Los Angeles-based artist Kate Durbin has carved out a niche for herself over the last several years, seamlessly blending written works, performance and digital media into acute commentaries on gender, pop culture and the teen Tumblr girl aesthetic. She also founded Gaga Stigmata, a "technological journal" that "critically-creatively participates in the cultural project of shock pop phenomenon Lady Gaga".
For her latest project, Cloud Nine, Durbin wondered what female artists have been asked to do for money to support their careers. And so she put out a call for all "female-identifying" artists to confess what they've done for the almighty dollar. As the project title suggests, it's also conceptually tied to the cam girl subculture, since "cloud9" is a common cam girl name.
"I am endlessly interested in the ways in which artists make money, [but] this was not something that was discussed when I was in grad school," Durbin told Konbini. "However, it’s becoming common knowledge that women artists, artists of color, queer artists, and trans artists have a harder go of being seen and celebrated in the art world, just as these same groups have a harder time being paid fairly in the workplace."
Durbin pointed to Michol Hebron’s Gallery Talley project as doing a good job of highlighting some of the discrepancies in the art world related to female artists' representation in major galleries.
"I want to hear everyone’s stories. There is so much shame around money, but I refuse that shame -- I hope others will join me."
"The cam girl aspect of the project means I am also playing with gender and the idea of the female fantasy 'object,' which dovetails into how women’s bodies have traditionally been muses for male artists," Durbin said. "Basically, I’m interested in how women’s bodies are commodities in both the art world and the sex industry, how those bodies are both hyper-visible and invisible (which is essentially the same thing, with different perks). But in the art world, if you don’t have money, you don’t get to play the game at all."
The idea for Cloud Nine originated after Durbin began noticing how frequently conversations amongst herself and fellow artist girlfriends revolved around money. They all regularly bail on art fairs and conferences due to lack of funding, which Durbin said "affects people's work, affects their visibility."
"I also have artist friends in tougher situations, illegal immigrants working in donut shops, and women who couldn’t afford the time or money to get MFAs, who struggle to get their work shown at all," Durbin said. "It’s harder, too, if you are single or an adjunct professor or you live in one of the expensive cities where artists tend to congregate. But it’s increasingly becoming harder everywhere with the shifts in our economy to a more precarious workforce, and this shift is affecting more than just artists."
Durbin herself had to start and stop the Konbini interview to tutor -- for money. Though Durbin is an established artist, she lives in Los Angeles, which is a quite expensive, so she's not exempt from the reality of having to take on side jobs to support her artistic career.
"If 'artists are the barometer of society,' as Yoko Ono says, then we have a lot of work to do," Durbin added. "I want to hear everyone’s stories. There is so much shame around money, but I refuse that shame -- I hope others will join me."
And some female-identifying artists already have. Durbin said responses have ranged from babysitting to sex work to sugar daddies, academic work and selling used panties online. Others have worked PR jobs or received money from parents or government assistant, while others still have sold paintings, received grants, worked as assistants to reality TV stars and delivered pizzas. Durbin also said that some female artists have stayed in relationships for purely for the money.
Once enough stories have been collected, Durbin plans to perform Cloud Nine on the NewHive multimedia publishing platform. Ideally, she hopes the crowd-sourced material will allow her to explore "American fantasies" from the perspective of the "fantasized".
"I don’t want to give it away ahead of time, but I will be performing as an artist and a cam girl," Durbin said. "I will be performing for more than one audience simultaneously, and one of those audiences will be the NewHive audience tuning in on their computers. The other will be a sex cam audience."
"We ignore the material and financial realities of the artist, just as we ignore the humanity of the cam girl. All of these things must be enacted, confessed, brought to light.
"I’m curious about specifically American fantasies because I think our relationship to money and the arts is particularly screwed up here, as is our attitude toward sex and sex work," she added. "But the issues are of course global."
The fantasy aspect of Durbin's project is really distilled by way of the "cloud9" cam girl handle. Durbin said the expression "I'm on cloud nine" began in the U.S. in the '30s and really took off in the '50s. This makes sense because the '50s was a time when the collective hallucination known as "the American Dream" instilled a sense of unreality into Americans' minds.
"It means to be in a state of bliss so total it transports you above the troubles of the world," she said. "The connection between the name and camming is that when people tune in to the cam girl, they want to be transported -- they want a fantasy."
"Cloud nine as a concept is tied to what I’m doing in that I want to collapse fantasy and reality into one another, just as I’m collapsing the cam girl into the female artist," she added. "We ignore the material and financial realities of the artist, just as we ignore the humanity of the cam girl. All of these things must be enacted, confessed, brought to light. Heaven is, after all, a place on earth."
As Durbin said, artist names will be not used in the performance, and no names or identifying details mentioned in the confessions will be used in the work. Cloud Nine is set to go live May 28th, so be sure to tune in for Durbin's performance.