The Selfie Aesthetic: An Interview With Kate Durbin
Kate Durbin, the Los Angeles-based artist, first came to my attention when I discovered The Teen-Girl Tumblr Aesthetic. Co-authored with Alicia Elar, the article focused on the contemporary adolescent female aesthetic and experience, the adult re-appropriation of said aesthetic, and the hazy lines between IRL, URL, and performance. As a woman barely out of my teenage years, it was SO EXCITING to read a serious, critical analysis of a female-centric online aesthetic that is often ignored for being too feminine.
Recent projects like Women as Objects and Girls, Online, curated collections of female-identifying Tumblr posts, show the Teen-Girl Tumblr Aesthetic in practice as well as theory. The images she pulls from the popular microblogging site are collected to show, as Durbin writes, that “the art ‘object’ extends to the bodies of girls both on and off-line.”
In the same way she validates the lives of teenage girls, Durbin probes pop culture icons to discover their humanity. Durbin is the founder of Gaga Stigmata: Critical Writings and Art About Lady Gaga, an online journal about the “meta-pop star”. She has also published two books, The Ravenous Audience and E! Entertainment, the latter of which is a meticulously transcribed and dissected examination of reality television, such as Keeping Up With the Kardashians and The Hills.
The themes from Durbin’s various works coalesced in her most recent performance piece, Hello, Selfie! The first iteration of the performance occurred in Los Angeles in July, the second in Manhattan’s Union Square in October, and the third was just performed at this year’s Art Basel. Durbin’s piece consists of a group of young women who take selfies for exactly one hour. The women do not interact with their IRL audience; instead, their selfies are uploaded to various social media sites in real time.
When I called Durbin, I was at work on a larger project about Hannah Wilke, an artist who was often criticized for using her own naked body as part of her works. Selfies and other images by women, of women, are critically considered Narcissus’ reflecting pool, a slippery slope into vanity. But for Durbin and I selfies are a tool of empowerment. During our conversation, we talked about owning your own images, the ways Los Angeles is like the Internet, and the selfies we choose to see.
Your work is interested in the intersections between female self-presentation and the gaze. But most of your work regarding these topics is on the internet. What inspired you to create an IRL performance piece?
I intended Hello, Selfie! to exist in a public space IRL, but also URL. As the girls were taking the selfies, they were uploaded in real time to the Facebook event wall and to our various Instagrams and Tumblrs. The project was unfolding in both spaces simultaneously. I wanted to take what girls do online in the protection of their bedrooms and put it in a public IRL place where people would be forced to confront their reactions — both tender and violent — to female narcissism and the selfie phenomenon.
I’m interested in the ways in which violence toward women’s images online ties into violence against their bodies in real life. And the ways in which women seem to bear the brunt of narcissism accusations, even though everyone’s taking selfies.
What instructions did you give the girls?
Vanessa Beecroft has influenced me somewhat aesthetically, but she is really strict with her performers; they’re all anonymous models. I wanted to have girls in the piece who were not models, of all shapes and sizes and races and orientations, and I didn’t want to be strict. Many of the performers are amazing artists themselves.
The rules that I was a stickler about were no talking, they could not talk to the audience or each other. It was really important that they be in their own world of selfies and their own little bubbles of narcissism. If people tried to interact with them, they could only respond through their phones passive-aggressively.
I’m interested in the ways our connections with each other are mediated through technology, even when we are in public IRL spaces, such as Chinatown in Los Angeles and Union Square in New York, where two performances have taken place. The square is such an ancient meeting space, and also conjures for me the brutality of the mob. Can the phone be a weapon? Can it provide protection? These are questions I considered.
Why did you choose to set yourself apart from the girls rather than wearing their identical costume?
I thought of a vagina and I would be the tip of the V, or a madame with her whores, or a protective mother…it was an intuitive choice. Initially, with the first performance in L.A., I had made the outfit and I wasn’t sure if I was going to be in the piece or just watching, a voyeur, but then I realized that of course I had to be in it. I had to be implicated in the piece, I had to offer up my own flesh, I couldn’t just leave the girls to the mob after asking them to do this. I also wanted people to think about the relationship between that figure and the other figures.
Did you decide to dress the performers in underwear sets to enhance their vulnerability?
Panties come up a lot in my work. I did a piece called The Pile of Panties — I had women from all over the world send me their dirty underwear and I piled it on Sunset Boulevard, an iconic L.A. street where starlets go to pursue their dreams and are chewed up and spit out. There was an Agent Provocateur billboard near where we piled it, and it was also near a women’s shelter, which was just serendipity.
I watched the panties from a distance — wearing panties myself — and used surveillance to film. Most people ignored them, although one woman shoved a bunch in her purse. This felt exactly like what would happen.
I think a lot about how panties are fetish objects. I chose Hanes, an American brand, because I wanted the branding to be global, not just Hello Kitty. They’re granny panties, kind of childlike and elderly at the same time, vulnerable. They’re also super comfortable and have pretty good coverage. I wear them all the time!
They’re revealing, but they’re not erotic.
They’re vulnerable, but they are neutral in a way, as far as underthings go. Almost mannequin-like.
Hello, Selfie! has been performed twice, once in L.A. and once in New York. Were there noticeable differences according to the space? What have you learned after two performances?
It was originally created for L.A. I’ve always likened L.A. to the Internet. I feel like Los Angeles is a space that is very aware of itself as simulation or construction. We did the first piece in Chinatown, a space that was created by movie set designers. For that performance, the girls had rainbow wigs, and I wore a pink wig and a transparent dress. I came up with the concept and asked Peggy Noland to make it for me. It is clear plastic and you could see my body under it. Under the dress I wore a nude bodysuit, so there was the illusion of seeing flesh. The Hello Kitties had the Apple symbol for their eyes. The three brands in the piece are Hello Kitty, Apple, and Hanes.
After Hello Selfie! in L.A., which had a very dreamy fantasy aesthetic, I felt like the piece needed to become a bit darker to go to New York. Both cities are so image conscious, so the piece fits in each. I worked with Kelani Edmonson of Transfer Gallery for the NY version — she was instrumental in making it happen. I wanted the piece to evolve, and I thought the girls needed to be a little dead because they’ve been now been sucked into the internet. NYC was the sad girl goth version: white bobs and Lana Del Rey with her fake tears. My dress looked like a trash bag, the kitties on it were crying and melting. The fact that you couldn’t see through it was important; I wanted to cover up a little more. I had just been through a heartbreaking breakup where I felt reduced to an object in certain ways, so art and life were converging. Not that they are ever separate for me.
I’m writing my senior these on Hannah Wilke and the common criticism of her work is that it is narcissistic. These critiques are so surprising to me because I’ve never thought of Wilke’s work as narcissistic. I don’t see a selfies or self-portraits as necessarily a bad thing. I see them as an opportunity for an individual to have control over their image.
I agree, I don’t think it’s negative, and I think it’s sad that we think it is. It also seems like it’s primarily women who get that criticism, and it seems particularly acceptable to trash “beautiful” women for being too “into themselves.” Of course, beauty is subjective. A selfie or self-portrait is an incredibly powerful thing. You are announcing to the world that you exist and you are not sorry for existing.
A selfie seems like such a simple gesture, but because Hello Selfie! is a long endurance piece, people’s feelings towards their own bodies come up in front of other people. I have such respect and gratitude for the performers because they were willing to trust the piece and put themselves out there, even though it was very intense.
In L.A I had a friend who did it and she was a little bit nervous beforehand because she wasn’t as skinny as the other girls, and she had a very radical, very loving experience with her body through the piece. In both cities, there were people in the audience who were saying rude and disparaging things about some of the girls, but especially in New York. It was interesting and beautiful to see that the process of taking selfies over and over for some of the performers became a transformative breakthrough in self-love. Many of the girls said they felt protected by their phones and selfies, as well as by the stickers on their bodies, like war paint.
I never thought it was fair that people accused Hannah Wilke of being narcissistic. Also, when people said she was objectively attractive: there’s no such thing as being objectively attractive. One of the things that was interesting about Hello, Selfie! was seeing how different people observe the performers because I’ve had people say, “Oh, everyone is thin and stereotypically beautiful,” and that is false. The costumes give an illusion of sameness, so you can almost see what you want to see, to some degree. So if that’s the assumption you’re bringing to the piece, you might think that, but if you are willing to look closer and sit with the piece you’ll see a lot more is going on. When we judge someone based on their perceived beauty or lack of beauty, that says more about us than it does about them. We should pause and take a second look because maybe there’s something more going on than meets the eye. Maybe there’s a person in there.
Images: Emily Raw