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By the time Bettina Banayan pulled out the meat cleaver, it was clear something weird was about to happen.
By now, the 12-minute video of Banayan chopping onions on the subway has been viewed more than 337,500 times. In the video, shot in early 2012, the diminutive, almost sprightly Banayan is clad in a sleeveless black dress. She has wavy black hair, a cutting board across her lap, a large onion, and the aforementioned cleaver. She chops away as the passengers on either side of her cast wary sideways glances and occasionally snap a photo.
"I wanted to look socially acceptable and trustworthy," Banayan says cheerily, recalling the stunt. Throughout the performance, she adds, "Nobody said anything to me. Even though I was holding a meat cleaver, which was potentially very dangerous.
"Not that I'm dangerous," she adds, after a beat.
By most standards, Banayan, who's 22 years old, isn't a famous artist. She has a fine arts degree from Parsons School of Design, is working on a degree from the French Culinary Institute, belongs to several art collectives, and works steadily, mainly painting iconized images of classic American foods like pizza and hot dogs. She's still deciding what she wants to do with her life after culinary school. "I'd like to travel," she says.
Yet Banayan has achieved an intense mixture of viral fame and infamy for two videos, the onion stunt and another she made in February of this year, in which she iced a cake on the train and served it to her fellow riders, to their glee. That one has already been viewed more than 370,000 times, with thousands of comments either complimenting or deriding her, a development Banayan has found a little hard to process.
"The internet's very weird," she says. "You put something out there, and then you don't have any control over it."
That became clear as soon as the onion segment went viral. Eventually it appeared on Anderson Cooper Live, with Cooper and his co-host for the day, 1980s pop legend Cyndi Lauper, earnestly debating whether it was "real." It's shown up more than once on BuzzFeed lists of "wacky" things you might see in New York, on every viral video blog there is, and on more than one forum for transit enthusiasts. ("Am I the only one who finds this arousing?" a commenter named Dan the Transit Man muses on a forum for New York City subway operators and bus drivers.)
There have always been subway performers, of course: ranchera musicians, the "It's show time!" breakdancers narrowly missing your head as they spin from a pole, doo-wop groups, off-key soul singers. But those people are, by and large, working for tips, trying to eke out a living in the space between cars. In the past few years, another sort of subway artist has popped up: the art school crowd, we might call them, who use the subway as their canvas and their fellow riders as a captive audience.
Banayan is probably the most visible example of a performance artist using public transportation as medium. But February was an especially crowded month for subway art: Banayan's cake stunt was quickly followed by London Kaye, a "crochet artist" who wrapped an entire L train car in yarn to celebrate Valentine's Day; and Maria Luisa Portuondo Vila, who posted a flyer styled to look like an official Metropolitan Transit Authority notice — but hers was titled #MissingLove and added "Pay attention NY! This is about my heart" in three languages. It was an attempt to find a man in a top hat Vila had seen on a Brooklyn-bound A. (Vila insisted the whole thing wasn't an attention-grabbing stunt but a real effort to find love, telling Metro, "Maybe I love him, but he might not remember me and maybe he didn't even see me. It's a little joke; it's a little dramatic.")
As Banayan has found, not everyone wants to ride to work inside somebody else's art. The onion performance piece didn't provoke much reaction from her fellow riders at the time (they may have been afraid to say anything to the lady holding the big knife). But the internet had some thoughts about it: "Pest to society," one YouTube commenter declared, as the view count grew. And another: "Performance artist = Untalented dipshit who has nothing to offer the world other than annoyance."
The MTA has made clear that it, too, is deeply sick of art-related subway stunts. In October, after an anonymous artist put up Lord of the Rings–themed fake MTA announcements, agency spokesman Adam Lisberg testily told Gothamist, "[W]e serve more than 5 million customers a day on the subways, and plenty of them have very limited English skills. We work hard to make a complex system simpler to navigate, and these posters make it harder. If one person misses a train because they're trying to decipher a joke, it's one too many. Enough already."
Asked about Banayan, another MTA spokesman, Kevin Ortiz, says, "We frown upon any activity that creates additional work for our employees and ends up costing our customers." He also points to Section 1050.7 of the MTA's code of conduct, which prohibits "disorderly conduct" of all kinds, including a rider behaving "in any manner which may cause or tend to cause annoyance, alarm or inconvenience to a reasonable person or create a breach of the peace."