Interviews

Revisiting the NEA Four: Tim Miller on the Road

Tim Miller performing in his show Shirts & Skins, 1997. (Source: Tim Miller)
Tim Miller performing in his show Shirts & Skins, 1997. (all images courtesy Tim Miller unless otherwise noted)

Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of Hyperallergic interviews with the NEA Four by Alexis Clements. The previous interviewees were Holly HughesKaren Finley, and John Fleck.

For his portion of the NEA Four residency at the New Museum, Tim Miller will be doing what he’s been doing for a good part of the past three decades — an intensive weeklong workshop with a group of artists, followed by a group performance of the work they develop during that time.

Since moving to New York at the age of 19 to pursue his interests in art and performance, Miller has not only been presenting his own work but also facilitating the development and presentation of other artists’ work. At 21, he became part of the small group that founded one of New York’s most important alternative performance spaces, PS122. Later, when he moved back to his home state of California in the early 1990s, he helped found yet another alternative space in Los Angeles, Highways.

These days he spends roughly 30 weeks out of the year on the road, visiting colleges, universities, art centers, conferences, and civic centers around the US and the world. During the many stops on these tours, he typically presents or discusses his own work, but his primary task is to run workshops on solo performance, often focused on issues around identity, drawing on the autobiographical experiences of the workshop participants.

Miller_1001coverIn a paper he published in his 2006 book 1001 Beds: Performances, Essays, and Travels, he describes in detail a workshop he ran in Birmingham, England, for a small group of gay men. He asserts that performance provides a unique mechanism for people to “explore the complex human life going on within our bodies … participatory theater is one of the few ways these bodies can gather with one another in our increasingly disembodied culture.”

For his workshop at the New Museum he’ll be working with artists who self-identify as queer, across the spectrum of both gender and sexuality. Not unlike the group in Birmingham, this New Museum group will be exploring the ways that society imposes narratives and expectations on bodies that, for any number of reasons, aren’t deemed “normal.” In that same paper mentioned above, Miller sums up part of the driving idea behind his ongoing work to explore identity through these performance workshops: “We start to see the way to escape from this culture of sameness that wants all of our bodies to be tamed of their uniqueness, fixed in the rigid caste system of the beauty myth, and disciplined to productivity and consumption.”

A week and a half before the workshop began, I spoke with Miller by phone to learn more about why he chose to undertake another workshop as his contribution to the residency, his choice of a career on the road, and how the movement of performance art from alternative spaces to institutional settings might affect the work presented.

Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.

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Alexis Clements: To start, I was interested in why you chose to do a workshop with other artists as your contribution to the New Museum’s NEA Four residency, rather than a solo performance or any other presentation of your work?

Tim Miller: My relationship to this period of my young life [the time of the NEA Four defunding], 23 years ago — the way I most actively engage with it in an ongoing way is that I teach a lot — in museums and theaters and universities. I think one of my ways of continuing to stir the soup with all this is to be launching every year, hundreds and hundreds of performers, frequently making the first devised piece from their lives. In lieu of some ways that this country is not only not supportive of cultural practice, but outright hostile, it feels like one of the most purposeful things is to just encourage lots and lots of artists.

AC: Looking at your schedule is a little bit daunting — you are traveling for most of the year it looks like. I assume that you thrive on that constant movement?

TM: Yeah, you know, the teaching bit of it is obviously much more labor intensive, but it’s also incredibly exciting when you’re in South Carolina, where I had never performed before, one of the most conservative state apparatuses in the country, and out of a state university, a heavy-set gay Muslim makes a piece about being a young, heavy-set gay Muslim — all three identities never articulated before in that university culture. It’s pretty exciting.

AC: When did you start to develop this path in your career — doing workshops as a way of sustaining yourself?

TM: You know, I never didn’t do it. I think I started teaching my first workshops in New York … it might have been when I was 21. Within the first couple of weeks of us starting activities at PS122, I was teaching performance workshops. It’s also, as you travel, how you have pals. As a solo performer, it means if I’m rural South Carolina, suddenly I have 20 amazing young artists who fill me with hope for the future, who are very frustrated that their state is so screwed up. It completely changes what it is to be somewhere.

AC: You helped to found these alternative arts spaces, but you’ve chosen not to have long-term employment within a single arts space or university. Was that a conscious choice? How did that come about for you?

Tim Miller at age 19. (Source: Tim Miller)
Tim Miller at age 19.

TM: NYU hired me to start teaching performance classes in the Experimental Theater Wing, and I taught for years and years at UCLA, mostly part-time. I’ve only taught full-time for two years at Cal State Los Angeles. So, clearly there was a moment when maybe … but as someone who never went to college … I moved to New York when I was a teenager and was founding PS122 just right out of high school, which is much less common now, since more people go to college, it’s more common now for people to hit New York at 22.

There was that point where people had offered me teaching jobs, but I really love performing, I love traveling. I think there was a moment where there was a certain choice, which is also a kind of alternative economy choice—it means you’re permanently freelance, you don’t have any job security. But for me, I’ve toured so much for such a long time — really, since I was 22 years old, it’s been three decades of life on the road, which is not an unusual performer’s life, over the thousands of years. I think I imagined as I go to South Carolina or North Dakota or wherever, that that actually maximizes my impact and my usefulness—to work with lots and lots of people in all different cultural and socio-economic spaces. It feels like the best way to kind of maximize what I’ve got. I do make my living doing it, so it’s not charity, but it’s a lot harder work and it’s a lot of hotel nights.

AC: That leads to the question that I’ve asked each of the other three artists. Do you feel that you’ve been able to build a life that allows you to make the work that you want to make?

TM: You know, I always was drawn to teaching. It also was clear, you better be drawn to teaching or there is simply no way you’re going to make a living in this country. To me it’s part of being an engaged artist — an artist-citizen model. So, I would say we all [the NEA Four] have created, in different ways, a sustainable model. But we already had done that, before. I was touring all over the world starting in 1982.

Tim Miller participating in the Art Criminal Chain Gang protest in 1990 (he's holding Oscar Wilde). (Source: Tim Miller)
Tim Miller participating in the Art Criminal Chain Gang protest in LA, 1990 (he’s holding Oscar Wilde).

AC: Have you personally experienced any major shifts in the arts landscape in the US since you started, because of shifting funding structures or changes in opportunities over the 30+ years you’ve been making work?

TM: You know, we got our butts whipped in the Culture Wars. Not necessarily the [NEA Four] in particular, but this incredibly rich landscape of alternative art spaces that existed all over the country — in Oklahoma, the Dakotas, Alaska. This incredible vital had almost no money going into it. There were adventurous alternative arts organizations in almost every city over 100,000 people in this country. They are almost all gone now. They have almost all been starved by 20 years of anti-art hysteria in this country. So that, to me, is the most dramatic change. I mean, you look at somewhere like Chicago, where Karen [Finley] comes from, which had one of the richest collections of those arts organizations, and they’re virtually all gone — N.A.M.E. Gallery, Randolph Street Gallery. So, that, to me, that is the real shift, and also the so-called chilling effect that goes out to young artists who I work with.

I assumed 30 years ago that, of course I lived in a country where, if my work was deemed really strong and compelling and rich and I were ready to enter the fray, that my work would be supported, at the federal, state, and local levels. The first NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] grant that I got in my life, in 1982, was for a work which had someone dressed as Ronald Reagan beating the shit of me — that was my first National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, for choreography. I don’t ever meet a young American artist who thinks they live in that country anymore. And they’d be crazy if they thought they did. It’s a really different moment.

It was never easy. I mean, I went to the extreme level of starting a performance space, a queer space, a contemporary dance space. It shouldn’t take that level of participation to carve out a space for yourself. But maybe it still does. Universities have become our alternative spaces and network for adventurous performance.

AC: You’ve tracked that shift pretty closely in your career — having worked in both alternative spaces and universities. Do you feel like the power dynamics have shifted as performance has moved into more institutional settings? In terms of what gets put on, by whom?

TM: Well, for sure. You would be surprised — what you might think to be extremely adventurous, progressive, coastal universities, that have a very clear, if unwritten, rule that there can never be any nudity in performance on their stages. It’s pretty common actually. You’d be hard-pressed to find an art center that would ever think it could get away with that. You know, I was banned from Villanova last spring, admittedly a Catholic university, purely because they didn’t want to allow a gay person to come onto campus. I wasn’t even going to perform, but I don’t get to set foot on campus.

But I have to say, look at what happened with Ron Athey’s work, at probably one of our most respected, big, institutions — the Walker Art Center — where shit hit the fan for them bringing Ron, and he wasn’t even performing at the Walker Art Center, it’s just that they had some role in the blood performance. So it certainly happens in a non-profit arts context too. But obviously the fact that universities and colleges are so much where alternative performance and identity-based performance resides culturally in our country right now, other than the ways that it resides on the internet and social networking … You know, they are big bureaucracies, very aware of litigation and worried about that, so it has clearly its own kind of sensibility. With that in mind, I have to say I find very rarely does that rear its head. Actually there’s a pretty adventurous sense, especially if you’re going to fly under the radar and you’re not on the main series where they’re also presenting Wicked. A lot of these universities are not only giant flagship universities, they’re also major arts presenters in their state. You know, the University of Iowa is the biggest arts presenter in the state of Iowa; the University of Nebraska is the biggest arts presenter in Nebraska — they’re both a university and the largest arts organization.

If I’m doing a three-week residency like I did a couple of years ago at Nebraska, at the Lied Center, which is like BAM, Lincoln Center, and PS122 all rolled into one, several shows completely sold out, with people driving from 200 miles away in the state of Nebraska. They are the primary cultural organization in the state. There you’re actually getting incredible entrée to a whole regional population who goes and sees cultural things. But sometimes it is more willfully under the radar, it’s a little more research oriented, we don’t do the performance publicly, it might not be as big of a fuss.

AC: One thing I want to talk with you about, is the pressure for young artists to become “professional” in their artistic work right away. You are clearly entrepreneurial by nature, but obviously that’s not true of all artists. Do you feel like the demands on artists have shifted? How do you talk to young artists about career in your workshops? Particularly in the US, where there is such a cultural belief in exceptionalism. In other words, it seems like there’s very little discussion about a middle ground for artists here. There’s this message that success equals fame and fortune, or, there’s the romantic idea of artists living in “poverty,” but neither of those reflect the reality of most artists I meet and talk to, or the realities of why those ideas exist in the culture in the first place. It’s a kind of lottery mentality — accept bad conditions because you may just get a “lucky break” one day that will save you from a lack of resources; focus all your energy on irrational beliefs about “winning” rather than focusing your energy on demanding healthcare, decent wages, etc.

TM: And I would also say that is worse now, generationally, than it was.

AC: Do you think it’s because economically things are so much more extreme, in terms of income inequality, than they were twenty years ago?

TM: Well, I think partly it’s just celebrity culture is so much more layered than it was. It’s that crapshoot thing. Which is also kind of a fun American thing. I mean, coming to New York is also a crapshoot, if you didn’t grow up there and you’re not a rich kid. For me, as a working-lower-middle class kid, who never had a cent, I was very aware of who the rich kids were and who was getting a check from mom and dad every month and didn’t have to work their crap job. Mark Russell, who took over at PS122 and is at Under the Radar now, he and I both worked at the Curds and Whey Café with our stupid paper hats for a good long year. It’s really a huge part of my relationship to Mark, along with PS122 — that we worked our shit job together. Which just means we weren’t smart enough to get a decent waiting job.

You know, when I arrived in New York as a teenager in 1978, it was really still almost a hippie town, because in the 70s there was a real mistrust of wealth, that was to be not a serious artist, we were supposed to be bohemian. I mean, I didn’t even have a phone for like two years. The idea that you pay $100 a month for a smart phone — that was my entire budget for food, you know. I mean, the dollars are different, but the nut is so much bigger now, between your phone and your internet, and it’s a lot harder to get along without those things now.

Also, our culture is in a very different moment in its own development — it’s definitely not in this giant expansive economic model that it was really in throughout the 20th century until Reagan and Bush pulled the wheels off everything. We’re in a really different, shrinking cultural moment right now, which is harder and the economic reality is different.

Tim Miller (center), with Holly Hughes and John Fleck, two of the other NEA Four artists, in New York City, June 2013. (Source)
Tim Miller (center), with Holly Hughes and John Fleck, two of the other NEA Four artists, in New York City, June 2013. (image via)

But I try to get away from celebrity thinking, which I do think is stronger now than it was, partly because everything is corporate, music is so corporatized, alternative culture has gotten more that way, and that changes things. I try to encourage that small thinking. And this may come partly because for me because my twenties in New York, I mostly just didn’t want to die. Forget celebrity, I just didn’t want to be dead, of this reality in our city — hundreds of thousands of people who would die of AIDS during that period, including a huge number of my artist friends on the Lower East Side. That event is so huge in my life narrative. So then, of course, it built my sense that it’s all about connecting with people, building community, figuring out who needs you, if you actually have anything that people need for their survival. For me, the artists that figure that out … like John Malpede, who runs the only giant homeless people’s cultural organization in this country, the LA Poverty Dept.

He’s a New York performance artist who decided to crawl across the United States on his hands and knees, which led him to crawl across all these places where homeless people lived and that’s how he found his essential creative path. And he is the acknowledged leader on how you do theater with homeless people. So, sometimes it’s literally, you better crawl down some weird river in San Antonio and see what you find there, and that may be what brings you to your audiences, your niche. It means you get yourself bruised up pretty badly, and that can sound very romantic in itself too, but if you look at people’s narratives, and for me I would say my crawling through the river was my crawling through the mortality of being 21 years old and visiting my boyfriend at Bellevue [Hospital] who was going to die in his mid-20s, and then figuring that out and taking that in and thinking okay, how can I be a community-based performer that also does community practice workshops with non-artists? Each moment offers that challenge, to figure out why is my creativity essential to life on the planet. And to me everything spins out of that, all of the marketing or the professional plan should come out of that—what crucial role do play at this moment in human history that might actually need my creative two cents.

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