Cooking with The Erotic: An Interview with Ilana Harris-Babou

CP- Cheeyeon Park is a junior at Columbia University, majoring in Visual Arts and Anthropology. She is bad at cooking, which led to this interview.


IHB- Ilana Harris-Babou uses music videos, cooking shows, and home improvement television as material in an abject exploration of the American Dream. She works primarily in ceramic sculpture and video installation. She received an MFA in Visual Art from Columbia University in 2016, and a BA in Art from Yale University in 2013. She has shown her work throughout the US & Europe. Venues include the Jewish Museum & SculptureCenter in New York, and Le Doc in Paris, France. She was recently a Fountainhead Fellow in sculpture at Virginia Commonwealth University, and is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Art at Williams College. Her solo-exhibition One Bad Recipe will open this fall at the Museum of Arts & Design in New York City.”


CP: The theme of our journal this year is on consumption, and I find various interpretations of consumption in your Cooking with the Erotic, a video of a mock-up cooking show featuring yourself and your mom, where you use real food, paint, and other nonedible materials. Could you tell us what inspired you to create this satiric cooking show?


IHB: I think about what it means to be consumed visually. As an artist, I am constantly making things for visual consumption. I started wondering why certain spaces for making were privileged over others; why some creative labor was revered, and some labor made mundane. What’s the difference between an artist’s studio and a kitchen? That’s how I began to use cooking shows as the template for my video work. They emphasize the process of making over the end result. I wanted to use the seductive light of the cooking show to interrogate what it really means to consume and to be consumed. I like the work of the art historian Krista Thompson. She talks about the way light is used in black vernacular culture. She posits that the moment of being seen generates its own value, independent of who, or what is being seen. The flash of the camera illuminates turds and piles of caviar with the same glamor.

CP: You not only teach how to make food using loud power tools, but also teach how to paint your nails hovering above a boiling pan of water and smoke tobacco in a pipe. What is the relationship between these activities? Perhaps they have to do with blurring the expectations of what feminine activities entail as seen in cooking shows typically run by a female hostess?

IHB: That’s a part of it, but in a broader sense I am also interested in seeing what happens when we conflate different forms of making, and varied forms of labor. I’m interested in what role play can have in this context. The tool can be a tobacco pipe or spoon, because I say so. I can be a celebrity chef or a home improvement expert, because I say so. And yes– as someone who identifies as a woman, a black woman, I dictate what activities I engage in.

I like disrupting the way commercial cooking shows often seek to build a cohesive world inhabited by the host; one of leisure, health, gluttony, etc. What happens when the chef becomes incoherent, and the inconsistencies of her identity are laid bare? My mom and I didn’t simply leave room for error, but instead our “errors” became the paradigm around which the whole cooking show was formed. Each seeming “mistake” we made was repeated several times, finely tuned and described in detail to the camera.

CP: What is the role of your mother in Cooking with the Erotic?

IHB: I like working with my mom because she is me, and also not me. Or rather, I am simultaneously her and someone else. I think knowledge is embodied, and passed intergenerationally in ways we might not always expect. I also like to assert the idea that being playful is not only the domain of the young. My mom is in her 70s, yet she is someone who is always changing. She wears a different hairstyle and developes a different set of tastes from week to week.

The first scene I shot with with her was based on this passage from Lorde’s speech:


“ During World War II, we bought sealed plastic packets of white, uncolored margarine, with a tiny, intense pellet of yellow coloring perched like a topaz just inside the clear skin of the bag. We would leave the margarine out for a while to soften, and then we would pinch the little pellet to break it inside the bag, releasing the rich yellowness into the soft pale mass of margarine. Then taking it carefully between our fingers, we would knead it gently back and forth, over and over, until the color had spread throughout the whole pound bag of margarine, thoroughly coloring it. I find the erotic such a kernel within myself. When released from its intense and constrained pellet, it flows through and colors my life with a kind of energy that heightens and sensitizes and strengthens all my experience.”


When my mom read the Lorde text she had a wealth of personal memories of kneading margarine when she was young, and of enjoying it.  As a girl my mom lived in a mansion with my grandma, who worked there as a maid. Kneading margarine was my mom’s daily chore. She loved it.  For her, it was a chance to play– to make a mess. I think of eroticism as play, and vise versa. To have to do housework in someone else’s home could be seen solely as lack: the absence of free time or space to be a child. For my mom the act of kneading was about her own satisfaction. It was independent of what the people she worked for wanted from her.

These sorts of anecdotes would spring up often in response to the materials in my studio, or the recipes we were reading. We had improvisational conversations in front of the camera that we would then reenact again and again before the lens. We liked seeing how the directions we gave off the cuff became simultaneously more familiar and more strained when repeated again and again.

CP: You begin Cooking with the Erotic together with your mother, by quoting Audre Lorde’s Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power: “There are many kinds of power, used and unused, acknowledged and otherwise. The erotic is a resource that lies within each one of us. It comes from a very deep, female, and spiritual play, rooted in the power that comes from unexpressed and unrecognized feeling.” Then you add a phrase that you could hear from a television cooking show, “We’ll be building, we’ll be cooking, and we’ll be having a great time.” How does this cooking show convey your idea of the erotic?  


IHB: I was struck by the way Lorde identified the erotic as a way of seeing the world; a way of seizing ownership over quotidian or potentially oppressive tasks.  I ended up taking Lorde’s (erotic) way of looking as a point of departure for an imaginary cooking show. I wondered, how might a recipe be similar to, or different from, a performance score? I began looking for other sorts of texts that might become the basis for recipes. This process began by attempting to reenact a scenarios found in texts like The Futurist Cookbook or Vibration Cooking: Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl. Every time I began shooting, however, my hands and words quickly veered away from the texts that had incited them. The limitations or sensuous surprises of the materials in my studio would take over, and each shot would become as much an exploration of

color, form, decay, or play as it was a response to words.

CP: I realized that the messy, overflowing food and paint has a relationship to feminine liberation from certain constraints when you mention at the end of the video that you find the erotic in “the release from constrained packaging [of kernels that] flows through and colors my life, with a kind of energy that heightens and sensitizes and strengthens all my experience.” What is the relationship between food and body as a proxy for your ideas of the erotic?

IHB: Lorde described how we might begin to engage with our own nourishment through eroticism. The erotic can exist apart from the pornographic; beyond  pathologized set of relations between individuals.

I have long been interested in the ways the objects we make become proxies for our bodie. In this instance, the bag of margarine becomes the self . When it is massaged and cultivated color and satisfaction are allowed to spread through every aspect of experience. It’s interesting though. In this image the margarine still retains its bag. It remains whole and retains its own boundaries. Yet it allows itself to be touched by the world, to remain supple.

CP: I noticed how your recent cooking show videos have traces back to your earlier videos, such as your music videos and your recordings of showing the process of playing with art materials. In Some Music Videos, you show alternative ways of presenting stereotypes of the erotic and beauty as seen in hip hop music videos by inserting yourself in those hip hop videos, juxtaposing yourself in pajamas or other shabbier clothing, covering yourself up with no flesh showing. And in Studio Sounds where you show experiments in your studio playing with paint splashing and overflowing everywhere, I see how you slightly alter the purpose of paint as not a medium for making a painting but into a different symbol that stands on its own. Such as making paint appear as chocolate syrup. Or neon-colored fluids that can be seen as erotic. You have a knack for transforming the expected notions of things, into something unexpected, in a humorous way.


IHB: Thanks! Studio Sounds was my undergraduate thesis work in the painting department at Yale University. I began by thinking about how vivid language can transform materials in the context of hip-hop. I started hunting for painterly metaphors in rap lyrics. Some examples were “ice cream paint job,” “lemonade,” “everything is purple,” and “all gold everything.” I then proceeded to imagine each vignette as inhabiting the color-world proposed by the song I was appropriating. I imagined that I was a video vixen who decided to become an abstract expressionist painter and to paint the set based upon her own material desires.


 CP: Could you tell us about your instagram account of pictures of the “food” that you’ve cooked? I think about how I am fascinated when I watch videos from the Facebook page “Tasty,” because I’m captivated by how quickly these ingredients come together to make this gorgeously presented food, but I think part of that fascination comes from knowing that I will never be able to make it on my own. I think about how the inability to consume what you see on social media is part of the attraction to these nicely presented foods.


IHB: I completely agree. What’s appealing about those sorts of videos is that you don’t have to worry about actually moving your eyes away from the screen or your body to the kitchen . Tasty videos have all the fun without any of the messiness. Without running out of the proper ingredients. Without having to go to the grocery store. You get to consume them visually and it’s so neatly delicious. Way more chill than most of the other stuff on your newsfeed. A lot of those recipes don’t make any sense at all. Once you finished all those stupid steps you wouldn’t have any appetite for your Watermelon Mirror Glaze Cupcake.

I adopt the names of famous cooking show hosts temporarily on Instagram and add “official” to the end. Melissa_Clark_Official– for example. People think I’m her and follow me because at first glance my pictures look legit. But they’re a mixture of leftovers from stuff I ate that day, and studio materials I have no use for, all lit really well.

CP: Could you tell us how humor plays in your strategy of defying stereotypes? I also noticed in Cooking with the Erotic how clumsy all the activities were. The use of power tools used no accuracy, you say that you don’t measure anything, you paint your nails beyond the nails and all over the hands, and everything is just dripping everywhere.

IHB: My work is definitely slapstick. I think about the Three Stooges slipping on banana peels. Humor a great way to digest something painful. Having your subjectivity denied is definitely painful. If you can’t laugh at this dissonance, what can you do?