DIS has been a magazine, a curatorial collective, and an educational streaming platform. For their latest project, the group devised a pilot that tells a story of humanity – sort of. The film looks back on progress, capitalism, and power, and the vignettes that make up the story shift and distort scales until it feels like a nature documentary, without ever losing its sense of humor. It has been described as science-fiction-meets-Curb-Your-Enthusiasm, and it kicks off a series with which the collective aims at a larger audience. Lauren Boyle of DIS describes the collaborative process in an interview with writer Philipp Hindahl and speaks about the immensity of humanity’s existence and the smallness of our everyday lives. The interview is the first installment of V/A’s new thematic focus “Immediacy,” taking speculation and science fiction into more immediate, dare we say “real,” surroundings.
PHILIPP HINDAHL “You didn’t survive, so we can all relax,” says Leilah Weinraub right at the beginning of “Everything But The World.” This detail stuck with me because it felt like a retrospective contemplation of humanity, and the balance sheet doesn’t look very good. What made you tell the story of humankind the way you did with this documentary science fiction film?
LAUREN BOYLE We wanted to make a pilot for a series which collapses time, histories, and knowledge, while we toy with the coercive work of knowledge—or even the possibility of knowledge. I had just read the book Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, which is a huge international bestseller. Barack Obama featured it as a summer reading pick. It was entertaining and thought-provoking, especially when it comes to time scales, humanity’s acceleration and its impact on this planet. But the story was oppressively linear—one long unstoppable march of progress and a very orderly narration of how we got from A to B. We wanted to counter that. In our pilot the castle becomes a stand-in for private property and subjugation: from a medieval castle tour for alt-age influencers, to the legal term “castle doctrine” used to justify deadly force in defense of one’s home, to an existential rant of a White Castle fast-food worker. We wouldn’t call “Everything But The World” a documentary. It is a tale, like everything else.
PH After watching I had a few words in my head. One of them was progress, another one was scale. An employee at the drive-through of a burger restaurant—played by the writer Brontez Purnell—meditates on eternity. He has a memorable line: “The death of Cleopatra is closer to the moon landing than it is to the birth of the Egyptian Empire.”
LB We wanted to get to the question of scale. There was another book which inspired us, The Second Body by Daisy Hildyard , where she talks about the derangement of scale—which is a beautiful term coined by the scholar Timothy Clark. It is an expression of the huge gap between the immensity of humanity’s global existence and the smallness of your own private everyday life. We felt this in an extreme way during the Covid-19 pandemic, which is when we were writing the script. We were all eternally online, in a state of memetic knowledge and information transmission, trying to make sense of everything that was going on.
PH How did you work with this premise?
LB In the film Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch are preppers on YouTube, but instead of being survivalists preparing for a nuclear fallout, they are prepping for fossilhood. The tutorial is called “How to Become a Fossil.” Brontez Purnell was cast as a White Castle employee who goes on a rant and turns it into a hostage situation. Once he has the customers’ attention, he speaks about eternity, time, labor, and colonialism. Both scenes are confronting time denialism and widespread chronophobia.
PH What do you mean by that?
LB We have observed that time is a political challenge. It limits our understanding of the past, but also has major implications for the future, especially when mixed with apocalyptic end-of-the-world fantasies. The most common form of time denial is built into the infrastructure of our society, as an economic order that demands endless growth, consumption, and expansion—or else the system will collapse.
PH “Everything But The World” tells a story in episodes; each piece bears the style of frequent DIS collaborators, for example, the zany Web 2.0 aesthetic of Lizzy Fitch and Ryan Trecartin or the sleek and sometimes menacing score by Fatima Al Qadiri. How does it all come together?
LB The film is a disjointed narrative told through vignettes and Leilah Weinraub is the voice that ties them together, but it crosses genres, forms, and media. We matched collaborators and topics. We would conceptualize scenes and draft scripts as prompts for our collaborators, who ran with it. Once we cast Ryan and Lizzie to develop the prepper scene, they made it their own. The same thing happened with Brontez. That’s fully Brontez’s voice. Or, there was the Caetano Castle in Italy, once owned by Pope Alexander VI. In this scene a tour guide tells a story based on Silvia Federici’s writings on witches and the great transformation in the late Middle Ages. At the end of that section, we asked our longtime friend and collaborator Ada O’Higgins to read a text about Pope Alexander VI and make a TikTok video. When her shoe broke while taping, we used that. She improvised a Muppet voice and we made her shoe talk. We could not have planned that. The cast is so entertaining in their delivery, and there is an absurdity to each of the scenes. Coupled with the seriousness of the topics, it leaves people laughing, but in a nervous way.
PH The film operates on a deep-time scale. Where did this idea come from?
LB Something about the Pandemic made many of us feel extra small and insignificant. You go down these rabbit holes, reading about geology, or Young Earthers—people who believe the planet was created by divine intervention no longer than ten thousand years ago—and even our experience of time itself. In the wake of the industrial revolution, time became more linear; it was like an infinite horizon of progress, a flat line. Before it was cyclical, literally the circle of life. Knowing that a plastic bag takes one thousand years to decompose is stunning. But that shock is fleeting. You need plausible deniability to just live in this world, to order your coffee, log into your computer, make dinner. It can feel like we are living in a remote but perpetual crisis. But you can’t exist in that world all the time, you can only visit.
PH You said “Everything But The World” is the pilot for a series. How will the story continue?
LB I don’t want to give too much away. But in the plot we are trying to replicate the situation we experienced during the pandemic. There is a global story that the whole world is paying attention to. With that you have different theories why something is happening. It is going to allow for all the narratives about money, time, information, love, and connection.
PH Do you have a platform in mind? Will you stream it, will it be in theaters, or in an art space?
LB We don’t. The traditional way is, you write it, you pitch it, and try to partner with a production company to develop it further. Then you sell it to a streamer in order to actually be able to make the series. That is the goal, because it is a big story, and we want it to be in front of a lot of people.
PH That is something you rarely hear from artists!
LB We want a big audience for this. It is going to be complex but also accessible and entertaining, not esoteric or difficult.
PH To describe your platform dis.art you often use the term “edutainment.” Does “Everything But The World” fall into that category?
LB Not sure. With dis.art, we’re all about new ways of delivering information. We’ve found that artists have an incredible wealth of knowledge across a broad range of topics and often come to conclusions that academics or journalists wouldn’t.
PH In a lecture a few years ago where you presented the video-based platform, you laid out how we live in a post-literate culture. The uneasy claim was: who needs a brain when you have thumbs that can swipe and type?
LB The lecture was a long time ago, and I was probably a bit fastidious in my statements. But we do have a networked brain, and that’s what the statement is about. We have access to so much information on everything, everywhere at once. We’re reading all the time, but literacy has changed. We need a new vocabulary, more media literacy.
PH The decline of legacy media implies a decline of the public sphere, some say.
LB I don’t find that particularly positive or negative, but it is worrisome that, with every paywalled article, there are a thousand potentially less scrupulous news sources for free. So, we are in an awkward post-adolescent state of the internet. Subscription models are growing, independent and niche media are competing for a larger share, and I think that’s a good thing. When we put things out, they are always free to the public before they go into our back catalog, which is only accessible to our subscribers. We also have a base of institutional subscribers: universities, art institutions, and museums.
PH The streaming platform was only one of the incarnations of DIS. Before there was the magazine and a biennial. And now you are planning a series. These stages roughly align with the crises of the past fifteen years: the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, the Trump presidency, the Covid 19 pandemic.
LB Maybe we need crises for a change in our internal ecosystem, I don’t know. But there is a strong continuity between everything we’ve done so far, and I think we evolve to keep it interesting for ourselves.
PH How do younger people react to DIS?
LB It’s funny because a lot of zoomers know DIS just as a video platform, or just as a magazine, or maybe from hearing about it on the New Models podcast or in Discord forums, but they haven’t pieced it all together. The film hasn’t been released online, but many people have seen it because it hasn’t stopped traveling, and a lot of zoomers message us. Some have even organized their own screenings. I think we still connect.
PH Throughout the different versions of DIS there was always a particular style, and you can tell if something is inspired by the DIS aesthetic. Do you have an idea what that style is?
LB DIS has definitely figured into the mood-board industrial complex, but to me it’s less a style than an approach. It’s a living, functioning embodiment of the shifting mentalities that are making today’s world expansively complex.
PH There is also something humorous.
LB DIS is usually funny.
PH And DIS has often been associated with an ironic stance.
LB We never thought of ourselves as ironic. The thing with irony is that it implies a certain aloofness. That is not what we do. We amplify the world around us.
PH Is that why, in the press release for the 2016 Berlin Biennale, “The Present In Drag,” you demanded, “instead of holding talks on anxiety, let’s make people anxious?”
LB It was a way of saying, let’s cut the jargon and art speak and present the problems of the present where they occur, rather than present it as a matter of spectatorship.
PH The art world is increasingly interested in collectives and in using their networks to create big art shows. Do you feel like the DIS-curated biennial was a trailblazer for curatorial collectives?
LB Maybe, I’m not sure. For me it is about co-working and co-creation, which gives the work itself a whole other dimension and sense of purpose.
PH Could there ever be a DIS retrospective?
LB That would be fun. Of course it couldn’t be about us. It would need to include the whole network of artists that made DIS Magazine, and everything after that, from mixes to performances. I’m thinking about how we commissioned the artist and musician David Riley to give a two-hour lecture on the scrunchie at the New Museum in 2010. It would have to include every kind of medium and collaboration.