[Kate Durbin gave this talk at The School of Global Arts the other day.]
Following the Mermaid Slut:
On Teen Girls Digital Bodies, Tumblr & the Internet
I’ve been asked to give a start date for my tumblr project, Women as Objects. Unfortunately, I cannot remember when the project began. I blame this failure of my usually solid memory on the nature of tumblr itself, on what I call the endless scroll. I’ve likened the interface to a stream of water in other conversations, and I believe it’s no coincidence that the whole seapunk teenage aesthetics and music movement emerged from tumblr and internet culture, as the internet itself is a vast, ever-moving sea of images, code, language. Once you step into the endless stream of tumblr, time as we usually measure it evaporates, similar to how our bodies’ movements underwater are by nature, slower and more vivid.
If the internet is a sea, and tumblr a stream emerging from the larger collective pool, then those teenage girls who find themselves formulating their identities in the water—i.e. online—are mermaids. Again, I think it’s no coincidence that these girls’ tumblr handles (blog names) often contain multiple wet references. Mermaidslut is an ideal example.
Parallels to Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious should be noted. What is fascinating about our zeitgeist is that thanks to the internet, the collective unconscious (or as I like to see it, the submerged consciousness) is finally becoming conscious of itself, and it is doing so inside the drowned body of a teenage Ophelia.
Identity has always been slippery by nature, but in the ever more & more rapidly spinning whirlpool of our now self-aware technologized existence, the poly-slipperiness of identity is experienced by teenagers as a given fact of the universe. This is because teenager’s identities are still in formation. This is also because of information technology. As Michael Lewis outlines in his book NEXT, 14-year-old Jonathan Lebed was able to crash the stock market in 2000, Lebed’s “adolescence becoming a market force” thanks to his growing up on online. Lebed was one of the first generation of American kids to grow up with a computer in his bedroom. For while people in what we call IRL called Lebed a kid, people URL, or online, who knew Lebed for his ideas about the stock market, thought him something else, something he truly was—a brilliant stock analyst.
In this case, “on” line could be dissected to its most basic language components—it’s more positive to be “on” than “off.” When the light is on, we see. When it’s off, we are blind to the many, many potentials in the reality around us. To be plain: ultimately, I believe there is only one reality, and that reality is Internet. It is the water we drink, the air we breathe. It was always there, we just weren’t plugged in yet. However, following tumblr now, I see that our still-entrenched ideological dichotomies of on and off line, URL and IRL, are like the slats of an old bridge crossing a vast lake, slats that are dangerous and rickety and ultimately useless, as they aren’t holding us up against anything but the future. We don’t need them. We can swim. The teenagers, who have grown up online, have been breathing under there all this time. If you grow near the sea, you will be really, really good at swimming; if you grow up in the sea, you will grow fins. You will learn to breathe underweater. The kids are looking up at our shadows on the slats, warily. Our old slats are a kind of prison for them, blocking the sunlight from filtering into the water and illuminating all the resources available there. We are penning them in with our refusal to see them as more than “just kids who are too obsessed with the internet for their own good.”
To quote Lewis again: “On the internet, where no one could see who he was, [Jonathan Lebed] became who he was.” And yet, the bodies. How can we forget the bodies upon bodies bloating up in the sea, caught in the net, clogging the tumblr stream…how can we fail to notice these are mostly girl bodies, pastel-wigged, naked, bottle-tanned, crusted with butterfly stickers, bruised, .gif twitching, glitter .gif bleeding? It was the bodies, what some call these girls’ digital avatars, that led me to title my tumblr project Women as Objects. For despite the fact that people still insist that the internet is immaterial, and that the body is rendered flat there because it is not three dimensional, the complex multiplication of each girl’s own objecthood, the abundance of her internet bodies, their rapid and twitchy movement, their constant metamorphosing, their grotesque beauty, the violent intelligence of their tricks, was overwhelming to me. I could not have been more overwhelmed had I entered an old cathedral in Florence IRL and found it packed toe to frescoed ceiling with rotting corpses and bleeding Virgin statues.
It is a basic need of every human being on this earth to be seen, to be witnessed, in all of one’s complexity, in all of ones pain and luminosity. It is this very basic need we deny most often to those we consider our weakest, our least profitable: the poor, the disenfranchised, yes, the teenage girl. To be a girl and to be fourteen in this world is to be flattened into a cardboard cutout of a sexy Paris Hilton perfume ad. For while Jonathan Lebed could at least be respected on the internet for his great money-making man-mind, the girl is never separate from her own body, nor from the bodies of all the other girls, including celebrities and cartoons. Because the girl’s body is her cultural capital and her curse, the first and often only thing people “see” about her, this body-awareness naturally translates to her performance of her body identity online.
It began to dawn on me that these girls are performing on tumblr a digital acrobatics of their bodies, for and against and in spite of an above-sea world that refuses to really look at them. They are doing so in order to increase themselves, to be more than “just” a teenage girl, and yet, at risk of sounding precious, to draw attention to the incomparable terrifying glory, not unlike a biblical angel, of the teenage girl. They are incredibly vulnerable, they are angry, they are abject, they are fierce and fighting, they don’t really give a fuck. But they are moving, they are not one dimensional, and because they are moving, talking, glittering, twitching, they are alive and they are witnessing each other. They cannot really be bought and sold, and the plethora of images they blog of, for example, piles of kittens sitting atop piles of money, just makes this truth more potent and funny. And the potentials of these limitless online bodies filter back to “off” line, or, more specifically, make the “off” on, even when directly away from the computer, in the form of fashions that reflect what some have called “the new aesthetic” (clothes that look like Internet).
I’ve been asked to talk about the consequences of my project, wherein I re-tumble or re-blog the notes and images posted by teenage girls on tumblr, their object-acrobatics. It is my belief that by joining their movements, by clicking / touching each of their online bodies when I re-blog them, these post-material parts of their bodies they are bravely choosing to hold out for me to touch, I am bearing witness to another human being, while simultaneously contributing to the increasingly self-awareness of the collective unconscious. I am doing this without telling the girls who I think he or she “ought” to be or what she “really is.” Unlike an “objective” anthropologist, I see myself as a witness of self-objectification. The responses I have received from the girls have ranged from vaguely confused, to, primarily, enthusiastic, surprised, and grateful. I am thanked for re-blogging this or that work of art (a picture, an online drawing, a text thought) a girl has made. I respond that the work is beautiful, and thank her for sharing it. In this interaction, two people have seen and acknowledged one another. At its heart, the project is that simple. As performance artist Marina Abromovic says, “It is not what you do as an artist, but the presence you bring to the performance, that matters.”
Not everyone who has contacted me about the project is a teenage girl. Boys, artists, transgender kids, have contacted me as well. Some of the girls I follow turn out to be not teenagers, or don’t self-identify as girls, and ultimately, any of the bulk of the girls who do self-identify as girls on tumblr could, in the collapsing RL, have a 40-year-old man penis. I don’t really care. To be a teenage girl is an aesthetic stance, and to really witness a teenage girl is to see a lot more than a teenage girl anyway, even though “teenage girl” is an endless performance of immense pain, enormous emotion, and the tragic, specific beauty of a young girl’s stomach covered in Hello Kitty stickers.
Case in point, this sweet note I received about the project, from a trans-gender guy:
A final truth to leave you with: even when one is a 14-year-old girl, one is not only or even primarily a 14-year-old girl. And when one is a 30-year-old woman artist, one is also a 14-year-old girl. It is my belief that we have created the Internet in part because we are tired of not being everything we are, all at once. We are tired of spending so much of our life “off” line, when the limitless potential of our creativity, could be on, could play, could breathe underwater. It is my belief that we are moving together into a zeitgeist wherein the old bridge slats will finally sink, along with Atlantis, an era wherein we must evolve to swim in the, thanks to climate change, soon-to-be-below sea earth; an era wherein we will be “online all the time,” not in that we’ll just be obsessively checking our email on our iPhones, but rather, that our way of witnessing each other and the world will be as open and mobile as it is on the internet. I remain hopeful for this potential future of our world, and grateful for our teenage girls, bravely swimming out into the strange, pinkpurple waters, our glittering, guiding, generously slutty mermaids, charting the way.