Dora Budor and Maja Cule are a pair of Croatian expats who work together in downtown New York, using a mixture of digital, video, installation and performance media to explore our rapport with modern consumer culture. The emphasis is on communal experience, but the metaphor of codependence runs deeper, down to the way these two handle business. Like other art duos before them, they’ve conflated two creative personalities into one, and embraced the idea of life as an essentially performative undertaking. As Balkans babies, they’re uniquely poised to comment on the mercenary tidings of American capitalism, but they’d much rather let the work speak for itself. They routinely punk academic genres like still life and sculpture, blurring the boundaries between art and advertisement. And when they’re not toiling away at one of their multiple projects, they’re blissfully nude on the front of a very splashy splash page indeed. Their fake ads for “sustainable” commodities like vitamin vajazzling (paging J. Love!) and salmon skin durags remind us just how awkward product placement really is. And their video send-ups of art world oddities like Asian pottery and Bob Ross skewer the very basis of object value. Recently, the pair has been hard at work on a new performance that recasts the action flick with swarthy foreigners. Their solo show opens on November 15 at Stadium Gallery in Chelsea.
How did you guys come to collaborate and what made you decide to stick together?
Maja: We like collaboration because it makes more sense to make art collaboratively. It doesn’t necessarily have to be just the two of us. We also collaborate a lot with other people.
Dora: People collaborate when they want to make bigger productions, like a movie or something, and I have a feeling that those modes of production are becoming more typical in the arts. For us, it was a good platform for collaborating with other people, and it’s more exciting because it can bring unplanned results.
Your work underlines the idea of process and undermines the importance of the final product, whether art object or commodity. In your eyes, is there any difference between the two?
D: Not that we’re opposed to producing art objects, but we find our practice of documenting and representing the process, or of remaking and reappropriating mainstream practices of production, way more interesting than producing a final and finished piece. The state in which it exists is ongoing and perpetually in progress, revealing more about its past and future and engaging the whole life-cycle of the product.
M: There is something more vital than art existing as an aesthetically pleasing object. Treating it as a part of system or making it function in the outside world enables it to mutate and interact, being an everchanging mold and processor of contemporary society.
I’m thinking of works like your video Porcelain (2011), where images of historic and expensive Ming vases are first replicated then destroyed in a casual game of basketball, diminishing any “inherent” value they may have. Aside from its fragility, why Chinese porcelain? Was it something on your cultural radar at the time?
D: No, actually the inspiration for that work comes from a somewhat sensationalist article written several months ago about Chinese collectors who dominated the auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, buying up Chinese art for skyrocketing prices and, therefore, posing the threat of turning the value ratio of Asian and Western art upside down. The whole article was kind of cataclysmically portraying the issue, like, “Oh my God, they’re going to push back Western European art and change the course of the history of art.” One of the items that broke the record was a Ming period vase, which Sotheby’s expert Nicolas Chow referred to as ‘macho’ in describing its form.
M: The aesthetic comes from sports gear advertising campaigns, but it’s also inverted because after a longer look, you see that the models don’t really have any connection with sports.
Do you try to work outside of that historical tradition or from within the system? M: We like to acknowledge systems—we often reference other stuff and we appropriate imagery a lot, so we like to know, just maybe for our cause, what is the root of something or where does something come from, and what is its meaning at the time. It just kind of fits into the context that you built around the work.
D: In our work everything is a reference to another thing, so it’s like you take existing systems and mash up their “data” to create your own system, which makes a different meaning. That’s maybe how all of the works are created.
In your photographic series Contemporary Eco Styles (2012), you extend your critique of artworks to consumer goods. What do you think of our society’s obsession with consumption?
D: I wouldn’t say that any of our works are necessary critiques because we’re not critiquing in the regular sense that we’re saying, “Oh look, this is bad” or “This is not working.” It’s more like inverting stuff—how can we get this thing that doesn’t fit our meaning and the way we think it should operate to create another value system? Or, in a way, expending things in a way that they become absurd. We used all modes of branding or production or advertising in order to brand something which is supposed to be completely sustainable, organic and ecological.
M: More than critiquing the consumer culture, it’s a mode of entertainment. It’s turning the propaganda of ecology into a fashion editorial, and playing with that.
On that note, do you think the green movement is something sustainable or just a myth of advertising?
D: It’s as sustainable as American Apparel, if you consider what the company does in order to promote sweatshop-free labor, support gay rights and commit to other socially responsible acts, in contrast to all the negative stuff that they’ve been associated with.
M: There isn’t one thing that could be universally good for everyone, and throughout history, this has been proven many times. Showing objects as sustainable is ironic in a sense because an idea or a process can be a sustainable thing but objects always fall into decay.
What do you make of our culture of connoisseurship, or the idea that objects should be coveted?
D: That connects to the question of why we’re opposed to making physical, finished artworks. One of the reasons is the fetishization of the object, which has to exist as perfect. A lot of our work is about being imperfect and in progress. When we make a performance it’s sort of like the making of a performance. It’s like [David] Fischli and [Peter] Weiss’s video, The Way Things Go (1987). They staged a set of objects in a huge factory and, basically, the whole idea is really simple but it’s beautifully done: the fall of one object triggers another. Our thought process works more in that way.
M: I also feel like objects have a really dull life after they’re made.
That reminds me of your video UnStill Life (2010), where a single event leads to an entire series of events.
D: We like the idea of cataclysmic events, like the butterfly effect. In the contemporary world, it kind of makes sense because small changes affect big changes so quickly today.
Which brings up the point that your work is very oriented toward the humor of the absurd. Is not taking things seriously the only way you can be a taken seriously as an artist these days?
D: I would say it’s commercially better to take things very seriously. I don’t think humor is the most valued thing. If you made a list similar to John Baldessari’s Tips for Artists Who Want to Sell nowadays, I’m sure all kinds of easily labeled forms such as “socially conscious,” “universally accessible,” “ghetto” or “queer” would be way rated much higher than humor. Humor is way trickier to understand because of its nuances, going from sarcasm and irony to black humor to LMFAO. It is a matter of subjective interpretation, whether you are disgusted by something intended to be funny or just find it enjoyably un-PC.
M: It depends on what kind of artist you are. For some reason, women tend to be way too serious in their work while guys can always pull off immature jokes.
Maybe not laugh out loud funny, but chuckle to yourself funny. In terms of absurdity, you’ve also talked about the uncanny of the hyperreal. Can you elaborate on that?
D: That statement was connected with the photo series Substitutes for Present Sense (2011), where we were making temporary sculptures and installations and photographing them, using common household objects and displacing them or arranging them in some OCD way. There was way too much work invested into the creation of it—that’s what makes it uncanny.
M: Or we were talking about the WorldWide Gallery Traxx mixtape (2012), where we did interviews with one-hundred white cube galleries around the world pretending to be an architectural investigating some features of the interior, like, “What color are the walls and the floor?” Of course, it’s the same all over the world. So we cut the recorded material into nine tracks and we gave them to nine DJs to remix into these very dancey pop songs.
You also recently collaborated with Sterling Crispin on a limited-edition line of t-shirts. Do you follow fashion?
D: We don’t go to fashion shows or anything, but we do follow fashion in a different way. I like the mix of high fashion and low fashion, street and ghetto style versus totally luxurious stuff, which can also be tacky.
M: Anything that’s trying to be controversial or political, but without the aim to change things, is a fashion.
What’s the draw, for you, of digitalization?
D: We’re fascinated by the idea that it can be spread virally and shared so easily. If you don’t want to set your work in a real space, you can take virtual space as your gallery. And I really like the fact that it’s equally accessible to a twelve-year-old girl from Moldavia as well as a collector who lives in New York.
Recently, a lot your work recent has been dependent on digital media.
D: No recently, over the summer, we were in residence in Berlin for two months and at the end of the residency we had the premiere of a new performance [KnockOff, 2012], which we’re not presenting digitally yet because it’s so, I would say, corporeal—it’s really about being there.
M: We were working with a group of guys from a mixed martial arts club, who were also security guards in a really amazing strip bar and who all happened to be Turkish immigrants. They’re kind of violent street men with a soft side and a charismatic presence. With them, we did the reconstruction of the Jean Claude van Damme’s action film Knock Off (1998) as a performance, where they executed fight moves in front a green screen. Their movements were superimposed on the backgrounds of typical action scenes and projected simultaneously, which created an effect similar to watching the making of a movie while being in the cinema at the same time. We had a choreographer [stuntwoman and artist Helga Wretman] on stage training them at every moment. Two weeks ago, we did the same performance, this time with Croatian performers, who are completely different in a way, to the point that you can sense the change in mentality. Each performance is both a copy of the previous version and its sequel. And we’re preparing one in Norway in eight days. So it’s been working with different people who are national archetypes of a violent young man, but who have no previous experience as performers. We try to push violence in the direction that it becomes a choreography and a mediated experience.
Do you think that globalization and consumerism go hand-in-hand with violence?
M: We were more interested in how it’s connected with tolerance. So far, all three shows were done in Europe. A lot of this is built on the image of immigration. Also, it kind of started as a low-quality imitation of brands. The people we work with are the ones who would sell these knock-off goods on the side. There are so many interesting connections we were looking into, like the branding for Axe shower gel, which is aimed at a super young target group but is promoting this brutal masculinity. There are so many brands that play on this image of the contemporary guy. But as a brand, they acknowledge it’s absurd.
D: We’re interested in this idea of hypermasculinity and men when they’re in a group. How can their behavior be choreographed so it still uses the elements of violent behavior and domination and so on, but transforms them into something poetic? How to create an abstraction of the violence? Basically, it’s the same movie. We’re making various “mockbuster” versions. Each time it’s with different actors. The “narrative” is pretty much the same, but it’s always a reinterpretation.
I’ll keep the immigration questions to a minimum, but has your own status as immigrants informed your vision in any way?
M: Yeah, definitely.
D: [Laughing] Let’s leave it for the visa office!