By Anya Liftig
Recently, I bumped into a high school classmate of mine at a tea party themed wedding shower. At some point, while we were both stuffing our mouths full of handmade petit fours—(made by an 8 and a half month pregnant woman—is there nothing women can’t do?)—we got to talking about our old chums from back in the day. “I have actually never experienced competition as cut throat as our turmoil with the student newspaper.” Mind you, this woman is now on the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, so she knows a thing or two about competition. Our high school newspaper went by the innocuous name, “Inklings,” but was filled with power hungry, overfed teenagers on a quest for journalistic fame. I should know, I was one of those teenagers. In fact, I was so rabid that I sniffed out a story about canceling lower level vocational classes, printed it in a special edition and ended up smack in the middle of a battle between the Superintendent and the teacher’s union. My provocative article, though completely true, got me kicked out “Inklings” by more hidebound editors. And despite an effort to start my own renegade publication, (things were harder back in the days before the interwebnet,) I never dabbled with Cronkite’s business again.
But, as anyone with half a brain will tell you, if there is one place that doesn’t abide by generally recognized scales of justice, it is the art world. So when I saw a piece on gothamist.com about Bettina Banayan, a young, female performance artist who was working with food, I admit, I was quick to identify that burning sensation in my belly not as hunger, but as envy. Once I moved beyond the “Why isn’t everyone looking at me right now even though I hate being looked at?” question that is the special plague of the performance artist, I became curious about this young woman’s work. I sought out Banayan, and lured her into my world with the promise of a free beverage from Starbucks via a hand-me down gift card—which she politely declined.
Banayan is a recent BFA graduate of Parsons and is currently enrolled at the Institute for Culinary Education. Two of her performances have gone viral on social media over the past two years. The first piece featured Banayan slicing an onion on a cutting board while riding the subway. The footage of that performance sparked an onslaught of internet commentary, including speculation about her race, motives, class, and intellect. Partially in response to that event, Banayan created another work sited on public transportation. She brought a pre-baked cake on to the subway, frosted it and handed out slices to the riders in her car. Again, the video went viral and again, there was speculation about who she was and what exactly she was doing.
Since the Marina Abramovic retrospective, “The Artist is Present”, was held at MoMA in 2010, performance art has become an area of public fascination and gained popular appeal. In the past four years, the so-called “performance art” of Lady Gaga, Shia LaBoeuf, Jay Z and lets not forget the ubiquitous James Franco, has called attention to the medium in sometimes problematic ways. It seems that almost every week, a well known news wonk touts a recent “radical” act by a “performance artist.” Last week it was an artist who was living inside a bear carcass for a week, and this week it is Abramovic’s footnote to “The Artist is Present”; a performance at the Serpentine Gallery in London in which she will “do nothing” and interact with the pre-set props and the public for six weeks. In the spirit of learning more about how the most recent set of art school grads are navigating the complex, post-internet world, as performers, I spoke with Bettina Banayan at length on March 26, 2014 in Manhattan.