Kate Durbin and Andrew Durbin in Conversation
The following conversation is between Andrew Durbin and Kate Durbin, both writers and artists of precision and abundance who have each published books in the past year (Mature Themes (Nightboat) and E! Entertainment (Wonder), respectively). About the two writers, rumors abound. Some are clarified below. What can be said is that both writers excise contemporary phenomena, (the return of the tracksuit, selfies, Katy Perry, The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills) not simply by recasting each in a new capacity for feeling, but showing what’s been embedded inside the culture all along and why each phenomena is important.
As I type, Kate is headed to Art Basel Miami Beach to restage her performance Hello, Selfie, an investigation into global markets via the Hello Kitty brand, exoticism, and feminism. The piece throws harsh light on the vulnerability of existing as a woman with a body made public, subject to male sexual aggression. The performance is documented in selfies, which are posted for anyone to see online during the performance.
Below Andrew tells us “I’ve been playing around with the idea of writing an erotic novella about fisting called Feelings Fade,” and I wish he would, perhaps dedicated to me. He is, however, writing a novel called Blonde Summer (which—to my knowledge—takes its title from the caption of an image on artist Juliana Huxtable’s Instagram). Durbin’s first book Believers, a limited boutique edition released by Poor Claudia out of Portland, drew attention from critics such as Bruce Hainley, Chris Kraus, and curator Lauren Cornell, who invited him to launch Mature Themes at the New Museum, which he did just this Fall.
What follows is a candyland of delights, starting immediately by confirming your suspicion: yes, they are married.
I. SPEAKING OF THE UNSPEAKABLE
ANDREW DURBIN: I grew up very embarrassed by our last name—and I always wanted to change it. It’s always sounded very old to me. Growing up in the South, I felt it signaled to people that I wasn’t “from there,” even though I was. Do you like our name?
KATE DURBIN: Sometimes I wish I had created a new name for myself, like Marilyn Monroe, before I started putting work in the world. But I also like the blank canvas of Durbin—it doesn’t really mean anything, so I can dress up as I like depending on whatever I’m working on.
When people ask you if I am your wife or sister, what do you say?
AD: I like the idea of creating a new identity. I’ve always fantasized about publishing some work under a pseudonym. As for us, I usually dodge the question because it’s tedious that people want “clarification.” I like what you said that one time, that the truth about us is unspeakable. What do you usually say?
KD: That it’s unspeakable.
Speaking of the unspeakable, can you tell me a little bit about your relationship to popular culture? I feel like we both have complicated relationships to it.
AD: I’m critical of a lot of what our entertainment culture privileges. We live in a media ecosystem that circulates content rapidly, and I’m interested in the ways in which that ecosystem works to conceal certain types of information. I worry that people think I am whole-heartedly embracing it. But I think what you and I do is just an exercise in vernacular writing, which inevitably sets up all these expectations and assumptions about my (our?) degrees of superficiality in relation to this material. What I’ve always loved about your work is that, in transcribing TV, you create a copy of it, but one without images. It’s uncanny and reveals a zero level to the hypermediated reality you’re transcribing. What about yours?
KD: I know I said I had a complicated relationship to pop, but when I create work I always try to neutralize any opinions I might have about whatever material I am encountering, and to take an almost Buddhist approach to it. I wanted to climb inside these shows and merge with them, and E! is the afterbirth of that. The fact that I am a feminist, and that I find these shows pleasurable in all their bling and excess, all shows up in the afterbirth, more as atmosphere than any kind of directed critical take.
Is that idea that you are blindly embracing pop why someone once threw a tennis ball at your head? One of my favorite things about Mature Themes is how you have this seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of high and pop culture—I think that distinction is kind of moot now, but it seems to be part of the point of your work. Your work reminds me in a beautiful way of the Internet, in its multiplicity of references, and the title of your book makes me think of Internet porn.
AD: Someone once threw a tennis ball at my head for reasons mostly unknown to me. I think it had something to do with my (drunken) presentation, which probably came off as arrogant.
II. A MOMENTUM TOWARD NOTHING
KD: Though we both refuse to blatantly criticize pop, there is a kind of Warholian mirroring that goes on. E! is kind of like one of those Google Earth images, where it’s a little sad because there’s no mystery—and yet you then realize it’s all a mystery, because no matter how much we look at the Kardashians, the Hills girls, Amanda Knox, digging into their x-rays, practically, we are really blind to what we see.
AD: It’s the feeling of blindness that interests me the most—and what leads me back to pop culture so often. Nietzsche said something about Greek heroes (i.e. celebrities) that I’ve always been obsessed with: "When we make a determined attempt to look directly at the sun and turn away blinded, we have dark coloured specks in front of our eyes, like a remedy, as it were. Those illuminated illusory pictures of the Sophoclean hero, briefly put, the Apollonian mask, are the reverse of that, necessary creations of a glimpse into the inner terror of nature, bright spots, so to speak, to heal us from the horrifying night of the crippled gaze.” So maybe that’s why I’m interested in Lindsay Lohan.
KD: I like the idea of turning blindness into an almost generative thing, going deeply into it. When you approach writing a poem, do you feel blind? How do you do it?
AD: It’s a slow process. I feel blind because I don’t know where something will go after I’ve started it. It’s not a helpless feeling, just one that takes a long time to build into an idea. What are you working on next?
KD: I’m working on the Art Basel Miami version of Hello Selfie, the performance project I’ve done in Los Angeles and New York. It consists of a group of women taking selfies for a full hour in a public space without directly interacting with the onlookers. We are covered in Hello Kitty stickers, which is a nod to the way women’s bodies are commodified and infantilized, but it also looks really beautiful in a slightly grotesque way, and Hello Kitty draws people from all walks of life into the piece. It’s about the gaze, and selfie culture, and female narcissism. Each iteration evolves from the last. For example, LA was very dreamy and Sofia Coppola-esque and New York was sad goth—Lana Del Rey meets Suicide Club. Miami will be very mermaidy and Spring Breakers-ish, I think.
I’m also working on a novel about The Bachelor, and I recently applied to be on the show. I hope to find true love on television.
What are you working on now?
AD: I’m working on a novel called Blonde Summer. It’s about art and fanaticism. It begins with this cult in upstate New York and eventually ends in Berlin, after this manic episode in Basel. It’s essentially a series of vignettes without much of a connecting plot except for this large-scale internet scam that ties everything together. I’ve been playing around with the idea of writing an erotic novella about fisting called Feelings Fade, too, but haven’t started.
KD: Can you discuss your relationship to the movie Clueless?
AD: I first saw it when it came out on VHS. I was living with my grandparents and my aunt, who was still in high school at the time. She introduced it to me. It’s one of my favorite movies. When I rewatched a few years ago, I was more interested in Cher’s dissenting attitude, especially in relation to her driving rights. I was reading Baudelaire and Brandon Brown at the time and I wanted to use the movie to translate a few of Baudelaire’s poems. It came out as the poem “Next-Level Spleen,” a title I stole from John Kelsey. The entire thing is a kind of homage to Brandon’s work.
Driving is so central to LA—and one of my favorite memories of LA is driving around with you and ending up at the public gardens in Pasadena (that scene made it into Mature Themes). Do you think driving has affected how you write, maybe how you think about space?
KD: I loved driving with you too, and walking and talking in the gardens together. It was so Henry James of us.
I come up with a lot of ideas while driving, I love watching the landscape of Los Angeles pass in that way. The movie Drive captures what it’s like to move through space in Los Angeles, the feeling of it. It’s not something I’ve experienced driving elsewhere. Maybe this translates into my work: there is a kind of distance in E!, there is no interiority into the characters, and that is very much like Los Angeles, where it is beautiful but there is always a distance, like you are looking at everything through a plane of glass. I also listen to a lot of pop music while driving on freeways and that has a kind of cinematic quality, a momentum toward nothing, which I think seeps into my work.
III. A CITY THAT PLAYS A LITTLE HARD TO GET
KD: Who are your favorite writers, artists, inspirations right now?
AD: This question is always so hard to answer because my tastes and interests change so often, especially when thinking about contemporary art and writing. I can just tell you what I’m reading right now? Herve Guibert’s To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, Bob Gluck’s Elements of a Coffee Service, Douglas Crimp's On the Ruins of the Museum, a long essay on Group Material’s AIDS Timeline by Claire Grace, Boris Groys' On the New.
I want to ask you who your favorite writers and artists are, but everyone gets that question. I’m more interested in what you think about the question itself. Do you think listing favorites reveals anything about you? It allows you set up a lineage, of course, but at the same time I never find it that helpful to answer or read because people only say what they want to say, which isn’t necessarily going to reflect what is being said in the work—and how it is being said and to what other works those words are owed.
KD: When my first book, The Ravenous Audience, came out, I felt like I had to name drop all these artists and thinkers into my interviews so people wouldn’t think I was just a dumb blonde girl, so they would know I had been good and done my homework. But I feel differently now. Maybe being a dumb blonde can be a radical position. I didn’t even put an epigraph in E!—I didn’t want people to have a framework for the book other than the book itself. (The epigraph I was initially considering was a quote by Shakespeare. I thought it would be funny to name drop Shakespeare. It was the quote that shows up first on Wikiquotes about the world being a stage, but Ben Fama was like, that’s too obvious).
More and more I am interested in stripping away any extra-textual references that might cloud the reader’s encounter with the work, or make them feel superior to the pop culture material. I am happiest when critics make references to really obvious artists who have influenced me, like Warhol.
You’ve talked a lot about moving to Los Angeles, and obviously the landscape and industry play a big role in your poetics. What is it about LA that pulls you?
AD: I don’t know if I want to move there anymore. I love LA’s sprawl, its weather, and the people out there. I’ve always been attracted to the kind of work LA produces, especially the nascent art scene in the 70s and what’s happening now. The novel I’m working on actually deals a bit with this, particularly a drawing by Mike Kelley called The Territorial Hound. In Kelley’s drawing, a dog symbolizes the US, with its manicured and beautiful face representing Los Angeles and its diseased rear representing New York. Both the mouth and the asshole hover over bones. Under the dog, Kelley wrote: “Guarding the bone at both ends.” So while New York’s a dirty asshole and LA’s a clean mouth the two are co-dependent and contingent on one another. I’m less interested in LA and New York and more interested in travel, actually, in being part of neither.
Do you ever want to move to New York?
KD: We definitely are the clean mouth to New York’s asshole. I could see myself in New York for a season, as I have so many friends there. But I think I need to be in a city that plays a little hard to get, that’s always offering up a fantasy that’s just out of reach, and that’s L.A. I am happy here. And honestly, I’m not sure I could ever live somewhere without swimming pools and palm trees. As if!
Top photo of Kate Durbin by Jessie Askinazi.
Andrew Durbin is a poet and the author, most recently, of Mature Themes (Nightboat). He co-edits Wonder with Ben Fama.
Kate Durbin is a Los Angeles based writer and artist. Her books include E! Entertainment (Wonder) and The Ravenous Audience (Akashic). Her most recent performance is Hello Selfie, which she performed in Union Square with an exhibition following at Transfer Gallery in Brooklyn. She is the recipient of an NEA grant and her work has appeared in outlets such as Art in America, Salon.com, Yale’s American Scholar magazine, poets.org, and elsewhere.