For March, Artist of the Month Club settles its roving gaze on dis magazine, guided by curator Lauren Cornell, Executive Director of Rhizome and Adjunct Curator at the New Museum. Their photo, Soft Negotiations, is part of an ongoing project, as discussed below.
MB: Soft Negotiations feels precisely on time. The country is still figuring out what happened in the 2008 financial crises, with many Americans wondering why the reckless Wall Street suits who caused it aren’t in jail. Congress is so ensnared in its bipartisan impasse that it needs special legislation to prevent a government shutdown. And right on time, here is this photo of suited men contacting each other in unusual ways, with an onlooker dutifully recording. Is this piece deliberately political? Or are you more interested in the fetishes (and secret life) of the corporate male?
DIS: I don’t think we would be making these images had it not been for the financial collapse and the ensuing political fallout. This image references the quid pro quo nature of big business and government and the insider information of the privileged few. But it can also be interpreted as an alternative to present-day office culture. It’s ambiguous enough that it could go either way.
That said, our approach to the production of this image wasn’t about being literal with the political and economic state of things. This image directly relates to the innocuous world of business stockphotos, that we re-appropriate and articulate in a different manner. A lot has been written about stock photography. The purpose of a traditional stock photo is to be a “code without a message” making it the ultimate image commodity: visual content without explicitly articulating anything to be used for any number of purposes. Soft Negotiations is part of a larger serial project called DIS Images, which focuses on manipulating the codes and trends of stock photography to answer questions that have not yet been asked and thus broaden the spectrum of lifestyle portrayal.
MB: Why can’t we see their faces?
DIS: There’s a lot happening in this picture. The out-of-frame subjects reinforce the narration and create a sort of positive ambiguity.
MB: Okay, so the DIS Images from the Free show at the New Museum, curated by Lauren Cornell, are available online for free, and I see a dedicated site with more selections coming soon. Will those also be available for free? And will you keep track of where they are used?
DIS: You are correct. The images from the Free show are free but the rest won’t be. We’re going to use the standards already established on stock photo websites to distribute the images. We’ll probably reserve a section that will be free for anyone to use them or transform them.
One of our missions has been to explore the banality and novelty of image-making, so this takes it one step further with distribution. Yes, we’re really looking forward to seeing our images proliferate online in different contexts as well as in brochures, PowerPoints, et al. We’re happy to engage any public, anywhere—galleries and institutions alike—but we focus on exhibiting through non-art specific forms of media culture.
MB: For some conceptual artists, a primary motivation is recontextualization: taking something common to one venue/site/context and relocating it to another. Your project seems more like simply “contextualization.” Initially, the images are stored in your bank, which is neutral – though not a vacuum – and when purchased, they find an assigned context, such as a brochure, PowerPoint, etc. Do you agree? Or does the for-sale status of the images actually fill in the context? Another complication is that the images will continue to be available for multiple purchases. To me, that seems to compound their neutral context.
DIS: We never thought of our image library or images as being neutral. Quite the opposite, really. It’s as much about paying for images as it is about the wide usage of free images. We forgot to mention that the images are also available for free with a watermark. This has no neutrality, and it’s also an experiment with branding, a way to proliferate the DIS brand as a point of view. Specifically in employing the watermark strategy, which is a really widely used tactic not only in stock, but also advertisements (say Nike), video (TMZ) etc… We’re trying to mimic the moment and make it mean something different.
MB: An image is purchased and goes on some ad agency’s web site, on its human resources page. Compare that to an artist making a painting that a dealer later sells to fill a corporate lobby. How are these cases different, in terms of what you said earlier: “exploring the banality and novelty of image-making, taking it one step further with distribution?”
DIS: It’s very different to us. A painting on the wall of a corporate lobby retains its value as a work of Art and it will be admired as a work of Art. Ours could sneak into a brochure and never be seen as Art or anything other than the assigned meaning that the context places on it. Or maybe it’s just an absurd gesture. Either way, we’re not looking for a happy ending.