhaps necessary?

I’m not calling DIS post-contemporary — it’s more that in the process of working on this Biennale there has been some pretty amazing coincidences in thought that kind of culminate in this neolog. I like to believe that there’s maybe a lot of power in what a few people are doing who know each other. So we know each other and are thinking certain things and I think that can be something like history.

I’m not afraid to say ‘post contemporary’ mostly out of convenience, since I very obviously have’nt been able to find a place for myself in the contemporary.


DIS, the curatorial team of the 9th Berlin Biennale.

The paragraph you reference is interesting, but I don’t really agree with what underlies it. It’s true in describing a tendency, but for example I wouldn’t say art has formed a ‘strong alliance’ with the politico-economic reality — I would say it has formed a ‘so-so alliance’ — an economy-class alliance. I don’t believe the post-contemporary is primarily about art — but it has huge critical impact for how art legitimizes itself. But where I think people exaggerate is that art legitimizes itself at all.

What I mean to say is that if we discover that making art in a certain way is completely irrelevant and drastic changes are needed, there is no reason to believe that those drastic changes will ever occur or that that irrelevance will have any effect on the perfect functioning of the system. More likely drastic changes are just added on top of everything staying the same. That smells strongly of the post contemporary.


Juan Sebastián Peláez’s Rihanna Sculpture, which has caused a sensation at the Biennale.

What is “the present in drag,” other than just the title of the Biennale?

You have to ask DIS — but the idea is that there is nothing behind the valence. That it’s not about unmasking ‘the present’ to get at a deeper truth. Drag represents someone’s deeper truth as a surface and as a performance — the identity ‘underneath’ is the real drag.

What do you think of Juan Sebastián Peláez’s Rihanna Sculpture?

It looks cute in the courtyard.

All images courtesy of the Berlin Biennale.

Stay tuned to Milk for more art, commerce, and Telfar.

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