Selfies have become so ubiquitous that if your Instagram feed can’t claim at least one, it’s safe to assume you’re the hideous victim of a Korean rubber face mask gone horribly wrong, or you’re so vain that turning a lens on yourself for an arms-length shot is totally out of the question. In art, that lens has been swapped out for an electron microscope, aimed squarely at the self, but penetrating far beyond the puckering duck face.
Screening this week at MoMA, K8 Hardy‘s Outfitumentary is the product of the artist’s effort to document her outfits as often as she could from 2001 to early 2012. It’s a part of this new wave of self-referential works where “the culture of me” has taken on a whole new meaning, and exists as a sort of backlash against our ever speedier and well-connected lives. By focusing on the minutiae of everyday personal experience, time can be warped, compressed, and completely redefined. And for a queer, feminist artists like K8 Hardy, controlling one’s own narrative almost down to minute-by-minute experience offers a powerful antidote to the selfie as a patriarchal tool like any other, and shows how performing for yourself is so much more powerful than sucking in and posing for an anonymous audience.
At first, Outfitumentary– the artists’s first complete cinematic work, which premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam earlier this month– might seem familiar to the point of being unsurprising. I mean, aren’t there car commercials that play on this theme of fast-forwarding through life? But it’s striking to watch K8’s quiet progression (there’s very little dialogue when K8’s alone in the shots) from “just out of college” to full-grown woman artist over the hour-and-a-half-long doc shot “using the same shitty mini-DV camera.” She goes through subtle, then massive changes in terms of style, haircuts, body language, and physical appearance.
As people come and go, there are only hints– through K8’s body language, her wry smile – as to what they mean to her. Mostly, the camera is propped up on its own, but occasionally someone is helping her film. Sometimes background music (The Flaming Lips and Outkast both make appearances) hints to what K8 was listening to at the time, and her sense of humor is almost always present in shots that go on longer than a few seconds. The film is incredibly dynamic– K8’s confidence grows, her looks change, but there’s a certain consistency (same camera, same low-ish sound pickup) that makes for subtlety. “It wasn’t overwrought or ritualized,” K8 explained. “I wasn’t trying to get the best light or anything. For me, the casualness is what makes it interesting.”
Why are we so fascinated by art like this? There seems to be a hell of a lot of it right now. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume memoir-novels offer a unblinking taxonomist’s approach to his own inner and outer experiences from his earliest memories on. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is a crawling, banal look at the experience of Western white suburban, well, boyhood. It was filmed for a stretch of 12 years, and was the first fictional movie of its kind to show a human doing what many other humans do: get older. Molly Soda dances a thin line between humiliating overshare and trolling the world. The list goes on. In their searing honesty, these super-magnified personal accounts that extend over a long period of time offer a chance for identification while satisfying a basic voyeuristic tendency. Outfitumentary offers an intriguing balance between revealing too much and teasing us by holding some details too close for us to see.
I met K8 Hardy at her studio inside a walk-up industrial building in Bushwick. She wore blue chakra glasses, shading her cat-eye lined lids that hung heavy. “I don’t know if they work, because I’m not sure which chakra they’re for,” she said. (I couldn’t remember either, but looking later I found that blue corresponds to communication.) “I’m one of those people who would wear sunglasses at night if I could. But people don’t like that, people want you to look them in the eye.” The translucent shades offered a compromise– people can sort of make eye contact, but that whole window-into-the-soul thing seems to be blocked.
K8 is a legit multimedia artist– her work spans performance art, painting, collage, and video. And while she’s supremely expressive through personal style and carries herself with serious confidence, she doesn’t take herself too seriously. Humor is a major part of not only her artwork, but the way she presents her physical being to the world, too. Sure, there are plenty of people who dress wildly in New York City, but K8 is up there with the wackiest, propelled there by a rainbow of thrift-store finds: turnt-up pointy cowboy boots, a billowing fur coat, and neon-hued, flower-printed shifts are the norm. She’s not beholden to trends or couture or runway or whatever the hell– instead she’s into color play, pattern mixing, and unusual fabrics. None of this has to do with connoisseurship or even collecting.
When she first really started to care about style, K8 was in high school back in Fort Worth, Texas, where she grew up. “Style was important to me as a young person– growing up in Fort Worth it was very conservative and style was a way to express your politics or express yourself. At least for me,” she recalled. But there’s an important distinction to be made. “It wasn’t like I was looking at fashion magazines,” K8 clarified. “It was more like I was being a punk, it was about music and Riot Grrrl. It was a political resistance to being consumed as a type of girl, a cute girl, when I was younger.”
More than anything, K8 is a product of the late ’90s, having come of age around zines and handmade media, identity politics, and proud queerness. But she has nevertheless melded seamlessly into the post-internet age. K8’s Instagram (@K8hardball) is a stellar execution of both social media parody (“Like me Like u back, goal”) and earnest sharing, with grimacing selfies and snapshots of her trademark out-there style.
Of course, K8’s anti-authoritarian fashion sense is also on full display in Outfitumentary, where we see someone pushing beyond the boundaries of gender conformity. First, K8 gets a Joan Jett-style haircut, then buzzes her hair off altogether. At one point she dons a men’s wrestling leotard, and swings from butch to femme, experimenting with everything in between.
When she first flicked on her camera back in 2001, K8 was driven purely by documentary impulse. “I wanted to shoot myself,” she said, pausing. “I was making video art and shooting a lot of video anyways, and I just wanted to make a document, one that I would have wanted to see from a past generation.” She wasn’t sure where it would end up even, but more importantly it was mostly for her own purposes. “I just felt like it was something that I wanted to do, less for an artwork, but more to exist in an archival way. I was just out of college and it was really a time when people were talking about gender as performance and camp and all these things that I was playing around with and interested in.” The only goal was to continue the project for an extended period of time.
“I didn’t do it every day, there were periods of time when I did do it everyday, but I would just do it when I remembered,” she explained. “The only thing I anticipated was that it was only going to be interesting if I did it for at least 10 years. I always had a video camera around, so it was easy enough to do. At a certain point I knew it was going to be interesting, but it was like– in 20 years, or when I die. But I was just doing it fast, I wasn’t thinking it through all the time or super focused on it.”
That naturalness shows. Like a lot of K8’s work, Outfitumentary unabashedly explores, well, K8. It’s self-referential, self-aware, and even self-deprecating.”I wasn’t doing it and thinking, ‘This is so fucking special’ or whatever,” she said. And yet, Outfitumentary stands out from the rest of her output because, as the audience, we’re given access to a K8 who doesn’t know for sure she’s being watched. In that way, it’s a diary in the truest sense. This separates it from work like My Struggle, something that Knausgaard could reasonably assume would be published, and as the volumes progressed, was surely confident that it would be widely read.
K8 draws a line between now, when mediums like Instagram offer an opportunity to instantly share the kinds of videos she made when she first started the project. “You see the time before people were really comfortable in front of the camera, there’s that awkwardness and giggling even though, compared to most people at that time, I was not awkward,” she recalled. “The fact that I was actually getting in front of the camera, that wasn’t an OK thing to do. It was embarrassing. People were like, ‘You’re outta control.’ I mean, some people were into it, but it was audacious.”
Now being in front of the camera is completely natural. “People are telling a story about their life where they’re the main character,” she paused, acknowledging that Outfitumentary fits the description too, to some extent. “But it’s very different when you’re taking a selfie and in that moment you know that 500 people are going to see this.” Instead, Outfitumentary offers an unglossed, unplucked, searingly intimate look at K8. “I was in my bedroom, or alone and not even knowing if I would ever use it, really sincerely not knowing.”
In fact, the project was so stowed away, that K8 didn’t re-watch the footage throughout the decade of shooting. Even when the project came to an end in 2012, when K8’s camera pooped out, she set all the footage aside. “But once the whole selfie craze got so big, it made me feel like the time was now to put it out there,” she explained.
Watching all that footage wasn’t easy, and not just from an editorial standpoint. “It was really intense. It took me like a year and a half to really finish it– to watch all the footage. A lot of it was really embarrassing. It was hard to watch and get used to, it was really emotionally hard,” she recalled. “It put me through so much, even though the video is fairly minimal– the self-awareness was just,” she paused. “Burning.”
What separates this work from the rest of K8’s output is the realness of it all. “Even though I use myself a lot in my work– and you’d think I’d be fairly good at it– there’s an honesty to this video,” she said. “I was only really doing it for myself.” Somehow showing it to others was a little bit easier. “That’s kind of what I do as an artist, I share myself or expose myself in such a way that pushes normal boundaries,” she explained. “I don’t think the work is good if you’re not risking something.”
The low quality of the obsolete video camera offers a sort of shield between K8 and the audience. There are certain, private details we’ll never be able to see no matter how hard we squint. Still, by the end of Outfitumentary I felt like, on some level, I really knew K8, and beyond that, I felt an implicit connection to her particular experience as a woman. During our conversation, K8 said she agreed with me that, not only is a woman’s coming-of-age experience arguably more difficult than it is for a man (on so many levels), but it’s more difficult for a woman to look back on the progression of her life from youth to decidedly of-age, particularly since so much of your value as a woman is tied to your physical appearance and feminine wiles, even if you’ve fought against that oppression your whole life. “It’s hard to see yourself maturing,” she said.
K8 mentioned her interest in structuralist film, which seeks to address patriarchal and heteronormative structures that have been mapped onto cinema. “I think that, in a way, is partially why I made this, so that I was controlling the [narrative], I was working it out, I was making the statement. Because there is more at stake,” she said. Outfitumentary, then, is the story of K8’s coming-of-age on her own terms.
Maybe one of the most impressive things about K8’s film, is how something that seemed banal turned into a work of art imbued with so much meaning and realness. “When I started, it really was about what I was wearing,” K8 explained. “But in the end, it’s more of a self-portrait– about location, and that particular time, and that time passing, and the music, and a life– than just a thing about how I dressed. I really think it tells a story.”