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. Itâ€™s not that my liberal heart bleeds for the livestock, (Iâ€™d have no problem chasing a burger with a milkshake while watching said segment for the fifth time); rather, itâ€™s always at that moment that I realize the film has made its pointâ€”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 Coyâ€™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 Coyâ€™s and hygienic dress league was last fall, when they unveiled a neon billboard reading, â€œNo Vacancy,â€ in Detroitâ€™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 billboardâ€™s message was explicit, and moreover, mundaneâ€”the bright pink â€œNo Vacancyâ€ could have been seen in any city or vacation town across the country. What makes the work profound is the blatant falsityâ€”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. Itâ€™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 companyâ€™s figureheadsâ€”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 leagueâ€™s billboards integrate seamlessly into the urban media landscape. In the tradition of corporate unveilings, the Coyâ€™s rely on clandestine strategies until each action is launched. I did manage to get a bit of intel on hygienic dress leagueâ€™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 Detroitâ€™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 doâ€”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 wasâ€”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 artâ€”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: â€˜Our Mission is to Promote our Mission: hygienic dress league.â€™ 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, itâ€™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. Thereâ€™s symbolism in the masks and safety gogglesâ€”itâ€™s like these characters breathe different airâ€”a social separation.
SMP: So it is you and Dorota who perform these rolesâ€”enacting and embodying the corporate icons that youâ€™ve createdâ€¦
SC: Dorota and I have always been these charactersâ€”theyâ€™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. Itâ€™s actually a great metaphor for the practice of art making.
SMP: Where does the pigeon come in?
SC: The pigeon is hygienic dress leagueâ€™s logo. We knew when creating a corporation that we would need a logo. The pigeon is kind of a funny creatureâ€”like urban wildlife, so I think it pertains to the type of places that hygienic dress league operates inâ€”there are always pigeons around. I think there are a lot of misconceptions about the birdâ€¦ Theyâ€™re smart, and in their own way, very hygienic.
SMP: One logistical question: was it difficult registering hygienic dress league as corporation?
SMP: So, Iâ€™m curiousâ€¦ How does your work differ from that of the culture jammersâ€”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 weâ€™re creating space to do that, but itâ€™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 weâ€™re trying to sell culture, but thereâ€™s nothing really behind itâ€”weâ€™re really a faÃ§adeâ€”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? Itâ€™s about accessibility, and itâ€™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 weâ€™re selecting. Weâ€™re always looking for high-profile locationsâ€”somewhere between abandoned and renovated, and weâ€™re always trying to bring attention to these spaces and the unique architecture. I especially look for boarded up sections of buildingâ€”we prefer to work on wood, so we donâ€™t damage the building and the brickwork. We have a term for these spaces, we call it â€œreal estate,â€ this is when we find a building with a lot of plywood on it. A lot of street art can be formulaicâ€”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 â€œNo Vacancy,â€ and it was a large neon sign on the side of an abandoned hotel. So again, itâ€™s a play on words, and thereâ€™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: Weâ€™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 thereâ€™s nothing wrong with thatâ€”itâ€™s a pretty brilliant thing in a way. But weâ€™re not interested in that. Weâ€™re interested in creating a dialog about that. I mean, weâ€™re being really transparentâ€”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 artâ€¦ In a way weâ€™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 workâ€”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 thatâ€™s an intentional reaction we want to solicit. Weâ€™re trying to get people to be curious and maybe think that itâ€™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 â€œDetroit Revolution! coming this summer.â€ 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?
Thatâ€™s right, weâ€™re less interested in traditional modes of showing art. But we really go beyond what typical street artists work withâ€”beyond paint rollers and stencils to work with other media like interactive video, performance, neonâ€¦ Our work is all about random encountersâ€”seeing it unexpectedly and in an unexpected wayâ€”itâ€™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. Weâ€™re operating in this space that is real and fictional simultaneouslyâ€¦
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 publicâ€”itâ€™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 anywayâ€”what makes something valuable?! Itâ€™s what the gallerists and dealers decide. We definitely want to comment on that. Also, we want to expand to other rust belt citiesâ€”places that get skipped over by street artists. Weâ€™re exploring new markets so to speakâ€”billboards in other areas. And again, these are places that have less in the way of public art, because weâ€™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 weâ€™re going to do this weekend is also on an old hotel, Hotel [censored!]. I donâ€™t think I should give the name of the hotel, because in this case we donâ€™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 artâ€”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 weâ€™re heading in a slightly different direction. Weâ€™re going to introduce all our characters and itâ€™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 employeeâ€”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. Itâ€™s exciting: weâ€™ve never really introduced all of our characters before.
Iâ€™m also working on a video at the moment. Itâ€™s the second of two videosâ€”the first was called â€œCreation of a Brand,â€ and it shows the executives physically creating this logoâ€”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 contextâ€”itâ€™s going to be the prequel and the sequel.
SMP: Any idea what the Reception will be?
I think our work is generally received positivelyâ€”I think people really like seeing it. I think at first itâ€™s something that might be confusing, but I think itâ€™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. Iâ€™ve noticed that different blogs definitely pick up what weâ€™re doing as soon as it hits the street. We donâ€™t really announce when weâ€™re doing something, or where the location isâ€”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.
Our latest Centerfield column is up on Art:21 blog. This week, Abigail Satinsky talks to Chicago artist and organizer Daniel Tucker about his platforming project “Visions for Chicago.” A brief excerpt follows; click on through to read the full post on Art:21.
Iâ€™ve known Daniel Tucker for about five years now and Iâ€™ve always thought of him as a true Chicago artist, somewhere in between artist, organizer, writer, and administrator and always interested in collaboration and bringing in multiple perspectives to any given situation. For anyone thatâ€™s worked with him, they know that Danielâ€™s candor can be both disarming and challenging. When one gets involved in Danielâ€™s projects, like I have in the past, heâ€™s straightforward and conscientious in his process. Is that a Chicago thing? Iâ€™ve come to think of it that way, probably because of him.
Heâ€™s done a lot of amazing work, like founding AREA Chicago six years ago and then, when he wanted to move on, gracefully stepping back from the project to be taken on by new energetic group of organizers. What I love about AREA (which stands for Art Research Education Activism and is a publication about culture and politics in Chicago) is that it gives voice to what people are actually doing to transform their city, not a theoretical discourse about what might be possible. And thereâ€™s big changes happening on the ground here, with Rahm Emanuel handily winning the mayoral election after Daley decided he was done. Iâ€™m new to Chicago but I know that this is a really, really big deal.
And so Daniel is using this opportunity to create a platforming project called â€œVisions for Chicagoâ€ for Chicagoans to articulate what they want to happen next. Starting in November 2010 and lasting through the beginning of the mayoral term in May 2011, Daniel is giving out hundreds of handmade election-style yard signs to politically-engaged Chicagoans throughout the city to tell their own vision for the future. Photographs of the signs and their makers will be published in a book by Green Lantern Press to be released May 16, 2011 at 6pm at the Jane Addams Hull House Museum. We talked about how the project started for him and where itâ€™s going.
Abigail Satinsky: Letâ€™s start out with a bit of a background question. You have a lot of experience making work in public space and an interest in graffiti. How does this all fit together for you?
Daniel Tucker: Since I was a teenager, Iâ€™ve been interested in the political conflicts surrounding peopleâ€™s access to and definition of public space. That drew me to be a graffiti writer, which was really my introduction to art making and all of the considerations of concept, audience, context, and formal design that come along with art making. And that stuff is really particular and important when you think about graffiti, street art, or more antagonistic forms of public art. Pretty soon after my initial interest in graffiti and its sub-cultural (think hip-hop and punk rock youth culture) as well as aesthetic traditions (bubble letters, characters, and â€œwild stylesâ€ as well as the more recent â€œartschoolâ€ graffiti that involves putting lots of objects and forms not traditionally associated with hip-hop graffiti into public space), I began to get bored with the general questions associated with making work in public and wanted to deal more with content. (Read more).
Bad at Sports own Amanda Browder (the hardest working artist in designer glasses) unveils this Saturday June 19th a large-scale fabric sculpture that will blankets the faÃ§ade of a Greenpoint, Brooklyn building.
The outdoor installation presented in partnership with the North Brooklyn Public Art Coalition (NbPac) will be presented to the public at 3pm on June 19th with a opening celebration roof party at:
We hope everyone can make it out to celebrate the work and hopefully a greatÂ beginningÂ of Summer day.
This week: The first in our series of interviews from the Open Engagement conference that took place in Portland this past May. We start off with an excellent discussion that Randall Szott, Duncan, Brian and the occasional Incubate person had with artist, writer, lemon tormentor Ted Purves. Topics include; Ted’s work, the past present and future of Social Practice and what it means to be an artist today.
This series of interviews (thusfar, I’ve only gone through the first two) are some of my favorite discussions that (the royal) we have had in the 5 years of the show. Great stuff!
Ted Purves is a writer and artist based in Oakland. His public projects and curatorial works are centered on investigating the practice of art in the world, particularly as it addresses issues of localism, democratic participation, and innovative shifts in the position of the audience. His two-year project, Temescal Amity Works, created in collaboration with Susanne Cockrell and based in the Temescal neighborhood of Oakland, facilitated and documented the exchange of backyard produce and finished its public phase in winter 2007. His collaborative project Momentary Academy, a free school taught by artists over a period of 10 weeks, was featured in Bay Area Now 4 in 2005 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.
Ted recently received a visual arts grant from the Creative Capital Foundation and a Creative Work Fund grant from the Elise and Walter Haas Foundation.
His book, What We Want Is Free: Generosity and Exchange in Recent Art, was published by State University of New York Press in 2005.
The Open Engagement conference is an initiative of Portland State Universityâ€™s Art and Social Practice MFA concentration and co-sponsored by Portland Community College and the MFA in Visual Studies program at Pacific Northwest College of Art and supported by the Cyan PDX Cultural Residency Program. Directed by Jen Delos Reyes and planned in conjunction with Harrell Fletcher and the Portland State University MFA Monday Night Lecture Series, this conference features three nationally and internationally renowned artists: Mark Dion, Amy Franceschini, and Nils Norman. The conference will showcase work by Temporary Services, InCUBATE, and a new project by Mark Dion created in collaboration with students from the PSU Art and Social Practice concentration.
The artists involved in Open Engagement: Making Things, Making Things Better, Making Things Worse, challenge our traditional ideas of what art is and does. These artistâ€™s projects mediate the contemporary frameworks of art as service, as social space, as activism, as interactions, and as relationships, and tackle subject matter ranging from urban planning, alternative pedagogy, play, fiction, sustainability, political conflict and the social role of the artist.
Can socially engaged art do more harm than good? Are there ethical responsibilities for social art? Does socially engaged art have a responsibility to create public good? Can there be transdisciplinary approaches to contemporary art making that would contribute to issues such as urban planning and sustainability?
Open Engagement is a free conference May 14-17, 2010, in Portland, Oregon. This annual conference will be a focal point of a new low residency Art and Social Practice MFA that PSU hopes to launch in Fall of 2010.
This years conference will host over 100 artists, activists, curators, scholars, writers, farmers, community organizers, film makers and collectives including: Nato Thompson, The Watts House Project, Linda Weintraub, Ted Purves, Henry Jenkins, Wealth Underground Farms, Brian Collier, Anne E. Moore, David Horvitz, Chen Tamir, and Parfyme.
Last month artist Shepard Fairey who is single handedly putting a team of lawyers children through college erected a mural at the Elizabeth Houston Associates construction barriers on the corner of East Houston Street and the Bowery. This happened to be in advance of Fairey’s Mayday exhibition at Deitch Projects and the City of New York has decided that the work is in fact anÂ advertisementÂ that violated zoning laws prohibiting advertising and that Elizabeth Houston did not have theÂ permit to erect a structure in the area. The city has issued a stop work order on the building being constructed behind the barriers until this has been resolved.
It would be interesting to have someone up to speed with public art zoning laws in New York City hash out the fine differences between the two. A hearing is in the process of being set for the violation. If found guilty of violating zoning laws, Elizabeth Houston AssociatesÂ will be issued a fine and ordered to remove the mural.