DIS + Babak Radboy
Narrative Devices
HD video installation
Dimensions variable

Installation view: Utopia/Dystopia: A Paradigm Shift

Sleep Mode
HD video installation
Dimensions variable
Edition of 1 plus II AP

Installation view: Image Life

Installation view: Ocean of Images: New Photography 2015

Installation view: CO-WORKERS

HD video, 40" HD flatscreen, Dornbracht WT.PR800H.R glazed white basin and fixtures
134 × 90.5 × 41 cm (52 ¾" × 35 ⅝" × 16 ⅛")
HD video: 1 min 33 secs
Edition of 5 plus II AP

Installation view: DISown

Emerging Artist
HD Video
Edition of 5 plus II AP

New Art Handlers, Andrea di Bartolo, dit SOLARIO, La Tete de Saint Jean Baptiste, 1507 Curated by Bjarne Melgaard with David Rimanelli
Digital C-print photograph
30 × 40 inches (76.20 × 101.60 cm)
Edition of 5 plus II AP

DIScrit 89plus #YoungerThanRihanna
HD Video
Video: 00:55
Edition of 5 plus II AP

Fair Trade (Sies + Höke, F21)
(Fair Trade)
Digital C-Print Photograph
Edition of 5 plus II AP

Watermarked (KENZO)
HD Video
Edition of 5 plus II AP



Solo Exhibitions:

2018 Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore
2018 Casa Encendida, Madrid
2014 DISown. Not for Everyone, Red Bull Arts, New York
2013 DisImages Studio, The Suzanne Geiss Company, New York
2012 Fair Trade, Frieze Projects/Frieze Art Foundation, London
2011 DIS HQ, Invisible Exports, New York, NY

Group Exhibitions:

2018 I Was Raised on the Internet, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
2018 Art in the Age of the Internet, ICA Boston
2017 .com/.cn, K11 Foundation, Hong Kong
2017 Citizen X - Human, Nature, and Robot Rigts, Øregaard Museum, Copenhagen
2017 Whistleblowers and Vigilantes, Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen
2016 Whistleblowers and Vigilantes, HMKV, Dortmund
2015 New Group Materialism, tank.tv
2015 Surround Audience, New Museum Triennial, New Museum, New York

2014 In the Hotel, Staatliche Kunsthalle, Baden-Baden, Germany
2013 ProBio, Expo 1: New York, MoMA PS1, New York

2013 89plus Marathon and DISCRIT 89plus in collaboration with Hans Ulrich Obrist and Simon Castet, Serpentine Gallery, London and Foundation Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Torino

Selected Special Projects:

2017 Styles and Customs of the 2020s, VR project comissioned by Hillman Photography Initiative, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh
2016 (Curation) Berlin Biennale, Berlin

2014 ArtSelfie, (Book) Jean Boîte Éditions
2014 DISown. Not for Everyone, (Curation) Red Bull Studios, New York
2014 Pre-sets and Post-sets: Poetics and Projections, (Panel discussion with Hans Ulrich Obrist and Kevin McGarry) DLD 14, Munich
2013 Art in America, (Production) December 2013 Cover
2012 Watermarked, (Production) Men’s Fall 2012 collection video commissioned by Kenzo, Paris

2012 DIS CRIT, (Curation) A global competition for art school students
2011 Kim Kardashian Kontest, A spectacle by DIS, (Production) MoMA PS1 @ Art Basel Miami Beach, Miami

2010 Elastic Youth: Interpreting the Scrunchie, New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York
2010 New in Stock: Free, New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York


5 Nov 2016


with Hito Steyerl, DIS and Susanne von Falkenhausen



with Hito Steyerl, DIS and Susanne von Falkenhausen


edited by Kolja Reichert



Why does the art of today often seem to exist in a historical vacuum? What is the significance of art history for post-Internet art? Is our sense of history changing because of the accelerated circulation of images, money and data? Where does this leave the art object? At Spike’s new space in Berlin, Kolja Reichert moderated a discussion between artist and essayist Hito Steyerl, art historian Susanne von Falkenhausen, and two of the four curators of the 2016 Berlin Biennial: Lauren Boyle and Marco Roso from the collective DIS. 

Kolja Reichert: So, what is DIS?
Lauren Boyle: No matter how many times we are asked what DIS is we always struggle defining it. We just don’t have an elevator pitch, and if we did, we probably wouldn’t be here. We’re not editors, we’re not curators, and we’re not exactly comfortable being called artists. 
Marco Roso: The group dynamic that we have is mostly that we react to the moment. Every activity that we do through DIS Magazine is a way to negotiate with the present and the things that make us uncomfortable.
Lauren Boyle: We founded DIS because we saw a lot of interesting people and work around us that wasn’t being seen. And we also thought that we have something to say that wasn’t being said by Purple magazine or other fashion and art magazines. They were all very sophisticated and tasteful, and we weren’t any of those things. We were also exploring the Internet a lot more than other publications. So we decided that we were going to start DISmagazine.com, we were going to build our own audience, and we were going to have autonomy and freedom. 
Kolja Reichert: When I browse through DIS Magazine, it seems a kind of satire or travesty of consumer culture. There is this high-resolution movie of a gentleman’s shoe gliding into a sports slipper to some cheesy music. What is happening there? Is this art? Or what is it?
Lauren Boyle: That was a commercial. It advertised an imaginary product that we would sell you if we had the ability to produce it. We worked with a 3D rendering company as we couldn’t make the shoe in China: we tried, but it was very hard. 
Kolja Reichert: Frau von Falkenhausen, looking at DIS Magazine, would you see it as offering an illustration of how our sense of history is changing?
Susanne von Falkenhausen: That sounds like a too generic thing to do, really. But I would say it plays with the present. It might be an archive for the future. But I don’t know about how capable it is of making connections to archives of the past. It seems to be very radically linked to rendering the present. 
Kolja Reichert: What do you see in the work of DIS, Hito?
Hito Steyerl: There has been a strong aesthetic break over the past years, which is irreversible, and I am very happy for it. The work with historical archives, which was very strong throughout the 00s and even the 90s, was very important but then it started to turn into a formula, into a jargon, into a cliché, into a readymade even. And at a certain point, I couldn’t stand these 16-mm projectors any more, dropped in the gallery just as a way to signify history.
Kolja Reichert: Like clip art?
Hito Steyerl: Exactly, like drag and drop, just a history readymade. I think this is due to the fact that history does not follow a linear movement. Some time around the 80s it slowed down, and then it even stopped. For at least fifteen to twenty years, during the first Bush presidency, history stopped. It didn’t move anymore. There was a blockage. This is why many people including myself then started to turn towards history – because the present wasn’t happening. Then, as soon as many things started happening – with the financial crisis and many other things, including the almost global civil war going on right now – the present became unblocked, and a whole different aesthetic started, which was absolutely not new anymore, but which seemed new to the art world. All of that started happening very quickly and I think that this is now an irreversible change, a completely new situation, and everyone’s got to deal with that.
Marco Roso: I am totally with Hito. What I’ve noticed in studio visits preparing for the biennial is like a formula that a lot of artists currently follow: “I do research, that research is about something related to modernism.” It looks like really good art, but when you see hundreds of examples of this kind of work you start losing interest.
Susanne von Falkenhausen: But that seems to be kind of a backlash – high modernism was the father figure against which the 60s and 70s reacted. For me what you say is astonishing; I don’t know where it shows up now in the academy with the very young ones. It seems, to me, more that appropriation aesthetics is coming back in another way. 
Hito Steyerl: Its done, it’s over. [Laughter.]
Kolja Reichert: How come you’re so sure it’s over?
Hito Steyerl: I think there was a very strong appropriationist movement when YouTube started, when this whole flow of data started circulating. Everybody was appropriating everything. But now everyone knows that the biggest appropriationists are the corporations, so it starts feeling a bit fishy. As long there is so much circulation, people will not stop doing it. But I think the attitude towards it will become more nuanced. It will not be as innocent any more.
Kolja Reichert: Lauren and Marco, I’d say there have actually been many appropriationist practices over the past few years, many of which have been featured in your magazine – even if the appropriated was less the art of others and more the aesthetics of corporate culture. You even created your own stock photo agency, so you are also appropriating business models. Does anybody use DIS Images, by the way.
Lauren Boyle: We have sold, we do sell …
Kolja Reichert: Is it profitable?
Lauren Boyle: [Laughs.] No. But it’s true that many artists nowadays are responding more to commercial imagery than to art history. And for us, we see a chance to subvert the imagery that we see all the time that makes us uncomfortable or that we don’t understand. The point of DIS Images was the idea that stock photographs just perpetuate the same stereotypes over and over again, so we wanted to intercept that and add a few more tags to those weird pictures, to give some more options.
Susanne von Falkenhausen: I guess you get a lot of questions about whether your practice is intended to be disruptive, or whether it’s just about offering just another option, as you say.
Lauren Boyle: So the question is, do we see DIS as disruptive to the art world in general?
Susanne von Falkenhausen: No, also the commercial world.
Lauren Boyle: I think it helps shift things sometimes. We try to infuse familiar methods of marketing with new meaning and otherness in a widely digestible format. Any image, no matter how strange it is, can pass for normal under the right light.
Susanne von Falkenhausen: But are you taking into account questions of history and memory?
Kolja Reichert: You mean, how the work of DIS relates to art history?
Susanne von Falkenhausen: No, no, no, no, I don’t want to talk about art history, that’s too boring. Don’t put me into that basket, please. [Laughter.]
Lauren Boyle: I think we’re more interested in the sort of viral history that we live in right now, where different events are measured in the same unit of clicks, likes, shares and so on, and the Arab Spring and Rebecca Black’s music video can go viral on the same day and a machine might think they’re equal. I mean, who remembers what went viral in 2004? I don’t.
Susanne von Falkenhausen: That’s very short, hmm.

Kolja Reichert: Frau von Falkenhausen, in your recent essay “Too Much Too Fast” [in frieze d/e 17], you expressed a kind of discomfort about the speed of circulation. Why do you feel uncomfortable in the face of recent art production?

Susanne von Falkenhausen: Recent art production is a bit too vast.

Kolja Reichert: I just don’t want to use the term post-Internet art. I think that it’s great that we haven’t used it so far. [Laughter.]

Susanne von Falkenhausen: Post-Internet can be really pretty horrible. Whatever I’ve seen of it was very uninteresting and extremely boring, and I was wondering about its return into off-Internet gallery spaces. With these works by Katja Novitskova, I thought, well, this is a little like, you know, kindergarten. It might be a hybrid practice, but I think it’s hypocritical to be online with enthusiasm and then produce some kind of avatar for the real world and put into a gallery. To me, this seems like a politics that doesn’t serve anything for the interests of the work, let’s put it that way.

Kolja Reichert: Do you sense something like a generation gap?

Susanne von Falkenhausen: Very strongly. [Laughter.] I have to confess this. I’m not on social networks so I won’t have heard about a lot of the names that will be dropped on the table: so much for the historical depth that I’m supposed to bring in here! Nevertheless, I studied the cohabitation of the avant-garde and Fascism a long time ago – I almost don’t remember – and Kolja was asking me earlier if there’s a parallel to today’s situation, where everyone seems very futurist. It occurs to me that art is always running after technology. My impression is that there is a lot of fascination with technology and its possibilities and not yet a distance that needs to be taken – a distance that futurism didn’t take. Some kind of settling-down of this fascination has to occur for it to operate with a critical and analytical distance.

Kolja Reichert: Hito, I would like to hear your perspective on that. If one compares your recent work to your older work one can have the feeling they are from a different artist. If back there you were digging back into the depths of history, in your newer pieces you work a lot with CGI, and also the narrative order seems to be dissolving. How did this 180-degree turn come about?

Hito Steyerl: There is no 180-degree turn. Most of my works are produced with very frugal means. I do most of it myself. We came to a stage where you could finally make film without traditional analogue technologies, using camcorders and so on. Now it’s possible to make films using 3D imaging by oneself. Which is what I do, because I think that basically the technologies of the present moment are the most interesting because they contain the tensions of the present moment, and also the bugs, the disfunctionalities of the present moment. People who don’t use them are missing out on those disfunctionalities. I also think the logic of narrative has to be completely rethought now that so many stories are being told at the same time and every single one is fragmented down into a number of pixels. The idea of history itself has completely changed. Anyone who says that history is the same as ten years ago is not telling the truth. When I see how history is being aggregated today in new museum collections that are trying to amass and conserve and construct history as a kind of readymade very quickly, it’s amazing. It’s a bit like durring the Renaissance in Florence: a lot of the art history we’re talking about today arose under exactly such extreme conditions of disruption and corruption as we experience them today, with history being quickly aggregated and commissioned in a timespan of a few decades. We are in a similar period right now, where history is being made instantly, with very interesting tools. We are caught up in a whirlstorm of events, and the geopolitical landscape is shifting massively, also under the influence of social media.

Kolja Reichert: What does this mean for history as a discipline?

Susanne von Falkenhausen: Well, history turned deconstructive in the 80s. History has always been constructed, it’s always changing with time and it is constructed from the point of view of the one who constructs it, that’s very banal. But you accentuated the acceleration of the process and the multiplying of voices, and I guess that’s a greatter shift than with the means of production. As a result the narratology of history is changing with the technologies of text and image circulation. I totally agree with that.

Hito Steyerl: Since prehistory, all new media have actively impacted history and the way it is made. Of course history is now made via Instagram, it’s a fact.

Kolja Reichert: Lauren and Marco, how do you position yourself in regards to earlier practices? Say, for example, Bernadette Corporation, who were working with a corporate model in the 90s: do you relate to that?

Marco Roso: We relate to that the same way as we relate to Aleksandra Mir’s book Corporate Mentality from 2003 or Art Club 2000. Christopher Williams picked up commercial images in the early 90s. Whether we want to or not, we come from a certain tradition.

Lauren Boyle: Sometimes the only differrence is that you are doing the same thing but now, with different tools. In a way it just becomes a collaborative process.


I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all. It feels like a partnership, like this network is coming alive, in a way, you know?

Kolja Reichert: So, is there still any chance of getting something like critical distance, or is DIS Magazine a model for how we can now relate to anything in flat, floating changing surfaces that are somehow unhinging each other all the time?

Hito Steyerl: Maybe the whole framework of distance and being opposed to something has also shifted. Maybe this model of dialectical opposition doesn’t work any more and maybe it has never worked in a certain sense. I prefer to think about the situation as one in which the term engagement is very interesting. I got it from one of the protagonists in my films, a museum guard called Ron Hicks, who used to be a military policeman. He uses the word when he’s talking about how to deal with intruders into the gallery. It’s a military term: you engage people in a military situation, you confront them, and you have some kind of contestation with them. It also means you have to react inside the situation: you are never outside this situation because you are part of it. Critical distance might be a luxury nowadays that most people cannot afford.

Susanne von Falkenhausen: But I can’t imagine your work without a critical sense of operation. You’re analysing all the time.

Hito Steyerl: Yeah, but if you’re engaged, you’re not outside the situation.

Lauren Boyle: I would say it’s very difficult to have critical distance when you’re so involved in something.

Susanne von Falkenhausen: I guess people who are younger than you will pose themselves as pure presence, or, to put it another way, as naïve presence, with no need for anything else. And that’s where I think memory must set in, also as an instrument of confronting the present.

Kolja Reichert [to DIS]: So this might be a naïve question but it should be put. In your work, how do you relate to capitalism? Is it still a … [Laughter.] I mean let’s just put it on the table. Is it still a critical category for you? Is it something that you talk about?

Marco Roso: Definitely. I mean we don’t actually talk about post-Internet, let’s put it that way. Right now there are so many people saying capitalism is the only option, and we don’t believe in that. I think we are engaging, in our work, in trying to find options. I like that quotation from Bruno Latour about the laboratory, where he says that the closer you are to science, the more possibilities, surprises and unexpected agencies open up. That’s what interests us.

Kolja Reichert: But what is the role of economics in all this? Hito, how is the hypercirculating flow of images of goods impacting our sense of history? Is history following the logic of financial speculation and its disconnect of information and material?

Hito Steyerl: That’s an interesting idea … I don’t know. But what I can tell you is that I think a sort of reversal is happening with the function of media. I think that nowadays a lot of capture devices that we still think of as recording something for posterity or for the present are rather being used to project a future, to basically reverse a futureto- be. I think that 3D renderings of malls also work in exactly in this way: they project a future to be built, of course, but also a whole social environment, with the ghosts that come with it and all of that. It’s a projection, not a representation.

Susanne von Falkenhausen: That makes me think of the new Apple headquarters in Cupertino, which, in my professional function as a historian, I see as part of a long tradition. It might have been interrupted or forgotten in the meantime, but it is not gone. It has to do with visualizing a utopian vision of the world, in this case an ideal sociality based on what Apple can sell. The architectural form of this Apple spaceship is in the tradition of spherical buildings that signify what we might call totalitarian concepts of the social. Mostly it’s an ideal future that is proposed to us in these circumstances.

Kolja Reichert: Is it only corporations that still can project the future today?

Susanne von Falkenhausen: It seems so. That’s certainly my impression.

Hito Steyerl: No, the good news is that as long as the image you capture is a record, you are always too late. It has happened already, you cannot change it anymore. It’s a document. So, if you start generating instead, then you have an option of what the future you are intending to generate is supposed to look like. That’s in fact very refreshing. 

Kolja Reichert: What’s the role of the artwork in this? Frau von Falkenhausen, in your essay, you’ve just written that it seems like a stumbling block. 

Susanne von Falkenhausen: Its characteristics as an object make it a stumbling block for circulation in the media, except when it’s photographed. But I feel some kind of resistance to talking about the artwork, it doesn’t seem a very important moment here in this discussion. Bigger things are on the table.

Hito Steyerl: 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.

Kolja Reichert: 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? 

Susanne von Falkenhausen: Well, that’s a good way to cut through things and it’s difficult to react. I would like to ask artists what this means for their work. What kinds of competence and what practices should come out of this situation? 

Hito Steyerl: I don’t know about competence, just about the payment. I wanted to point to that. The art economy has also changed dramatically in the past years. As an artist nowadays, you have the choice of begging for funding from a crumbling nation state, becoming a sort of lackey to oligarchs, or being an artist that sells work on the market. I totally do not object to that, but the economies are pretty restricted. New technologies have opened up a lot of new economic models, none of which are fully or even partially functional yet, but there are a lot of experiments that are trying to open up new forms of autonomy. 

Marco Roso: It’s a good question, when you realize that one of the bigger collectors of paintings with Marxist content in New York is an arms trader. There’s always this question of where the money comes from, and how you engage with that. 

Hito Steyerl: Absolutely, and most of us have solved the problem already by working in other jobs, and thus selfsubsidising the artistic practice, but is there something more functional that one could also do? 

Kolja Reichert: Frau von Falkenhausen, in your essay you describe a hypercirculating economy that basically has no need for the physical object. But then, this very economy is pressing people to produce objects. There’s a contradiction in this, and I don’t know how it can be resolved, or if it can be made productive. 

Susanne von Falkenhausen: It can’t be resolved. There will be people who collect objects and there will be people who enter the economy of digital image circulation or other models that might not be ready yet. As for the art market today, I have the impression that it is at an in-between phase between the object and market-oriented digital circulation. If the art market assembles itself again on the level of digital circulation, then the art object becomes a stumbling block. But perhaps there will always be some collectors who want objects with which to fill up their bunkers. So there is no way to decide which practice to choose to get out of the market. And I really have the feeling that there is no historical moment where artists tried to get out of the market in reality. 

Audience Member 1: The poster for this event mentioned a new productivism. I am interested in whether you see signs of a sort of updated version of it, or is what we are seeing already is more of an embedding of the artist into the general production of today? 

Hito Steyerl: Productivism, I think, had two parts, historically. There were artists that went to the factory and tried to change it, and then secondly there was the factory and bureaucracy who tried to change the artist – and they won, big-time. But both of them were productivists. I think basically similar things are happening now. It is grotesque to define production as circulation – and it’s not really correct – but anyhow, let’s say circulation is the factory and there are people that are trying to rewire that factory and intervene into circulation and rearticulate it. And then I think we are in the same situation: the corporations are already there, and they are doing it. This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to restructure the networks and to redesign circulation and think through it and find different ways of doing it. I think this is a very important question but we should not think that the other guys weren’t there first. It’s being done as we speak.

Audience Member 2: What I’m missing a bit is the discourse of the body, embodiment, and its relations to criticality or existence. 

Hito Steyerl: I think these strict dichotomies between online and offline, including the body, are not sustainable. This also applies to the translation of objects from the screen to three-dimensional space and so on. Networked reality has pervaded everything else, including 3D reality. Bodies are networked to a certain degree, and the lack of networkedness of some bodies is also a function of the overnetworkedness of other bodies. On the other hand, someone asked the same question recently and the thing that occurred to me was that the physical, organic body is the only thing that can disappear nowadays, whereas your data cannot disappear ever again, it is unerasable, it is immortal, it will always be there. As for the tools, they are somewhere in between. You can lose your phone but then you can buy a new one, and in that sense the only thing that can disappear is the organic body. But your body is never only your body: it’s always tied to and formed by and informed by these projections. 

Kolja Reichert: I think that would be a wonderful ending. The problem is, I still have one question. What we are talking about seems very much to be reducing the situation to us privileged underpaid cultural workers in the northern half of the globe, but I would like to ask if these changed conditions also have an effect on global asymmetries of agency. What about image strategies like those that came up during the Arab Spring, or the role of cameras more generally in the Middle East right now?

Hito Steyerl: I think that this is absolutely central, as I said at the beginning: I believe that the reason this whole image- production explosion is happening is because history has been unblocked, it’s moving again and things are happening everywhere. And this region in particular is where history is getting unblocked. Things become possible and impossible and tragic, but they also become unpredictable again. And I’m very happy that basically everything we’re talking about today, all these new aesthetics, new forms of cultural production, even new cultural economies are a function of that unblockage of history we are witnessing on such an amazing scale today. 

Kolja Reichert: Thanks so much, that was a really good ending. 

Hito Steyerl (*1966) is an artist, essayist and professor for media art at the University of the Arts in Berlin. Her work was featured in documenta 12 and has recently been shown at the ICA in London and the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven. She is currently preparing her contribution to the German Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale. 

Susanne von Falkenhausen (* 1951) is professor for modern and contemporary art history at the Humboldt University in Berlin. She has published seminal texts on the relationship of art, architecture and power. In 2011 a volume of her essays appeared under the title Praktiken des Sehens im Felde der Macht.
Lauren Boyle (*1983) studied at Pratt Institute. Marco Roso (*1971) studied at Barcelona University and at the University of the Arts in Berlin. In 2009, together with David Toro and Solomon Chase, they founded the collective DIS along with DISmagazine.com. DIS are the curators of the 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, which opens in 2016. 

Kolja Reichert is a Berlin-based writer and an editor at Spike. 

1 Sep 2016

DIS :: Review of Berlin Biennale in Artforum

ADRIAN PIPER’S WORK Everything #5.1, 2004, installed in KW Institute for Contemporary Art for the Ninth Berlin Biennale, is a hole excised in a wall in the shape of a tombstone. A Plexiglas sheet is installed over the gap, printed with the text EVERYTHING WILL BE TAKEN AWAY. The phrase is adapted from a passage in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1968 novel In the First Circle: “Once you have taken everything away from a man, he is no longer in your power. He is free.”

The title Everything #5.1 suggests that the “everything” that constitutes a person can be continually revised and updated, like software. Yet the words printed on the Plexiglas render this adaptability ambiguous, perhaps less an escape from the world’s determinations than an endless vulnerability to redefinition that means one can never become free. Piper’s work draws on her limit-case existence as a light-skinned Black woman who could have passed as white but chose not to. Through choosing to be Black, because she was unable to choose anything else, she chose to stand for the ineluctability of blackness: blackness as what remains when everything is taken from a people, which is the history of blackness and of its survival. Piper’s 2012 work Thwarted Projects, Dashed Hopes, A Moment of Embarrassment announced that she had retired from being Black. The ironies of this gesture are heavy-handed but instructive: Once pickled in the white cube, or through the work of an individual artist, blackness often ends up standing only for its use-value, and not for its implacable persistence as exchange.

This question of the limits of commodification permeates the biennial, which was curated by the New York–based collective DIS, composed of Lauren Boyle, Solomon Chase, Marco Roso, and David Toro. The show has been pummeled by critics for its vacuity and cynicism, but in fact it comes across as relentlessly anxious about the conditions and possibilities of art and life. Taken together, the works on view express the despairing atomization, and the compromised longing for solidarity, of a postbourgeois creative class hovering on the brink of its own obsolescence. The paradigmatic racial and class position of this despair goes without saying.

THE WORKS that go beyond fear of impotence do so by means of an attachment to life outside the hegemonic center. At Akademie der Künste, the video Homeland, 2016, by Halil Altındere features Syrian rapper Mohammad Abu Hajar delivering luminously angry bars over footage of people leaping border fences. Nearby, Christopher Kulendran Thomas’s installation New Eelam, 2016, uses the recent history of Sri Lanka to ambivalently propose an Airbnb-style, pay-as-you-go transnational citizenship as a replacement for revolutionary struggle: the apex of “There’s an app for that!” The promise of diasporic belonging in homelessness is skewered on the point of Thomas’s accelerationism or irony (the two feel functionally indistinguishable here). Altındere’s video and Thomas’s installation face each other bleakly over sculptures by Anna Uddenberg of mannequins fused with suitcases on wheels. The parts are all moving but nothing flows.

In Cécile B. Evans’s elaborate video installation What the Heart Wants, 2016, at KW, a globally powerful Kim Kardashian–like figure has appropriated the immortal genetic material of a Black woman—a reference to Henrietta Lacks, a real person whose tumor cells were stolen by scientists for experimentation shortly before she died of cancer in 1951. This work continues Evans’s interest in the technologization of the social: Is there something irreducibly human that resists technology, or is this apparently irreducible core just as subject to changes in the relations of production as anything else? The presence of a famously appropriated Black woman and a famous appropriator of blackness suggest that the question of the commodification of life is related not only to technology as such, but more deeply to the social technology of race.

One reviewer singled out Evans’s maximalist video as the only truly serious work in the show, but in fact its worldview is consistent with the politics that imbue the biennial as a whole. DIS’s position, worked out over the course of a six-year-long collaboration, amounts to something like this: After the violent repression of real and imaginary alternatives to capitalism, we are left with a social field entirely dominated by value; the increasing mediation of social life by advanced technology is one manifestation of this situation. Pragmatically rather than programmatically, this total rule of the commodity form means that political struggle cannot oppose the commodity, but has to pass through it. The bleak but playful realism of this viewpoint has unlikely resonances with ultraleft theories of communization, Derridean Marxist philosophers, and Black radical thinkers such as Fred Moten. The point is to imagine radical struggle without predicating it on a simple negation of the commodity or on the idea that use is morally superior to exchange. As Moten said in a 2015 interview, “I don’t think commodities are dirty. . . . [I]nsofar as I’m the descendent of commodities and bear the trace of that commodification in my own flesh—I don’t see that I have any standpoint from which to be moralistic about what it means to be a commodity or to be in relation, so to speak, to, or even through, commodities.” After the 2011 London riots, which the people involved said over and over again were a protest against the police’s killing of Mark Duggan and racist stop-and-search strategies resembling those of US police, inane white leftists lined up to scold the rioters for their “consumerist” acts of looting. A similar moralizing position curiously surfaced in the biennial’s critical reception. No one is living in ecstatic poverty on a mountain here, OK?

As Moten suggests, no collective being is more marked by histories of capitalist commodification than that of Black people, a situation not unrelated to the fact that blackness, which stands for survival and more than survival, appears again and again in this biennial as a prophylaxis against the fear that life has become entirely subject to impersonal global forces. Like Evans’s piece, many of the works in the biennial, mostly by non-Black artists, are preoccupied with Black cultural production: The phenomenon is most acute at KW, where Juan Sebastián Peláez’s horrible Rihanna sculpture greets visitors in the courtyard; Alexandra Pirici’s performance work Signals, 2016, features renditions of songs by Beyoncé and Janelle Monáe; a video by Babak Radboy incorporated into a bathroom installation by Shawn Maximo invites viewers to imagine a biennial with only Black women or with no Black women; and Amalia Ulman’s installation PRIVILEGE, 2016, features footage of the artist singing along to Fetty Wap’s radiant love song “Trap Queen” while inexplicably holding a pigeon. This last installation is so inscrutable that I took refuge in reading it as a commentary on the emptiness of the concept of privilege, a term that is meant to describe the effects of structural violence but often ends up as little more than a shallow shorthand for difference: The individual privilege of producing art, for example, becomes analytically indistinguishable from the collective privilege of being white, in a way that renders the concept pretty much politically useless.

THE COLLECTIVE LIFE that is traditionally the precondition and horizon of political activity is in an uneasy relationship with the art system’s reliance on the name, the individual, the consistent practice, the salable work, the fundable project. This is why for DIS it would be anathema to valorize the kind of social-practice or research-based art that might have reassured critics. The biennial’s location in Berlin has given their criticisms of conventional anticapitalist discourse a convenient additional prop in the ghost of the DDR. Simon Denny and Linda Kantchev mobilize this backdrop to particular effect with their piece Blockchain Visionaries, 2016, installed in a building that used to host the East German State Council and is now the European School of Management and Technology. The work explicates the revolutionary potential of blockchains—the public, distributed databases that power technologies such as Bitcoin—under the ambivalent gaze of a Communist-era mural, original to the room. In concert with the venue’s exotic ironies or facts, Denny conflates the promise of the blockchain with the promise of a unified proletariat: “A world without borders . . . this world is already here, embedded in the blockchain . . . a code belonging to all, reflecting all,” intones a video playing on a grid of nine flat-screen monitors. Blockchain Visionaries splits the difference between irony and celebration, rendering both void in a move that is characteristic of the biennial and loops back to the central problem of a perceived failure of politics.

Introductory texts at each site refer to a mildly paradoxical condition of relatable alienation, addressed to the second person: “You look at your phone, have full bars, but no connection,” says a sign at the Feuerle Collection. At KW my situation is no better: “The promotional emails in your inbox contain the emotional language that’s missing in your personal life.” Is the social itself becoming obsolete, becoming fully reified as content? It’s a heartfelt not-quite-problem. A few weeks after the biennial’s opening, with videos of US police brutality circulating alongside Brexit’s conjuring of the spirits of fascism, some of this hand-wringing about the impossibility of politics looked a little quaint, but the problem remains: Not only is art useless in the face of all the things that artists might want to be useful for, but the violence of states and the capitalist assault on proletarian social life suggest that politics as such is mostly doomed. What art is sometimes good for is affirming that life continues even if lives fall apart, but what does that mean?

In Lizzie Fitch and Ryan Trecartin’s video Mark Trade, 2016, a white person in Lady Gaga–style camo fatigues prances in the desert and intones lines like “Terra non conforma . . . My favorite color is hell. . . . They’re disputing my blood type as we speak. . . . If there’s one thing I know, it’s America, well, not really. . . . There’s a lot less gravity here.” The characters in the video hover between canceled genders, resembling outlaws of a deleted law. Fitch and Trecartin are great poets of settler colonial society, which is to say, of an infantile glee mounted on a grand historical violence for which atonement is impossible.

Meanwhile, Guan Xiao’s sculptures assembled from more or less arbitrary online purchases suggest that the role of the contemporary artist resembles that of the online consumer: I’ll give you my data (my concerns, tastes, contact details, identifications) in exchange for access—a commodification, sure, of self and world, but anyone who believes that the commodification of being is new has not been paying any attention at all. If race, which has long been a structural condition of capitalism, appears so prominently now in the discourse of Europe and its settler colonies rather than just in their acts, it is perhaps because capitalism is so depressed. One key symptom of this malaise is that the only thing the capitalist class has to offer workers is a shared dream of whiteness. Yet this whiteness, because so deeply linked to capitalism, is itself in crisis. Though it proliferates automatically, the deracinated lifeworld of capitalism is arid. The apocalyptic emptiness that critics perceive in this biennial is the index of a real emptiness in the world outside it.

Yet there is joy in the apocalyptic perspective. Korakrit Arunanondchai and Alex Gvojic’s romantic video installation There’s a word I’m trying to remember, for a feeling I’m about to have (a distracted path towards extinction), 2016, implies that love might last forever, and not just the sad forever of a lifetime. Viewable only on a tourist boat that also hosts weekly performances for the duration of the biennial (I was involved in one, as part of an event organized by Berlin Community Radio), the floating installation seems happily unmoored from the anxiety that social life will disappear, instead imagining a post-apocalyptic earth populated by giant rats who are just as full of clumsy mammalian affection as we are. This disaster is full of sweetness: a planet populated by sentient trees, an interspecies hug, a wedding . . . The undeserved salvation of Europe and America, which its politicians are incapable of recognizing, is that the desire to live keeps coming by boat, smuggled in as contraband.

Couched in airy naïveté and ironic enthusiasm, DIS’s biennial reflects the conditions of the situation in which the collective find themselves as white cultural producers. That situation is a world dominated visually, ethically, and ontologically by capital, in which long-standing forms of struggle—the protest, the union, the political party, even critique—seem like nostalgic curiosities or reenactments, ultimately doomed to fail. DIS have addressed this, in turn, by reenacting a long-standing modernist strategy: staging art’s dissolution into life (in this case, into the omnipresence of media). They have been greeted, just like the modernist avant-gardes were in their time, with accusations of bad politics and even worse taste. Perhaps these critics haven’t noticed: The world is a ruin, but we go on living in it.

Hannah Black is an artist and writer from the UK. She lives in Berlin.

Hannah Black Artforum September 2017

9 Aug 2016

DIS :: Berlin’s Belated Biennale

A response to the responses

When I walked into the Akademie der Künste to attend the press conference of the 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art—titled The Present in Drag and curated by the online collective, DIS—I wondered if it would be possible to locate a grounded position from which to take a pragmatic look at the exhibition. The difficulty of...

When I walked into the Akademie der Künste to attend the press conference of the 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art—titled The Present in Drag and curated by the online collective, DIS—I wondered if it would be possible to locate a grounded position from which to take a pragmatic look at the exhibition. The difficulty of reviewing a large exhibition in which your friends are participating and its curators are people you know is not something to look forward to, in today’s global contemporary artplex, where everybody knows everybody. Nowadays, when people are aware of a critic’s personal connection to their subject, they will dismiss any pretence to objectivity: their praise will be considered a favour, and their objections a sign of envy.

In the past, both Artur Żmijewski's Occupy-inspired iteration of the Berlin Biennale in 2012 and Juan Gaitán’s 2014 foray into museological critique had their own friends and enemies, provoking positive and negative responses from a wide range of expected and unexpected positions. Having read most of the reviews of the current Berlin Biennale, I would like to chart a modest position in regards to the latest edition. But rather than repeat claims and opinions, I will try to fill in the gaps surrounding the critiques of this Biennale instead.

Image: DIS. Photo: Julia Burlingham.

When the Berlin Biennale selection committee—headed by Gabriele Horn, the Director of both KW Institute for Contemporary Art and Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art—picked DIS as the curators for the 2016 edition, it was clear to those of us familiar with the collective that the exhibition, both in form and content, would deviate from expected norms. In choosing DIS, the committee took a risk: they entrusted the Biennale to a band of outsiders who don’t owe their reputation to the art world's own industrialised system, but are instead known for their accomplishments at forging connections between advertising, fashion, communication and popular culture via the Internet. Given the ideological and professional distance separating DIS from the regular art world apparatchiks, grandiose dismissals of the show by the art press are misdirected if not unfair. Expressing shock or approaching the show as a usual biennale, a position that most critics so far have taken, does not get to the heart of what this Biennale both accomplishes and signifies.

In my opinion, the 9th Berlin Biennale is the first large scale institutional attempt to integrate contemporary art, not only materially—this was achieved decades ago by the total industrialisation of the production and dissemination of art—but also philosophically into the larger frames of creative design, commerce and popular culture. (A similar integration occurred with New York's MoMA PS1 under the direction of its chief curator Klaus Biesenbach, who also happens to be the co-founder of both KW and the Berlin Biennale). Certainly, DIS has created an exhibition version of what they do best online in their eponymous magazine where they blur, if not all together remove, the distinctions between art, theory, advertising, fashion and start-up commerce. But while DIS is often misunderstood to be an ambassador of ‘post-internet art’, given the central role new communication technologies play in the violent insertion of real life into art, their exhibition does little to dismiss such a misunderstanding. The Present in Drag both indexes Post Internet art and applies the logic of digital immanence to the organisation of the exhibition by offering a contemporary history of the rise of the Internet aesthetics through its artist selection. This ranges from Ryan Trecartin, Timur Si-Qin to Jon Rafman, and Cecil B. Evans, Guan Xiao and Juan Sebastián Peláez.

Image: Installation view, Positive Pathways (+), 2016. Courtesy GCC, Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin, Project Native Informant, London and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, NY. Photo: Timo Ohler.

Touted as the exhibition of the digital zeitgeist, BB9 also overthrows the white cube’s mandate and instead opts for spatial forms that fit seamlessly within the aesthetics of our socio-political built environments, such as the corporate setting of two Biennale venues, the Akademie der Künst and the European School of Management and Technology (ESMT), the former seat of the Communist East German Government. The exhibition transforms these spaces into environmental experiences; in the latter venue, GCC's Positive Pathways (+) (2016)—which comprises of a running track, a sound installation, and two sculptural figures installed in a large boardroom—maximises the possibilities of installation art. It cleverly reflects on the forced construction of positive thinking as a new ideological paradigm for Middle Eastern monarchies, many of who are suspected of financing Islamist extremists.

Of course, the transference of DIS-thetics from an online magazine to the physical space of contemporary art remains both politically and formally bumpy, yet the curators don’t seem to shy away from this awkwardness. In fact, these interruptions are where the exhibition’s politics might well be located. The inclusion of a number of business ventures, or works that allude to commercial activities—the green juice bar by Debora Delmar Corp, the outdoor furniture by fashion and lifestyle brand 69, and Simon Denny and Linda Kantchev's Blockchain Visionaries, for example—leave no choice for professional viewers who follow the theoretical developments of contemporary art but to automatically identify the show’s politics somewhere to the right of their own. Normally, the emancipatory spirit of DIS can be heard in the voices of their writers and contributors on the internet. And while the flat and digital representation of office equipment, luxury brands and fashion stereotypes can function as auto-critique in the online universe, their actualisation in the gallery space via commercial materials can come across as a phenomenological affirmation of capitalism. This results in the show becoming quickly misidentified as a celebration of what we have been accustomed to call the worldwide ‘neoliberal’ order.

But if we resist the habitual instinct to immediately see evil, The Present in Drag does offer a way to productively use contemporary art’s disappearance into technocapital for emancipatory objectives. The verisimilitude between the exhibition's materiality and the world of commerce makes it quite clear that DIS is not attempting to critique our sociopolitical systems, but is acting out its very machinery. An example of this process can be seen in Trevor Paglen's and Jacob Applebaum's slick and expensive Autonomy Cube, a functioning Tor server which provides online anonymity to users within its vicinity. In addition, Yngve Holen's beautiful Evil Eye Bildsuche accessories and contact lenses, and Shawn Maximo's #3, a functional and entertaining transformation of one of KW's bathroom into an information booth, make the viewers feel fine, even if our epoch is marked by the end of freedom as we know it. In presenting works such as these, The Present In Drag essentially puts an end to contemporary art’s theatre of autonomy, thus liberating art from performing the tedious ritual of critical distance by fully embodying the problem.

Image: Installation view, Shawn Maximo, #3, 2016. Courtesy Shawn Maximo. Photo: David von Becker. 

Indeed, if each exhibition frames its visitors like specimens in a petri dish, reflecting the climate in which they are contained, then two terms from the contemporary cultural dictionary that best describe the 9th Berlin Biennale are Normcore and Health Goth. In the last five years, these trends have been a large part of DIS's appeal. At the opening events, most visitors were dressed in uniform colours of black and white, wrapped in a blend of generic-looking garments and sporty accessories. This spatial articulation in and around BB9’s exhibition spaces functioned like Amazon predictive analytics: If you already wear this particular fashion, this is the art show for you. (And visitors were were literally buying it up, forming queues to purchase well-priced t-shirts and other items from designers like Hood by Air at the concession stand.)

So is the 9th Berlin Biennale a show ‘by kids, about kids and for kids?’ Yes. But in particular, this exhibition has a complex relationship with young people. It carries an almost synthetic youth unconscious, with the curators utilising a self-aware but eerie innocence normally attributed to youngsters. The strategy of cultural juvenilia is nowhere more visible than in some of the marketing materials produced as part of Babak Radboy's Not in the Berlin Biennale programme, the most provocative being the Biennale’s infamous slogan, memefied in Instagram and Facebook posts: ‘Why should fascists have all the fun?’ The question seems to belong to a 5-year-old reacting to the rise of extreme nationalism worldwide: it points to the naïve youthfulness the exhibition plays up by consciously placing the art world’s ‘adults’ in the position of parents unwilling to hand over the car keys to their kids.

Image: Babak Radboy, Untitled (Not in the Berlin Biennale), 2016. © Roe Ethridge, Chris Kraus, Babak Radboy; image from Not in the Berlin Biennale. Photo: Roe Ethridge; special thanks to Andrew Kreps; Capitain Petzel, Berlin.

But we need to take this ‘youthing’ with a grain of salt. Youth culture itself is highly lucrative, and while the lines separating marketing, commerce and art were once bold and impenetrable, the situation in today’s hypercapitalised art ecology is different. The precariats of today's indebted and unemployable labour market tend to valorise the virtues and forms derived from the corporate world’s infrastructure. The strategy of losing oneself in the possibilities of commerce is the new black; and institutions have been following suit. Perhaps this is exactly why one of the most successful aspects of the show is its failure to make the transition from an anti-capitalist to a pro-capitalist position as smooth as one imagines Biesenbach & CO would have liked. The result is a biennale that becomes politically challenging precisely because it has put art’s tendency to avoid direct political messaging into conflict with the glaringly political essence of cultural production itself. In this respect, the beautiful disconnect between aims and means is where The Present in Drag finds its redemption. The curators do not cover up the deep contradiction between what things are and how they come across; rather, they underline them.

Looking at this theoretically, there is no way to unleash capital’s emancipatory potential without first introducing a bold new concept. Yet, The Present In Dragstops short—or rather intentionally stays shy—of theorising, and instead outsources its conceptual production to other writers like Suhail Malik and Armen Avanessian, who were invited to guest edit an issue of DIS magazine concurrent to the Biennale. As vocal critics of the ideas and practices of contemporary art, Malik and Avanessian introduce two related theoretical lenses for the exhibition: the time complex and Post-Contemporary. To paraphrase the writers, the time-complex refers to the loss of human agency and experience within today’s social organisation of time. For them we are now governed by, ‘complex systems, infrastructures and networks in which the future replaces the present as the structuring condition of time’. This leaves both the political left and right incapable of dealing with the present; in short, ‘we are increasingly wholly pre-empted and post-everything’. Malik and Avanessian then introduce the Post-Contemporary as a new temporal state in which the future constantly invades and forever haunts the production of both the present and past.

These arguments seem to be little more than a repackaging of Nick Land and Reza Negarestani's concept of ‘hyperstition’—altering the fabric of reality through the insertion of fictional elements so as to bring about demonstrable change. They are also left unsubstantiated by most of the works included by the curators in the exhibition. In fact, the Biennale's active consciousness of practices, theories, and philosophies from the last 10 years only acknowledges, if not also reinforces, the vacuuming power of ‘the contemporary’ in the process of exhausting everything, including all thoughts and practices surrounding futurity. 

In the end, it is the accelerated contemporaneity of The Present in Drag that enables the DIS debut to matter both politically and aesthetically. The exhibition assertively manifests the problems and contradictions of contemporary art in the full glare of the present, and reframes that which is already hyper-contemporary. It is an original attempt at periodising the present and making it palatable for the future. Instead of acting the role of delusional emperor without clothes (the state of most internationally acclaimed curators), DIS is caught naked changing into drag on a world stage, leaving the state of contemporary art bare for all to see.

Mohammad Salemy Ocula 9 August 2016


2 Jun 2016

DIS :: Producers

Interview with Carson Chan

Offering critical insight into the wide array of professions in the industry of contemporary culture, the Producers series presents thinkers and practitioners who stand out and leave a mark. In this issue, Carson Chan interviews NY-based art collective DIS, appointed as curatorial team of the 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art.


Aric Chen, the architecture curator at M+ in Hong Kong, has compared curating to publishing, as both media aim to communicate to large audiences. DIS is best known for its online magazine. In organizing the 9th Berlin Biennale, titled “The Present in Drag,” which competencies have you brought from the magazine? Were there any that didn’t translate?

We haven’t taken a linear approach to the 9th Berlin Biennale. It’s structured less like a book and more like an online magazine, a hyperlinked way of thinking that doesn’t follow a sequential chronology. We’re living in a moment when people are coming to an understanding of history and identity that is shaped by Wikipedia, Facebook and Twitter feeds. The result is not stable or self-contained; it’s more porous. It leaks.

DIS has always been involved in building platforms: the magazine, DISimages, DISown, live events. We saw the Berlin Biennale as another, larger platform for us to work with. Within the 9th Berlin Biennale, there are various shows within the show, involving collectives and groups of artists and creatives. There’s Centre for Style from Melbourne, a curatorial and exhibition platform for fashion that blends performance, music, commerce, fashion and design. CUSS Group, a South African collective, are setting up a kind of inverted South African cultural institute in Berlin, as a reflection of the dependency and influence of public/private European cultural foundations in Johannesburg. The visual identity of the 9th Berlin Biennale, overseen by creative director Babak Radboy, is Not In The Berlin Biennale and involves artists, photographers, stylists and writers that are technically Not In the Biennale, but are contributing to it’s identity. This is hyperlinked thinking embodied.

To my mind, the audiences you’ve cultivated through DIS magazine are discerning observers of the contemporary condition—people who often grew up and are comfortable with the non-linear, composite, often surreal experience of the Internet. (Fan Zhong from W Magazine called them “a subsection of art world observers who get the conceptual joke.”) Will the exhibiting be pitched to the larger art going audience? Tell me about the “anthems” you commissioned.

Yeah, DIS has a specific audience, and with the 9th Berlin Biennale, we’re looking at ways of capturing an accidental audience beyond the biennial circuit. We’re interested in art that is accessible on multiple levels. This is partly why we chose Pariser Platz, the tourist trap of Berlin, and one reason we are so attracted to commercial formats and imagery. It’s something easily recognizable that you instantly engage with, but then, as you sit with it, your perception begins to shift, your relationship to it becomes more complex, and you realize it’s not as it seems. We wanted to intercept a non-art world audience in a very physical way—for example, by using a tourist boat as a venue. Korakrit Arunanondchai and Alex Gvojic have converted a Blue Star sightseeing boat into a floating duplex post-extinction installation complete with a sculptural cinema and a post-apocalyptic wedding performance arena.

There are a lot of familiar formats in the 9th Berlin Biennale. One of these projects is an album of collaborative anthems between artists and musicians: Kelela with Adrian Piper and Elysia Crampton, TOTAL FREEDOM with Isa Genzken, Fatima al Qadiri with Juliana Huxtable, and Hito Steyerl. These anthems can exist on more than one plane of comprehension—a pop song, a poem, a critical statement, a conceptual artwork, a soundtrack for the present,. It doesn’t really matter. They’ll be dispersed online, and as 12”s on Vinyl Factory records. We love the idea of a biennial you can’t get out of your head, that can extend beyond itself in a viral way and isn’t grounded in any city or country.


bb9_girltyping_courtesy berlin biennale


In your exhibition text for “The Present in Drag,” you cite an anxiety of the current moment’s catchphrases: “big data,” “post-internet,” and “anthropocene.” They operate more like slogans than descriptions. What do you hope the exhibition produces out of this anxiety?

There’s a pleasure principle in these biennial topics that constructs a release-valve of tensions, not so dissimilar from watching a horror movie, where you enjoy the feeling of fear. Instead of acting as this release valve, we want the audience to feel implicated. We’re approaching these anxieties on a visceral level. Instead of talking about anxiety, let’s make people anxious. Rather than organizing symposia on privacy, let’s jeopardize it.

Fostering anxiety and crafting confusion are notorious tools of political control. But this condition of uncertainty has also given way to a state of mind that is open to new perspectives and a potential for recrafting dominant narratives. We were inspired by Adam Curtis’s 2015 documentary Bitter Lake. At one point, he talks about Putin’s longtime advisor Vladislav Surkov and his mass-confusion tactic called “non-linear war.” The fascinating thing about Surkov is that he used to write essays on conceptual art, and later on imported those same ideas into Russian politics.

I’m fascinated by the idea of the present moment “in drag.” To be in drag is to role-play, to create a momentary fiction. You cite a necessary shift from the logic of science fiction to one of fantasy. Fantasy seems like a more radical way to break from our cultural anxieties than science fiction. Beyond the exhibition, how does one perpetuate this position? 

We love the ambiguous gender connotations of the word drag, but we’re applying it in a metaphorical sense, referring to ever-shifting possibilities for self-representation and to elusive surfaces, facades, and various tools of persuasion.  Role play and simulation are very present in the biennale, from Brody Condon’s self-actualization LARPs, to Hito Steyer’s gaming documentaries, Johannes Paul Raether’s research avataras, or Alexandra Pirici’s news-feed-like enactments performed throughout the summer by a group of performers in motion capture suits.

This present is a moment layered with conflicting ideology, where even one product, image, or work of art inhabits self-contradictory positions. Referring to the function of drag, RuPaul said in a recent interview, “The function hasn’t changed. It’s been the same since the beginning of time when shamans, witch doctors, or court jesters were the drags. Which is to remind culture to not take itself seriously. To remind you that you are not your shirt or your religious affiliation.”  Instead of unmasking the present as though it contains something immutable and innate that we have to “discover,” we want to look at it’s many faces and incarnations. One way to see it is the present in drag.


bb9_berghain_courtesy berlin biennale


One of the most memorable videos I’ve seen in the past years was DIS’s campaign for Kenzo men’s Fall/Winter 2012 collection. You exaggerated the gestures and aesthetics of stock video—video at its most commercial—in turn both endorsing and critiquing the very form you were tasked to create in. Can this position be maintained? At what point does a self-aware compliance simply make us complicit?

It is precisely this complicity and complex relationship with the world that we’re intent on highlighting. One of our BB9 participants and long-time collaborators, fashion designer Telfar Clemens, calls this an “aesthetics of compromise.” It’s the reality of being in “art,” of creating something like DIS that has no ads and no limitations, while also having day jobs working at ad agencies or freelancing for Apple. We don’t want to hide these realities and compromises in our endeavors.

We are fascinated by the rise of hyper-individualism in the face of the utter powerlessness of the individual, the shift to a personalized, wireless world of networked individualism, with each person switching between ties and networks. At the same time, complex global concerns are more pressing than ever, and these are often difficult to process on an individual scale. If you open your inbox, you might see a message or notification from your boss, your Tinder date, followed by an imploring call to arms about greenhouse gases, the Zika virus, and voting in the next election.

We’re considering several different ethical contradictions with the 9th Berlin Biennale. Think about the way words and expressions are co-opted and re-branded by corporations and interest groups, like Patagonia’s “Don’t buy this jacket” campaign, which uses anti-consumerism to sell jackets. Or the word freedom championed by the US religious right, free market liberalism, and Nike’s recent slogan “Join the Free Revolution.”

GMOs are another controversial debate; they’re illegal here in Germany. The cover of the BB9 catalog is actually a giant sample of Soylent, a GMO product named after the 1966 sci-fi cult classic that’s become popular in Silicon Valley and tech startups. It’s technically not for human consumption in Germany. But if you’re thinking about the long-term health of the planet, many people argue that food should really be manufactured in a laboratory. Following this logic, the push for all natural, organic and local food is retrograde shamanism: unsustainable, and an unviable return to the past. We’re interested in how these contemporary paradoxes and uncertainties manifest as personal, internal conflicts. On one hand you’re critiquing technology, but you might still be taking an Uber or using Gmail. We want to show how we are all entangled in the critique, rather than point fingers.

Ahead of the New York vote for the Democratic nominee for President, the DIS magazine team published an article endorsing Bernie Sanders. How did you decide to engage directly in political opinion, rather than through allegorical means?

Politically, this is a very critical moment in the US. We thought it was important to make an explicit statement at a moment right before the New York elections. Because of how little time we had, and how crucial the moment was, it was a moment for clarity, not allegory.


bb9_feet_typing_courtesy berlin biennale


Almost all of the Biennale’s participants are easily associated with the post-internet, or post-contemporary, as you say. Furthermore, one could say that this show celebrates the generation of artists who have emerged from the Berlin scene since the mid-2000s. I was curious to see Adrian Piper included in the roster. I recently discussed with her the role selfies currently play in our engagement with art, and she argued that art should provide distance from and challenge our viewing habits rather than acquiesce to them. How does she fit in?

We met Adrian in 2014 and were taken with her energy. She prefers not to discuss her work with language, and described to us how, as a philosopher and artist, she chooses not to ascribe theory to her artwork, and sometimes hesitates to even explain it. Rather, she’s open to the viewers’ diverse interpretations and instinctive reactions. Adrian showed us a video she made of herself dancing to techno in Alexanderplatz when she moved to Berlin—she’s an amazing dancer.  The contrast between the sheer joy of her dancing and her theoretical work in philosophy is remarkable. Franco Berardi talks about this dichotomy between an obfuscating hypercomplexity (finance, data) versus the irreducible, interpretable, emotional (poetry). Many of the artist’s work negotiate these two ends of the spectrum.

At the same time, Adrian’s work is concerned with an untangling of contradictions, and follows a certain drive for clarity that’s prevalent in the Berlin Biennale. She’s interested in the realization of the self within and beyond the binds of society, and one way to understand this is to examine forms of confusion and fogging that are prescriptive and control-oriented.

Carson Chan Kaleidoscope No. 27 2 June 2016

31 May 2016

DIS :: 500 Words on Curating the Berlin Biennale

DIS are a collective whose activities flirt across many spheres of contemporary culture —art, fashion, publishing, and now curating, in which their first major outing is the ninth edition of the Berlin Biennale, “The Present in Drag.” The show opens on June 4 in various venues across the city and runs through September 18, 2016. Here the members of DIS discuss their new curatorial role, the process of putting together the exhibition, and a few projects one can expect to see.

THIS IS OUR FIRST AND ONLY BIENNIAL, and in a sense it is a materialization of concepts, themes, and aesthetic interests embedded in the last six years of the DIS magazine website. This biennial is not a DIS piece, but we think that the way to approach it is not dissimilar to the way you might approach our site—it’s a hyperlinked landscape in which artists have set about restructuring and twisting existing narratives in response to the contradictory nature of the present, and the unstoppable digital influence on the way we think and feel. It is grounded in the idea that you exist online, but your ass still hurts and grinds. The biennial artists probe how layered, conflicting ideologies manifest in society, where even one product, image, or work of art inhabits self-contradictory positions. In the context of the Berlin Biennale, it becomes very clear how even something as basic as juice can also embody the uncertainties of the moment. Mexican artist Débora Delmar’s geopolitical juice bar, named after emerging global economies—Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, Turkey—links green juice to labor, economic shifts, aspirational lifestyle, celebrity culture, wellness, greenwashing, eco- confusion, and environmental degradation.

One of our favorite projects for the biennial is an album of anthems produced by Ashland Mines, aka TOTAL FREEDOM, and published as twelve-inch records by Vinyl Factory. We liked the idea of a biennial you couldn’t get out of your head, and that had a component that could spread as a dispersed, viral extension of the show. Each song is a collaboration between artists and musicians: Kelela with Adrian Piper and Elysia Crampton, TOTAL FREEDOM and Isa Genzken, Fatima Al Qadiri and Juliana Huxtable with Hito Steyerl. Babak Radboy’s visual and textual communication strategy for the biennial itself includes an array of participants like Chris Kraus, Roe Ethridge, and Bjarne Melgaard, who are all in the part of the biennial called Not in the Berlin Biennale. They are not in the show but simply in front of it as a skin, the largest organ of all. Our idea of the body of the Berlin Biennale is about the relationship between its physical or social existence, and its online presence and outward communication. Who we are and what we project, our drag, our self as content—these are at once blurry and distinctly separate categories. Artists play with this performance and construction of personal identity, and we thought it was interesting to consider this in terms of a biennial, an entity swarmed by state and market, art and commerce.

When we got to Berlin and had to choose venues to use, we looked through all the venues that have been used for the Berlin Biennale since its first iteration, in 1998, and one by one we were told, “Now that’s a spa, that’s a hotel, that’s a gym, that’s a bank.” Every abandoned building here is available for event rentals—this had a profound influence on our relationship to the spaces we looked at, and ultimately to the themes and work in the show. In all of the venues, there’s a dichotomy between the hyperpersonal and the globally complex, from privatized public spaces, like the ESMT, a business school housed in the former and perfectly intact GDR State Council Building—which will host projects by GCC, Simon Denny, and Katja Novitskova, all of whose work addresses capitalist business, state ideology, and their aesthetic manifestations—to the residential. The KW Institute, for example, is in Mitte, a neighborhood of permalancers and Airbnb. It’s a domain that was once circumscribed as personal and residential and is now a gray zone of public/private profit.

We were drawn to the aesthetics of transparency and glass facades, with their blatant visual similarity to airports and shopping malls, because of the paradox of transparency as architecture or ethic. This feeling of private spaces with public faces has been really important—our central venue, Akademie der Kunste in Pariser Platz, is surrounded by the US, French, and British embassies, the DZ and Commerz banks, and Lockheed Martin, among other buildings. But the Akademie and the Starbucks are the only two buildings the public is able to enter around there, which is a hard-core tourist zone. The biennial will be infiltrating the Akademie’s passageways and event rooms. These glass spaces emulate the surrounding corporate buildings, and they are actually rented out regularly for corporate and government events. We’re trying to make people forget they’re in a biennial—most of the installations there don’t initially connote art and many have adopted commercial formats. For instance, Christopher Kulendran Thomas has created an experience suite for his start-up New Eelam, which imagines the future of citizenship in an age of technologically accelerated dislocation by charting an alternative trajectory for Sri Lanka’s recent history. Trevor Paglen and Jacob Appelbaum’s Autonomy Cube is a usable sculpture that turns the space where it is installed into an open wireless Tor network, an anonymous relay router for Internet traffic, revealing the usually invisible mechanisms behind digital surveillance and how they can be eschewed. It’s especially relevant because this piece is directly across the street from the French embassy, at a moment when TOR has been particularly contentious in France.

The surreal used to be the domain of the future—but today it more accurately describes the present.

— As told to Paige K. Bradley ArtForum 31 May 2016

5 May 2016

DIS :: Review of Image Life in ArtForum

6 Dec 2015

DIS :: The Canon

Tess Edmondson Texte zur Kunst No. 100 December 2015 "The Canon"

9 Mar 2015

DIS :: Avatars

To anyone expecting the third triennial for emerging artists at the New Museum to be a cacophonic, ceaseless swipe flushed with frenetic tween attitude and brimming with glitch aesthetics – partly because it is curated by the artist Ryan Trecartin (with the New Museum’s curator Lauren Cornell) – the brief message is this: that was not the exhibition that opened in New York last Tuesday.

Expectations of this kind are probably prompted by the fact that Trecartin is still mainly associated with the playful approach to new media which marked his early breakthrough works, e.g. the burlesque video A Family Finds Entertainment (2004), shown at the Whitney Biennial in 2006. Since then Trecartin has proven that he is less interested in technology (in the sense of gadgetry) than in the deeper psychological and social effects of our thouroughly digitalised and commercialised world. The belated impact of this aspect of his work could also be due to how it’s only in recent years that Trecartin, who had his debut at the age of 20, has been “read” intelligently by people from his own generation who have been able to see past the spectacle of technological-carnivalesque imagery. One example would be Brian Droitcour, a critic who has also contributed texts to the triennial catalogue and edited the triennial’s other – and quite surprising – publication: a book of new poetry.

Being American art royalty, Trecartin’s name has likely influenced the expectations of this exhibition – which obviously wasn’t only his work, but organised together with Lauren Cornell, whose background in new media also helped bolster the assumption that this triennial would offer an up-to-date artistic response to the human condition in an age of radical technological change – and, importantly, that it would deliver the first-ever institutional manifestation of so-called Post-Internet Art. For a number of years Cornell held the position as director of Rhizome, a key platform for online art and new media up through the 2000s, affiliated with New Museum since 2003.

The triennial opened its doors to the press on a freezing February morning with temperatures plunging down to minus 15 degrees Celsius; a morning where the celebrations of the Chinese New Year finally seemed to be petering out – even though glittering confetti could still be found trapped in the ice just one block south of the New Museum. Apart from a perfectly ordinary-sized poster hidden away in one corner of the museum there was nothing to suggest that today was the opening day of one of the most hotly anticipated exhibitions of the year – no banners, nothing. The complete greyscale spectrum on view in the weeks-old accumulations of ice along Bowery, were more eye-catching.

The somewhat nondescript first impression remained in force inside the museum lobby, where there was still no defining graphic design or iconic sculptural marker to greet you. Only afterwards, once you have seen the exhibition on instagram, written about it in a text message and digested it over a cup of coffee at the café, do you realise the intentions behind the slightly hesitant beginning. We are in new medias res; already members of the exhibition’s audience before arriving – and producing, editing, consuming and distributing while there. We were, as the title of the triennial eloquently diagnoses us, a Surround Audience.

This is the third triennial arranged by New Museum. The first, held in 2009, was called Younger Than Jesus: its concept decreed that none of the participating artists could be older than 33, the age of Jesus when he was crucified. That first triennial represented an attempt made by the then-recently appointed head of exhibitions, Massimiliano Gioni, and fellow curators Laura Hoptman and Lauren Cornell, to brand the institution as one of New York’s leading venues for contemporary art – and their endeavours have certainly been successful. New Museum is a beacon of light as far as contemporary art in US institutions is concerned.

Since its inception, the triennial has focused on emerging artists. And even though only the first triennial had a firm age limit, it remains one of the few mega-exhibitions to seriously attempt to identify the cutting edge of the young art scene – an approach that has not really been comme il faut at the Venice, Berlin or Whitney biennials for some years now; at those venues it has long been considered a particular plus if you were able to unexpectedly pull a hitherto overlooked, lifelong oeuvre out of your hat, or if you could present an outsider artist – something that Gioni himself did quite emphatically at the last Venice biennial.

The New Museum triennial need not bother with any such considerations. Its objective is solely to present young artists on the cusp of breaking through, to articulate a scene as it emerges. If there is one thing that curators can be absolute sure to be roundly chastised for, it would be to claim to hold this “now” in the hollow of their hand. Nevertheless, this is exactly what Cornell and Trecartin do with no small amount of swagger, presenting an exhibition that encompasses 51 artists from 25 different countries, spreading across all five floors of the museum. Their perspective is focused and serious, but also has a distinctive freshness that is genuinely inviting, prompting you to go along with the whole thing. What is more, right now it is particularly interesting to see a portrait of a generation set in New York; for the first time in many, many years it would seem that the NY scene is once again the wellspring of new art.

What languages do the new generation speak? What tongues have they mastered? What is the nature of the dual speech of our current age, this intelligent “surrounding” expressed in the exhibition – this fundamental condition, this “sharing economy” that we produce for and are produced by, with which we happily share everything, and which monitors us 24 hours a day before we are ultimately stored as data for posterity? The triennial pursues several themes associated with these questions.

For example, you might easily get overwhelmed if you start to scan the exhibited works with a focus on skin, surfaces, shifts, membranes, blurred boundaries and transitions: Nadim Abbas’s sculptural display cases with built-in laboratory gloves that allow you to touch the objects inside the glass case without risking ‘infection’, or real contact; Olga Balema’s flat floor objects, as large as the human body, consisting of transparent plastic bags filled with water that allows you to see the ‘fossils’ – encased rusty steel pipes – but also the floor underneath; Guan Xiao’s sculptures, which include a small replica of a sculpture from Easter Island along with a tripod (the plinth of choice during the 2000s) in the middle of a richly ornamented, photoshop-obstructed snakeskin rug – a design object waiting to be photographed. Who is framing who? What is foreground, background, plinth, centre, skin and organ?

If Guan Xiao’s snakeskin is the skin of an avatar, then Donna Kukuma screens the history of an entire people on her massacre-red skin. Video footage documents Kukuma’s action in the Uhuru Park in Nairobi, where people had assembled to commemorate the bloody Mau Mau uprising against British rule in 1952: Kukama is seen standing in the crowd, painting her face with red lipstick in repeated circular movements.

Whereas Kukama’s red skin invokes colonial history, the green skin appearing in Frank Benson’s sculpture is more queer. In Benson’s 3D cast of the artist Juliana Huxtable, whose work is also featured in the exhibition, every part of the body is reproduced in perfect detail, right down to the pores in the skin.

One aspect only is anomalous: her skin has a metallic green sheen, a feature that disrupts the mimetic reproduction, imbuing it with an alien quality.

Liquid, boundary-less subjects separated only by (cell) membranes and the question of “who’s framing who?” elegantly inhabits the fourth floor of the museum, where visitors can take in an exemplary case of how to install a group exhibition: Here, José León Cerrilio’s delicate aluminium frames – which may not look tremendously exciting on their own – appear in various sizes and have been installed so that they poke out from several walls in the room, thereby becoming thin, dashed lines that cut and carve the room into large and small sections. Through this ever-present “photoshop editing” of the room we see the Austrian artist Oliver Laric’s suggestive video-mutation in which familiar animated characters morph frictionlessly from one into another, from Manga into Marvel onwards to ever-new bodies, contours and surfaces. Or Aleksandra Domanović’s strange installation of prosthetic arms (3D-printed models based on the so-called Belgrad Hand, a prosthesis invented during World War II for soldiers who had lost an arm) hanging on the walls like reliefs, behind a vast, transparent plastic curtain; a cell membrane or artificial form of tissue that the spectator must transcend, and which elegantly distort our notions of body- technology and biological boundaries.

The reading of our contemporary, participatory, avatar-like way of life reaches a subtle high point in an unassuming video documenting the South Korean artist Geumhyung Jeong’s performance Fitness Guide (2011). The artist is shown working out on a modified piece of fitness equipment with a prosthetic head attached. The workout session gradually evolves into circular, autoerotic movements. As Geumhyung seeks to synchronise these masturbatory movements with the machine’s pre-programmed patterns of motion, it’s almost as if the artist herself is made into a prosthetic organ for the fitness machine. Eerie.

A more traditional rendition is on offer in the work created by the American artists’ collective DIS in the museum lobby. This fusion of kitchen and bathroom features a bright white piece of luxury design executed as a single element, imbued with the DIS’ hallmark smooth, antiseptic-retouched look, complete with a crisply delineated sink and a single, fiercely yellow lemon brightening up the vast, glossy kitchen table as if it had been prepared for a photo shoot. And indeed, this would prove to be the case. At times the vast extractor hood, emitting soft light in ever-changing colours, served a very different function than to extract air – for example whenever a woman (they were always women while I was there – and always model types) stepped calmly onto the podium, removed her sunglasses, turned a lever at the end of the hood and then proceeded to lie down, fully dressed, on a rubber mattress and let herself be drenched by sprays of water from a number of spouts emerging from the extractor hood. After approximately five minutes of relaxing in this “water-sunbed” she would slowly get up, empty the water out of her stilettos and step down from the podium – Miss Wet T-Shirt Descending...

I can’t help smiling to myself at the thought of how the Berlin scene will receive such Miss Wet T-Shirt curating when DIS is in charge of the city’s biennial in 2016. It was interesting to see this New York collective – the artists behind the online platform DIS magazine, known for their quite headstrong, distinctive profile that merges concern for the state of our planet with sales of ironic-critical office furniture – actually create a work for a museum, which is not something they normally do. According to Cornell’s opening speech, it was something that had come about at the behest of the curators.

Funnily enough, the installation actually had a slightly old-fashioned feel to it, a little reminiscent of Andrea Zittel’s architectural mobiles or “islands” from the 1990s. However, that impression changed when you saw your own pictures of the session afterwards: this made it clear that the smooth, glossy environment, the white kitchen unit and the bright lights suddenly made it possible for any audience member to take photographs pervaded by an advertising aesthetic, complete with lemon and model, like the ones issued by DIS on a daily basis. This fact introduced a more up-to-date aspect to the collective’s contribution to the triennial; a contribution that might – alongside those of Ed Atkins, Frank Benson and a handful of others – come closest to delivering what you would expect in terms of a manifestation of Post- Internet art.

Much has been said about Post-Internet art – a term which obviously does not mean that the Internet is ‘past it’; rather, it refers to its omnipresence in all aspects of our everyday lives. The cliché image of Post- Internet art is a glitch aesthetic peopled by avatars, 3D prints, digital scans, and photoshopped images ad absurdum. Indeed, such images were present at the triennial, but they certainly weren’t the most conspicuous element.

It is quite clear that the curators behind Surround Audience wanted to present a bigger picture than that – they give a portrait of a young generation whose art is indubitably informed by the conditions created by new technologies, but does not necessarily unfurl itself online or incorporate new media: their art can crop up in any space, material or media, including the classic ones. In fact, the triennial itself spelled out this fact in no uncertain terms. So, even though the triennial is not where you expect to see the parametres of what constitutes an art work shifted about, the exhibits have nevertheless been chosen with heed to these more fundamental concerns, and I believe that this is part of what gives the impression of Surround Audience as an intelligent emo exhibition, which actually succeeds in capturing the zeitgeist.

Speaking of intelligent zeitgeist, the catalogue itself merits a brief remark. It is very rare to find a group catalogue – especially from biennials and mega-exhibitions – that is actually worth lugging home with you. This glossy catalogue, coloured a bright tomato-red, is one of the rare exceptions: partly because of the stringent, cool graphic design (courtesy of Familiar) and partly because you can sense that great care has been taken to address all editorial aspects associated with the difficult group catalogue genre. Here you find brief, concise interviews with many of the artists. You get succinct curatorial texts, interesting position papers from Brian Droitcour, Hito Steyerl, Alexander Provan and Johanna Burton, as well as substantial, carefully crafted texts and a good selection of pictures accompanying each of the 51 artists. I predict that this catalogue will have a long shelf life next to other zeitgeist catalogues such as Nicolas Bourriaud’s Traffic, 1996, or Adam Szymczyk and Elena Filipovic’s 5th Berlin biennial, 2008.

At the press conference Ryan Trecartin emphasised the importance of the fact that they had invited contributors who operate on the outskirts of the field of art – such as DIS, the trend consultancy collective K-Hole (who created the campaign for the triennial) and the comedian Casey Jane Ellison, who contributes a satirical online talk show on youtube – in order to make more of an impression on the outside world. This, however, was not an aspect that truly pierced the institutional shell of the New Museum, nor does it seem set for a very visible afterlife as it journeys down the rivers of junk found on social media. Of course, they are hardly the only ones to face this problem. And, even if this generation has a glint in its eye, and are – to stick to the generational angle, now that it is allowed for once – far more generous and interested in the world around them than the at times rather self-absorbed neo-formalists of the 2000s, it is also a generation that comes across as somewhat resigned.

I have been thinking about why I was almost moved by walking through the rooms at the New Museum. Of course, there are the obvious dystopian readings of our contemporary double-bind world, for example the one provided by Josh Kline in his installation Freedom (2015). In this work the overlap of government and commercial interests, or of voluntary online sharing and a society where everything is monitored, are presented in the form of plainclothes police officers speaking about Big Data, police brutality and the privatisation of the public sphere, all from video screens placed in the stomach of man-sized, militant Teletubby-like characters. The statements and the characters portrayed by the partially software-masked officers are based on a range of found feeds from social media.

I also think that the poignant, moving quality of this exhibition stems from its serious, yet never moralising, tone. The bonus publication – a collection of poetry entitled The Animated Reader, which includes prose poems, excerpts from social media, performance scripts and more – reaffirms how it is impossible to staunch the ceaseless flow of commentary, but it also seems to embody a genuine faith in selection: in selected language, poetry.

Speaking of seriousness, it is quite striking to note how little irony you find in this exhibition. Apart from the campaign created by K-Hole – featuring humorous yellow mood pills, a kind of emoticon specially designed for the exhibition that appear in bus adverts and can be downloaded as viral stickers for your phone – you will find virtually no emojis here, and very little tongue-in-cheek attitude.

Of course the contribution made by DIS is full of attitude – you would expect nothing else – but the rest of the exhibition is actually quite free of the irony that is common fare among young artists; the kind of irony whose underlying self-importance is a distant cousin of the self-absorbed neo-formalism we have seen so much of in Europe. At the New Museum these formalists appear sufficiently sporadic to actually complement the overall exhibition: Lena Henke, Ane Graff, Olga Balema and Eloise Hawser.

I like this generation. I have had several flashbacks to the 1990s, and the whole concept of the artist-as- producer. There is a naivety here that is reminiscent of 1990s platform art, where artists would also invite other professions along in the belief that giving them access to the art scene would get things moving. At the same time the works at this exhibition are not at all naïve in a 1990s way. Artists no longer believe that it is possible to separate things – the private from the public, the not-for-profit from the commercial.

Perhaps the games being played with appropriation, media and the relationship between the two is a kind of updated relational aesthetic, post internet – between cell membranes, skin and screens, between the individual’s dual-sided contract with biology, technology and complex power systems and all that this entails in terms of empathic, porous subjects.

Pernille Albrethsen Kunstkritikk 9 March 2015

12 Jun 2014

DIS :: Shopkeepers of the World Unite

by Christopher Glazek



Wallpaper for DIS Magazine

ONE EVENING LAST SUMMER, far from New York City, I was cornered by a senior curator from a prestigious arts institution. The woman, who was urbane, stylish, and in her late thirties, had a pressing question. “You live in Los Angeles,” she noted. “Can you tell me, is Petra Cortright a feminist?”

I squirmed as I considered how to avoid falling into this trap. I was acquainted with Cortright, a Santa Barbara–raised artist known for her YouTube clips and desktop-stripper animations, but I didn’t know much about her politics. Smelling weakness, the senior curator pressed on: “What about Amalia Ulman?”—the twenty-five-year-old transatlantic wanderer known for video shorts about commerce and coming of age—“Do these girls know anything about Marxism or feminist theory?” Cortright and Ulman are often described as “post-Internet” artists, a debated term that roughly describes those whose work both addresses and bears the influence of social media. I had no special access to their reading habits; it was true that in our conversations Marx had never come up.

“I’m not sure they would find those vocabularies to be the most revealing tools for discussing their work,” I stuttered. The curator leaned in to register her dismay with an entire cohort. “What is happening with these twenty-something artists? These people surrounding DIS magazine? Do they really just worship consumerism? And Instagram? Am I missing something?”

Petra Cortright, Bridal Shower, 2013

She was, and she wasn’t. “Instagram,” which the curator seemed to be using as an umbrella term for the entire social Web, was definitely having an impact on the generation of artists with whom I had grown up. So was DIS, an arch and futuristic media platform devoted to the Internet, art, and fashion. In spite of its recent vintage and shoestring budget, DIS, whose content ranged from critical essays and runway reviews to DJ mixes and video collages, was arguably as influential among art-school grads as any number of its more established rivals.

As the curator was herself a Marxist, I was tempted to suggest a Marxist alibi for the emerging generation’s consumer antics. Had I pursued that tack, I would have cited “accelerationism,” an ideology associated with the cybernetic philosopher Nick Land. As curator Agatha Wara, a DIS associate, once explained it to me, accelerationists believe that “the only way to get over capital is through capital”—that is, by accelerating capitalism’s own tendency toward self-destruction. (The roots of accelerationism extend back to Marx himself, who once wrote that he supported free trade because he believed it would encourage revolution.) I doubted, though, that grunting “accelerationism” would tame the incredulous curator. It sounded like an ex post facto rationalization, in part because it was: My own artist friends, I was fairly certain, had not embraced consumerism as part of a long game in the ultimate struggle to destroy capitalism. “What I think you don’t understand,” I replied, “is that these people really don’t like school.”

By “school” I didn’t mean literal matriculation—many of the artists I knew enjoyed whatever years they spent under the formal tutelage of credentialed elders. Very few, though, had found their operational armature in academic theory. This wasn’t just a trend among visual artists—in the age of Wikipedia, the ability to manipulate specialized vocabularies and esoteric knowledge was commanding less and less authority across the board, from Marxism to indie music. The easy diffusion of information was having ripple effects across publishing, art, and the avant-garde.

This was clear to many students, but not always to their professors, who understandably continued to ply the methods and methodologies that had helped them get tenure. As a result, many art-school grads were coming of age at a time when what felt most oppressive wasn’t consumer capitalism: It was the institutional codes and guild vocabularies in which they had been trained.

Part of this reorientation was driven by technological innovation, but another part was prompted by economic collapse and credentialist backlash. Just as the economy was sputtering, MFA programs were becoming de rigueur, normalizing debt-financed degree acquisition at precisely the time when a degree could no longer guarantee a stable income (or at least not one large enough to repay student loans). For an emerging crop of Insta-queers, lonely girls, and slacker bros, the market—especially the digital marketplace, with its emphasis on clarity, preening subjectivity, and infinite accessibility—suggested an alternative to the onerous grant applications and bureaucratic ring-kissing that drove the art-academic complex. Weary of the rigorless ramblings of adjuncts, many art-school grads found themselves inspired by hot designers and dropout entrepreneurs. It wasn’t hard to see how these figures more readily suggested the cowboy ethos of the creative outlaw than did traditional artists, who came freighted with a “transgressive” framework that often eluded actual transgression.

The curator wasn’t buying it. To her, it all looked like craven capitulation.

Promotional image for "DISown."

I RECENTLY ADVISED some friends on naming a new branding agency. They wanted to call it Hypergeist, which I liked. “Very ghost in the machine,” I observed. “Sort of techno-goth, zeitgeist-gone-wild.” The question was how to describe the agency. They wanted to call it a “creative studio,” which I didn’t like. “‘Creative studio’ sounds small and aggravating,” I observed. “It’s like calling it an atelier.” I was afraid they’d sound like hermits scrivening in a garret. As a counter, I suggested they make it plural: Hypergeist Creative Studios. “That way you sound big, like a production company—like an amusement park!” If sounding contemporary was the goal, I argued, the vibe to cultivate was industrial and collaborative. “Leave the medieval blacksmith thing to the craft breweries.” Being a craftsman hadn’t been cool since 2006. Embracing the postartisanal, procommercial turn was an important part of claiming membership in the rising contingent of tastemakers.

Around the same time that I was urging my friends to adopt the syntax of an amusement park, I started receiving press releases for “DISown,” an “art exhibition posing as a retail store” produced by DIS at Red Bull Studios. Reading the show’s list of featured artists was a bit uncanny: The roster was an eerily exact class photo, not only of people I had grown up with and partied alongside in New York (K-HoleKorakrit ArunanondchaiAnalisa TeachworthTelfarMaja CuleCyril DuvalLeilah WeinraubDora Budor) but also in Berlin (Daniel KellerSimon FujiwaraTimur Si-Qin) and Los Angeles (Lizzie FitchRyan TrecartinAmalia Ulman). The list seemed algorithmically assembled, as if Facebook had searched my timeline and created a customized exhibition based on my likes and interests. I knew all these people, but I hadn’t previously realized they all formed part of the same global alliance.

“DISown,” the show, was clearly a moment of culmination for DIS, the magazine. Although DIS had shown at fairs and galleries, its cultural ambitions had always been too broad for the gallery format. The opening of a “store” (however temporary) on Eighteenth Street with a Red Bull–sized budget seemed like a consequential step. Securing a retail revenue stream had long been a Holy Grail for the magazine; though not a nonprofit, DIS was widely believed to be nonprofitable. Until “DISown,” it seemed that DIS might have abandoned the retail goal, as most of its editors had started working for VFiles. VFiles was like DISminus art plus commerce—a mainstream-facing media company that sold designer streetwear online and through a storefront in SoHo.

View of "DISown."

Eventually I made a pilgrimage to “DISown.” As soon as I walked in, I felt soothed; everything was sheathed in white, as in an Apple store or the Celestial Room at a Mormon temple. On the floor were bizarre, drunken-looking directional markers, Lizzie Fitch’s homage to the floor plan of IKEA; there were also IKEA-inspired laundry bags for sale printed with the DIS logo. At the entrance, I was greeted with a blown-up version of the show’s flyer—a photo of a boy with an uncomfortably sexy smile, cut off at the eyes, wearing a white, inside-out mock-neck whose exposed tag, appropriately enough, displayed the exhibition’s tagline: NOT FOR EVERYONE. On a wall across the room, the same image, even larger, had been superimposed on a rock-climbing wall whose purpose seemed to be to provide a backdrop for event photos.

A variety of “consumer products” by contemporary artists and designers had been placed throughout the showroom. About half the offerings were clothing items—denim printed with a flame pattern from Korakrit’s new show at MoMA PS1; a sweatshirt by Trecartin with a graphic from his recent film Center Jenny; a baseball cap with a hidden spy cam by Keller; planter-cozy beanies by the art collective Jogging, emblazoned with the names of resistance heroes of the national-security era (Manning, Snowden, Assange, a misspelled Daniel Ellsberg). The other half were home furnishings—body pillows by Jon Rafman printed with photos of Emma Watson from different stages in her career; a beanbag by Bjarne Melgaard; a salad bowl by designers Hood by Air; a doormat by Budor covered in logos from electronics manufacturers, meant to evoke the practice, once common in Eastern Europe, of covering the floor during winter with deconstructed cardboard boxes to protect it from the snow. Objects ranged in price from $10 for the DIS IKEA bag to $4,800 for a luxury flotation device by Annika Kuhlmann and Christopher Kulendran Thomas.

Many of the items, including a giant hammock by Fitch and an underwear set by Ulman, were unique or handmade but designed to look mass-produced. Though the objects projected an aura, it was one of tribal affiliation—some call it “branding”—rather than of the Kantian sublime. If traditional artists struggle to maintain the fiction that holy artifacts emerge fully formed from their brains, the artists in “DISown” were more likely to pretend that they had used a fabricator when in fact they had done everything themselves. As with handcrafted techno beats, the “DISown” pieces strove to convey automation. (This is refreshing at a time when craftsmanship has been conceptually co-opted by the food industry. It may not be clear to anyone exactly what art is supposed to be, but it’s reasonably clear that it’s different from an heirloom tomato or a heritage turkey.)

“DISown”’s upfront commercialism served then to rebuke artists—including some who participated in the show itself—whose market value relies on presenting their work as somehow outside the market system. “DISown” thereby issued a critique, not of mass commercialism, but of the hypocrisy of the market’s marketable pretense of art for art’s sake. Large corporations underwrite museum exhibitions all the time: The difference with “DISown” was that it highlighted Red Bull’s involvement instead of concealing it. The result, the show wanted us to believe, was aura without the hypocrisy.

Promotional image for Jogging's Whistleblower Beanie/Flow Pot, 2014.

Many of the objects were individually fascinating; others seemed rushed or dutiful. But the show’s magic lay, not in the individual pieces, but in the way it branded its participants. By bringing together so many emerging artists from New York’s post-Internet scene and combining them with blue-chip favorites such as Melgaard, Trecartin, and Fujiwara, the show staked a powerful claim: DIS magazine, which began as an email exchange among twenty-odd friends, now stood for an entire generation.

Or at least part of a generation. In a promotional trailer made to accompany the show, Kelly Richards, a “DIS spokeswoman,” explained that while “DISown” is “not for everyone,” it is “definitely for you.” This was simultaneously a joke about the alchemy of branding—our product is only for special people, but also for everyone, because all consumers are special—and also a statement of fact: If you were watching this video, then “DISown” was definitely for you, because DIS, which describes itself as an “international community of writers, photographers, musicians, and DJs,” is really a social network that disseminates content to anyone who hits “follow.” No secret passwords necessary—if you click, you’re in.

What DIS had discovered—but what much of the art world still didn’t know—was that exclusivity had become obsolete. “Cool” wasn’t cool—the old downtown underground had lost its appeal. The goal was no longer to subvert the mainstream, but to refashion it in subversion’s own image. To be sure, DIS’s impact was more to rebrand cool rather than to actually obliterate social and aesthetic hierarchies, but its rebranding was not without worldly consequence. On the heels of a downtown era defined by Ryan McGinley’s vampire sidekicks and Purple’s aging pornographers, the culture propelled by DIS and affiliated parties like GHE20G0TH1K felt like a life-affirming, gender-fluid, multiracial utopia—the legatee, in some ways, of earlier art-music-nightlife moments, from disco to the Club Kids, but filtered through the Internet era’s more expansive potential for commingling.

Accessibility, or at least the veneer of accessibility, was the order of the day. DIS wasn’t for everyone, but it was definitely for me.

ONE DAY IN THE SUMMER OF 2010, I was staring at a computer screen in the Condé Nast citadel at 4 Times Square. The economy had barely recovered from its 2008 flameout, and the vibe in the building was glum: A few months back, Ruth Reichl’s Gourmet had shuttered, along with two wedding magazines and a parenting publication called Cookie. I was working as a fact-checker at the New Yorker and felt lucky to have the job. On this particular afternoon, while struggling via email to appease one of the magazine’s infamous egos, I noticed a link in my news feed to a post titled “Shoulder Dysmorphia.” I clicked through.

It is no small secret,” the feature’s intro declared,

that an elite handful of homosexual men are responsible for the self-esteem of millions of women worldwide. The ever-expanding exacerbation of shoulder silhouettes in women's ready-to-wear will not only continue on its grotesque path into the grim future, but consumer anxieties over natural shoulder inadequacy will skyrocket, forcing women to undergo startling new surgical procedures, season to season, in order to keep up with the newest designer shapes.

Beside the text was a clickable arrow that took you through a fantastical photo shoot of malformed models, the apparent victims of imaginary surgeries to sharpen and extend their frames. The models’ shoulders were sculpted into extravagant designs—concave curves, elaborate ruffles—which matched silhouettes from actual garments by Rick OwensGivenchy, and Lanvin.

Despite its formal modesty, “Shoulder Dysmorphia” felt profound: With ruthless economy, it had pegged a phenomenon (feeling bad about one’s shoulders), positioned it within a field of power (a world in thrall to gay fashion-house directors), and amplified it to its unnerving extreme (surgery). Was this satire? Prognostication? I couldn’t really tell. It reminded me a bit of the “political surrealism” that undergirded many of the more popular essays published by n+1, where I moonlighted as an editor. Unlike the n+1pieces, though, the ideological commitments of “Shoulder Dysmorphia” were ambiguous. Were we supposed to revile the coming era of shoulder intensification or embrace it?

Illustration for 2010 DIS article on “Shoulder Dysmorphia.” Photo: Marco Roso.


Surely, “Shoulder Dysmorphia” was something different from mere critique. It felt participatory, a cultural intervention that moved the needle—though in what direction I wasn’t sure. Instead of the standard pile of inert text and undermotivated imagery, it felt like a precision strike, both on my individual unconscious (I personally suffered from shoulder dysmorphia) and on the wider culture. With magazines tanking and galleries getting boarded up everywhere we looked, who among us would survive without augmenting our shoulder-to-waist ratios? I wondered at the time where this strange publication came from, but it wasn’t until this past spring that I heard the origin myth.

In late 2009, a year after the crash, a group of friends working in various corners of New York’s culture industry saw their freelance work dry up. Suddenly, they had a lot of time on their hands, and the idea emerged through an email chain to start a digital magazine. “It was an interesting moment,” Lauren Boyletold me in a recent interview. “People were still afraid of tweeting too much! At that time, DAZEDIDInterview—they weren’t picking up the people we were interested in. We started organizing the community a little bit.”

Lauren and her partner, Marco Roso, an artist who sidelined in advertising, would host big evening meetings at their house on Hooper Street in South Williamsburg. The meetings would mist into parties, and the parties would morph into photo shoots. Eventually, the meetings/parties/shoots were whittled down to a core group of seven, including, in addition to Roso and Boyle: Solomon Chase, who had been doing fashion styling for print and TV; David Toro, a research assistant and art handler; Nick Scholl, a web developer who for years served as the magazine’s webmaster; Patrik Sandberg, a writer; and Samuel Adrian Massey III, a product developer.

Four of the founding editors had attended art school and had chosen to live in New York City over pursuing traditional art careers. “If I had wanted to paint,” said Boyle, “I would have gone to Philadelphia or Baltimore or Berlin.” Roso, who was a bit older and had an established art practice, moved to New York from Spain after spending eight years burning through various artist residencies. “When I lived in Europe, my life was just linked to grants—one grant after another. You hit a point where you go through all the grants.” Not that Roso thought artists in America were much better off—they were dependent on the gallery system. In New York, though, you could find freelance work in fashion or advertising while pursuing art on the side.

The editors decided to organize as an LLC rather than as a nonprofit because they didn’t want to rely on donors or grant-giving bodies. Instead, they nursed the dream that some day their magazine would make money.


FIVE YEARS ON, the fulfillment of that hope might be on the horizon. A profitable DIS might not do much to hasten the demise of capitalism, but it could have a salutary effect on the art world. If we take the magazine at its word, part of the purpose of creating consumer-facing “diffusion lines” is to liberate emerging artists from hyper-rich collectors. While many take for granted the entanglement of the art world with the ultra-elite, there was a time not all that long ago when close association with the very wealthy was a source of embarrassment for respected artists. The promise of the diffusion line is that it could allow artists to trade an alliance with the .01 percent for an art practice supported by the middle class. The idea is that artists could become a little more like Red Bull, which makes its money from the masses.

(Red Bull has evidently done a good job of persuading people that it’s really a long-lost cousin of DIS. Throughout the run of “DISown,” I heard numerous artists repeat the line, without irony, that Red Bull is “actually a media company”—the energy drinks were just a side thing. Time and again, I had to explain that this wasn’t true: Red Bull was in fact a beverage company. Its support for “DISown” and other art initiatives was a branding project to help sell energy drinks—energy drinks were not a fake-out to help fund projects like “DISown.” Perhaps, in the distant future, viewers of the Red Bull Network will no longer remember that the company began as a distributor of caffeine and taurine, but as of now, Red Bull’s identity as a media company is largely science fiction.)

Cheerleading for the middle class is one thing; making money from it is something else. Many of the artists featured in “DISown” are already showing at elite galleries. DIS itself had a four-week solo show last year at Suzanne Geiss as well as prominent placement in a widely discussed exhibition, “ProBio,” at MoMA PS1. They have gallery representation in Paris. The risk for “DISown,” for which the Red Bull exhibition was only the launching pad, is that instead of creating an alternative funding stream for artists, it might simply allow the artists involved to peddle their wares to major collectors with greater buzz and authority.

DIS, Emerging Artist, 2013. Shown in “ProBio” at MoMA PS1.

When I interviewed DIS, they insisted they would meet with Bed Bath & Beyond next week if the company were interested in rolling out a DIS diffusion line. (It did not seem to figure in their calculus that Marty Eisenberg, a vice president of Bed Bath & Beyond, happens to be one of the world’s biggest collectors.) That would be the real test—both of DIS’s seriousness about reaching the middle class and of the middle class’s readiness to embrace DIS.

Generation DIS is what the Internet did to the avant-garde. While it will take years to sort out the consequences of the magazine’s market-oriented provocations, we can begin to formulate the stakes. If DIS gets subsumed by the blue-chip establishment, they’ll be remembered as a richer version of earlier scene-driven collectives like Art Club 2000. If they succeed in delivering art to the masses, they’ll have accomplished something no one saw coming—the rebranding of aura and the unmooring of the avant-garde from its lordly patrons. That could make them the most important artists of the decade.


Christopher Glazek is a writer living in Los Angeles and the creative and editorial director of Collage.com.


16 Nov 2012

DIS :: Seriously Unserious About Fashion

NOT everyone in the fashion world understands DIS Magazine. But for a selfdescribed online “post-Internet lifestyle magazine” that gets its name from an oppositional prefix, that is to be not only expected but perhaps even intended. Click through the site’s Distaste, Dystopia and Dysmorphia sections, and you’ll discover (ahem) a fiercely analytical take on the runway that is worlds away from the rose-colored glasses of Vogue.com or Style.com.

In an industry in which editorial content and advertising sometimes seem to merge, DIS’s editorial mission is to interrogate and collapse hierarchies. To wit: the mainstream streetwear designer Christian Audigier is treated with the same reverence as Rei Kawakubo; Axe Body Spray is reviewed with the fervor most style blogs reserve for a Frédéric Malle perfume; and a “Best and Worst” section is a stream of no-holds-barred reviews that will go as far as to suggest alternatives to lackluster collections.

“We are more interested in Burlington Coat Factory than Prada,” said Lauren Boyle, who started the site in 2010 with Nick Scholl, David Toro, Solomon Chase and her husband, Marco Roso. Mr. Toro, Mr. Chase and Ms. Boyle are also the editorial directors of the Web site Vfiles. Mr. Roso is a creative director at Grey New York, and Mr. Scholl is a freelance Web designer. “Alber Elbaz once said: ‘Where uptown and downtown meet, but not in Midtown. We hate Midtown,’ ” Ms. Boyle said. “I think that statement says a lot about fashion, and we pretty much feel the opposite. Midtown isn’t high or low, it’s medium. For us that’s where the fertile, untrodden ground is. Mass-market department stores are not where the trends go to die, it’s where they culminate.”

It’s a serious mission statement, but executed with a sense of unseriousness. “We’re not that precious,” Ms. Boyle said. “We move along pretty fast.” For “Shoes in Shoes” under its “new style options” section, DIS recommends “shoe layering” as a “cross-seasonal option for style hybrids and as a simple method for shoe size reassignment.” This means wearing shoes by Vibram FiveFingers under beach sandals by Guess, or slipping Velcro Tevas over Marc Jacobs flats. Not your typical trend report.

“We don’t subscribe to the same rules that fashion magazines do,” Mr. Toro said. There is no editor in chief or masthead (not even an office), no ads on the site or market-driven editorials and, Ms. Boyle said, no staff other than the five founders, ages 29 to 40.

Much of the content DIS produces tweaks the concept of image-making. Who says a Christopher Kane jacket can’t be paired with Under Armour leggings, as the editors did for their “Fit in Society” editorial? When exaggerated shoulder shapes were all the rage seasons ago, they ran an article called “Shoulder Dysmorphia” that used retouching to mimic the trends using the musculature of the models. “Most of our images are not sexy,” Mr. Roso said. “We are raising options and questions, but not answers.”

This lack of regard for conventional commercial context has helped make the DIS crew an emerging presence on the international art-world circuit. Its work was featured in an exhibition at the New Museum in 2010, and the editors staged a hit Kim Kardashian look-alike competition with MoMA P.S. 1 at Art Basel Miami Beach last year. They also recently announced “DIS Crit,” a global contest for art students; the winner gets a “residency” at the contestant’s local Starbucks, a $100 gift card to the coffee chain and art critiques over Skype with Lauren Cornell, a curator at the New Museum. A coming anthology of DIS’s work is to be published by Rizzoli in the spring.

“They subvert the very language of fashion, art and advertising, right down to making ugly a compliment,” said Sarah McCrory, a curator for Frieze Projects 2012, who commissioned DIS to make site-specific work for the Frieze Art Fair in London last month. “Some of their work is so ugly, yet so brilliant and appealing.”

This is hardly the compliment that strengthens bonds with fashion public relations folks. “We always joke that showrooms won’t lend us clothes,” Mr. Chase said. “We laugh that stylists who work with us end up ruining their careers. There are definitely agencies who have contacted us asking to take off a model’s name.”

Humberto Leon and Carol Lim, the founders of Opening Ceremony and the creative directors of Kenzo, are one exception. For Kenzo’s fall men’s collection, DIS created a short film with male models acting out innocuous corporate stockphotography vignettes, complete with a faux watermark. “We loved the video because it was so unexpected,” Mr. Leon said. “So many fashion films are so commercial but disguised as art. So it was really interesting for them to turn that around and make an overtly commercial project that ended up feeling more artistic than most art projects.” 

Could DIS make it to the newsstand? “We’ve always been interested in the limitations of fashion and the limitations of the Internet,” Mr. Toro said.

A version of this article appears in print on November 18, 2012, on page ST8 of the New York edition of The New York Times with the headline: Seriously Unserious About Fashion.