Gaby Montejo’s ‘Milk Fight’ was part performance art, part Fonterra protest, and part simulated war. It was also one of the best experiences of my life. Armed with a bucket as a weapon and ski goggles as protection I spent an afternoon hurling hundreds of litres of milk at my opponents and getting drenched by them in retaliation. The event took place on 25th October 2014 as part of FESTA, and went on to be nominated for a national art award. In the approach to this year’s FESTA and my upcoming return to New Zealand, it seems like a good time to revisit it. In part one of this two part interview I talk to Gaby about the dairy industry, the set-up – conversations with farmers, Ngai Tahu, and FESTA organisers, and the significance of the event.
Taste Transfixed: So what was Milk Fight?
Gaby Montejo: We billed it as an event that was like a food fight, and it was fun, it put smiles on people’s faces. But I was mimicking warfare. My idea behind the warfare aspect was that New Zealand is this isolated country that doesn’t experience turmoil. The problems that are happening worldwide, we only read about in the paper. It’s kind of a tongue and cheek way of saying how about having combat. Milk Fight was a dress rehearsal for modern warfare. Celebrating the fact that we can do it now, so why not? In the future that product might go up in price or might be otherwise hard to get. But now, in New Zealand, we can just bathe ourselves in milk.
New Zealand is this isolated country that doesn’t experience turmoil, the problems that are happening worldwide we only read about in the paper. Milk Fight was a dress rehearsal for modern warfare.
It’s like how the Argentinians eat churrascaria. They have this meat-fest, mostly beef, on skewers, and it just keeps coming out to the table. There’s probably some greens somewhere that no one touches, but its mainly meat. So you think of the consumption and the industry of meat in Argentina, way above the recommended daily allowance, because it’s part of their culture. And imagine if that was wiped away. Because in Cuba it’s illegal to eat beef without a doctor’s prescription. It’s saved for the sick, the elderly, and children. They want to keep the cows for milk production, so beef is illegal.
In New Zealand we can bathe ourselves in milk… but the milk could dry up overnight.
So in New Zealand, it could happen, the milk could dry up overnight. It’s been almost two years since Milk Fight. Fonterra is in the daily news and farmers are getting close to suicide with the financial depression that they’re getting into. China can say they don’t want to purchase milk from New Zealand and switch to Switzerland or Argentina or the USA. It’s a commodity that’s traded worldwide and it fluctuates.
TT: How big a part of New Zealand’s economy is Fonterra?
GM: I can’t tell you in numbers, but I know it’s the biggest exporter.
TT: Was there a time when sheep ranchers were shifting to dairy?
GM: Yes. I learned about this from a really savvy farmer in Canterbury. He has a business degree but he inherited the farm. His father’s generation was the one that cashed in on the switch from sheep to dairy about twenty-five years back. The pay-out for sheep is only once in lambing season, and then again for wool. That’s twice a year that you’re banking on all the factors being favourable, that you don’t get a cold spell that effects the lambs.
The price of wool fluctuates too, but nothing like dairy. There’s a huge demand for dairy in developing world countries. This farmer was telling me that once you pass the threshold of, I think he said it was $2.80/day income, you’re considered middle class by global standards. This growing middle class in India and China, once they have expendable income they shift to a different diet that includes dairy. Fonterra heavily targets those countries. So milk in New Zealand is dehydrated and put into powder form and it sits in barrels and gets exported.
New Zealand farmers wanted to retire and leave their children with cows and a dependable income, which depends on the demand staying the same. What’s happening is that its more like a series of windfall profits. There’s this windfall profit you make in shifting from sheep to cows, then if you fertilise your land you can have more cows and they get fatter and they produce more milk.
The next windfall profit is irrigation. You get a loan from a bank to put in a massive irrigator, and now you have to run the irrigator because you have to pay off the loan. You need the demand worldwide because you’re getting milk from cows that you’ve doubled or tripled on land where you used to have just a couple hundred sheep. Now it can be intense farming.
New Zealand farmers wanted to retire and leave their children with cows and a dependable income, which depends on the demand staying the same. What’s happening is that its more like a series of windfall profits.
TT: Why fertilise and irrigate for cows but not sheep?
GM: Sheep are a more rugged creature and they can go off in the mountains and eat the scrub. They’re not producing milk, so you don’t have to fill them with vitamins. In New Zealand our cows are very close to organic. They’re grass fed cows, they roam around to eat and then they’re coming in twice a day to get milked. Then you get into the whole Fonterra conglomerate enterprise that is the co-op, which Fonterra had the idea of helping the farmer, but that keeps the pressure on the farmer to produce. In some ways it helped, but in other ways it just created more stress. I’ve seen the competition to Fonterra out in Westland. I interviewed a farmer out there, they do their own co-op and in some ways its less intense. The major idea for making money in export is to dehydrate the milk, put it in barrels, and then send it to China. And as we saw a couple years ago, all it takes is for one to be contaminated with botulism to shut down everything and then all the politicians head out to China to shake hands with the Chinese and reassure them that everything is still ok. It’s scary stuff.
TT: Milk Fight was on a LIVS site, a giant rubble lot in the Christchurch CBD. What was it like setting up there?
GM: Well, I was crippled, so I was worried that I wasn’t going to be able to do it. This was about two months after a bad accident that I got into and I wasn’t walking well so it was already a project that needed a lot of people’s help. Jess at Festa was helpful at calling people with trailers. We had Jo Mair as the pedantic organiser who crossed the T’s and dotted the I’s. She brought in a fence to make sure everything was safe and secure. Which made it a cage fight, which was not my original intention. I thought it would have been great to bathe in the streets and splash it around, but then we had to talk about the environmental concerns and how we didn’t want it to get into the stormwater system so soaking through the land was better. There were also the Ngai Tahu consultations.
TT: What was the conversation with Ngai Tahu?
GM: Well it was about making sure I wasn’t pissing anyone off or going against Maori protocol, but that protocol is kind of a grey area. For Maori, the head is sacred and food is always separate from the body and celebrations and acts of war. You don’t play with your food. Iwi representatives that I consulted with said — well it looks like you’re doing political work, and it looks like its a bit controversial, and art is intended to be so. So if this starts the conversation, then it’s not about ticking the box and saying its ok, but its about being part of a process, which is better than having the audacity to just spill it and play with it.
Iwi (Maori) groups that I consulted with said — well it looks like you’re doing political work, and it looks like it’s a bit controversial, and art is intended to be so.
TT: How did you set up for Milk Fight?
GM: We had a trailer that had a big tank with 3000 litres of milk. We also had three bathtubs with plugs in them that had about a thousand litres each. The milk was severely diluted. Normally you would get powdered milk with a 1 to 1 ratio, we diluted to a 5 to 1 ratio. It was still white, but it wasn’t greasy and fatty, it was skimmer than skim. And then we had all kinds of ways to project it, we had super soakers, water guns, scoops. The scoops ended up being a lot better.
We had a trailer that had a big tank with 3000 litres of milk. We also had three bathtubs with plugs in them that had about a thousand litres each… And then we had all kinds of ways to project it, super soakers, water guns, scoops.
TT: Yeah, I had a bucket. It was awesome.
GM: But what was the point? You’re just wetting this person that’s already wet. There was no score.
TT: Well, not all the vessels were equal in how the milk arched over the site towards your enemy. Some of those hits were pretty spectacular.
GM: And the photography really captured that, it was beautiful to see all those little droplets of white. And the look of pain, and the gesture of force towards others. But yeah, we had the Grandstandium from Gap Filler with about a hundred people watching. I had an MC. I had a DJ. There were three songs. There was a classical song, Slayer, and another one I can’t remember. So it was meant to be like a music video. There was action when the music was happening and then when the music stopped the action stopped. So all in all it was about twelve minutes of action and warfare and wetness and then we pretty much liquidated all the milk that was on the ground.