Kate Durbin On Undressing Femininity and The Artistic Integration Of IRL And URL

Writer, curator, artist and cyberfeminist Kate Durbin adroitly undresses femininity and cultural conceptions of womanhood through a seamless integration of IRL and URL. Her interdisciplinary work both challenges and embraces the primacy of pop culture through a haze of glitter, rainbows and the signifiers of innocence. First rising to fame in 2010 with the online journal Gaga Stigmata — a compendium of cultural criticism devoted to Lady Gaga — Durbin is also the known for the tumblr project Women As Objects, through which she identified and coined the “teen girl tumblr aesthetic.” In 2014, Durbin designed the ongoing performance series “Hello Selfie,” exploring the digital political by making performance art out of auto documentation, and in 2015, Durbin’s digital show “Cloud 9” raised questions about how female artists make a living, revealing our gendered relationship with money and the shame surrounding creation and compensation. In addition to her highly regarded curatorial projects, Durbin’s publication history is equally storied, with multiple books of fiction, poetry and pop culture criticism to her name. We were lucky enough to speak with this pastel-hued polymath in person about art, feminism, fangirling and her body of work to date.

When did your pop culture predilections become more than just about enjoyment? Were you always immersed in it and then one day took a step back to analyze what you were consuming?

When I was a little kid I wrote stories. One of the things we would do in the stories — I say “we” because I would put myself in the stories — is go to Disneyland. We’d go on a different ride every chapter, and that would be the whole chapter. Even back then I was starting to slow pop culture down, to look at it from a level that was sort of removed. When I started making money from babysitting at 11 or 12, I would spend it on the teen magazines, like Bop, Tiger Beat, and I remember thinking “all the girls are doing this.” I liked it, but there was still some level of participating in it as a cultural movement….also maybe because I was homeschooled for a while so felt like an outsider.

Like it was a conscious choice?

Yeah. And I had way more magazines than anyone else. My whole room was covered in posters of teen heartthrobs like JTT and Leonardo, instead of just a few of them. I was already over doing it, and obsessing.

It wasn’t until after I got out of grad school that I started to write about pop culture. It wasn’t really what anyone was doing in my program, they mostly did memoir type work. I engaged with pop a lot outside of school, as I had since puberty, but I didn’t really think about it as a subject or a medium for my work until after grad school.

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How early in that process was the Gaga Stigmata project?

That was a year or two out of school, in 2010.

What video sparked your interested in her, “Paparazzi”?

I was aware of her before because I read Perez Hilton back then, and was like “who is this pants-less person?” But I didn’t really think about her that much until “Paparazzi” came out. That video was so exciting because it was meta, a successful pop song, a social commentary, and the outfits!

We at Gaga Stigmata were interested in what was happening in pop culture, with pop becoming self-aware, and we wanted to participate in it. Before that moment there wasn’t a serious yet hopeful and progressive centralized critique space of pop performance, online. In 2008-9 it wasn’t a thing. Eventually, Gaga would say things in interviews that were directly taken from our essays. She was so receptive to everything that we were doing, and we were really doing what Roland Betancourt called “speculative criticism” — predicting the future. It wasn’t until Gaga Stigmata that people started talking about Gaga as doing performance art.

So which part came first?

That’s the big question about Gaga Stigmata, it’s like an ouroboros eating its own tail. You don’t know what came first: the Gaga or the stigmata.

I think that’s the thing about that site that people don’t often realize. Gaga Stigmata wasn’t just an academic journal about Lady Gaga. It was a phenomenon, where this exchange happened between us and them, and there’s a mystery to it, too. We don’t know what exactly was happening.

Her team though, they were the ones who would tweet our articles, frequently. Millie Brown would, who did those vomit videos with Gaga, and Nicola (Formichetti) did, and her hair stylist, Brandon, did too. We knew that they talked about it, were into it.

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How many other writers did you have?

We had a handful of really amazing people. Megan Vicks was my tireless and brilliant co-editor. Roland Betancourt from Yale was our Gaga oracle. Megan Blalock, she works for In Style…it was a very diverse group of people. Even though there were academics involved, there were others who were simply smart and enthusiastic about pop.

I like to believe that regular people can influence pop culture. That was also when the internet was really exciting. Now, I’m not as excited by the internet.

It’s dark.

It’s aggressive. Remember when there weren’t even likes on Facebook?

Yes! You had to comment to engage. The internet wild west.

That’s a perfect way to put it. You could do anything, there weren’t so many rules.

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On to your curatorial side. Can we talk about “Cloud 9”?

“Cloud 9” unfolded in this short window of time where there was transparency about art and economics.

You seem to focus on all the things that so many women deal with, struggle with, but don’t feel like it’s a worthy topic to discuss.

Or make art about…

Yeah, I guess it all comes back to a fear of femininity.

I was scared for a year before doing that project. I didn’t want to talk about my economic history in public because it was embarrassing. I knew no matter what I said it would be perceived that I wasn’t suffering enough to talk about the subject, or that my suffering would be seen as a personal failing instead of wrapped up in systemic problems. And other people’s stories made me so sad for them! Afterwards some people were like, “are you gonna donate the money now?” That was part of the point of the piece. This is why we don’t talk about these things, because it puts us at risk. Women are seen as not worthy of the money they earn. Especially female artists are in a particular bind. “Cloud 9” ended up being about projection too. I was the one person whose narrative wasn’t anonymous in the piece. I wasn’t willing to ask other people to put themselves at risk like that, but I was willing to do it to myself.

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That’s the culture today, of attacking, not measured critique, just throwing out assumptions. Do you think it’s worse for female artists?

I think it’s getting bad for everybody. But the kinds of critiques women get are different than the kind men get. I’ll get a lot of contradictory accusations after I do something. My intelligence and motives are constantly on trial. Sometimes my actual voice is on trial. My vocal fry has been pointed out more than once. Sometimes I amp it up on purpose, for that reason. And because I like vocal fry.

However, a lot of people wrote me after and said [“Cloud 9”] made them feel hopeful. Since we’re not supposed to talk about money, there’s a sense that our failings are individual. It’s like if we can’t fund our art, it’s because we failed. This is a systemic problem, which is why I wanted to share multiple stories, because capitalism hurts everyone along a spectrum. I’m sure some people were surprised I worked four jobs simultaneously this past year to survive. As artists, we need to talk about how we get our money — don’t feel like you’re being crass or inappropriate. It’s important for women to talk about it. Even if you have a trust fund, talk about that. We need to be open with one another.

Kate Durbin's "HELLO, SELFIE!" Performance Project

How about “Hello Selfie”? What was your original inspiration for the piece?

I had thought for a while I wanted to do a piece where girls were taking selfies for an hour in public and not talking to the audience at all, in part because girls were getting a lot of criticism for being narcissistic and taking too many selfies. So I thought, let’s do a long durational performance where that’s all we do. People are waiting for something to happen, and then they realize this is what’s happening. I was thinking of it as passive aggressive performance art, where we don’t interact with people directly, but if people upset us we can flip off our phone, or interact with them in that way. It worked really beautifully. I was really pleased with how the audience stayed with the piece for a long time. People would come take selfies with us, or take their own selfies.

So it’s been LA and New York so far?

Yes. I’m doing it again in Australia with men. It’s called “Hello Selfie Men,” when the male gaze gazes back on itself. They have to be shirtless.

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When is that?

End of August in Brisbane, Australia, so it will be playing with Australian masculinity in particular. I like the idea of flipping “Hello Selfie” around by literally going “down under.” But I want to do that one in LA too.

I think another angle is that gay men are allowed to take selfies, but straight guys aren’t, so are you going to be playing with what they’re wearing on the bottom to project certain codes?

I don’t think so, but I hope for a diversity of men, so there will be gay men and straight men, men of various ages, body types, and ethnicities. All of the Hello Selfies are trans-inclusive. They depend a lot on who is willing to accept my invitation! I’m interested in working with men who feel comfortable taking selfies, and with men who are less comfortable. One of the things I love about this project is that each performer gets something different out of it: it’s their own relationship to their body, and their selfie. I’ve talked to some men who said they’re uncomfortable taking selfies, and I’m like, that’s interesting, why not, do you think only women are supposed to take selfies? What would happen if you took them?

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It’s feminine to care about your appearance.

There’s this T-shirt I saw online that partly inspired “Hello Selfie Men” that says, “Real Men Don’t Take Selfies.” I think there is this kind of attitude that guys who take selfies are suspect in some way. They’re vain…

Or feminine. I’m really interested in straight men’s Instagram accounts. Particularly guys in “tough” subcultures, like metal musicians. The way they take photos, and what’s acceptable for metal musicians to post. Who posts pictures of cats that are cute? What is permissible?

Since I have interrogated being the subject of the gaze for so long, I was like, “I want to interrogate the male gaze from the perspective of the gazer.” Of course, the male gaze is beyond the individual, it’s not really just something “men” do. “Hello Selfie Men” will reveal that, I think. That even men cannot thrive under the male gaze, humans can’t.

I’ve worked with women on display forever, and it’s time for the guys to go on display. Maybe it’s time for the men to obey me, is what it really comes down to [laughs].

Kate Durbin's "HELLO, SELFIE!" Performance Project

What is your own selfie game like?

I take them, but I’ve never felt like I had an issue with selfies.

What do you think about “selfie feminism”?

Especially because they are attacked for taking them, selfies can be an empowering act for women and other marginalized groups, whereas normally women are objects of the gaze, here they’re using the female gaze to project an image they want onto the world.

What is your creating space like?

When you watch the “Hello Selfie” LA video, that is my apartment. There’s mannequins, the walls are pastel painted…my friend Tien said it looks like a cute version of Buffalo Bill’s place, from Silence of the Lambs. There’s underwear on the walls, books everywhere.

So you were saying the internet bothers you. Does tumblr still hold a place?

I closed Women as Objects in 2013. I gathered a lot of material together and people still use the archive, though.

Kate Durbin's "HELLO, SELFIE!" Performance Project

So what’s next, are you doing more IRL stuff?

Well everything I do translates between IRL and digital. I am about to release a free app, ABRA, with two collaborators, Amaranth Borsuk and Ian Hatcher, that’s also a physical book. It’s a living text, where you can mutate the words on the page with your finger. It’s also a project about the future and history of the book. We made a beautiful artist book that looks medieval and in the back there’s a slot for your iPad, so you flip through the book and you start to see these little holes open in the pages and then you see some words swimming in the iPad underneath, and then you eventually reach just the iPad. One of things we were interested in is the ways technology has changed the ways we read and approach literature. We wanted to make something that embraces the change, it’s an integration.

ABRA represents the way I approach all my projects. There’s a bridging of different worlds. Whatever I do next will probably do similar things in terms of something IRL and URL until we merge totally. Then I don’t know what I’ll do. Maybe I’ll be halfway between here and heaven.

What is the role of sexuality in your work?

Being the object of the gaze you’re always sexualized to some degree. One of the reasons I wanted to use Hello Kitty in “Hello Selfie” is because Hello Kitty is a hyper-sexualized figure. Little girls love her, but then… :cat meows in the other room:

Kate Durbin's "HELLO, SELFIE!" Performance Project

So perfect!

Her name is Contessa, she’s my friend Becca Klaver’s cat. So yeah, the kitty becomes the pussy as you get older. So when I see little girls with Hello Kitty it kind of tugs on my heart a little bit. Like you’re so innocently loving this figure and you don’t have very long before you’re sexualized, in this very objectified and commodified way. So I think that’s the way sexuality works its way into what I do, and why it’s not always such an overt subject because I feel like it’s underneath everything, it’s beneath the surface of so many objects of capitalism in these really sad ways. Of course sexuality is beautiful. We are just so removed from healthy sexuality in our culture, we don’t even know what that looks like. It’s like a rainbow I am chasing…

Do you identify with a particular feminist wave?

No I don’t. In general I try not to operate under too many specific labels because I find it limiting. I’m definitely a feminist, I’m definitely an artist, I’m definitely a writer. Oh, I’m a mermaid as well.

Photo credits: Main image from “Hello Selfie” New York by Emily Raw; Images 1&2 “Hello Selfie” Los Angeles by Jessie Askinazi; Images 3 &4 “Cloud 9” by Tien Tiengerrin; Images 5, 8-10 “Hello Selfie” New York by Emily Raw; Images 6&7 “Hello Selfie Men” by Anna Jacobson