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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.”
In retrospect, Banayan isn’t altogether pleased with the onion piece. “It was really about shock value,” she says, too much about drawing attention to herself and not enough about evoking a thoughtful response in her audience. “It was so much about me, just, ‘Look at me, everyone; I’m absurd.’ It didn’t change anything.” (The same was true, she says of another, less widely seen piece, in which she read a pornographic magazine on the train while dressed in business attire.)
Banayan likewise regrets taking part in a subway photo shoot in January, when she served as the model for an acquaintance from art school. In the piece, she was mute, smeared in red paint, with purple daisies in her mouth and petals strewn across the floor.
“The train was pretty filled up since it was rush hour,” the artist, Andrew Tess, wrote in an email to Gothamist. “We didn’t clean anything up [afterward]. We actually ran out of the train lol.”
The reception was not kind. “I’d like to know where this person lives so I can throw trash on their doorstep in the name of performance art,” a commenter responded. “Oh, sorry, was that not what you were trying to inspire me to do?”
It wasn’t the feedback that upset Banayan. “I have no problem with criticism; I believe that bad press is also good press,” she says. “So much of being an artist is just that. Criticism is only beneficial and necessary to growing as an artist.” Rather, it was her feeling that Tess had taken advantage of her because of her notoriety, “for my small amount of internet ‘fame,'” as she puts it. “It’s really actually sad what people of this generation would do to boost their egos.”
The piece also wasn’t very well thought-out, she adds. And when the photos hit the blogosphere, she says, “I was suddenly accountable and responsible for all of the ignorant and uninformed decisions. I was being misportrayed and it was frustrating to not be able to speak up for myself. From this I learned that sometimes doing a favor is not in your best advantage.”
She doesn’t plan to model for anyone else any time soon.
Serving cake to her fellow straphangers, though, showed Banayan what might be possible with her art.
“Is this a project you had to do for school?” a teenage boy asks her, near the video’s end, as he lines up for his slice of cake.
“No,” she tells him, then pauses while the conductor shouts at some people to stand clear of the closing doors.
“New Yorkers just aren’t very personable with each other,” she adds when the din settles. “We’re constantly in people’s private space, especially on the train. I think it’s important to have some kind of community with each other.”
“That’s so sweet,” the teenage boy responds sincerely, taking his slice. Another woman distributes a handful of plates. For a moment, just before the doors open again, contentment reigns.
“People were changed by that,” Banayan says, “even it was just for a moment. They were excited. A bunch of people were laughing together on the subway, and then we were all having a moment, considering each other’s existence. When does that ever happen in New York?”