KATE DURBIN ON BINGE-WATCHING
The phenomenon of binge-watching television shows, recently invigorated by media outlets like Netflix and Hulu, may be long durational, but is it work? For Los Angeles-based writer and artist Kate Durbin, the answer is yes.
The founder of online pop culture arts and critical journal Gaga Stigmata, Durbin has extensively archived what she calls the “teen girl tumblr aesthetic” through her tumblr project Women as Objects and has written two full length books of poetry, The Ravenous Audience (Black Goat, 2010) and Abra, an iPad app and artist’s book created with the help of an NEA grant. Her newest book, E! Entertainment (Wonder, 2014), transcends its seemingly straightforward premise — a transcription of reality television and courtroom news scenes — creating incisive commentary on contemporary culture.
LEAH ARON: How did the idea for E! Entertainment come up?
KATE DURBIN: I was watching — binge-watching — The Hills. I watched the entire series and in the last episode, there’s this moment where the two main characters are saying goodbye. The shot pans out and you see a grip walk on set and pull the Hollywood sign away. That was the moment I thought, “Oh my god, this medium of television is so fascinating.”
Reality TV is not like documentary television and it’s different from an HBO show that everyone praises. It’s this weird combination of elements, both highly controlled and yet also loose and improvised. People often dismiss it as trash television – maybe for good reasons, but I’m not really into dismissing anything. So that final scene of The Hills was where I became fascinated with the medium in itself. I thought, “I want to spend more time with reality TV and see what it has to teach me.”
People often dismiss reality TV as trash television – maybe for good reasons, but I’m not really into dismissing anything.
That was the approach I took. I didn’t want to criticize reality TV — even though, obviously, there are things about it that are disturbing to me as a feminist. You see a lot of repeated narratives, so that is limiting but also feels true to life. I feel like we all repeat ourselves constantly.
LEAH ARON: Right, that makes sense.
KATE DURBIN: Yeah. We all make the same mistakes over and over — that’s what humans do, both on a micro-level and a macro-level — so reality TV’s repetition of certain tropes, like the catfights and the weddings, feels quite honest. In some ways, the medium can be kind of boring because a lot of what they do on these shows is, you know, they fight, they eat, they shop. It’s all this mundane stuff and I was drawn to it for that reason too. Those things are maybe not narratively compelling but they’re things we all spend our time doing.
LEAH ARON: I also like that you look at the medium without a dismissive lens. Most people think, “Oh, well it’s reality TV, so that means it’s not literally real.” But regardless of how much editing there is, the people on these shows are real people.
KATE DURBIN: There’s something about the fact that they’re not fully actors that is easy to relate to because, again, I feel like that’s what we all do — we are all acting to some degree, and kind of failing at being good actors, failing at fitting into these prescribed roles. And like reality TV stars, our personal agency is always a question mark.
…we are all acting to some degree, and kind of failing at being good actors, failing at fitting into these prescribed roles. And like reality TV stars, our personal agency is always a question mark...
When I first saw The Hills, I was at a Planned Parenthood, getting the morning after pill. There was this TV screen bolted in the wall. I didn’t have cable at the time so I only vaguely knew about the show. I looked up and saw Whitney Port on the screen — she’s one of the actresses — and she was talking on the phone to somebody. I was confused because it was so beautifully shot; it looked like a CW show, you know, like Gossip Girl or something.
LEAH ARON: Right, any show that would be labeled a ‘drama.’
KATE DURBIN: Exactly. But the way she was talking sounded like the way I would talk, or the way that any regular person would, using the word ‘like’ a lot, and I thought, “Is this like a new genre of scripted shows where they’re having people speak more naturally? How fascinating.” Then I found out it was a reality TV show, but it didn’t seem documentary-based. I had to watch the whole thing at that point because it was kind of in-between.
LEAH ARON: It is definitely its own genre.
KATE DURBIN: They’re both acting and not acting at the same time.
LEAH ARON: And they’re real people, but maybe not really friends, or —
KATE DURBIN: It really doesn’t matter. Of course you have to realize too that once you bring cameras into any scenario, it changes the dynamic. It’s like when an anthropologist goes into a group that’s never been accessed, it changes the environment. I think that’s why, when people ask if reality TV is real or fake, there’s no answer to this. First of all, nothing we ever do is totally real or totally fake since culture is a construction but, you know, maybe they become friends after filming the show, or maybe they’re enemies because the show breaks them apart.
Of course there are producers involved who control and curate situations, Big Brother style, and I am friendly with people who work on these shows, so I have heard many stories. I met a woman who worked on the first big reality show, An American Family, and she also worked on The Apprentice. She said that there used to be this big book at CBS on the ethics of what you could and could not do on a reality show. She also said that things have become much more ethically dubious since then. But even with that first show, An American Family, the mother on that show had an affair with one of the directors or producers — so that messiness was already a part of the medium from the beginning. The blurring of art and life.
LEAH ARON: You told me earlier that you love the term “binge-watching”?
KATE DURBIN: I do.
LEAH ARON: Is it a guilty pleasure kind of thing?
KATE DURBIN: I don’t feel guilty about it.
LEAH ARON: It’s work, though, for you.
KATE DURBIN: It turned into work. I’m one of those people who constantly needs to absorb things, so I watch a ton of TV, read a ton of books, look at a ton of art, and read things on the internet. I’m a sponge. But I never felt guilty about watching certain genres of TV or a lot of TV. The only thing I feel sometimes is that I should probably go for a walk or to the bathroom or “Oh, my neck hurts” —
LEAH ARON: So, it must be for long periods of time that you’re doing this.
KATE DURBIN: Often, yes. When I was working on the book, I would sit for usually several hours at once, but sometimes it would be as long as all day. If I was really into a scene or something, I would just keep going. I’ve always been that kind of writer where once I get into it, I can sit and work for long periods of time. So, I would watch one very short snippet, pause, transcribe everything, watch another snippet, pause, transcribe everything, and often I’d be rewinding too. Or I’d stop and watch the whole thing through again and then go back to the snippets because I wanted to have that entire scene or entire episode in my mind as I was working. Binge-watching was very much a part of the process. I don’t think the book could have been created in any other way, without me binge-watching and literally inhabiting the shows.
I use the Poltergeist poster as a metaphor. I don’t know if you remember it but when Poltergeist came out there was this little girl on the poster touching the TV and it’s all static. I remember being really scared of that image when I was little. I kept thinking about that as I was working on the book as a kind of metaphor for what I was doing. Like, gazing into the static. I was looking so closely, into the pixels, merging with them, or channeling something from inside the TV. Static looks very immovable, almost meaningless, at first glance, but it is like molecules, alive. And there are all these spaces or gaps within it for you to stick your finger into.
I was looking so closely, into the pixels, merging with them, or channeling something from inside the TV. Static looks very immovable, almost meaningless, at first glance, but it is like molecules, alive. And there are all these spaces or gaps within it for you to stick your finger into.
LEAH ARON: If you had to sum up the narrative arc of the book —
KATE DURBIN: I don’t know if I’d call it a narrative arc, but it’s sort of like if you were to go into the woods. In the beginning, there are a few trees. You go deeper and deeper until the woods are thick and you can’t see a way out. That’s how I see it. It’s also kind of like getting sucked into the television.
LEAH ARON: Which is how it often feels when you watch TV a lot, but this is in book form.
KATE DURBIN: In the first section of the book, “Wives Shows,” you don’t really see any cameras. There’s no reference to them or the microphone packs directly. But you start to see those references more the further you go into the book. In “Kim’s Fairytale Wedding,” which is the center of the book, you see black objects, which are the cameras, but they are not called cameras. The last section, The Hills, is the most intense section because every turn of the camera is directly referenced. You witness the microphone packs. The white letters, which are the subtitles, emphasize the things people say, so it becomes meta-dimensional, in a sense.
LEAH ARON: How does the more real, closer to news coverage stuff — Amanda Knox and Anna Nicole Smith — fit in with the reality TV portions of the book? Is that just another genre of TV that interested you?
KATE DURBIN: One of the things I was thinking about was how heavily women on reality television are judged. So, in my own narrative, I used this misleading neutral language and you probably noticed while reading the book that it’s not really neutral.
LEAH ARON: Right.
KATE DURBIN: It’s been interesting having the book reviewed because people are talking about how objective it is and how non-judgmental it is. I actually think some of the language is judgmental.
LEAH ARON: Subjective and not neutral, but maybe not judgmental.
KATE DURBIN: Maybe it’s slightly judgmental. [Laughs.] Language is not neutral, as the language poets have taught us. And even just paying attention to these women’s bodies so closely, with the camera, feels a little bit judgmental.
LEAH ARON: Okay. Maybe definitely judgmental. [Laughs.]
KATE DURBIN: There are these slips in objectivity where the narrator’s bias comes in, or where a certain word is used…
LEAH ARON: Or a repetition...
KATE DURBIN: Yeah, it just doesn’t seem very kind. It’s like, okay, the camera is really focusing on her pimple right now. Maybe that’s not directly judgmental but it’s not flattering and it’s the opposite of having six filters on your face like, you know, Marilyn Monroe. So, as you go go through the book, hopefully you’re noticing how these women are viewed through the gaze of the camera. It’s the collective gaze. The way we view women on reality shows shapes how we view women in all media — we view them judgmentally, based on appearance. It’s the whole culture of humiliation that Monica Lewinsky talked about in her recent Vanity Fair article.
...The way we view women on reality shows shapes how we view women in all media — we view them judgmentally, based on appearance. It’s the whole culture of humiliation...
If you think about courtroom trials, the way we watch those is very similar to the way we watch reality television. I think the Amanda Knox trial is one of the prime examples of that kind of media problem.
LEAH ARON: Do you think that’s informed by the popularity of reality TV or that it’s just a kind of a shift in culture?
KATE DURBIN: I’m not really sure. All I know is that I see a connection with the way that reality TV is so complicated — it’s not a straightforward medium. Neither are these other mediums anymore, really, anything related to news or the internet. The way that women are watched in every medium, I feel, is the same. You can throw paparazzi videos into the mix too, as a whole genre of their own that’s equally complicated. People think it’s acceptable to be very judgmental of women on reality television shows and in paparazzi videos because these women are considered “bimbos” so it’s okay to judge them or look down on them. I don’t think they realize that we’re actually doing that to Amanda Knox too. If you do that to women in one space, it’s going to spill over into another space. Of course, all of these judgements were there before these mediums. In a way, these mediums are just revealing them more.
LEAH ARON: It’s amazing, the power of recontextualizing something.
KATE DURBIN: What I do as an artist is always to some degree recontextualizing. I mean, that’s what E! is. I’m recontextualizing reality shows but not only recontextualizing them. My process is one of meditating on these shows, but also mediating them — filtering them through my consciousness and my body.
LEAH ARON: In writing or performing or both?
KATE DURBIN: Both. When I’m doing it through writing, it doesn’t look dramatic but writing is physical. I’m sitting there typing and the material is moving through my mind and body but I’m also sitting in a really horrible position hour after hour watching these shows. In a way, it’s the opposite of what Marina Abramovic does. I guess it’s hard on the body, too, but I think of what she does as kind of clearing the mind by using the body. What I do is overflowing the mind with all this pop cultural detritus and filtering it through me, finding clarity on the page. Whether I’m creating a YouTube video or transcribing in writing, I’m always recontextualizing something and there’s always a transformation that occurs of some kind, which is interesting because I don’t make a lot of alterations to the original. The alterations I make are fairly minute but just the act of mediating something causes a transformation that is still very intense.
In a way, it’s the opposite of what Marina Abramovic does… I think of what she does as kind of clearing the mind by using the body. What I do is overflowing the mind with all this pop cultural detritus and filtering it through me, finding clarity on the page.
When I perform the text, it’s also intense — like when I perform Anna Nicole Show. I often have another female performance artist come up and do the clown makeup on me, while I’m reading. Performing those monologues is so much like channeling. When I get to the mechanical baby part at the end, it makes me feel like I’m going to die. It’s so breathless — I literally can’t breath when I’m reading all those “wahhhs” and “mamas.”
I also often have audience members come up and act out the roles of the characters in Real Housewives and The Hills — so the readers have to embody the script as well.
LEAH ARON: What happens to your sense of time during the process of creating a new work. Do you lose track of it completely? Does it seem to go faster or slower?
KATE DURBIN: When I’m in the flow of creating a work, I’m in a timeless space, and forget to do things like use the bathroom or eat. With E!, I slowed time by minutely detailing everything in the environment of these shows: from the designer brands to the prints on the wall behind the characters to a droplet of sweat on Lauren Conrad’s upper lip. What’s really interesting to me, though, is the effect of time on the book’s reader. Critic Myriam Gurba used the word “spell” — as if I’d cast a spell on these shows. TV moves so fast, usually, and yet it also doesn’t exist “in time” as we normally conceive of it. So slowing down that which is already outside of time is a bizarre experience, and may be why people keep calling the book “surreal” even though it has very few traditionally surreal elements.
...slowing down that which is already outside of time is a bizarre experience, and may be why people keep calling the book 'surreal' even though it has very few traditionally surreal elements…
I don’t think I could have created that spellbound effect on the reader without going through that long durational creation process with the material.
LEAH ARON: Does binge-watching affect suspense? Do you find there is a diminished feeling of suspense because so much media is available on demand?
KATE DURBIN: I think binge-watching has less to do with suspense and more to do with immersion. We want to immerse ourselves into the show. There’s no suspense about what will happen to the characters next but rather we want the show to happen to us, with us inside it.
LEAH ARON: As an artist, how did you start and what did you start with?
KATE DURBIN: When I was about seven I started writing stories. I used to — speaking of appropriation and recontextualizing — I used to take books that I liked, usually like Christopher Pike or Nancy Drew or Little House on the Prairie or whatever, and I would continue the stories inside the book. When a chapter would end — you know usually after a chapter there’s some white space on the page behind it — I would fill that up with more of the narrative, take it in a different direction. I would also write my own stories that were very much copies of these genres that I was reading and I would put myself and my friends in them.
I wrote Babysitters Club books but the kids in the "Babysitters Club" were me and my friends. I remember having a very strong feeling as a child that I couldn’t access so many things and I couldn’t do so many things. You know, you can’t drive, you don’t have any money, everyone tells you what to do, even what to eat, and for some reason with writing — I guess because I read books all the time — I thought, “It’s easy, look, they did it so I’ll just continue it.” Of course, now that I’m older I see that it is not easy but I think I still retain some sense of not only “I can do it,” but also that nothing is sacred, so I can use any material that’s around me. I can keep writing the story or rewrite the story and it’s all accessible material for me.
LEAH ARON: Can you compare working alone to collaborating? I'm thinking about your work with Megan Vicks on Gaga Stigmata.
KATE DURBIN: Gaga Stigmata is an example of a kind of system — hence the word stigmata. I like to think of stigmata as bleeding an Other’s wounds. Our writings about Lady Gaga directly influenced her performances and interviews, and in turn she influenced what we were writing. I think that kind of collaboration is rare, at least in the way we experienced it. But it’s powerful, and larger than any individual.
That idea of stigmata is one that relates to my solo work, too. I felt I was bleeding pop culture with E!. I don’t draw a distinction really between collaborating with another person, and working with materials that to me are almost sentient in a way — and I think everything is almost sentient. I transformed these shows just as they transformed me, just as collaborating with another person transforms us both and creates a third mind, a hive mind, that is its own thing, like a child.
I felt I was bleeding pop culture with E!. I don’t draw a distinction really between collaborating with another person, and working with materials that to me are almost sentient in a way… I transformed these shows just as they transformed me, just as collaborating with another person transforms us both and creates a third mind...
LEAH ARON: Do you have a favorite immaterial or long durational work of art?
KATE DURBIN: I really like Frances Barrett’s and Kate Blackmore’s “Box Set” (2013), where they watched every episode of The Simpsons for eight days while fasting. They saw what they were doing as a political act, the act of “doing nothing” in a society driven by consumption and productivity. Of course, nothing is ever nothing — especially watching TV in a long durational and performative way.
LEAH ARON: Are you working on anything now?
KATE DURBIN: I’m working on a performance that’s based on my Women as Objects Tumblr project, and it will be a long durational performance. It’ll take place not in a gallery but in a public space, with a bunch of girls and their camera phones. I’m also writing another book which will be partly — it’s very early so this might change — but I think it’s going to be be partly transcription, based on The Bachelor, because that’s one show I wanted to get in to E! Entertainment but didn’t. It’s also going to be a horror novel. I’ve watched the whole series of The Bachelor and I even sent in a reenactment video of someone’s audition video.
LEAH ARON: Have you had any response from the producers?
KATE DURBIN: Not yet. But I’m going to keep trying.
LEAH ARON: What do you think about the way other people binge-watch when it’s not for the sake of writing a book?
KATE DURBIN: E! is a response to watching without witnessing what we see in front of us. In a way, I wanted to become a witness for reality television and the people on it — our screen ciphers — by looking closely. Often, when we binge-watch something, we’re mindlessly watching it. I don’t believe that’s necessarily wrong, but I do think we’re not really seeing everything that’s there and so there’s something really valuable about choosing to make that process more aware.
Often, when we binge-watch something, we’re mindlessly watching it. I don’t believe that’s necessarily wrong, but I do think we’re not really seeing everything that’s there and so there’s something really valuable about choosing to make that process more aware.
LEAH ARON: Like a more active form of watching a TV series.
KATE DURBIN: Yeah. We think of TV as a means of escape or a way to turn the mind off but I want to turn the mind on while watching it. That’s something I’d like to do in more areas of my life and art, to become more conscious of the world around me.
A new performance by Kate Durbin