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.

Haptic Resonance: An Interview with Gregory Holm

June 3, 2011 · Print This Article

Haptic Resonance, 2:1 Gallery, Eastern Market, Detroit

Like many artists based in Detroit, Gregory Holm addresses the physical and social conditions of the post-industrial cityscape. His 2009-10 project, Ice House, sought to bring attention to the 20,000 or so residential properties abandoned in the city by freezing a single-family foreclosed home into a solid block of ice. In addition to producing a spectacular photograph and video, the work cultivated a community surrounding the property, and initiated discourse on potential solutions to repurpose homes and reverse neighborhood blight. Ice House, which was completed in partnership with architect Matthew Radune, is indeed a chilling sight, and the project speaks equally to the national housing crisis as it does to the conditions of neglect specifically in Detroit.

Holm, who was working in New York, recently returned to Detroit to begin his next project, Fire House, an event and sound installation that opens next month. Leading up to Fire House, Holm has curated Haptic Resonance, an exhibition and aural landscape installed in 2:1 Gallery, a pop-up space in Detroit’s Eastern Market. The exhibition features work from a number of local artists, and was produced in collaboration with creative partners Kathy Leisen and Jeffery Williams. I spoke with Holm in 2:1 Gallery with amidst a collage of haptic resonances.

Discussed: Fire and Ice, pyrophones, ruin porn, a new style of everything, mediocre metal, Robocop.

Engine Company #4, Detroit

Sarah Margolis-Pineo: So, what’s going on with the Fire House Project?


Gregory Holm: The Fire House is the old, historic firehouse #4 from 1879 that’s been empty for 25-30 years, and we are taking it, and turning it into a staging area and sound installation. We’re going to attach 36 tuned glass tubes [which will construct a pyrophone] to the façade of the structure, and all of the compositions—I’ve gotten six contemporary composers to write pieces based off the different tonal centers of the glass. It will be a staging area for an hour and a half long concert at the end of July… I’m taking a step back from making art, and I’ve become the director. I’ve created 4-5 themes for kids to write lyrics about. The lyrics are then given to the composers, and those composers are taking the lyrical content and creating music, the whole piece is then given to the Children’s Choir, who will sing it…I am also shooting a photograph, and there’s a chance I may shoot a film.

This idea came to me because I had a meeting in New York and someone said to me: “We loved your Ice House, why don’t you do another project? Give me a proposal, and I’ll try to get you funding.” And I came up with this project over the weekend. At the time, we didn’t have a firehouse, and I never would have called this Fire House—I did not want to do that. We had a space, we began working, and it didn’t seem right—it just didn’t seem like the right space. So we began driving around, and we stumbled upon this structure that was beautiful. We immediately went downtown, found out who owned the building and signed a lease with them. So then, what do we call it? Fire House came up as a joke, but when we sat down with the Director of Cranbrook Art Museum, he was like: “It makes total sense. Go with it.” And if the director of the museum says to go with it…

SMP: After coating a house in ice, are people thinking your turning to arson?

GH: I can pretty much guarantee there won’t be more something House projects. But, I think it’s really incidental to what’s happening with the whole project. What it’s called is just what it’s called.

Ice House, Gregory Holm and Matthew Radune, 2009-10

SMP: Can you elaborate on how the Fire House project is a continuation of the dialog begun by the Ice House project?

Gregory Holm: I’m a Detroiter, I’ve been here my whole life; however, I’ve been in New York as well for the past 5 years, and going back and forth working as a photographer out there and coming back here to do my personal projects. We started with the Ice House project, which was pretty successful in terms of how many people were interested in it and picked up on it. What we wanted to do is create that as a first chapter and have a continuation. Instead of talking about the sad aspect of the housing crisis, we wanted to take an abandoned building—in the case of Fire House, a full, historic firehouse from the 1850s—and turn it into a staging area for playing music, specifically involving children. So, it spoke more to the positive aspects that lie dormant in the city and how we can really, with a little bit of foresight and a lot of time and collaboration with these kids, get them to be a part of a larger project—something that they can look back at in ten years and say: “We did this amazing thing with musicians from the DSO (Detroit Symphony Orchestra), crazy contemporary artists, and we wrote lyrics!” [The Fire House project] can create this memory that would perhaps allow them the encouragement to be artists, and do really sophisticated work.

SMP: It is my understanding that there was a bit of controversy surrounding Ice House, in that its spectacularness spoke to some of the “ruin porn” being produced in the city. Did this critique of Ice House inform your process for Fire House?

GH: I don’t know what the criticism would be. I think the difference between ruin porn and what the Ice House was is that ruin porn captures this obviously destructive aspect of a city, and capitalizes on it. In this way, taking photos distances you from the city. We really wanted work with a community, and go into a community and create a beacon of dialogue, say: “Hey! Come around here!” And we didn’t have to encourage the neighborhood—we were out there for 24-hours straight for a month. I think it’s very different. The amount of endurance and physical challenge that we put on ourselves. Criticism? I dunno. I’m a photographer, I wanted to do a photograph, and we have a beautiful photograph from it. The production itself just took it to a whole other level as far as I’m concerned. And yeah, [Fire House] is a continuation. We do address different issues now. I did see a lot of what was lacking in that project. The idea of taking something that is negative and turning it into something beautiful, which I guess could be seen as “ruin porn,” I’m not sure. Here we’re starting from the ground-up, removing myself from the project in a way that we can only encourage the city to move forward in a very specific and productive way.

A lot of people who saw the project knew me as a New Yorker, but I moved to Detroit in 1992 right out of high school. At the time, there was nowhere to see music, get a drink—it was a very different place. I stayed here for a long time, and really a hope that the city would transform into something that would allow me to be a part of this larger picture of creative investigation into the city. It just didn’t happen though. Then when I left five-years ago, it started, and I just kept turning my head back. I was coming back here, like, every two months or something—I still have a house here—and now it’s to the point where this is an amazing landscape and there’s a lot of potential here right now. I have a very intimate relationship with the city and with the community of people who have been here for a long time.

Jeffrey Williams with a young musician at 2:1 Gallery

SMP: I’m wondering if you could elaborate on the expansion from the micro, neighborhood-based dialog of Ice House, to the macro, city-based interaction of Fire House?

GH: It’s an interesting process, because I never saw myself as someone who was dealing with social issues. I’ve never been that person—I don’t volunteer my time, I never have. I just do things that I think about, that in my mind are sort of complete and I’m able to say: “Okay, I’m going to do that,” and that’s the beginning of the process. In this project, there’s a huge connection with social aspects and with youth in particular. We’re dealing with a lot of different groups, and we’re trying very actively to connect with a lot of different people. Often we sit back and have to question what we’re trying to do here, and ask: “Are we diluting our process of doing very avant garde pieces—creating strange spaces like [the 2:1 Gallery]?” But there’s something very unique about where the city is at right now, and that it’s receptive. Every event we have in here we have over 100 people, and they’re new people that I don’t know, and they’re coming from all over the place, and they’re receptive to very different types of things. But there’s a lot of questioning in my own head, like: “Am I a social activist now? What am I doing? Does the work suffer because I’m looking at two different things?” But I think with Detroit, it’s calling for a new style of everything. If we’re going to reinvent the city, it’s going to be done in a very different way, and everyone is looking at a lot of the resources that are here. You can’t do anything in this city without having an investment in what is the fabric of the place. The idea of creating this situation so children 10-20years old can be a part of it… Just imagine what they could do in another ten-years. That’s where my head is at the moment. It’s not real thought out—I don’t write about it or really try to investigate it, the process is just very natural.

SMP: And you’ve been able to retain your practice as a photographer…

GH: Yeah, I love photography. I’m bringing in again, Richard Sands, who is the director of light for Gregory Crewdson, and I worked with him years ago. We’re going to light up Saint Anne’s Church and the Fire House, and do another 8’x10’ photograph, which is really exciting for me.

I started as a musician. I studied music with La Monte Young in 1995, and I played music for a decade. I’m very interested in microtonalality, and the resonating and acoustic qualities of sound. For me, coming back, and being able to create a space like [Haptic Resonance] on the fly—it came as an idea, and within two weeks we had a show, and it was amazing.

SMP: That’s Detroit.

GH: Yeah! It is. And there’s so many great resources. These are all friends of mine that I asked, and within a week we filled the space with these interesting things. So it is interesting to be able to retain this idea of my practice as a photographer but my roots are really in sound, so it’s really nice for me to be able to go back to the 90s when I was doing sound regularly.

I have a close relationship with that neighborhood [in southwest Detroit], like I did with the neighborhood of the Ice House in the east side. I grew up there for a short time with my Mother as a young child, and two blocks from where the firehouse is is where my Grandmother was brought up. So it’s going back to this maternal home in some ways, which is really nice for me to be over there and drive down her street.

A Performance by Ron Zakrin at 2:1 Gallery

SMP: Is the Fire House project about changing the experience of growing up in Detroit for young people?

GH: Yeah, I think there are a lot of gaps in this city. There are a lot of groups, say Southwest Solutions, who have a lot of money because they are really good talkers, and they have these spaces, and they have these poetry groups, and they get thousands and thousands of dollars to support it; but when you go to one of these poetry groups there’s one kid in there, and they don’t have transportation. So there are a lot of gaps, and we’re trying to think of ways of filling them in ways that really make sense that don’t just get to the punch line without figuring out the ramp that’s going to get people there. There is no sound space in Detroit, and it made sense to do this. We can do it well. We can investigate a lot of different things that are sort of missing in the city right now. I’m sure it’s going to be a completely different place in ten-years from just seeing what has happened in the past few. And to be a part of it is really exciting.

SMP: Do you feel that it’s the responsibility of artists through their projects to locate and fill these voids?

GH: It’s definitely creating dialog. Whether or not you agree with a Robocop sculpture downtown; there are so many different layers of how you could consider that. We look at a balloon sculpture or a Michael Jackson sculpture and somehow that is contemporary art that is worthy of millions of dollars, but a Robocop has somehow crossed the line. You could also consider the fact that a lot of the people that have problems with it drive down Woodward and go to Hart Plaza on a daily basis and somehow don’t notice that that contemporary art which cost hundreds of thousands, and which is just awful to look at, and it just fills every void in the space—there can’t be more room for more mediocre metal!—and somehow, people don’t argue with that, but they argue with young kids from some other part of the country who have a crazy idea. Ultimately, I think it speaks to something else that is happening. We get a lot of outsiders here that are very ambitions because they haven’t been wading through the same waters of Detroit as people who have been here for the past 20-years. It’s just a matter of what kind of ambition you’re bringing to the table, and what kind of energy and hard work. It’s just inspiring being in a space you can create new ideas from.

Haptic Resonance will be exhibited at 2:1 Gallery through June 16, 1480 Gratiot Avenue, Detroit. It features the work of Clem Fortuna, Heather Hagborg, Frank Pahl, Ron Zakrin, Jeffrey Williams, Gregory Holm, Graem Whyte, Ian R. Clark and Jeff Karolski.

Fire House will open July 22, 8:55pm, at Engine Company #4, 1016 18th Street, Detroit, and will feature the Street Poets’ Society and Detroit Children’s Choir, as well as original music and sound art composed for the event.

Ice House is currently on display at the Te Tuhi Centre for the Arts in Auckland, New Zealand. The work will be featured in the exhibition No Object is an Island, at Cranbrook Art Museum, opening November 2011.

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