Monsters, fads, and detoxes: An Interview with Katie Hubbell

By Laurel McLaughlin

Feeling drained? Low energy? Uninspired? Completely depleted? You might be depressed, overworked, overloaded or experiencing an existential vacuum. Sucked away in the vortex of time, the vortex of nein. Nope all wrong. It’s all about energy input and energy balance. PH balance. Breathe. Exhale carbon dioxide, and be sure to urinate daily.

Katie Hubbell’s queries about energy, interest, and labor projected across the four walls of Practice Gallery in Pristine Machine mimic the barrage of advertisement culture—the voices that whisper sweetly what we need with a cherry on top. In this interview, Laurel McLaughlin and Hubbell look at earlier works, processes, and materials that initiate the neon, looping, and mystical visions in Hubbell’s practice and current installation.

Pristine Machine, 2019, Installation. Installation view Practice Gallery.

Laurel McLaughlin (LM): I feel like we’re swimming here with the structure of this interview inspired by works from your archive and current work and by that, I don’t mean we’re departing into chaos. We’re taking a deep dive into your materials and processes that drive your practice and coalesce in your solo exhibition at Practice Gallery, Pristine Machine. But first, could you walk us through Pristine Machine?

Katie Hubbell (KH): Yes. As you enter the space you are immediately confronted with a video of a mouth sucking what appears to be noodles. Captured with a macro lens, the footage is slow, repeating the same action. The video moves in and out of abstraction as the focus shifts as the lips go in for the next bite. The bottom half of the right wall shows footage of an oozing material. This video seeps onto the adjacent wall and reflects onto the floor. The projector is hung low, so as the viewer moves through the space their shadow is reflected in the image. Above that, connected with a feathered edge, is a video that moves between two different clips of a leech and a clip of small silvery fish nibbling on fingers. On the left wall, you see four videos of spheres. Three are spinning animations of what could be cells dividing, moons, suns, or bubbles popping and one is of a material dripping almost like a keyhole into a different space. The projection of the largest sphere is installed very low so the viewer can step in front to disrupt the video. This video also illuminates the sculptures which are on the floor. Two “fountains” pumping a neon fluid are placed in the light of the projection. On the other side of the room is a stack of clear cans filled with neon liquids and illuminated by a pink light. The cans are clustered throughout the space and accompanied by glossy, goopy, rock-like sculptures and salt crystals. Some of the sculptures are coated in shimmering body wash, which produces a sweet scent that in turn mixes with the distinct smell of the neon liquid.

Dreamsicle, Dreamcycle (still), 2018, Installation

LM: Now taking a backwards step in time within your practice, this still from Dreamsicle, Dreamcycle, 2018 shows bleeding neon, psychedelic colors flooding the screen, while a female voiceover seductively describes the trajectory of a timeless life riddled with mental and bodily ailments. This early installation, alongside even earlier works from your MFA at The Slade School of Fine Art, sets the tone for Pristine Machine. How did you come to this psychedelic and fluid aesthetic?

KH: It’s a long journey of how I’ve come to this place. I started following these currents, and using this juxtaposition of a pseudo-scientific language, laced with the vernacular of self-help while I was in grad school at the Slade. But stepping back to the beginning, the body has played a dominant role in my practice.

I come from a family of scientists and grew up around that imagery and language. Before the days of WebMD, I was fascinated with flipping through our medical books. I got stuck into the skin disease pictures for some reason. They were horrifying, but I was so fascinated. When I was 10 or 12, my dad, a molecular engineer, would put me on duty and have me help paint slides of molecules and cells, for lectures that he would give. My mom had the strangest gadgets, like a rubber tongue she used in her speech pathology lessons, and to this day she sends me videos of vocal cords singing Christmas carols. That has really shaped my interest in the body. And I do a lot of research centered around its functions or anxieties. I often think about the videos I create as showing the inside of a body, like tissue or fascia. I think you really see that in the Dreamsicle piece. But in the show at Practice, it is also in the spoken text.

In juxtaposing corporeal images with the language of advertisement and self-help, I’m creating these knotted landscapes. I draw a lot of inspiration from the copywriting on the back of food products, cosmetics, but also in advertisement. I’m interested in exploring tensions and contradictions that we experience every day. As a teenager, I remember flipping through a magazine and on one page there is an advertisement with a juicy hamburger and on the other side of the spread an ad for diet pills or something like that. Now this experience is all digital, but I still go back to all the glossy magazine images that stuck with me. I try to emulate how advertisement functions by using seductive colors and glistening images, like the lip gloss on mouth sucking up pasta, which you see in Pristine Machine. In Pristine Machine; Dreamsicle, Dreamcycle; and Dual Process Therapy, I was thinking about these contradictory messages that are all selling and peddling different ideas.

The work Pristine Machine also expresses how I often feel kind of stuck in between the two different worlds. I’m trying to find a time for mindfulness in my own life but struggle with saying no, sleeping enough, and juggling all these pressures that I don’t believe in but somehow buy into at the same time. I’ve been interested in knots and this tension for quite some time. In the text that I write, for example, psychiatrist R.D. Laing’s work has been an influence in how things collapse in on themselves. In talking about these contradictions and knots, I want to format the work to become overwhelming, at times confusing, or abstract and tangled, while still being accessible.

Motivational Poster from Dreamsicle, Dreamcycle, 2018, Installation

LM: This early motivational poster, also from Dreamsicle, Dreamcycle, seems to articulate some of those knots, but also a self-care talk. Why did you start using this rhetoric of well-being and care, and how does it figure into your current installation Pristine Machine at Practice Gallery? You often pair such motivational language with a female voiceover (often your own), which seems present even in this textual form. How does the voiceover operate within a culture that consumes even practices of care, especially as the voice repeats “clean, pristine, machine, reboot”?

KH: With the self-help speak, I really want to connect to the viewer. I want it to feel soothing—until you pay attention to what is being said. This allows the language to shift to something funny, absurd or twisted.

I use my own voice. I’ve tried putting other people in the work but it hasn’t felt right yet. I use my skin, body parts, and voice as a material or a site of experimentation. I talk about this specific voice as my performance voice, so it’s become more of a character. I think this character feels personal; she is my alter ego. ASMR is another influence. I’m interested in using the hypnotic effect that ASMR creates. The majority of the YouTube performers are female and I find it interesting how much they teeter the line but never cross into what is sexual. In Pristine Machine, I wanted to tap into the seductive yet hypnotic effect by rhythmically whispering this chant.

The text is layered though. There is a second layer where I come in with more directives, where I tell you to “auto engage in oxidation reduction hydrolysis conjugation,” or to “urinate daily.” These directives are also evident in the Dreamsicle, Dreamcycle poster as I’m telling you all these things to do. I’ve been thinking about these Siri and Alexa voices, or even the “caution bus is turning,” “walk sign is on to cross,” or the machine at the grocery store checkout telling me to place my navel oranges on the scale. In a lecture at the Slade, cultural critic Nina Power talked about her research in analyzing these female voices used in public spaces, specifically transportation, describing them as “sensible” and reassuring without being bossy. I want to use that tone of voice to feel trustworthy. But then again I’m also subverting it, when you pay attention to how these directives spin out of control or are completely absurd. 

Pristine Machine (still), 2019, Installation

LM: This brings us to the seduction in the works. Like you said, it’s not directly sexual, but perhaps it plays on libidinal undercurrents. For instance, the projection with this mouth eating spaghetti is more overt, like ASMR meets make-up ads meets porn (?). It seems to undo the categorizations concerning when, where, how sexuality is palatable. How do you see it figuring in your work?

KH: Yes. That’s definitely in the work. That’s always a bit tricky for me to fully pin down, but I think it goes back to my interested in abjection. I think of Kristeva and how she describes the abject as something that makes us question and confront the boundaries of ourselves. Yet, unlike the uncanny, which is something repressed coming to the surface, the abject is always looming on the periphery and we are constantly being confronted by it. When the abject spills out it becomes something “other.” Kristeva talks about the skin on top of warm milk. I think about sneezing into your hand, being repulsed by this expulsion and yet still becoming engulfed and fascinated in it. I’m reminded of my early childhood experience looking at medical books. So, the abject is often seductive. A great classic example are all the paintings of doubting Thomas sticking his finger so delicately into Jesus’s wounds. My work, however, is distanced from that. The materials I use are mainly makeup, soap, cheese wiz, and honey. It’s a pathetic abject or funny or cheesy. But I mean pathetic like a deflated balloon, which I’ve used as a material for the video. It’s like when the Viennese Actionists were using blood, Paul McCarthy was using ketchup, like in his performance Sauce.

I like thinking about abjection as a way to dissolve power structures; it is a subversive tool, a way to satirize. The work should and shouldn’t be sexy, it somehow lets you in but not enough. I want it to push you out at times. I want to create moments that really make you question your responses.

Screen-shot of video stills for Pristine Machine, 2019, Installation

LM: Pristine Machine work plays with multiplicity and exhaustion too. In this screenshot, we see multiple possible videos that ultimately compose the work. They reflect the wormholes and rabbit trails in digital space that we face in front of screens every day. Whereas artists such as Camille Henrot in her Grosse Fatigue, 2013 have used this strategy of multiplicity to comment upon epistemological exhaustion, you seem to be speaking about cultural exhaustion—could you share how this manifests on screen?

KH: I saw Grosse Fatigue for the first time years ago and it really stuck me in how she creates this fluid, layered net. This screen-shot of video stills is a process image of how I was looking at things on my computer, trying to figure out how to arrange them in the space and what connections to make between the different clips. I’ve edited out half of them and I have chosen to use long repetitive clips because they lend themselves most to this hypnotic space that I’m creating. However, in projecting them to fill the whole wall and by layering them, to create an immersive space, it more formally speaks to this idea of multiplicity and exhaustion. I’ve overlapped 5 projectors in the installation, to create these wormholes similar to the ones you talk about in the screenshot, yet on a larger scale. The sound is where I see this idea or the connection to Henrot’s work the most. The sound has a rhythm like Grosse Fatigue, and it moves from one idea to another in a similar fashion to what Henrot does visually. It’s all connected and uses the exhaustive format to talk about that. The sound moves from talking about how your body naturally detoxifies and regenerates, to telling you to quiet your thoughts and relax.

I think the zine I made that accompanies the show does this in quite an accessible, direct way. It comes from a personal place. I’m stressed because I’m overworked, so people tell me to take a yoga class, but I’m too busy working to pay the bills and trying to do what I feel passionate about that I can’t afford a class. I could go on and on, but I’m in the same boat as all of my peers.

That’s also why I’m interested in these cycles. The fountain is continuously pumping this neon liquid through a twisting tube, in and out of the sculpture. Similarly, the leech, a creature that feeds on a body, also benefits the feeder, as do the fish, nibbling away unwanted dead skin. I’m interested in these cycles.

Pristine Machine, 2019, Installation

LM: The vicious cycle that you bring up concerning the creation and exhibition of work within the contemporary art world is something that should be discussed more and I’m grateful for your candor here. But I find it interesting how you use that exhaustion as a kind of material here, embedding the “ethic”—I’m thinking of the very American Protestant work ethic—into digital projection, and reminding the viewer that she, too, is implicated in this cycle…

The fish-eyes and keyholes used in your videos signal this introspection to me in the installation. They poke through other projections, much like the unconscious, or perhaps even a manifestation of self-doubt that warps or over-sensationalizes reality. What is the relationship to you between the main projected images and these keyholes?

KH: I think of the circular projections on the left wall as “keyholes,” or cells, or gears. It’s what is beneath the surface on the inside of the organism I’ve created. I think of them as these constantly mutating forces. Maybe they are moons or even suns. I’m really interested in your read on them, and how they connect to the idea of introspection, self-doubt, and the unconscious shining through. One of the “cells” is projected from very low in the space, as I wanted the viewer to be able to place themselves within the turning, mutating force, sun, or moon. The video also functions as a light source to illuminate the sculptural fountains. In a way, I’m reminded of Georges Bataille’s Solar Anus, and this constantly revolving parody. There is something about this cycle, and I like placing the viewer in the center of this turning force. The viewer’s shadow is most distinct in this part of the installation and I’m interested in how it becomes more confrontational, or perhaps offers a moment of pause.

Screen-shot of research for Pristine Machine, 2019, Installation

LM: While the work doesn’t reference brands or specific treatments, they are always present in your research. They’re reminiscent of the Goop “modern lifestyle brand”-turned-extreme new-age health regimen. For instance, this snippet about Demi Moore’s leech therapy, probably costing an exorbitant amount, inspired you to look into treatments—could you talk more about how this drove the concept for the work?

KH: The spa aesthetics is also a thread that has been running through the work for a while. To me, it’s connected with ideas of self-care but also advertisement and often pseudoscience. Again, I’m interested in the copywriting, it’s this push where nothing is good enough but also self-care is paramount. I was already thinking about leeches and feeling sucked dry and these fish that eat your flesh, so it circled around to the spa. I did a lot more research centered around detox fads and other treatments where things are being pushed to the extreme. When looking into detox fads, I got caught up on the idea of this type of expulsion on different levels. Our bodies are naturally detoxifying every day, as we “urinate daily” and “auto engage in oxidation reduction hydrolysis conjugation,” as the sound in Pristine Machine whispers. I was interested in how this idea is being marketed, on a deeper level why we are so culturally obsessed, but also what “toxins” could mean. Maybe toxins are obligations or other negative energies or thoughts. I’ve seen so many charcoal detox products this year, I’ve been watching and questioning these things for a while.

But also, these brands like Goop that you mention, they all idealize and praise of one standard, pushing ideas of sameness, or even building into the construction of whiteness. These are very exclusive, luxury products. I am thinking about these things.

Screen-shot of research for Pristine Machine, 2019, Installation

LM: The leech therapy also brings us to the critters that always feature in your works. You have a pet snake, Thea, who I believe has made appearances in your videos, and you’ve gravitated in the past towards ants, fish, and now leeches. Fish and ants are creatures that live in large communities but are also used for their labor—as seen here in a manicure—and leeches, too, have roles within the medical community. Such labor seems to figure into the exhaustion that we mentioned earlier—are you questioning the ethics of such practices and their pervasiveness?

KH: I think that puts it very nicely. I had frogs, lizards, a tarantula, snails and such as pets when I was younger. I’m drawn to these creatures and enjoy researching them so it feels natural to incorporate them into my work.

I’m certainly interested in the labor they are doing. With the leeches and fish, I wanted to choose specific animals that feed off of the human body, yet simultaneously offer serious medical benefits. I guess it’s this cycle again. In the sound, I’m talking about work and they are working, but as they are eating they are also re-energizing.

I’m also aware of the fact that by acting they are doing labor for me. It’s reciprocal, though, because I care for them. I am very critical of the ethics of some of these treatments. Some are horrific and the animals are either harmed or killed. The fish pedicure spas are rightfully illegal in the United States. But then maggots save lives in their ability to clean wounds, and leech therapy could make the difference of whether or not you lose an appendage for example. Killing or mistreating animals for facials, doesn’t sit well with me. 

LM: Monster sculptures figure in the installation as perhaps the “fuel” of the project. Thinking in the mainstream, I can think of about ten commercials that address exhaustion through stimulants. Prior to this commoditization of the concept, monsters had an earlier history in new media, specifically net art. Cyberfeminism especially harnessed this concept of the monster as a way of imagining new socio-political realities beyond the merely human. Your video seems to invoke both of these histories, so how are you thinking about branding but also their potential to become fantastical “fuel”?

KH: I’m certainly interested in how Monster has been used historically in such ways. For me, the brand embodies this cultural push to be super-human. For a while, I was also thinking about this cognitive enhancing product called “Alpha Brain” and other supplements that are more health-oriented. In ways, it circles back to my spa interests and questioning these ideals, and messages that we have to be something more, as well as these problems in the Protestant work ethic that you mentioned where 40-hour work week is the bare minimum. In a lot of my work, I’ve taken inspiration from the copywriting on the back of enhancing products like this. But then, at the same time, as yoga has become very mainstream and mindfulness is becoming more and more so, we are continuing to hear messages about accepting ourselves, and being in the moment and inside of your body. I don’t really remember hearing this so much when I was younger but now they are teaching it in schools. I’m interested in how these two ideas can exist in the same place at the same time. I’m also interested in my place in it as I’m trying to do both.  

When I found this particular Monster, aside from the implication that it carries, I was also attracted to it as an object. I like that it’s a similar shape of a prayer candle as well. In Pristine Machine, I’ve removed the label and filled them with other liquids, oils, make-up, and soaps. Some have a layer of film on the top and some bubbles. Treating them as a sculptural liquid makes them more nuanced. In a way, I do see them in ways as quite a literal fuel, but I’ve also been thinking about them as humors or bodily fluids. The idea that it’s a monster isn’t necessarily important anymore.

In-progress sculptures for Pristine Machine, 2019, Installation

LM: The sculptures are on pedestals—set apart, distanced. But the projections layer atop and implicate them. We too, as viewers become part of the installation on some level. How do you imagine viewers interacting in the space?

KH: This is one of the main reasons why I started working with immersive installations. I really want the viewer to become part of the work, engulfed in a material landscape. Yet, I want the experience of the work to be somehow reciprocal, and haptic. In her book Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media, 2002, media historian Laura Marks states, “In a haptic relationship, our self rises up to the surface to interact with another surface. When this happens there is a concomitant loss of depth—we become amoeba-like, lacking a center, changing as the surface to which we cling changes. We cannot help but be changed in the process of interaction.” While my work is not interactive in the traditional sense, as something that you physically tough or activate, I’m interested in the digital haptic experience as a way of implicating the viewer. Marks also describes it as a way of “thinking with your skin.” The viewer’s shadows become part of the work, as they connect to moving images that shifts in and out of abstraction they become engulfed, they are surrounded and thus implicated.

But then I also think about how philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari talk about it as a “smooth space” that must be moved through by constant reference to the immediate environment—like snow or sand. The internet is like sand or snow, and, in a small way, the zine functions in a similar way, or perhaps even the sound. I guess I think these webs I make create sand and snow. This brings be back to Camille Henrot’s Grosse Fatigue that, to me, embodies this idea.

Pristine Machine is on view at Practice Gallery, October 4–27, 2019. For gallery hours and events, please see:

Katie Hubbell’s practice reveals the flirtations and repulsions, states of boredom and states of obsession, parallels and contradictions which inhabit twenty-first-century advertisement culture and self-help models of care. Having received an MFA in sculpture from the Slade School of Fine Art, University College London, Hubbell’s works have been exhibited throughout England, Scotland, Wales, Poland, the Netherlands, and the United States. Hubbell has participated in residencies at the Wassaic Artist Residency; Vermont Studio Center; Elsewhere Museum Residency; Atlantic Center for the Arts; and OxBow School of Art and Artist Residency. Hubbell currently lives and works in Philadelphia.

Laurel McLaughlin is a writer and curator from Philadelphia, currently based in Portland, OR. Her research interests span visual art, performance, and dance that engage the intersections of embodiment and new media, and her writing has appeared in Performa Magazine, Title Magazine, PICA TBA:19 Blog, and the Monument Lab Bulletin, among others. Laurel holds MAs from The Courtauld Institute of Art and Bryn Mawr College, and she’s currently working on her dissertation at Bryn Mawr College concerning migratory aesthetics in performance art situated in the United States, 1970s–2016.