An Interview with Kate Durbin
by Eric Nelson
For issue 5, writer and friend Eric Nelson conducted an interview with the furious writer/performer Kate Durbin via Skype while she was staying in London. The extremely talented Emily Raw‘s photos appear both in the print edition and in the conversation below, all taken during Kate’s performance of Hello Selfie! in Union Square, NY. Kate Durbin is the author of the collection, E! Entertainment, available at Wonder Books. Unsurprisingly, she is busily at work on a new performance project on women artists called Cloud Nine. Below is her interview with Eric Nelson.
Kate Durbin: Hi Eric!
Eric Nelson: Hi! So good to finally talk to you.
KD: You too! How are you this morning?
EN: Pretty good, surprisingly awake, ha. How about you? How’s England?
KD: England is lovely. I’m in the countryside, so there are llamas and geese outside the window. Did you know geese honk while they are flying?
EN: It’s funny because anytime I’ve seen geese fly I’ve heard them honk but I never put two and two together.
KD: It’s cute.
EN: So what are you doing over in England? I know Miami Basel just happened. It seems you’re traveling a lot lately.
KD: I’m here visiting my parents. I was thinking of doing a version of “Hello Selfie” in London but I decided to spend this time writing (and working remotely—I’m always working, gotta get paid). I’ve been reading a lot too. I just finished The Exorcist, and now I’m starting The Castle.
EN: I totally forgot The Exorcist was a book originally.
KD: There are some very cool priests in The Exorcist. I like it because usually priests are painted in a poor light, like they are all pedophiles.
EN: And in The Exorcist the priest makes the ultimate sacrifice.
KD: Yes, it’s about a love that is larger than life.
EN: I had my photo taken as a child right at that staircase in Georgetown where he throws himself at the end of the film.
KD: Whoa, you were a cool kid!
EN: Haha, nah, I was the kid with a big, fast mouth. It’s funny you brought up how you’re always working because one thing I’m definitely curious about is what you do to get paid. Are you still teaching at all?
KD: I do teach. I teach in person and online. I tutor as well, and I’m getting into acting as another way to make money.
EN: What medium of acting?
EN: When did your parents move to England?
KD: They’ve been here seven years. My dad was a project manager for the Olympic Park.
EN: I know you attended a Christian high school in Arizona as a teen. What was that like
and has that experience had any effect on your work, like the “Girls, Online” project or “Hello, Selfie?”
KD: I think it has. I had a really awful experience in high school. My school was very small and strict and conformist. And because the Internet was just beginning at that time, with only chat rooms really, I felt very alone. I found my people through going to punk shows at this underground club called “The Nile.” I also read a lot of Sylvia Plath, who my mother turned me on to. But if I had had Tumblr I think I could have connected with like-minded girls more easily. That angst of being a misunderstood teen—being looked at and summarily dismissed—was something I experienced very intensely, so perhaps that’s partly why I’ve been drawn to making work about teen girls, work that champions their creativity and bravery.
EN: What other writers did your mother turn you on to? Were you close growing up?
KD: My mother is a housewife and she reads a lot and she turned me on to a lot of the classics. But the Plath connection was something different. I had a nervous breakdown on a school trip, and I was in and out of doctor’s offices and no one was really listening or taking me seriously. They were just giving me pills. My mother gave me The Bell Jar, and after that I used my babysitting money to buy Plath’s journals at Barnes & Noble. My mother and I have a complicated relationship. We are very good friends, but she’s never been much of a mother. I think giving me Plath was her way of saying, I understand what you are going through, but I can’t help you. Maybe this book can.
EN: So I read E! Entertainment and I loved it. I felt like I was watching cable and flipping through a few channels over several nights.
KD: Oh, I’m glad. I like that you got that feeling from it.
EN: It felt luxurious, like that’s what cable is for me now as opposed to years ago, taking it for granted. One thing I wondered was did you use closed captioning in transcribing?
KD: You know what… I can’t remember. I can’t remember if it was available on all the shows. If it was, I probably used it. But I made a point to write down the dialogue from my ear, so some words were indecipherable, and so I made them indecipherable in the book. And I added all the ums and ahs and likes verbatim by ear. That was really important to the text.
EN: I noticed that. It made it seem more like I was watching the show. On the other hand, what was the reasoning behind some of the license you took like in blurring someone’s face?
KD: Most of the blurring was a part of the show, like when they blur logos and such. The only major license I took was turning Kris Humphries to TV static.
KD: But my reasoning is that he is already static, so I didn’t actually change him.
EN: He’s not really the “object” in that show, it’s true.
KD: He’s sort of like a fairy who gets no claps.
EN: Why do you think reality television is such a brilliant medium?
KD: I like how layered it is. There is an awareness of its own construction as it’s being constructed. It acts as a social mirror while at the same time revealing how complicated our current moment is, in terms of surveillance and digital mediation. And yet there is all this drama that is very base and repetitive. Reality TV is both incredibly smart and totally stupid. Like humanity.
EN: Have you seen the Albert Brooks film Real Life that dealt with that old program “An American Family?”
KD: I haven’t, although I shared a plane ride with a woman who worked on that show and we talked about it. I must see this film.
EN: So the book deals with these shows in terms of class in a very intense way. You said we see all the sides, non-central and lower class characters and their contrast with the main characters.
KD: Yes, that happened in the process of writing the text. Perhaps someone else working with similar constraints would have noticed other things, but I became obsessed with these peripheral characters. The final scene in Kim’s wedding, there are all these people hanging around, and this one man is sitting on the couch in black hanging his head. That moment for me captures the feeling of these people on the fringes of fame, people who are normally invisible in the frame.
EN: Was there ever a moment of self-reflection as per your own class status, like where you came from and where you are now in terms of socioeconomic status or even “fame?”
KD: In a way I feel I occupy a middle position—as many of us do—in terms of privilege and lack of privilege. My family was not always upper middle class, but they are now, so I have had the experience of witnessing my family go from little to much. Although now my father is having financial difficulties, so the future remains to be seen. On the other side of that, as an artist, I have only ever lost money or had to spend my own money to do what I do, and I have to do everything myself pretty much, from editing my own books to doing all my own PR. And I am also an adjunct, who makes a non-living wage. Watching the shows, I found myself able on some level to relate to everyone, from the richest Kardashian to the most peripheral assistant, even though I don’t claim to fully comprehend each person’s experience. In some ways this is a book about not being able to access that interiority anyway, no matter how “real” the show.
EN: How are pop genres more philosophically complicated than what are usually considered traditional “literary” works? I read you saying something along those lines.
KD: I think anything that is so ubiquitous is necessarily complicated, because it appears in so many places and its effects are so far-reaching. We also don’t take pop genres seriously as art, so we aren’t as careful to examine their components.
EN: Along those lines, why is it that pop culture is taken more serious when it’s framed specifically in art, like as a reference in a painting that’s in a gallery, as opposed to just alone as entertainment?
KD: There’s this idea that art appears in a museum or a gallery, which I think is one of the most destructive ideas about art that there is. Art is everywhere; it is a matter of perception. Once you have decided to see art everywhere you go, you see it. And being an artist is really about a shift in thinking, of thinking creatively, using the imagination to engage with life. This is why I love Duchamp, Yoko Ono, Warhol, artists like this, who re-imagined what art could be.
EN: What’s cool about you bringing up Warhol is his interest in name brands, like corporate symbols. You name-drop a lot of luxury brand names and I have to ask, is there anything inspiring about luxury in general? Like beyond the idea that it conveys exclusivity?
KD: At this point, we are so inundated with products that they have become sort of meaningless in their repetition. Like, I’m not sure luxury products are even luxurious anymore, because they are not rare. What is rare is the natural world, which is vanishing from us. And yet there is still a tactile pleasure in luxury items, in wallowing in our glamorous trash. I enjoy it. I especially enjoy slightly ironic luxury goods, like my fake Birkin which I affixed faceless gemstone Disney princesses to. I recently took a picture of it in the Hermes store at the Tom Bradley terminal at LAX, and the lady in the store was so pissed at me. I think she was mostly pissed because I told her it was fake and didn’t try and pretend it was real.
EN: Yeah I mean over the decades, recession withstanding, the profits have only gone up to warrant brands to make lower-end versions. Mercedes is a good example. In the age of easier access to fame through the Internet and social media, what’s still so alluring about Hollywood? Will film and television stay dominant in the power those mediums have to reach audiences and make money?
KD: I hear from actor friends that the money is already starting to go in Hollywood, but I suspect that we may see the rise of more intermediary mediums, like what Netflix did with TV shows, and what Youtubers do every day. Does that mean we will lose old-fashioned Hollywood films? Probably not. They will be like painting, this old-fashioned medium that is still relevant because it offers a specific experience.
EN: Do you think that as the bigger studios begin to lose more money that fewer strong independent films will be released as well since there won’t be as much financing to put into distribution? I mean in a time where the technology is cheaper and more accessible, there are more people making their own films and expressing their own voices—but how many people see them beyond the crowd that’s specifically into film in the first place?
KD: I think that’s totally possible. And would be great. But yes, distribution is an issue. The gatekeepers are still in place. Now is the time for ingenuity.
EN: I have one more question for you. What personally keeps you in Los Angeles?
KD: Los Angeles is my muse.