Art & Design

Kate Durbin On Her Performance Art Project ‘Hello Selfie’

Art & Design

Kate Durbin On Her Performance Art Project ‘Hello Selfie’


Hello Selfie, a performance series by artist and author Kate Durbin, presents 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, Miley Cyrus, and Vanessa Beecroft, the piece exists both IRL and URL, featuring custom fashion by Peggy Noland.

The IRL aspect of the piece takes place in a public space where a large group of female performers take selfies for an hour straight. They do not directly interact with the audience, instead interacting only with their phones. Passersby gawk and take their own selfies with the girls. The selfies are then uploaded to social media and shared in real time.

The first iteration of Hello Selfie LA took place in Chinatown on July 26th as a part of Perform Chinatown, LA’s annual performance art festival. The second takes place tonight in Manhattan’s Union Square on Oct 10th in collaboration with Brooklyn’s Transfer Gallery, from 7-11pm. An exhibition featuring film, photography, and fashion from the Chinatown performance will be shown afterwards at the gallery. The selfies will be available for immediate purchase for $25 each. We spoke to Durbin about the project.

Taking selfies has become a huge cultural phenomenon. Why did you choose to focus on this act for a performance piece?
The idea for Hello Selfie came to me a couple of years ago. I had a vision of all these girls taking selfies for a long period of time in a public space. I was thinking about how young women are often accused of narcissism, and there’s no more supremely narcissistic gesture than the selfie. I was also thinking of the girl gaze, when the girl is looking back on herself. I thought of this group of women taking selfies in public as a new kind of passive aggressive performance art. There is something about a large group of women coming together in this way that is very powerful.

During the LA installment, you had the women cover themselves in Hello Kitty stickers from head-to-toe. What does this icon represent within the girl gaze?
Hello Kitty incorporated herself into the piece later, when I was thinking about using a signifier of global capitalism and femininity. I wanted to use a symbol, like the apple symbol, which is also part of the piece, that is so ubiquitous. I thought about how it is significant to little girls but then teenagers and older women like her too. And she becomes sexualized as she gets older. The idea that the girl is not human is really interesting to me–disturbing yet maybe potentially radical. The girl disrupts categories. One of the things I think is interesting about Hello Kitty is that she has no mouth, and so I told the girls in the performance not to speak, although they could meow. They could speak only through the gaze, through the selfies. And they were not to interact with the audience directly, only passive aggressively through their phones.

Are you planning to replicate the LA version for future performances or will there be entirely new materializations?
The New York version is sadder and darker than the LA version, which took place in Chinatown. I like LA’s Chinatown because it has this kind of Disney theme park vibe, and it is also a film set. The outfits were very dreamy and Lolita-esque, and our audience was mostly tourists who thought we were filming a commercial. We were right next to a Spongebob Squarepants kids’ ride. The New York version will take place in Union Square and it’s the ghost goth, or sad girl version. I like to think that the kitties are now dead girls. They exist inside the machine. The next version I want to do of the piece will be a totally different iteration, with men, hopefully in London. But it had to start with the girls.

The women you featured were put in a vulnerable scenario, wearing nearly see-through white underwear and sports bras with onlookers watching them revel in themselves. How did this effect them?
Some of the girls told me they had really radical and transformative experiences with their bodies during the piece. There was a liberation in taking control of how they see themselves and how they want to be seen, what they were willing to share and what they were holding back.

Were there unexpected elements you took note of once the execution was in full-form?
One of the things that surprised me about the piece was its tenderness. In a way because the girls don’t interact with the audience there is a wall of glass between them and the voyeurs. But the way many people came up to take selfies with us was surprisingly tender and sweet. There were gawkers and creeps too and we were definitely objectified, but since we were taking selfies of ourselves it was not a wholly disempowering situation. Often I felt the audience was looking to us as models and then stepping into and joining the piece. That was beautiful.

Can you talk about the dress you wore for the first part segment and what you hoped to present?
My dress was commissioned from Peggy Noland, and it was inspired by Cinderella’s gown and also her glass slipper. I wanted to wear something transparent since the piece was all about voyeurism and making the private public. The hello kitties had apple symbols for eyes and on the bottom of the dress they were melting.

In a lot of your work there is often a shift from the overtly dark to a cartoonish, heightened sense of play. What are you exploring with the contrast of these themes?
I think cuteness and horror go hand and hand. Childhood is a time we idealize for its innocence but it is also the time when innocence is lost and horror is born. All cute objects have a horror embedded in them. I’m thinking of that Raggedy-Anne doll, Annabelle, who is in all those American horror movies. She is possessed. All the cute objects of capitalism are possessed, they contain the sadness and revenge of their own objectification. I’ve always said it’s wrong to objectify even objects, let alone people. Everything has an energy and a life and should be treated with respect.

How is our dependence on technology relevant in this conversation and the communication between your subjects and audiences?
One of the things that pleased me most about the piece was how the audience knew to automatically pull out their phones. It was like we were all holding up these white flags, acknowledging each other. We are living in such an interesting cultural moment, where we are constantly under surveillance via our own participation, where our interactions are totally mediated through technology. I’m not calling this bad or good, but I did want to draw it more into our awareness. We’ve already begun taking it for granted.