139 Dorota and Steve Coy

Dorota Coy, Born Lubin, Poland, 1978 / BA University of Vermont / Lives in Detroit

Steve Coy, Born Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1978 / BFA, University of Michigan, MFA University of Hawaii / Lives in Detroit

Like many outside of Detroit, I first encountered the work of Dorota and Steve Coy through the film Detropia in 2012. Looking up at the glowing, gold-gas-masked Executives of the Hygienic Dress League Corporation (HDL) I never imagined that in 2020 I’d be emailing with Dorota to reschedule an interview when the opening of their exhibition The Five Realms at Wasserman Projects  – along with all other social events in the city and across the world – was postponed due to a global pandemic.

As I clear my calendar, I wonder how many respirators are currently among HDL’s holdings, and whether that number affects the corporation’s value. There’s plenty of time for a deep dive on the internet to find out while I’m waiting for public life to resume.

What I discover is that Steve and Dorota Coy are not the Hygienic Dress League.

The Coys, as part of a group of artists affiliated with the University of Hawaii, co-organized a 2006 exhibit in Honolulu called Hygienic Dress League that explored the absurd extremes of advertising, media, and fashion. After moving to Detroit in 2007, Steve and Dorota established Hygienic Dress League Corporation as a legally registered entity “to engage in performance art the subject of which is the corporate form itself.” For a corporation with access to the tools of advertising, art and design, commerce and corporate structure, evidence of the League’s campaigns is more decentralized than one would expect. The corporate website organizes HDL’s projects and campaigns by city, but isn’t very comprehensive. There doesn’t seem to be information on the most recent or earliest work.

Trying to find my way to the very beginning of HDL and back is like following breadcrumbs through a city where recently refurbished buildings suddenly lapse into disrepair again. I turn down alleys of broken links, then round a corner to see the renovated and restaurant’ed Grand Army of the Republic Building covered once more with weathered plywood upon which a colorful Advertisement for … something? … appears unexpectedly in 2008. The surprise was the point, to startle a viewer into seeing things in a new way – maybe questioning advertising, maybe reconsidering the value of a boarded-up building in the neighborhood.

Another Detroit mural of the era directly exhorts “buy HYGIENIC DRESS LEAGUE” although HDL creates nothing one can purchase. The Coys, as founders and directors of HDL, seemed dedicated to the “mission to promote the mission: hygienic dress league.” This guerilla exercise in branding for the sake of branding continued for several years, never wavering from corporate-related content expressed primarily in painted and wheatpasted murals, some video, and two billboards with neon pigeons.

Cracks in the corporate façade started appearing in the summer of 2014. You can physically experience this on a visit to two murals on opposing walls in the Dequindre Cut, a rails-to-trails project in Detroit. In HDL We Trust is a typical Advertisement of black line on gold featuring the female Executive gazing upon the pigeon she holds aloft. Opposite is The Sacred Ones, also on gold with an HDL logo at the corner, but featuring Native-style figures. I find myself in this spot often, and uncomfortable. The Sacred Ones doesn’t seem to fit the HDL ethos and raises questions of appropriation. Which may be the point. There’s a conceptual chasm as wide as the sky between the images. If ever a bridge connected them, it is gone now.

After this time, Executive types begin to appear topped with animal heads and the HDL personnel are rarely seen. The last appearance was a filmed performance by three Excavators in conjunction with the sculpture Diamond 1 (2018). Is this sculpture the property of the Hygienic Dress League? The terms of HDL’s incorporation are for “performance art” that focuses on “the corporate form itself.” That would seemingly limit what artwork the corporation can make claim to, and the rest should legally be ascribed to the Coys.

Flight (2017), a swooping installation of aluminum birds on Woodward, features the trademark pigeon, but is it a piece of HDL corporate iconography, or has it crossed over into being purely a sculpture? The surreal, immersive exhibition Value Proposition (2018) frames Diamond II with the question of the exchange value of gemstones in relation to the use value of water, an artists’ statement more environmental than you would expect from the Executives. The sculpture Divine (2019) shows clear references to religion. Would HDL’s Board of Directors allow this in the company’s name?

The rabbit holes and wormholes of internet research might not reveal the answers to these questions, but perhaps The Five Realms will fill in some of the blanks.

Mariwyn Curtin, April 2020

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