July 2002
volume 1, issue 1


A Generosity of Spirit, DRS

Having grown up with the photograph of a vibrant young man in a Norwegian sweater placing a flower in the barrel of a soldiers drawn and bayoneted rifle at an anti-war rally, I was instantly intrigued by the photo of an abandoned LAPD cruiser showered with red and white carnations in Ad Busters Magazine. I learned that this photograph was an art work by the LA based art collective known as Dispute Resolution Services. I had a chat with them.

1. In some ways your artwork functions as a critique of the rationality exhibited by activists or artists when they justify a specific action with political discourse. Are you aware of the mediating nature that language wages on action?

The idea that all action must be legitimated, a priori, as a manifestation of some warmed-over social commentary does a great injustice toward the act. Besides, setting up social space as a place to be entered only with fixed ideas that we seek to impose on others results in redundant work. Simple propaganda amounting to more orders for people to follow and more meanings already arrived at. However, we think it's a mistake to see them as mutually exclusive: action is also a kind of language, language is a kind of action, and what action isn't simultaneously a political discourse of sorts?

2. While working consciously in politically charged spaces, DRS seems interested in creating evocative social poetry rather than making diaturgical political statements. Why the interest in poetics?

We like how poetics allow for thought to step outside the rational [dis]order of things. It allows art to become charged, intense, pleasurable and spontaneous. By taking an interest in the nuance of the instance, poetic acts invest in the present, add to its richness, and increase its ability to differ. The poetic work is particular to its given situation in a way that can't be reproduced. A generosity of spirit.

3. Does DRS have a critique of society?

Yes. Society is becoming ever more integrated and conformist. As past institutions of social control are dismantled, newer, more supple forms of mental straitjacketing are introduced to compensate. People are becoming increasingly dumbed down, subject to the mass media as it blurs every event into the next. It operates to maintain a kind of perfected stupor that keeps everyone in line. Fewer and fewer people are even capable of making any kind of informed decision on anything. In this culture, subjective transformation amounts to little more than the purchase of a new Banana Republic safari shirt. And no matter where you go, you're sure to find one; everywhere it's the same thing--geographical differences are being eradicated. One mental architecture for everyone.

Mass media has created an incredible state of dependency. In many ways, the future looks very bleak. Capital flows over the globe unchallenged, goodbye to all safety nets, and for the majority of people it's now a matter of work some shitty low-wage and unsatisfying job, or fuck you. We live in a state of total terror, with the various authorities at war with everyone, but especially those who voice dissent.

The art world hasn't escaped this either; in the local LA art "community" we're forced to contend with critics, like David Pagel and David Hickey, who actually champion the market as egalitarian. Critics who advocate an art economy in which value is to be determined by both the number of pieces one sells and people to whom one sells. Artists are being painted into star-craven opportunists. In many cases, values in art have become as idiotic; as cut and dry as those that arise out of its use in branding consumer elites, feeding their narcissism while allowing them to escape the mass banality that poor folk are subject to. Even artists buy into it. Go to an opening and witness the aura that surrounds the hot sellers. Art could benefit from artists doing a little speaking up, arguing and talking for themselves.

4. Is your artwork (in the use of poetics) a provocation of sorts?

We hope so. In our interventions we try to create a space for different potentialities to emerge within the normalized circuits of routine. To hijack the commonplace in order to generate something particular with it, but not something didactic and imperative. There are enough orders already. We see using poetics as provocative because of there ability to give voice to complexity. We did a floral piece in which we dumped large bundles of flowers upon unattended police vehicles, one of which was an LAPD cruiser. For this, we chose to use long stem red and white carnations (common, innocuous). However, all over the car and on the ground surrounding it, these flowers took on a charm and radiance which was hitherto unassociated with them. And the overall effect of the gesture evoked complexity of feelings in ways that were interesting to us. It was a mixed code, dispatched to people whose job it is to sort out signs, make appropriate determinations and to act accordingly. It was our desire to confound this process, send it into deferral. Was it a transgression of private space and property? A pageant-like symbol of adoration? A metaphor for the cop-crazy culture that surrounds us? A passive aggressive form of smart-ass graffiti? Its value was open and reversible.

5. For you as individuals, is there a difference between the role of an activist and the role of the artist? If so what are they? What is the common ground?

Activists work around specific issues and conform to the timings of events surrounding them. Yet we see our work and that of other artists as activism in as much as we all produce singularities in a world of mass-produced banality. At the same time, this isn't to suggest that we love all art; some we find really unstimulating and pointless in an uninteresting way.

Also, we need to nurture a participatory existence disassociated from repressive models. For example, when we start up alternative news sources, too often we merely mirror (form, style, content) the very institutions that compel us to start them up in the first place. We go for a pre-established constituency, rather than contributing to the actualization of new subjectivities. This is where artists have the upper hand. Artists speak to populations yet to be. In art, process carries its agents away into new and unexplained/unexplored territories. In our practice, when its working, we find ourselves confronting meanings which were in no way presupposed, and we change in the process, becoming people we had little inkling of.

6. Is it important that DRS projects be "effective"?

We're not into pessimistic failure, so yes, we want the work to be effective, but not in any grand sense. Our work is effective if it sparks a desire in someone to create a different world; not with just this kind of work, but with and in anything. If our work nurtures a creative and open environment than it is successful. We love DIY culture; it's a way of taking some small measure of self-determination back from the prepackaged-slave factory that life has been turned to. We think artists should reevaluate their relationship to effectivity. Our objective is to foster cultures of sensitivity and playfulness, where people can come to do and make for themselves. And it seems that one way of realizing this is for as many people and groups to be creative and alive as possible. Who needs another star?

7. Who is into pessimistic failure? This statement is interesting in terms of postmodernism's cynical relationship with works that allude to cultural or social values. In this context, an embrace of the value of failure is romantic, almost poetic: like a tiny collective arming itself with rhetoric against the capitalist New World Order; a Japanese soldier on a desert island still fighting for Hirohito. So are you into optimistic failure?

Work that wallows in abjection and futility, infantile and mean spirited works, are commonplace in contemporary art, and seem only to add to the misery of existence. Often times, artists set their work up "as if" to seek the realization of something impossible, thereby failing and becoming nothing more than metaphor. This is fine for careerists, who never really want to change anything anyway. But for artists committed to social change, it seems better to set smaller (realizable) objectives and to build the conditions which, incrementally, could allow for something more substantial to emerge. We have a long way to go, and a little realism couldn't hurt. Concerning what you call optimistic failure: it sounds more interesting to us. In a world dominated by a kind of dimensionalized mental architecture of control systems, where "communication" is constant and relentless, the failure to communicate can be provocative, in that it allows for a little space where genuine thought can potentially come about. It can even inhibit authorities' decision-making process. If anything, we could use more forms of non-communication.

8. Are you critical of the ways that other artists and activists use language or representation when engaging political subjects?

When it operates as a means of self-legitimation and/or dumbing down. Frequently, artists who seek to represent some political identity create work that contributes nothing, rather reinforcing lines of self-satisfaction and righteousness. A gallery work attacking Jesse Helms does little in the way of contest. It's disgusting to confront work that whores out political contents in order to render itself impenetrable; work that normalizes its own form, while problematizing everything else. We favor works that challenge commonplace significations and suspend knee-jerk responses. We're into self-reflexivity and forms that don't allow themselves to be comfortable, works that give pause to the steady stream of functionality, that defer judgment and give rise to complexity of thought and intensity of feeling, works that are humorous and pleasurable, yet difficult and unwieldy.

9. It seems to me that an advantage of your strategy is the ability to not be pinned down to an audience or a specific agenda, so as to exist in a multiplicity. However some might see this stance as cavalier, a kind of dilettantish attitude where DRS limits its exposure or commitment to a specific mode of work, benefiting from its exposure yet not sticking around long enough to commit itself to a particular artistic or political agenda. How would you respond to this?

We don't limit our exposure, we just tend to move on. We don't have any predetermined audience and are not interested in terminal affiliations; we're not responsible and monogamous; we're not interested in speaking for others, and would rather they speak for themselves. Not being an institution, we're not petty bureaucrats. In our work we try to create spaces for new kinds of art making, new, and active relationships to the world that we live in. In this way we're committed to political/aesthetic agitation, but like the Surrealist group COBRA, that which is focused on the imagination directly, which irritates people into thinking and doing for themselves. The world is sick with representation. And we hate the way artists--complicit with the market--participate in disenfranchising others and themselves into a state of codependency. People come to rely on artists, stars, etc. to live their lives for them, the existential priest syndrome

10. Your practices appear so flexible. You exhibit in commercial galleries but are also involved in street art practices. At the same time some of your artwork, seen contextually, can be read as relating to an immediate political issue-while other art works are abstract evocations- still others are art historical in their nature. How and why are you in so many places at the same time?

We think it's important to take advantage of opportunities to introduce the problematics of art making into the dominant spaces of their reception; although different, we think of showing in a commercial galley as a continuation of our practice out in the street, as they are both occupied territories. We like to exhibit in as many different places as is possible; the gallery is only one of many venues. Besides, it's possible to exhibit in commercial spaces without becoming whores to neurotic investors. We've done this by never showing in the same gallery twice. And paradoxically, we've found that the more we push the object quality of our documentation, the less of an object it becomes. This is interesting in that it confuses the sense of just where the "Art" actually resides--disrupting the expectations of the gallery attendee.

We're interested in a practice that encourages heterogeneity and maximizes possibilities. Favoring schizoid complexity to the preciousness of artistic subjectivity, we resist the market-driven demand for artists to find their voice, and to stick to it, reproducing it ad-nauseum. We're not interested in work that mirrors our uniqueness. We see our practice as an opportunity to go beyond ourselves, to open up, to experiment, to become. Each work (always a matter of contingency) necessitates a different approach every time. And in this, we are always changing as a practice as we combine with new sign systems and must create new languages of entanglement. In turn, the sites of the interventions change as the previously functional sign systems are sent into deferral and play