In Conversation: Ben Fama & Kate Durbin

kateBen Fama: I want to start by asking about something that occurred several months ago on the Hyperallergic site. You’d co-written The Teen-Girl Tumblr Aesthetic, an article about tumblr users who display an aesthetic that is “immediate, hyper-embodied, raw and vulnerable,” tying it to the recent death of tumblr user Elisa Lam, who drowned in a water cistern on top of a Los Angeles hotel. There was backlash among some of the readers who found the tie-in problematic. The cover of Rolling Stone (8/13), featuring a self-portrait of Dzhokhar Tsaernav taken weeks before the Boston bombing, has fueled a similarly strong backlash, with people believing it was disrespectful to victims, and altogether “too soon.” In both cases, the use of these cultural touchpoints was met with aggression, which to me seems like a mis-reading of the cool headed discourse they are a part of. Why do you think people reacted the way in these cases?

Kate Durbin: I understand why people reacted. The medium of both of these works is journalism, and that’s a tricky medium for challenging work as many see journalism as exploitative, after web hits and a quick buck. They don’t see it as a space for “art,” and usually won’t give an online article or a magazine cover the same quality and type of attention as a painting in a gallery. It’s hard to face challenging art that pops up where you least expect it, work that operates as a kind of social mirror, implicating us all. It’s painful to see ourselves implicated in Elisa Lam’s death, or wrestle with how her death is connected to what teen girls do on the Internet every day, how they are still living in a dangerous world (the profound cruelty leveled at me and my co-writer after that piece came out is sadly ironic proof of continuing violence toward women in our world). That piece was also complicated by the fact that there is an unconscious cultural bias against teen girls and anything associated with them, and so to discuss their blogs in conjunction with a violent death seemed very “wrong” to people, the two subjects too disparate. They are not disparate. Speaking of disparate, we also don’t want to see that Tsaernav was a quite beautiful looking person (aren’t terrorists supposed to be ugly?), and we really don’t want to face the fact that culturally, we treat terrorists like rock stars. These are hard truths. It is easier to hide the bodies, to place them in the art gallery years later, where we know what we are looking at is a work of “art” and there is “critical distance.” You will leave the gallery and go home. Rolling Stone, on the other hand, sits next to your toilet and stares up at you when you get up to pee in the night.

As for the question of the Elisa Lam mention being too soon, the public reaction tells me we mentioned her in precisely the right moment–the nerve was struck. I know people were upset by the metaphor of her body decomposing in the cistern being linked to the liquid virality of teen girls’ raw and potent art infecting the net, but the connection, while shocking, was not made lightly. What is shocking is her horrific death itself–and the cover up by the LAPD that has ensued since. If we had mentioned Lam months later, her tumblr would not recently have gone silent, which was such a heartbreaking testament to some of the truths of the teen girl tumblr aesthetic piece, one being that IRL is still dangerous space, and URL has become a kind of fraught haven for teen girls, only offering glimpses of a more integrated, hopeful future. Same with the timing of the Rolling Stone cover–it would have lost potency a year or two from now. The time for such work is the moment in which the cultural wound has been opened, when we can peer inside and see ourselves.

BF: There was an occasion a few years ago when you were solicited by Oprah’s O magazine as a potential featured author. A few dozen female writers were contacted by O staff to send in images and writing samples, or visit in person bringing samples of their wardrobe if they lived in the NYC area. When the issue came out you were struck by the representation of your aesthetic … vinyl lettering as decor on an ensemble. This is all documented at the launch for your book Ravenous Audience. You created a performance piece called No Bikini in response. Can you tell us more about this?

KD: I had exchanged emails with the editor in charge of that spread, as they were interested in having me come in to try out for the feature, but they didn’t realize I didn’t live in New York City. As soon as they found out I was in L.A., they were like, sorry, we have no budget. I said, well, it’s O magazine, I might be able to fly on my own dime (I was just starting out and eager to get my work out into the world). Can I just email some images to you? And they said sure, go ahead, so I sent in images, then never heard from them again. Most of the images I sent had text/felt lettering on clothing, so when the spread came out with the letters swarming around the poets and on their hair, etc, I was shocked. It seemed obvious that they’d taken their inspiration from my photos, and yet hadn’t the courtesy to acknowledge the influence with a note in the piece, or even to respond to my emails. (Looking back I am seeing this experience as more par for the course but at the time I was naive). I am all for appropriation but I don’t think a large corporation absorbing the work of a young, unknown artist without acknowledgement is truly in the spirit of transparent appropriation. They also used the felt letters in really commercial, precious way.

The NO BIKINI performance–which was part of a larger collaboration with poet Becca Klaver, for a curation of work about women poets and fashion for Delirious Hem called Seam Ripper–was my way of dealing with the issue without just swallowing it silently. I turned my body into an anti-commodity (on the Internet, no less!), and my felt letters into a zero-space that no one else could enter or claim. I wanted to say–yes, you may have used the felt letters, but you don’t get what their original intent was, which, for me, has always been to display/play with the battleground of a woman’s body, the narratives that are inscribed upon it by culture, in/through fashion. For me, ultimately fashion is about reclaiming one’s own body as a space to express one’s own ideas. My NO BIKINI is more fashionable than any of the designer outfits in that O fashion spread (although many of the poets in the spread are quite wonderful, so I am glad that Oprah was highlighting poetry–my “spread” wasn’t really about that).

BF: So you recently corresponded with Spencer Pratt?

KD: I recently interviewed e-lit team Rob Wittig and Mark Marino for HTML Giant. Mark had Spencer as a student at USC, and they ended up deciding to take over Spencer’s twitter account while Spencer and Heidi Montag were in the Big Brother house filming. During that time, they took over Spencer’s twitter as “TempSpence,” pretending to be an English poet who had “discovered” Spencer’s missing phone. They then proceeded to mess with Spencer’s Twitter audience, playing poetry games with them, etc.

I was excited and inspired by their project, which collapsed worlds/mediums usually seen as disparate, and I am fascinated by Spencer Pratt since I transcribed an entire episode of The Hills for my forthcoming book, E! Entertainment.

After the interview with Mark and Rob came out, Spencer reached out to me, saying how much he loved the interview, and how rare it was for someone to recognize that reality tv was an important 21st century art medium (something I have maintained for a long time, usually to the dismay of others). It was really validating to hear that he views what he does as artistic, that he “gets” it and is willing to play within these new mediums, whether reality tv or twitter. Spencer and I may collaborate further at some point on a project.

BF: Your first book, Ravenous Audience, is perhaps the most “Poet” work you have, compared to what you’ve been doing in recent years with conceptualism, and then beyond with your performance art, tumblr projects and your scholarship on Gaga. You’ve said that the E! chapbook would be your last, and that you may not be doing anymore poetry readings, moving forward. Can you tell us about this shift and what you are working on now?

KD: I did think for awhile that I wouldn’t write “poetry” again, only because I felt boxed in by the poet label (I have an allergy to labels, I think). Now I try to take myself a little less seriously. My work thrives when I allow myself to shift mediums. I am a poet, but I am also a prose writer, a visual artist, a critic, a curator, etc. What stays the same  is my aesthetic, my obsessions: girls, celebrity, myth, the internet, disney, pop culture, reality tv, monsters, fashion, Los Angeles, etc.

My next book–E! Entertainment–is a combo of fiction and prose poems. I am also working on a new book of poetry called ROYALS, another book about girls and the Internet, and a horror novel called The Bachelor and Zombies.

BF: Can you tell us more about the intent of the Gaga Stigmata project?

KD: What I am most proud of is Gaga Stigmata itself, this space in which criticism moves at the speed of pop, directly impacting the pop cultural landscape in positive and exciting ways. In a very real way, I think that Lady Gaga/pop culture and cultural criticism became more complex, more in dialogue, as a result of the force that is Gaga Stigmata. Because of the interface we used, blogger, because of our speed, because of our openness to pop culture, because of Gaga and her team’s openness to us (at this point we’re going on five tweet-interactions, including the Lady herself, not to mention the times we wrote out “projective” criticism and ideas and saw Gaga incorporate those directly into her interviews and performances), and because we were so visible to the larger news/culture outlets from Yale’s American Scholar to the New York Times, who have cited and robbed from us innumerable times, we created a synergistic system that, I believe, helped elevate pop cultural discourse and helped us all to see art in pop more readily. It also helped us to see our role in the creation of culture, instead of just being passive audience members or barking critics. By us, I mean our readers, our writers, and the larger collective sphere that we influenced, all those ripples going out. I really realized through this project how much we all are creating popular culture all the time, whether we like it or not. It’s a lot of power we wield!

BF: You curated an online gallery for bright stupid confetti, the thinking behind it is clear in your thesis: The art of the moment is girls, online.

KD: I definitely think the most exciting art being created now is by young women on the Internet. That’s what my tumblr project, Women as Objects, is about, gathering that work and calling attention to it. It’s also an anthropological project. I curated the Girls, Online gallery as kind of a best-of the work on Women as Objects, both from girls who self-identify as artists (like Molly Soda) and girls who maybe don’t self-identify that way, but who are doing amazing work (Plastic Pony, Lynne Teen Porno, and countless anonymous tumblr users). I didn’t want the work to get lost in the Internet ether–particularly the work of those who are not identifying as artists but who are inspiring a lot of people and getting copied by Urban Outfitters.

I was happy when I was approached to co-write that piece about the teen girl tumblr aesthetic for Hyperallergic, because all this great talk was happening online about tumblr art in conjunction with Hyperallergic’s first Tumblr Art Symposium in NYC, but it was almost entirely focused on work by men, work that is really disembodied and not very raw or confessional. The total opposite of the work I find most fascinating on tumblr. Luckily, there are some really wonderful online art galleries popping up. Grace Micelli’s Art Baby gallery is one example. Her gallery showcases work by young artists made on/for the Internet, and it’s best viewed within that frame. A lot of the art in her gallery could fall under the umbrella of teen girl tumblr aesthetic.

BF: The conceptual wars, once again, have been fought this summer, online at various outlets such as The Rumpus and the Boston Review. Regarding E! Entertainment and Kept Women, You’ve self-identified as a conceptual writer. Do you care to comment?

KD: I do see my recent projects as conceptual. I’ve had some good conversations with Insert Blanc editor Mat Timmons, who published Kept Women, about this topic, and he called my work post-conceptual. I think that label probably makes sense, in that I deviate from some of the pure conceptualists like Kenneth Goldsmith in that my work is meant to be read both on the macro and micro level, as opposed to being primarily about the macro, the “idea” of the work, like Goldsmith’s Traffic, or his Internet printing project, which is probably my favorite of his. I worked on E! for several years to make sure that the transcriptions of the reality TV shows I was watching were not only highly faithful to the content I was viewing, but also crafted carefully to make the book a pleasurable and challenging reading experience. E! is both an ekphrastic and meditative book–like staring at one painting at a museum for so long you enter into an altered state of consciousness. In other words, it’s not a solely intellectual experience.

I don’t think the idea that conceptual writing is affect-less is true, as per the Boston Review piece–affect according to Cal Bedient meaning a poetry containing “anger, fear, joy, crippling shame, jealousy, grief—emotions that bear on a vital self-regard.” I think it’s inaccurate to say, for example, that a text like Vanessa Place’s Tragodia series is affect-less when reading it is like a punch to the gut. It’s called Tragodia for a reason! The seemly flat surface simply creates space for a reader to encounter larger cultural trauma. And how is cultural trauma not personal? I can say for E! Entertainment that the anger, fear, joy, shame, jealousy and grief of the text are all cultural, and all mine.

BF: I’m currently involved with a grant funded project to study John Ashbery’s house (specifically it’s contents) as a way into his work, and as a corresponding text that runs parallel to his work, generating autonomous meaning on its own. Your residence in Los Angeles qualifies for the same treatment, I’d say, on account of it’s particular, defined aesthetic—disney curio, fashion as decor, pastels, magnets. It appears as a background in a lot of your images online, and you’ve filmed performance art inside the apartment. I visited in Summer 2012 and took a lot of pictures. Would you agree that it’s of value to use your residence as a way into your work?

KD: Congratulations on your project–that’s wonderful news! And if I had known you were going to take all those pics in my apartment I would have cleaned up more. I do see my residence, and the larger Los Angeles/Southern California area as a key part of my aesthetic–both informing and reflecting it back to me. Los Angeles is, after all, a city of reflections. I like to put a lot of my clothes and other trinkets from my performances–stickers, felt letters, panties, jumpsuits, wigs, mannequins, etc–up around where I can see them every day. And then I leave my house and look at the palm trees and the celebrities on the streets and the American Apparel advertisements next to Virgin de Guadalupe graffiti against the purple L.A. sky and I feel like Los Angeles and I are collaborators on some grand project, making art into life.

Kate Durbin is a Los Angeles-based writer and artist. She is author of The Ravenous Audience (Akashic Books, 2009), E! Entertainment (Wonder, forthcoming), 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. Abra will also be published as a trade paperback by 1913 Press. Kate is founding editor of Gaga Stigmata, and her tumblr project, Women as Objects, archives the teen girl tumblr aesthetic.

Ben Fama is the author of Mall Witch (Wonder 2012) as well as several chapbooks, including Odalisque (Bloof Books 2014) Cool Memories (Spork Books 2013). With Andrew Durbin, he edits Wonder, an open-source publishing and events platform for poetry, performance, and new media art. He lives in New York.


Kate Durbin from the Ravenous Audience

Kate Durbin from The Anna Nicole Show

On Kate Durbin’s Kept Woman

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