“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?