Below is a blurb on performance artist Tim Miller from the Mirror, plus some pretty awesome highlights from the interview I did with him.
Virus talksCalifornia-based performance artist, gay rights protester and frequent arrestee Tim Miller is no stranger to controversy. His semi-autobiographical works gained international attention in 1990 when he and three colleagues got their National Endowment for the Arts funding vetoed by a chairman who thought their work was too gay. Although an eight-year struggle that led to the Supreme Court finally got them their money back, Miller spent much of the ’80s and early ’90s, the peak of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, engaging in direct action against a government that didn’t want to have anything to do with gay issues.
“I was making pieces in a country where our then-president Ronald Reagan did not say the word AIDS once until 80,000 Americans had died,” he says. “Civil disobedience was incredibly central. It is a transformative experience, especially for nice middle-class white kids, to be arrested and kept for 72 hours. I felt that on every level, the U.S. government was trying to destroy my community by doing nothing while tens of thousands died and trying to stop safe sex education in public schools.”
Miller performs his Sex/Body/Self/Virus piece as part of Concordia’s HIV/AIDS lecture series tonight, Thursday, Nov. 11 (1455 de Maisonneuve W., H-110), at 6 p.m., for free. For details, see aids.concordia.ca.
In 2002 you were thinking of leaving the US because your partner Alistair couldn’t get status here. Has that situation changed?
We actually started our process to immigrate to Canada a while ago, because we thought there was no future in the United States for a couple like us. The US is the only Western country not to allow same-sex citizens to sponsor their spouses for immigration purposes in the way that dozens of my friends have done for their partners. So Alistair can sponsor me to immigrate to the UK or Australia. Canada would be the most likely – it’s the perennial place where Americans go when they’re fleeing the insanity of the United States. He’s on a year-to-year visa. If he weren’t Australian he’d have had to leave years ago. Australians, as a reward for Iraq, get treated like Canadians now.I’m not dramatizing it. His visa’s running out in a few months and we don’t know what’ll happen. He hasn’t seen his family in thirteen years.
It seems strange that marriage is such a focus for activism. Here in Quebec, almost no one gets married unless they’re gay.
I know marriage makes people uneasy. But in the US, it’s clear to me that marriage is the main place where civil rights gets acted out. That’s why, until 1967, it was illegal for a heterosexual couple who weren’t of the same race to get married in 33 states. So Barack Obama: his marriage was a felony and he could have been taken into state custody. Looking deeper at it, slaves weren’t allowed to marry because marriage made you a human being and then you couldn’t be sold and your children as well.
Changing the definition of marriage is about who gets seen as a human being, so I think it’s actually really important, though I have to admit that my 19-year-old punk-rock, radical Marxist self would find this all very bourgeois.
In 1990, you had your federal funding stripped by a homophobe on the National Endowment for the Arts. Twenty years later, do you think the same thing could happen again?
Well, it wouldn’t happen again because now there’s no funding at all for individual artists in the United States. It was a giant constitutional eight-year battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court and we won back our grants, but the principle was lost there. I work with a lot of undergraduate and college-level kids comparable to me. None of them have any illusion that they’ll ever be supported by the federal government. You might get funding from the city or a particular state, but if you’re working on issues around politics or sexuality you simply won’t get money from the federal government.
You were involved in direct action protests in the eighties and nineties. Were those kind of performances an extension of your work as an artist?
AIDS activism really created this new template around guerrilla theatre, highly visual, telegenic media savvy protest strategies that were borrowed from other movements but then really set a new standard which then alterglobalists added to and built on. Post-9/11 it’s much more difficult: there’s more security, the terrorist label is thrown around. I still think whenever I have a19-year-old message me, “I was just protesting our Congressman’s office, I got arrested, I feel so empowered.” I think that’s really important and is real.”
The was a period in which civil disobedience was incredibly core and central. And it is a transformative experience, especially for nice middle-class white kids, to be arrested and kept for 12 hours or 72 hours. That doesn’t mean it’s an amusement park ride, but it has powerful changing affect on people. Especially at the time I felt that on every level the US government was trying to destroy my community by doing nothing while tens of thousands died and trying to stop safe sex education in public schools, which doomed any number to die. And the struggles around the AIDS stuff, the immigration struggles which are a poisonous alphabet soup of NEA, HIV. So myself and 200 artists in L.A. tried to arrest the federal government for crimes against humanity. There’s a fun performance which I’ll do at Concordia which ends in a gay orgy that overthrows the US government.
You’ve said that it’s easy to get depressed about homophobia but it’s also important to remember the wonders that gay life can bring. Do you think that, given the political situation in the US, there’s much to be hopeful about?
There’s been this horrible rash of queer suicides in the US. But today gay people are much more visible in this country, in some states. You can feel almost like you’re treated like a human being in Massachusetts, or California or New England. It’s just three fourths of the country where gay people have no rights under their state laws: they can be fired, they can be kicked out of their house. God forbid, I don’t want to have any kids, but it’s estimated that in the US there are more than 2 million being raised by gay people in this country. What does that do? Maybe they’re going to hate their gay parents so much! I don’t think so: they’ll have grown up knowing gay people and they’ll be huge change agents. I was doing a residency at a military university in Texas: a third of the students are in uniform. And to see queer students making visibility in their performances is so inspiring and exciting and moving. They’re these amazing secret weapons. It’s a national project and an international project.
What happened in Canada with marriage equality challenges the US to do better. When Argentina votes and signs full marriage equality, what an amazing achievement. Those are pretty inspiring examples of queer people transforming their country.
For more information about Tim Miller see: http://www.timmillerperformer.com/