How dis.art blurs the lines between education, entertainment and commerce
BY TRAVIS DIEHL
To prove you understand a concept, explain it to a kid. To prove you really understand a concept, convince a millennial. Not because we're distractible, disaffected and docile; but because there's little you can tell us that's news. Capitalism is exploitation; the few control the many; life is short. Undiscouraged, dis.art - the recently launched 'online edutainment channel' - repackages Gen-X's disenchanted critical theory for consumption by generations Y and Z. In one early video, Babak Radboy (who, like DIS, ricochets between art and commercial design) joins a group of squirming children in a variegated set of reclaimed foam-rubber to explain 'money'. Money is like a skeleton, he says - if you 'peel away [the] skin and take off [the] clothes, there's a skeleton underneath.' It gets more macabre still when the kiddos learn why time is life, and money is time: everyone dies.
Babak's skit aims young; it's a more seasoned audience that will appreciate Reparation Hardware, a video by llana Harris-Babou that dissects yuppie design trends. The narrator gushes about reclaimed wood while the camera pans across the beautifully weathered slats of barns. The title riffs on the US home furnishings chain Restoration Hardware: restoration of what, exactly? Antebellum America? (If so, which parts ...?) The artist's own line of décor comprises unfired clay hammers folding across steel nails and disgusting conglomerates of ceramics, brushes, and boards, each titled with the names of black activists and intellectuals: Garvey, Gates, Coates and Bethune. The clip is silly, but it links to serious stuff. Dis are uber-capitalists, but their humour is dismally Soviet.
Dis.art started in 2010 as the web-based DIS Magazine. Times changed and DIS changed with them. This winter they relaunched as a video platform, discarding the article format in favour of videos ranging in length from four minutes to a half hour. The production standards are high: nothing less than sharp, 'edutaining' videos disposed for critical discourse. There are even 'commercials' before each feature: 5- to 30-second shorts by artists like Amalia Ulman and Ryan Trecartin (a line animation of a pigeon going to an office job, and zoomed-in footage of chickens pecking sunflowers, respectively). This is underground culture all too aware that it will be coopted even before it cools. The ease with which 'sponsored content' might blend into dis.art's offerings was part of the magazine's ambiguity from the beginning. After all, even Sesame Street prepped kids for consumerism by breaking up the story with words from their 'sponsors', granted that their underwriters were personified letters and numerals. Instead of distended muppets and diligent fraggles, the DIS universe is populated by artists, models, creative directors and erudite CGI beings, like the Snailien: earrings, smartphone, Oceanian accent and a knowing stare.
If DIS were often ironists of Obama-esque idealism, they have lately turned defenders of those same values, countering the malaise of our current moment. This isn't always obvious; explaining one tragedy after the next, the clips on dis.art perform a sort of conceptual disaster tourism. A documentary called The Seasteaders, by Jacob Hurwitz-Goodman and Daniel Keller, subtly disparages a group of libertarian ex-pats for trying to build a floating tax haven off the Tahitian coast. The video's last three shots show glaciers crumbling into the sea. They try to strike a balance between disabusing the Baby Boomers' faith in progress, and defining the priorities of the millennial cohort and beyond. (Those being, so far, familiar: environmentalism, Marxism, postcolonialism, feminism and transhumanism.) In the first episode of her interview series Mothers and Daughters, Casey Jane Ellison asks her own mother why we should keep having kids. 'The survival of our species,' mom says, without a beat. 'I'd hate to think that this is our high point.'
'Nothing is true, everything is permitted,' goes the disruptor's koan. Accordingly, dis.art is infinitely propositional. There is no certainty, only jokes. The site's videos often don't make rational sense, nor should they: because they're .art, because DIS's comfort with consumer culture makes previous styles of conscientiousness distinctly uncool, and because the brand-as- platform disassociates itself from whatever content it happens to present. Thus their critical discussions manage to be clarifying and dissociative at once.
Why, in McKenzie Wark's ongoing series explaining 'general intellects', is his severed head sideways on a table? It's a raw pun on talking heads, or on losing our heads; but the green-screen sleight of 'head' also represents the TED-type fungibility of Wark's episodes, wherein lifelong bodies of work distilled into short talks are just abstract (decapitated) enough to explain almost anything. In the second installment, for instance, Wark digests cultural theorist Sianne Ngai's book Our Aesthetic Categories (2012), which exchanges Kant's notion of the 'beautiful and sublime' for new categories - 'zany, cute and interesting' -in an age defined by precarity, populism and bad porn. Ngai's theory is nothing less than the aesthetics of the commodity. This new aesthetics has its own criticism, too. Zany criticism? Quips Wark's head: 'Maybe it would be like this.'
Above all, Dis.art would display mastery of what it satirizes, dissolving its cynicism with a certain contrarian hopefulness. See the nigh-epileptic cooking show The Restaurant, by Will Benedict and Steffen Jørgensen, which deftly disassembles online foodie tutorials while still, in the end, teaching us recipes. (To make French fries, says artist and chef Søren Aagaard, 'You take the potato like this - and you need to cut them -into fries.') Anyone can do it. Critical theory is made bite-sized - neatly bundled by the 'aesthetics of the commodity' - in a way that does not discriminate between information and education. After all, it's the millennial way to know a little about a lot - or, put another way, to feel pressured to understand at least something about the wide range of subjects and dynamics we're exposed to on the internet. Dis.art is its own commodity, selling and transacting itself, distributing itself as its own content. And here, finally - perhaps more lucidly than its popup store, its biennial and even its magazine - DIS theorizes itself and its concerns, distinguishing the conceptual fringe where the post-human, the humanist and the inhumane slur together. As for actually disentangling and evaluating these commodity theories, DIS leaves that task to another generation.