The Artist Behind the Famous Bathroom Selfies

A selfie from the series “Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style.” Photo: Nina Katchadourian

Artist Nina Katchadourian got famous for taking selfies in an airplane bathroom. Her “Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style,” is a series photos in which she adorns herself with whatever materials are at hand — toilet seat covers, paper towels, neck pillows — to emulate the subjects of the early Dutch masters. But those disarming self-portraits are but one part of a bigger nine-years-and-counting series called “Seat Assignment,” which is but a fraction of the work that’s been touring the country as part of her retrospective “Curiouser.

“It’s been a very nice enthusiasm that people have shown toward those lavatory portraits, but on the other hand, they are a very small part of my different bodies of work, most of it not made in the bathroom,” Katchadourian says. Or on airplanes, she notes, though she does spend a lot of time on them since she and her husband Sina Najafi, the founding editor-in-chief of Cabinet Magazine, split their time between Berlin and Brooklyn, where her studio is on the Gowanus Canal in a storied building that has housed hives of artists for decades.

But this week, Katchadourian’s “Seat Assignment” is landing in New York, as part of her new solo show “Ification” at Fridman Gallery on the Lower East Side, alongside sound and video work and sculpture that Katchadourian has made on terra firma, including work from her series “Talking Popcorn,” for which she bought a movie-theater sized popper, and used Morse code to translate the sound of popping corn into what is often described as “popcornese.” She then asked for thoughts from a sound theorist/philosopher; a cryptanalyst; an anthropologist; a minister; a Zen master; an astrologer; a translation theorist; some linguists, translators, poets, and psychoanalysts; and even a death doula.

For “Talking Popcorn” Katchadourian translated the sounds of popping corn kernels into Morse code. Photo: Nina Katchadourian

“Ification” opens February 24 (hot popcorn at the opening) and is on view through March 31, before many of the artworks and their maker fly to Finland, where she has two simultaneous summer shows with The Pro Artibus Foundation. The Cut spoke to Katchadourian by phone about the beauty of boredom, the anxiety of flying, the gift of on-hold music, and the art she creates from it all .

You are one of the subjects of the famous Marshmallow Test that started when you were a kid. How does that relate to your interest in mining the mundane and moments of boredom?
For the Marshmallow test there was nothing in the room besides me and the marshmallow they were trying to tempt me with. I was left alone at 4 years old and asked to wait. Waiting and boredom are these adjacent things; we are often bored while we are waiting. But there is a tension and suspense to waiting for something. I’m interested in that odd thing where boredom can suddenly give way to something else. I try to recuperate something in these mundane moments and materials that we have written off as devoid of potential, uninteresting, boring.

That’s a good segue into your interest in on-hold music that you’ve been collecting and turning into these supposedly fun dance parties, one of which you’re doing at the gallery March 7. What was the aha! moment about on-hold music for you?
A museum called me and said, “We’re doing a show on boredom and we thought of you!” [Laughs] This is a compliment to me! For months I had no ideas what to do.

Then, one day my husband was on hold with his doctor’s office and I heard what I now know to be the Cisco Systems default hold music emanating from the speaker phone. And the light bulb went off.

I realized that for two years already at that point, and purely out of my own interest and curiosity, I had been Shazam-ing hold music every time I could to figure out what the song was and did it exist outside of a telephone context? I realized this is the raw material of something.

How do you make it danceable?
I’ve really, like REALLY, transformed it while working with these two Julie Covello, who performs under the name DJ Shakey, and Gabriel Willow who performs under the name DJ Stylus. I am DJ Dusty. We dress up like sort of customer-service reps with have headsets and white shirts and ties like corporate customer-service people.

But, we are purists. We do not just take a bunch of Muzak and put it over beats that we’ve made. We only use what I’ve recorded off the phone line. But you can isolate dial tone or a track from a cheesy piece of music and loop that and use it as a beat. Or a voice prompt or little bits of language taken from when I have to ask a rep to let me hear their hold music for instance and no one knows what the fuck to say.

You use humor so much in your work, but I understand that you hate the words quirky and whimsical applied to you or it — why?
I found that it’s seriously difficult for people to reconcile humor and art co-existing, which points to an old-fashioned or romantic expectation about art that is selling humor short. Humor is sometimes the only way to speak intensely serious things. I use humor as a device very knowingly — a kind of bait that makes them feel welcome and then draws them close to the work. And then I have the opportunity to actually make a point about something.

This came up around your ongoing “Seat Assignment” series, where all the photos of you with the paper toilet seat covers around your neck and those ubiquitous inflatable neck pillows on your head became a viral sensation. Can you talk about what happened? About eight years ago, the first time I showed “Lavatory Self Portraits in the Flemish Style,” which is part of “Seat Assignment,” when the press release went out, the images went viral. I got so much traffic to my own website that it almost crashed. It snowballed out of control. One airline emailed me and said, ‘Hey, we’d like to do this contest where people dress up in the bathroom and we then you judge the results!’ and I had to convey that this is not a prank to me. It’s actually a part of a much bigger question.

A selfie from the series “Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style.” Photo: Nina Katchadourian

About working within boundaries and with what seems like scarcity? Yes, I’m glad you see that. I’m pushing on the question of what can I do in a situation where it seems like there are no materials, no space, nothing interesting, not enough time, no privacy — a situation of scarcity spatially, mentally, temporally, and physically in every way.

Photo: Nina Katchadourian

Less known than the selfies from “Seat Assignment” are the shots you take in the seat, often using in-flight magazines where you add in the kind of detritus — peanuts, coffee stirrers — that accumulate on a long flight to add a third dimension to the image. Can you talk about those? They’re all improvisations. I can use the reflection in the shiny seat-belt buckle to spy on the person next to me. I take pictures of my seatmates the moment they fall asleep. 

There’s a kind of anxiety around travel that I really wanted to show up in some of these photographs. This is true especially since 9/11 around air travel, and I say this as someone married to an Iranian especially, where air travel has become extremely uncomfortable at moments.

So on one flight I had these cookies called Manner wafers, with a long rectangular shape, and I stood up two of them in a kind of diagonal configuration and I looked down on them on my tray table and thought “Oh my God, it looks exactly like the Twin Towers!” and this was just before the ten-year anniversary of 9/11.

“Twin Towers” from Katchadourian’s series “Seat Assignment.” Photo: Nina Katchadourian

Plus, there’s the just general weird situation of being in a metal tube hurtling through space with a couple hundred people you don’t know. It’s precarious, weird and uncomfortable to contemplate. I’m trying to draw that out and I’m trying to respond to those feelings with some of these images.

Don’t your seatmates wonder what you’re up to?
The sort of sad answer is that on the approximately 275 flights I’ve taken since starting “Seat Assignment” only maybe three people ever asked me questions. They don’t notice or aren’t curious.

So “Curiouser” and maybe not so curious then?
Sadly, yes.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The Woman Turning Bathroom Selfies Into Fine Art