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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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…
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.
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.