Milk Fight was Gaby Montejo’s artistic expression of a political debate. Apart from being the most fun that I’d had in a long time, the event brought attention to the dairy industry’s role in New Zealand. It took place on 25th October 2014 as part of FESTA, and went on to be nominated for a national art award. In this (part two) of the interview I talk to Gaby about the dairy industry, the experience on the day, the critical response, and the sublime.
Taste Transfixed: So Milk Fight made it to the National Contemporary Art Awards.
Gaby Montejo: Oh yeah, it did, I forgot about that one. The art awards happen once a year at the Waikato museum. I submitted a low res version of Audrey’s Go-Pro footage at the last minute and when it got selected I scrambled around for the high-res version and a new soundtrack that wasn’t borrowed from Slayer, which was what was playing at the event. The artwork was the event, but for the national art award it was Audrey’s footage.
TT: Did we make it into the Guinness Book of World Records?
GM: No, because I got a message saying that ‘Largest Food Fight’ is not a category that they do anymore. I wonder who held the last one. It would’ve been a big deal to have a New Zealand representative in there with photos and everything. You can’t get a world record with a food fight anymore, but you can still put a bunch of pencils in your mouth to get in that book.
TT: There was one article in the Christchurch Press about Milk Fight, can you tell me about that?
GM: Well I didn’t realise that Will was going to be writing a story. He knew it was going to be happening, this journalist from the Press, and he participated in the event with his kids. And then it was about a month later, I guess it was still just sitting with him. And so he wrote his take on it, his interpretation, which is great, it was an opinion piece. He’s not an arts writer, he’s not particularly clued in to agricultural stories either, so it was an opinion piece, and I think that for what it was, it was great.
TT: I felt like he was unwilling to form an opinion about what it was about.
GM: Is that important for you? To come to a conclusion?
TT: That’s a good question.
GM: In school these days, when we’re teaching philosophy and ethics, there’s no right or wrong. We just debate and discuss, and good quality argument is better than coming to a conclusion. A lot of art writing can tend to be like that, but then there’s this drive to want somebody to win, to stand out, especially art historians want something to come to a conclusion, to say as a matter of fact, to my knowledge, this is what I’d like to make a case for. And then they come outright and say it.
TT: I don’t think that forming an opinion about something has to have a winner or a loser, for me it was more about being reluctant to admit that it meant something.
GM: Did you take that away from the piece?
TT: I did, yeah. And it frustrated me. I’m curious to hear your take on it.
GM: So what lost out there for me would be the counter argument. It wasn’t heard. So if there would’ve been weeks and weeks of writing and debate about it, in Sunday morning Press online. Either about the art side of it, or about the dairy industry.
TT: Is anyone having that conversation?
GM: Well, the arguments that I hear now about it are just about the economics of dairy. Still defending. At the core of having intense farming, putting all our eggs in one basket. Why are we even drinking this milk. Why are we even contributing to these methane emissions, why are we even selling this to China for this short term profit. I think these debates need to be had, and are not. Maybe in the green peace side of things. But when you hear about it in the news here, it’s always in defence of farmers. It’s a sensitive subject. Defending it as the right for New Zealand to have this primary industry and make money off it.
‘When you hear about (dairy) in the news it’s always in defence of farmers, defending it as the right for New Zealand to have this primary industry and make money off it. Why are we drinking this milk? Why are we contributing to these methane emissions? Why are we selling to China for this short term profit? I think these debates need to be had.’
TT: So what are the changes in the environment between the sheep ranches and the dairy farms?
GM: Well you’re now diverting water from a river, its trickling through the ground and the fertilizers are getting back into the water system. In Ashburton they’re getting a lot of phosphates and nitrates in the water, probably because of this runoff that’s happening. So yeah, you can intensely farm the Canterbury plains, but it’s not intended to be that way. The Scots brought over the sheep, because that’s what they knew, and they’re just eating grassing and poo-ing on the grass. And you’ve seen sheep poo vs cow poo, I mean its pellets vs a big mess, and then all that effluent needs to be swept off, sometimes onto the land and the rivers.
We’re not supposed to be, I mean you get a bit ethical here, but the white stuff that comes out of cows is meant for the calf. We’re eliminating the calf, using it for the veal industry, taking this cow and milking it twice a day intensely for the consumption of people. I mean the cow is not naturally intended to produce that much milk.
TT: What responses would you have liked?
GM: Your opinions! Like so many other projects that I work on, you get some comment like ‘I remember that thing you did, it was cool.’ But it’s always just the thumbs up, thumbs down.
TT: Well, I was thinking about it, and the thing is that is was so fun that it was hard for me to even form an opinion about it because it was the most fun that I’d had in so long.
GM: It was nice, you know, immediately after the event, do you know Tom Phillpotts? He’s a Buddhist here in town. And he told me that it was sublime. And I don’t hear sublime very often. Or maybe it was Chris Reddington, who is into music, when that first track, the Beethoven came on, he called it sublime. And sublime is something that in art school, it would always be the target. You would try to do something so profound and so scary, that it’s like an act of God, a UFO landing in front of you—
TT: Milk Fight was totally sublime.
GM: — that you just freaked out, that it was phenomenal. That you just can’t grasp it, you just can’t understand it. But yeah, with Milk Fight, I don’t want to take it that far, I don’t think that—
TT: Well, for me it was. And you can’t take that away from me. It was sublime.
GM: Well, if you think so then we’ll have to do it again. I wish it could’ve been bigger, I wish there could have been more debate around it. There’s a lot of things that could have changed. But for what it was, it’s a piece that I won’t forget. And the smile on my face, I was dressed as a cow in crutches, behind the fence, and I just had the biggest smile on my face as well, because I just couldn’t believe that it had been orchestrated in such a way that was so simple — music, ammunition, and people. And that’s what was out of my control. The best projects that I have enjoyed are the ones that have been out of my control.
Robert Smith is an artist that did spiral jetty. He wrote about entropy. He wrote about how you set things up and then they’re out of your control. And then when you lose control of something — artists tend to want to fine tune things, to be really precise about how things turn out because they are the master of the artwork — and I’m of the feeling that the artwork should tell you what it is, that the artwork should turn into something bigger than you.
‘The best projects that I have enjoyed are the ones that have been out of my control.’
And so Milk Fight, for that moment, fifty people exploding into violence, fun violence, all the research and the gear, and the help. It was almost a sexual explosion. I haven’t even talked about that. About Audrey running through that video, and there’s all this white stuff squirting onto her, and she’s squirting white stuff away. Its a whole other dimension that I never would have guessed. It was a violent music video that was funny but sexual, and it has to do with reproduction because of breast-feeding and babies, women switching to cow’s milk.
‘Artists tend to want to fine tune things, to be really precise about how things turn out, but I’m of the feeling that the artwork should tell you what it is, that the artwork should turn into something bigger than you.‘
Food. It’s so pertinent. It’s something that everyone does at least once, probably three or four times a day. Everybody’s putting it inside them. You can’t survive without it. And it’s amazing how much we just brush it aside.
Food has been at the centre of fifteen years of my research. I really love that it’s material. It can be the base for sculpture, I love the fact that it’s a language that everyone understands, we all partake in it, and it bleeds into politics, ethnicity, everything.
TT: Yeah, food is everything.
GM: Yeah, it so is.