At War With Popular Culture: Kate Durbin Is Kicking Ass On the Front Lines

photograph by Jessie Askinazi

photograph by Jessie Askinazi

text by Luke Goebel

I won’t pretend to know visual art, as that is my sister’s side of our art cult/community URANUS which is being formed in Landers, Ca, but I am versed in the wheelhouse of parlance—I mean I drive the language barge to sea and back, communing with the whales. Kate Durbin is someone who I first encountered through her art work, visual art and conceptual art shows, although she is perhaps as prolific and successful in her written work as she is in the conceptual art communities. This interests me immensely as I know so few artists who occupy both territories and bring a conceptual and critical theoretically informed and cultural critique to conceptual art and poetry.

Durbin’s work first came across my radar through social media, seeing works from recent shoes of her such as “HELLO, SELFIE! NYC” which featured Durbin looking very serious in a clear Hello Kitty adorned smock with identically dressed, for lack of my better words, fembots, covered in Hello Kitty stickers on their exposed skin and each rocking a red bow in the hair, except Durbin, each with a diversely different build and body shape, with a kitten print on the crotch of their white underwear. They are wearing only a pair of white kitten print panties and a white sports bra like top. The show was performed in a public space, before the locked gate of a storefront, and the models are all holding a very serious expression regardless, or rather intentionally, with their turquoise and hot pink lipsticks. The models took real time selfies and posted them for one hour on social media, and the show was purportedly focused on creating a “New form of passive aggressive performance art, reveling in teen narcissism and the girl gaze. Inspired by surveillance culture, Hello Kitty, Apple products, the teen girl Tumblr aesthetic [we will return to this], Miley Cyrus…”

I feel like I have been seeing these iconic images from Durbin for years, although perhaps I have not. Her name especially sticks out to me because of the strain Durban Poison, which is spelled differently of course. Yet, her art does have a sort of intoxicating, heavy sativa, altering effect on my mindstate. While I would usually find myself turning away from anything with the word Miley Cyrus in the artist’s statement, Durbin’s work seems hyper-intentional, socially critical, radicalized, and affronting. I also see and sense with Durbin a constant effort, work, and drive to make and to present. It is only after investigating and engaging more with her that I find this to be absolutely correct. I do not know how she manages to be as prolific, as funded, and as consistently engaged as she is.

"...she is driven, accomplished, and kicking ass on the badass front lines of war with pop culture, gender, and drivel—making it new, pointed, and barbed and in formations of attack as well as celebration...."

Somehow our ropes have crossed through various friends, interests, and even housing needs. She has a great, large space and office/studio for sublet which is where a great deal of my current novel in progress is set. To be completely transparent, or rather more transparent, I was to interview her but I fell through twice on my end of the bargain. The interview was to focus on her new iPhone app, called ABRA, which we will be getting to in a bit. I haven’t forgotten to talk more about TEEN GIRL TUMBLR AESTHETIC either. Having failed her twice without warning on the interview front, she texted, “This is too many reschedules for me. Sorry.” Now that might seem like a bit of nothing, a scraplet of word matter, but the truth is that is quite the perfect response to the constant presence of flakes, or better yet, people, who are too thinly spread to come through on their promises to you. If you work in the art world, or the literary world, or the industry of film, et al, by now you know what it feels like to be promised things that don’t materialize—interviews, edits, features, representation by agents, meetings, and to have the person fall though, repeatedly reschedule, etc., and one of the great tasks we all face is how to respond to these folks and their soul-crushing failure to let you know you matter at fuck all! When they flake, how do you strike the perfect tone of 'I’m so annoyed at you but I’m going to be the big person' and smile through it while still setting my limits so my soul isn’t crushed by forced passivity, which I effectuate only to try and get what I need now and or later. Well, that’s exactly the way to do it—steal her response.

“This is too many reschedules for me. Sorry.” It makes them want you. In the written word, Kate Durbin has two collections of poetry, has founded and runs Gage Stigmata: Critical Writings and Art about Lady Gaga, which has been featured in NPR, Yale’s American Scholar Magazine, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, and by tweets from Gaga’s stylists as well as visual artists, et al. Her Tumblr Project, Women As Object, created an online archive of Teen Girl Tumblr Aesthetic (see), and led to a live performance by Durbin as Bellyflop in LA and two video performances and several artist talks. Her book, The Ravenous Audience, was selected for publication by Black Goat, and imprint of the incredible press Akashic Books. The book was blurbed by a friend, poet laureate of the United States POTUS Juan Felipe Herrera. It was glowingly reviewed in Rain Taxi and elsewhere and is a work dealing with coming of age and myths and various media dealing with female archetypes. Her next collection E! Entertainment consists of “meticulously reworded transcriptions of reality television shows… Keeping up with the Kardashians, Real Housewives of Soup Kitchens, the Real Lives of Housewives of Gypsy Tweekers." They are revisions of transcripts of reality television as well as courtroom trials of Lindsay Blowhand, Amanda Knox, and Anna Nicole Smith. For this book Durbin has been hailed as “pop culture’s stenographer.”

Needless to say she is driven, accomplished, and kicking ass on the badass front lines of war with pop culture, gender, and drivel—making it new, pointed, and barbed and in formations of attack as well as celebration.

Her app, ABRA, is something really interesting and new from Durbin and her collaborators, Amaranth Borsuk and Ian Hatcher, which took six years and countless collaborators to create. It’s a bit difficult to explain how it works and what it does in an article. I also have already used up a fuck load of your attention span if not all of it. But the app basically presents to you texts, poems, living poems that are randomized, and you interact with these words, replacing words with your own creations, moving words around, selecting bits of texts to morph the poems. It would be a hell of a thing to explore in the sunshine stoned for a little while, or to use while writing your work, crafting poetry, a novel, a text message. The sorts of words that come up and the quality of the poems that are offered up and that morph from your engagement with the app are really actually quite intriguing, lovely, well made. It’s the first generator that I have explored that begins with quite marvelous arrays of meaningful poetry and morph into user-directed and meaningful, i.e. not slop, new poems. The interface within the app is seamless, if not delightful to engage with. It really is a very well made and sexy app and it’s worthy of downloading, playing with, stealing from while writing, and now I will take a few words from the app for you readers, “Ball is sticks ass butt her given a girdle of stretch to cheek eeeeeeeeeeeeeee! bare hind water mark falt boat fur below odd a fussy hussy was he under where…” And there are buttons to change, to MUTATE, GRAFT, PRUNE, ERASE, and CADABRA as well as a wheel at the bottom of the words to run and watch the words change and be replaced and deckle and it’s actually quite a lot like tripping.

You can download Kate Durbin's app, ABRA, which is described as "a magical poetry instrument/spellbook for iOS," hereText by Luke Goebel. Photograph by Jessie Askinazi