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Kate Durbin Hello Selfie 2015
Kate Durbin, Hello Selfie (performance), 2015Photography Rollin Leonard

Hello Kitty mermaids take over Miami beach

Feminist artist Kate Durbin encouraged women armed with selfie sticks, coloured wigs and Hello Kitty stickers to jump in the sea and take selfies

A kaleidoscope of girls, dressed up as eerie goth mermaids in glittering Hello Kitty stickers, underwear and multicoloured wigs, hold up selfie sticks as they were their final bastion, and wander off into the ocean.

This was the elegiac finale earlier this week at Miami’s South Beach to a performance choreographed by Kate Durbin, a fourth wave feminist, artist, and co-author of The Teen Girl Tumblr Aesthetic disrupted the city’s notorious art fair week with a real life rendition of her teen Tumblr inspired art, that probes beyond our perceptions of selfie culture at large.

Ahead of her next event in Miami, we caught up with the influential thinker and creator to find out more about the latest iteration of her Hello Selfie performance (see last year’s here) at Pulse art fair, her practice in general, and her appearance in a new feminist feature film.

Can you explain a bit more about "Hello Selfie", and how it came about and has evolved since your initial performances?

Kate Durbin: Initially the idea came to me when a man attacked a piece I had co-written about the teen girl tumblr aesthetic, saying something along the lines of, "Are you really saying that girls taking selfies is a radical new form of art?" I thought to myself, “yeah, I am saying that!” I had this vision of a group of women taking selfies non-stop in a public space for an hour straight, not directly interacting with the audience, instead interacting only through their phones. I call it passive aggressive performance art. I was thinking of how constantly surveilled we are, the female body in particular, and how we can find some form of empowerment through taking back our own images. Also, I was interested in how violence toward women online translates into violence toward them IRL, how these things are connected as women are rendered into objects (both virtual and three dimensionally).

Probably the biggest two evolutions of the piece are the switch to the art fair context, but I also did the piece with men in Australia which was a huge shift. I have lately been interested in working with men and exploring masculinity, especially since it's still such a "hidden" topic in a way. We take so much of the concept of masculinity for granted, as it's the "norm," it becomes like the air we breath, invisible. Hello Selfie Men was the hardest iteration of the piece that I have done because the men really did not want to become objects. They didn't want to take their shirts off. They were super self-conscious about their bodies and about taking selfies, which is perceived as a feminine activity.

“I was thinking of how constantly surveilled we are, the female body in particular, and how we can find some form of empowerment through taking back our own images” – Kate Durbin

Location seems to be quite important to you for staging the “Hello Selfie” performance. How did you set the place for Miami?

Kate Durbin: Absolutely. The context of the art fair changed the piece radically, for me. There are real women's bodies taking up space next to art objects that are being sold for a lot of money. That tension was clear in our interactions. The women looked beautiful, like objects, and they of course were objectifying themselves in the performance.

At the end of the piece I led the women into the ocean. There, I gave them a set of dummy iPhones that they lost at sea. That is the only part of the performance that isn't highly surveilled. The colours of the ocean matched the girls's wigs and makeup. For this particular piece I was inspired by Hello kitty mermaids, just as in NYC the girls were goth, sad hello kitties. Each location inspires a slightly different mutation of Hello Kitty. And at each location, the specific geography of the place intervenes in some way.

How did the Miami performance go down? It’s great to see this kind of subversive art happening at an art fair but how did the crowd differ, and react?

Kate Durbin: The performance was great. It was really tense in certain moments, and also beautiful. It was so different doing it in the context of an art fair, as opposed to a public square, like the prior three performances in LA's Chinatown, NYC's Union Square, and an outdoor mall in Brisbane Australia (with men). Helen Toomer, who runs Pulse Art Fair, was very supportive, and so was Kelani Nichole, from Transfer Gallery, who brought us there.

The performance began in the fair itself, at the Transfer Gallery booth, with the girls putting Hello Kitty stickers on each other at a vanity. In the first piece this part happened in my bedroom, with the girls taking selfies during, but here it was happening in an art context, out in the open. One man immediately tried to join in and put stickers on the girls (I stopped him). As we made our way through the fair taking pictures with selfie sticks, people either loved or hated the piece. Some men made disrespectful comments and talked about how weird the art world was. As the girls took pictures with the art, some people in the booths really didn't like it. They thought we were messing up the art and getting in the way, which in a sense we were. Others were charmed and thought it was beautiful.

Some of the questions you're asking are very important to understanding this kind of work that focuses on femininity, the female body and identity. Do you think that message has been well received and understood? There's still relatively little serious critical discussion of these themes when it comes to art…

Kate Durbin: I think some people have understood it, but it's still such an important conversation to have. In particular, when we are dealing with "cuteness" and hyper femininity, there is a lot of disrespect on the whole still of women who choose to engage with those elements in their lives and work. People think it's all trivial nonsense. Personally, I find it important to be able to speak articulately about these issues, so as to help move the conversation forward.

You also appear in The F Word film which is screening in Miami at Basel later this week. Will you be sticking around for that?

Kate Durbin: Yes, I will. I haven't seen the film yet but I am excited to watch it. Afterwards I will be on a panel with Leah Schrager, Katie Cercone, Narcissister, and Rebecca Goyette, as well as Robert Adanto, the creator of the film.

Any other plans for Miami Art Week? I know Faith Holland is in Miami for the first time, also exhibiting with Transfer gallery…

Kate Durbin: Everyone should check out Faith's Ookie paintings of cum and her orgasms .gifs at the Transfer booth at the Pulse Art FAir. They are amazing.

I plan to spend some time here looking at all these gorgeous art deco buildings and hopefully getting caught in a rainstorm on the beach. The colours in Miami are so pretty I could drink them.