Outfit of the Day
An interview with K8 Hardy about Outfitumentary.
Outfitumentary begins streaming on Metrograph At Home December 17, and plays 7 Ludlow on December 16 along with a series of K8 Hardy’s cinematic inspirations.
I’ve known K8 Hardy since the late ’90s, when she was a dashing undergraduate with a radio show—an underground influencer avant la lettre, with her high-concept, thrift-store looks and rare attunement to the aesthetic implications of grunge and riot grrrl’s fading influence. The day we met she was presenting a queer punk show in the Smith College Field House; I had been driving across the country with the Olympia-based band The Need—the event’s headliners. The other performance (that I remember) from that show was by the video-art band MeMe America, featuring a young Wynne Greenwood. (Wynne would soon launch her solo project Tracy + the Plastics and, years later, collaborate with K8 on the satirical-feminist, fake broadcast series New Report). I was already living in New York City at that time, and K8 arrived post-graduation, I guess. Not long after that—in 2001—she began shooting, on most days, the material that would become her decade-long project, Outfitumentary (2016).
K8 and I both moved beyond our coming-of-age context—our punk-inflected, post-postmodernist, queer-feminist scene—to engage with a larger art world, but I see in her work our shared origins. Outfitumentary can placed in various art-historical lineages—those of experimental video, feminist performance, and avant-garde cinema—but to me, more prominent is its relationship to the form of the zine. The confessional mode of ’90s photocopied riot grrrl missives is reflected in the bedroom-as-studio scenes. And the cut-and-paste technique of zines, resulting in layouts both slapdash and calculated, echo in K8’s unprecious editing style, as well as her manner of dress.
The sartorial diary is also a time-lapse self-portrait of sorts, composed of close-ups and, with each entry, a full-length shot. Some of the outfits I remember from seeing them in the wild, in person, over the years. So, the film’s progression, watching K8 change and age, is by turns hilarious and deeply moving to me. I hope the following conversation will shed light on Outfitumentary’s clamor of signifiers, as well as its emotional vulnerability and confrontational politics, which are sometimes concealed by the artist’s deadpan, punk affect.—Johanna Fateman
JOHANNA FATEMAN: I wanted to start by asking you to go back before Outfitumentary, before New York. What you were like in high school?
K8 HARDY: I was a weirdo in high school. I grew up in Texas and my mother was obsessed with me looking proper. This gave me the structure to work with; I was able to break the rules very easily. I was thrifting, and I was doing things like trying to wear just one color a day. I got a lot of dress code violations, like for a skirt being too short—one day I got sent home from school because I was wearing a Born Against shirt. It showed a soldier saluting a coffin, and it said, “I pledge allegiance to shit.” That was a big deal. That was really upsetting to my mother, to everyone.
I wasn’t interested in style through fashion magazines, nor did I even look at them. I didn’t know about designers. My fashion was a rebellion, a punk thing, you know, to change my identity and to rebel against what I should look like as a young girl. I was reading riot grrrl zines and stuff like that. Dressing for me was about upsetting ideas of taste in general. That’s how my aesthetic formed.
JF: Right. And so at what point did you begin to understand yourself as an artist?
KH: It took me a long time to identify as an artist because I didn’t know about contemporary art. I thought probably I was a musician or something. I mean, I was. But even though I was making zines, I was in such a conservative culture. There was no one around me to say, “That’s writing,” you know?
So, I was in college in a video art class with Elizabeth Subrin, and she called me an artist, and I was like, “Woah, that’s so crazy.” I just didn’t understand it. I thought being an artist meant you were able to paint horses and skies—to paint, which I couldn’t do.
JF: When did you realize, or decide, that the way you dress was a part of your artistic practice?
KH: That came later. I think I was even in a little bit of denial. When I started shooting Outfitumentary, there was nothing really that I was seeing in art that brought in style or fashion. It was kind of a no-no in the art world. I fought it; I didn’t consider personal style to be a part of my practice. But I knew it was a tool for me, and that I was always going to use it, for example, if I was making a video and there was wardrobe involved.
Naming these outfits as art, as part of my art, that came kind of slow. When I first started making Outfitumentary, I didn’t tell anyone. I was even going to film school at Bard and I never said, “Oh, I’m shooting my outfits every day!”
JF: You clearly frame Outfitumentary, from the start, as a documentary project; you wanted to show, as you say, “what a radical lesbian feminist looked like” in 2001. I understand that this daily recording wasn’t your art at the beginning of this project, but you kept it up for so many years, I’m wondering, how did it change for you over time?
KH: Well, after a while, I would say, seven or eight years in, I started telling people. I was like, “I think this is pretty cool, what I’m doing.” But, I still didn’t know what it was ultimately going to become.
JF: Something that struck me when rewatching Outfitumentary last night is that you say, in the card at the beginning, that it’s a record of the looks you took into the world with you. So, the film alludes to an unseen performance practice. We see an intimate performance-for-camera in your self-documentation, but the outfits then also had a public life.
I’m wondering, did you have a sense of dual purpose? Did you start constructing looks with this more intimate, domestic, filmed context in mind, even though you were getting dressed to go out?
KH: No, I never dressed for the camera because I really thought of this as an archival project. I think that point is important, because I think it comes across that I was not getting dressed for the camera. On social media I see, all the time, people getting dressed for the camera, for that single moment. In fact, I may have missed recording some of my best looks, because I was with friends. Maybe I was so wrapped up in that moment, I forgot to shoot it. Sometimes I had my camera, but I wasn’t carrying it around with me everywhere.
KH: It’s funny how I thought of it—it’s shot on MiniDV—and I thought, “Oh my God, the quality is so high.” I mean, our Zoom call right now has a better image quality!
Sometimes I tell people, hey, maybe it’s not even about the outfits. In the end, it’s this really intense self-portrait, you know? It was very hard to edit, and psychologically difficult to watch myself. It was so intimate. I was not expecting that at all.
JF: I remember this whole period of time, knowing you, knowing your various hairstyles, remembering some of those specific outfits at parties. But now we’re getting further away from it and this stuff is all a blur in terms of chronology. Did you ever think of putting dates on the footage?
KH: You mean the final piece? I did not. Even the writing of the cards was really hard for me to do. But, you have to give people (outside of our social group) something to grab on to, so they can watch and understand it. I don’t want to explain too much, though. I really like the stories that people make up about the film.
And the other thing is, I don’t really know the years. I didn’t label my tapes well! When I was editing, I thought, “How is it possible that my hair changed that much in one year?” I was looking at photos to help identify dates, I was googling events, I was like, “Okay, this photo, with this outfit, corresponds to this show.” I’m convinced to this day that there’s a tape missing. Anyway, people will hear a pop song in the background, and they’ll know the year, roughly.
JF: Although you start with Kate Bush. How amazing is it that “Running Up That Hill” [from 1985] is the first audio we hear!
KH: Is it really?
JF: Yes! I mean, is that song back on the charts right now? It was last summer.
KH: Crazy, right? I forgot that was what I was playing. That’ll be cool for the screening.
JF: Screening it in 2022 is perfect. It will confirm for everyone that you really knew what was going to happen…
KH: We all did.
JF: Yeah. Everything from that time seems prescient, I guess. But that song is a nice touch, serendipitous. Trying to date the footage as I watched was fun. I thought, “Okay, well, there’s the No War baseball cap,” and then at one point you mention MySpace.
KH: You hear the Nokia ringtone.
JF: We actually spoke about this film at some length when I did a studio visit with you in 2016. Outfitumentary was in an exhibition at Bard that was thematically organized around the VALIE EXPORT film Invisible Adversaries (1977). So, we were talking about your work through that lens. 2016 was five lifetimes ago, we’ve been through so much. Then, we were talking about Outfitumentary as a forerunner to selfie culture. I’m bored of conversations about selfie culture, but I wanted to check in with you, six years later, about this observation you made, or that we landed on together, that there’s a real difference between collecting material and creating content. You were contrasting Outfitumentary with your Instagram work. Do you have anything to add to or amend about the film’s relationship to social media?
KH: I’m always watching Outfit of the Day [#OOTD] and all the stuff. When I was editing Outfitutmentary, one thing that drove me crazy was I that was always lifting up my leg to make sure my shoe was in the shot, right? It just blows me away— I see that [on social media] all the time. It’s just an instinctual gesture, I guess. But, what I was doing does not seem very similar. I think maybe a lot of these outfits people post are just for a screen world and not for the real world. I don’t know. That’s how some young people live. I don’t want to judge too much. (But I do.)
JF: I do think that there are some aesthetic and formal trends on TikTok maybe more than on other platforms reflecting a return to, or a discovery of, performance-for-camera and real-time videos. Do you know what I mean? Not highly edited stuff, single take.
KH: Well, people love authenticity, so it will trend in and out: editing and the cuts will feel authentic for a while and then no cuts will feel authentic. I’m clocking these things all the time.
What’s also crazy in all of this to me is that, initially, I thought my film was so experimental; it’s asking the audience to do so much; it’s so difficult. Viewers have to sit through all these slow shots. But, it’s actually not that difficult, because we’re on social media. We’re always watching the most boring stuff. We’re interested in time passing.
JF: We’re interested in being checked out.
We’re on social media. We’re always watching the most boring stuff. We’re interested in time passing.
JF: I find that, watching Outfitumentary as an art critic, I focus on certain things, but then I also drift into my own reverie. I’m still watching, still absorbing it, but the film triggers—and disrupts sometimes—that absent consumption, social media feeling. Which, I don’t think is bad. It’s not bad to watch things in that way. It’s just a different brain state.
JF: I wanted to ask another question, which stems from this comment my daughter made when she was five or six. You and I both were staying in the Pines one summer and our houses were close by. She was seeing you every day in different outfits, different kinds of bathing suits and personas. And she asked me, “Is K8 a trans man or a trans woman?” You know, she was figuring everyone out. and it was, I felt, astute. Because she was picking up on that perpetual state of transformation you create through dress. The question is, you’re changing from what to what? There’s no beginning or end.
KH: Right. In Outfitumentary, especially in the beginning of the film, I look more like a boy. And I had more moments of passing as a young man then. But, you know, we had different language back then. I have, of course, always really had the feeling that gender is a performance, from early on. I think that comes through in the piece.
KH: Do you look at Outfitumentary and say, or feel when you see certain images of yourself, “Yeah, that’s me?” I know that we... don’t believe in authenticity. But, you can tell when someone is really in their body, really feeling themselves. Do you ever feel that way when you see yourself?
KH: When I see myself in the film?
JF: Yeah. Are there certain looks where you’re like, “That’s really me.”
KH: Not really. No.
JF: Do you ever feel that way?
KH: No. I don’t know! No, sometimes I put something on, I’m thinking, “Well, this is just a costume. I don’t know if I like this.” But it just doesn’t matter. I’ll forget it.
I’m in a place now where I feel like I can wear anything. People just shrug when they see me, which feels so lucky, especially after having just spent two months in Texas. It feels like such a privilege to dress how I want to.
I do want to say that I always felt that there was a politics to how I was dressing; that I was always trying to push the bounds of taste. I was trying to bring in elements that were maybe unacceptable because of their production value, or what class associations they had. And though I wasn’t able to necessarily articulate it then, now, I can see, retrospectively, I was creating silhouettes that were high fashion. Living in New York, I was having a conversation with the fashion industry, but I was doing it with secondhand clothing. I was always wanting an element that—even within our friend group— would just kind of be like, “Ugh, that’s a little bit gross.” I’m still interested in that—what is it? What is this badness? What is it recalling? And how do I mix it into my work and bring it into today? The work is about challenging taste. And taste is, weirdly, so hard to talk about. Because you’re talking about class and aesthetics. That was something that I was always thinking about, but also of course thinking about male and female and mixing those ideas, or exposing that performance. Pushing it in that way, too, walking that line.
JF: I’ve always felt with all of your work, there’s this sense of contamination, it’s an intended quality. Beyond challenging notions of purity, you want to make people recoil a little bit, as you mentioned.
JF: It’s not necessarily an easy thing to achieve because we’re hardened New York art people, I mean, it’s not easy to make us recoil. But you do it!
KH: I do. I was just thinking about that recently, and I was having a conversation with JD [Samson] and about aesthetics and generations. I said, “I still make work that upsets my mother!” And I’m kind of proud of that.
JF: Okay. That’s a great place to end. Let’s stop recording.
Johanna Fateman is an art critic in New York City.