Clothes Encounter

K8 Hardy talks to Elisabeth Subrin about her Outfitumentary

K8 Hardy, Outfitumentary, 2001–2011/2015, digital video, color, sound, 90 minutes. K8 Hardy.

How do we show up for life? On January 25, 2015, the New York–based artist K8 Hardy presented a work-in-progress version of her video Outfitumentary to an SRO crowd in a disused Lower East Side restaurant beneath Reena Spaulings Fine Art. The work, built from a rigorous (but not rigid), ten-year-long documentation of the artist’s quotidian looks, uses a simple premise to open onto something infinitely more complex: the vicissitudes and strange continuities of the self, the politics of queer and feminist manifestation, the way our presentation shapes or transmits or pretends a reflexive drama of interiority. Here the artist and filmmaker Elisabeth Subrin, a friend and onetime professor of Hardy’s at Amherst College, talks with Hardy about the thinking and thrifting behind this singular video.

ELISABETH SUBRIN: Fifteen years ago, when we lived down the block from each other, I remember you saying you were starting to make an “Outfitumentary.” I know for me sometimes the title comes first and it’s a way to organize things. Did you create a structure right at the beginning?

K8 HARDY: Yeah totally. The title really gave me permission to start the project. I was using my video camera all the time and decided that I should really tape what I was wearing.

ES: I’m curious about your specific choices on how you would document your outfit every day. You wanted the front and the back and a full body. Were there other rules or parameters?

KH: The main rule was to get one head-to-toe shot of my look as often as I could or felt like it. I also wanted to do a spin in the beginning, but that requirement faded. I just had this moment where I thought everything that’s happening is interesting and what we’re wearing is interesting and weird and I should just document it for ten years. That was my plan from the very beginning, “I’m going to do this for ten years.”

ES: Wow, I didn’t know that ten years was the plan from the get-go.

KH: Yeah. I remember thinking it would only be interesting if I did it for a really long time, to see what happened over time and to capture my prime. I didn’t think what I was wearing in the moment was hugely relevant, but I had already noticed how much my style had changed and knew it would continue to evolve.

ES: It’s funny to think that it was during that exact same time-frame that I twice documented our neighborhood. The first was right after 9/11, and then I revisited all the same locations near the end of the decade, also with strict formal rules of my own, and presented them as a two-channel piece where you see our neighborhood transform over eight years. I thought it (Lost Tribes and Promised Lands, 2010) would just be about gentrification and the political and cultural shifts over the decade, but what emerges in the retracing of my steps turned out to feel autobiographical too.

KH: Yeah, I was probably walking around the neighborhood in those outfits on the days you were shooting!

Elisabeth Subrin, Lost Tribes and Promised Lands, 2010, two-channel video projection transferred from 16 mm, color, sound, 10 minutes. Installation view.

ES: There’s precedence throughout art history for self-documentation on a regular, chronological basis. Structural films of the 1960s and ’70s, or Tehching Hsieh’s One Year Performance or Eleanor Antin’s Carving really influenced my experimental approaches to portraiture and (auto)biography, especially Shulie (1997) and Lost Tribes and Promised Lands. I was interested in how revisiting the past through structural repetitions would reveal different information about time over a certain historical period, and of my own evolving consciousness. Today it’s all about selfies and constant self-marketing and self-branding (speaking of the compulsion to repeat!).

Your decision to document yourself every single day with such structural rigor gives Outfitumentary an anti-selfie feeling. There’s a level of honesty and non-narcissism because you created so many rules. The feeling-states that emerge are so much more subtle and intimate because you’re not trying to get us to like you. You don’t work exhaustively to make yourself look “good” for the camera, you don’t recreate mainstream fashion or selfie poses, except kind of ironically.

KH: I really just wanted to do it for myself when I started shooting. I didn’t know if there was going to be an audience for it or if it would just be in some archive. Four or five years into it I had the sense, thinking about the footage that had accumulated, that it could be interesting as an artwork one day. I just wanted to get the shot. I think the head-to-toe thing and the distance from the camera gives it this structure that is more practical and not about my best angle or whatever.

You do see me get more comfortable with the camera over time. At first I feel giggly and that it’s kind of funny, then I get really super comfortable and confident. I try out poses but that’s exactly what you see, that I’m trying them and not holding them. I guess there’s an awareness that I’m just copying poses, which is what posing is. And then I get bored with it.

ES: There is this amazing relationship to your body over ten years. Your body moves a lot less at the beginning. As we watch your lifestyle change and we witness you working in your bedroom, then in your apartment and then having your studio—the first one’s the Whitney ISP Program, right? Then by the end you’re in a studio that has huge photographs that you’re working on. Simultaneous to this portrait of what it’s like to become an artist, there’s also this sense of what it’s like to grow up in your body.

KH: Yeah you end up seeing where I’m working, where I have the camera. It starts in my bedroom, and moves from apartment to apartment, and eventually travels into my studio. I would just shoot it based on logistics and having my video camera, I didn’t think the location was very relevant, except that I needed enough space to get a full body shot. So it ends up showing where I’m working at the time. And of course it also ends up that the locations tell my story as much, if not more, than what I am wearing.

ES: There’s something so beautiful and intriguing about that and the fact that you chose not to have other people in it. Now and then we hear the presence of a friend, but you’re always alone. That’s what you have to do when you’re an artist, is be alone.

There’s this sense of embodiment specifically as an artist. We don’t know what relationships you’re in. We don’t know what’s going on in your life. We just get this visceral, emotional affect that’s very subtle. Over the course of ninety minutes you start to notice very minute differences in your mood.

Sometimes I feel like with art the best work is when you trust your instinct and have absolutely no idea if anybody will understand it.

KH: I guess that was another parameter, that it was just me in the shot and no one else. There had to be some kind of consistency in the project. I wanted it to be a focused document and at first I really thought I was just capturing my outfit. As I became a better performer, I was more aware of the mood that I was capturing. Then it evolves into something very real and I’m able to be myself in front of the camera without any effort of performance. Sometimes I would indulge in a mood, but I always tried to bring myself back to my original intentions and the structural parameters I had set up.

K8 Hardy, Outfitumentary, 2001–2011/2015, digital video, color, sound, 90 minutes. K8 Hardy.

ES: It was like here you are at the end in what, 2011? You are sustaining both a practice and an aesthetic that’s committed to DIY. The camera footage is kind of crappy. You don’t spend a lot of time worrying about lighting. We hear room tone. You don’t style your room. We see these spaces that you live in.

It feels like an important document about what it means to be an artist in New York City during the Dot-com era, during 9/11, during Bloomberg, during this economic explosion and gentrification. I’ve thought so much about my students who moved to New York in the ’90s and since. It’s just like, how do you do it? How do you live in New York and make art without being sucked into corporate media or the commercial art world?

There’s a way that this feels like a very precious portrait of trying to survive as an artist in that time. I don’t know if you want to talk about that and also about exposing your own economic reality. You are not raking it in as an artist.

KH: I think it was really a feminist instinct to make this document. I didn’t know what my life was going to be like as a lesbian and an artist. There were only one or two generations before me, the trailblazers, and I would have liked to see more of their lives. It’s like saying, “Hey, I exist.” It’s also like saying, “Our lives are important!”

And it was a difficult time to figure out how to live, where to live, how to make work, how to pay the bills, and how to fucking survive in New York. I went through a lot of stuff, as everyone does, but I was always psyched to have been actually surviving. That’s definitely in it.

I made the video within the means that I had. At one point, my video camera was at the top of the consumer line and I wasn’t too much worried about the picture quality. I guess you capture something else when there is no production work to see through. It was bare bones. It was a bunch of non-decisions.

ES: What do you mean by that, by non-decisions?

KH: Well, I wasn’t trying to dress up the room or myself or put something on for the camera. I was like, “Okay. Let’s just get it.” I think that’s what makes it very real, is that I wasn’t putting extra effort into it. Plus I had set up the structure from the very beginning, so I really didn’t have any new decisions to make about the piece.

I became more aware of high fashion as time progressed. It’s inevitable in New York. All of a sudden you realize some people are wearing insanely expensive designer clothes. That never bothered me because I thrift-shopped since high school and had good style with really cheap clothes. Style is not all about what you are wearing. It’s your sense of self and maybe your swagger and…

ES: Affect?

KH: It’s affect and it’s shape. It’s volume and silhouette. It’s gender play and camp. I really enjoyed getting dressed and it kind of baffled me because it wasn’t supposed to be important to feminists. But then there’s always a way of getting anti-dressed. Thrifting is a huge part of my process, whether I buy anything or not. I love to do it. Plus it was the only way I was able to afford to dress. Forever … I mean even to this day. In New York the way you look there’s a real currency. I had fun with it. Still do.

K8 Hardy, Untitled Runway Show, 2012. Performance view, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2012. Left: Photo: Lutz Bacher. Right: Photo: Arnold Frugier.

ES: Looking at the hybrid forms you were creating in your outfits, like 1980s shirts with ’90s T-shirts with ’50s florals. It really is an art form. The height of that was your Untitled Runway Show for the 2012 Whitney Biennial. I’ve always known whatever you’re wearing I’m going to see it on the streets two years from now. At the most reductive you could say you have a postmodern approach to style. On the other hand it’s like you see shopping malls and thrift stores across the country over ten years being recombined in these different ways. All of it feels kind of like a “Fuck it! I’m wearing this because I like these combinations and what they mean, not because they mimic a certain new trend.”

KH: It’s totally commentary. It’s also practical because if you are thrifting, you have to stay ahead of the cycles and figure out what old pieces or patterns or cuts could be interesting. You can’t be Now from second-hand. I was also playing with identity and was part of a queer subculture that had its own codes that I wanted to document. There was a specific underground queer-scene look and that is how we recognized each other. We had to do a lot of messaging in real life at that time. We weren’t on Apps and phones with our sexualities. So that was part of my motivation. The secret and not-so-secret flagging, what happens in the everyday. I’m not a walking art piece but I wanted to capture this and be in control of it.

ES: And critique it. You are challenging expectations of fashion. You’re challenging the economy of fashion. You’re challenging questions of beauty. You’re challenging where one swings in the sexuality spectrum. I was curious if you could talk about sound. Is there music in every single shot?

KH: Not at all. There’s a lot of room tone and the background music that was just happening, that my roommates were listening to or whatever. As it goes on I do get more aware of the sound that is being recorded. There might be the news or television. Sometimes I would put on a song because I felt I could move to that song or express myself more or even dance to it. And sometimes it would just be what I was listening to at that moment.

My whole modus operandi was not to think too much about it and just do it. Nothing is really overthought. I mean, God, I wish I had better lighting. I really thought that camera was a lot better than it was.

ES: That camera that was like the size of your hand?

KH: It was a mini-DV camera and it was the nicest camera I could afford at the time. I had the idea that it was just such high quality. I mean—it was digital video! Still on a tape, but it was the newest format when I started taping. I mean, you taught me that you could shoot on anything as long as the idea was good.

ES: Like, it’s not what you wear but how you wear it. It doesn’t matter if you have the nicest camera in the world.

KH: Yeah.

ES: I think I had to learn that teaching students on VHS and wanting them to get excited about what they were making before they knew what three-point lighting was.

KH: Totally. I started on VHS 1/2” and 3/4” tape.

ES: One of the things about experimental film and video art is that we’re working on the margins of the industry and we don’t have those resources. But where you decide to make an edit doesn’t cost money. A relationship between sound and picture doesn’t cost money.

KH: Exactly. And all the old video art that I loved was shot on even shittier mediums, so I wasn’t worried about what I was shooting on at all.

ES: What you do physically in front of the camera doesn’t cost money. All of those things are rigorous choices, and there’s a lot of formal play. There’s a whole sequence where you’re playing in your editing with the lights being turned on and off. How did you handle ten years of footage?

KH: It was really hard. I thought I was going to finish in the summer of 2014, but it was so emotional and intense to look at all footage that I couldn’t. I just scrolled through the video for about six months before I could actually watch everything that I shot. I was so uncomfortable and embarrassed for myself. I didn’t have a breakdown but—I nearly did. It took me a long time until I could sit with it and make that cut. And a hard deadline.

ES: How long is it, the entire footage?

KH: About six hours or more.

ES: It’s like when you do your taxes every year and you have to go through every receipt.

KH: Exactly.

ES: It’s excruciating. Basically you were seeing every part of your history.

KH: I was seeing everything. Everything.

ES: Financial, emotional, breakups …

KH: Totally. I was seeing myself as I was seeing myself, or something like that, something very eerie.

ES: Medical history, everything?

KH: Yeah I could see really difficult moments and illness, things that didn’t come all the way through within my parameters. But also it was really embarrassing to watch myself so much. I’d become filled with huge shame balls. Eventually I was able to work with the footage if I tried to think about myself in the third-person. I would be like, “She deserves to take up space.” I really had to keep giving myself permission because it’s like yourself and you’re going to be, “Oh yuck embarrassing. That song? That outfit? I could leave that out.” But it’s all in there.

Then I also tried to keep the ethos of shooting it and not thinking and tweaking out too much in the editing. I made match-cuts and stuff like that to help it flow. Then to try to just get to what I was doing in front of the camera and give it a little space.

K8 Hardy, Outfitumentary, 2001–2011/2015, digital video, color, sound, 90 minutes. K8 Hardy.

ES: There’s one moment I wanted to ask you about. Sometimes your face comes really close to the camera because you want to show something you’re wearing on your face or you’re turning off the camera. There’s one time where you come and stare at the camera and you’re crying.

KH: Yeah that happened and I just stayed with the camera and got that moment. The close-ups were something I had to figure out in editing because they were something extra and not preworked into the structure. I decided that I had to stay true to my original intentions and reasons for capturing these extra moments. What did she want to show me?

ES: Was she this person K8?

KH: Yes she is.

ES: You wanted to be honest to her diary of the day?

KH: Exactly and to her intentions of that day. You see more of that because I cried in front of the camera for a really long time. The edits are fairly proportionate.

ES: Somehow the clinical distancing creates this intense intimacy, like the films of Chantal Akerman, but also it has a relationship to the more lyrical experimental films that I was showing you, even back to Stan Brakhage or Carolee Schneemann.

KH: I was definitely influenced by all that work and the way you have to shift your focus and expectations. I love experimental film and video. It’s a different reality, possibly even more like reality.

ES: You read about films by structural filmmakers like Michael Snow or Ernie Gehr and they sound so rigorous and rigid. Then you see Wavelength [1967], and you’re like, “This is kind of a mess.”

KH: Yeah—that’s low budget!

ES: The track-zoom…

KH: The zoom is weird and the tracking it’s like a little yeah.

ES: Like the works of the structural filmmakers, Outfitumentary allows a different emotional resonance to come up. It felt very emotional watching it, and part of it was because we weren’t being distracted.

KH: It was like an exercise regimen or something, I just kept chugging along and doing it. Still, there’s still like, oh, months missing here and there where I kind of forgot about it or maybe I needed to buy a new tape. Or I might have loaned the camera to someone to use so I didn’t get it. I knew if I was really rigid—“It has to be every day”—that I would just get annoyed with those rules and I wouldn’t finish it.

ES: When you describe a piece like this, it sounds very simple. I’m going to document my outfit for a decade. I’m going to show the front and back of me. It sounds like superficially it’s going to be about fashion.

KH: It sounds like it, but it’s really not.

ES: Right. It’s an incredibly unique way to create self-portraiture. I mean there’s precedence from the era, like Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation [2003].

Elisabeth Subrin, Shulie, 1997, Super 8/video/16 mm, color, sound, 37 minutes.

KH: Well, for me there’s also precedence in your film Shulie, like how that’s a remake of a student’s film about [Shulamith Firestone], which is a document that we need to see but we can’t, so you made the document. It’s important to tell our own stories. That’s something that you taught me. I mean you were the one who told me I was an artist basically anyways.

ES: It feels patronizing to say I’m proud because it’s as if ...

KH: You should be proud.

ES: I am proud.

KH: The root of what you taught me is really in that piece.

ES: I could see it. I remember when you walked into my Intro to Film/Video class at Amherst when you were a sophomore at Smith. It was your first art class, and my first “real” teaching job, and your first videos… There was one when you wore thrifted cowboy gear and were confronting the camera from stalls in a women’s public bathroom. You were taking on your identity even there. It was interesting because you were actually shy. There was something that happened when you turned the camera on yourself. At that time there were all these first-person documentary narratives where you would hear women talking about their identity-based traumas in very literal ways. Whereas you used performance and your body as a way to talk and show your internal experience.

With Outfitumentary you’re like, “This is who I am every day.” Not just in the clothes you were wearing but in the way you presented your reality. I feel that this is a piece that people will find in the archives in one hundred years and say, “Oh, so this is what it was to be an artist at that time.”

K8 Hardy is an artist based in New York.

Elisabeth Subrin is a filmmaker and artist. She is currently in preproduction on the feature film A Woman, A Part and blogs at