From Los Angeles, California, Kate Durbin has been challenging the hegemony’s ideas of what it means to be a woman–a human–in the 21st century. She recently released her second full-length book, E! Entertainment (Wonder 2014), which is a transcribed interpretation of select reality television and pop-cultural news programs. Her first book, The Ravenous Audience (Akashic Books 2009), examines historical and biblical figures in meta-narratives as told to the titular “ravenous audience” of culture-hungry beasts. Durbin works not only as a writer, but also as a performance artist who has documented her work in photography and video. [read her wiki here] I had the pleasure of reading with Kate in Seattle during this year’s AWP thing, and she killed it. I already knew that I wanted to feature her here. It worked out that we get to help promote her and her excellent new book, E! Entertainment.
THE DEFINITIVE (AT LEAST FOR ME) INTERVIEW WITH KATE DURBIN THAT YOU NEED TO READ RIGHT THIS INSTANT!
Jamie Iredell: You’re at the forefront of the American “fourth wave” of feminism, women who don’t give a fuck about anything except accepting that they’re women and living in patriarchal world, and actively living and working as women, as if to say, “I don’t care what you think of my femininity, or my ‘woman-ness,’ you can deal with it or you can not, and the failure is all yours.” I was recently reading this article about this, but noticed that it did not mention artists, whom I think are often pushing these ideologies. And this, to me, is inspiring, considering what seems to be an outright war against women on the part of American conservatives. I’m particularly interested in this being the father of a little girl (and another soon-to-be-little-girl!!!!). Do you identify with such an idea? How much have feminists in previous eras influenced your work?
Kate Durbin: I bet you are a great dad! My relationship with feminism started when I was an undergrad at Biola University in Los Angeles, a conservative Christian school. I was introduced to feminist texts through my literature courses, where I became obsessed with Sylvia Plath and Marge Piercy and Virginia Woolf. This led me to the internet, where I started buying riot girl zines and mix tapes, and where I started a live journal. I basically gave myself an education in feminism in my dorm room, along with my roommate. We read everyone from bell hooks to Betty Friedan. I started the first (and, to this day, only) feminist club on campus, Bas Bleu, after the Bluestockings, at a school where I was taught that women couldn’t be pastors and should be submissive to their husbands. I ran the club like the women’s studies course that I never had, and got hate emails for doing it. It may sound funny, but I’ll always be grateful for growing up in such an openly misogynistic and hypocritical environment, because I had to learn to say fuck it, I’m just going to do what I think matters even if some people aren’t going to like it. As a result, I became the feminist artist I am today.
JI: So I’ve got to ask about that background: I assume that you ended up at Biola because of your upbringing in your family? What’s your relationship with your family like today? How do they feel about your life, work, and ideas? I ask because I had a similar upbringing as a Catholic on California’s central coast. Most of my family is still devoutly Catholic. I have a good relationship with them, but I’m definitely the black sheep in the family. Most of the time I think that they think I’m plain crazy.
KD: Oh, that’s interesting that you grew up Catholic. I think I knew that from the title of your book. Did you go to Catholic school, or was it more of a church and home thing? My relationship with my family is really complicated–there is addiction, mental illness, the woes that “new money” brings–but not so much now in regards to the Christianity thing. They moved overseas when I was in college–to Taiwan, then Shanghai, and now London–and as a result became more worldly. There was drama when my first book, The Ravenous Audience, came out, since I did a feminist revision of biblical figures like Jezebel for that book–but we came through it.
JI: I only went to Catholic school for one year (fourth grade; I hated it), but the Church was a pervasive force in my life. I do want to get to talking to you about both The Ravenous Audience and E! Entertainment, but first I wanted to know how you’re dividing your time as an artist, because you seem to do so many things: fashionista and designer, performance artist, writer. Do you have a “day job” as well? How are you able to be so prolific in all these areas?
KD: I do have a day job–I’ve taught literature and writing at Whittier College for six years. I’ve also done freelance writing about fashion for Hollywood.com. I’ve thus far been unwilling to move out of Los Angeles for a full time teaching gig, because I love this city and it feeds my work, but as money is always an issue, I may have to move eventually. Lately I’ve been toying with the idea of working as a psychic medium or a cam girl on the side, but I’m worried about losing art and writing time and taking on draining energies. As for how I make time to write and make art–there have been sacrifices. I don’t own a house. I don’t have kids. Ultimately, though, I find that when something drives you, you make time for it.
JI: It’s really interesting to see the transition between The Ravenous Audience and E! Entertainment. Do you have a preference for working with lined poems or prose?
KD: I maintain a woman’s right to choose. I will say that after writing The Ravenous Audience and utilizing so many different forms in that book, I’ve moved toward working with more narrative, and experimenting more conceptually as opposed to formally. I’m working on a novel now, a kind of follow up to E! that is a horror novel with reality television in it, and I want the form of the novel to be really “pop,” something that could theoretically be sold at airports.
JI: How was the transition from the poems of The Ravenous Audience into the prose of E!?
KD: I did a lot of ekphrastic writing in Ravenous, in particular with Catherine Breillat’s films, which are very psychosexual. One of the things I did with her films was transcribe scenes and dialogue, and then used those fragments to explore my childhood and coming of age. With E! I took this impulse to a more obsessive level, in part because I wanted to create a more immersive and trippy experience for the reader. I love artist Yayoi Kusama’s work, how the viewer becomes swallowed up in these psychic landscapes. Kusama works in a really obsessive way in her studio (and, like me, she merges her body and her work). I worked on E! in a highly obsessive way as well. I would watch about five to ten seconds of a reality tv show, then transcribe literally everything that had happened on the screen, all of the objects and dialogue and gestures. Then I’d watch a few more seconds, and transcribe. It took two years just to write everything down. Then I chose different interventions and constraints for each section, and shaped and re-shaped everything. This took another year. I liked the idea of meditating on something you aren’t supposed to meditate on, to gaze intently into the trash.
JI: That’s amazing that you worked in that way for E! How are you working on the follow-up to E!? Are you following a similar process, since it involves reality tv, or does it involve a more “made up” world, as in “traditional” fiction?
KD: It’s still early in the process, but I’m thinking it’ll be a combination of transcription and fantasy. I really enjoy the transcription process, which is one of discovery for me, but ultimately I would also like to create some really bizarre elements to the story. I’m a big fan of horror and science fiction, and I love imagined worlds, so this is a natural evolution for me I think.
JI: I find the poems from The Ravenous Audience to be immensely accessible. I love this cross-genre-ing that you’re up to in that book: the sections are like scenes from a movie; so many of the poems were inspired by or utilize lines and other elements from movies; and there’s reworkings of fairy tales and biblical narratives. How did you arrive at the forms for those individual pieces, and how did they coalesce into that book?
KD: With Ravenous, I saw each poem as a woman, so each woman needed her own form to express herself. Like outfits. In a way they are all the same woman, though–the forms start to become arbitrary. I was trying to wriggle out of these fixed narratives about women, these confining archetypes, struggling against them. That’s why Marilyn Monroe is at the heart of that book–she’s a figure I’m always circling around, as I see her dilemma as the dilemma of the American (dream) woman, who is always watched but never witnessed. I don’t think there is any escape from the ravenous audience, but there are moments of reprieve, possibilities of new perceptions. Holding up a mirror for the audience to witness itself, instead of forever projecting. That’s always what I’m moving toward in my work.
JI: So, then it seems like a big jump, or change, when you got to E! Entertainment, in that you moved right into narrative prose. But, as you mention above, you figured out a way to keep yourself out of a fixed narrative by offering up the different channels of E!? I love Channel 2, “The Girls Next Door,” primarily because of the absence of humans. Can you tell us a little about the transition into the more “standard” prose of E!? I put the quotations there because your prose is anything but “standard,” I just mean that the form on the page is different than the poems of Ravenous.
KD: With E!, I wasn’t trying to find a way out of a fixed narrative, but rather, to slip my way in through little cracks in the TV screen. Like this fantasy I had as a girl of being sucked into the tv screen, inspired I think by the poster for the movie Poltergeist. I wanted to merge with the environment of reality TV totally, to let our essences co-mingle, so that the reader might ultimately merge into reality tv via a trance-like reading state. There’s an intentional double meaning with the word channel, and the word medium in the book: I am the medium and the channel, as is reality tv. Whatever reality tv actually is. The longer I thought about it, the more I could only conclude that it is our cultural moment. I wanted to mirror the fixed narratives on reality shows, the total objectification and paralyzing same-ness of these women, with the form the text takes. I wanted the shape to mimic a tv screen, a kind of flattening. That’s why you get a lot of text blocks and square shapes in the book. You don’t get any interiority into characters’ minds at all. It’s all surface, description. Which is exactly what happens when you watch reality tv, when you want inside the celebrity but can never penetrate the screen. The irony of flattening the text in this way is that the narratives gain added dimension. The reader finds depth in places they normally would not think to look, and with that depth a kind of cultural sadness. Something as simple as removing all the women from the Playboy mansion, and letting the mansion and its objects speak for them, hopefully makes one re-think the ways in which we are all reduced to the sum of our objects. But especially these women, our “entertainment.”
JI: Wow, okay. Holy shit. What a great answer/idea. That leads me to ask you about women in real life, the politics that affect women and their bodies (e.g. in places like Arizona) and the representations of women in all forms of media in our culture. When I first started learning about you it was because of some of the performances that you’ve done, like pasting text on your body and clothing. I was so intrigued by that because it was so powerful, brave–vital–that a woman was doing these things in our culture right now, which sometimes feels like this surreal mashup of the 21st century and the early 20th century, pre-19th Amendment. How do you feel women and their rights/representations in our culture fare at this moment?
KD: It’s a strange time to be a woman, although I do have hope in the younger generation, in the teenage girls on tumblr. Funny you bring up Arizona. I lived there in high school, and hated it. My school was incredibly conservative politically. And there were no windows–it was just this cement block in the middle of the desert. When I read about what’s going on there now, I’m not surprised. The atmosphere is oppressive, and there is this culture of policing and shaming around women’s bodies. I remember getting into huge trouble as a fourteen year old at school for dying my hair purple–the next year there was a new rule in the rule book. One of the reasons I work with the material of popular culture, and reality tv in particular, is that it’s such a barometer for where we are culturally. We are literally performing our cultural meta-narratives, and our shame in front of the world. My own performances with text on the body have to do with this too. What narratives are we telling about women in the public eye? What are the subtexts? When I put texts on my body I am making visible the texts which are already projected there. I’m referencing branding–Juicy Couture, cattle, the Scarlett Letter, etc. I do this in E! as well, not only with the title and brand names, but with the subtitles that double the narrative as a kind of reinforcement. The “white letters” become kind of a police force. That’s a long way of answering your question. The short answer is: if I want to know where we are at culturally in regards to women, I turn on my tv. We are only ever as good as our “trash” tv.
JI: E! is a novel (I think of it as a novel) that does exactly what you describe above: it’s a subtly satiric mirror up in front of the average viewer–or maybe the reader steps inside that viewer’s head and sees through his eyes, without his thoughts. And it is so much like actually watching reality television. There’s this odd juxtaposition between what seem to be real human emotions and utter vapidity. For example, in Kim’s Wedding, at the beginning when Kim and Not Husband aren’t getting along, there are gestures, gazes, fidgets described that seem very real, offer us a view into a real working relationship. And yet, other than these nonverbal (sometimes verbal, though, too) cues, the characters are described almost entirely via their designer clothing and accesories. This then contrasts nicely with Foxy Knoxy, who’s almost always described as not wearing any makeup and expressing no emotion, but who is being sensationalized at the same time. It seems like our culture’s obssessed with surfaces, product over process. We want to see the glamour of Kim’s wedding and get past all the relationship drama (the climax of the diamond bracelet). We want to see the triumph or tragedy of Amanda Knox–and get all the salacious details on the way–but the legal process itself is effectless, boring. And it doesn’t matter whether she gets out of her jam or not; the end result doesn’t matter. I don’t know if you would agree with such an assessment, but it seems in tune with a culture that views women’s bodies as just that: bodies. Surfaces. They’re not humans, but objects to be manipulated and controlled, set on a pedestal, or burned upon it. Again, the end result doesn’t matter, as long as individuals have zero agency.
KD: I like that you think of E! as a novel. I think of it as “literary television,” a sort of genre unto itself. It was important to me that the language of judgement that is leveled at reality tv and people on it be turned way down in the book, in order to confront the reader with their own judgements. I say turned down, not off, because there is hidden violence within language itself, as the language poets have taught us. Even brand names can be a kind of violent tagging on the body, which is why I put so many brand names in the book. That’s not to say, though, that it isn’t darkly funny. This is maybe why you call it subtly satirical, or why Adult Magazine called it an “anti-satire.” I find our incessant fetishization of brand names and our humanization of objects to be kind of comical, and I play with this in the book, giving objects around the women as much attention and life as the women themselves. This of course draws attention to the way that women are objectified in our culture, but it also gives the non-human objects a little twinkle, an uncanny life force. My favorite scene along these lines is in “Wives Shows” when the mob wives are fighting and drinking out of wine glasses that have cartoon women with 3-d boobs that resemble the wives painted on them. I drew a lot of attention to the women on the glasses during that scene, who I fully expected to wink at the camera or something. I wanted to draw attention in the book to how we read surfaces, projecting our judgements onto them, while failing to look at the whole picture. As you mentioned, the Amanda Knox trial is a perfect example of this. It all started with the male gaze, which became entangled with the media gaze in this complicated way. Knox was judged on the basis of a kiss with her boyfriend, on her social media handle “foxy knoxy,” on how pretty and sexually active she was, on the way she looked dead into the camera’s eye.
JI: Who are some other contemporary artists (in any format) whom you see to be doing the good work, that is, working against the tendencies of our politically, morally, a bunch of other “-llys,” diseased culture?
KD: It’s funny, I’m looking back on our conversation and realizing how heavy we got, and I’m thinking–but the reader should know that E! is actually funny, and decadent, and kind of light. All of this heavy stuff is in there, but it’s mostly beneath the surface bling.
In any case, there are so many great artists working today: I really love the work of performance artist Ann Hirsch, who has gone on a reality tv show as research for some of her own performance work. I think she regularly gets flack for working in pop and art at the same time, but that’s what makes her work so cool. I’m a big fan of Lara Glenum’s book Pop Corpse (keeping with the pop theme)–I love how she subverts The Little Mermaid into a hyperbolic, emoticon opera. I’m also holding my breath in anticipation for Sophia Coppola’s Little Mermaid. The Bling Ring was such a brilliant film. I feel a really strong kinship with Coppola’s strategies, actually. I like how she doesn’t wag the finger at popular culture within the work itself, but there is a subtle tragic quality to everything she does. And of course her visual aesthetic is just sumptuous.