Let’s Play a Game: Kate Durbin’s Art Dreaming
Kate Durbin adjusts her long mint green wig and purses her lips. “Tell me the craziest thing you’ve done for money and I’ll take my shirt off,” she says, alone in her bedroom. Durbin is camming, addressing an audience viewing her feed on the adult website Cam4. A side bar of comments serves as a real-time register of audience reception, which she sometimes reads aloud and responds to. Durbin’s performance was simultaneously streamed on YouTube and New Hive for an art audience.
“Cloud Nine” is a performance piece in which Durbin alternately reads lists of things female-identifying artists have done for money and poses questions about work to the Cam4 audience. The stories were voluntarily submitted to Durbin prior to the performance. She exchanges glimpses of her body for audience participation, an explicitly transactional strip tease. She removes a large t-shirt with a green sequin lip applique to reveal a cash-print tank and matching skirt. With her green wig and lipstick, she appears as a shimmering mercenary icon. In her final state of undress, she wears a flesh-toned bikini top with printed nipples and a pair of panties decorated with rainbow condoms.
Durbin fields comments from objectifying cam site regulars and critics who claim she is exploiting her collaborators for publicity. An hour and forty-four minutes in, she reveals her complete financial history. She talks about her experiences with depression and exploitative adjunct work. Finally, in an uncomfortable climax, she “confesses” that though she usually spends her own money to make art, New Hive commissioned the piece for $1,000, by her admission the most she’d ever been paid for her art.
The performance can be accessed through a static New Hive page that consists of the video as it streamed on YouTube set against a background image of the MyFreeCams leaderboards. Durbin’s body is situated amongst thumbnails of other suggestively posed cam girls; her chat room peaks at about 25 viewers, while the ranked sidebar lists her competitors as having 400+ viewers in their rooms.
In her works “Cloud Nine” (2015), “Hello Selfie” (2014), and conceptual ekphrastic book E! Entertainment (2014), Durbin is preoccupied with the effects of new media on the art world and mass culture simultaneously. She attempts to reach both art and non-art audiences, culling popular reality television shows for material in her art book, or bringing an avant-garde performance to the sleazy corners of the Internet. It is perhaps useful to place Durbin simultaneously in opposition to and tandem with 1970s behavioral artist Lee Lozano; where Lozano chose to deal with issues of gendered art world exploitation and compulsory surveillance by rendering herself irrelevant, Durbin submits herself to be bought and exploited in an act of radical transparence. These respective choices reflect contemporary attitudes about escapism and accelerationism in the face of late capitalist machinations.
Lozano’s “Dropout Piece” marks the culmination of her artistic labor which increasingly took the form of “life-art” pieces, social experiments Lozano undertook and documented in “write-ups” either for public exhibition or in her personal journals. Disillusioned with the art world’s fetishization of the one-of-a-kind art object and fervored artistic production, Lozano decided to experiment with non-participation and non-action as resistance to capitalism’s demand of compulsory productivity. What is notable about Lozano’s “dropping out” is her feminist extension of the definition of “work.” She situates an artist’s social participation in the art world as part of their labor. The piece left behind a legacy that stretched far beyond Lozano’s life: she effectively left the art world behind and rests now in an unmarked grave outside Dallas. 1
Ultimately, both “Cloud Nine” and “Dropout Piece” are art works about the conditions under which art is made. Durbin’s performance illustrates the paradox of making art today: most artists need to work regular jobs to support themselves and their art, but many find difficulty making work after being sapped of creative energy by stultifying wage labor. Her isolation of female artists’ resumes calls attention to the gendered nature of this problem. Her decision to conduct this performance for both an art and non-art audience draws an analogy between the exploitation of art laborers and the commodification and exploitation of the female body. It also echoes the prevalence of sex work in the accounts she reads: sugar daddies, blowjobs for restaurant managers to get a weekend off here and there, camming, and strip club jobs often feature in these stories.
Durbin discusses the degree to which artistic integrity has been compromised; artists remain silent about their finances out of shame or fear it reflects negatively on their artistic prowess. She then extends the question her chat room’s mostly male audience, asking if they’d ever had to compromise their principles for a job. Though she receives few responses, Durbin suggests that what is happening to laborers in the art world is a microcosm for the global economy.
She also addresses the prevalence of student debt in an art world that often requires young artists go through exorbitantly expensive MFA programs. Artists struggle to find paid work while paying off student loans because “the professionalization of art production—congruent with specialization in other postcapitalist industries—has meant that the only art that will ever reach the market now is art that’s produced by graduates of art schools.”2
In this sense, Durbin fulfills Hito Steyerl’s call for artists to address “the intrinsic conditions of the art field, as well as the blatant corruption within it” rather than an abstract inequity happening elsewhere that deimplicates artists.3 Steyerl claims art’s relevance comes from its entanglement with global capitalism, not its romanticized freedom from it. She calls the art world “a site of condensation of the contradictions of capital and of extremely entertaining and sometimes devastating misunderstandings between the global and the local.” Durbin’s work does have a sense of play, a sense of humor perceptible in the clumsiness of her amateur performance of both sex-worker and art-worker, as well as the cam site viewers’ misunderstanding of her intentions as an artist. When one participant writes, “this is my fantasy,” Durbin responds, laughing, “This is your fantasy? Good. It’s also my reality.”
Lozano’s work, too, explicitly deals with the art world’s corruption, namely her distaste for its “strike work” conditions. Strike work “is produced as spectacle, on post-Fordist all-you-can-work conveyor belts… at insane speeds, enthusiastic, hyperactive, and deeply compromised.”4 For the aptly titled “Piece” (1969), she created a pile of show announcements, press release material, and other printed matter relating to the art scene, including her own promotional materials, which would be lost in the sheer mass of accumulated promotion.5 Rather than allowing herself to be bought, as Durbin does both symbolically and literally, offering her body as a product to consumers on a cam site as well as creating a product for New Hive, Lozano opts out of the art industry entirely. She refuses to be an art worker, instead calling herself an “art dreamer.”
One of Lozano’s more notorious life-art pieces was titled “Boycott Women,” a piece which began as a refusal to interact with other women in the art world for an interim in the hopes of improving communication; however, the boycott lasted for the rest of her life. In the context of Lozano’s tendency to seek extremes and turn inwards to combat oppressive systems, this act can be understood as feminist. The piece “implies an understanding of patriarchy that is akin to her rejection of the art world—both are systems, with rules and logics that are public with personal effects.”6 Like her refusal of artistic production for the art market, her refusal to speak to women can be read as a criticism of the gender binary in a context where feminist artists gravitated towards essentialist celebrations of sisterhood. In this sense, the female body is analogous to the fetishized art object.
This comparison is also implicit in Durbin’s work. She exploits her own body—one imbued with power: white, thin, able-bodied, and cisgendered—for publicity in order to establish a platform to talk about art world exploitation. In an interview with Konbini, Durbin said of this piece, “I’m interested in how women’s bodies are commodities in both the art world and the sex industry, how those bodies are both hyper-visible and invisible (which is essentially the same thing, with different perks).”7
The female body-as-commodity has a long legacy in the art world: the female nude genre was a staple in painting for centuries, changing hands in the salons and private art market. In forcing the art and sex industries to collide, Durbin draws a line from the academy to pornography, writing a history of the passive female nude in visual culture.
Much of Durbin’s oeuvre traces the possibilities of new media, as outlined in Mark Andrejevic’s Reality TV: the Work of Being Watched: in an era of interactive media, submitting oneself to increased surveillance is referred to as “the work of being watched, a form of production wherein consumers are invited to sell access to their personal lives in a way not dissimilar to that in which they sell their labor power.”8 Individuals use technology to self-monitor and provide information used by advertisers for a customizable mass economy. He presents Internet media and reality television as two manifestations of “democratized” new media.
The relatively new genre of reality TV promises that anyone can be a star, if only they submit themselves to comprehensive surveillance. The aura of stardom is placed onto the means of promotion and marketing, as in shows like ‘Making the Band,’ “which is endowed with the mystical power of creating or negating celebrity, seemingly regardless of the individual talent.”9 Perhaps this is not unlike the manner in which the aura of the successful artist is placed on apparatus that manufactures them: the MFA program.
Internet media, on the other hand, has the potential to subvert the top-down model of media production by allowing those who formerly could only passively consume media to produce their own content. Today, Internet users can be at the center of their own cult of celebrity, publically volunteering information about their interests, what they buy, the foods they digest. Durbin has addressed both forms of new media in her artwork. Submission to surveillance is thus framed as a profitable way to win fame and discover oneself.
Performances like “Cloud Nine” and “Hello Selfie!” address the ways in which young women submit themselves to surveillance for material or social profit. Durbin also turned her eye to reality television heroines in E! Entertainment. She claims that the popular shows’ tropes and their tongue-in-cheek categorization as real “can act as a mirror, showing us how we each follow these patterns that are boring, broken, and predictable,” perhaps calling attention to the performativity in our daily lives and inspiring reflexivity rather than scapegoating of female celebrities.10
In this sense, artists are reckoning with issues of privacy and disclosure that are specific to our time. However, the breakdown of the public/private dichotomy has always been an issue foundational to feminist thought.
Lozano was among the first artists to exhibit behavioral art pieces, dealing with issues of privacy and publicity within the art world. Like Marcel Duchamp before her, she was interested in the privacy of the studio and “the 24/7, live-work model of artist lofts that has since been digitally mainstreamed by mobile devices and freelance economies.”11 Because she carried out the commands she privately addressed to herself in her studio, which was simultaneously her home, they were a form of artistic production. Ahead of her time, Lozano’s life-art model is now a far more common artistic practice. Durbin’s work occasionally blurs distinctions between life-art and performance.
“Cloud nine” is a ‘performance’ that deals with how female artists make money; Durbin takes on the role of cam girl in a fantasy costume, a departure for her normal self-presentation. However, Durbin herself is a female artist who is actually getting paid for the piece, performing actual artistic labor. In this sense, the piece can be read less as a performance or piece of video art and more as life-art in the vein of Lozano.
“Dropout Piece” was about resisting the capitalist art world by refusing to work and produce discrete art objects. Durbin, on the other hand, is submitting her body for surveillance and sexual objectification in solidarity with female artists who have had to do often demeaning things that violate their personal ethic systems to survive whilst maintaining the mental reserves to do creative work.
Besides using her body as a way to get press, Durbin’s submission of her body as a commodity and voluntary insertion into means of her debasement reflect an accelerationist philosophy that is popular amongst post-internet artists. Accelerationism posits that rather than feeling nostalgia for a pre-globalist, pre-internet past, artists should “not to withdraw from the process, but to go further, to ‘accelerate the process.’”12 Where Lozano’s work was about interrupting processes of commodification by intense focus and inwardness, perhaps Durbin’s can be read as an outwardness; a submission to total commodification in the hope that it increases capitalism’s instability and assumed collapse.
During “Cloud Nine,” user catdawg69 wrote, “this isnt art. this is activism for publicity. like the mattress girl,” referring to the performance “Carry That Weight” in which student Emma Sulkowicz carried a mattress across Columbia University’s campus in protest of their handling of sexual assault cases. Durbin’s goals are explicitly political in a way that some may not associate with the art world: rather than a simple critique, she explains that she hopes the work has lasting effects in generating an immediate discourse, the first step for solving the problem of the unviability of making a living as an artist.
Both Durbin and Lozano’s works have urgent activist goals. Durbin continually states in her performance and in interviews leading up to it that she hopes to change the state of the art world and thus the entire money-work system by first being transparent about her difficulties in surviving as an artist.
Durbin’s piece occupies cyberspace and time in a corner of the Internet typically considered private and cut off from public discourse–sex work. Rather than occupying public space, Lozano’s work occupied time and marked complete occupation with the self, in line with her goal of, in her words, “complete personal and public revolution.” Both pieces offer alternatives to the externalized and often aggressive public gestures historically categorized as activist.
By the end of “Cloud Nine,” Durbin has performed both the sex industry and art industry’s expectations. When she exits the chat room, she looks exhausted in her cam girl costume. She used her body to sustain the attention of the sex work audience and her artistic labor to create a product for an arts website: ultimately, she was bought. However, Durbin’s performance was successful in creating a sense of transparency around art world funding, drawing parallels between art workers and sex workers, and exploring the possibilities of surveillance.
What most clearly links Durbin’s oeuvre with Lozano’s is an intangible quality of fierce idealism. With self-aware yet childlike innocence, Durbin says to the camera, “One day I hope I don’t have to earn anything.” In the face of abject exploitation, relating stories of female artists in her position and often less privileged than her, Durbin maintains a firm optimism for the possibility of a kinder world. Lozano, too, died an “art dreamer:” when she found the art world unsalvageable, she turned radically inwards, engaging fully with her inner world like a child with an imaginary friend. This idealism should not be read as foolish or useless; on the contrary, it is absolutely necessary.
- Lehrer-Graiwer, Sarah. Lee Lozano: Dropout Piece. Afterall Books, 2014. ↩
- Kraus, Chris. Akademie X: Lessons in Art Life. Phaidon Press, 2015. ↩
- Steyerl, Hito. “Politics of Art: Contemporary Art and the Transition to Post-Democracy.” E-flux, no. 21 (2010). ↩
- Steyeri, “Politics of Art: Contemporary Art and the Transition to Post-Democracy.” ↩
- Lehrer-Graiwer, Lee Lozano: Dropout Piece. ↩
- Molesworth, Helen. “Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out: The Rejection of Lee Lozano.” Art Journal 61, no. 4 (2002). ↩
- Pangburn, DJ. “Art Project ‘Cloud Nine’ Asks Female Artists What They’ve Done for Money.” Konbini, May 11, 2015. ↩
- Andrejevic, Mark. “Between the New Medium and the Old.” In Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2004. ↩
- Andrejevic, Reality TV: the Work of Being Watched. ↩
- Alvarez, Ana Cecilia. “Kate Durbin Wants to Sell You E!” Adult Mag, April 14, 2014. ↩
- Lehrer-Graiwer, Lee Lozano: Dropout Piece. ↩
- Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane (New York: Penguin, 1977), 239. ↩