In a corporate space awash with sunlight, a young woman facing a whiteboard is sketching a mind map, connecting slogans like “you do you”, “data obesity” and “quantum spirituality”. What looks like a campaign from an investment bank is in fact the current website of the Berlin Biennale, the ninth edition of which opens in the beginning of June. The Biennale, which has become one of the leading exhibitions on the European art map, has been given a deep blue logo, not unlike that of Deutsche Bank. Slogans such as “in search of the minimum viable biennale product” drifts across the screen.
The promotion video is the work of DIS, a New York-based group known for their use of corporate aesthetics and communication strategies, and the curators of this year’s Biennale. “Minimum viable product” is a term from the world of market analysis, where it denotes a test product designed to maximize learning about customers without giving away the product’s details. It is a clever take on the strategic secrecy of the Biennale industry; in Berlin the exhibition’s website and visual identity was already announced in February, whereas we had to wait for the list of artists until May.
In the past six years, DIS has made the transition from editing an online lifestyle magazine to having become something of a household name in the art world, participating in exhibitions at The New Museum and Museum of Modern Art. DIS Magazine has offered its readers essays by Hito Steyerl and Douglas Coupland alongside music mixes, presentations of artists and ironic fashion spreads – “This spring, socks with sandals are the sweetest taboo”.
Online, the hierarchies between art and popular culture are less stable. DIS Magazine’s effortless hopscotching between theory and entertainment, and between art and commercial culture, has connected with a large audience ranging from academics to high schoolers. After DIS was assigned the task of curating the Biennale, however, they have noticed that many in the Berlin art world are skeptical.
– People in the art world take their categories very seriously, and we don’t. There’s no doubt that DIS polarizes. People either hate us or love us, Lauren Boyle grins.
Kunstkritikk has met up with Boyle and her husband and fellow DIS member Marco Roso in Central Berlin. We are seated in the atrium outside Kunstwerke, the artistic and administrative heart of the Berlin Biennale. It is also Boyle’s and Roso’s current home. Along with the other half of DIS, Solomon Chase and David Toro, they relocated to Berlin in late 2015.
– We don’t feel that it makes a huge difference whether we’re working with a commercial space like Red Bull Studios or an art institution like Kunstwerke. Instead of adapting, we try to make them fit us. We’re like tourists in the institutions, trying to push their limits. We can’t even pretend to be curators. Instead, we’ve had to embrace what we can do.
One thing DIS excel at is poking into the porous partition walls that keep art apart from commercial visual culture. Both sides are treated with equal irreverence. This winter, DIS, assigned to manage the promotion campaign for MoMA’s photography exhibition Ocean of Images, made drag queen and Eurovision winner Conchita Wurst a figurehead for the museum.
DIS has kept one foot in the art world and another in the world of fashion and advertising. Like many other indebted art school graduates they started working in the fashion industry and saw their artistic practices dwindling. The idea of making an online magazine came in the aftermath of the Financial Crisis, when they suddenly found themselves without commercial work. Also around this time, a new generation of artists had begun using social media, both as a distribution channel and as material for their work.
– There was a really big shift around 2010, aesthetically and culturally, with social media changing everything. Still there wasn’t really a lot of coverage of what was happening online online. It felt like a big hole at the time, says Boyle.
The images published in DIS Magazine tended to be ambiguous. One series of documentations photos of exhibitions was presented as if the images were a fashion spread, with models contemplating art works while carrying huge, blue IKEA bags.
– No one wanted to claim ownership over the images we showed in DIS Magazine. The reactions were both “This is not art” and “This is not fashion”. Questioning what is good taste has always been the most important thing for us. If we have fashion credits in DIS Magazine it will be for brands like Target or JW Anderson. We have a total fascination with Midtown and the middle, explain Boyle and Roso.
Even when DIS have done ad campaigns for luxury brands like Kenzo, they have given them the look of postal order catalogues, with flat, dull lighting and models waving at the camera like dunces. Photographs mimicking stock photography and the generic motifs of photo agencies, has become DIS’s trademark. They even set up their own agency, DISimages. Another offshoot is the web store DISown, offering limited edition commodities designed by artists. At DISown you can become the lucky owner of Nick DeMarco’s meander-patterned toilet roll Waterfall ($150), or Bjarne Melgaard’s bean bag Trine Gro ($3,500).
Danish curator and writer Toke Lykkeberg has worked with DIS on several occasions, most recently for the exhibition Co-Workers at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris last fall.
– DIS have worked with fashion in a way that underscores how banal lifestyle changes mirror a larger, complex world in a state of rapid change. We wanted to work with DIS because they manage to operate on several levels simultaneously.
According to Lykkeberg, DIS has functioned as a node in a network of artists, a collective of many collectives:
– The Internet and social media has brought about a new small art world in addition to the one already existing. And, ironically, this is exactly what the art world wants.
A Biennial in the bank
– The beginning of DIS was completely unassuming. We certainly had no intention to curate a biennial or anything like that. It was always about the community and the network of collaborators, says Boyle.
Artists from this network, like Katja Novitskova, Timur Si-Qin, Amalia Ulman og Ryan Trecartin, are often mentioned in writings about the much-debated term Post-Internet Art. That may be one of the reasons why the Berlin Biennale appointed DIS as curators. They will all contribute to this year’s Biennale, alongside artists such as Trevor Paglen, Adrian Piper and Camille Henrot. Scandinavian participants include Yngve Holen, Torbjørn Rødland and Bjarne Melgaard from Norway, Simon Dybbroe Møller from Denmark and Anna Uddenberg from Sweden. Norwegian artist Eirik Sæther will be collaborating with the Australian art and fashion platform Centre For Style.
– While one artist will take up an entire floor, another will just be doing the cover of the catalogue. Several of the artists are working with the “epidermis” of the Biennale, the skin that protects the larger organs. With regard to the artists’ visibility, the Biennale is not balanced at all, but it’s designed for each aspect to be perfect, says Roso.
Besides Kunstwerke, those larger organs consist of the Feuerlee Collection, a former bunker in the borough of Kreuzberg; the European School of Management and Technology, in what once housed the GDR’s State Council; and the Akademie der Künste, near the tourist hub of Brandenburger Tor. Talks and performances will take place in the riverboat Blue Star, which will operate as a sightseeing boat during the exhibition period.
Roso says that the Akademie der Künste is a particularly strange site, with an architecture like that of a bank or a tax-free store:
– The lines between artworks and their surroundings will be blurred. Ideally, we want you to at times forget that you’re in an art biennial. We also want to engage with the accidental audience, as we call it.
The term “accidental audience” was coined by the artist Brad Troemel. His point is that when art images are shared and re-blogged on the web, they become disconnected from their original art contexts and are subsequently consumed by a non-specialized audience. DIS Magazine’s popularity is partly due to the shareability of their ironic imagery. But how well would artworks cope with being disconnected from the Biennale context?
Roso admits that they have to maintain an “audience contract”, that which makes the public aware that they are in fact experiencing an artwork.
– In the end you want to amplify the voice of the artist, not destroy it, he says.
Originally, DIS wanted to exhibit the artworks in banks and supermarkets around Berlin, something that proved difficult. They got hold of one bank, though: American artist Brody Condon will produce a live action role play at the headquarters of DZ Bank, designed by the famous architect Frank Gehry. A hundred participants, many of them from Norway and Denmark, will perform a sort of corporate group therapy, explains Roso.
An unease in the art world
DIS’ playful approach to commercial culture has its detractors. Here is American artist Jennifer Chan: “DIS mag, how I love and loathe thee. You are the seamless integration of fashion and criticism with net art in the form of a lifestyle website that offers hip fashion guides, mixtapes, and artist-commissioned photo series.” Like many of their peers, DIS are not unequivocally critical with regards to consumer culture, but rather keep an interest in the many intersections between the media, technology and consumer brands. This, however, does not make DIS capitalism’s handmaiden. Browsing through DIS Magazine, one will look in vain for odes to the market. Instead there are themed issues on eco-politics, the hazards of Big Data, and interviews with Martha Rosler and Thomas Hirschorn, artists who belongs to a decidedly “critical” tradition. And in contrast to art publications of every stripe, there are no ads in DIS Magazine. Roso and Boyle explain that they have always thought of DIS as “a space in which ideas and value systems are not overtly analyzed or critiqued, but re-presented in their most heightened configuration.”
Oslo-based curator and writer Agatha Wara collaborated on an exhibition with DIS in 2014:
– I think it’s just been a critical mass thing. So many young artists looked to DIS Magazine as a place which more accurately reflected their interests and reality that it became “critically” viable — a thing. So the fact that DIS was happening could no longer be ignored by the critical apparatus, even if they hated DIS’s apolitical vibes.
What does DIS’s newfound position in the art world say about the latter’s current state, Kunstkritikk asks Toke Lykkeberg?
– I see it like this: with this art scene we’ve finally left behind the so-called long nineties. The ideal of an engaged art practice is no longer social work. Art can be political without being one-eyed and programmatic. Art can be entertaining without dumbing down, and so on and so forth.
But does DIS represent a real change?
– Overall, the art world will probably remain more aristocratic than democratic. It’s a world where many people have an interest in renewing in order to preserve. New art and theory is often used to update old agendas instead of setting new ones. I’m neither a futurologist nor a technological determinist, but if the art world is to be thoroughly disrupted, it may not come from DIS & Co., but rather from Silicon Valley, which a lot of young artists are already concerned with.