“Pop matters,” declares Los Angeles-based writer, performer and transmedia artist Kate Durbin—“What we hear in the mall, in our cars, on YouTube, makes the world around us, which is to say that it makes us.” Author of The Ravenous Audience (Akashic Books, 2009), E! Entertainment (Blanc Press, diamond edition, forthcoming) and five chapbooks, Durbin is the founding editor of Gaga Stigmata, a blog whose curated contents are forthcoming as a book. Her projects have been anthologized and featured by Poets and Writers, Salon.com, Huffington Post, The New Yorker, Spex, NPR and many others.
Shattering the halo of iconicity surrounding the celebrity maudites of our era (Anna Nicole, Lindsay Lohan), Durbin examines the paradox of how reality stars are both commodified by celebrity culture as well as in control of their own market share. Resisting the complicit passivity of spectatorship, scopophilia, the fetish, and the gaze, Durbin’s art engages with the politics of consumption within a culture industry that minimizes the contributions of women effecting social change—treating them, according to Sheila Rowbotham, as an “amusing incongruity, titillating commodity, easily consumed.”Shot through with neologisms (“cinesexuality”), Durbin’s work posits a playful beyond to academic feminisms and postmodern memes (multiplicity, lack), wherein attempts to formulate a politico-ethical position (or narrate a representation of self or other informed by race, gender, or ethnicity) are seen as universalizing gestures, as if a neutered, class-based solidarity were the only social praxis left.
Unafraid of excess, sentiment, kitsch, and risk, Durbin offers a riposte to today’s countervailing aesthetic of disinterest, harnessing the plasticity of L.A. culture yet adamantly focused on the miasmic “real” (“I’ll take the grit of earth, facedown, any day”). Durbin’s recodings of the shifting signifiers of our time (music, fashion, femininity, labor) position her at the liberation front of a lived art born of reflection, subversive engagement with the “Big Other,” interconnectivity, and passion.
In an age when individual freedom is increasingly packaged as consumer choice, and endless opportunities are offered for aesthetic rather than political or ethical self-fashioning, Durbin’s work incites a return to conscience, as well as consciousness, and agency, for icons, and ourselves.
Virginia Konchan: Your work flaunts binary distinctions between queer/hetero, butch/femme: What relationship does “femme” play to other transgenre feminisms such as the gurlesque?
Kate Durbin: From my understanding, the gurlesque radicalizes femme as site of sinister threat to the patriarchy: A knife in the heel of a Chanel shoe. I love the idea of the femme and the sinister co-mingling and think that the gurlesque is a potent way of realizing the femme, but the gurlesque has its limitations, as all theories do. I am not sure I agree with the idea that all things we label femme possess an inherent special violence, as some gurlesque notions imply—other than the violence all things possess by nature of existing. I am interested in our anxiety around the femme. This anxiety seems a major aspect of the gurlesque, actually. It’s like we still have this second-wave feminism hangover. We can’t just be okay with glittery baubles, or, in the case of the gurlesque (at least in many of the primary gurlesque theoretical texts), it appears we can be okay with glitter as long as it’s fighting against patriarchy (even if it’s fighting abjectly, i.e. passive-aggressively). But what if the femme also has a life of it’s own on other terms?
Remember, the term “femme” is just a label we use to categorize a variety of disparate things but is “femme” only—or even primarily—those things?
What I am most interested in right now is an evolution of that which we label the femme into a perception perhaps best labeled post-human. This evolution seems to me one way beyond this anxiety around the “femme” From a post-human perspective, glitter and cuteness and those things we might label “femme” can exist without many historical gender-based hang-ups—therefore, without being inherently reactionary and therefore trapped forever in an abusive relationship with patriarchy. Lipstick and glitter on an alien is a lot different than lipstick and glitter on a man, a woman, or even a gay man or woman. Transgender gets closer, but it’s still not far enough outside the human for our minds to really re-consider our limiting categories, I think. That’s why I am also so interested lately in women as/or/in/on physical objects, things that are not “human” but have our likeness (or we their likeness), or where we can see ourselves mirrored in them (or vice-versa). Is a cactus wearing a rainbow-flowered hat femme? Or is it simply free?
VK: Gurlesque co-founder Arielle Greenberg describes “queer-ness” as a fluid kind of sexuality: “Perhaps phallocentric but also truly indebted to drag culture, androgyny, bisexuality, polyamory, fetish culture.” How can hetero-women and men take part in “queer aesthetics” while acknowledging that “camp” and gender performance theory originated in gay culture?
KD: I think it is helpful to remember that the brave souls who first brought the notion of camp to public consciousness (whether we’re talking about the Cockettes or Divine or Jack Smith or whomever) were, among other revolutionary things, showing us something that was already true about all of us—that we are all always putting on a show, playing roles, etc. There is no inherently normative approach to sex, identity, love and life. The more we can get that message out to the world, the less problematic it will be to “borrow” from drag culture, because we will be existing in a highly conscious world that is aware of itself as a drag show, a world where no group is marginalized. I think this is what makes the borrowing problematic now—the marginalization of the queer community. So it helps to remember that camp and gender performance didn’t originate in gay culture. Gay culture turned it into an aesthetic. Gay artists were the messengers. Camp, however, originated in the beginning of human culture! The first time we put on clothes.
I do, however, think that Arielle is right about a debt being present, and I think that ripping people off or quietly “absorbing” someone’s work and ideas is horrible. I’ve been on the receiving end of that bad behavior, and it feels shitty. There’s a difference between appropriating transparently (that is, giving full credit where it’s due) and slyly copycatting, and yet some people pretend not to know the difference. Maybe their biases toward certain people blind them from realizing what they are doing. We are brainwashed to think oppressed peoples don’t “own” their ideas in the same way straight white men do. So, you know, hetero camp-performers, give credit where it’s due. Don’t be assholes!
VK: Your work deconstructs the static notion of the pop star as a figure of blind worship and untouchable-ness. You’ve also spoken about your loss of religious faith. Has it been resurrected by your refiguring (as in the work of David LaChappelle) of the flawed humanities (and iconic representations) of non-religious icons?
KD: A great question, but no. My religious faith is gone, thank the witches. I do have an active spirituality, a belief in life beyond death, etc. But in terms of my interest in non-religious icons, I assume you mean Gaga specifically when you ask that. I do not worship Gaga, or see her in a religious light, but I think she obviously plays with that notion of the worship of the celebrity in really interesting ways. Of course a lot of that is traced back to the worship of saints and the figure of Jesus Christ that really gained traction in the Dark Ages, after the fall of Rome. But Gaga is an artist interested in agency, both her own agency and that of her fans. And agency of the self is something that is very, very important to me. It’s the major reason I left the Church. I am glad, however, to have experienced such intense non-agency for so long, because it’s helped me understand what that experience of being a victim feels like, and how important it is to fight against that kind of conformity of thinking.
VK: Gaga’s decision to dress in drag, and her deliberate toying with gender and sexuality, is for you more than a “cynical capitalist move of embracing, repackaging and selling a safer version of an oppressed subculture” (which, as you rightly point out, is something that the music industry has always been very good at). How does Gaga for you go beyond deconstructing economies (command, capitalist, libidinal), semiotic codes (literature, cinema, television) or cultural signifiers (modernity, wealth, leisure)? Is there such thing as “pop literacy,” or a way to “read” or interpret intentionality in art and culture?
KD: Gaga does deconstruct, but she also reconstructs, as a part of the machine that is the pop-industrial complex. A good concrete example of this is her Born This Way album cover. On that cover, her body is fused with that of a motorcycle, and she’s growling at the camera. She has described the cover thus: “I don’t want to become a part of the pop machine: I want the machine to become a part of me.” This is one of the reasons I was drawn to Gaga initially. She wasn’t just critiquing, which gets condescending and victim-based after awhile. She was exercising agency within a really disturbing, individual-crushing, capitalist industry. She was the glitch in the system. A further note on that cover: it’s very DIY and ugly, as a fuck you to the industry’s beauty standards, among other things. Gaga also wanted to challenge her fans, who had come to expect a certain quality of image from her. She wanted to see if they would accept anything from her—again, to challenge them to accept their own agency.
I think one way to read pop and intentionality in art and culture is to give it a closer read than we have been trained to do. We’ve been trained by culture to treat pop like fluff, and highbrow art as serious. Many smart people are going to read a Ruscha painting more seriously than a music video, but why? It is worth noting as well that as Marina Abramovic has pointed out, photography and performance art and any kind of new or “alternative” art medium is always summarily dismissed at first. Part of it is context—museum vs. YouTube—but a lot of it is just status quo. Examine your bias, and you’ll find you’re using someone else’s criteria. Someone has told you that painting is important, but if you think about it, pop, by its ubiquitous nature, cannot be anything but significant, or it wouldn’t be so prevalent. I’m not saying it’s all Gaga videos. It really depends on the thing in question. But a lot of people “scan” things instead of reading them, partly because we are over-inundated with information. But this just keeps us locked into the same old narratives.
I really think keeping an open mind is important and also one of the most important and difficult tasks a human can take on. It goes against much of our cultural conditioning, and our fear-based biological mechanisms. And so this is where the fight begins. This is where we begin to read pop, to gain literacy. It begins in our minds, which are sealed-off rooms. Decide to watch a pop video without pre-judging it. Watch it like a Ruscha and just see what happens. Don’t watch it to judge it. Watch it to understand it. That’s all I did with Gaga, and look what happened to me!
VK: In imagining a landscape where consciousness-as-labor, the ultimate unappropriable capital, could emerge, is the work of aesthetics for you attended by the work of valuation: weighing, considering, and taking an active role in deciding what, amid the commodified streams of liquid capital and pop culture referents, has value?
KD: I really like the idea of this landscape you describe, coming into being. For me it is perhaps less about deciding what has value and what doesn’t, since value is something we assign, not an inherent objective quality, and it’s also something assigned collectively in many ways. For me, it’s about owning my role in assigning value, and valuing my participation in the pop-cultural landscape. Gaga Stigmata really helped me to become non-judgmental about pop culture, because Lady Gaga surprised me so much. I really cringe now when intellectuals say condescending things about celebrities, or try and dismiss any famous person—whether that person be Gaga or Ke$ha—in a kind of knee-jerk way. This, of course, while my work is still brutally honest about the problems of our materialistic, misogynistic culture, and our ancient and fear-based blind celebrity worship.
When I look at pop culture, for me it’s a lot about detecting frequencies. What moments in the pop world are resonating at a high frequency, a frequency of self-awareness, of cultural evolution, of inter-cultural penetration, of surprise, of compassion? I call these moments “glitches” in the system of our deeply entrenched narrow perceptions of what culture is and can be. What feels significant and penetrable, upon careful inspection? In this sense, it’s not just my intellect I am using to souse out the “good” art from the “bad” art (a false dichotomy as far as I am concerned), but rather, I am pairing intuition and open-mindedness to that which I encounter, in order to witness it more clearly, and therefore to interact with it in such a way that owns my responsibility as a viewer, a consumer, a participant in this thing we call culture. The value then lies in the interactivity, this fluid movement between the audience and the icon. So in that sense, it is totally about consciousness, as you point out. But it’s ultimately about looking for holes that I can stick my finger into. Hence, stigmata.
One example of a cultural moment I live for happened the other day, when Spencer Pratt from “The Hills” tweeted that he had just bought my long-time collaborator Amaranth Borsuk’s augmented-reality poetry book. It was a totally awesome moment for me, with worlds colliding! Then a few days later I realized that the actual Spencer Pratt was in the Big Brother house, filming, and whoever is Spencer Pratt on Twitter is some English poet type [the English poet type turned out to be TempSpence, Mark Marino and Rob Wittig, a collaborative e-lit team from USC]. How did this happen? What is really going on here? It makes my mind explode in the best possible way! Of course, I have a special love of “The Hills,” after writing out an entire episode over the course of a year for my book E! Entertainment.
VK: I’m impatiently awaiting Cintra Wilson’s latest book, Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America’s Fashion Destiny, and I’m curious what you think about Wilson’s writings on celebrity culture (A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-examined as a Grotesque Crippling Disease and Other Cultural Revelations), or what pop culture or avant-pop critics you admire?
KD: I haven’t read Cintra Wilson, but I will look into her! Right now I have on my to-read list Animal, Vegetable, and Mineral: Ethics and Objects by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. His Monster Theory is a seminal text for me, in terms of reading art—in this case, the horror genre, but it can be applied to any art genre really—art as a projection of our inner state, our fears and desires. His new ideas about objects possessing agency is eerily in line with my current aesthetic direction, with my tumblr project Women as Objects (perhaps he is my spirit guide?). Also, thinking of objects having agency might get to some of your questions about late-capitalist anxiety and how we can shift the $$ framework while existing within it. If we stop thinking of “things” simply as purchasable dead matter, and start encountering them in a different way, as living objects with agency of their own that we interact or collaborate with, perhaps that mindset will liberate us somewhat.
I also want to read Sianne Ngai’s newest, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, and Interesting. Our Aesthetic Categories is more “pop.” I love Ngai’s focus on “unacceptable” aesthetic categories. I think Gaga was an unacceptable aesthetic category for a long time, and that’s why people were so freaked out (and excited!) when I started the Gaga Stigmata journal.
Kate Durbin is a Los Angeles-based writer, cultural worker, and transmedia artist. She is author of The Ravenous Audience (Akashic Books, 2009), and co-author of Abra, forthcoming as an iPad app and artist book with the help of a grant from Center for Book and Paper Arts at Columbia College Chicago. She has also written five chapbooks. She is founding editor of Gaga Stigmata, and her tumblr project, Women as Objects, archives the teen girl tumblr aesthetic. Her projects have been anthologized and featured by Poets and Writers, Salon.com, Huffington Post, The New Yorker, Spex, NPR, Hyperalleric.com, poets.org, Lana Turner: A Journal of Poetry and Opinion, Yale’s The American Scholar, The Rumpus, and others. She is the winner of an &Now Innovative Writing Award