Kate Durbin, Prices Upon Request, benefit evening for ZGPress, Yuki Sharoni Salon, Beverly Hills, June 12, 2011
While the worlds of art, fashion, music, and cinema have been commingling for years, it’s only been in the last couple of decades that we’ve seen periodicals and other textual resources that can deal with more than one of these genres at a time. One of the earlier resources, which I didn’t know about until I attended the above-titled event, was the independent journal ZG, founded by visionary editor Rosetta Brooks. Based first in London, then in New York, the magazine published a total of 16 issues between 1979 and 1988, with each issue attempting to create a nexus where the disparate branches of popular culture and fine art could meet and hang out together.
Brooks is a subtle thinker who carefully considers the larger social and political patterns driving contemporary culture; a former gallery director, she launched ZG (which stands for zeitgeist) as an antidote to what she saw as the balkanization of the art world into boring, discreet cottage industries. She was more interested in “borderline activities” and “hybrid styles,” and at its best, ZG presented a dynamic confluence of those tendencies. Over the years, ZG hosted such notable texts as Dick Hebdige’s “Mistaken Identities” (an account of the death of Nancy Spungen), Dan Graham’s “The End of Liberalism” (Graham was an early supporter of the magazine), pioneering essays on S/M in fashion and women in rock, and coverage of artists such as Jack Goldstein, Victor Burgin, Annette Messager, and Günter Brus.
In the late 1980s, having seen the peripheral ideas it originally championed move into mainstream culture, ZG quietly stopped printing, with Brooks feeling that the need for ZG was no longer so pressing. Flash forward two decades to 2004, and we find Brooks’ gears spinning again: “Post-Reagan political realities were showing their strain as the U.S. inaugurated a third term for a Bush President. The world woke up to its bizarro condition, and new ideas began to find their voices. Rosetta Brooks thought briefly of reviving ZG Magazine to chronicle these new voices, but periodicals had lost their currency. There needed to be new methods to capture this new zeitgeist.” Thus, ZGPress, a nonprofit research and production entity that includes an online presence as well as a book publishing wing, was born.
This evening at Yuki Sharoni Salon, dubbed The Fashion Event, was a benefit and launch of sorts for ZGPress, which is now based in Los Angeles. The featured performance of the evening, very appropriately, was presented by Kate Durbin, a writer and artist whose body of work conjoins a multitude of cultural threads and praxis: poetry, conceptual writing, critical theory, fashion, popular culture, feminist intervention, performance, photography, and more. She is perhaps best known as the founding editor of Gaga Stigmata, a well-regarded online outlet for fairly breathtaking academic/theoretical treatments of the pop phenomenon known as Lady Gaga. She has also published two poetry collections, a conceptual fashion magazine, and four chapbooks.
Durbin’s Prices Upon Request was a conceptual/satirical fashion show that was mixed in with an actual show of recent designs by Amy Tung and Karen Elano, which they titled Amren Tulano, after their sustainable fashion design company of the same name. For her piece, Durbin utilized the dramatic stairway at the center of the salon, a perfect choice as it immediately recalled vintage fashion shows of the sort that took place in Coco Chanel’s famed Paris apartment or the intimate showrooms of 1950s/60s American department stores. Durbin began by descending the stairs alone in a flesh-colored, formfitting slip, her hair up in rollers. She sat down on a divan and began reading aloud from two books: The Nancy Taylor Course Book One: You the Individual and The Complete Book of Fashion Modeling. Bundled together with these two books, though she did not read from it, was a contemporary issue of Cosmopolitan magazine, which in Durbin’s words “is the same thing.”
Durbin’s readings consisted of descriptions of six female “types”—the Sophisticate, the Feminine, the Conservative, the Gamine, the Dramatic, and the Romantic—accompanied by detailed clothing and behavior recommendations for each type. As she read, a model representing each type—demarcated only by black felt letters spelling out her type on a flesh-colored leotard—descended the stairway and assumed various expressive poses. Aside from the labels and their varying physical features, the women were indistinguishable from one another; each wore an identical leotard and no shoes, and each had her hair in a sex-neutralizing bun.
The type descriptions were, of course, hysterical—hopelessly prescriptive in that “proper” way that was endemic to the postwar years, but also registering accuracy in other ways, perhaps because many women still unconsciously follow these ancient fashion dictates, for better or for worse. Sophisticates are all business and efficiency and prone to the color gray, whereas Feminines wear soft garments and attract men who love to take care of them, etc. etc. The period, Mad Men-esque setting was perfect for this retrograde reading, while the blankness of the women’s outfits highlighted the degree to which our ideas of how women are or should be are fantasies, projections, and mythologies. The attire also evoked a state of preparation, perhaps in advance of the performance that gender truly is.
In between each type description, Amren Tulano paraded a different line of clothing, somewhat evocative of the preceding type, down a makeshift runway in front of the stairs. Comparisons to Vanessa Beecroft are easily made, but ultimately superficial, as Durbin’s piece clearly had its own identity and at the very least, a cool criticality and detachment that distinguished it from Beecroft’s outré, expressionistic spectacles.