Q&A

A Good Crisis: DIS' Lauren Boyle Discusses the Art Collective's New Political PSA Videos

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A Good Crisis: DIS' Lauren Boyle Discusses the Art Collective's New Political PSA Videos
Dis: Lauren Boyle, Marco Roso, Solomon Chase, David Toro. Image courtesy of the artists.

The art collective DIS has always had a knack for subverting mainstream media, coopting tropes and formats typically used as means for corporate and marketing ends—like stock imagery (DISimages, 2013) or retail stores (DISown, 2014)—to critique, satirize, or mock status quo “lifestyle.” Appropriating the sleek style of advertising and corporate aesthetics, the folks behind DIS were evidently trained to be professionals in those fields—but instead, found their skills of little financial use in a time when job opportunity was scarce. The group formed in 2010 following the height of the financial crises, when unemployment meant artists had to produce with lean means—though with all the time in the world to do so. 

DIS’ members—Lauren Boyle, Solomon Chase, Marco Roso, and David Toro—began their collaboration in the form of an online magazine. DIS Magazine became a hub for creative output, publishing articles and interviews, mixes, fashion editorials, and other “magazine” content produced by a large network of like-minded creatives. Its content not only informed and entertained, it mobilized its audience into a community of producers that shared post-internet sensibilities, subversive tactics, and penchants for tongue-and-cheek humor. DIS’ influence was not lost on the curators at the New Museum (DIS was included in the 2015 Triennial), the MoMA (which commissioned DIS to create new work for the 2015 New Photography exhibition), the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco (where they staged an immersive solo exhibition last year), among other major institutions.

With a nimble finger firmly on the pulse, DIS adapts their content to the needs of their audience. In 2017 they ended DIS Magazine and replaced it with DIS.Art, a platform that streams original video content, or “edutainment,” as the collective calls it. (We wrote all about DIS.art and its innovative approach to producing and disseminating video art content amidst a rising trend of streaming editorial here.) Last week, DIS premiered a brand new trilogy of short videos at the New Museum as part of Rhizome’s Fist Look: New Art Online series, followed by a panel discussion with DIS’ Lauren Boyle, writer Christopher Glazek, and journalist Atossa Araxia Abrahamian, moderated by Rhizome’s Michael Connor.

The screened trilogy consists of three videos that will be distributed as social media ads. A Good Crises uses Night King from Game of Thrones as its protagonist, dressed in a fine suite and surrounded by luxury, who voices over a succession of quick cuts edited with increasing speed, calling to mind Jordan Belfort’s (Leonardo DiCaprio's) narration in The Wolf of Wall Street. The narrator summarizes how the recovery of the 2007-08 financial crises lead to a new “rentership society” wherein the middle class, previously able to accumulate wealth in the form of home ownership, disappeared to make room for widening inequality. The narrator explains how Blackstone, the largest owner of real estate in the world, took advantage of “a good crises”: It “uncoincidentally grew four-fold since 2007. At the root of the crisis was subprime mortgages and predatory lending. Taxpayers bailed out the banks. The banks took the money, turned around and bought the homes they foreclosed on right out from under the taxpayers… The CEO of Blackstone, the company that bought up all those foreclosed homes, Stephen A. Schwarzman, is the first executive to pull in a $1 billion annual salary, and it’s taxed at rates barely more than the annual salary of the average millennial, who’s making 20 per cent less than a boomer at the same age in real dollars. We’re beyond the age of debt and onto the age of full-on predation. Schwarzman wants Americans to live in serfdom.” DIS says this isn’t natural—it’s just been normalized. “You wanted an economic revolution? We’re in one.”

DIS, A Good Crisis, 2018. Digital image. Courtesy the artists. Image via New Museum.

In the trilogy’s second video UBI: The Straight Truvada, Christopher Glazek (who wrote the essay the video is based on, and who participated in the New Museum panel) appears to be on an 19th-century homestead replete with re-enactors adorned in clothing that reference the time period (but is in fact from contemporary designer Vaquera.) He describes universal basic income (UBI), a proposal that the government give a fixed amount of money to every adult, regardless of income, that could potentially allow people to “feed and house themselves without needing a job, facilitating a revolutionary decoupling of life and work.” Conflating UBI with the technologies of the IUD as birth control for women, and the drug Truvada as near-total protection from HIV for gay men, frames it as a social justice issue, a means of empowerment. Both medical technologies allow their users to “fuck without fear… But what good is a sexual revolution without an economic one? The right to promiscuity is a kind of freedom, perhaps, but it’s impossible to exercise if you have nowhere to live and no food to eat.” Empowering women and gay men, like empowering the poor with the right to feed and house ourselves, is a threat to those in power. But optimistically, Glazek suggests that despite pushback, IUDs and Truvada have successfully become mainstream, so shooting for UBI might not be a wash. “UBI sounds like a pie in the sky, but the future always does.”

Screenshot of UBI: The Straight Truvada by DIS. Via DIS.Art.

Lastly, Obama Baroque appropriates a genre defined by Gossip Girl, a television show following a group of privileged prep school students in the Upper East Side, and essentially picks up where the series left off when it ended in 2012. “Take one look at what happened to the gang since we left off… Poor little Jenny Humphrey; she’s been sold out. The world she inherited is unsustainable. Greed and incompetence left her Gen to clean up the mess. America couldn’t deliver what it promised.” The video, in which teens and millennials dressed in prep school vibes (again Vaquera) mill around a minimal white set, defines a “glam dystopia I like to call Obama Baroque” to describe the culture that came out of the financial recovery, the election of Barack Obama, and the Occupy Wall Street movement. The students shout “Democratize enterprise! Tax income from property not labor! End inheritance! Bring back the death tax!” DIS’ narrative of the socialite-turned-socialist illustrates what could have been but wasn’t: a fashionable top-down revolution-as-lifestyle brand. But though it’s set in a fictionalized recent past (flip phones!) it simultaneously suggests a possible future, calling on young people to vote, in style.

Screenshot of Obama Baroque by DIS. Via DIS.Art

Earlier this week, DIS opened an installation at Ssense Montréal, the headquarters of the luxury fashion retailer, and the brand that commissioned two of the three videos in the trilogy. And on November 14th, DIS opens a year-long exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art that will screen the video trilogy within an immersive installation and alongside concurrent related programing. Here, we speak with DIS member Lauren Boyle on how the financial crises birthed an outpouring of creativity, on video’s potential to communicate ideas that institutionalized artworks can’t, and on the urgency and importance of making overtly political content leading up to the midterm elections.  

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You've described this series of videos as public services announcements. What do you mean by that?

When we started this project we wanted to do something leading up to the midterms—like “get out the vote,” but not “get out the vote.” So that's where the idea of a PSA came from. We had this revelation: Damn, it's been a decade since the 2008 financial crises. Culture has changed so much since that period! While the crises was happening I don't think we fully understood the gravity of it all. Now, it felt important for us to look back and get more information about it. 

We wanted to make something that had more of a direct and overt agenda in terms of messaging. Back when we did DIS Magazine we worked in much more subtle matters, even though there was a subversiveness underneath everything (which not everyone was always clued into.) But right now we want our message to be more upfront. A Good Crises is really a research project and an essay; it was a paper that we turned into a video. This concept of doing video essays is obviously part of DIS.art, which does do things that are very current, but it's not about chasing the news cycle in the same way. We're not trying to be the next Vice, which is basically just MSNBC for young people. We're trying to take a longer view. So going a little bit deeper into the crises than most videos would was important to us. 

The videos look back to recent history, more than they speculate on the future. In making clear how we got to where we are now, how we've basically been in the throws of an economic revolution without knowing it, they help us see where we need to go. Was that the hope? That educating your audience on the recent financial crises will mobilize them to take responsibility for the future?

It is 100 per cent about realizing that we've been hoodwinked by the system and that capitalism as it's functioning today does not work for the majority of people. This conversation really needs to be at the forefront. And while it's definitely happening in Leftist circles and is starting to permeate the mainstream, there are a lot of fashion people who are socially very liberal but who are not so in touch with the economic shifts going on.  A big portion of our audience is fashion people, and sadly many don't vote. So it's intended to draw awareness and in part we are targeting them. 

We want to be clear: the way things are is not natural. It's not the nature of economics and it's not human nature. It is policy. And it doesn’t have to be this way. We believe there needs to be radical change in policy to make things more equitable and to decrease the incredible wealth gap that is happening. What is the real fear of having staggering inequality? It's having more Trumps. It's having more strongmen. It’s the erosion of democracy. So it feels very urgent and very pressing. The Knight King is not going to save us. We have to save ourselves.

Is this a new direction for DIS? Can we expect to see more political projects from here on out, or was this trilogy a one-off in terms of its direct, mobilizing messaging? 

We probably won't do another of these works, which are specifically policy driven, for a minute. The other content we do have lined up does touch on some related issues, like NRx and methods of trolling. I mean, it's all political right?

The financial crises effected everyone. But it also had a pretty significant influence particularly on your creative trajectory, which you spoke about during the panel discussion. Can you talk about the genesis of DIS in relation to the crisis? 

At the time, we were working in New York and watching it all happen first-hand. We worked in culture and we saw all of the freelance contracts and production budgets dry up everywhere. There was no work, we had so much more time, and there was no aspiration to make money because we just knew that we weren't going to be able to make it for several years to come. And so the origin of DIS was total DIY—buy and return [props for photo shoots], and do everything by yourself. There were no budgets—but we had the internet though! There was a lot that could still be done. And creatively, there was this incredible trifecta: Obama being elected, the financial crises, and the internet popping off. There was an unblocking that allowed for a ton of creative energy at that specific moment. 

How would you characterize the moment now in terms of creativity? It seems like there's a guilt that artists carry if they're not making work that's super political or activist, and at the same time, artists who all of a sudden change course to make political work come off as insincere or desperate for relevance. The pressure seems to be forming a creative blockage a little bit.

There is a blockage, for sure, because so much of the conversation is around this one story. Everything else kind of feels relatively unimportant right now. It's a difficult time to be in the arts because you have to deal with it no matter what. And I think we're going to be dealing with that for a quite a while. Coming back from Berlin to The States and witnessing this election really changed our course, too, in terms of what we wanted to do and how we wanted to continue production. We couldn't work in the same way any more. 

Around that time, DIS Magazine ended and made room for DIS.art, which is all video. What can video do that text or static imagery can't do? Why this shift in medium? 

There are a number of reasons but one reason is that we wanted to slow down. Videos take longer to conceive, script, and produce. With video, you can take a topic and get farther into it. We can decide to only make 20 things this season. That’s not the same kind of pace as a magazine that's constantly trying to churn out three or four things every day. We didn't want anything to do with that pace anymore. So even though video is more expensive and it takes more time to produce, it’s more gratifying for us. We’re able to create a platform, a library of thought, that people can constantly revisit and be part of. Plus, we haven’t seen the specific kinds of videos that we want to watch out there yet. A lot of existing video content is throw-away, or visually homogenous.

The UBI video was initially a beautiful essay that Christopher Glazek made. We wanted to turn it into a video that people could watch in three or four minutes. A lot of people aren't picking up books or reading in depth anymore, but that doesn't mean they're not thirsty for the knowledge that is in those texts. So, we wanted to bubble up the conversations we thought were really important but in a medium we thought people could really easily engage with. Of course, we don't hope reading is over, we hope that people will go further in their own research‚ which is where the next phase of the site comes in… Soon we’ll introduce a library—curricula, worksheets, guidebooks, syllabuses, recommended readings and all this other stuff—to go with the collection of videos that we’re already posting on DIS.art. That way each topic will be more flushed out and people will have the option to go deeper into each subject.

It's interesting that you say you're slowing down. Because as the audience, it's like we're speeding up. You're asking us to consume information in three-to-four-minute bite sized chunks, information that would otherwise take much longer to read. But I want to get back to the actual videos and how they're going to circulate. Have you considered who specifically you're targeting?

I met with someone from Buzzfeed News last night to discuss this. Facebook has the best tools for targeting, which I guess everyone knows by now. It can be very, very specific in how it targets audiences. But I don’t think we’ll use paid ads in Facebook as much as I thought we would a few months ago. The problem is that our audience is too young for Facebook; they don't use it. Our audience is on Instagram and Twitter. The other problem is that people don't want to think when they're on Facebook (not that they aren’t intelligent.) And people click on things that affirm what they already know. So our ads might not really work well on Facebook. I think we'll probably be using Instagram, mostly. The other thing I think we’ll do is we'll find partners—like The Intercept or Naomi Klein, if we’re lucky— and ask them to share the content. We'll probably get a lot more traffic that way.

DIS has always been really, really good at subverting mainstream media, but I wonder if this relationship between contemporary art and mainstream media is a two-way street. In other words, it’s clear your ability to subvert media tropes has made a big impact on the art world, but I wonder how well your content has been able to move in the other direction and infiltrate mainstream audiences. I don’t know that that had ever really been a goal. But now that you're hoping to motivate people to vote and become politically engaged, it seems that the success of the work rides on your ability to reach bigger, non-art audiences. Art doesn’t have the best track record in terms of mainstream appreciation, and neither do ads on social media. Is this a concern?

We are definitely looking to expand our audience. And I think we already have. Our audience includes people in the humanities and the sciences and other cultural fields. So I think it has worked to an extent, a little bit. And choosing to do just video allows us to that even more. When we decided to do DIS.art we were thinking about artists that have incredibly rich backgrounds in very specific fields who do deep research and have strong perspectives on subjects that are very mainstream—like social media, food sustainability, or oil—but whose messages get lost in the wall text. We think that what they're trying to say is very, very interesting and more complex and nuanced than what we're seeing in the work itself. It’s almost impossible to access all of their research, especially if you’re not an art-world person. No one outside of a few people in the art world are reading the exhibition catalogues. The messages don’t cross over to any other audience, even though that is always goal of art, right? I mean, that is the goal at a museum: to reach new audiences. So, that's part of why we make videos. And this next season of content will continue to experiment with creating stuff that is of greater interest to non-art people, and more people, in general.

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