An interview with performance artist and underground style icon Kate Durbin.
All photos of Kate Durbin at her reading by Emily Raw
It’s a rainy Saturday night and the Bushwick, Brooklyn gallery is filled for a reading by LA-based performance artist, writer, and underground style icon Kate Durbin. We’re here for Durbin’s new book, E! Entertainment, a poetic annotation of reality TV shows; it's got a magic-eye cover and pink pages and is sectioned into eight “channels,” experimental chapters with titles like “Lindsay’s Necklace Trial,” “Kim’s Fairytale Wedding,” “Wives Shows,” and “Anna Nicole Show.”
During the performance, Durbin recruits audience members to play the “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” a participation tactic that is surprisingly successful given how wallflowery reading attendees tend to be. She reads the Kim Kardashian story in celebration of Kim's recent wedding to Kanye West and ends the evening with a chilling transcript from the Anna Nicole Smith “clown video.” As she reads as Anna, Howard, and the doll Anna mistakes for her child, an assistant paints Durbin in clown makeup.
“I’m happy to sign your books, if you aren’t scared of me,” she says afterward.
Pulling from pop culture is a theme for Durbin, whose previous book of poetry, Ravenous Audience, culled scenes from Catherine Breillat films. Other projects she’s undertaken, like Women as Objects (a Tumblr that collected and reblogged the art and writing of teenage girls) and Gaga Stigmata (a blog that collects academic writing about Lady Gaga), have similarly recycled imagery to internet acclaim.
I spoke to Durbin and discussed how an outfit can say the same thing as a poem and how reality TV serves an ancient and barbaric function in society.
VICE: So I read E! as sort of a reclaiming of “trashy” television with the idea that while reality television is often written off as “lowbrow,” it actually uses techniques of classic literature.
Kate Durbin: Yeah! So on all TV shows there are archetypes and conflicts from classic mythology or Shakespeare comedies and tragedies—yet when this happens on reality TV we tend to denigrate the crises. I conclude that this dismissal is about who is having the crisis.
Yes, and your book centers on the stars of “girl culture” or maybe “queer culture”—Kim Kardashian, Anna Nicole Smith, Lindsay Lohan, the Real Housewives. These female “reality TV” stars seem especially mocked.
Yeah, and watching them, I also started to notice how the shows sort of set us up to mock the stars. There’s sometimes this dark undertone that reminds me of the Roman forum.
We do this scapegoating ritual with celebrities that feels almost ancient, barbaric. We build these people up to destroy them; we love to blame celebrities for the evils of society instead of looking at ourselves. They are these sort of beautiful mirrors that we can look into when we don’t want to look at ourselves.
Yeah, it strikes me that celebrities can become like human sacrifices… Marilyn Monroe is a big example.
And after they are sacrificed we reward them with eternal life. Marilyn Monroe is much more powerful than she ever was when she was alive. It’s so twisted that we do this, and I don’t think it’s even removed from what we do to the environment and the wars that we fight. It’s all tied together.
Reading E! I was thinking about how on reality TV there’s a double narrative. You have the narrative of what’s happening on screen with Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries, and then the narrative of what the audience thinks is really happening. I thought your decision in the book to turn Humphries into TV static showed that, as I think the audience sees him as a fake TV-screen husband.
It was an intuitive choice. I kept thinking about that literary idea of the static character, who doesn’t change. I find it interesting that in reality TV the characters don’t change, which doesn’t actually bother me.
There’s a lot of policing of femininity in these shows. The distance in your writing gave this an almost anthropological angle. As though the book was saying: “These are the circumstances of being a woman in the public eye,” which made it feminist.
I was worried people might not think this was a feminist project because there’s no authorial voice coming in and saying, “Oh these shows are terrible,” but I think the best works of art, including feminist art, are not didactic. I had to create something that could maybe be interpreted both ways in order for it to be potent.
While I find a lot of reality TV disturbing, I’m not totally cynical about the shows. I feel like the women in the shows have real friendships. People always talk about the shallowness of these shows but I’ve always felt that maybe I’m also shallow in certain ways. So what?
Heidi Montag blurbed the book and I know you talked to Spencer and Heidi about the idea of reality television as art.
Heidi and Spencer are interesting. They've done conceptual projects within reality television. They worked with University of California while on Big Brother, and pretended that Spencer lost his phone and that it was then found by a poet who was tweeting poetry and weird stuff from England. In reality it was an electronic literature project, collaborating with U of C.
You know, it really isn’t just a double narrative, sometimes there’s triple or even quadruple narrative on reality TV. But really that’s how we all live now with the wealth of information and technology that surrounds us at all times. Reality TV is very much a medium of this moment, so not to think of it as artistic, or to have the potential for art, just seems blind.
Ann Hirsch, who does performance art by going on reality shows, is a great example of someone that realizes this potential for art. There’s also Josh Harris, who did We Live in Public, which was like pre–Real World underground bunker in New York City full of artists that he filmed invasively 24/7 for an internet television station. That was really the beginning of reality TV, and the fact that this started in the art world is pretty cool.
And now you have Kim getting married on TV, her mom getting a facelift on TV, her sister literally pulling a child from her womb. It all aligns with this idea from the art world of “life as a performance.”
Definitely, it’s the same thing… just more makeup.
I’m curious if this is part of your practice as a writer and artist. Seeing one’s whole existence as a body of work with certain standards…
I do. For this project, I was watching reality TV like any person does and it turned into an artistic practice. I don’t believe in guilty pleasures and I don’t believe in having parts of my life that I don’t encounter fully. I am always trying to integrate the various aspects of my life together for art.
Why should I feel guilty for watching reality TV and why should any part of my life, even the most mundane part of it, such as watching TV, not become a work of art?
You are also such an underground style icon. Do you feel your style says the same thing that your poems or performances do?
Absolutely. I went to Christian schools with strict dress codes growing up, so I always knew fashion was political. I’ve always tried to literally embody ideas that are important to me. People don’t realize that they can do that, embody your work in this medium, and I just wish more people did because it would just be so interesting to encounter people in that way all of the time.
My next project is going to be about what men desire and so I’m going to have to come up with a new way of dressing that is more enticing; my style is very whimsical and strange, so I’m not sure yet how I will marry the two.
I watched “Kim’s Fairytale Wedding” after reading your story and I’m left still questioning all the narratives. They made money from the wedding? How real was the relationship?
What I hope people will take away from reading my book is how much we do these things too. How often do we go to weddings and say, “OK, why are these people getting married?” It can be romantic, of course, but marriage has always been a double narrative. It’s about power, assets, money. Maybe I’m a cynical divorce-type person but I loved that it was called “Kim’s Fairytale Wedding” and it was such a disaster. They were fighting, and yet it was still beautiful in moments and then it didn’t last. I just thought, That’s life.
One of the things we are always asking about reality TV is, “Is this fake or real?” We can’t decide and one of the reasons is because life is complicated. With Kim and Kanye, it’s been a great business merger for them but what’s wrong with that? They do seem to love each other, and finally she’s found someone who is smart enough for her.
So in your work is this theme of mirroring or recycling, taking other pieces of media and reusing them, it feels like a theme or device of the age.
For me to be an artist in this moment it feels right to me to work this way rather than create something new. It definitely feels like we have so much already.
Rachel Rabbit White is a writer and journalist whose work has appeared in Playboy, The New York Observer, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, Jezebel, Cosmopolitan, and more.