Kate Durbin Interviews RolliN LEONARD

A conversation between Kate Durbin and Rollin about the artist’s practice

You once told me that you created a speculative fiction about your work. What is it?

We're in the early stage of a massive extinction that humans might not survive, and one of the first parts of the extinction process is a loss of biodiversity. Animals and plants that have been around for millions of years are dying, and many will be lost forever. 

Seed vaults like the famous Svalbard vault store species of seeds in order to protect biodiversity in agriculture. My speculative fiction, “DNA Seed Vault,” is an imagined mass collection of the DNA of all plants, animals, viruses, and bacteria. I imagine a world full of cows and people and chickens and agricultural plants and not a lot else. In a time after all the tigers, flying insects, sharks, and tuna have died we will have less information, less raw material to construct our world. In an effort to reconstruct bio-diversity I imagine shuffling and combining these few remaining materials such as meat and plants to make new organisms. These new organisms are my work.

I love that idea of the “DNA Seed Vault,” because it brings together the way in which your work seems future-oriented while also being very primal, made up of basic life elements: the plant, the animal.

Speaking of life elements, can you talk a little bit about your interest in water, both as a material and as a conceptual framework for your work? 

Obviously water is a universal ingredient for life, but I think of water as a complicated and interesting material. If you took highschool chemistry, you probably learned about emergent properties. As a group, water molecules possess unique properties that individual water molecules just don’t have, and these are called emergent properties. For example, water sticks to itself and that’s called cohesion. Water sticks to other things and that’s called adhesion. Because water is sticky, it is able to form drops and can be sucked up stalks of plants through capillary action. It’s like human consciousness. We’re a bunch of dead and living things, cells and proteins and bacteria that make up a body and a brain. The emergent property that comes from this big mess that is us is our sense of self, our anxiety, our fear of death. A mind is an emergent property of a human body.

Perceptually, we look at “bodies of water” as animate, singular things. The sea, a glass of water, a lake, a puddle, and a raindrop are all singular things, with different meanings and effects. Bodies of water are easy to ascribe human qualities to. The sea has a temper, the puddle is sad, the droplet is cute, the stream is joyful. There is a long poetic history about bodies of water, and this history is an obvious entry point for my work. I’m part of a long tradition of water-curious artists and writers.

One of the things I like about the water in your work is how it distorts the human figure and defamiliarizes it.

Another mythology I like is about alien life. When astronomers are looking for life on other worlds, they look for water first because every single thing that lives on earth relies on water. We don’t know of another way for life to exist. So part of imagining other beings or inventing my monsters is about rooting them in water. It makes them biological and real to me.

What are some of the difficulties of working with water as material? 

A small drop of water really fights to stay together, and it also determines it own shape. A larger body of water fills a glass, but a drop resists being divided. I like working with water at the droplet scale because when it fights me, it produces shapes that are more true to the material.

Less interesting difficulties are practical. When I’m shooting a drop of water over a period of time, it evaporates. I have to measure the rate of evaporation for longer animations and compensate. Also, water contains a lot of impurities since it’s a natural distiellet. That means the calcium in the water stains the glass and clouds the image. I have to use distilled water, fight dust, reduce air circulation, etc.

People sometimes assume your work is made through purely digital processes such as the “magic” of Photoshop and After Effects. But while you are proficient in those programs and they can be time-consuming to work with, your work is mostly made through even more labor-intensive analogue processes. Even the colors in your photos are created by using high-pigment makeup which you draw onto a human model’s face. Can you talk a bit about why you like doing things the hard way? Why not just “use the magic of Photoshop”?

The hard way is the right way, although my philosophy has gotten me into a lot of trouble. I’ll spend several hundred hours on something that doesn't turn out right, or I’ll do a manual process by hand with the wrong tool hundreds of times before I find a better or more automated way to do it. However, doing things the hard way has some major benefits. I see it as like a walk vs a hike. A short and efficient walk is practical if you just want to get things done, but a long hike can be better because you see more interesting things, you experience more of the tranquility and mental shift in perception, you sweat and feel better. 

After seeing my first “Mud Puddle,” a stop-motion animation of faces in drops of water, a friend of mine demonstrated how he’d simulate the same effect in software. It looked similar, but the predictable way the faces “refracted” in his simulation were wrong. That’s not to say simulations aren’t super interesting in themselves, but the kind of images I’m making with trippy and distorted faces, require keeping the processes rooted in real and tangible methods. This makes them more natural or biological looking. They’re rooted in the physical constraints of physics and chemistry. The process of their abstraction isn’t as arbitrary and meaningless as it would be if I just mushed things around in Photoshop. The images need to follow some strict physical rules established by water, the scale I work in, drawing, and optics. How far a face stretches before it looks like nonsense or noise is something I’m always keeping in balance. I feel like the real materials and strict rules I impose on my practice define the kinds of images I invent, too. Its like following a set of conditions and coming to a natural and highly textured conclusion. The difference between my images, and simulations that could be made to look like my images, are sometimes subtle--but so is the difference between an orchid and a silk orchid.

Your “Water Portraits” are made up of figures that sometimes resemble early cave drawings, such as your plant and meat figures. Others remind me of gods and demons. You even have a recent “Water Portrait” called “Smile Demon.” The figuration in your work is interesting in the way that it is suggested and not straightforward--for example, Smile Demon’s eyes, nose and mouth are not completely discernible at first glance; rather, its face is a suggestion of a face. And when you look closer, you see that there are many smaller faces that make up its face.

What is your interest in these types of figures, which have such a long history in art-making? I wonder if it is connected to your primal materials: the plant, the animal, water. 

That’s exactly what it is: primal materials. I even like that as a term. It makes me think of ancient cave paintings, the ones that were painted by spitting dye at one’s hand on the wall, or maps of streams drawn in chalk. Figuration in art history or human history is so broad and deep that it’s unavoidable when you’re an artist working with the human figure. Lately I’ve been sketching from ancient anatomical drawings, drawings people made of banned dissections. Exploring what’s inside of us is still sometimes considered gross or taboo, and the art made around it is interesting to me. In college I had friends studying medical illustration and it seemed fascinating. I wish I could have audited one of those gruesome cadaver classes. One of my first serious “How to Draw” books when I was a youth included skinless models to show how the muscles are connected.

So, if I share a direct lineage to the figure in art, it’s probably via anatomy. My work is like a trippy dissection or rearrangement of the body. The “Flat Faces” are a kind of skin portrait and the “Cell Bodies” Plexiglas people are like a cellular mosaic. The “Water Portraits” are a kind of conscious bacterial haunting like Walt Witman’s famous line, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” 

Your work also makes me think of biological processes such as childbirth. The water portraits, or “blobs” as you affectionately call them, remind me of embryos. Do you see a connection between your work and human reproduction? 

When I was making my first series of blobs, “Freeform Water Portraits,” I was thinking of them as a kind of spooge. To make that work I lay down under lights and the camera and a plate of glass with water. I triggered the shutter with my foot while monitoring myself on a remote screen. Each shot was a unique and brief moment of mushing water around on glass while I made faces. The result was 400+ distorted liquid self portraits. They were definitely the least detailed and most distorted in this body of work. They looked primordial or pre-human. When installing, I thought of it as kind of inseminating the gallery wall, as gross as that sounds.

As long as I’m talking about sex and human cells turning into people I recently saw an video of an en coul birth. Absolutely disgusting and awesome. 

How do you go about choosing the encrustations for the “Flat Faces”? Is it conceptual, or is there some other impulse at play? You have used trash, seashells, Lucky Charms cereal, and more. You also use a lot of bright colors and rainbows.

There is a unifying reason for what I stick to a face. I wouldn’t really call it a concept because that implies the idea is a complex architecture of thoughts that determine what I choose. For these images it’s much more intuitive. For example, for “Cetus” I stuck a bunch of sea creature shells and glass to your face because I was making a giant sea monster. I thought of those encrustations like barnacles on a whale.

For the colors, water drops, rainbows, and scribbles it’s really about the “map” of the face I produce describing the topography or shape of the head that the face was peeled off of. It’s about “un-sculpting,” a central feature of my whole body of “Flat Faces.” 

Some of the “Flat Faces” are un-adorned. I like the contrast between the adorned ones and the bare ones. It makes the bare ones seem more bare, and makes human skin seem like a weird adornment.  

I really like the plain ones too. Skin is a strange-looking thing when you’re focused on it. Because my “skins” aren’t just dead animal pelts they have eyes that look out, and they remain conscious of being looked at. I like this quality very much.

You also work with raw meat, plants, and other natural materials. What do you like about these materials?

Natural materials like skin, leaves, meat, and rocks are much more detailed and patterned than you first expect when you pick them up. When I spend all day taking pictures of a raw steak, it's really surprising how complex the patterns are. The fibers of the meat branch and the fat cells pucker up slightly when I mist the surface with water. What’s cool about working with real materials is there is virtually no end to them. You can keep slicing, zooming in, rotating, or scavenging, and nature just keeps showing you more.

Kate Durbin is a Los Angeles-based artist, writer, and filmmaker. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, Art in America, Art Forum, Nylon, Vogue, The Believer, Yale's American Scholar, NPR, DAZED, BOMB, The Pulitzer Foundation and elsewhere. She has shown her work or performed at The Frye Museum, MOCA Los Angeles, the Haifa Museum in Israel, SF MOMA, and more. Her website is: katedurbin.la