Rayer Ma

How do you describe yourself?
I’m still in college actually, I study literature but I’m really focused more on liberal arts. I wanted to study something that’s not directly related to what I do or want to do. I do mostly visual arts, I paint and only very recently started making videos this past fall. I was thinking about how to tie my visual art practice into performance and making video into a space to work. I didn’t want visual and performing arts to be one serving the other but rather wanted to have them functioning equally. Oftentimes the design is serving the plot or story. I started playing with videos, thinking about how I can use them as another character, thinking about how we can use screens to engage with the performer. In a sense I am the audience and the audience members are also performers. So I’ll watch the video with them.

Where did the idea for this video project come from?
It actually started at the Orchard project which is an artist residency program, for artists to spend one week in a retreat where you plot through an idea. It started from ideas about eating really, and not so much food. That really interests me; the intimacy we have or do not have through the physical act of eating the way that we engage with one another through this experience or the distance that we insert in moving away from a physical engagement. I wanted to be in the project, I learned that the physical embodiment of the idea that you are investigating is really important. I think this is a part of movement research. If I do something myself I can find the answer to something, I can go further. Instead of looking for a result or answer I want to think about it where the process of the work is to reach the inconclusive conclusion. There is a juxtaposition at play here of the performer-the human image and the animal image. They are one and the same, but then somewhere in the process of evolutionary history we’ve departed from our nature- or, we’ve taken a different road- I don’t want to impose a value judgement on that but there is a difference in the way we feed. 

Was there some symbolic meaning behind choosing flamingos?
Yes, I think so. I do a lot of visual research and watch a lot of videos, trying to pay attention to what interests me, trying to figure why I find something so interesting. So the video constructs itself in the process of research. I think the part that is most incredible about the feeding of flamingos is that they obtain their color from the food that they eat, and that was an element that I found very interesting. There is something in the diet that they eat that gives them their color. When a baby flamingo is born their feathers are white. There are very few kinds of animals in which both the father and the mother produce milk and feed the child. So they eat food and they produce this milk in their throat, which is a liquid that is a combination of the essence of shrimp and seaweed and their own blood. This all mixes then they feed it to their baby. There is something about those two interactions, the feeding and the acquiring color from the food you are eating that fascinates me.

What observations have you made about the way that people feed in our society? 
I think in general the act of eating is lacking intimacy in the way we engage with our food today— not because we are not being fed. We are very far from the act of making food and growing food and we are very much just being fed. The intimacy from feeding is not there, or very much less so. There is so much more to the image of food that carries a healing power, we read a lot about food, we watch a lot of shows about food, we take photographs about food but in some way that diminishes your actual engagement with how the food tastes, who you are with, or if you are having the food by yourself, what is your relationship with the piece of meat you are eating. What is the relationship with the piece of meat you are eating. It’s not so much about animal activism as say having respect for food and seeing it as your equal. Food is your future self.

Is this US specific? 
The US especially but this is definitely happening globally. There is a general trend informing the way we do it today. I was writing a paper on screens which are becoming the environment itself where a simultaneous discussion of them becoming a comfort space and a certain disconnection is being negotiated. Have you heard of mukbang from South Korea? It’s a live eating show essentially. I don’t know if it’s webcam or what but you watch on a computer. People make or more often order a lot of food and eat it. Very normal people do this at home. So instead of a chef talking about a fancy dish in an expensive restaurant, people just watch people eating a lot of normal food. There is a chatroom aspect so you can actually engage with this person (called BJ’s-Broadcasting Jockey’s) within an hour. There are huge fan populations and one girl ended up getting 9000 a month from fans. It’s unhealthy actually and they end up eating a lot of fast food, and there is a fetish aspect to it. Or very “health” obsessed people get satisfied watching people eat instead of eating themselves. This answers to the needs of modern people in that we don’t really eat together anymore and we have a very unhealthy relationship with eating. The Documentary about mukbang is on famous BJ who is meeting her fans and sat with them at an actual restaurant and when they got there all of her fans were eating with her but also with their phones out playing the live stream. So there is this relationship that we have with other people- with other eating bodies and simultaneously our relationships with our own plate. 

What is the intersection of food and feminism?
I think the most obvious connection is media and the expectation of women particularly in terms of body image. Then there is this role of women as nurturing and feeding and being more associated with domestic space. In terms of my own work it is something that is related to the image of being woman and how identities are not self-prescribed because of the way societies are constructed. You don’t have a say in how images are created because they are already subscribed to you. I will never be able to depart myself from being a woman or being an Asian woman or being my age and looking the way I look. My body image is always going to inform my work. I’m going to be seen this way even if I’m not talking about it directly. So we either respond to these images or create new images that defy the mainstream. For example, most images we consume of women or about women and food is actually very fetishized. You can Youtube “girls and burgers” and there are so many videos that fetishize women eating food. There is an underlying way women and girls are being tied to food that emphasizes the over-sexualization of women and the role of women in domestic or public life. I think it’s all very relevant, and in creating video work the audience cannot escape the way you normally perceive these images. Kayla Thompkins is a contemporary feminist theorist, and she wrote a book called “Racial Indigestion” and it’s specifically about African American females and food. She suggests the mouth is acting as a site of social contention and a political organ. We need to think about feminism as intersectional and something that has many different narratives. 

Can you talk a bit about the starfish sequence?
The idea came from being fascinated by starfish and they way it approaches food. There was something funny about that dried shrimp because it’s really obvious the starfish is in a fish tank and there was something about it being really out of place that was interesting to me. There was something important in me approaching shrimp chips really slowly. There is something that is almost like hunting, but also not completely, I am seeing something with a kind of curiosity that is in the way we eat. There is a kind of curiosity like, how did they put shrimp flavoring in my chips? Which is ironically similar to the foraging sentiment where we might be in a forest and see a berry and wonder “oh what is that I’ve never seen something like that”. That again with the starfish being fed with a dried shrimp and yet still approaching it and eating it the starfish way I guess. So we are both out of place in a lot of ways. And really slowing down, I don’t think we examine things that we eat anymore.

There is an interesting contrast between the very peaceful and serene plant scene where life is kind of unfurling as it needs to and you working hard to release and open. You are still gentle and patient but there is a suggestion of struggle and effort that isn’t seen in the same way in the natural scene.

The plants playing in the background are actually meat-eating plants so there is a continuation of a kind of feeding and that is sort of embodied in the very layered experience of eating that you are putting something in your body and you are having affection towards it and you are trying to put it in your own body but are cracking it and breaking it at the same time and not being alive. Again I think of food as the same substance as we are. All of these ideas running parallel with each other. There doesn’t have to be a sentimental value or a judgment call with eating live things. We perform this every day but we lose the significance over time and we don’t react to it anymore. So for me it is reacting to this a little bit. So its different but also what we do everyday and having this divergence that gives rise to an awareness to the process. There is something very universal about both topics of food and feminism that speaks to how we engage with ourselves and the world.