Remember those Benetton ads from the 1980s and ’90s? Their contrived rainbow of human skin tones and Pantone-color-chart clothes and their public support of victims of the AIDS crisis were considered representationally radical by the mainstream press at the time. Central to “Image Life,” the first London solo exhibition by the DIS collective, was the video installation Image Life (Related by Contour) (all works 2016): It depicts a similar hybrid of performed racial inclusivity and inclusive chromatics but aspires to stock-photography genericism. The work comprises a flatscreen inside a bespoke cabinet, wrapped in a print of a multiracial “family.” They smile beatifically at the camera, their faces covered in streaks of dark and light highlighter—the kind of contour makeup created especially to enhance one’s bone structure on-screen, and made famous by the likes of Kim Kardashian. Here the makeup is unblended and appears in streaks as tribal markings of a kind—a familial identification implied in the work’s title. The doors slide open by remote control, revealing a video of the same family posing for this shot to a sound track of music by Lizzie Fitch.
The walls of the gallery were painted Serenity, a shade of blue that, along with Rose Quartz, is one of the two Pantone colors of the year for 2016. The company stated in the New York Times that the pairing has to do with “societal movements toward gender equality and fluidity” as well as “an open exchange of digital information that has opened our eyes to different approaches to color usage.” On the gallery walls, Serenity appeared as a putrid shade of lilac that my five-year-old self would have selected for a princess dress. Three other large-format photographs were displayed framed under glass, on top of which very noisy Winbot window-cleaning machines ran: Serenity Now is a Photoshopped image of two arms holding a large-format Canon camera above a head that is signified by a mop of hair, whose owner disappears into light-brown mud; Becoming Genre is a restaged image of former Nickelodeon actress Amanda Bynes leaving her parents’ home with a scarf over her head, after she was reported to have said she wanted to kill them and burn down their house; and Apology is another restaged image, this time of Cho Hyun-ah, an executive at Korean Air and daughter of its chairman, making a public apology after being sentenced to one year in prison for delaying a plane because she was angry at how the nuts were served. The latter two works address moments in which the private selves and emotions of these individuals have leaked out into the public arena to be met with shame, prompting ritualistic enactments of guilt.
Anyone who remembers Benetton ads from when they were new is not a “digital native” but rather someone who lived before the Internet was a public tool and before mobile technology and social media became pervasive extensions of human bodies and souls. Yet one always constructed and performed different versions of the self for different audiences. When I was sixteen, I starred in a television commercial for Typhoo Tea. It was an accident: As I was waiting for a friend, I was asked to audition; somehow I got the part by performing stories from my life, enacting someone’s idea of a good-girl-turned-bad, an exaggerated version of myself. “Image Life” looked at that kind of experience: It explored what DIS term the “authentically generic” realm, in which the public self is styled to contain a familiar semiotics that conveys the tropes and emotions of the genre of “real life” one has chosen to portray—implying that we now exist in an echo chamber of performance, infinitely mirrored between the virtual and physical realms.
— Kathy Noble