Artist and writer Kate Durbin is both a scavenger and connoisseur of the internet. She prowls the immaterial space, searching for images that express the emotional lives of adolescent girls. It was on Facebook that I first noticed a link to Durbin’s project “Girls, Online,” a collection of anonymous Tumblr posts from teenage girls that she assembled for Chris Higgs’s website Bright Stupid Confetti. Durbin captures the blogs and reblogs of sensitive adolescent teens and tweens, women-born-women, trans bois, and gay boys. Her main focus, however, is on adolescent girls who are subject to the male gaze. The teenage girls she sees float about in that in-between space of clinging to girlhood and transforming into women.
Durbin’s interest in the microcosm of teenage girl internet culture stemmed out of her other Tumblr project “Women as Objects,” a tongue-in-cheek collection of images that plays on the idea of women’s bodies as objects to possess, view, and consume. Is Durbin’s work feminist, post-feminist, or something else all together? Kate and I conversed about this and quite a bit more in an email kind of way — quietly, textually, and online where no one could see us think or write. It’s like we were two girls, online. This part one of a two-part interview series with Kate Durbin.
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Alicia Eler: You seem to truly understand the world of being a teenager, online. Where did this interest come from?
Kate Durbin: Initially I was drawn to Tumblr because of the unique potentials of the interface — I see it as evolving art and culture in important ways. That teenagers are the primary users, that they are hijacking symbols from pop culture and disrupting their meaning, is really interesting. These teens are at the forefront of trend-making, but also trend-warping — effectively and publicly revealing the “man behind the curtain.”
One example of this is the way the teenagers there have hijacked the Chanel logo, but not like fake bag makers in China who create “realistic fakes” in order to profit off of people’s blind devotion to a brand as a status symbol. On Tumblr, the teens are all about the Chanel logo as more valuable when obviously fake — scribbling it, for example, on a brown paper bag and then using that as a “purse.” This very rebellious teenage move reveals the inherent hollowness behind branding — branding is just a shared fantasy we put energy into. It’s not simply mockery though, what these girls are doing — it’s also a celebration of the spirit behind fashion, which is invention and beauty.
A lot of girls on Tumblr were drawing Chanel logos on their faces with eyeliner for awhile, and then when Karl Lagerfield put out his Spring 2012 Resort collection, he totally hijacked back these Tumblr girls’ Chanel representations! The models all had those Chanel tattoos on their faces, and their clothes and hair were all pastel colors, very cyborg-meets-Marie Antoinette, and most of all very Tumblr. The girls on Tumblr were all re-posting those images, saying, “Hey look, it’s us!” That was a fascinating cultural moment, a moment where a symbiotic relationship that is normally hidden was revealed to the public.
I think my own teenage years made me especially sensitive to the teenage situation, which is sort of a timeless existential crisis. Those years were hard. I attended a small private Christian high school in the Arizona desert and my only access to counter-culture or different ideologies came through magazines and punk rock shows at this hole called the Nile Theater. There wasn’t a space like Tumblr where girls could come together from all over the world and create their own universe and commiserate with one another and validate each other.
I see this happening now with my youngest sister, Faith. She’s 14 and really into K-Pop. She’s got almost 3,000 Tumblr followers — way more than me! She’s always online, maybe too much, but I don’t blame her for wanting to go there. She has more power there than anywhere else, because she is not restricted by people’s perceptions of her in the same way she is IRL.
AE: It’s fascinating to think about the way that this symbiotic relationship occurs not only between the girls and the designer, but also in front of a semi-anonymous public audience. In that way, the relationship is triangular — Chanel designer and models, teenage girls on Tumblr and the public who views the work are all integral to the experience.
KD: I agree that the reveal to the public is the most fascinating aspect of this example. The nature of the Tumblr interface reveals our interconnectivity really openly and visibly, whereas before, to continue with the Chanel example, kids on the street might have known that big name fashion brands were ripping them off, but the general public wouldn’t be as aware of it, because those kids were “underground” and the through-line between the two worlds was invisible.
The Tumblr stream is so visible, and it has sped up pop culture so intensely that the spilling over between different realms or spheres is happening right before our very eyes, in real time. And I think what is also interesting is that those dynamics are not necessarily being treated as a problem — even by those in traditional power roles. One example is the brand Chanel. Instead of getting vocally upset that their brand was being hijacked and de-stabilized by teenagers, they instead just attempted to claim and sell the teenagers’ re-workings of the brand for their own benefit! But no matter what Chanel the brand does, because this is all public everyone knows that this relationship is going on. It’s not a hidden relationship. And, after all, it’s still “Chanel.” This reminds me a little bit of Coco Chanel saying that fashion isn’t just in clothes — it’s everywhere, in the trees and in the sky. She probably didn’t mean that no one could own it, but what has happened with her brand is that that very truth has been revealed — that fashion is everywhere, for anyone. Teenagers take the Chanel logo and put it, literally, “everywhere”!
AE: How did you find your way into Girls, Online, and Women as Objects? How did Girls, Online stem out of Women as Objects? Tell me a bit about the history?
KD: “Women as Objects” came first. I can’t remember when I first stumbled upon Tumblr, though! Tumblr is like being underwater. There’s no sense of time. It’s this continuous stream and a constantly renewing source. It’s hard to remember ever being above the sea once you’ve submerged yourself in the water. I think it was a year and a half or so now, though, that I began the “Women as Objects” projects.
“Girls, Online,” is a selection of different types or genres of images I’ve come across on “Women as Objects” — sort of a “Best Of” and sample templates rolled into one. Everything from Lana Del Rey art, to Notepad meme poetry, to body .GIFs, to Sim and Second Life screen shots, to sticker art, to old-school notebook doodles. I put “Girls, Online” together because Chris Higgs asked me to curate something for his art website Bright Stupid Confetti.
AE: Have you ever met any of the anonymous girls whose work appears in Girls, Online? Do you feel like you’re ripping them off at all? Or do you feel like you’re showcasing what they already are doing but to a broader audience (rather than just one another)? If you haven’t met them, what would you say if you did meet them? Or if one approached you?
KD: I have interacted with some of the girls, yes. Molly Soda has liked some of my FB posts in the past, and other girls have directly contacted me asking questions and telling me they like the project. I don’t contact them, as I feel like that could make an already self-conscious project overly conscious, like how characters become “types” after several seasons of starring on a hit reality TV show. That distinction is important, as obviously the camera is already there — the girls are doing this publicly, they know they are being watched, and in many ways Tumblr is already about finding fame (hence the whole term emblazoned on shirts at Forever 21 “I’m Tumblr Famous”). But the attention I am bringing them is from another space, a meta-space, and that shifts things. I’m not being loud or invisible. It’s the most honest strategy I could think of to approach the project, for now. At some point I do want to bring the girls into a gallery space IRL, though, and things may get really weird then. I have no idea what will happen!
As for whether or not I am ripping the girls off, I don’t think so. I am presenting their work to an audience who otherwise would — and does — ignore them, except to actually rip them off. Corporations rip off so much creative content on Tumblr, people in the fashion industry, advertising world do, too, and with no credit. Of course, the girls on Tumblr are hijacking images themselves, and even ripping images back off of these corporations, so it’s not like that somewhat simplistic notion of an image or idea springing up whole from some suppressed group that is then ripped off by the powerful. I’m not saying there aren’t troubling power dynamics at play here, but what I am saying is that they are really complicated because the girls are operating in some ways as kind of trickster figures by constantly refusing to be offended by their being ripped off. They are constantly complicating the notion of intellectual or creative property. For example, when people on the Internet were pissed off at Rihanna for her seapunk-themed SNL performance, Molly Soda said something to the effect of “no one owns seapunk, or the Internet, and I think her performance is cool so just chill out … burp.”
AE: Do you think the teenage girls who post online are aware of the images that they are presenting to the world, and how they are being read by adults and everyone else on the Internet? That said, Tumblr is the perfect space for teenagers — it feels private enough when they post that they feel safe doing so, yet it’s public enough that they can post notes that express how they feel without a fear of being judged.
KD: I think teenagers want to be read and understood by adults. I think the problem of being a teenager is one of being overlooked or misunderstood during this time when you are really trying to figure out what you want and who you are. Adults react to teenagers with such fear I think because we unconsciously recognize the teens’ power to shift the world. They are the generation coming up. If they want to, teenagers can really take over the world. Much of teenage ambivalence has to do with their own power, I think — that crisis of “what do I do with my immense growing power I feel within” vs. “I also feel totally powerless in this fucked up world, and adults are telling me that I am worthless.”
That said, I do think the girls are talking to each other first and foremost, and that is one of the main aspects of the interface that makes it really revolutionary — that they have access to each other so directly. I also think that the notion of private versus public is just so different for the Internet generation. What’s really interesting, though, is to think about how our old notions of privacy were really just a perception we held of our place in the world—with the new technologies breaking down those notions, we are seeing the truth that we were always interconnected and always affecting each other no matter how much physical distance there appears to be between us. There’s nowhere to hide, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing! (I think the changing physical climate of Earth is also teaching us this.)
AE: What are your thoughts on this image? I just posted it to my Facebook and tagged you. What about it appeals to you? (Happy to share what appeals to me after you tell me why it appeals to you!)
KD: I’m hesitant to analyze individual Tumblr images as I really am most interested in the images when “alive” and streaming through the Tumblr interface, bumping up against all the other images, and getting repeated with new comments. It’s a bit like the difference between analyzing a dead polar bear vs. a live polar bear interacting with other polar bears. I even felt a little weird presenting “Girls, Online” in the static way that I did, but I wanted the art community to pay attention, so I figured I had to take the images out of their original context a little bit and place them in an art context that wasn’t too far from their source (still online). I find when people try and isolate individual images from my project they tend to become very critical of some of the individual aspects (references to self-harm or abject sexuality), isolating them without looking at the larger picture of how those notions are complicated by the nature of the interface itself. I am, however, curious to hear your thoughts on this dreamy kinderwhore image! I liked that you posted it on FB.
AE: I agree — it’s difficult to take this Tumblr image out of context and on its own. It’s like looking at a single leaf instead of the whole tree, I suppose. What struck me about it, however, was that it’s now on your Tumblr project which means it must have been plucked from some glossy magazine or Internet site. And of course that’s the entire point of repurposed, ripped off images that find their way to Tumblr. I love that the pink satin inner ear of the white bunny rabbit stuffed animal matches her glossy pink underwear — it’s this sort of teasing sensuality that combines youthfulness and eroticism. Then I wonder: Does she care that she’s being objectified in this highly fabricated fashion photo, or is she enjoying the entire experience? I was nervous to post this to my Facebook because, like every reference I make to a Katy Perry-esque, sweets and candy-filled, commercialized female sexuality, I simultaneously notice myself cringing and getting turned on! This leads me to believe that I should just enjoy the woman as object so long as I’m aware of its problematic nature. Mostly this image enhances my pre-conceived notion of the pop culture commercialization of the teenage dream a la Katy Perry, the odd sexuality of a young girl’s early adolescence and one of my favorite movies ever, the French film A Real Young Girl, 1976, by Catherine Breillat. This girl we are talking about — she is everywhere.
Stayed tuned for the second part of Alicia Eler’s conversation with Kate Durbin. It will be published tomorrow, Wednesday, January 16.
Durbin is also the editor of Gaga Stigmata, an online cultural criticism and arts journal presenting creative responses to Lady Gaga’s Fame Project. Durbin recently received the Expanded Artists’ Books grant from Columbia College Chicago for her project ABRA, an artist’s book and an interactive iPad app that explores and investigates the notion of the 21st century book.