A Conversation with Maya Ben David
by Blair Swann
Exploring the sexually specific in fan-made subcultures of cartoons, anime, video games, and even airplanes, Maya Ben David’s video and performance work calls upon simulations of the real in interpretations of fiction and depictions of anthropomorphism in pop culture. On March 18 and 19 Long Winter will show her Air Conditioner Monologues, commissioned as a part of Trinity Square Video’s first annual Summer Student Residency. We talked about cosplay, Poképorn, questions of sentience, and the art in embodying and dissecting nostalgia.
Long Winter: Maybe we can start by telling me about the video you’re showing at Long Winter, Air Conditioner Monologues.
Maya Ben David: It’s a performance/video work. It uses half appropriated media from the film The Brave Little Toaster and half footage of myself performing a scene from that movie. The work is centered around the secondary character, the Air Conditioner.
Why are you focusing on the Air Conditioner instead of the Brave Little Toaster?
The air conditioner has only one major scene and unlike all the other characters he is the only anthropomorphized object that is immobile. The scene I’m referencing is when he gets into an argument with the other appliances over whether their master will return. He’s teased because he’s the only one of them that can’t be accessed by the master because the master is a child and can’t reach his dials and he’s the only one stuck in the wall. I like how this makes you think about how objects in our lives – being stuck in a wall, at our service.
I have a lot of sympathy for this character especially because after he goes on a whole rant and monologue about how he’s hurt, he gets so heated and upset he blows himself up. A few frames after we see the Air Condish dead and the vacuum character says, “Well, he was a jerk anyway!” – completely disregarding and making light to the huge event that just occurred and switching to a new, lighter scene.
So in choosing to "re-perform" this scene, did you connect that immobility? Would you describe that as a re-performance, by the way – or something else?
I guess I give him more of an extended story where he is kind of the hero. Let me think if I’d say that… Yeah, you could say re-perform.
Because performance is a such a big part of your art, right? – This kind of cosplay. Or is there some difference for you between performance, re-performace, re-inacting, cosplay, and what you’re doing?
Well I don’t think I could fully re-perform his monologue. Nor do I think that would be very interesting – or possible since he is a cartoon. By "cosplaying" as Air Condish I’m adding new signifiers and historical links to his already loaded monologue. Suddenly I like being stuck in this stupid wall or I’m not an invalid becomes gendered.
Cosplaying also allows me to give him a female voice.
So maybe reinterpretation is a better word for it?
Mixing your own voice into his?
What do you mean?
I mean, using his words to say or express something you're feeling? Or does it go further than that? Because I can read a lot of emotion out of your videos, especially because of that perfomative part of it.
Oh I see what you’re saying! My voice isn’t representative of my personal feelings. But it is sort of too. [Laughs]
Let me figure out how to phrase this.
I would say everything I perform has elements of myself in it. I made up those voice tones and movements and personas and they are myself but they are also a character so they are all me. But I do not necessarily identify with one in particular or feel like I’m the air conditioner stuck in the wall.
Okay I get that. So you take on a character. "Maya Ben David as the Air Conditioner” – not "Maya Ben David, the Air Conditioner." [Laughs]
Even though “Maya Ben David, the Air Conditioner” is weirdly part of my identity because I brand myself with her.
So basically it's a grey area of identification?
That’s why I guess it’s hard to make a distinction.
So if it isn't a really personal identification with a character that makes you want to perform as them... is there something else that draws you to characters? To the different source material you work with, that eventually becomes a video?
I think I’m drawn to characters that exhibit the disturbing/sad side of anthropomorphism. The trope of machines being sentient but being slaves. This is why I like Pokémon. Same reason I like Slime Girls. They are all objectified.
Yeah there's a kind of horrific side of Pokémon if you really think about it… that they’re captured animals forced to fight each other.
Yeah, it’s really violent. I’m really interested in that. I’m making a vid on sexy/sad Pokémon right now.
What will that look like?
Combo between found footage of Pokémorph porn, Pokémon tutorials, and myself cosplayed as a sexy Pokémorph Charizard.
Oh, I didn't even think about that – there's a huge culture of Poképorn isn't there?
Yeah. Super interesting.
Do you find your art interacting with those subcultures?
Yeah, a lot lately.
In what ways are you doing that?
I’m looking more into fan-made subcultures. So I look at things like anthro planes [subject of a recent video work called Air Canada Gal]. I’m researching that Pokémorph culture. Also, general furry culture. Slime Girls.
So the difference … is instead of me looking at just the source material of Pokémon, or The Brave Little Toaster, I’m looking at what individuals do with this material on a personal level.
Right. Does that connect with a sort of simulated reality in a way? Or maybe more of a “simulated fiction” instead – since we're talking about things that “aren't real” in the first place? … Or is that a loaded question? [Laughs]
I think it’s a form of reality – somebody “real” put their thoughts into and created it. I think fan illustrations are particularly “real” because they don’t have the same intentions as animators… or motives. They are just like, I really think this anthro- female dragon is hot! – I respect that.
[Laughs] Okay so do you consider yourself a part of that fan-made subculture? Since you're making work out of that material too...
I don’t think I can be fully part of it because I’m bringing my work into the art sphere. So it’s partially critical. I can’t escape that.
How about the connection to nostalgia?
Yeah, very nostalgic. Nostalgic but new.
I think a lot of those subcultures continue to thrive because people are so connected to those fictional worlds in a way that connects to but maybe bends nostalgia. What do you think?
Yeah, yeah! Okay, so –
I mean you talk about nostalgia a lot, right? Where does that fit? "Nostalgic media.” I'm looking at your artist statement here. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Yeah, I do speak about it a lot! I think that people, and myself, feel an emotional and nostalgic connection to fictional worlds and characters, like you said. They don’t just leave it at nostalgia, though. They take their affection and bring it into their personal and contemporary lives. So a person who grows up with Pikachu, and feels so much affection towards Pikachu, and the Pokémon series … enjoys drawing Pikachu as a grown “being.”
So I grew up with Air Condish – I take my memories and connection to Air Condish and transform him into what I’m interested in.
Yeah, I think some people think of the nostalgic as stuck in the past or something. But I like what you said – like nostalgia as a kind of feeling of returning to the past, bridging some time gap, bringing into now.
Yeah that’s a lovely way of putting it … I completely agree.
Do you think it's a feeling that can never be satisfied though?
Interesting question. I think the feeling of nostalgia is always a little bit melancholy. I think it must go hand in hand with loss.
Does that feeling find its way into your work?
I think so. But instead of feeling the loss of the period of time where I was consuming that media – childhood – the loss is of experiencing and connecting with the characters for the first time.
I miss my first impression.
But I can obtain a new first impression by reinventing the characters, and seeing how other fans do it, too. Like with Air Condish – the whole world saw the movie, but I found a special moment with him.
Visit Maya Ben David's online portfolio for more of her work: mayabendavid.net