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On Cloud Nine: An Interview with Kate Durbin

Cam4 users were in for quite the surprise when logging onto Cloud9k’s stream. Unbeknownst to them, their usual flood of sexual requests suddenly became an ongoing theme to Kate Durbin’s newest online performance, Cloud Nine.

Commissioned by NewHive, Kate Durbin began reading to the room a series of submitted stories from female-identifying artists, describing the kind of work they’ve done to support themselves. Meanwhile, Durbin was giving a different performance, hosting a mirrored stream of the broadcast along with the chat on Newhive. Near the end, Durbin opened up about her own financial history.

Similar to her previous work, Hello Selfie, Durbin continues to draw empowerment through vulnerability, blurring traditional gender power dynamics, all the while keeping this tension of voyeurism, a sense of observance that slowly dawns on the viewer, forcing them to take their own participation into account.

I had the opportunity to talk to Durbin, touching upon the topics of sex work, the spectrum of privilege, and the inherent struggles of being a woman in art.

The male gaze is a very tangible element throughout the performance. What was it like to detail your personal financial history in this kind of environment?

This was a piece in which only the compassion of the audience’s and my spirits could break the wall, and that is a tall order. This actually did happen in some moments, I felt — as did some of the women who had sent their stories, who later wrote letters on how cathartic and hopeful the piece felt for them. Some of the cam site voyeurs involved were intrigued and touched and left with something to think about. Others were not so kind, upset with my constant storytelling, expecting to be placated with tits and ass. They felt owed by the expectations built into the structure, the frame.

The hostility of the art world hecklers, who came into the room to aggressively interrogate my right to speak and my motives, was more painful for me than those who were there to see “tits and ass.” I was made fun of for my “vocal fry” and every little thing I said and did was questioned. A lot of assumptions were made about me. I was told to “stick to poetry” and accused of “using the room” as though the people in the room were trapped there as my audience and couldn’t leave to go to another room should they wish. I appreciated the voyeur in the cam room who stuck up for me and said, “Who says she’s not allowed to use the room?”

At one point I became so anxious and felt so unsafe that I blocked one of the hecklers, then regretted it. That person came back into the room, I think — it seemed they did, it was not entirely possible to tell with the anonymous handles — and I didn’t block them or any other hecklers after that, but of course that moment of weakness was held against me. At another point I became defensive, and that was held against me too. Everything was. According to them, I had no right to speak and yet was expected to be some kind of savior. One heckler kept asking, “What is next?” over and over and I refused to answer, because what is next is up to all of us. At another point I was compared unfavorably to “the mattress girl,” who one heckler accused of being an attention seeker (I think Emma Sulkowicz is a hero). I was accused later of “aestheticizing” sex work, but sex work is already aestheticized, and Cloud 9 points this out.

What was it like retelling the personal accounts of other women? How did these stories affect you?

The stories that were sent to me were all over the map — some women more privileged than others, some running parallel to my own financial history and some not. Not all stories were of sexual labor, though there were a number of those narratives. Most of the sexual labor narratives were part of larger tales, which included other forms of labor, running the gamut from academic work to shoplifting. There was a pervasive sense of entrapment running through the stories, which became especially apparent once they were placed side by side—a sense that we are all playing a game that restricts, de-humanizes, and hurts. Some it destroys, others struggle in pain, some “win”—but of the winners, I’m reminded of that line at the end of Joan Didion’s novel Play It As It Lays: “Maybe I was holding all aces, but what was the game?”

In a way Cloud 9 is a piece that could go on forever, all the stories melting into one another, because while they are personal and individual, together they highlight the structural relationship between humans and labor that is fucked up.

I’m fascinated by the blending of audiences in your piece, streaming to both NewHive’s and Cam4’s audiences simultaneously. Do you find this sort of dissonance of expectations comparable to women artists in general?

The project is set up to reveal the trap female artists find themselves in, the burden of expectations from all sides. This is emphasized by the framing of the cam site, a tiny box where the cam girl performs and the audience demands and accuses anonymously via text. It is emphasized further by the simultaneous New Hive framing of the piece as an art performance. Our bodies get in the way of our humanity, whether in the art world, the sex industry, or the world. Some suffer much more than others, depending on various factors from class to race to age, but no one is left unscathed. In Cloud 9, I wanted to consciously enter into the vulnerable position of the object, in order to gain knowledge about objectification, and to reveal this structural violence that reduces all women, regardless of privilege. Again, it reduces some women more than others because of lack of various privileges, some privileges more visible and some less so. Among cam girls, young cis white women have a much easier time of making money and being successful because their bodies are seen as “worth more.” I was conscious throughout the piece of possessing this kind of “valued” body (although I am not that young, I am in my thirties). When one cam room visitor told me “less talking” I knew it was my body that mattered, not me.

You talk about how women’s bodies are commodified in the art world and in the sex industry. Did transgressing this norm and using the current model for commodification as a tool to spread awareness feel, in a way, liberating? Or do you view that process as maybe existentially exhausting, or a labor-intensive aspect of the work?

I felt a sense of freedom at being transparent about economics in a space where you are not supposed to talk about money. (It’s one of the rules on cam sites that you cannot ask for money, only tokens, so the reality of the monetary exchange is glossed with fantasy). The cam site is where people go to forget the day to day tragedies of late capitalism while spending their hard earned money on sexual fantasy. My heart was touched by some of the comments that came through amidst the violence, comments that were filled with compassion. That I could speak truth and connect with others under those conditions felt like hope to me. It was also existentially exhausting, and scary. The stories of the women made me sad. My own story made me sad. Still, the piece felt like hope. I hold onto that hope for a better world for us all, in our degrees of privilege and our tiny boxes with the peanut-crunching crowd that sees us without witnessing. We are both the peanut crunchers and the people in boxes. Until we realize that we can never be free.

 Interview by Theo Thimo.

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