The New York collective DIS was always grappling with the texture of the present. Here, they talk irony, politics, and engagement, from the Berlin Biennial to the streaming service dis.art.
By Kristian Vistrup Madsen
I was supposed to meet DIS in Copenhagen in mid-March just before the opening of its exhibition DIS Presents: What Do People Do All Day at Kunsthal Charlottenborg. DIS is a New York-based collective composed of Lauren Boyle, Solomon Chase, Marco Roso, and David Toro, and their invitation to Denmark co-signed by Tranen and DOX. I imagined a chill after-work kind of situation in that cafe in the kunsthal with the whipped butter and the orange wine. But then Denmark “shut down,” the New Yorkers flew home, and I never made it up from Germany. Instead, Lauren, Solomon, and I tuned into Whereby, glitching in and out of earshot from our respective exiles.
For weeks now, the majority of my interactions have taken place via webcam. It has become abundantly clear that, more than a tool or a service, the internet is really a prosthesis. It probably has been for a while, but without most people realising so starkly. I say most people because DIS likely had. Since launching DIS Magazine in 2010, the collective has operated at the intersections of fashion, art, advertisement, and critical theory, probing the constitution of such categories and testing their boundaries. In 2016, it curated the 9th Berlin Biennial, something of the apex of what people used to call post-internet art, an aesthetic paradigm that helped define much of the last decade.
The planned exhibition of immersive video installations by Meriem Bennani, Will Benedict & Stefan Jørgensen, Simon Dybbroe Møller, and others at Charlottenborg is now postponed until the summer, along with the collateral show at Tranen. Meanwhile, the films are available for free on Danish IP-addresses from the collective’s streaming service dis.art, a platform for complicated arguments about anything from mortgage crisis to queer architecture, but in hip and sassy packages of well-produced and entertaining short videos. Here, we talk about the relationships between media and message, irony, politics, and engagement.
Kristian Vistrup Madsen: It’s kind of strange to do an interview on a show that hasn’t opened… But I think it provides an opportunity to talk more broadly about dis.art, and how your ideas have developed over time. Coming into the new decade, there’s been a lot of thinking about how things have changed, both for art and for how we engage with the internet, politics, and images – considerations that have always been a big part of your project too. I see dis.art as a kind of mix between entertainment and education.
Lauren Boyle: We were using the word edutainment for a while, we kind of dropped it, but it’s still useful…
KVM: It’s like reading The New Inquiry, but as a music video… It seems to me like a shift from the 9th Berlin Biennial, The Present in Drag, which was criticised for being ironic and not taking a stance.
LB: We would definitely argue that there were lots of positions staked at the 9th Berlin Biennial, but it was way more tongue in cheek – it was the Obama years, it was Obama baroque! If you go back to when we started DIS Magazine in 2010, the internet was a completely different world. There was the Arab spring, there was an actual air of possibility, a certain kind of optimism, before the total financialisation and gentrification of online platforms by corporations. In many ways, I feel like dis.art is very much part of the same line of thinking as DIS Magazine was. We really consider it entertainment for the 21st century. It has an agenda and its own objectives, which are to train people to think complexly about the world and our positions in it.
Solomon Chase: And I think the Berlin Biennial was about that too: addressing complacency and understanding the contradictions you exist in. But dis.art takes on a more confrontational tone. There’s a thread of focusing on the underlying structures and systems that are hard to see in contrast to your own personal life, which is the theme of this exhibition too, the “What do people do all day”-idea.
LB: DIS Magazine was extremely niche, and dis.art is still niche. But it’s something my brothers can watch and enjoy, so I think that through moving image and video we’ve broken through to a larger group of people. Dis.art has a different model than other streaming platforms and magazines because we are tapping directly into universities and libraries, who subscribe on behalf of their students. There are individual subscribers too, but the content is actually being used in classrooms by professors, and by students in their self-directed research.
SC: The positions are enunciated. They’re written out in texts that go along with the videos, there’s an attempt at a much greater sense of clarity and communication to the viewer, and it became really important to us that people understand what they are seeing, and also just to have an agenda with the content.
KVM: Would you say that there’s a different relationship between the form and the content of the work now? Whereas, in many of the pieces in the biennial, the topic of the work was equal to the aesthetic, or the aesthetic was the topic, dis.art is really about explaining something, say, how the economy works, and employing aesthetics to popularise that point?
LB: There’s no question there. We use all sorts of modalities in order to get people’s attention and keep it. Like juxtaposing arguments about neoliberalism with the Night King from Game of Thrones, or Gossip Girl, to get people interested in things they otherwise might not pay attention to. Our aim with dis.art is to gesture towards solidarity and go beyond signalling. And I feel like COVID-19 has brought people together in the sense that they understand how interconnected we are, and how fragile political, social, and economic systems are. It’s what we’ve been trying to call out with dis.art in the last two years, and it feels even more relevant now.
KVM: And what started that for you?
LB: When we came back to New York after the Berlin Biennial closed, we had to wrestle with Trump’s inauguration. It was not a time to be passive. I don’t think we’re alone in this, Solomon. I think everyone has become more political, more rigorous, more outwardly challenging in the last four years.
SC: We became aware that young people, like 18 to 22 year-olds, actually hadn’t voted, didn’t know anything about politics, and were very disconnected. That’s not totally true anymore, but we became very aware of that after 2016.
LB: I also became pretty aware that people in fashion don’t vote. They vote at an alarmingly low rate, and we were like “uh oh.” So yes, we got a little bit more political, a little bit more obvious. The writing had been on the walls forever that normal magazine content didn’t make any sense anymore, and we had to come up with a new model; think really hard about who our audience is, who we want to effect, and how we want to communicate. Then this idea that the future of learning might just be entertainment came to us.
SC: There was also a cognitive shift between 2010 and 2016 – people’s minds changed. During that period, people basically stopped reading and started listening to podcasts and watching documentaries and half-reading. The ADD of that definitely influenced us. We felt like there are so many amazing ideas in scholarly research that we wanted to adapt and present in different ways.
LB: Yes, it was about finding a practical solution to this acceleration of cultural output. There are so many books, so may amazing thinkers, but how, as a non academic, can you gain a sense of different emerging thoughts? How can we make something that people can consume that doesn’t dumb it down, but gets at the essence of it?
KVM: There was this adage floating around the Berlin Biennial that said: “Why do fascists get to have all the fun?” And I guess you’re familiar with [the website] New Models that Carly Busta has started, roughly based on this idea that the right-wing is utilising popular aesthetics to get its point across, and maybe the left should do the same. Is this part of how you’re thinking about it?
LB: Yeah, “the left can’t meme.” Absolutely, we need to generate our own content, from our own point of view, and a lot has happened in this regard since 2016, like The Dirtbag Left, and other podcasts, which have a particular aesthetic as to how they present themselves.
KVM: In 2014, just as you had been appointed curators of the 2016 biennial, Spike magazine hosted a roundtable where you were in conversation with Hito Steyerl, art historian Susanne von Falkenhausen, and art critic Kolja Reichert. At one point, von Falkenhausen said that it is not very important to talk about the artwork anymore, since “bigger things are on the table.” Steyerl agreed: “Exactly, it’s not that relevant. That’s also one of the side effects of new media. The Internet is like a gutter, and following gravity everything will end up in there, be it art or basically everything else.” Reichert then asked: “Did we just say goodbye to art? After having said goodbye to the distinction between art and Instagram, maybe even between art and the culture industry? And also between the counterculture and corporate culture?” What do you think, did you?
LB: We’ve always wanted to transcend art, wouldn’t you say, Solomon? It’s been one point in a set of points, but never the primary thing.
SC: The art institution has been a great frame to work within, or facilitator of the kinds of projects we’ve developed. Dis.art, for instance, is not an artwork, but beyond online, we’ve been working mostly with art institutions.
KVM: And what would you say at that time was the bigger thing that was on the table that Susanne von Falkenhausen mentioned?
LB: Community, collaborations, communication in general.
KVM: There was this recurring sense of exasperation in the biennial, perhaps, as to what can be achieved with art, not so much politically, but for artists as workers. I’m thinking about Nik Kosmas and his exercise equipment, for instance, which marked a kind of departure from his art practice. Was that part of what made this move towards a broader audience important?
SC: We were definitely interested in working with artists who were not just doing art, but working with other things as well, because this is the reality of how the system works. Being an artist is mostly not a sustainable career, if you don’t already have a lot of money, or if you’re not selling paintings, so everyone has these other operations, and we highlighted them a lot in the biennial.
LB: That we worked with a lot of people who weren’t entrenched in the art world was definitely a feature, not a glitch of the exhibition.
KVM: I was rereading this harsh review in The Guardian …
LB: [laughs] The one that went viral!
KVM: Exactly! Jason Farago calls the exhibition “ultra-slick and ultra-sarcastic,” and charges it with effacing “any distinction between creation and complicity.”
SC: We were purposefully avoiding an aesthetics of critique to not play into the idea that going to a biennial is a do-gooder experience. We wanted to battle the logic of “I saw this documentary about X situation and now I feel better.” Our idea was to make people feel worse about themselves by complicating their experience.
LB: We were implicating people by highlighting their own habits; having a juice bar, for instance, and a workout routine, and pushing these things to the forefront. Also by not choosing a grainy matte paper for our catalogue. That was the whole point.
SD: There had been this growth in happiness in Berlin since the fall of the wall, and we wanted to address the relationship between capitalism and happiness, health, and fitness. Probably the clearest example was Simon Fujiwara’s installation The Happy Museum, which laid that out.
KVM: I think there are different varieties of aesthetics of critique. Farago mentions favourably a billboard that the Deutsche Oper had on its facade at the time showing the EU’s border to Morocco as the emblematic image of the refugee crisis. This is probably the aesthetic of critique he was looking for, and which we know from most big exhibitions in recent years. Christoph Büchel showing the ship in Venice last year, for instance, I think had its own problems. But there’s also a more postmodern variety, like this idea of resistance through indulgence, or capitalist realism, which I read as closer to what you were doing.
LB: Since you mention the refugee crisis, when I think about Akademie der Künste, there was Halil Altındere’s installation Homeland (2016) with the Syrian rap music playing really loudly, and the Anna Uddenberg sculptures coming out of suitcases everywhere with selfie sticks, one taking a selfie of her backside. And then if you look through the window of the exhibition space, every day all you would see was tourists with selfie sticks taking pictures with the Brandenburg Gate, next to activists protesting immigration policy. It was so in your face that for a critic to not see what was being said from a curatorial point of view is just strange.
KVM: In a certain sense, that was about staging incongruity, or highlighting the friction. It’s not unlike the juxtaposition of references to Gossip Girl or Game of Thrones that you mentioned with regard to dis.art, except in Berlin it was on the viewer to understand what the critical outcome of that friction was.
SC: [Farago] particularly took offence to the Anna Uddenberg sculpture. “From the Pergamon to this in 2,000 years,” he wrote, which was an amazing line. I think that sculpture is still one of the most resonant and powerful works of that exhibition.
KVM: It seems to me that the bigger thing that was on the table at that time was not politics – as in most big exhibitions since – but mediation itself. Which made it actually a lot about art, but just art without limits. Back then, in the roundtable conversation, there was a dance around the term post-internet, which no one wanted to use, but which related to this concern with mediation. The new ‘post’ that everyone is and isn’t talking about is post-truth, which I’d argue has played a part in changing the status of irony and performative positioning in cultural production. Sincerity is the new modus operandi for art. The slipperiness of images and media and how we consume them has meant that there’s no room or irony or camp or drag to disturb meaning.
LB: Did you read Rob Horning’s piece ‘Fear of Content’ in the catalogue?
KVM: Yes! He writes: “Parody and interpretation jeopardise the dubious and tenuous autonomy of art by threatening to make it more interesting.”
LB: I think that is a text that should be revisited every six months.
KVM: Where are you in relation to this question of irony and performativity and drag now? Does it look different to you than it did then?
SC: We still think about that all the time, but we never considered it irony so much as humour, or probing the surfaces of things and their meaning in relationship to each other. Like our in-depth use of the language of advertisement – it’s part of reality. I don’t know if it’s ironic to use that as material.
KVM: How would you describe, then, how you used advertisement and merchandise in your practice?
SC: We’ve always been interested in using the ubiquitous language that we’re surrounded by and giving it new meaning. That was the function of our stock image site, DISimages: using the language of a code without a message, instilling new messages into it.
LB: You can absolutely look at DISimages and just see irony, but for us, we saw exposure.
KVM: Of what?
LB: That our whole world consists of this templated imagery that just reproduces itself, and if something doesn’t exist as a template, it can’t be a reference for an adman to be used in a pitch deck to get made into a commercial. So everything functions by this self-perpetuating logic of what sells. We were just injecting new genres and new ideas into it. The basic reading might be “they’re ironic,” but for us it was so much more than that. Honestly, one of the biggest pet-peeves we had was being labelled ironic, also because irony, generally speaking, has an air of superiority, and we never felt that. We weren’t taking jabs in that way.
KVM: But rather participating in and engaging actively with the system?
LB: Yeah, but it was way more nuanced…
KVM: So, using images and cultural surfaces in the same way as on social media, where the difference between image and presence has eroded. Yours is not a sphere of representation, but of behaviour. Or that’s how I can understand it now – like the Uddenberg sculpture next to the protesters – not representing conflict, but actually producing it in the space as friction.
SC: We were always responding a lot to, or trying to understand, emerging behaviour on the internet, from DIS Magazine through dis.art. Obviously, so many people that we published or collaborated with were doing that too. And I think that our shifts over time and decisions to do different things reflect the shifts that happened on the internet. For instance, we produced massive amounts of images that were decontextualised through the internet because that was something we thought was exciting at that time, but now we don’t do that at all, really.
KVM: I have been trying to wrap my head around an idea formulated by Chus Martinez, also in the biennial catalogue, which I think is related to this: “Digging into the limits of a given frame seems to me like investing in building a sanctuary for a cynical life.” She writes that as a comment on psychoanalysis and institutional critique. What I think she means is that, contrary to what people might assume, institutional critique, for instance, is not idealistic but cynical, because its position is that of a sanctuary, pure but necessarily separate. The implication is that what you should be doing instead is to actually involve yourself. Or how do you understand that?
LB: I think a lot of people in the arts are content to just highlight stuff – like gesture or signal that they have feelings about this or that. We got our hands dirty, in a way. That obviously put us in a more vulnerable position.