Written by Alyssa Lagana
Maya Ben David is an emerging Toronto-based video and performance artist whose work draws attention to moments in animation, film and popular culture. David’s work involves wry performances, green screens, appropriated media and savvy video editing skills to explore simulations of the ‘real’ and sentience. I had the opportunity to conduct the following interview with David over email and through our conversation we delved into a few of her recent videos.
1. To start off, could you talk about what it means to be both a video and performance artist? Specifically, what is the significance of using existing media along side yourself in your videos?
MBD: Using existing media allows me access to fictional words while performing allows me to interact with them. Of course, I never actually get to fully interact with the worlds I force myself into, which makes my interventions both humorous and melancholic. In addition to this, by costuming and exploring different personas, I am able to become a fabricated entity myself and create a narrative for my audience much like the words I intervene in.
2. How do you select which moments in animation, film and popular culture to use in your videos?
MBD: I definitely favour moments in animation where I feel a character’s story is not yet finished or could use a new narrative. The characters I look for are almost always somewhat subservient and are either at the bud of some joke or their only function is for the male gaze.
3. Part of your work explores simulations of the ‘real’ and sentience. What in particular fascinates you about simulations of the ‘real’ in the content you use? Do you see the performative aspect of your work as another kind of simulation of the ‘real’?
MBD: Cartoons and animation play a crucial role in my practice. I consider cartoons to be essentially caricatures of reality. Caricatures, are usually stylized portraits, their function is to crudely represent a person’s character through exaggerated features. Cartoons do just this, emphasize or minimize certain traits in a character to portray an already known signifier that can be found in reality. For example: A face with large eyes and small facial features indicates to the audience that this character is to be considered “cute” and infantile/innocent. Illustrators attempt to simulate a very ‘real’ association we have with certain human signifiers. However, the very process of minimizing and stylizing is a synthetic act in itself. We end up with a two dimensional entity that only mirrors how we see the world but not actually reality itself.
The performative aspect of my work is where I attempt to recreate the simplification process that cartoons undergo. I am simplifying and exaggerating my signifiers in order to look more like a cartoon to comment on this process. However despite my effort, I end up being more like a caricature because my costumes are not pristine and have elements of the grotesque to them.
4. Can you speak a bit to the role of appropriation, parody and humour in your artwork, specifically, within the context of cosplay in your videos? Do you consider your videos and performances as an extension of fan-art culture?
MBD: I would describe my videos as a mix between parody and fan art. What makes fan art different from parody, in my opinion, is the intention behind it. A parody is usually done with the intent of making fun of a specific fictional world. Fan art is made out of appreciation for the source material and to share artistic expression.
I never use parody to mock a illustration or source material in fact, I try to be very gentle with the characters I deal with. Instead, I parody the structures placed on the character. For example: In my video Air Canada Gal (which many see as a parody) the humour is not pointed at the anthropomorphized plane figure per se, but of the cheap pinup postures and stock footage that is used in advertising traveling.
This is specifically why I cosplay with the characters I am commenting on, I want to have a conversation with the phenomenon or fan community I am speaking about and engage with it. I have a huge issue with artists who use anime or female animated figures for “exotic” shock value. This is why I try to become as much of a “fan” as I can of a online sub culture or community before even starting a video. Most of the time I already am a huge fan of a character that I explore. In a lot of ways, my videos are me simply showing my appreciation and affection for the source material.
5. In part of your video Air Conditioner Monologues you reenact the monologue of the air conditioner from The Brave Littler Toaster, and in Air Canada Gal, you appear as an anthropomorphic airplane. In both videos, your performance assigns a female gender to the anthropomorphic objects you play and you emphasize an element of sexuality evocative of that commonly found in cosplay and fan-art culture. What is the connection between the anthropomorphism of objects, sexuality, and female identity in your work?
MBD: As a person who follows cosplayers and as a cosplayer myself, I have noticed that sexualizing fictional characters and objects is a very common method in costuming and fan art. This method can be both empowering and also reinforce the male gaze. This is something I think about a lot and struggle with when dealing with this material. On one hand, gender-bending can bring personal narratives into a costume as well as subvert gender roles. It can also create a sex positive space for people to express their sexuality and help tear down the taboos on the sexual female form. On the other hand, reducing a character to just “fan service” and using them as a prop for male viewers is extremely problematic. By sexualizing myself as anthropomorphized objects and standing next to similar animated women in support, I want to speak about all these elements that go into how animated women are represented.
6. Our culture seems to be saturated in nostalgia, particularly of 90s popular culture. Nostalgia for the popular culture of the late 80s and 90s seems to be a prominent part of your work. Can you describe the role of nostalgia in your art?
MBD: There are a few reasons as to why I gravitate towards nostalgic media in my practice. Firstly, nostalgic cartoons are of great personal interest to me, I never stopped loving shows likes Pokémon, Naruto, YuGiOh and DragonBallZ. I even feel like those shows have influenced the way I view the world and what I am interested in now. Secondly, it is easier to analyze a phenomenon or source in retrospect.
From a aesthetic and technical point of view, pairing nostalgic and contemporary media makes for good contrast. There is a obvious tension when these two layers interact with each other. The media I deal with is sometimes jarring and difficult to absorb so having a nostalgic element can act as a comforting mechanism to guide the viewer.
7. Why do you think millennials, in particular, are preoccupied with art and culture that evokes a sense of nostalgia?
MBD: I think nostalgia is a natural human emotion and people have always been looking back on their youth like they lived in the “golden days”. Nostalgia is a product of growing up. I am not extremely convinced that it is characteristic of millennial culture.Wariness of modern times and resistance to change has happened many times in history and is constantly occurring. I will say though that there is certainly a strong revival of 90s and 80s media right now. I wonder if is because so much of the media we consume is dominated by aging millennials reflecting on their childhoods. Of course there are also larger structures at work feeding this revival and pumping out nostalgic reboot after nostalgic reboot.