Our Mission is to Promote the Mission: An Interview with Hygienic Dress League

June 16, 2011 · Print This Article

"Creation of a Brand" video still.

In preparation for my interview with Steve and Dorota Coy, creators of hygienic dress league, I attempted to re-watch the 2003 documentary, The Corporation. And I say attempt because I have tried no fewer than four times to view that film in its entirety, but I can never manage to get past those unhappy, Monsanto cows, swollen and sick on rGBH. It’s not that my liberal heart bleeds for the livestock, (I’d have no problem chasing a burger with a milkshake while watching said segment for the fifth time); rather, it’s always at that moment that I realize the film has made its point—the corporation is a soulless abuser of the 14th amendment that will deceive, manipulate, and blatantly abuse anyone posing an impediment to profit.

The message that Noam Chomsky has so clearly presented for us in this film is one that a myriad of culture jammers have reinforced through the public, critical action of groups such as The Yes Men, Adbusters, and the Billboard Liberation Front. Indeed, since the publication of Society of the Spectacle, many artists have found the realm of global-corporate-media-enterprise ripe for parody and critique. Rarely do you find artists operating within the corporate frame to the extent of the Coy’s, who have legally registered hygienic dress league as a legitimate corporation within the state of Michigan. The husband-wife team has gone beyond mere parody in their intervention into non-artistic systems to fully appropriate the identifying codes of the business world. Currently, Steve and Dorota operate as founders, CEOs and CFOs of their company, and their corporate agenda is thus: to subvert the identity of the corporation from exploitive commercial empire to cultivate a practice that brands to examine the process of branding, produces for the sake of the ephemeral, and profits to yield a net of $0.

"No Vacancy" billboard

My initial introduction to the work of the Coy’s and hygienic dress league was last fall, when they unveiled a neon billboard reading, “No Vacancy,” in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood. The billboard sat adjacent to Roosevelt

Michigan Central Train Station

Park and Michigan Central Train Station, a once glorious example of early-twentieth century Beaux-Arts Classical architecture that is now a monument to post-industrial abandonment and blight. The billboard’s message was explicit, and moreover, mundane—the bright pink “No Vacancy” could have been seen in any city or vacation town across the country. What makes the work profound is the blatant falsity—one thing Detroit certainly has to offer is vacancy. In claiming the contrary, the hygienic dress league incarnated an age-old marketing technique: create exclusivity, and interest will follow. It’s only when the action is examined more thoroughly that it is revealed that the corporation behind the gesture is interested in unpacking the processes of branding and its affect on social life, rather than building buzz around a new product.

Evidence of the hygienic dress league can be seen throughout Detroit on brightly colored billboards that present the company’s figureheads—two characters dressed in business attire who carry briefcases and wear gold gas masks. Their work is also marked by a Louis Vuitton-esque corporate icon that features the pigeon, which is a symbol of urban scrappiness, as well as a nod to the popularity of the bird among the street art set. The work exists in the space between street art and commercial marketing that is home to the Shepard Faireys as well as the Sonys, and as a result, hygienic dress league’s billboards integrate seamlessly into the urban media landscape. In the tradition of corporate unveilings, the Coy’s rely on clandestine strategies until each action is launched. I did manage to get a bit of intel on hygienic dress league’s next project, which is scheduled to be unveiled some point this weekend, at an undisclosed location, somewhere in Detroit.

I recently spoke to Steve Coy in hygienic dress league HQ in Detroit’s Eastern Market.

Discussed: Absurd Dadaist text, cupcakes, urban wildlife, the commercialization of street art, Detroit Revolution! coming this summer, covert ops.


"Domestic Dispute" mural, Detroit.


Sarah Margolis-Pineo: So what is the origin of hygienic dress league, both as a collective art practice and corporate entity?

Steve Coy: Basically, hygienic dress league started off as a group of graduate students from the University of Hawaii. We were drinking at a bar, discussing a possible collaborative show. We knew that we wanted to do a possible critique on fashion, addressing value and why people wear what they do—how people go to extremes to portray themselves in a certain way. So we had this Dada text about dress reform, and we came across a mention of this group, Hygienic Dress League. There was no explanation as to what it was—we just loved those three words together, so we used it for the title of the show. Later on, after we had moved to Detroit, Dorota and I had an idea for a different project, and we adopted the name hygienic dress league. We wanted to keep it alive.

SMP: How did the project evolve in Detroit?

SC: We had this idea to form a corporation and use that as the platform to create our art—the corporation as a new, original art form. We thought it would be hilarious to create this identity, or brand that had no manufacturable product or sellable good behind it. We became, in a way, a self-promoting machine. We like to say: ‘Our Mission is to Promote our Mission: hygienic dress league.’ So, simultaneously while all this was going on, Dorota and I were doing a series of photographs that dealt with gender, identity, and male-female relationships. We did this one featuring a housewife with a huge diamond carrying a tray of cupcakes, and this is where our businessman first appeared holding a trident and wearing a golden gasmask. Once we had the corporation and this character, it was easy to merge the two ideas into one project, and use the businessman/executive figure as the corporate icon.

I think it adapted well to Detroit because as we lived here and started getting a feel for the city, it felt more and more like a post-apocalyptic world. We are surrounded by all these abandoned factories and buildings falling down. Of course, it’s a great venue for making all kinds of artwork, but it also really fed the narrative that we were trying to create behind hygienic dress league. We started using the images of these businessmen with gasmasks on as inhabitants of this futuristic, alter-reality. There’s symbolism in the masks and safety goggles—it’s like these characters breathe different air—a social separation.

"Activation Ceremony" performance

SMP: So it is you and Dorota who perform these roles—enacting and embodying the corporate icons that you’ve created…

SC: Dorota and I have always been these characters—they’re like extensions of our personalities. As an artist, you have to be that executive, you have to be that mid-level employee, and you have to be that low-level extractor doing the actual physical labor. It’s actually a great metaphor for the practice of art making.


SMP: Where does the pigeon come in?

SC: The pigeon is hygienic dress league’s logo. We knew when creating a corporation that we would need a logo. The pigeon is kind of a funny creature—like urban wildlife, so I think it pertains to the type of places that hygienic dress league operates in—there are always pigeons around. I think there are a lot of misconceptions about the bird… They’re smart, and in their own way, very hygienic.

SMP: One logistical question: was it difficult registering hygienic dress league as corporation?

SC: No, actually! It so easy. I just went down and filed the paperwork, and now I just have to write a $0 on the tax form each year.

SMP: So, I’m curious… How does your work differ from that of the culture jammers—Adbusters, Billboard Liberation Front, and the like, whose work is also critical of commercial media and other socio-cultural infrastructure?

SC: In a way we are critiquing corporate structures, and in a way we’re creating space to do that, but it’s not necessarily our number-one goal. We want to make people aware of the over-saturation of advertising, and the idea that we are constantly being sold something. I guess in a way we’re trying to sell culture, but there’s nothing really behind it—we’re really a façade—we pose as one thing disguised as another.


SMP: So, in a sense you are critiquing similar issues, but your work goes beyond mere response to create an entirely unique discourse.

SC: Exactly. Basically, we want to level the playing field and have access to people that corporations do. If you were to ask anyone about Nike or Louis Vuitton, Samsung, TVs, whatever, they would probably know all these different products. But ask that same person about contemporary art? It’s about accessibility, and it’s about diversifying the types of public art that happens here. We want to reach new audiences.

And that even plays into some of the locations we’re selecting. We’re always looking for high-profile locations—somewhere between abandoned and renovated, and we’re always trying to bring attention to these spaces and the unique architecture. I especially look for boarded up sections of building—we prefer to work on wood, so we don’t damage the building and the brickwork. We have a term for these spaces, we call it “real estate,” this is when we find a building with a lot of plywood on it. A lot of street art can be formulaic—people just plug it in. We look into these locations and the histories of the buildings and try to play into that in the work. One of the more recent pieces that we did was “No Vacancy,” and it was a large neon sign on the side of an abandoned hotel. So again, it’s a play on words, and there’s meaning there in the history of the building itself.

"Detroit Revolution" mural

SMP: How do you relate to more traditional street art, and how do you feel about the gallerization of the aesthetic?

SC: We’re definitely commenting on the over-commercialization of street art. Some artists have used their work to create a real brand to market and sell things, and there’s nothing wrong with that—it’s a pretty brilliant thing in a way. But we’re not interested in that. We’re interested in creating a dialog about that. I mean, we’re being really transparent—our work is an advertisement. And on the other side, you have all the companies who use viral marketing and all kinds of tactics to disguise themselves as art… In a way we’re kind of reversing those roles. I think people become immune to it [advertising]; they just accept it, and we want them to question it.

SMP: Do you feel like the inherent corporate-ness of your work—the very well thought out commercial quality, causes it to be misinterpreted or overlooked?

SC: Yeah, I do think that people who encounter our work might not understand what it is, and that’s an intentional reaction we want to solicit. We’re trying to get people to be curious and maybe think that it’s a new store or something, and then we kind of leave a trail of breadcrumbs using the internet. People might take a photo on a smartphone, or google one of our slogans later. We use all these different platforms and unveil a bit at a time, and fill in another piece of the puzzle.

I saw this great photo [by Brian Day] on flickr of our Transporters mural that reads “Detroit Revolution! coming this summer.” And, basically, this guy had written this description where he had driven into this parking lot and saw or mural, and he actually had a case like our transporters carry, so he posed in front of the piece like a character. There were so many great comments about the photo, and it had, like 400 views, which is pretty good for that type of thing. Pretty amazing I think.

SMP: So no gallery shows?

That’s right, we’re less interested in traditional modes of showing art. But we really go beyond what typical street artists work with—beyond paint rollers and stencils to work with other media like interactive video, performance, neon… Our work is all about random encounters—seeing it unexpectedly and in an unexpected way—it’s just out there in the public, which is what I like about public work outside the gallery. We want to get into augmented reality. We’re operating in this space that is real and fictional simultaneously…

"Give Us Your Money" performance

SMP: Can you divulge a bit of what is in the works for hygienic dress league?

There was really a set plan in place from the beginning to do all the things that a corporation would do. We eventually want to take the company public—it’s going to be really funny. Then, literally, the public can assess the value of the company by how many shares are bought. Which is kind of where the art world is anyway—what makes something valuable?! It’s what the gallerists and dealers decide. We definitely want to comment on that. Also, we want to expand to other rust belt cities—places that get skipped over by street artists. We’re exploring new markets so to speak—billboards in other areas. And again, these are places that have less in the way of public art, because we’re still trying to reach that non-art-going audience that we really want.

SMP: All awesome… But I was sort of talking upcoming this weekend…

SC: The piece that we’re going to do this weekend is also on an old hotel, Hotel [censored!]. I don’t think I should give the name of the hotel, because in this case we don’t have permission. I usually try to get permission to do the work, just because I want to build a really good relationship, and I want to breakdown those stereotypes that street art is vandalism, which is also why we stick to the boarded-up sections of buildings, and try to maintain a good relationship with the city. I want Detroit to be an advocate and really embrace this type of art—it can help rebuild the community and change the way it looks.

A lot of our work is highly polished, very graphic, and slightly corporate looking. With this piece we’re heading in a slightly different direction. We’re going to introduce all our characters and it’s going to be in this pseudo-Sistine Chapel, Renaissance mural with a blue background and an archway with clouds, with our characters just sort of floating in there. Also, the hotel has all these really interesting archways. Over each archway will have a male and a female character of each rank of employee—the lower-level Extractors, (who wear white hazmat suits and golden gloves), the mid-level Transporters, (these characters wear all black and have a briefcase handcuffed to their arms), and of course, the Executives are the highest-level employees who wear suits and a dollar-sign pendant. It’s exciting: we’ve never really introduced all of our characters before.

Video Still

I’m also working on a video at the moment. It’s the second of two videos—the first was called “Creation of a Brand,” and it shows the executives physically creating this logo—you can see this abstract concept physically translated into a thing. The second video, (“Creation of a Brand II“), is going to put the first in context—it’s going to be the prequel and the sequel.

SMP: Any idea what the Reception will be?

I think our work is generally received positively—I think people really like seeing it. I think at first it’s something that might be confusing, but I think it’s the type of thing that people can engage with at any level that they want. They may look at it and not think about it again, or they might follow that trail of breadcrumbs and investigate the narrative, learn about the characters. Generally, I think people follow our work. I’ve noticed that different blogs definitely pick up what we’re doing as soon as it hits the street. We don’t really announce when we’re doing something, or where the location is—we try to operate on that surprise. hygienic dress league is very secretive in its operations.

Sarah Margolis-Pineo is a curator and writer. She is currently the Jeanne and Ralph Graham Collections Fellow at Cranbrook Art Museum.

Top 5 Weekend Picks! (6/17 & 6/18)

June 16, 2011 · Print This Article

1. Hang in There at Co-Prosperity Sphere

Curated by Jason Lazarus, a group exhibition of 45 artists addressing the idea of MOTIVATION.

Co-Prosperity Sphere is located at 3219 S Morgan St. Reception is Friday from 7-10pm.

2. Instruction Sets at Autumn Space

Work by Patrick Bobilin, Nick Cueva, Matthew Cummings, Wyatt Grant, Anthony Lewis, Nicole Mazza, Chiara No, Stephanie Plenner, William Sieruta, Cait Stephens, Clare Torina, Allison Wade, Erin Washington and Travis Wyche.

Autumn Space is located at 1700 W Irving Park Rd, #207. Reception is Saturday from 6-9pm.

3. HeartBrainLungGut at Pentagon

Work by Olivia Swider and Julia Asherman.

Pentagon is located at 2655 W Homer St. Reception is Saturday from 7-11pm.

4. Video Playlist: Intimate Civics and Everyday Explorers at Museum of Contemporary Photography

Work by Paul Chan, Olivia Ciummo, Coco Fusco, Jillian Mayer and Chi Jang Yin.

Museum of Contemporary Photography is located at 600 S. Michigan Ave. Reception is Friday beginning at 5:30pm. Screenings from 6-8pm.

5. Retracing at Murdertown

Work by Hope Esser and Christalena Hughmanick.

Murdertown is located at 2351 N. Milwaukee Ave. Reception is Saturday from 6-9pm.

Time Traveling Santa Fe : Meow Wolf and The Due Return

June 15, 2011 · Print This Article

The Due Return: a time & space traveling, inter-dimensional vessel

I am always interested in the way narrative is built up and developed, particularly when it is constructed by multiple parties. It happens every day in a number of ways: events and thoughts are interpreted, communicated and reflected upon. People working together will create a common story. It manifests through mission statements, gossip and even more subtle forms of identification. I’m interested in those instances where narrative is consciously fabricated. In this instance I found out about an exhibit in Santa Fe when an old friend emailed to ask what I might say to trees, given the chance. She went on to describe how the Center for Contemporary Arts (CCA) was hosting a massive interactive exhibit where, upon entry, you could download an iPhone app that would allow you to communicate with the sculptures (“trees”). A collaborative group, Meow Wolf, didn’t just build trees; they built an entire habitat including a ship that visitors can walk around, on and in. The Due Return is a massive collaborative endeavor with multimedia facets that range from a large fabricated digital archives to live performances to sculpture. This group brought a multi-dimensional ship to the desert mountains. I spent some time talking to Sean Di lanni, a Meow Wolf representative, about the exhibit and the collaboration.
Caroline Picard: Could you paint a picture of this project? From what I gather, you all built an interactive, inter-dimensional ship. Can you describe more about how that works?

Sean Di lanni: The Due Return is a massive, immersive, interactive installation which is fully navigable by visitors. Its namesake and central element is a 75 foot long, by 15 foot high, by 20 foot wide dimension hopping, time traveling ship. The ship has traveled through 31 different “eras” (or TD’s) and now resides in an alien landscape on a foreign planet. The ship and it’s current environment, which we call TD+31 is available for visitors to explore inside of The Center for Contemporary Art’s 6000 Sq. Ft. Munoz Waxman Gallery here in Santa Fe through August 21st.   It was collaboratively produced by over 100 Artists and volunteers, both local and international.

Upon entering the Munoz Waxman Gallery, visitors are directed through a cave-like entryway and immediately confronted by the 15 ft. prow of the ship, upon which is mounted the figurehead, a fantastical winged mer-leopard named Freyja.  The cave-like entryway is part of a system of cliffs made primarily from mud, which occupy the front wall and corner of the space.  They contain rooms and tunnels filled with bizarre life-forms and provide the setting for some of the many theatrical performances that will take place throughout the run of the show.

The environment transitions as you move to the stern of the ship and becomes a forest of “glow trees” which are “speaking” to each other in a language of colored light.  Each tree actually produces colors that communicate with neighboring “trees” which in turn approximate those colors in their own vocabulary and pass them on to their neighbors

 The lounge on the deck of The Due Return

The ship itself contains  2500 Sq. Ft. split between a  lower deck and an upper deck.  The lower deck holds the Engine Room and Lab, 12 bunk spaces, Archive, and Garden.  The upper deck supports a Victorian style Lounge (with a piano!), a Control Room inside of a geodesic dome and a Spanish galleon style Captain’s Quarters.  The aesthetic of these spaces, and the wooden hull of the ship itself, reflect it’s non-linear voyage through time and space.

Each room of the ship is fully structural and can be explored by walking, climbing and crawling.  Navigating the architecture itself provides the most basic level of interactivity in the show,  but visitors are encouraged to engage in a variety of digital and narrative elements as well. The Control Room, for instance, features the NOMAD, or “Novelty Oriented Manual Automation Desk.”   From here visitors can affect video interfaces which monitor bizarre “levels” of activity within the ship and environment, including the activity of the light forest, emotional health indices, vortexial activity and so on.  NOMAD is also one of many places where visitors can actually control lights and sound in the ship and environment.  For instance, one interface contains a map of an extensive system of LED lights installed in the ceiling called “The Stahphield.”   By clicking on quadrants of the map visitors can affect the way the lights fade and twinkle in the Stahphield.

While NOMAD acts as the center of digital interactivity for the show, we’ve set up a number of alternative interfaces for this as well.  One of my favorites are these small “control boxes” set up around the environment and in the Captain’s Quarters that affect the activity of the Glow Forest. They allow visitors to actually dial in a specific color, which is displayed back to them through a cool frosted acrylic surface. When you find a color you like, you “send” it to the trees, interrupting their conversation and interjecting your color into the forest.  Over the course of the show, these interjections are added to the color vocabulary of the forest.

We’ve also created an iPhone App called Elixir,  which provides another platform for these interactive elements.  Elixir contains programs that can  interject colors into the Light Forest and affect the Stahphield. It also serves as an access point to The Loci, the ships archive.  In addition to it’s physical manifestation inside the ship, The Loci is a vast digital archive of the ships history told in passages from journals, audio recordings, images and entries by the fictional archivist, Teddy Hubbel (www.loci.theduereturn.com). Some of the material in the archive is also linked to QR Codes, which are scattered throughout the ship and can be accessed by most QR Code readers including the one in Elixir.

The narratives contained in the Archive are also made accessible to visitors through a series of “seemingly spontaneous” theatrical performances that happen on select weekend nights through the run of the show. On performance nights visitors are given schedules of key performances at the door.  In addition to these publicized performances, smaller vignettes occur in the form of crew interactions throughout the installation.

Performers as crew members conducting a thought experiment in the Lab

CP: You’ve used a vast array of materials in this project. While looking at the website, I even I noticed some computer architectural programs. Can you talk about how you were able to include so many material dimensions?

SDL: Most of the magic that happens in a Meow Wolf project happens as a result of the projects being as inclusive to as many forms of expression and materials as possible. Usually, the results of this inclusion surprise the people involved in the project as much as they surprise audiences. Including different types of artists and processes allows us to reach a  broader audience, simply because of the huge variety of stuff that any one project can contain. But “more stuff” is made much more interesting when it’s combined under a semi-cohesive theme, idea, or at least space. That stuff starts conversing with itself. Every one of our projects deals with issues of cohesion and structure in different ways, and they all seem to be experiments in bringing together diverse people and materials to achieve something where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

So, for The Due Return, we set up a fair amount of structure and organization because we felt that we needed these things to achieve our very high ambitions. At the same time, we were  careful to keep in mind that whatever structure we created was intended to make space for expression and not to contain ambitions, or curtail visions. As I see it, these structures were set up to facilitate opportunities for artistic collaboration and experimentation.

With this in mind we broke the The Due Return down into sub-projects. There was a lot of interaction between sub-projects but each had internal organization and one, two or three point people, so that a system of communication was set up. These groups were as follows:  Ship, Archive, Tech, Environment and Performance.

At first we met as one large group, until we had a solid idea of what we were trying to do. Then the sub-groups really got going and started generating all kinds of plans and bringing in all kinds of people with different interests to work on the project. We’d meet up again as a whole group to get on the same page periodically. We set up deadlines for conceptual design and worked our way towards details, logistics, budgets and so on. Eventually these massive group meetings became less necessary and communication between groups just happened as needed. What was very helpful in all of this was the dedication of individuals. Some folks were involved in multiple aspects of the project, so they would be at meetings about Ship Design and also meetings about the Archive and so forth.

I was one of the point people for the Ship Design Group, and my role was to take everyone’s ideas and form them into  workable architectural plans that had real structure and could be used to generate specific lists, budgets and schedules. We used all kinds of methods to get to this point, most of which were typical to any architectural design process. What was different was that none of us are professional architects, or designers really. We did consult with an architect to make sure we had all our structural calculations figured out, but I think the architecture and the project as a whole stands as an amazing testament to the power of dedicated amateurs.

Engines and propellers stick off the back of The Due Return into a momentarily blue Glow Forrest

In the Ship Group we made lots of hand drawings and culled images to move our process along.  Once we had the basics I drew up the project in Google Sketchup, a very basic, intuitive 3-D modeling program. From there we actually made some 3-D physical models out of clay and paper so we could feel the thing in our hands. Eventually I decided we needed a more advanced 3-D digital modeling program to really hash out the curves of the ship and get specific about structural needs. So I began learning Rhinoceros 3-D. After a couple of weeks, I was lucky enough to find someone here who knew Rhino better than I did and she volunteered to take on the actual drafting.  The program helped immensely with figuring out the curve of the hull. It allowed us to prefabricate sections before we had access to the gallery. We were even able to have the ribs for the bow of the ship cut by a CNC router using our CAD files. This saved us hours of tedious jigsawing and was a pretty magical process.

That’s just a few examples of the types of digital and physical tools we used to complete the process from the Ship Design perspective. There was also a ton of amazing computer programming that went into the archive, lighting, sound and other technical aspects of the show.  The programming for the trees, for example, was done using Max MSP and a whole bunch of Arduino microcontrollers. The Stahphield also utilized Arduinos, along with some amazing curcuitry that we custom printed and hand assembled. I joked a lot about how we were making “fair trade, local, organic circuitry” for the project while we soldered away LED’s for days on end in March.

As for the “stuff” we used to build The Due Return– dang!- there’s such a variety of materials involved. The trees were made from this incredible biodegradable plastic called InstaMorph which you heat to mold into forms. The cliffs were made with a wooden framework, then wire mesh, and then tons of dirt mixed with straw and water to form cob. That process was incredibly labor intensive, and involved countless hours from scores of artists and volunteers. People were always doing “mud.”  Some of the creatures we made were cast from rubbers and resins with little built in LED lights. The ship itself was made from a combination of scrap lumber from previous projects and new lumber (which we will re-use or pass on for re-use). We used a ton of stuff from dumpsters and random treasures from artists homes. The Black Hole in Los Alamos, an incredible second hand store for used lab equipment (mostly from LANL) donated and gave us great deals on a plethora of bizarre science equipment and weird plastics. Most of NOMAD and the lab was sourced from the Black Hole. We rented a bunch of beautiful 19th century furniture from the Santa Fe Opera (who were also incredibly generous) for the lounge. So, there’s a combination of old and new materials. Where it was possible, we recycled things, but we also bought a fair amount of new stuff, all of which will be used again when we disassemble to show.

Windows and trees

CP: Maybe following up on that last question, too, how did you go about constructing this narrative?

SDL: I passed this question along to Nicholas Chiarella, who headed up the Archive group, because i felt he could answer it best.

Nicholas Chiarella: The narrative of The Due Return was conceived at its start as an archive, a collection of information and artifacts that would have been gathered by the crew members of the ship over the course of its history—physical objects, written text, audio recordings, video clips, found items, created pieces. Meow Wolf has involvement from a number of writers, and having a narrative component allowed us to bring in a few more. We wanted to engage the audience in story and give them a chance to interact at a slow-paced, intimate level—to test out the way story can unfold within an art installation. We also wanted to enhance the sense that the ship had existed for a long time, that it had a lifespan of its own. A group of a dozen or so writers and artists sat down together with the initial concept of an interdimensional ship travelling time and space, and then they began to play with the idea of where the ship had previously gone, who the crew members were, what their interests were. Everyone in the archive group had a different approach, at first, some telling stories through letters or journal fragments, and others working through objects: maps, artifacts, photographs. The archive group met weekly in order to exchange ideas and weave stories together. From the start, the group knew it wanted a physical space on the ship to house and display the collection and a digital interface for sharing information at the show and off-site as well. The digital interface ended up being called the Loci (Latin for “places”) in order to reflect the organization of the ship’s history, which in part is structured by the places and times that the ship has visited.

The narrative is a strong backdrop, too, for the performances that happen on the ship. …

Portholes into a flower filled bunk

CP: Will you talk a little bit about Meow Wolf? When did the collective get started? I was looking through your flikr page and it looks like you’ve made habitats before, in addition to making music.

SDL: Meow Wolf was created in February of 2008 by a group of young residents hoping to supply Santa Fe with an alternative arts and music venue. The group has evolved into a central hub of cultural growth for a community that was previously without an outlet; using art installations and music shows as opportunities to form relationships, welcome newcomers to Santa Fe, and provide individuals with an open space to be expressive.

Bringing music to Santa Fe and supporting local music has been part of the goal with Meow Wolf from the start.  The installations arose out of an early art show that was primarily produced by two artists. It was called Meowzors and was kind of a painting installation in which every surface of the space was covered with imagery and objects. I think people got really excited about covering space and creating immersive environments from that show and we started on this now three-year tradition of doing installations as a central part of our process. The ideas for these shows are usually generated through a combination of single individuals ideas and a collaborative process of discussion. For whatever reason they often feature bizarre living spaces. The installation we did before The Due Return was a show called Habitats and the theme was living spaces.

I think, though, we are open to any kind of production. For instance, last winter we did this huge multimedia theater production called The Moon is to Live On which brought together more time-based and performing arts (like music and acting) with the creation of physical space. We also instigate a big public “performance” event called Monster Battle on the Santa Fe Plaza every summer.

CP: How do you think about sculpture and landscape? What is the role of the viewer in your environments?

SDL: That’s a really interesting question to me.  Maybe “sculpture and landscape” is a more specific version of “sculpture and context,”  or, even more broadly “object and space?”  I, personally, am very excited by experiences that confuse and reorient our assumptions about what is an “object” (like furniture or sculpture) and what is “space” (like architecture and landscape). I love when an object suddenly becomes inhabitable (either physically or psychically) and a space suddenly becomes an object-like mass (like a boat sitting in a gallery).

I think installation or “environmental” art champions the interactions that happen between objects and people in a space. An installation is able to engage this wide range of sensory experience in the same way that walking into a building or tromping through a forest can. So, in a weird way, an installation can be accessible to a wider audience because it engages these basic spatial senses that we all take for granted on a daily basis.  It then has the power to subvert our spatial assumptions. I love when an art experience is simultaneously disorienting and familiar in this way.

With The Due Return visitors walk inside a gallery and are suddenly outside of a ship, and in a landscape.  Then they can go inside of that ship.  In that very basic way it breaks expectations. There’s a line in one of the scripts for the performances in which a crew member of The Due Return is describing the process of walking out of the show into the real world of the CCA grounds. He says its like “outside of outside.” I love that.

With The Due Return the whole thing is highly produced and kind of controlled, I guess. I think it interacts with visitors like architecture does in that they are navigating it however they like, and it has a big impact on that navigation. But it then plays with how one can navigate literature and theater in a spatial way. So it ultimately gives power to the audience because of how many physical/psycholigical entry points there are.

A view of the ship from inside one of the caves, with glowing cave creatures

CP: What is your background and how did you find yourself in Santa Fe? How would you compare your background to other members of Meow Wolf?

I grew up in New Jersey and went to art school at the Rhode Island School of Design for sculpture.  I moved to Santa Fe after school almost 4 years ago because i had some family in New Mexico.

I’d say that maybe less than half of the people who worked on The Due Return have a similar background. Meow Wolf was started by folks who didn’t go to college at all and who grew up in Santa Fe. For this project we worked with Dads, little kids, professionals, hobbyists, amateurs and students alike. Most of the people involved in Meow Wolf on a consistent basis hover around 20 something in age, but we are a diverse group and have no boundaries in terms of age, or educational background or anything like that. People have all kinds of different day jobs or lack thereof. So much of the value of this group comes from putting a huge amount of trust in people just because they are excited about doing stuff. I think we have a lot of faith in people.

CP: Can you talk about some of the programs that are going on during The Due Return?

SDL: The programming was conceived as an alternative to the talks, lectures and panels that happen around lots of other exhibitions. We wanted programming to be more geared toward building a youthful culture in Santa Fe and we wanted to have parties. So we booked a bunch of great music shows and have had DJ’s and Dance Parties in the installation. The last dance party  was attended by a really diverse crowd. It was fully all ages, which was great. The installation itself has plenty of conceptual wiggle room, so it can become an awesome music venue and that just adds to the experience.

In addition to the music shows we’re doing some more theatrical performances in the first two weekends in July. We’ll also be doing an archive presentation this Saturday  which presents a fictional history of The Due Return. And, on Saturday, June 25th we’re having a panel discussion with CCA and 516 Arts from Albuquerque, where we recently completed a satellite installation as part of their exhibition Worlds Outside This One.

So there’s some of everything, but I think the programming reflects a larger statement about producing culture “on our terms,”  reflecting the diverse interests of both the artists involved and the visitors who come to the show.

The Due Return is open to visitors until August 21st. For more information and to see a list of public programs, please visit their website.

A view of the ship from inside one of the caves, with glowing cave creatures

New Fielding Practice Podcast on Art:21 Blog | Open Engagement; William J. O’Brien at The Ren

June 14, 2011 · Print This Article

On this month’s episode of Fielding Practice, Richard Holland joins Duncan MacKenzie, Dan Gunn and I for our regular roundtable discussion about art, culture, and related happenings in Chicago. Duncan provides a brief report on this year’s  Open Engagement, an annual conference addressing current issues in art and social practice; and we all discuss our views of the current survey of William J. O’Brien’s ceramic sculptures at The Renaissance Society (May 15-June 26, 2011). Click on over to Art:21 blog to listen to the podcast, and thanks for tuning in!


Installation view of William J. O'Brien at The Renaissance Society

Hyperjunk: One Year In

June 14, 2011 · Print This Article

I have been creating content for the Bad at Sports blog for over a year now and I thought that taking an opportunity to take stock of this fact and reflect on the correspondences I’ve developed over that period of time. Because of the speed and immediacy that newer technologies force upon makers and thinkers, artists and art writers get few chances to be able to take in all of the threads and ideas that circulate in their work. Obviously making work – be it writing or visual production – has it’s own self-reflexiveness, and developing a healthy practice of finding what works and what doesn’t can satiate a desire for digestion and personal evaluation. But then again, I think exposing those methods – the ways in which one identifies with their work and their habits – can provide outlets and insights that the outwardly publication of work does not always permit.

Before even delving into particular moments that I want to reflect on, I want to take a moment to thank all of the people that have shared their work, practice, thoughts, and support for this column and my efforts. The interviews and conversations I’ve been conducting over this past year have given me an amazing amount of inspiration and I feel very lucky to be able to share these dialogs with others, as well as be able to represent a community that I share a deep affinity to. To put it more simply, this column has always had the intention of championing the work of others, and for this I am eternally grateful.

To that end, thinking about how I can better serve and represent those I want to reach is perhaps a good starting place, since I have had to recently rediscover what it is that I hope to accomplish in this publication series. At the heart of these posts is a desire to create a dialog between makers loosely working around the moniker of “new media art.” Because of the variable formats and disciplines that are nested inside that place-holder term, I thought being able to relate or tie practices underneath that umbrella might help my own understanding of this arena of creativity as well as share that exploration with a contemporary art audience.

As a result, I’ve found that talking with artists within their craft/medium is an apropos way to get an understanding of the formal elements of an artist’s practice, as well as gain access to the conceptual underpinning of why they have chosen the formats they have. This essential crux of my inquiry into what constitutes new media work, and how artists both identify and abstain from that labeling, is of particular interest to me since I have always wanted to maintain an expansive idea of what constitutes new media work (an undertaking that I explored early on in my “art writing” career). As the term “new media” goes more and more out of fashion (at least in regards to describing work made in + around the net), I’m again posed with a question of what it is that I hope to be accomplishing with my column as well as the question of what directions do I pursue as my work develops and responds to the shifting cultural attitudes of my colleagues and peers.

One major alteration in the vernacular of art made on and around the internet has been the emergence, and subsequent resistance, to the term netart. It’s rise in popularity has been an interesting and challenging dilemma for academics and artists alike in that the term privileges the net as the primary (i.e., best) interface for distribution of work as well as acknowledges how that interface of dissemination is an essential tool for critical exploration of self and society. The conundrum about this labeling is that the usual suspect associated with this type of work have increasingly moved further away from the infrastructure of digital-screen based technology and more into the space of the traditional gallery. The question of how to identify works influenced by the aesthetics and behaviors of network technology has been of increasing concern since the lines between digital and physical presentation of work have begun to fold into each other (or at least become more apparent). In other words, how can a maker’s practice be deemed netart if the work no longer is intended to exist and be distributed on the net?

This question has caused many to grasp at new terminologies to specify a practice developed utilizing the social networking capabilities of the net as a means of showing and sharing pieces that no longer rely on the materiality of the net. But these new labels – be it Post-Internet Art or Internet Aware Art – and the desire to classify and comprehend an emerging avant-garde of makers working within and through screen technology speaks to the fact that the term netart was never a very effective grouping for the work that I’ve been attempting to represent in the past year. To paraphrase and site Domenico Quaranta, a emerging sentiment amongst this community is that there is no longer a need for the “net” prefix when examining this art.

Through talking with others, I’ve been surprised to find that the net often times plays a very little visible role in the way that artists conceive of a work. Looking back on the conversations I’ve conducted, I realize that there are very few instances of talking specifically about how the net has inspired content as well as generated and avenue of showing/sharing work. Perhaps that unspoken understanding between myself and artists shows a missed opportunity to critically investigate the significance of the net as a site for exhibition and distribution. This is particularly interesting when I’ve gone to great lengths to try to faithfully represent a makers practice through their medium of production.

Perhaps my unintentional avoidance of talking about “why the net is important right now” is rooted in a concern that talking in this way could potentially cheapen the work that I want to highlight. If I were to focus on merely the technological aspects of a work than I would be taking time away from talking about the actual content of a given maker’s practice. I think that artists rarely get a chance to converse outside of their normal peer group about concerns within their field of research. In order to flesh out some of those reservations, I’ve wanted to provide younger/emerging makers a platform for shared skepticism and intrigue. Through discussion of content, intent, influences, and purpose a dialog about the shape of contemporary digital image-making becomes more lucid for myself and hopefully for my peers.

There have been particular moments where I felt that these conversation gained some traction against the slippery vernacular surrounding online social art practices. The conversation I’ve recently been occupied with revolves around what constitutes a community and how these groupings support and nurture each other. Looking back at a conversation I had with the Dump.fm crew, I can see a desire in my peers at wanting to spark conversation about the effectiveness of communities, and to challenge what it means to work within a constant collaborative recursive system. Interestingly enough, creating systems, networks, and locations for artists to rapidly turn over and surf through content has enabled the constant real-time conversation engine that Jon Rafman talks about in our conversation in Second Life. This development of platforms is also what motivates Jason Rohrer and Mez Breeze, who like Ryder Ripps and Scott Ostler authored environments for others to share, play, and experiment. That collective desire to effect, circumvent, and/or question traditional art context was also a driving force for the organizers of the Gli.tc/h conference held in Chicago last October.

These intersections of motivations to create works and communities is a quality that artists share online precisely as a result of being immersed in a network sensibility. I don’t believe that these similarities can solely be located to these artists “being good at the internet,” and instead think that other influences ought to be considered. More recently I’ve seen how these memes and emerging signifiers can be traced and examined through a lens of media history. Seeing how iterations of early network communities (like BBS’s and list-serv’s of the late 80s and early 90s) influence makers has been a way to highlight common interests and histories (although I think I need to do a better job of making that more clear). One of the benefits of that investigation is to create links between what otherwise would be perceived as very separate practices (like between Dump.FM and Mezangelle for example). The create bridges and segues, albeit through my own specific sense of media history and contemporary art, is based in an effort to accentuate how artists working in similar fields might never consider themselves in close proximity to one another, but in actuality have much in common.

In retrospect, I’m surprised by what now seems like obvious similarities and overlapping interests between the artists featured over the past year. Regardless whether artist are developing unique platforms for exchange or employing preexisting commercial crowd-based content databases both vectors of self-examination are providing critical outlets for an expanded perspective of contemporary digital image-making. To see how these threads naturally surface, reoccur, and go in and out of focus is for me one of the most powerful parts of these conversations.

By being able to reflect in this public way, I acknowledge I’m leaving myself susceptible to criticism for using Bad at Sports as a platform to file personal for semi-diaristic purposes. However, I want to instead highlight the amazing opportunity I have been given, and to emphasize the generosity that this blog has offered me both artistically and academically. I just hope I can faithfully uphold the ethic of sharing and discourse that my work stands for, and that others have graciously offered to me, into all future publications and endeavors.