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Kate Durbin Hello Selfie 2015
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Kate Durbin on the deeper meaning behind selfie culture

The artist calls Ophelia the ultimate Tumblr girl and opens up about her cravings for the invisible in an increasingly visible world

I was searching the net for female artists who use their own body as part of their work and explore how female identity is created online when I discovered “Women As Objects”, one of Kate Durbin’s internet-based projects. This is a Tumblr blog where for two years (2011-2013), she re-blogged posts and images from teenage girls on Tumblr, with the aim of casting a light on a strong teenage female online community, expressing itself through images often too quickly deemed ‘girly’ for their glittery vibes and pretty-in-pink attitude.

Durbin is a Los Angeles-based artist, who focuses her work on gender, and pop culture and often investigates the western iconoclastic perception of women idealised and portrayed as princesses, witches and fairies and how these roles mesh with today’s popular culture. She delves into the world of YouTube celebrities, TV entertainment, and Disneyland imagery, offering us a distilled version of modern culture covered in glitter. There is a darker twist though as she brings to life her distorted contemporary versions of archetypal fairies like in the case of Hello Selfie, her most recent art performance, where a group of young women dressed up as mermaids covered from head-to-toe in Hello Kitty stickers and glitter walk around the streets of Miami. Below, I chat with her about sci-fi, selfie-sticks and the future of humanity.

“Ophelia performs her sadness, she’s a total Tumblr girl” – Kate Durbin

The performance Hello Selfie ends with performers (a group of young women dressed up as mermaids covered from head to toe in Hello Kitty stickers and glitter) entering the ocean with their selfie sticks and mobile phones. You mentioned an image, “Ophelia” by John Everett Millais (1852), depicting Ophelia, a character from William Shakespeare's play Hamlet, singing before she drowns in a river in Denmark. She seems to be at ease in the world, flowing effortlessly like there is nothing that could upset her. I can't help but think that when we are taking a selfie, and are so concentrated on striking the perfect pose, it is like we are purposely isolating ourselves and nothing around us matters any longer. Would you agree with that? 

Kate Durbin: During the first Hello Selfie performance in Los Angeles I realised taking selfies in public could feel like a form of protection, like imagining a circle of white light around you. During that performance, at times, the audience became like a hum on the periphery. When I was thinking about Ophelia as an influence for Hello Selfie Miami in particular – because the girls walk into the sea at the end – I was thinking of what might happen if you never turned back from the selfie. Like Narcissus, or maybe more like a reverse narrative of The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Anderson, with those beautiful underwater kingdoms beyond the land of men…but you have to pay a painful price to reach them.

We take selfies to feed our followers, we customise pictures accordingly to our audience's demand, and it’s like performing. To get back to Ophelia, I always had the impression that she knew she was posing for an audience (us: the viewers), a bit like someone taking a selfie. What do you think? Are we all performing on social media, what your thoughts on that?

Kate Durbin: Ophelia performs her sadness, she’s a total Tumblr girl. She embraces the sadness of being a girl in a patriarchal society. How liberating it can be to stop smiling. The second iteration of Hello Selfie, in NYC, was goth and sad girl inspired.

The process of taking a selfie has two components: one that is just for you, and the other for what Sylvia Plath calls “the peanut-crunching crowd.” There’s a tension between how you want to see yourself, and how you feel you must perform for the clicks and likes.

Why have you chosen to work with all female performers for Hello Selfie? We chatted about the general assumption that selfies are "for girls", how so? Can you talk a bit more about this and the questions you wanted to raise with this piece (if any)?  

Kate Durbin: Three iterations of the piece that I did (in Los Angeles, NYC, and Miami) were with girls, and the one I did in Australia was with men. There were gender queer people in all of the iterations as well. I am interested in the way the selfie is gendered. It makes sense for women to objectify themselves constantly, as they are already so objectified by the culture, and yet they are criticised and mocked for taking selfies.

The men in Australia didn’t want to be in the piece – I had a lot of similar conversations with men there, and here in the US – who thought selfies were silly. I got “schooled’ a few times about selfies from men. It was interesting was how many men thought this was their unique perspective on selfies. They didn’t realise how much culture had influenced their thinking, and how similarly they all thought. It is important for me as an artist to bring all these things to light. And, of course, the men who actually did the piece were wonderful.

A 17-year-old girl plunged 30 feet to her death as she climbed onto a railway bridge to take a selfie. Xenia Ignatyeva was a month short of her 18th birthday when she fell and was hit by 1,500 volts as she was electrocuted when she tried to grab live wires. Why? There are 12 reported cases of people dying taking selfies. I think these tragic cases are symptomatic of the way social media platforms and the internet at large are demanding us to behave like Ophelia, and strike a pose for the audience. What are your thoughts on this? Does contemporary western society force us to comply and constantly perform?

Kate Durbin: I do think we are expected to constantly perform, and I think it’s tied up with capital and social success in a way that I find very exhausting and distressing, although there are good things about social media too, such as keep in touching with people in distant proximity.

We are very divorced from mother earth and that’s what I think of most when I hear of those poor people dying while taking selfies. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that our technology has become highly advanced just as the threat of extinction due to climate change is looming.

Side note: they recently banned the selfie sticks at Disneyland because they were messing up the rides. I was in line for Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride the other day and that happened – the selfie stick set off the sensor and the ride broke down.

We are both into sci-fi and when we spoke about Black Mirror, a television series created by Charlie Brooker, I was telling you about an episode, which particularly touched me, in which a woman loses his husband, then in order to end her suffering and sorrow she orders a robot which was identical to his husband - same voice, skin, even a storage of real memories of their lives together. She eventually grows tired of him and hides/secludes him (almost like a prisoner) in her attic. If and when this will become a reality, could this pose some threats to our understating of reality and fiction? Certainly it would be a struggle to separate the two, relegating us to a kind of self-imposed isolation; we wouldn't need to get to know new people, fall in love and experience true grief, we would be able to have our loved ones next to us, pause them and then ignore them for days if we want! The whole episode, in my opinion, highlights how isolated we all are and how we try to find consolation within technology advancement, the dream of sorting out all our problems and needs with a click. What are your thoughts on this? Is loneliness the feature of humanity? What's the impact on your artistic practice (if any)? 

Kate Durbin: I taught that Black Mirror episode to my science fiction students recently. You know that part right before the husband dies when we see a few scenes of their life together? He’s always on his device, never listening to her or looking at her. When she is holding the hot coffee cups, he doesn’t see her because is he looking at his phone, so she burns her hands. When they have sex, he’s drunk and he cums too quickly before she gets to orgasm. That sex scene is supposed to emphasise his “humanness” I think (as opposed to the masterful sex the robot performs later, the robot having been programmed by online porn). But to me, it indicates how absent from his body the husband already is, how he is already existing online. So when the robot shows up, in a way, it is the truest representation of what the husband already was. He was already a kind of half-life. So I think the episode is talking in one sense about what might come to be – like you articulated – but it’s also talking about how we are already living between worlds because of our addiction to the Internet.

I think that sense of isolation from one another can be seen in Hello Selfie, with all the girls taking selfies and ignoring everyone else and each other. And it can be seen in some of my other work, although the opposite is occurring too in that I’m trying to connect with people through technology.  I feel it’s ultimately our lack of love that undermines and infects our technologies and separates us.

You told me you think the Internet is the best invention in human history. I certainly agree. Would you like to explain to us why you think so?  

Kate Durbin: It is the most significant invention since the printing press, which led to mass literacy – before that, at least in the western world, regular people had to access books through their local priests, these religious gatekeepers. There is a similar sort of bypassing of gatekeepers that happened with the Internet. In the book NEXT by Michael Lebed talks about how young kids used the internet in its earlier days to enter previously closed systems like Wall Street, revealing how arbitrary those systems are at their core – it’s our collective belief that holds them together.

But I think there are a lot of problems with the Internet. We have a war being waged around privatising it – Julian Assange talks about this. And then we have the existential weariness that comes from living under constant surveillance, this burden to constantly perform or to cease to exist. There’s this great scene in Joss Whedon’s meta-horror comedy film Cabin in the Woods where the kids are driving “off the grid” to stay in the woods at this creepy cabin and the stoner character – who plays a kind of holy fool – says that the problem with the world today is that all the cracks are being filled in. There’s nowhere you can go “off the grid.” Everything is mapped, everything is surveilled, but the perspective from which we see things is not generous is still limited by capitalism, exploitation of the earth and its creatures.

I’ve been haunted lately by a video that has been making the rounds on Facebook, where a plane uses a super powerful camera lens to capture a glimpse of one of the last uncontacted tribes. You see these tiny people pop out from behind the tree line, raise their arms at the sky, then move back behind the trees. The video was reluctantly created in order to stop people from logging in that area – but I can’t help but think of how depressing it is that it had to be made, that the world had to see those people online for them to exist at all.

For awhile the internet felt exciting to me because of it’s potential to allow personal subjectivities to flourish – the whole idea of a digital avatar you could change from day to day, this idea of being free from the burdens of societal judgment based on first glances (race, gender, sexual orientation, etc). This idea of creating a world where all the lines were not so hard and fast, where you could use your imagination to create the world anew all the time. But that’s not what has happened. Instead, we have turned the Internet into a kind collective-policing system, a new kind of rat race.

What's next for you and for humanity?

Kate Durbin: After the intense visibility of my recent projects, I’m feeling drawn to the invisible, the unsee-able, that which cannot manifest on screen but haunts the machine.

As for humanity, I once heard someone say we should live as if we are the band on the Titanic, playing our tune bravely even as we slip into the icy sea. But maybe it won’t end like that. Maybe a new future will emerge. Despite all we’ve done to it, the world is still a great mystery.

Valentina Fois is a London-based curator