The Content Biennial

The artist collective DIS challenges the manic image economies of our contemporary with an entertaining and critical biennial by replacing the politics of representation with one of circulation.

Mandy Harris Williams, Couture Critiques, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève.

TIn the contemporary maelstrom of the moving image, “content” has a bad name. Art’s response to the all-consuming content economies of tech giants seems to work against the “contentification” of everything – an attempt to resist the crazed logics of circulation and consumption of aesthetics by instead offering depth and opportunity for reflection. This response assumes that content and its platforms could never be critical in and of themselves, and is thus deeply conservative; furthermore, it ignores a long history of vanguard media distribution by artists, from the artists’ television of the 1970s to the net art of the 1990s.

Biennale de l’Image en Mouvement 2021: A Goodbye Letter, A Love Call, A Wake-Up Song
Centre d’Art Contemporain, Genève

The American artist collective DIS has articulated a different response. With its Biennial of the Moving Image at Centre d’Art Contemporain in Geneva (BIM), co-curated with director Andrea Bellini, the collective delivers a concrete blueprint for artistic media distribution as a critical strategy.

Although it is most widely known for propagating the “post-internet aesthetic,” DIS, which was founded by a group of artists in New York in the early 2010s, has always been primarily concerned with distribution. Its bygone DIS Magazine (2010) became the central hub for networked art and discourse in the Web 2.0 age; DISimages (2013) served as a functional stock photography bank with imagery entirely produced by artists; and its shop concept DISown (2014) revived the tradition of artistic merchandise by offering tongue-in-cheek “diffusion lines” to the proper artwork. In 2018, the group closed all these ventures to instead commit entirely to the moving image, launching an “edutainment” network that would stream original content by artists, Netflix style.

The exhibition at Centre d’Art Contemporain is a reminder that for DIS, physical exhibitions are essentially distribution platforms where the group can finance and extend its networked, digital-first practice. Herein lies the curatorial challenge: How to avoid rendering the brick-and-mortar physicality of museums secondary to screens?  In Geneva, DIS has solved this with a tight scenography transforming the multi-level kunsthalle into a dimly-lit, hotel-like maze of numbered rooms where visitors can choose to immerse themselves in various video environments for as long or as short as they like.

I started with ten minutes in Camille Henrot’s epic 3D work Saturday (2017), the French artist’s exploration of our “inner lives” amidst a crisis-ridden contemporary – a kaleidoscopic and emotional journey through adult baptisms, church hotlines, and choral performances interspersed with close-ups of plastic surgery procedures and endoscopic views of the human digestive tract. Saturday is a meditative navigation of a world of image feeds run amok, but without erasing its profound ambivalences and contradictions.

Camille Henrot, Saturday, 2017. 3D video, color, sound, 19’32’’ © ADAGP Camille Henrot.

This logic extends in Akeem Smith’s 32-minute video installation Social Cohesiveness (2020), where various flickering footage – Jamaican dancehall parties, 1990s cartoons, 9/11 documentation – produces a sublime, if at times disturbing, world of media. These are worlds, the exhibition shows, that artists in particular are able to work with and work from.

In the corridors connecting these disparate image worlds, total darkness is only broken by the duo GRAU’s greatly enlarged LED diodes, Fire (2021) – the only non-video art in the show. They lie languidly on the floor emitting an irregular, alluring output of colour, as if they were themselves live composites of a moving digital screen. Recurring throughout the exhibition, GRAU’s works effectively conjure the biennial’s mise en scène: We are navigating a television screen from the inside.

Indeed, walking between the dozen video works in the show feels like old-fashioned channel hopping. We come across children’s shows (Simon Fujiwara’s Who is Who? [2021]), shopping channels (the collective TELFAR’s TELFARTV [2021]), cooking shows (Will Benedict and Steffen Jørgensen’s The Restaurant, Season 2 [2021]), style TV (Mandy Harris Williams’s Couture Critique [2021]), and even courtroom TV (Penumbra [2021] by Hannah Black and Juliana Huxtable in collaboration with the creative studio And Or Forever).

As with all TV sessions, it’s not all content that captivates us; some things are funny, others are dramatic; some things are quickly skipped, whilst others have us glued to the screens. But what pervades all of these “channels,” and thus DIS’s TV apparatus as a whole, is obvious entertainment value.

Hannah Black & Juliana Huxtable & And Or Forever, Penumbra, 2021. Courtesy of the artists and the Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève.

As many artists work to show, there are many harmful and problematic aspects of contemporary entertainment: it preys on the vulnerable, fetishises trauma, and renders geopolitical crises into digestible spectacles. But DIS, with its commitment to the oxymoronic notion of “edutainment,” show that these pitfalls don’t preclude it as a genre of artistic critique.

Sure, there are light thematic red threads to be found in the exhibition (bearing the vague title A Goodbye Letter, A Love Call, A Wake-Up Song) relating to virtuality, post-humanism, climate change, and identity under late capitalism – all familiar to the DIS orbit. But it is the attention to the politics of content production and circulation itself that really transpires as the show’s most pertinent theme.

Fujiwara’s fairytale-like stop motion video about Who the Bær, a lovable bear in search for an identity in the performative platform economies of social media, satirises the mediated nature of today’s self-construction in/as content, while TELFAR’s Dada-esque shopping channel collapses the marketing tools of white American mainstream consumer culture onto itself – precisely because his independent brand collective has, until recently, been excluded from the US market.

Williams’s Couture Critique activates the popular filmic language of MTV’s hit show House of Style (1989–2000), but replaces the content with a reinterpretation of Edward Said’s 1993 lecture ‘Representations of the Intellectual’, urgently asking the audiences how we make critical thinking cool again, not only for an art crowd, but also for the Gen Z. By contrast, Theo Anthony’s three-channel Neutral Witness (2020) painfully presents the full duration (over four hours) of a body-camera training seminar by Baltimore police across three screens. As such, the artist presents leaked police footage as a cinematic language of its own, and does so in the very year where exactly such footage – such content – spawned a new civil rights movement in the US in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

In DIS’s own Everything But the World (2021), a 38-minute natural history show, the complex history of human civilisation and its relationship to nature is laden with green screens, photoshoot sets, and QR codes affixed to historical monuments ready to be activated. The video points to two things: firstly, that the image technologies of the capitalist entertainment industrial complex surround all representation today, even that of capitalist critique; secondly, that the vocabulary of these technologies are ripe for critical use and misuse by artists.

 As such, DIS’s edition of BIM is a much-needed sidelining of the idea that representation is critical or liberating in and of itself. All images, whether they like it or not, are trapped in the content economies of late capitalism, where they are routinely exploited, commercialised, and made banal. Instead, this exhibition argues that production and circulation are important – perhaps even the most important – spaces for cultural politics and that art has a unique capacity to explore these spaces. Despite an artistic line-up of more or less usual-suspects from the DIS network, this is well worth traveling to Switzerland for.

DIS, Everything But The World, 2021. Courtesy of the artists and the Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève.