In a world where people are lonelier than ever, Jennifer Katanyoutanant builds a website for the millions of mukbang fans to have online dinners with one another.
Interview with Jennifer Katanyoutanant — Mrz 7, 2019
Inspired by a South Korean online trend called Mukbang – Bangkok-based artist Jennifer Katanyoutanant creates a series of video works and live interactive experiments entitled The Dinner Table. In the next iteration of The Dinner Table, she will build a website for the millions of mukbang fans and break down one way passive communication into a two way, interactive site for people to have online dinners with one another. In a world where people are lonelier than ever, Katanyoutanant thinks of The Dinner Table as mukbang culture jamming. Created for the web residencies by Solitude & ZKM on the topic »Planetary Glitch« curated by Mary Maggic, her project reflects on mukbang, recommendation algorithms, and the fishing industry.
Schlosspost: For the Web Residencies by Solitude & ZKM under the topic »Planetary Glitch,« you are creating a series of video works and live interactive experiments entitled The Dinner Table – inspired by a South Korean online trend called mukbang. Can you explain us what mukbang is and how this format inspires your project? What exactly interests you in this trend?
Jennifer Katanyoutanant: Mukbang (or »broadcast eating«) is a South Korean trend where an on-camera host eats large amounts of food while interacting with their at-home audience. It started with live streaming and has since made its way to YouTube, Twitch, Kwai, and other video platforms. I first read about it a couple years ago in an article that claimed a woman (host name: The Diva) earned 9,000 dollars a month by filming herself eating and collecting donations from the audience. Frankly, seeing a pretty woman go viral from eating a ton of food on camera didn’t surprise me, but as I dug further, I realized the trend isn’t overtly sexual. Eating with family is an important aspect of Korean society and in our globalized world, more and more young people leave home to pursue careers in big cities and shoebox apartments. Mukbang sprang up as a surrogate for family meals.
Now, mukbang has boomed worldwide and hosts from the States, Canada, Indonesia, the Middle East, and more, are starting their own streams where they eat mountains of fast food in front of millions. People either tune in for the chewing, crunchy, ASMR sensation, or to eat vicariously through a host who consumes a 15-pound lobster every week, without ever gaining weight. A couple months ago, I met one mukbang host who shared that many of her fans were teenagers; some would bring their dinners to the computer to eat what she eats. Some have eating disorders and watching her broadcast make them feel more comfortable with eating themselves. It’s become a system of care for some viewers.
At its root, mukbang is popular because people everywhere are lonelier than ever. Seeing the yearly growth makes me wonder if this surrogate family dinner will become, or has already become, the new normal. If the sponsors and platforms that fuel this growth have the most to gain, that means mukbang isn’t just a quirky trend enjoying a passing moment. Like all viral videos nowadays, it feels like it’s become something carefully orchestrated that’s made to feel like happenstance.
SP: Your project is also a case study of the SEA audience, and the YouTube recommendation algorithm’s impact on the environment. In a second phase of your research you started looking into the Filipino fishing industry. How is this traditional industry connected with, and influenced by online trends? What are tech institutions responsible for and how?
JK: Ever since the 2016 US election, when YouTube’s recommendation algorithm promoted divisive clips and conspiracy videos (such as anti-Hillary Clinton videos), I’ve noticed more examples of fiction outperforming reality because novelty and divisiveness leads to longer watch time, which means more ad time. I don’t believe Youtube takes responsibility for their creators or the communities they create.
This is especially alarming considering Southeast Asia has both the highest number of YouTube super users and some of the loosest fishing industry regulations in the world. Most sashimi grade yellow fin tuna gets transported to the US or Japan. In the Philippines, it’s virtually impossible to find sashimi grade tuna outside of 5 star hotels. Fishing fleets and fisher folk (but mainly fishing fleets) still have quotas and buy orders from canned tuna companies, so they end up catching younger tuna reserved for replenishing the population.
I’ve noticed more hosts eating giant platefuls of sashimi-grade tuna or snow crab legs dipped in cheese daily, and more Southeast Asian mukbangers starting their own streams.It’s difficult to find hard connections between the increase in mukbang streams or watches and the increase in seafood consumption, but if brands continue to sponsor this niche trend, then there’s a correlation. I don’t think YouTube or other platforms are solely responsible, but at this point, wild stocks are dangerously overfished. If and when we get to a point where we’ve fished basic stocks like crab to extinction, I think we’re going to look back on media’s place in creating unsustainable demand.
»At its root, mukbang is popular because people everywhere are lonelier than ever. Seeing the yearly growth makes me wonder if this surrogate family dinner will become, or has already become, the new normal.«
The most dangerous thing tech institutions expose us to is the idea that they are not responsible for pushing a version of reality that doesn’t line up with facts. It’s like we’re living in a cage but we can’t see the walls.Tech institutions like YouTube blind us to reality by pouring millions into calculating the behavioral engineering that will keep us online. How can the average consumer, especially consumers that may be new to the Internet, find their own version of reality if we have to go up against an algorithm?
This project isn’t meant to be a fist-shaking take down of YouTube, but to continue the conversation around what we can do to change this direction. It’s important to have platforms where creators can share themselves with their audience, but how do we check and inform inflection points within monoliths like YouTube? Or, what will the next one look like?
SP: The Dinner Table, as you say, highlights connections between individual action and environmental issues, and explores the Internet’s material impact on the environment. It reveals how trends like mukbang create an imbalance in our global food supply chain, and uncovers the origin point: excessive consumption of endless viral content. Can you explain the relationship between »excessive consumption« and »endless viral content«?
JK: Mukbang appeals to millions because it allows viewers to engage in thoughtless consumption. The absence of consequences from the edited, artificial mukbang environment creates an endless cycle of ungratified cravings, which feed into environmentally harmful agricultural trends as mass consumption rises. Southeast Asia is a developing economy and Asia as a whole has become the top consumer for seafood as wages. YouTube as a medium is the multiplier. How many times have you followed the watch next button down the rabbit hole? Every »viral« video on the recommendations page has been carefully engineered for us to find by a billion dollar corporation and network of advertisers. Plus, mukbang hosts have to eat more food or find rare meals to stay relevant. Their consumption is directly tied to »viral.« Both mukbang hosts and audiences slowly adjust to a new normal dictated by an algorithm. One that neither agreed to in the first place. They’re defined by one another.
Metaphorically, the fact that screens have become such a huge part of our physical reality means that we never really have to stop consuming content. There is an expectation to always be consuming, and now with algorithmically generated content, there will always a source. One single medium, YouTube, has the power to both push trends and decide what gets pulled into the average user’s main view. Excessive consumption and the endless, viral content compound each other.
SP: Could you explain your artistic practice a bit? What is your background? What are your main topics, tools, and technologies? And would you describe yourself as a digital or web artist?
JK: I studied literary journalism and always loved telling stories, but to be honest, I never considered myself an artist before June of last year. I’d mostly worked in communications before discovering Virtual Reality and falling in love with the storytelling capabilities of this medium, but even then, I curated events for other creators rather than creating myself. I somehow found the application to an amazing digital naturalism conference in Thailand and that was the start of my creative practice. While there, I met a group of hackers, foragers, artists, and designers and we hosted a jungle foraged dinner, made a game using a red button, four lines of code, and the Thai snack myang kham, and ate a lot of red ants. I’m more inclined to research than producing visual output, so just making stuff with different people from this conference really broadened my concept of what art could be. Now, I think of art as a space for something that doesn’t exist yet.
»The Dinner Table will look somewhat like Chatroulette did before it became a black hole of dick vids.«
Since then, I’ve continued to experiment with different forms. In my last exhibition with the Acts of Life residency program, I mixed performance with installation and video work. In the next phase of this mukbang project, I’ll veer towards creating a web based chat portal. With the projects after that, we’ll see. I still enjoy writing, I enjoy telling stories on stage, I’m open to all forms, but at the root, everything I make invites the audience to be part of the work. I believe audience and artist work in tandem and on the same power/playing ground, and my goal is to create a world where that relationship can exist.
My central goals center on making boring things fun, connecting strangers, and capturing the world as is. In terms of topics, I’m broadly interested in how Asian digital culture affects society. All this started on a trip through Myanmar with two friends, one of whom was a human rights worker. At the time, Myanmar got widespread Internet as recently as three years before. We were visiting human rights groups around the country and found that young women in villages were blackmailed by scammers who Photoshopped their profile photos onto naked bodies, threatening to send pictures to their families unless they paid a fee. Some cases ended in suicide. We held Internet literacy workshops to protect them against scammers, and since then, I’ve been fascinated with the intersection points between Internet, developing economies, and both tensions and benefits that arise.
SP: Your initial proposal is kind of a performative intervention in the web. You are going to assemble your research into a web-based video series – The Dinner Table. In the future you would like to share prefabricated videos on the Chatroulette portal (an online video chat platform). Can you provide any insight into how the work will come together in this final version?
JK: The Dinner Table will look somewhat like Chatroulette did before it became a black hole of dick vids. In the final version, I’d like to build a website for the millions of mukbang fans out there and break down one-way, passive communication into a two-way, interactive site for people to have online dinners with one another. One user pops open the website and can randomly chat with another stranger from around the world. I imagine people sharing what they are eating with one another and all users learning about what breakfast on the other side of the world looks like.
»The most dangerous thing tech institutions expose us to is the idea that they are not responsible for pushing a version of reality that doesn’t line up with facts. It’s like we’re living in a cage but we can’t see the walls.«
I like to think of The Dinner Table as mukbang culture jamming. It counters the endless viral consumption by creating a platform where people can end the cycle and start connecting with one another, directly, over the same shared interest in food.
Plus, I love the immediacy of talking to complete strangers. A friend once said she is the truest version of herself when she’s traveling. The Dinner Table extends that feeling to become a symbol for connection, interaction, and intimacy.
SP: As founder of Made in Asia, you are an expert when it comes to Asian Digital Culture. What can we expect from you in the future? How will you carry on working after the residency? And can you tell us how digital culture affects the food we will eat 20 years from now?
JK: I wouldn’t say I’m an expert at Asian digital culture, but I’m an active observer. That’s the great thing about digital culture anywhere. It changes so fast that I don’t think anyones ever a real expert.But I’m paying attention and taking notes on how subcultures form and how cultural borders change the flavor of a subculture. Made In Asia started as an event to highlight Southeast and East Asia-based digital art but became an ongoing dissection of Asian identity. I’m not trying to lump all countries and cultures into one category, but the name is a tongue-in-cheek way of calling out stereotypes and techno-Orientalist fetish.
In my next pet project, I play with using a Tamagotchi to interact with former versions of myself. I’m driven by the idea of connecting strangers from around the world, and using VR, AR, installations, and the web as tools for that. The next step is to look out how to use Internet subculture as the ergonomic design for these tools.
On a broader level, I want to continue experimenting with new media and speculative design. Much of the text I’ve read around speculative design feels Eurocentric, so I’d like to use my research on Asian digital culture and collaborate with Southeast Asian communities to create a new framework for cultural/community informed speculative design. If anyone out there is interested in the same mission, let’s chat J
The interview was conducted by Denise Helene Sumi.
© 2021 Akademie Schloss Solitude and the author