On Coat Racks and Scotch Tape / by Malika Ali

Cindy Hinant, The Difference Between Me and My Sister, Wood, Acrylic, Plastic Horses, 2008.

Cindy Hinant, The Difference Between Me and My Sister, Wood, Acrylic, Plastic Horses, 2008.

When I first viewed Cindy Hinant's work, The Kissy Girls, it made me uncomfortable. There is a big void in the representation of girls discussing their own explorations of sexuality and intimacy, but books and movies of boys traversing the exact same subject matter exists ad infinitum. This project was unusual and that made me uneasy. My uneasiness led me to ask a lot of questions, both of myself and also of Cindy. 

During your research, you consume and digest the underbelly of popular media - reality TV, gossip magazines, and paparazzi tabloid shots of pop stars without makeup. How do you cleanse your palate between projects? Or does desensitization set in after a while?

I don’t feel desensitized to pop culture at all, and would actually say I’m overly sensitive to certain types of media. I do try to manage my media intake so that it’s targeted consumption rather than a continuous stream of information. For example, I almost don’t listen to music anymore because I can’t listen to it passively. When I listen to music I am always thinking about its function or structure, part of this comes from having been a DJ in my early twenties. Instead I often listen to television when I’m drawing or working on other things. I think listening to television is easier than listening to music because of the linear narrative. Reality television is repetitive, there are previews, recaps, and confessionals that recount plot lines so it’s nearly impossible to loose track of the story. In reality shows like Mob Wives, the plot escalates to a big moment or fight, and for the next two episodes all the characters do is talk to each other about the fight that already happened. I also like to listen to sitcoms because they follow predictable narratives that rarely stray outside of what is familiar. I find that listening to television rather than watching it is a good way to discover patterns and concepts that might be overshadowed by visual information. The reduction of information has been a cornerstone of my work and I’m interested in isolating moments from popular media in order to start a conversation about their social significance. 

I read that you once received “a coat hangar and scotch tape” for Christmas, which sounds like a good title for a short story about botched abortions. Describe your upbringing and how it has or has not influenced your work as an artist.

I should clarify that it was a turquoise coat rack from my grandparents, who thought it would help me “keep my clothes off the floor” and the scotch tape was from my mom so that I “wouldn’t have to borrow hers.” In their minds these were extra presents that they just happened to give us on Christmas day, but my sister Natalie and I (she received the same things) were both devastated and felt totally cheated by these functional gifts. My dad didn’t pay much child support, and my mom was in school so we were broke and generally had lousy presents, like the year our dad opened all the cards we got from relatives and stole all the Christmas money we had received. We grew up in Indiana and I have two sisters, Natalie is five years younger, and Bonnie is eleven years younger (our dad remarried to her mom). I think I was in first grade when my parents divorced, and after this we moved in with my grandparents. My grandfather was a minister and my grandmother was a secretary who also led the church hand bell choir. I identify as a “PK,” meaning pastor’s kid, which has the stereotypical extremes of being perfect and being a rebel or troublemaker. My grandparents are pretty open minded, but I still feel uncomfortable when they see my work; sex and pornography are not really acceptable conversation topics in the Christian retirement community where they live. 

Almost everyone in my family has some kind of craft or skill. My parents had a poetry zine called “The Unicorn” that they worked on together before I was born, my grandfather is a hobby glass blower, my grandmother sews, and I have cousins and aunts who make jewelry. It wasn’t really a surprise to anyone that I became an artist, I think what was strange or surprising for my family was that I decided to make a career out of it. Growing up, my sisters and I spent a lot of time unsupervised, none of the adults around us were very hands-on, and they all worked a lot, so we had a lot of time to ourselves for unstructured play which encouraged creativity. 

Cindy Hinant, The Kissy Girls, Digital Video, Color, Sound, 2006.

Cindy Hinant, The Kissy Girls, Digital Video, Color, Sound, 2006.

Talk about The Kissy Girls, a project documenting your younger sister and currently showing in our exhibition "Bang Bang."  Why this is this important work?

This is an important piece to me because it was the first time I used one of my sisters in my work. My sisters both hold a lot of confidence in what I do and allow me to document and explore intimate parts of their lives. When Natalie got married a few years ago, she was an amazing sport and let me document her bachelorette party. Natalie is more often involved as an organizer, she edits everything I write and does a lot of manual labor for me. Bonnie is more often a collaborator or subject of my work. 

I was 21 years old when I made The Kissy Girls (2006), and was barely post-adolescent myself.  This is actually the first video art piece that I ever made. The Kissy Girls was a club Bonnie started in kindergarten where the kids in her school would play kiss-tag during recess. Bonnie was interested in boys and exploring her sexuality from a young age, a topic which is suppressed and mutilated by our culture. For example, in Wisconsin a few years ago, parents of a five-year-old girl took a six year old boy to court for “playing doctor.” It’s totally absurd. It’s also hard to separate what’s “natural” and what’s a product of our youth and sex-obsessed media. This video also shows my sister at eleven years old defining her sexuality through pop music videos, an issue that still important in my work.

Because Bonnie is so much younger than me she can function as a mirror to my younger self and I was looking to her as a means to process my own adolescence. In 2008 I made a series titled The Difference Between Me and My Sister, which was made with toy horses that we took from her room.  I wanted these works to reflect on how alike we were, and also her refusal to function as my shadow.  At the time her parents who had been separated for two years were finally divorcing. I lived alone and she would spend weekends with me while her mom was working. She was struggling with their divorce and at 13 was just starting to sneak out of the house and smoke pot. It was hard for me to see her unhappy, and she often refused my support thinking we didn’t relate or that I wouldn’t understand. We would rent videos on the weekends and this is how I first watched The Girls Next Door. I had never heard of the show and was shocked that this was what my sister had selected, one of the first episodes we watched was about the girls doing a nude photo shoot for Playboy. She idolized Holly Madison and Kendra Wilkinson and imagined their lives as the ultimate fantasy lifestyle. Watching my sister consume media is really what inspired the work with celebrity that I make today.   

Cindy Hinant, Grids Next Door, Installation View at Visual Arts Gallery, New York, 2011.

Cindy Hinant, Grids Next Door, Installation View at Visual Arts Gallery, New York, 2011.

How do you define revenge porn? Why do you animate this brand of celebrity sex tape? And what significance do your color fades have to the consideration of the aesthetics of violation?

The aesthetics of violation is what I define as media materials that seem to have been released without consent of the subject, regardless of the actual agency of the subject. This is most clearly evident in media genres such as revenge pornography, upskirt photography, and leaked celebrity nudes. Revenge pornography are videos or photographs produced by a couple for private use which has then been publicly released by one party without consent of the other in order to cause harm or humiliation. This is a problem, in itself, but what I am most interested in is how “revenge pornography” has become a common keyword or tag used to promote pornography that was filmed professionally and how this contributes to the degradation of women. It’s just another of many niche portals you will find on the Internet, and it becomes difficult to distinguish between actual leaked photos and professional work. 

With my sex tape series I wanted to consider the reception and social function of celebrity sex tapes as well as the level of agency or control the women had over the release of these materials. I made three videos that are slow animations that each fade from a color to white over the duration of the original sex tape, keeping the original audio in tact. The colors come from the branding of each respective celebrity so Kendra Wilkinson is blue, Paris Hilton is pink, and Kim Kardashian is black. I am not sure if I would classify these videos as revenge pornography because the intention of their release seems to have been for monetary gain rather than humiliation, but that does not mean they are not abusive. Many states have now passed laws that restrict revenge pornography and the release of sex tapes, but a few years ago the general rule in most states was that photos or video that were produced consensually between adults could be released by one party without consent of the other. Kendra Wilkinson, Paris Hilton, and Kim Kardashian, all stated publicly that these videos were released without their permission, but they all have a cloud of speculation around them because of the way each of them profited from their release. Kim Kardashian, in particular benefited from the release of her sex tape as it was leaked just before the first season of Keeping Up With The Kardashians aired. I don’t want to speculate too much about which celebrities were involved with the release of leaked or supposedly leaked tapes, but I do think that the grey area that emerges is interesting as is the public’s interest in vulnerable images of women. 

Cindy Hinant, 1 Night in Paris, HD Digital Video, Color, Sound, 2014. Installation View at Can't Complain Gallery, Guelph, Ontario, 2015. Photo Credit: Kenneth Jeffrey.

Cindy Hinant, 1 Night in Paris, HD Digital Video, Color, Sound, 2014. Installation View at Can't Complain Gallery, Guelph, Ontario, 2015. Photo Credit: Kenneth Jeffrey.

Online commentators often respond viciously to the personas of media villains when they are women. People have asked Farrah Abraham, whom you feature in your video work, “Why are you such a rude and disrespectful c--t?” or they’ve called her a “porn star looking, plastic surgery addict, bitch.” Is this type of Internet violence in some way cathartic? Do people need this release? As human animals do we crave blood, even if it’s digital?

I like Farrah Abraham because of the transparency that she maintains while desperately climbing up the celebrity ladder. She is known for having been on MTV’s reality shows 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom and is infamous for her two pornographic films Farrah Superstar: Backdoor Teen Mom and Farrah 2: Backdoor and More. Her pornographic films were promoted as leaked sex tapes despite their obvious production value and despite the inclusion of her co-star James Deen who is well known in the adult film industry. These were marketed as “the private tape made public” and Abraham publicly stated that these had been released without her permission. Eventually documents became public proving that this was not a leaked tape and was in fact a commercial pornography, but this did not stop Abraham and the production company Vivid Entertainment to continue to promote this as a leaked tape. To me this case exemplifies an aesthetics of violation where a selling point for this film was that it was somehow ‘stolen’ from Abraham. I find the public’s interest in images of vulnerable women really problematic. 

Abraham’s brand is built on being unlikable. In the MTV series’ she was the bratty, spoiled, party girl who fought with her parents and was an irresponsible mother to her child. Every drama series needs a villain, shows like Keeping Up With The Kardashians and Girls Next Door aim to uphold a sense of family values, so the story peaks and drama in these are circular and minimal, but in most reality television shows featuring women, one character is designated as the sassy, loud-mouthed, unlikable character, maybe they ‘tell it like it is’ but they also might be a ‘back-stabbing bitch.’ I don’t really understand the mentality behind internet abuse, I think for many people Abraham must serve as a stand-in for what is wrong with America, or women, or whatever. Abraham invites scandal as it seems to be the only way for her to stay in the media and has started feuds with Kim Kardashian, Amber Portwood, and Nicki Minaj. It’s a strategy used by minor celebrities, the first time I heard of Chanel West Coast, my other favorite D list celebrity, it was because she had started a feud with Miley Cyrus. I wonder if this strategy works for artists. I’d like to use the public platform of this interview to officially announce my feud with Rihanna.