Cambodian-American performance artist and co-founder of collaborative media lab Studio Revolt, Anida Yoeu Ali, was recently awarded the 2014–2015 Sovereign Asian Art Prize. Writer Joanna Mayhew talks with The Buddhist Bug creator about worming her way into success. Photography by Lucas Veuve.

What does it mean to receive the award?
This is the first time [the Sovereign Asian Art Prize] has been given to a Cambodian, and to a performance artist, so I hope it inspires other contemporary artists. Very few performance artists have achieved commercial success. The main idea behind performance is that it’s ephemeral. You’re not trying to sell an object. You are giving the world an experience. That is a difficult financial terrain for performance artists, so winning this award makes it feel – as a Cambodian artist, a performance artist, a working mother – that perhaps the world is watching and finally we are given the recognition we have earned.

What is the Buddhist Bug?
The Buddhist Bug is a performance installation piece that takes the form of video and photography. It’s an exploration of diasporic identities, this idea of being displaced and of a hybridity you carry as part of your transnational identity. The layering of identities is someone who is Muslim and surrounded by a Buddhist majority, who feels “othered” both in the US and here. There’s a lot of complexity, but it uses humour to bring people into this conversation. You don’t know, is this a horror movie? Is she an orange worm? When you’re dealing with serious issues, that’s a way to get people in. It should be absurd.

How does your background relate?
My family was trapped here during the Khmer Rouge. In 1979, my family fled to the refugee camps. I was raised for the next 30 years in Chicago. We were raised prioritising our Muslim heritage. I didn’t know the history of the persecution of ethnic minorities during the Khmer Rouge. We just knew we were something called refugees, but my parents never spoke in depth about their journey. I’ve always had an ache to figure out who we were in terms of our historical background, so it would be fitting to become a writer and an artist, and essentially a storyteller. I feel I am documenting my family’s experience and using my artistry to explore those issues that have been haunting me for so long.

How did you get into performance art?
Out of college I went into spoken word poetry, and that would be the launching pad into arts on a professional level. But as I toured, I felt everything I was trying to convey was falling short. I started to think, how can I create work that truly transcends borders? That’s when my shift into performance art that didn’t require words happened. In 2011 I moved back [to Cambodia] and discovered all the amazing art happening. It was this sense of hopefulness being channelled through the arts. Everything was screaming to me to take advantage of this moment.

What was the winning piece?
A photographic still called Spiral Alley. The Bug is enwrapped inside this spiral staircase in the alleyway of the Central Market area. It was a very interesting moment when we discovered this space. It was almost like it was calling me, as the Bug, home. And that was the whole idea, that perhaps she sees this space and thinks, finally something is made for my body, finally maybe this is home.

Where else has the Bug been?
The first generation of work I took around Phnom Penh. Because the landscape is changing so fast, it was important for me to capture what it was like. She’s taken cyclo rides; she’s visited that displaced Cham Muslim fishing village. The second generation we did in Battambang, where I was born – and, because this is semibiographical, it’s also where she is born. The next one, the final generation of work in Cambodia, is called the Night Series. The bug is going to explore her nightlife, maybe find love, or lust.

Are the shoots difficult?
Because it’s a soft structure, to create volume there’s a lot of tricks involved. We are stuffing that thing with rice bags, sand bags. The cyclo shot was really complicated. I’m hanging on to a rope, and I have to say if I can’t hold on and somebody has to catch me. The other hard part is capturing that certain moment. There’s a shot in a rice field, and we were trying to catch the morning light. People don’t know that that idyllic rice field is full of biting ants and mud. But once we say roll, I’m in character.

What are the reactions?
For the most part, it’s curiosity and amusement. And when they see it unravelling, it’s suspension of disbelief. They physically see me and my crew, and see the legs separately, see her disconnected. [But] when we put the Bug together, every single time it’s this magical moment as if it’s real. To me, that’s imagination kicking in, for people to kind of believe this could be some sur-reality. Contemporary art is completely new for people, but they get that somebody is doing something called art, in their space, amongst them.

Has your sense of identity evolved through the Bug?
One thing I came to terms with a few years back is this idea of the in-between space – that this space is not a negative space but a powerful space because it’s where you can really create work. You can own that constant shift. Owning up to the in-between space has allowed me to do what I do and not question identity. For me, right now it’s more about being a working mother. That’s more of the identity that’s of concern than anything cultural or religious. It trumps everything.