How do we show up for life? On January 25, 2015, the New York–based artist K8 Hardy premiered her video Outfitumentary to an SRO crowd in a disused Lower East Side restaurant beneath Reena Spaulings Fine Art. The work, built from a rigorous (but not rigid), ten-year-long documentation of the artist’s quotidian looks, uses a simple premise to open onto something infinitely more complex: the vicissitudes and strange continuities of the self, the politics of queer and feminist manifestation, the way our presentation shapes or transmits or pretends a reflexive drama of interiority. Here the artist and filmmaker Elisabeth Subrin, a friend and onetime professor of Hardy’s at Amherst College, talks with Hardy about the thinking and thrifting behind this singular video.
ELISABETH SUBRIN: Fifteen years ago, when we lived down the block from each other, I remember you saying you were starting to make an “Outfitumentary.” I know for me sometimes the title comes first and it’s a way to organize things. Did you create a structure right at the beginning?
K8 HARDY: Yeah totally. The title really gave me permission to start the project. I was using my video camera all the time and decided that I should really tape what I was wearing.
ES: I’m curious about your specific choices on how you would document your outfit every day. You wanted the front and the back and a full body. Were there other rules or parameters?
KH: The main rule was to get one head-to-toe shot of my look as often as I could or felt like it. I also wanted to do a spin in the beginning, but that requirement faded. I just had this moment where I thought everything that’s happening is interesting and what we’re wearing is interesting and weird and I should just document it for ten years. That was my plan from the very beginning, “I’m going to do this for ten years.”
ES: Wow, I didn’t know that ten years was the plan from the get-go.
KH: Yeah. I remember thinking it would only be interesting if I did it for a really long time, to see what happened over time and to capture my prime. I didn’t think what I was wearing in the moment was hugely relevant, but I had already noticed how much my style had changed and knew it would continue to evolve.
ES: It’s funny to think that it was during that exact same time-frame that I twice documented our neighborhood. The first was right after 9/11, and then I revisited all the same locations near the end of the decade, also with strict formal rules of my own, and presented them as a two-channel piece where you see our neighborhood transform over eight years. I thought it (Lost Tribes and Promised Lands, 2010) would just be about gentrification and the political and cultural shifts over the decade, but what emerges in the retracing of my steps turned out to feel autobiographical too.
KH: Yeah, I was probably walking around the neighborhood in those outfits on the days you were shooting!
Elisabeth Subrin, Lost Tribes and Promised Lands, 2010, two-channel video projection transferred from 16 mm, color, sound, 10 minutes. Installation view.
ES: There’s precedence throughout art history for self-documentation on a regular, chronological basis. Structural films of the 1960s and ’70s, or Tehching Hsieh’s One Year Performance or Eleanor Antin’s Carving really influenced my experimental approaches to portraiture and (auto)biography, especially Shulie (1997) and Lost Tribes and Promised Lands. I was interested in how revisiting the past through structural repetitions would reveal different information about time over a certain historical period, and of my own evolving consciousness. Today it’s all about selfies and constant self-marketing and self-branding (speaking of the compulsion to repeat!).
Your decision to document yourself every single day with such structural rigor gives Outfitumentary an anti-selfie feeling. There’s a level of honesty and non-narcissism because you created so many rules. The feeling-states that emerge are so much more subtle and intimate because you’re not trying to get us to like you. You don’t work exhaustively to make yourself look “good” for the camera, you don’t recreate mainstream fashion or selfie poses, except kind of ironically.
KH: I really just wanted to do it for myself when I started shooting. I didn’t know if there was going to be an audience for it or if it would just be in some archive. Four or five years into it I had the sense, thinking about the footage that had accumulated, that it could be interesting as an artwork one day. I just wanted to get the shot. I think the head-to-toe thing and the distance from the camera gives it this structure that is more practical and not about my best angle or whatever.
You do see me get more comfortable with the camera over time. At first I feel giggly and that it’s kind of funny, then I get really super comfortable and confident. I try out poses but that’s exactly what you see, that I’m trying them and not holding them. I guess there’s an awareness that I’m just copying poses, which is what posing is. And then I get bored with it.
ES: There is this amazing relationship to your body over ten years. Your body moves a lot less at the beginning. As we watch your lifestyle change and we witness you working in your bedroom, then in your apartment and then having your studio—the first one’s the Whitney ISP Program, right? Then by the end you’re in a studio that has huge photographs that you’re working on. Simultaneous to this portrait of what it’s like to become an artist, there’s also this sense of what it’s like to grow up in your body.
KH: Yeah you end up seeing where I’m working, where I have the camera. It starts in my bedroom, and moves from apartment to apartment, and eventually travels into my studio. I would just shoot it based on logistics and having my video camera, I didn’t think the location was very relevant, except that I needed enough space to get a full body shot. So it ends up showing where I’m working at the time. And of course it also ends up that the locations tell my story as much, if not more, than what I am wearing.
ES: There’s something so beautiful and intriguing about that and the fact that you chose not to have other people in it. Now and then we hear the presence of a friend, but you’re always alone. That’s what you have to do when you’re an artist, is be alone.
There’s this sense of embodiment specifically as an artist. We don’t know what relationships you’re in. We don’t know what’s going on in your life. We just get this visceral, emotional affect that’s very subtle. Over the course of ninety minutes you start to notice very minute differences in your mood.
Sometimes I feel like with art the best work is when you trust your instinct and have absolutely no idea if anybody will understand it.
KH: I guess that was another parameter, that it was just me in the shot and no one else. There had to be some kind of consistency in the project. I wanted it to be a focused document and at first I really thought I was just capturing my outfit. As I became a better performer, I was more aware of the mood that I was capturing. Then it evolves into something very real and I’m able to be myself in front of the camera without any effort of performance. Sometimes I would indulge in a mood, but I always tried to bring myself back to my original intentions and the structural parameters I had set up.
ES: It was like here you are at the end in what, 2011? You are sustaining both a practice and an aesthetic that’s committed to DIY. The camera footage is kind of crappy. You don’t spend a lot of time worrying about lighting. We hear room tone. You don’t style your room. We see these spaces that you live in.
It feels like an important document about what it means to be an artist in New York City during the Dot-com era, during 9/11, during Bloomberg, during this economic explosion and gentrification. I’ve thought so much about my students who moved to New York in the ’90s and since. It’s just like, how do you do it? How do you live in New York and make art without being sucked into corporate media or the commercial art world?
There’s a way that this feels like a very precious portrait of trying to survive as an artist in that time. I don’t know if you want to talk about that and also about exposing your own economic reality. You are not raking it in as an artist.
KH: I think it was really a feminist instinct to make this document. I didn’t know what my life was going to be like as a lesbian and an artist. There were only one or two generations before me, the trailblazers, and I would have liked to see more of their lives. It’s like saying, “Hey, I exist.” It’s also like saying, “Our lives are important!”
And it was a difficult time to figure out how to live, where to live, how to make work, how to pay the bills, and how to fucking survive in New York. I went through a lot of stuff, as everyone does, but I was always psyched to have been actually surviving. That’s definitely in it.
I made the video within the means that I had. At one point, my video camera was at the top of the consumer line and I wasn’t too much worried about the picture quality. I guess you capture something else when there is no production work to see through. It was bare bones. It was a bunch of non-decisions.
ES: What do you mean by that, by non-decisions?
KH: Well, I wasn’t trying to dress up the room or myself or put something on for the camera. I was like, “Okay. Let’s just get it.” I think that’s what makes it very real, is that I wasn’t putting extra effort into it. Plus I had set up the structure from the very beginning, so I really didn’t have any new decisions to make about the piece.
I became more aware of high fashion as time progressed. It’s inevitable in New York. All of a sudden you realize some people are wearing insanely expensive designer clothes. That never bothered me because I thrift-shopped since high school and had good style with really cheap clothes. Style is not all about what you are wearing. It’s your sense of self and maybe your swagger and…
KH: It’s affect and it’s shape. It’s volume and silhouette. It’s gender play and camp. I really enjoyed getting dressed and it kind of baffled me because it wasn’t supposed to be important to feminists. But then there’s always a way of getting anti-dressed. Thrifting is a huge part of my process, whether I buy anything or not. I love to do it. Plus it was the only way I was able to afford to dress. Forever … I mean even to this day. In New York the way you look there’s a real currency. I had fun with it. Still do.
K8 Hardy, Untitled Runway Show, 2012. Performance view, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2012. Left: Photo: Lutz Bacher. Right: Photo: Arnold Frugier.
ES: Looking at the hybrid forms you were creating in your outfits, like 1980s shirts with ’90s T-shirts with ’50s florals. It really is an art form. The height of that was your Untitled Runway Show for the 2012 Whitney Biennial. I’ve always known whatever you’re wearing I’m going to see it on the streets two years from now. At the most reductive you could say you have a postmodern approach to style. On the other hand it’s like you see shopping malls and thrift stores across the country over ten years being recombined in these different ways. All of it feels kind of like a “Fuck it! I’m wearing this because I like these combinations and what they mean, not because they mimic a certain new trend.”
KH: It’s totally commentary. It’s also practical because if you are thrifting, you have to stay ahead of the cycles and figure out what old pieces or patterns or cuts could be interesting. You can’t be Now from second-hand. I was also playing with identity and was part of a queer subculture that had its own codes that I wanted to document. There was a specific underground queer-scene look and that is how we recognized each other. We had to do a lot of messaging in real life at that time. We weren’t on Apps and phones with our sexualities. So that was part of my motivation. The secret and not-so-secret flagging, what happens in the everyday. I’m not a walking art piece but I wanted to capture this and be in control of it.
ES: And critique it. You are challenging expectations of fashion. You’re challenging the economy of fashion. You’re challenging questions of beauty. You’re challenging where one swings in the sexuality spectrum. I was curious if you could talk about sound. Is there music in every single shot?
KH: Not at all. There’s a lot of room tone and the background music that was just happening, that my roommates were listening to or whatever. As it goes on I do get more aware of the sound that is being recorded. There might be the news or television. Sometimes I would put on a song because I felt I could move to that song or express myself more or even dance to it. And sometimes it would just be what I was listening to at that moment.
My whole modus operandi was not to think too much about it and just do it. Nothing is really overthought. I mean, God, I wish I had better lighting. I really thought that camera was a lot better than it was.
ES: That camera that was like the size of your hand?
KH: It was a mini-DV camera and it was the nicest camera I could afford at the time. I had the idea that it was just such high quality. I mean—it was digital video! Still on a tape, but it was the newest format when I started taping. I mean, you taught me that you could shoot on anything as long as the idea was good.
ES: Like, it’s not what you wear but how you wear it. It doesn’t matter if you have the nicest camera in the world.
ES: I think I had to learn that teaching students on VHS and wanting them to get excited about what they were making before they knew what three-point lighting was.
KH: Totally. I started on VHS 1/2” and 3/4” tape.
ES: One of the things about experimental film and video art is that we’re working on the margins of the industry and we don’t have those resources. But where you decide to make an edit doesn’t cost money. A relationship between sound and picture doesn’t cost money.
KH: Exactly. And all the old video art that I loved was shot on even shittier mediums, so I wasn’t worried about what I was shooting on at all.
ES: What you do physically in front of the camera doesn’t cost money. All of those things are rigorous choices, and there’s a lot of formal play. There’s a whole sequence where you’re playing in your editing with the lights being turned on and off. How did you handle ten years of footage?
KH: It was really hard. I thought I was going to finish in the summer of 2014, but it was so emotional and intense to look at all footage that I couldn’t. I just scrolled through the video for about six months before I could actually watch everything that I shot. I was so uncomfortable and embarrassed for myself. I didn’t have a breakdown but—I nearly did. It took me a long time until I could sit with it and make that cut. And a hard deadline.
ES: How long is it, the entire footage?
KH: About six hours or more.
ES: It’s like when you do your taxes every year and you have to go through every receipt.
ES: It’s excruciating. Basically you were seeing every part of your history.
KH: I was seeing everything. Everything.
ES: Financial, emotional, breakups …
KH: Totally. I was seeing myself as I was seeing myself, or something like that, something very eerie.
ES: Medical history, everything?
KH: Yeah I could see really difficult moments and illness, things that didn’t come all the way through within my parameters. But also it was really embarrassing to watch myself so much. I’d become filled with huge shame balls. Eventually I was able to work with the footage if I tried to think about myself in the third-person. I would be like, “She deserves to take up space.” I really had to keep giving myself permission because it’s like yourself and you’re going to be, “Oh yuck embarrassing. That song? That outfit? I could leave that out.” But it’s all in there.
Then I also tried to keep the ethos of shooting it and not thinking and tweaking out too much in the editing. I made match-cuts and stuff like that to help it flow. Then to try to just get to what I was doing in front of the camera and give it a little space.
ES: There’s one moment I wanted to ask you about. Sometimes your face comes really close to the camera because you want to show something you’re wearing on your face or you’re turning off the camera. There’s one time where you come and stare at the camera and you’re crying.
KH: Yeah that happened and I just stayed with the camera and got that moment. The close-ups were something I had to figure out in editing because they were something extra and not preworked into the structure. I decided that I had to stay true to my original intentions and reasons for capturing these extra moments. What did she want to show me?
ES: Was she this person K8?
KH: Yes she is.
ES: You wanted to be honest to her diary of the day?
KH: Exactly and to her intentions of that day. You see more of that because I cried in front of the camera for a really long time. The edits are fairly proportionate.
ES: Somehow the clinical distancing creates this intense intimacy, like the films of Chantal Akerman, but also it has a relationship to the more lyrical experimental films that I was showing you, even back to Stan Brakhage or Carolee Schneemann.
KH: I was definitely influenced by all that work and the way you have to shift your focus and expectations. I love experimental film and video. It’s a different reality, possibly even more like reality.
KH: Yeah—that’s low budget!
ES: The track-zoom…
KH: The zoom is weird and the tracking it’s like a little yeah.
ES: Like the works of the structural filmmakers, Outfitumentary allows a different emotional resonance to come up. It felt very emotional watching it, and part of it was because we weren’t being distracted.
KH: It was like an exercise regimen or something, I just kept chugging along and doing it. Still, there’s still like, oh, months missing here and there where I kind of forgot about it or maybe I needed to buy a new tape. Or I might have loaned the camera to someone to use so I didn’t get it. I knew if I was really rigid—“It has to be every day”—that I would just get annoyed with those rules and I wouldn’t finish it.
ES: When you describe a piece like this, it sounds very simple. I’m going to document my outfit for a decade. I’m going to show the front and back of me. It sounds like superficially it’s going to be about fashion.
KH: It sounds like it, but it’s really not.
ES: Right. It’s an incredibly unique way to create self-portraiture. I mean there’s precedence from the era, like Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation .
Elisabeth Subrin, Shulie, 1997, Super 8/video/16 mm, color, sound, 37 minutes.
KH: Well, for me there’s also precedence in your film Shulie, like how that’s a remake of a student’s film about [Shulamith Firestone], which is a document that we need to see but we can’t, so you made the document. It’s important to tell our own stories. That’s something that you taught me. I mean you were the one who told me I was an artist basically anyways.
ES: It feels patronizing to say I’m proud because it’s as if ...
KH: You should be proud.
ES: I am proud.
KH: The root of what you taught me is really in that piece.
ES: I could see it. I remember when you walked into my Intro to Film/Video class at Amherst when you were a sophomore at Smith. It was your first art class, and my first “real” teaching job, and your first videos… There was one when you wore thrifted cowboy gear and were confronting the camera from stalls in a women’s public bathroom. You were taking on your identity even there. It was interesting because you were actually shy. There was something that happened when you turned the camera on yourself. At that time there were all these first-person documentary narratives where you would hear women talking about their identity-based traumas in very literal ways. Whereas you used performance and your body as a way to talk and show your internal experience.
With Outfitumentary you’re like, “This is who I am every day.” Not just in the clothes you were wearing but in the way you presented your reality. I feel that this is a piece that people will find in the archives in one hundred years and say, “Oh, so this is what it was to be an artist at that time.”
K8 Hardy is an artist based in New York.
Contessa Stuto, “Horny Lil’ Slut,” 2014, video, color, sound, 3 minutes 7 seconds.
CONTESSA STUTO, the Brooklyn-based rapper and founder of the Cunt Mafia, released her new single “Killing in Vain” within twenty-four hours of the release of New York cultural ambassador Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space,” two odes to messy love. While Swift’s litany of clichés about millennial coupling is characteristic of peers Katy Perry, Ariana Grande, and Selena Gomez, many of whom she apes with sheepish modesty, Stuto rejects the Swiftian promise of a happy norm with her “low-budget realness,” serving an aggro femininity that contravenes Swift’s suburban sameness with Dreamlandesque swagger. Stuto continues to splice romance with her characteristic huff, a way of rapping that leaves you with the sense that she has run out of both rhymes and breath, in her new video “Horny Lil’ Slut,” premiered here for the first time since YouTube removed it in December 2014.
In “Killing in Vain,” Stuto—“Count Contessa,” as Azealia Banks once crowned her—doesn’t rehearse the pop line on True Love so much as reinvent the genre in a gutsy ode to death-driven desire, putting Swift’s banality on blast: “I’LL TARE YOUR FACE OFF,” she spits. “DON’T MAKE ME FEEL IMCOMPLETE. The song, which mostly concerns the betrayal of an ex-lover, deals with how the physical intensity of desire fragments experience. “[T]ook me a long time to over come these / fears,” Stuto writes in the lyrics posted to her Tumblr, continuing later:
i feel my bones brOKE and
my body bleed to death and
I’m starting to feel something
This deictic somethingness opens on larger questions regarding the language of desire, particularly in Stuto’s repeated insistence that it not make her “feel incomplete.” Part of the song’s energy is that it never seems entirely convinced that completion is really what Stuto’s after. The lyrics crack up in generative, insistent anger, often struggling to specify injury:
my night slaying
wish he was the
killing in VAIN
for ME !!!
Rather, what is specified is what the man doesn’t (or can’t) do. Letting her bleed to death he fails—repeatedly—to meet the terms of desire: “cupid wasted his dart,” Stuto sighs. She continues with barbed fury, recalling the “sephora scent” of the woman with whom the man cheated. She screams: “I’m hell bent.” And headed toward hell. In an extended version of the lyrics not included in the recording, Stuto writes, “AND HE WANTS ME DEAD. / IM beTTER OFF DEAD.” I’m not convinced—nor is Stuto. She concludes: “I GUESS.” Cunt Mafia, after all, makes the rules, declaring who lives and who dies.
This Mafia, Stuto’s rap and nightlife collective that includes Quay Dash and Cakes da Killa, recalls a project outlined by Germaine Greer in her 1970 essay, “The Politics of Female Sexuality.” Like Stuto, Greer countered male privilege with a seismic, renegade energy rooted in the taboo language of “pussy-power.” In “Politics,” she proposes a method for upending patriarchal structures by re-envisioning female sexuality as more than a mere “function of meat,” calling for a lexical revolution in how we talk about female bodies and desire. “It ought to be possible to establish a woman’s vocabulary of cunt,” Greer wrote, “prideful, affectionate, accurate and bold.” Later: “Cunt is a channel drawing all towards it. Cunt is knowledge. Knowledge is receptivity, which is activity.”
In “Killing in Vain,” Stuto calls for her man to kill in vain—a literalization of Greer’s diagnosis of male sexuality as a confusion of “aggression for power.” Set in a greasy restaurant and a singed backyard, the music video for “Killing in Vain” supplements this aggression with a vision of a cruddy New York antithetical to Swift’s shapeless, all-purpose Village. Stuto’s own complex sexuality finds its analog in the grit of the Brooklyn diner: Messy, anguished, she grabs at herself in mock frustration at love’s unresolved dramas (which, in this case of murder-inflected love, is exclusive to meat-space), serving food with indifference to her patrons. “I’m an arrow and Cupid wasted his dart,” she sings as the song shifts to a metal-inflected register. Cunt is knowledge is activity: “Break down my heart, and I’ll break you apart.”
In “Horny Lil’ Slut,” Stuto hijacks gendered vocabularies of shame, reclaiming “slut” as a restorative, powerful word for the production of female sexuality: “I’m a horny lil’ slut and I want to fuckin’ fuck,” she repeats in the song’s chorus. Later, Stuto declares that her man is her king, that she will show her “twisted fantasy” where he “finger-fuck the pink.” The video, filmed to look like it was made with a home tape recorder, features Stuto performing at a house party and concert, revisiting the anguished gestures of “Killing in Vain” in an orgy of bodies as Stuto performs around them in the washed-out effect of an old VHS recorder. With its jumpy camerawork, the video recalls the low-fi porn and leaked sex tapes of the (ritually resurgent) 1990s. “Horny Lil’ Slut” ends with Stuto tied up in rope before the video cuts.
Of course, Greer’s vocabulary exists. Last summer, Hercules & Love Affair released “My Offence,” a quasi-PSA on “cunt” featuring Juliana Huxtable, Bailey Stiles, Sam Banks, Stuto, and other performers, musicians, and artists. In the video, they discuss the word’s unique New York registers. Stuto laughs and drawls, “It’s the highest prowess of power, it’s called the pussy and the cunt.” The video ends with Huxtable stating that “the greatest ways to point out the flaws [of patriarchal society] is to live in a way that exists directly in opposition to that but doesn’t sacrifice the idea that I function, that I live, that I’m vital.” This oppositional vitality refuses the normsy manners of a post-Bloomberg city in thrall to a cultural ambassador whose only legible “politics” is a stance against streaming music and whose “Welcome to New York”—the opening track of her 1989—offers us a city entirely devoid of cunt. We need a new ambassador.
Unknown painter, Sultan Muhammad Nur (calligrapher), The Mi'raj or The Night Flight of Muhammad on his Steed Buraq, Folio from a Bustan of Sa`di, ca. 1525–35, ink, gold, colors on paper, 7 1/2“ x 5”.
AT THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART, in a gallery devoted to Persian and Central Asian art of the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries, is a small painting on paper from Uzbekistan that depicts the Mi’raj, or the ascent of the Prophet Muhammad to heaven. The prophet, wearing a blue tunic and a turban, his eyes narrow, with a beatific smile, sits astride al-Buraq, a steed with a human face. The angel Gabriel guides Muhammad from Jerusalem, in whose mosque a Qu’ran sits in a ring of fire, up to a paradise of golden clouds. Sensitive, intricate, alive with spiritual conviction, the miniature has been a touchstone for me since the Met’s Islamic wing reopened in 2011. It reminds me not only of the complexity and diversity of the world of Islam, but also of how utterly my country failed to reckon with that world’s realities in the years after 9/11, and instead joined a bogus Manichean showdown to justify an illegal war and an indecent power grab. Even depictions of the prophet, the ultimate us-versus-them schism, have a long and multifarious history that few seem willing to engage.
I’ve come back to that painting, from the mid-sixteenth century, in the days since the heinous murders of the staff of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Several of the victims were artists, and two in particular, Jean Cabut (pen name “Cabu”) and Georges Wolinski, were iconic figures of French popular culture. Universal condemnation of their murders, though, has not stopped them from being misread, deprecated, or totally exploited in the English-language press. Soi-disant liberals, all too eager to throw themselves back into the shameful embrace of the warmongering right, have held up the drawings of Cabu and others as grist for clash-of-civilizations delusions. (Manuel Valls, the young, Blairist prime minster, declared last week that France was “at war with terrorism,” thirteen years after we started that lunatic errand.) Their opponents, notably young leftists with justified anxiety about the lives of Muslims and people of color in France and elsewhere, have traduced them—all too willing to relativize the deaths of their fellow writers and artists in the name of allegedly greater sympathies.
Might not art historians and art critics have a role to play in putting things to rights? It’s a testament to how badly things are going that even the murder of artists is not enough to get the art world to stand together, but Charlie Hebdo and its contributors deserve better. We who are all too happy to celebrate the obscenity of a Georges Bataille or Paul McCarthy have bridled at the images by Cabu and his slain colleagues. And we have been all too resigned to these artists’ subsumption into a martial rhetoric they would have despised—and mercilessly lampooned.
Left: Cover of Hara-Kiri (n°94, November 16, 1970). Right: Cover of Charlie Hebdo (n°1, November 23, 1970).
They have, after all, been fighting the establishment since the 1960s, at the newspaper’s predecessor Hara-Kiri: “a dumb, mean newspaper,” as its slogan read, which was shut by the French government after brutally mocking the death of Charles de Gaulle. Charlie Hebdo is a child of May ’68, and its irreverence, its anticlericalism, its sex jokes, and its cheapness have a deep political structure. Its intentional bad taste can be best summed up with the word gouaille: a rough Gallic impertinence, knowledgeable but dirty. One early issue of Charlie Hebdo led with a NASA astronaut holding up the heads of decapitated Vietnamese, captioned “Long live America.” “RACISTS HAVE SMALL DICKS,” screamed the cover of an issue in 1973. The cover of the Christmas number of 1975 called on readers to “Gun down the soldiers / Strangle the priests / Steamroll the cops / Burn the banks.”
The most enduring image from the early days of Charlie Hebdo came in 1971, when abortion was still illegal in France. That April, Simone de Beauvoir led a group of 343 notable women who declared they had terminated a pregnancy. Charlie Hebdo’s next issue featured a cover by Cabu depicting Michel Debré, the former prime minister and implacable opponent of abortion rights. “Who knocked up these 343 sluts?” asked the headline, to which an exhausted, jowly Debré responds, “I did it for France.” De Beauvoir’s text, which was key to the legalization of abortion in 1975, is still known today as the “manifesto of the 343 sluts”—Jeanne Moreau was particularly proud of that epithet—in caustic reclamation of women’s sexual independence against the church and the government.
Il est interdit d’interdire. It’s necessary to consider the history, and more importantly the spirit, of Charlie Hebdo when coming to terms with its more recent images, especially the cartoons lampooning Islam. Charlie Hebdo has always been a profoundly anticlerical newspaper, and its ruthless mockery of the Catholic church has taken on renewed life in the wake of the Manif pour tous, a new revanchist Catholic movement aligned with the hard-right, distressingly popular Front National party. But Islam specifically came into the paper’s sights in 2005, when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad and set off a global crisis. The Danish paper is right wing; Charlie Hebdo didn’t care, and ran all twelve of the cartoons anyway, with a cover by Cabu in which Muhammad wailed, “It’s hard to be loved by idiots.” This was a trap. The Danish cartoons were extremely racist—the prophet with a bomb in his turban, that sort of thing. But Charlie Hebdo, eternal provocateurs, placed a higher premium on free expression than on the sensitivities of anti-racists or true believers, and so they went for it.
Free expression is not enough to explain why a newspaper with a decades-long commitment to fighting racism printed racist cartoons. To understand why they’d do this, you also need to appreciate France’s centuries-long tradition of anticlerical satire (bouffer du curé) on the one hand, and on the other the bedrock principle of laïcité that undergirds the French state and Charlie Hebdo’s political struggle. Laïcité, shakily translated as “secularism” and established during the Third Republic, is a militant separation of church and state that sits at the heart of French citizenship, and it is today a fraught enterprise. Unlike in the United States, where “freedom of religion” permits all sorts of exceptions—say, the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance—laïcité entails the total expulsion of all religion by the state: notably the wearing of the veil and yarmulke by schoolchildren, banned in 2004.
We are now on the central ground of international politics in the twenty-first century, the terrain of globalization and postcolonialism and religion and difference, and Charlie Hebdo’s in-your-face, up-your-ass images have a different tenor. In 2011, following the victory of an Islamist party in the Tunisian elections, the paper put a grinning Muhammad on the cover and retitled itself Sharia Hebdo; even before the issue hit the streets, its offices were firebombed. The next year, further cartoons of the prophet led the French foreign ministry to close twenty of its embassies. Nearly everyone has missed the joke in one of those: when the nude, coquettish Muhammad says, “And my ass, do you like my ass?”, he’s quoting Brigitte Bardot, the actress-turned-Islamophobic washout who calls French Muslims “invaders.” These were crude and gratuitous, just as cartoons of a crucified Jesus sunbathing in Saint-Tropez are crude and gratuitous, but their antagonism now functioned very differently. Suddenly it was the rightwing press defending Charlie Hebdo, among them the creepy Figaro editorialist Ivan Rioufol—who, on the radio last week, had the gall to demand that a Muslim panelist “dissociate” herself from the terrorists.
How did anti-racist, anti-military, anti-church artists end up, in the late 2000s and early 2010s, producing images that antagonized some of France’s most vulnerable citizens? It certainly isn’t because of any change in Charlie Hebdo’s political line—the paper angrily protested Israel’s incursions in Gaza, and ran a weekly column campaigning for the rights of undocumented immigrants. Nor can this be put down to a lack of diversity on staff: Mustapha Ourrad, murdered last week, was Charlie Hebdo’s longtime copy editor, and anyone watching French television these past few days will have seen the numerous tearful interviews with Zineb el Rhazoui, one of the surviving editorial members who got this week’s issue out on time. It was because of unresolved, perhaps unresolvable conflicts between the ideal of laïcité and the segregated reality of French life, and the unfeasibility in such a situation of what the French call second degré humor, which we might translate imperfectly as “ironic” or “tongue-in-cheek.”
Laïcité, which in the years after the Algerian war was largely embraced by North African immigrants in metropolitan France, has now become a cudgel by which immigrant- and Muslim-hating leaders dress up their exclusionary politics in the name of “equality.” (Those interested in the growing phenomenon of sectarian laïcité, and how xenophobia can disguise itself in the garb of tolerance, should read Edwy Plenel’s Pour les musulmans [For Muslims], an important broadside published last year.) In this, they have help from the jihadists: The monstrousness of al-Qaeda and ISIS is regularly trotted out by the French far right as the reason to, say, ban halal meat. And the laïcité of Charlie Hebdo’s images, whose mockery of religion is theoretically part of a battle for equality, is very hard to distinguish from the sectarian laïcité of the Islamophobes. When Cabu and Wolinski mocked the Church, it was clearly in an effort to build a new, freer France. When they mocked the Prophet, they were addressing new controversies with dated techniques: perhaps counterproductive ones.
Whether second degré humor is possible in such circumstances is not clear. Charlie Hebdo’s ’68-era mockery may have no future in such an unequal society. But if you really want to call out racist cartoons, you would do better to start with Tintin and Astérix. In November 2013, the newspaper’s editor Charb wrote: “The current editorial team is divided among followers of the left, the extreme left, anarchism, and ecology. None of us vote. But all of us cracked open the bubbly when Nicolas Sarkozy lost.” Charb, murdered last week, worked with France’s largest antiracism charities, and many of his images mocked the country’s supposed blindness to race: “I’d love to hire you, but I don’t like the color of your…uh, tie!” To see how Charb, a proud communist with an Arab partner, a man who fought relentlessly for the regularization of France’s sans-papiers, has been transformed in certain English-language reactions into an immigrant-bashing white supremacist is to see just how easily second degré humor slips into out-of-context literalism. Remember too that Charlie Hebdo recently published a book, Sarkozy Deported Me, collecting 140 testimonies of undocumented immigrants who had come to France and who faced tragic, sometimes fatal hostility.
There is a dreadfully racist and Islamophobic press in France. This includes not just the usual assortment of nativist websites and radio stations, but also mass-market magazines such as Valeurs actuelles, which warns of a “secret invasion” of France by Muslim immigrants, or the even sicker Minute, an extremist magazine that celebrated Slobodan Milosević for “protecting us from an Islamist invasion.” One of the best-selling books of last year was by Éric Zemmour, a journalist who encourages the “deportation” of Muslims (the vast majority of whom are French citizens; deported to where?). It’s bad—but Charlie Hebdo is not at all in this vein. Its principal antagonist is not Islam, and absolutely not Muslims; it’s the Front National, the extreme right party that has surged in popularity over the past two years and that the paper attacks week after week. Hasty English-language reactions to last week’s crime have insinuated that Charlie Hebdo was somehow obsessed with Islam, or even took pleasure in antagonizing Muslims. On the contrary, the Prophet Muhammad appeared on only one cover in 2014 (and in an anti-ISIS cartoon, no less), while the Front National was flayed ten times. Cabu, in particular, was for decades an implacable opponent of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the party’s first leader, who sued him three times. His daughter Marine Le Pen, who has a better-than-zero chance of ending up as president of France one day, has not had it easier. During her (successful) campaign to detoxify the FN brand, the artist Riss drew her taking a razor to her pubic hair, which was in the form of a Hitler moustache. When 366 African migrants died off the coast of Lampedusa, Charlie Hebdo unflinchingly called the disaster “the platform of the Front National.”
Or consider the cover of Charlie Hebdo on October 22, 2014 (FIAC week!), drawn by Riss, who was wounded in the attack. It depicts four child hostages of the Nigerian insurgent group Boko Haram, all of them pregnant. The headline reads, “The anger of Boko Haram’s sex slaves,” and the hostages shout, “Hands off our benefits.” This vulgarity and obscenity, we should say, is barely anyone’s kind of humor. Charlie Hebdo was only selling 30,000 copies a week and had severe funding problems. But to anyone with a basic command of the French political scene, the joke is clear: It is a simultaneous attack on both Boko Haram and French politicians, especially on the far right. The week before the cover ran, Hollande’s health minister had announced new cuts to family welfare programs, to which Marine Le Pen responded, “I’d prefer that we stop giving welfare benefits to foreigners instead of lowering them for French people…. When you have three, four, five, six kids, and you receive what adds up to serious money—that encourages immigration.” The image explicitly utilizes Le Pen’s racism and xenophobia for its own purposes. It deploys a proudly tasteless and obviously absurd premise (for after all, Nigerians don’t get French tax credits) to skewer the true oppressors of poor women, in Africa and in Europe.
This second degré style has been there from the very beginning, from the days of Hara-Kiri, and we have learned this week that it translates very badly. But to blame Cabu and Charb for the national failings they have been trying to diagnose and oppose—and to do so while their corpses are still warm—is perverse. The novelist Teju Cole, in just one of the “yes, but” reactions of the past week, drew a regrettable comparison between Charlie Hebdo and neo-Nazis in a web piece for the New Yorker. But a better analogy might be Christoph Schlingensief, the late German theater director recently exhibited at MoMA PS1: another leftwing, pro-immigrant provocateur whose favorite method was the amplification of his opponents’ lies and absurdities. His action Foreigners Out–Please Love Austria, 2000, staged a version of Big Brother in Vienna’s central square; the contestants were asylum seekers, and Austrians could vote on who should be deported and who should get a passport. Too many spectators took it literally; one tried to burn the set down.
An art historical gaze upon the images of Charlie Hebdo would, first of all, reckon with the forms and the iconography of its cartoons within the context they arose—and only then wrestle with the images’ virality, slipperiness, and out-of-context force. I am not arguing in favor of every one of their cartoons. What I am arguing for is a more honest appraisal of the etiology of this monstrous crime, an acknowledgment of the particular French tradition of laïcité, and a recognition that these images’ recent worldwide propagation complicates our ability to read them. Images take on new meanings, new lives, as they move along global and digital networks; second degré irony recedes into premier degré literalism, with painful and, we now know, deadly effects. What is the responsibility of the creators for their images’ transformations along the chain? How do we think these images in the plenitude of their networked trajectories? Could some of the more offensive images be both racist and opposed to the racist policies advanced by Le Pen and her cohort—not easily fixed in an imperialist rebus?
Le Pen was not welcome last Sunday, at the largest demonstration in the history of France: four million people, in Paris and in the regions, refusing the minimizations and the amalgamations of the past few days. Ariane Mnouchkine and her Théâtre du Soleil showed up with a giant puppet Marianne, bloodied but still standing. While jingoists put “Je suis Charlie” on their Islamophobic websites in the name of so-called liberty, the marchers’ “Je suis Charlie” and its corollaries—I am a Muslim, I am a Jew, I am a cop, I am French—evinced that last and highest of revolutionary values: fraternity, the unambiguous and undifferentiated love for one another that both the jihadists and our own warmongers fear. And on Wednesday Charlie Hebdo hit the newsstands, in a print run of five million, with the Prophet in tears. Its headline should guide all of us as we work our way through this era of accusation and retribution: tout est pardonné. All is forgiven.
Press run of Charlie Hebdo (n°1178, January 14, 2014). Illustration by Renald Luzier (“Luz”).
Page detail from Julie Doucet’s My New York Diary (Drawn and Quarterly, 1999/2010).
DARK, FUNNY, FEMINIST, and executed in gorgeously controlled rich black-and-white, the iconic comics work My New York Diary (1999) sealed the reputation of Montreal-based cartoonist Julie Doucet. The publication of Doucet’s first long-form narrative (originally serialized in her acclaimed comic book series Dirty Plotte [Dirty Cunt] beginning in 1993), earned her a surge of recognition from multiple corners of contemporary culture, and paved the way for a whole host of graphic memoirs to come, especially by women. One can see the influence in Doucet’s work of underground cartoonist Aline Kominsky-Crumb, who has published her own edgy autobiographical stories since the early 1970s—especially in the attention given to the everyday grain of romantic relationships and to the force, as a negative or positive proposition, of the bodily. Indeed, Kominsky-Crumb was the first to publish Doucet in the US, in the hugely significant post-underground comics venue Weirdo (1981–1993), the anthology founded by R. Crumb that Kominsky-Crumb edited from 1986 on. Weirdo saw itself as a more populist counterpart to Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly’s high-production and design-oriented RAW (1980–1991); Doucet appeared there in 1989 and 1990.
But even while Doucet emerged in Weirdo alongside important autobiographical cartoonists such as Phoebe Gloeckner, in retrospect the publication of My New York Diary in 1999 feels as though it banged open doors that were already ajar. My New York Diary became a signal text: for its intimate revelations (miscarriage, drugs, epilepsy); its bold, confident draftsmanship; and its spot-on presentation of decline—of crumbling relationships and of charismatic men overwhelmed by insecurity. My New York Diary charts the beginning, middle, and end of a relationship that brings Doucet, in her late twenties, from Montreal to Manhattan. While it brilliantly reveals a young person’s early 1990s New York—the characters take in a Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black show, for instance, and go to a RAW party at Limelight—the book’s central theme, one might say, is timeless and translocational. Anybody who has lived in New York—or had a romance with its grittiness, as the central characters here are wont to do—will relate with pleasure to the thick visual texture of the book and Doucet’s love of detail: the swarming streets, full of trash and possibility, and rooms in which no patch of space is unattended or insignificant.
But the book appeals so widely because it is such a canny chronicle of a bad relationship. The cover to the original edition (there have been several reprintings and translations) features an angry Godzilla Julie, drawn in black ink, looming over a colorful, photographic Manhattan. She grimaces and throws off what Mort Walker called emanata from her head—the classic cartoon symbols of perplexity and consternation—as planes and helicopters circle close. (On the back cover she’s crying—and a plane is taking off above her.)
My New York Diary is a riff on the künstlerroman genre of the novel, in which one witnesses an artist’s creative maturation. The book opens with two episodes before Julie moves to New York: “The First Time” (nine pages) and “Julie in Junior College” (twenty-five). The title page of the first, with its awkwardly arranged vertical slabs of handwritten text, brilliantly forces the reader following the words (“I (Julie) was 17 at the time….”) to optically traverse the looming face of a dark-haired man; we sense the adolescent awe and longing for the romantic figure he cuts with his shaggy tresses and aviator frames. On the next page, we first encounter Julie with a pencil in hand at her desk, happily sketching a man and a woman. Sexuality and mark-making are intertwined as registers of desire. Soon Julie falls for the classic “I’ll show you my paintings” line out of earnest desire to connect with other artists; at the painter-in-question’s apartment, she thinks “YUK!!” at the work but “Oh well . . .” when he kisses her; and so she passively loses her virginity. In art school, she takes on lovers, all fellow students, in an almost distracted state as she tries to fill her sketchbook.
Julie’s enthusiasms, and thus the book’s scope of attention, always feel stronger for art than for the predatory men who walk into her life and siphon off her energy. Yet these relationships are always lurking. This narrative is amplified once she moves to New York, where she finally dispenses of the unhealthy pattern with vehemence. The New York boyfriend is a medium dashing, Nick Cave–manqué skinny-jeans and boots-wearing pen pal—Julie is part of a punk culture network of through-the-mail exchange—who quickly becomes a lover once they meet. (Cartoonist John Porcellino, of King-Cat Comix, is another more benign pen pal here.) The boyfriend is an aspiring cartoonist collecting unemployment and living in Washington Heights. When she moves in with him in 1991—Doucet dates each scenario precisely—she is already a cartoonist of note. Doucet shows herself trying to draw the next issue of Dirty Plotte at the kitchen table while the boyfriend encourages her to drink more beer. She never lets go of the work of being an artist, while he’s content to drop acid, snort coke, do whippets, and play Candyland. One serious breaking point comes when he demands to accompany her to an invited appointment with the Village Voice; when she draws a cover of the alternative weekly New York Press, he calls to tell her he’s seen it all over . . . in trash cans. The book tracks how shy Julie ultimately comes to accept the public recognition of comics and art communities over the sealed-off universe of her sulky, unambitious lover.
My New York Diary is the trenchant, charming result of the efforts of control and independence featured in its own narrative. Its stunning visual density, in which every drawing, enclosed in a frame, feels like it is about to walk off the page, lends Doucet’s work a constant sense of movement and animism that indicates future horizons of her work, and comics at large.
Hillary Chute is a professor at the University of Chicago and the author of Outside the Box; Interviews with Contemporary Cartoonists (University of Chicago Press, 2014) and Graphic Women: Life Narrative & Contemporary Comics (Columbia University Press, 2010). For more on Julie Doucet, see Chute’s article in the Summer 2014 print issue.
Keith Mayerson, My American Dream, 1991–. Installation view, Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, 2014. Photo: Tom Powel Imaging.
MY EXHIBITIONS are non-linear narratives, where the juxtaposition of each image together tells a specific story, like Scott McCloud’s definition of comics in his great book Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (1994). My American Dream, recently included by curator Stuart Comer in the Whitney Biennial, was a giant comic composition, in addition to being a salon-style installation of paintings. I created “horizontal” installations in which paintings still tell stories but in a contemporary format. In homage to the early days of the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the forthcoming arrival of the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Breuer building, I thought salon-style was an appropriate way to create this composition. And it felt like there might be more freedom, in a vertical reading, in how the viewer’s eyes could flow from one image to another to create meaning.
My American Dream was an uber narrative, born from a large cosmology of mostly the last four years of painting personal images from photographs I take of my own life—of my husband and myself, our family, and world—but also from a long (I’ve been exhibiting for twenty years now!) career of painting from appropriated imagery and abstraction. Stuart and I worked together to select the paintings from this larger group, and then I created the layout, thinking about the narrative and visual flow, the relationships between the works and the way viewers might navigate them and come to their own conclusions of what ultimately My American Dream could mean for the twenty-first century.
The Beatles, one of the subjects I paint, I feel were the first postmodern band in that they would speak through avatars—they weren’t the Beatles, they were “Sgt. Pepper,” they weren’t lonely, but “Eleanor Rigby” was. And I love John and Yoko, post-Beatles, and perhaps post-postmodernism, when they wrote and sang about their own lives and it was powerful and emotional enough to relate to others. Pictures of Superman, Kermit, Tintin, and more are icons that, as McCloud describes, we “suture into” while reading and watching them, letting them become our avatars, like in a RPG video game, as we go on their journey. Sitting Bull, Annie Oakley, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, Rosa Parks are icons who really lived who we can also relate to—painting their portraits gave me hope and inspiration, and I hope people who view my piece will be reminded that what these historical figures stood and struggled for is still all-important.
In an act McCloud deems “closure,” a viewer of a comic is a participant in the creation of its ultimate content when he or she completes the action from one panel to the next, in order to go along on the journey with the story’s main characters. I hope that the viewers of my work will similarly relate to these important figures and scenes that helped to forge the great America we currently live in, thanks in part to some of these very icons. And I hope that My American Dream will inspire people to continue the struggle to make our country a better place for freedom, and—to quote Superman (if it’s not too patriarchal or nationalistic!) for “truth, justice, and the American Way.”
Keith Mayerson is an artist based in New York, where he is Cartooning Coordinator and has taught comics since 1995 at the School of Visual Arts. Horror Hospital Unplugged, his 1996 graphic novel in collaboration with Dennis Cooper, was republished by Harper Perennial in 2011. His two-person show with Peter Saul is at Robert Blumenthal Gallery, New York, July 8 through August 8th.
For more comics-related material, see Artforum’s Summer 2014 print issue.
ONE EVENING LAST SUMMER, far from New York City, I was cornered by a senior curator from a prestigious arts institution. The woman, who was urbane, stylish, and in her late thirties, had a pressing question. “You live in Los Angeles,” she noted. “Can you tell me, is Petra Cortright a feminist?”
I squirmed as I considered how to avoid falling into this trap. I was acquainted with Cortright, a Santa Barbara–raised artist known for her YouTube clips and desktop-stripper animations, but I didn’t know much about her politics. Smelling weakness, the senior curator pressed on: “What about Amalia Ulman?”—the twenty-five-year-old transatlantic wanderer known for video shorts about commerce and coming of age—“Do these girls know anything about Marxism or feminist theory?” Cortright and Ulman are often described as “post-Internet” artists, a debated term that roughly describes those whose work both addresses and bears the influence of social media. I had no special access to their reading habits; it was true that in our conversations Marx had never come up.
“I’m not sure they would find those vocabularies to be the most revealing tools for discussing their work,” I stuttered. The curator leaned in to register her dismay with an entire cohort. “What is happening with these twenty-something artists? These people surrounding DIS magazine? Do they really just worship consumerism? And Instagram? Am I missing something?”
Petra Cortright, Bridal Shower, 2013.
She was, and she wasn’t. “Instagram,” which the curator seemed to be using as an umbrella term for the entire social Web, was definitely having an impact on the generation of artists with whom I had grown up. So was DIS, an arch and futuristic media platform devoted to the Internet, art, and fashion. In spite of its recent vintage and shoestring budget, DIS, whose content ranged from critical essays and runway reviews to DJ mixes and video collages, was arguably as influential among art-school grads as any number of its more established rivals.
As the curator was herself a Marxist, I was tempted to suggest a Marxist alibi for the emerging generation’s consumer antics. Had I pursued that tack, I would have cited “accelerationism,” an ideology associated with the cybernetic philosopher Nick Land. As curator Agatha Wara, a DIS associate, once explained it to me, accelerationists believe that “the only way to get over capital is through capital”—that is, by accelerating capitalism’s own tendency toward self-destruction. (The roots of accelerationism extend back to Marx himself, who once wrote that he supported free trade because he believed it would encourage revolution.) I doubted, though, that grunting “accelerationism” would tame the incredulous curator. It sounded like an ex post facto rationalization, in part because it was: My own artist friends, I was fairly certain, had not embraced consumerism as part of a long game in the ultimate struggle to destroy capitalism. “What I think you don’t understand,” I replied, “is that these people really don’t like school.”
By “school” I didn’t mean literal matriculation—many of the artists I knew enjoyed whatever years they spent under the formal tutelage of credentialed elders. Very few, though, had found their operational armature in academic theory. This wasn’t just a trend among visual artists—in the age of Wikipedia, the ability to manipulate specialized vocabularies and esoteric knowledge was commanding less and less authority across the board, from Marxism to indie music. The easy diffusion of information was having ripple effects across publishing, art, and the avant-garde.
This was clear to many students, but not always to their professors, who understandably continued to ply the methods and methodologies that had helped them get tenure. As a result, many art-school grads were coming of age at a time when what felt most oppressive wasn’t consumer capitalism: It was the institutional codes and guild vocabularies in which they had been trained.
Part of this reorientation was driven by technological innovation, but another part was prompted by economic collapse and credentialist backlash. Just as the economy was sputtering, MFA programs were becoming de rigueur, normalizing debt-financed degree acquisition at precisely the time when a degree could no longer guarantee a stable income (or at least not one large enough to repay student loans). For an emerging crop of Insta-queers, lonely girls, and slacker bros, the market—especially the digital marketplace, with its emphasis on clarity, preening subjectivity, and infinite accessibility—suggested an alternative to the onerous grant applications and bureaucratic ring-kissing that drove the art-academic complex. Weary of the rigorless ramblings of adjuncts, many art-school grads found themselves inspired by hot designers and dropout entrepreneurs. It wasn’t hard to see how these figures more readily suggested the cowboy ethos of the creative outlaw than did traditional artists, who came freighted with a “transgressive” framework that often eluded actual transgression.
The curator wasn’t buying it. To her, it all looked like craven capitulation.
I RECENTLY ADVISED some friends on naming a new branding agency. They wanted to call it Hypergeist, which I liked. “Very ghost in the machine,” I observed. “Sort of techno-goth, zeitgeist-gone-wild.” The question was how to describe the agency. They wanted to call it a “creative studio,” which I didn’t like. “‘Creative studio’ sounds small and aggravating,” I observed. “It’s like calling it an atelier.” I was afraid they’d sound like hermits scrivening in a garret. As a counter, I suggested they make it plural: Hypergeist Creative Studios. “That way you sound big, like a production company—like an amusement park!” If sounding contemporary was the goal, I argued, the vibe to cultivate was industrial and collaborative. “Leave the medieval blacksmith thing to the craft breweries.” Being a craftsman hadn’t been cool since 2006. Embracing the postartisanal, procommercial turn was an important part of claiming membership in the rising contingent of tastemakers.
Around the same time that I was urging my friends to adopt the syntax of an amusement park, I started receiving press releases for “DISown,” an “art exhibition posing as a retail store” produced by DIS at Red Bull Studios. Reading the show’s list of featured artists was a bit uncanny: The roster was an eerily exact class photo, not only of people I had grown up with and partied alongside in New York (K-Hole, Korakrit Arunanondchai, Analisa Teachworth, Telfar, Maja Cule, Cyril Duval, Leilah Weinraub, Dora Budor) but also in Berlin (Daniel Keller, Simon Fujiwara, Timur Si-Qin) and Los Angeles (Lizzie Fitch, Ryan Trecartin, Amalia Ulman). The list seemed algorithmically assembled, as if Facebook had searched my timeline and created a customized exhibition based on my likes and interests. I knew all these people, but I hadn’t previously realized they all formed part of the same global alliance.
“DISown,” the show, was clearly a moment of culmination for DIS, the magazine. Although DIS had shown at fairs and galleries, its cultural ambitions had always been too broad for the gallery format. The opening of a “store” (however temporary) on Eighteenth Street with a Red Bull–sized budget seemed like a consequential step. Securing a retail revenue stream had long been a Holy Grail for the magazine; though not a nonprofit, DIS was widely believed to be nonprofitable. Until “DISown,” it seemed that DIS might have abandoned the retail goal, as most of its editors had started working for VFiles. VFiles was like DIS minus art plus commerce—a mainstream-facing media company that sold designer streetwear online and through a storefront in SoHo.
Eventually I made a pilgrimage to “DISown.” As soon as I walked in, I felt soothed; everything was sheathed in white, as in an Apple store or the Celestial Room at a Mormon temple. On the floor were bizarre, drunken-looking directional markers, Lizzie Fitch’s homage to the floor plan of IKEA; there were also IKEA-inspired laundry bags for sale printed with the DIS logo. At the entrance, I was greeted with a blown-up version of the show’s flyer—a photo of a boy with an uncomfortably sexy smile, cut off at the eyes, wearing a white, inside-out mock-neck whose exposed tag, appropriately enough, displayed the exhibition’s tagline: NOT FOR EVERYONE. On a wall across the room, the same image, even larger, had been superimposed on a rock-climbing wall whose purpose seemed to be to provide a backdrop for event photos.
A variety of “consumer products” by contemporary artists and designers had been placed throughout the showroom. About half the offerings were clothing items—denim printed with a flame pattern from Korakrit’s new show at MoMA PS1; a sweatshirt by Trecartin with a graphic from his recent film Center Jenny; a baseball cap with a hidden spy cam by Keller; planter-cozy beanies by the art collective Jogging, emblazoned with the names of resistance heroes of the national-security era (Manning, Snowden, Assange, a misspelled Daniel Ellsberg). The other half were home furnishings—body pillows by Jon Rafman printed with photos of Emma Watson from different stages in her career; a beanbag by Bjarne Melgaard; a salad bowl by designers Hood by Air; a doormat by Budor covered in logos from electronics manufacturers, meant to evoke the practice, once common in Eastern Europe, of covering the floor during winter with deconstructed cardboard boxes to protect it from the snow. Objects ranged in price from $10 for the DIS IKEA bag to $4,800 for a luxury flotation device by Annika Kuhlmann and Christopher Kulendran Thomas.
Many of the items, including a giant hammock by Fitch and an underwear set by Ulman, were unique or handmade but designed to look mass-produced. Though the objects projected an aura, it was one of tribal affiliation—some call it “branding”—rather than of the Kantian sublime. If traditional artists struggle to maintain the fiction that holy artifacts emerge fully formed from their brains, the artists in “DISown” were more likely to pretend that they had used a fabricator when in fact they had done everything themselves. As with handcrafted techno beats, the “DISown” pieces strove to convey automation. (This is refreshing at a time when craftsmanship has been conceptually co-opted by the food industry. It may not be clear to anyone exactly what art is supposed to be, but it’s reasonably clear that it’s different from an heirloom tomato or a heritage turkey.)
“DISown”’s upfront commercialism served then to rebuke artists—including some who participated in the show itself—whose market value relies on presenting their work as somehow outside the market system. “DISown” thereby issued a critique, not of mass commercialism, but of the hypocrisy of the market’s marketable pretense of art for art’s sake. Large corporations underwrite museum exhibitions all the time: The difference with “DISown” was that it highlighted Red Bull’s involvement instead of concealing it. The result, the show wanted us to believe, was aura without the hypocrisy.
Many of the objects were individually fascinating; others seemed rushed or dutiful. But the show’s magic lay, not in the individual pieces, but in the way it branded its participants. By bringing together so many emerging artists from New York’s post-Internet scene and combining them with blue-chip favorites such as Melgaard, Trecartin, and Fujiwara, the show staked a powerful claim: DIS magazine, which began as an email exchange among twenty-odd friends, now stood for an entire generation.
Or at least part of a generation. In a promotional trailer made to accompany the show, Kelly Richards, a “DIS spokeswoman,” explained that while “DISown” is “not for everyone,” it is “definitely for you.” This was simultaneously a joke about the alchemy of branding—our product is only for special people, but also for everyone, because all consumers are special—and also a statement of fact: If you were watching this video, then “DISown” was definitely for you, because DIS, which describes itself as an “international community of writers, photographers, musicians, and DJs,” is really a social network that disseminates content to anyone who hits “follow.” No secret passwords necessary—if you click, you’re in.
What DIS had discovered—but what much of the art world still didn’t know—was that exclusivity had become obsolete. “Cool” wasn’t cool—the old downtown underground had lost its appeal. The goal was no longer to subvert the mainstream, but to refashion it in subversion’s own image. To be sure, DIS’s impact was more to rebrand cool rather than to actually obliterate social and aesthetic hierarchies, but its rebranding was not without worldly consequence. On the heels of a downtown era defined by Ryan McGinley’s vampire sidekicks and Purple’s aging pornographers, the culture propelled by DIS and affiliated parties like GHE20G0TH1K felt like a life-affirming, gender-fluid, multiracial utopia—the legatee, in some ways, of earlier art-music-nightlife moments, from disco to the Club Kids, but filtered through the Internet era’s more expansive potential for commingling.
Accessibility, or at least the veneer of accessibility, was the order of the day. DIS wasn’t for everyone, but it was definitely for me.
ONE DAY IN THE SUMMER OF 2010, I was staring at a computer screen in the Condé Nast citadel at 4 Times Square. The economy had barely recovered from its 2008 flameout, and the vibe in the building was glum: A few months back, Ruth Reichl’s Gourmet had shuttered, along with two wedding magazines and a parenting publication called Cookie. I was working as a fact-checker at the New Yorker and felt lucky to have the job. On this particular afternoon, while struggling via email to appease one of the magazine’s infamous egos, I noticed a link in my news feed to a post titled “Shoulder Dysmorphia.” I clicked through.
“It is no small secret,” the feature’s intro declared,
that an elite handful of homosexual men are responsible for the self-esteem of millions of women worldwide. The ever-expanding exacerbation of shoulder silhouettes in women's ready-to-wear will not only continue on its grotesque path into the grim future, but consumer anxieties over natural shoulder inadequacy will skyrocket, forcing women to undergo startling new surgical procedures, season to season, in order to keep up with the newest designer shapes.
Beside the text was a clickable arrow that took you through a fantastical photo shoot of malformed models, the apparent victims of imaginary surgeries to sharpen and extend their frames. The models’ shoulders were sculpted into extravagant designs—concave curves, elaborate ruffles—which matched silhouettes from actual garments by Rick Owens, Givenchy, and Lanvin.
Despite its formal modesty, “Shoulder Dysmorphia” felt profound: With ruthless economy, it had pegged a phenomenon (feeling bad about one’s shoulders), positioned it within a field of power (a world in thrall to gay fashion-house directors), and amplified it to its unnerving extreme (surgery). Was this satire? Prognostication? I couldn’t really tell. It reminded me a bit of the “political surrealism” that undergirded many of the more popular essays published by n+1, where I moonlighted as an editor. Unlike the n+1 pieces, though, the ideological commitments of “Shoulder Dysmorphia” were ambiguous. Were we supposed to revile the coming era of shoulder intensification or embrace it?
Surely, “Shoulder Dysmorphia” was something different from mere critique. It felt participatory, a cultural intervention that moved the needle—though in what direction I wasn’t sure. Instead of the standard pile of inert text and undermotivated imagery, it felt like a precision strike, both on my individual unconscious (I personally suffered from shoulder dysmorphia) and on the wider culture. With magazines tanking and galleries getting boarded up everywhere we looked, who among us would survive without augmenting our shoulder-to-waist ratios? I wondered at the time where this strange publication came from, but it wasn’t until this past spring that I heard the origin myth.
In late 2009, a year after the crash, a group of friends working in various corners of New York’s culture industry saw their freelance work dry up. Suddenly, they had a lot of time on their hands, and the idea emerged through an email chain to start a digital magazine. “It was an interesting moment,” Lauren Boyle told me in a recent interview. “People were still afraid of tweeting too much! At that time, DAZED, ID, Interview—they weren’t picking up the people we were interested in. We started organizing the community a little bit.”
Lauren and her partner, Marco Roso, an artist who sidelined in advertising, would host big evening meetings at their house on Hooper Street in South Williamsburg. The meetings would mist into parties, and the parties would morph into photo shoots. Eventually, the meetings/parties/shoots were whittled down to a core group of seven, including, in addition to Roso and Boyle: Solomon Chase, who had been doing fashion styling for print and TV; David Toro, a research assistant and art handler; Nick Scholl, a web developer who for years served as the magazine’s webmaster; Patrik Sandberg, a writer; and Samuel Adrian Massey III, a product developer.
Four of the founding editors had attended art school and had chosen to live in New York City over pursuing traditional art careers. “If I had wanted to paint,” said Boyle, “I would have gone to Philadelphia or Baltimore or Berlin.” Roso, who was a bit older and had an established art practice, moved to New York from Spain after spending eight years burning through various artist residencies. “When I lived in Europe, my life was just linked to grants—one grant after another. You hit a point where you go through all the grants.” Not that Roso thought artists in America were much better off—they were dependent on the gallery system. In New York, though, you could find freelance work in fashion or advertising while pursuing art on the side.
The editors decided to organize as an LLC rather than as a nonprofit because they didn’t want to rely on donors or grant-giving bodies. Instead, they nursed the dream that some day their magazine would make money.
Screenshot of DIS article on “Brand Loyalty.”
FIVE YEARS ON, the fulfillment of that hope might be on the horizon. A profitable DIS might not do much to hasten the demise of capitalism, but it could have a salutary effect on the art world. If we take the magazine at its word, part of the purpose of creating consumer-facing “diffusion lines” is to liberate emerging artists from hyper-rich collectors. While many take for granted the entanglement of the art world with the ultra-elite, there was a time not all that long ago when close association with the very wealthy was a source of embarrassment for respected artists. The promise of the diffusion line is that it could allow artists to trade an alliance with the .01 percent for an art practice supported by the middle class. The idea is that artists could become a little more like Red Bull, which makes its money from the masses.
(Red Bull has evidently done a good job of persuading people that it’s really a long-lost cousin of DIS. Throughout the run of “DISown,” I heard numerous artists repeat the line, without irony, that Red Bull is “actually a media company”—the energy drinks were just a side thing. Time and again, I had to explain that this wasn’t true: Red Bull was in fact a beverage company. Its support for “DISown” and other art initiatives was a branding project to help sell energy drinks—energy drinks were not a fake-out to help fund projects like “DISown.” Perhaps, in the distant future, viewers of the Red Bull Network will no longer remember that the company began as a distributor of caffeine and taurine, but as of now, Red Bull’s identity as a media company is largely science fiction.)
Cheerleading for the middle class is one thing; making money from it is something else. Many of the artists featured in “DISown” are already showing at elite galleries. DIS itself had a four-week solo show last year at Suzanne Geiss as well as prominent placement in a widely discussed exhibition, “ProBio,” at MoMA PS1. They have gallery representation in Paris. The risk for “DISown,” for which the Red Bull exhibition was only the launching pad, is that instead of creating an alternative funding stream for artists, it might simply allow the artists involved to peddle their wares to major collectors with greater buzz and authority.
DIS, Emerging Artist, 2013. Shown in “ProBio” at MoMA PS1.
When I interviewed DIS, they insisted they would meet with Bed Bath & Beyond next week if the company were interested in rolling out a DIS diffusion line. (It did not seem to figure in their calculus that Marty Eisenberg, a vice president of Bed Bath & Beyond, happens to be one of the world’s biggest collectors.) That would be the real test—both of DIS’s seriousness about reaching the middle class and of the middle class’s readiness to embrace DIS.
Generation DIS is what the Internet did to the avant-garde. While it will take years to sort out the consequences of the magazine’s market-oriented provocations, we can begin to formulate the stakes. If DIS gets subsumed by the blue-chip establishment, they’ll be remembered as a richer version of earlier scene-driven collectives like Art Club 2000. If they succeed in delivering art to the masses, they’ll have accomplished something no one saw coming—the rebranding of aura and the unmooring of the avant-garde from its lordly patrons. That could make them the most important artists of the decade.