Girls of Spectacular Culture
By Brian Kim StefansOctober 19, 2014
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KATE DURBIN’S first book of poetry, The Ravenous Audience (Akashic Books, 2009), draws from a variety of source material — from Grimm’s fairy tales to the sexually charged films of Catherine Breillat — and includes poems that comprise entirely of lists of clothes and accessories owned by Marilyn Monroe.
Durbin’s second book, E! Entertainment, published in May (Wonder), consists wholly of transcripts of reality TV shows: MTV’s The Hills, Bravo’s Real Housewives, and E!’s Keeping Up with the Kardashians and Girls of the Playboy Mansion. TV personalities like Amanda Knox and Anna Nicole Smith also make appearances.
In July, Durbin brought her brutally girly poetics to Perform Chinatown, Los Angeles’s annual performance art festival, with Hello, Selfie! In the piece, a group of women wearing only Hanes underwear and covered in Hello Kitty stickers took selfies with iPhones for two hours straight, led by Durbin, who was wearing a clear plastic dress with melting Hello Kitties painted on it. The performance took place on the street in Chinatown; much of the audience consisted of confused yet intrigued incidental onlookers.
Durbin’s work engages notions of spectacular culture, celebrity, and authenticity — all pet concerns of the Frankfurt School, particularly Guy Debord. We asked Brian Kim Stefans, a poet, digital artist, and academic, to talk to Durbin about her work and how it might fit into a theoretical framework. He is the founder of arras.net, a website devoted to digital and interactive poetry and poetics; his research interests include digital literature, conceptual art, and videogame and software studies. What follows is a transcript of their conversation.
BRIAN KIM STEFANS: You’ve done a lot of writing that’s based on the movies of Catherine Breillat, someone who has a very strong perspective and makes movies that are very realistic but also seem to have some kind of social agenda and a kind of richness of tone, whereas in E! Entertainment you’re not dealing with auteurs at all. How did that kind of movement happen? In the first book you were already beginning to work with just pure objects and with American celebrities, but with Breillat, you wrote original works based on her movies. You weren’t necessarily transcribing her movies. How does that transition work?
KATE DURBIN: The narrative of The Ravenous Audience has a lot to do with coming of age, with myths and archetypes I encountered or absorbed as a child, myths that are also foundational to American pop culture. That shapes the way the reader experiences the book, whereas in E! Entertainment it’s all contemporary pop culture, from beginning to end. One of the things I wanted to do in E! Entertainment was to make sure there was no epigraph, no reference to anything that could be high culture at all. I wouldn’t put a Society of the Spectacle quote in it. I wanted to unsettle people a little bit by not giving them anything that would make them feel intellectually superior or comfortable in the book, so they couldn’t open it and be like, “Good, there’s a quote by …” — I don’t know, whoever at the beginning — “I can read this and feel okay.”
I don’t feel like the way I used the material in Catherine Breillat’s films is radically different from E! Entertainment. In both cases I was watching the screen so closely, taking many, many, copious notes, being faithful to the source and shaping it into something that both captured and transformed that initial experience. It’s very similar, and that respect and care that I had for Breillat’s source material, I carried that over to the Kardashians. If anything, I spent more time with the pop material, three years, as opposed to the Breillat films. Those exercises were much quicker.
The issue here would be subjectivity, too. In the Breillat films, you have not just a woman, a director, an auteur, but you also have a camera that makes very subjective choices. If you look at something like "The Hills," which is one of your pieces in E! Entertainment, when you’re talking about the camera you write: it shot this, something’s in frame, but it doesn’t really seem like a subjective camera, and it also seems like you’re not trying to be subjective. In one of the Kardashian pieces you say, "her cleavage is significant." Reading that, I’m thinking, "Is it the camera that’s making her cleavage significant? Is it she herself? Is this a comment on what she wants to do? Or is it you?"
With that line, “her cleavage is significant,” it’s supposed to be a little unclear as to whose gaze it is. Is this the male gaze? Is this big brother’s gaze? Is this the author being judgmental? Is this the audience? And there’s also that question of agency. These reality stars, how much agency do they have?
I wrote about you again in one of my more recent papers, about LA poetry from the 1950s to the 1980s. I start off with Adorno and his critique of the entertainment industry, on which he blames some of the increasing lack of authenticity in human relations. One of my theses was that poets like Bukowski were critical of the artificiality of spectacular culture, but I said that your book would make Adorno turn over in his grave. The relationship that you might have with a celebrity — are you trying to argue that that could be considered an authentic relationship? Because it obviously doesn’t trouble you too much, you don’t mind being part of what we would call "the spectacle." Are you finding something that we used to call "authenticity" in there?
I wasn’t trying to argue anything. I read a lot, and these sorts of questions that you’re raising are things I think about a lot, and I wouldn’t say that they don’t trouble me. I would say they don’t only trouble me, and I think you could say I’m searching toward something like authenticity or truth within the spectacle. I’m sure these questions have emerged within the text in a non-direct and experiential way, in the way that good art raises these sorts of questions but doesn’t give us a critical theory take on it. One of the things I wanted to happen with the book was that different sorts of people could read different things into it. It’s been fun to see people read it and say, “Oh, it’s very funny,” or, “Oh, it’s making fun of reality TV,” and having other people say, “Oh, it’s so compassionate toward people on reality TV.” Everybody has a different idea of what the book means and is “trying to say,” which means it’s working.
Some of these things that do trouble me, like being part of the spectacle, [are also] pleasurable. I’m not going to pretend that I don’t like glamor, or wealth, because we’re all drawn toward those things, or most of us are. Little bits of that come through in the writing.
In "The Hills" section you use film language — you’re talking about panning, shot, and you write things like "he is viewable." "Viewable" is a recurring word. But you don’t use words like "montage." Is there a limit to the film language that you’re willing to use? How did you approach that?
It’s similar to the issue of the gaze that I was talking about. I wanted the gaze to straddle the line between many kinds of gazes. It’s the same thing with the film language. I didn’t want it to sound as if it was entirely like the notes that a production person might take. I ended up straddling that line between the language of a production crew and the valley girl language of The Hills. I like that combination because it captures the strangeness of The Hills. That was the show that made me want to write this book.
I like the cutting back and forth between valley girl language and production language. There are two different things it makes me think of. One is Fiona Banner’s The Nam, in which she transcribed six movies about the Vietnam War as if she were there. The other book that I thought of was Crash by J. G. Ballard. In Crash, there is this intermingling of body parts and metal. We have this sense of the human body being diced to pieces by these objects. It felt a little bit like that in your portrayal of The Hills. It felt like there was this constant presence of the mechanical camera.
Yes, the camera is always interrupting, interjecting. This is the current state of our existence, and I wanted to play with that. We try and ignore that looming eye, but it keeps getting in the way. I wonder what Debord would have thought of reality TV, of surveillance, how we’ve not only become absolute commodities but commodities whose every meaningless gesture is also a commodity as they are captured for the screen. Also, as you pointed out, the camera interrupts the body, especially the feminized body, at various points in the book but most noticeably in “The Hills.” There’s a scene where Heidi Montag’s body, and particularly her breasts, gets so chopped up by the various mirrors in the room she is in and the camera angles that the reader is really disoriented. It’s fairly Ballardesque. And there’s this sense that her body parts and the room and the camera are all objects on some two-dimensional plane, kind of like in the novel Flatland.
I’m always playing with the idea of women as objects. In E!, I give the objects in the environment just as much presence or life as the people on the screen. Everything is held to the same value. Part of that is the effect of describing everything. I’m skipping from person to object, object to person so frequently that you cannot forget anything in the environment whereas normally [objects are] background, and people are foreground.
In "The Hills," another thing that I thought was interesting was "10 people can be counted in the frame." It made me wonder, do you note these things down when you’re transcribing?
Oh yeah. For sure. I paused the shows constantly to write down everything as accurately as possible. I was playing a lot with the idea of viewing versus seeing. That idea of when we watch television, we view it, but we don’t really see it, which is almost a spiritual approach to it. I was thinking about similar questions as I thought about in my first book, about how much we love to judge women onscreen. We like to project on them. I went through after the final draft and did that word search thing on Microsoft Word and found all of the times where I said the word “see” and changed it to “view.”
How do you feel E! Entertainment might relate to what is called "conceptual writing" — that is, work by writers such as Kenneth Goldsmith or Vanessa Place in which concept or process is privileged over the finished product, sometimes to the degree that the author doesn’t even encourage you to read it?
I’ve been watching the reviews come out for the book, and they’ve all been interesting. A lot of people have leaned toward putting it in that “conceptual writing” category. One critic said something like, “I know I don’t need to read this book all the way through to appreciate it.” That’s not wrong, but it’s not really how I see it. I took more of an approach like long durational performance art, where it might feel like “nothing” is happening at certain points, but you need to stay for the full six hours if you really want to have that moment of transformation with the text. Spending three years with the material, I experienced a lot of transformational moments with it, and I can’t imagine reading it so surface. At the same time, I think you can read it that way too, it’s just a different way of reading it.
Will you describe the process of transcribing The Girls of the Playboy Mansion? There are the banisters that are right for sliding down, and photographs before going on the red carpet. You only allude to — but don’t include — people.
Yeah. I call it a haunted house. In some ways a ghost takes up more space than an actual person because they’re everywhere and they can be in anything. Ghosts move objects. I was thinking about the Playboy bunnies, who are the most objectified women in the world, arguably, and I thought, “what if they were so objectified that they literally turned into their objects?” Objects can tell a story. One of the artists I’m really influenced by is Stanley Kubrick, and one of the things that I love about all of his films, especially The Shining, is how every object in a scene is so significant and so haunted. I wanted to create a similar effect with the Playboy mansion.
Did you see that Baz Luhrmann The Great Gatsby?
I love Baz Luhrmann. I’ve seen all his movies.
It kind of reminds me of the way he films diamonds and popping champagne corks and things like that — very surface-y, object-y.
I like that reference.
To go back to this issue of authenticity and hypermediated culture and the seflie, can you explain your performance Hello, Selfie! a little bit?
A few years ago I had this idea that I wanted to do a performance piece in a public space with women taking selfies of themselves for at least two hours straight. I wanted their visual aesthetic to somewhat match up with the teen-girl-Tumblr aesthetic, or the look that girls have on the internet, especially when they take a lot of pictures of themselves in their bedrooms. There’s a kind of vulnerability to the aesthetic, but also a sexuality, which is a little unnerving because they’re referencing a lot of childlike things at the same time as they’re looking really sexy. As the idea developed, I realized I wanted to use the signifier of Hello Kitty, because she represents a lot of the same things that I’m interested in. She’s this global brand that everyone can recognize. People of all walks of life respond to her, whether they’re children or adults, but she also takes on a different meaning as girls transition from childhood to adulthood. She becomes sexualized. I knew then that I wanted to incorporate her into the piece. It was a part of Perform Chinatown, so we stood in a public space in Chinatown, and took selfies for two hours. The audience had to decide what they were going to do with the piece. Some people were like, “What is this? Is this a Hanes commercial? Is this a Drake video?” The project also had an online component: all of the selfies that the girls were taking were uploaded online, so people could experience the piece mediated through the internet in real time, as well.
It was so interesting to see the audience respond to the piece. People automatically knew what to do. People immediately pulled out their phones. They didn’t have to think about it. They were instantly taking pictures of us and also taking selfies with us. They didn’t often ask us permission. They treated us purely as objects, like a prop to take a picture with. They didn’t care that we didn’t say yes.
Hello, Selfie! is dealing with similar questions that E! Entertainment raises: about women, the gaze, [and] self-objectification. It would have been a really different performance if people were just taking pictures of us and we were standing there bearing it. If we were not taking our own images of ourselves at the same time. That sort of mediated space between the audience and the girls was really important. The girls’ iPhones become these secret weapons in a way. It was uncomfortable. “Is it okay if I take pictures with them?” “What are they doing on their phones?” Those were really important questions.
Last night on Netflix I watched this documentary on Divine. They showed this great show from Pink Flamingos where Divine is walking down the street in Baltimore, in full regalia, and John Waters is shooting Divine from a car and all the people are staring at her. It’s a similar idea, except that now you don’t need to have an external cameraman.
I would love to give Divine an iPhone so that she could be making her own piece while everyone stares. It makes it less violent when you’re objectified when you’re also trying to take back your own image. One of the things that I was thinking about with Hello, Selfie! was the idea of the girl gaze, when the girl is looking back on her own image and projecting that onto the world.
It doesn’t sound like it would ever be as powerful as the male gaze.
I think it could be extremely powerful.
Brian Kim Stefans is a poet and professor of English (contemporary poetry and new media) at UCLA. His most recent book of poems is Viva Miscegenation (MakeNow Press, 2013). Prior books include What is Said to the Poet Concerning Flowers (Factory School, 2006) and Fashionable Noise: On Digital Poetics (Atelos, 2003). His website, which houses his many works of digital text art, is arras.net.
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