Image from Kate Durbin's "Women as Objects"

Image from Kate Durbin’s “iPrincess”

Artist and writer Kate Durbin is both an internet scavenger and connoisseur. Like a cultural anthropologist, she prowls the immaterial space of Tumblr, discovering user-generated content that describes the semi-anonymous emotional outpourings of masses of women, girls and young people. I first discovered her project “Girls, Online,” through a Facebook post.

We talked about her project in part one of this two-part series. In this post, Kate and I discuss gender and other corners of the internet, including the world of boys, queer transfemme artist of color blogger Mark Aguhar (whose voice at times could pass as an adolescent girl — and that is meant in the best possible way), the copyright “politics” of Tumblr, the “but is it feminist art?” question, and the flow between IRL and URL identities. Oh, and we can’t forget Lena Dunham’s Girls, too!

AE: What about “Boys, Online”? Why the focus on women and girls instead of men and boys?

KD: “Boys, Online” would be an interesting project, too. Not everyone I follow on Tumblr is born a physical woman, though. Some are trans and gay bois. I see “teenage girl” as more of an aesthetic stance, a place of radical, highly material (yes, the internet is (im)material), abject positioning in the world. A position in which one wields ones own objecthood playfully, glitteringly, and problematically. Can a boi do that? Sure, especially a gay boi. Anyone can. But because of the ways girls are culturally viewed via the male gaze, they are in a particularly prime position for this kind of play. They can teach us something about what it’s like to always be seen as a thing, as less or other than all that you are, and what you can do with that position of abjection if you are brave.

Image from Kate Durbin's "Tumblr Is the Only Place I Don't Pretend I'm OK"

Image from Kate Durbin’s “Tumblr Is the Only Place I Don’t Pretend I’m OK”

AE: I think about your project as that of an online scavenger/connoisseur who doubles as an anthropologist of Tumblr culture. Do you have a process for finding images for the two Tumblr projects?

KD: I love that description of my role as that of an internet anthropologist! All of my Tumblr projects are tributaries leading back to one primary center — “Women as Objects.” Everything Tumblr-related that I do originally manifests out of that project. The images for “Girls, Online” came from that project. The video art pieces I’ve done, “iPrincess” and “Tumblr is the Only Place I Don’t Pretend I’m Okay,” where I’ve taken the internet into the bathroom in a peepunk move, the scripts and characters for those pieces also came from “Women as Objects.”

Because so many of the trends that were big when I was a teenage girl in the 90s — everything from the movie Clueless to clear backpacks to smiley faces — are in vogue again now, it’s easy for me to spot the girls who are doing the work I want to champion when I am just surfing Tumblr.

AE: How do you copyright these images? I noticed on your Tumblr you write DO NOT COPY. Does that mean people can’t drag an image off of the Tumblr and repost it to their Tumblr or to a Facebook profile? I am confused by what you mean by DO NOT COPY.

KD: DO NOT COPY is a total winky smiley-face move. Tumblr is branding on top of branding, copying on top of copies, bodies on top of bodies, dismembered, re-assembled, imbued with eerie second-life. There’s no way not to copy. I wanted people to think about creative copyright, and about the hijacking of girl bodies, when they see that header DO NOT COPY on my blog. 

Image from Kate Durbin's "Woman as Objects"

Image from Kate Durbin’s “Woman as Objects”

AE: I sense a real flow in your work between online and offline worlds. Do you see much of a separation between IRL and online identities? Either way, explain how…

KD: I think the internet can teach us better ways to be our fully integrated selves IRL. I love this quote from Michael Lewis’s book NEXT, about the birth of the internet: “The internet was showing us what we wanted to become.”

I think the fluidity of our identities, the malleability of our bodies, the revelation of the nothing behind the institutions of society, that the internet reveals to us, are all shaping our identity as a global race. We cannot keep pretending that our essentialisms are the “Truth” any longer, nor can we keep pretending what we do as individuals doesn’t affect the collective. Or, we can keep pretending, but it’s getting harder to hold those old ideologies in place. And the teenagers are wiser than we are about this stuff!

As for whether I see a distinction between my work and identity online and IRL, I am glad you don’t see one because I don’t either. That’s not to say that I don’t think they are different ways of interacting with the stuff of life, or that we should sit at our computers all day — because I think that energetically that is very unhealthy. But moving toward an integrated self, especially for women, is what my work is all about. For example, that’s what I was working toward in my video art pieces, “iPrincess” and “Tumblr is the Only Place I Don’t Pretend I’m Okay,” where I took Tumblr comments and .GIFs and placed them IRL with stickers and old technology, and then placed them back online.

There’s so much to say about how we can take our internet identities into RL. It’s already happened with The New Aesthetic in fashion, clothing that looks like internet. Fashion is always teaching us how our perceptions of our limits are changing. You can trace that back to Coco Chanel bringing out pants for women (there’s Chanel again!) prior to the women’s movement. The potential IRL revolution seems impeded a little bit by the newness of these new technologies and the ways in which people are addicted to them. Instead of using them to become more alert IRL to the malleability of the moment, they are sometimes using them to check out from IRL, which is unfortunate.

Mark Aghuar

Mark Aghuar

AE: Have you ever read Mark Aguhar’s Tumblr blog, They were a superstar on Tumblr and spent a lot of time online. They committed suicide in early 2012. Before her passing, they formed an enormous Tumblr following of people who were supportive of and into fat, transfemme people of color. Of course, haters gonna hate, but Mark fended them off. I would argue that they had the same experience with Tumblr as the one you’re describing with teenage girls. Plus you talk about how Girls, Online, is not limited to women-born-women. 

Here’s Mark’s Tumblr: Here’s a story I wrote about their passing and how we talk about death on social media. Scroll to the bottom for a bit about Mark. Of course there are other aspects involved in Aguhar’s Tumblr blog that the teenage girls you look at don’t seem to bring up as often — fatphobia, racism, homophobia, self-hatred, transgender, gender-neuter pronouns, performance of gender, and specifically an evolving trans-femininity — but the sentiment they embodied seems similar in many ways to the teenage girls you study. This feeling of using Tumblr to feel connected to others, seeking support within an otherwise highly competitive creative space and connecting in a semi-anonymous way. For Mark, Tumblr seemed like a place where they could truly be themselves and speak her mind outside of the confines that the real world imposes. What do you think? 

KD: So sad and sorry to hear about Mark’s passing. I didn’t know them, since that’s the pronoun Mark preferred — but I’m grateful to be encountering their brave work now through this conversation. I spent about two hours going through Mark’s blog today, Sunday. I see a lot of aesthetic tendencies with the girls that I follow, who are generally a bit younger (teens) but I think you are right that regardless of age, Tumblr is a space for those who don’t fit into the status quo to find a home (I think we’re all teenagers in this respect). There’s something about the platform that encourages openness, self-authorship, brazen wit, in a way that other social media sites do not. Twitter maybe comes the closest, but it is way less visual. And while I love Facebook, there is so much policing there, grandparents and childhood schoolmates watching, etc. On Tumblr there are mean comments directed at bloggers, but they are met with sass and self-authority, which I love. The potential for creating one’s own digital aesthetic world is quite open, free-flowing.

One thing I think that is interesting here, too, is this issue of mourning in the social media age that you talk about in your article, and how the social media age is changing our cultural relationship to death. I think the internet has made us feel closer to the dead, like some Eastern or Native American traditions, where the dead are always close at hand. An acquaintance of mine here in Los Angeles took her own life recently (she, too, was a part of the queer community), and sometimes I look at her Facebook page, where people leave her notes and comments all the time, telling her how much they miss her. Her FB page has become a kind of monument to her, as well as a medium to reach her memory. While it’s unspeakably tragic that Mark and my friend are gone, I am glad that their digital ghosts are still with us. But let me be clear that I am not saying that is anywhere near a substitute for the living person! And I think the fact that the internet feels safer sometimes than “real” life is the problem we need to face as we move into an increasingly digitized world. Would that all of life were free as Tumblr, freer even. I am hopeful we can get there one day, because I think Tumblr is showing us what we want to be.

Image from Kate Durbin's "Women as Objects"

Image from Kate Durbin’s “Women as Objects”

AE: Would you say it’s feminist, or feminininist (to quote Peregrine Honig) to reblog oddly sexual imagery and confessions from teenage girls? And are you further objectifying women as objects by running the women as objects blog? Is it even worth trying to NOT see women as objects, or reblog what teen girls are saying? I always come up against this question with work that looks at the vulnerabilities of young women and girls. Would love your thoughts on this!

KD: I suspect it may benefit us more to cease fighting our objectification, and re-frame it to our advantage. Maybe we are all objects. Make yourself a surprise object, a multi-faceted object among other objects, as opposed to the flattened one-dimensional thing. I wrote more about this topic in an essay for VIDA.

As for the “Women as Objects” project specifically, obviously the title is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, since it is so literal and yet … not, since materiality on the internet is weird. But what I am most interested in is the ways in which the girls objectify themselves therefore causing disruption of the ways in which girls are usually objectified culturally. This is where the role of abjection comes in. It’s like cutting yourself before someone else does and then shoving the cut in their face to show them how fucked up what they are doing to you is. To reveal to them that really, you can’t ever be a flat object, it is an absurd notion. You are everything. And doing this online, of course, where you can turn your real physical cut into a glitter .gif, just reveals the complexity of ones own being even further.

Because the girls are already objectifying themselves publicly — with thousands of followers — I don’t see what I am doing as furthering their flat cultural rendering. I am continuing the multiplication process that the girls began themselves, re-presenting what they are doing, as close to their original presentation as possible. And they re-blog each other, remember. But if any of them wants to opt out of “Women as Objects,” I immediately cease and desist. That has happened only once thus far, with one girl who didn’t want me to re-blog her text posts because she felt like they needed to be read in a larger context. She wanted me to keep re-blogging her images, however, and was very supportive of my project as a whole.

AE: Have you seen Lena Dunham’s Girls? What did you think of it?

KD: I watched the entire first season of Girls in my bed while recovering from a root canal last summer. It’s fantastic — brutal and smart. There are elements of authentically revealed white privilege to the show, and I think it’s interesting how people have reacted to that with disdain. I can’t imagine anyone reacting to a show about privileged white dudes in the same way, especially a show as well-written and raw as Girls. Girls can’t ever really win, but Lena Dunham is winning anyway, and I really champion her work.

Alicia Eler

Alicia Eler is a cultural critic and arts reporter. She is the author of the book The Selfie Generation (Skyhorse Publishing), which has been reviewed in the New York Times, WIRED...