A critique of Kate Durbin’s ‘Cloud Nine’

, 11 June 2015

Kate Durbin claims the ambition of her recent performance piece, ‘Cloud Nine’, is to help, as she states in her broadcast, “draw attention to the financial difficulties of the lives of female artists.” She attempts this by crowdsourcing stories of “what [women] do for money,” removing the identifying details, and performing them in a simulcast commissioned by New Hive, an art site, and Cam4, a sex cam site for $1,000. As the use of the latter platform might indicate, the project relies heavily on the idea and imagery of being a cam girl: in an interview with Konbini, Durbin states: “the cam girl aspect of the project means I am also playing with gender and the idea of the female fantasy ‘object’… 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.” Except that Durbin herself is not a cam girl, nor has she ever done sex work–she is simply “performing as a cam girl… collapsing the cam girl into the female artist.”

There is some precedent to ‘Cloud Nine’ – that is, sex work or cam girl-based art – in works like Sean Dunne’s Cam Girlz’ (2015) and Pablo Garcia and Addie Wagenknecht’s Webcam Venus’ (2013). The former, according to Dazed Digital, is a documentary interested in a “frank portrait of the business”, with Dunne interviewing actual cam girls and elucidating “empowerment from an unexpected source”. The latter, featured on VICE’s Motherboard, is a curation of “high-art n00dz,” soliciting cam workers to “replicate iconic poses from Western art,” emphasizing that, to quote Garcia, “we are artists and that they are posing for our artwork.” These projects are similar in that they both included cam workers in very direct and identifiable ways. ‘Cloud Nine’, by contrast, has only the veneer of inclusion, as crowdsourced experiences of sex work are anonymized and performed by a non-sex worker, thereby removing the workers from their own narratives. And while ‘Cam Girlz’ and ‘Webcam Venus’ arguably work to humanize and normalize camming, Durbin’s work relies on the stigma-spectacle of the cam girl to draw attention to the project.

This was central to ‘Cloud Nine’ even before the New Hive/Cam4 simulcast. Photographs included in Durbin’s Konbini and Huffington Post interviews depict the artist in specific states of semi-undress. There’s one in which she wears nude, see-through panties and a sequined shirt that reads “SEX”. There’s one in which she wears a shirt patterned with dollar bills and angel wings. In another she wears a bikini-top designed to emulate naked breasts while holding a dildo. A sea-green wig and gauche makeup accompanies each outfit, which does carry over into the broadcasted performance. Durbin’s setting is complete with a bare mattress, laptop, and the phrase “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE FOR MONEY” scrawled on a wall in the backdrop. Coupled with the appropriation of “cloud9”, which that artist presents as a “common cam girl name,”’ it is clear that Durbin aestheticizes herself as the stereotype of a cam model.


Paradoxically, this performance appears to insist on some kind of authenticity. Durbin wants her participants – as in, those whose narratives the artist has crowdsourced as well as those who are present in the Cam4 chatroom – to “confess what they’ve done for the almighty dollar”. Yet, ‘Cloud Nine’ is curated in such a way as to align itself with preconceived notions of what camming is and could mean. Similar to Angela Washko who works to “mobilize communities and create new forums for discussions of feminism where they do not exist,” Durbin claims to be bridging two audiences – the “art world” via New Hive and “sex cam world” via Cam4. But Durbin departs from the productive model proposed by Washko in how she constructs her interactions in that her audiences are more or less silenced by the work. Laura A. Warman, in a review for Queen Mob’s Teahouse, describes an experience of viewing the work on New Hive as “helplessly watching a stream.” And, though Cam4 participants could comment more actively, only specific users and their content were acknowledged, namely wherever they fit the agenda of Durbin’s project: either providing answers to the question of “what have you done for money,” or else soliciting the artist sexually. Users who offered legitimate critiques of her project were dismissed or even blocked from the chat room: user “blocked_by_u” asked how Durbin “plans to support [contributors] to the project” at around 53:45 to which the artist responded “What do you want me to say?” User “dreemcumtru” was removed from the chatroom by Durbin at 51:33 after they criticized her motives. To paraphrase an exchange between two users in chat, Durbin did not “read the room” as much as she “used the room”.

It should be noted that sex work is more common among marginalized demographics, and is arguably a facet of marginalization. This is indicated by the fact that little to no research exists on the sex working population itself, and what statistics are most available deal with criminalization by race and class. Sex workers of color, for instance, are disproportionately exposed to arrest and police violence in comparison to their white counterparts, with the greatest disparity existing between the treatment of black and white sex workers. The National Center for Transgender Equality reported in 2011 that 11% of transgender respondents had done sex work, as compared to an estimated 1% of women in the general population. And a comparative study of sex work by the University of California (2014) states that “childhood poverty, abuse, and family instability [are] independently associated with adult sex work, as [are] limited education and employment experience.” As such, sex work is often racialized, gendered, and classed in ways that Kate Durbin, as a non-sex working cis white woman in academia, does not and cannot account for; the tropes of female artist and cam girl are, in this case, irresponsibly “collapsed”. Though she acknowledges the laundry list of minorities in her Konbini interview, stating that ”women artists, artists of color, queers 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”, her project lacks cognizance of the hierarchy of oppression that exists – in the art world, the sex industry, and society at large.

 ‘Cloud Nine’ is centered on Durbin and her specific performance of anonymized narratives; her presumption of authority over them. Part of the ease of her visibility on Cam4 is due to the fact that, in nearly every sex-working context, white bodies are more highly valued, effectively whitewashing these narratives twice over. The sex industry exploits in alignment with, to paraphrase sex worker and advocate Rebeka Refuse in her interview with City Paper, the “system of commodifying sexual labor… inherent to patriarchy and the sexual division of labor which occurred at the dawn of class society”. ‘Cloud Nine’ ignores this reality and caters to these inherent interests of white patriarchal sexual consumption, thereby contributing to the disenfranchisement of workers and effectively “ignor[ing] the humanity of the cam girl”.

During the broadcast, at around 33:26, Cam4 user “meatcheetah” wrote to Durbin, “this is my fantasy” to which the artist replied, “this is my reality”. Except it isn’t. ‘Cloud Nine’ is as much a fantasy of Durbin’s as her image is a fantasy to “meatcheetah.” It is a fantasy to assume that the artist is making subversive art. It is also a fantasy to assume that she is creating an authentic experience, rather than contributing to its continued stigmatization. Instead, Kate Durbin is a voyeur in a context she has failed to compassionately represent and understand.

Kate Durbin’s ‘Cloud Nine’ can be viewed on the broadcast’s YouTube page.

Header image: Screenshot from Kate Durbin’s video performance piece, ‘Kate Durbin reads “The Hills” at Salvation Mountain.