The Uncut Interview

Tim Miller Talks

Can you describe a bit what you do?

I’m a solo performer, mostly. I do work around queer identity and politics, and the collision of those two things. I feel very fraught this morning after our horrible elections, which were slightly less horrible than I thought they would be, but horrible nonetheless.
I travel mostly all over the US, and other countries, doing this work and engaging these materials through what I hope you found in the pieces [Youtube videos] is storytelling, and political rant and humour, and high-octane solo performing, using the energy in the audience.
But in addition to the solo performing, I also work with people a lot, and I generate ensemble performances coming from their life material and stories, including at Concordia where I’m going to be on Nov. 12, doing a workshop generating material from people’s lives around sexuality, gender, and HIV/AIDS. It’ll be interesting where they take it. That’s the general thing. I perform about 35 or 40 weeks a year, so I’m on planes a lot.

Would you describe it as entertainment?

Well, I think my work is funny and engaging. Although, I’m about to perform in Croatia, and we’ll see how funny and engaging I am there, (laughs) since it’s not really an English speaking place and my Croatian is a bit rusty. The work is simultaneously super funny and topical and stuff, but also quite hard edged and serious and engaging. [It’s] very charged social material, especially around the on-going theme in my work. [This] makes my performances in Canada very poignant for me, since I might as well end up in Canada—my partner is Australian and British, and you know, I can’t sponsor him for immigration, so we hang in by our fingertips.

Can you tell me a bit about the experience of performing such personal material?

Some people can find it incredibly weird to be doing such extremely private, personal, autobiographical material, though in these days of incredibly obsessive Tweets and Facebook status updates of every tiny little corner of our day, it would feel weirder when I started working as a young artist. Certainly now it doesn’t seem so strange, since we’re revealing things constantly now—and perhaps too much.
I would actually rather we speak up, even though I’m not that interested in hearing somebody tell me how much I’d love the doughnut they just bought, for example.(laughs). [My work is a] space to reveal, rather than hide; speak up rather than suck up.

Do you ever get uncomfortable revealing personal details?

Yeah, every now and then. I was just performing in North Carolina last week, doing a residency at a university, and I remembered the last time I performed there, about three years ago. I was doing a piece full of really, really specific, totally dirty sex stuff. This was like this Baptist college, and I said “Oh, boy. Clearly, I won’t be invited back.” And I was feeling like this was really too much. But then I was so excited because after the piece, all these conservative, Republican Baptist kids telling me that those really, really frank sex parts were what they most responded to, because it gave them permission in their work to get really honest, really specific.
So I try to kind of remember that. You know, that even those moments where you’re most freaking out, because maybe this is too much, but could accidentally be the thing to be hitting at.

Can you describe what your childhood was like?

I grew up in Los Angeles, so it was growing up in the second biggest city in a super progressive time in this country.
Things don’t always get better, in spite of the recent campaign around trying to encourage queer youth, that whole “It Gets Better” thing that’s all over social networking.

I snuck through at a pretty open period to be in school, before the religious right took over this country. My family is not bohemian at all, but they’re pretty fair-minded people. A Republican mom and a Democrat dad—but mercifully not very religious. So I avoided all that.
I was launched as a little queer, Marxist punk rock kid, and moved to New York City at the age of 19 to start doing my work. In some ways, I felt I was really prepared and encouraged by my family, the schools I went to and my friends. I was out in high school, which in the late ‘70s was pretty unusual. So yeah, in some ways, I felt very lucky by the encouragement I got growing up.

At what age did you realize you were gay?

Hmmm… well, in my work I sort of position it as the first day of first grade, so I would have been five, realizing I was falling in love with David Fernandez. Which could be true! What I always like doing is turning that question around, and asking non-gay people when they realized they weren’t gay and were straight, and most people are pretty aware of this pretty young.
For non-gay people, you’re getting the whole encouragement of popular culture and society and stuff, which is telling you all these signals that little boys will love little girls, kind of thing. But I think even within that, there’s a chaos of personalized relations, and these are some of our earliest senses of self, I think. Who you love, who you’re drawn to, who gives that butterflies kind of feeling. Who you want to be special friends with—however you want to configure that. But I was certainly extremely aware of being drawn to boys in elementary school.

I recently met one of these boys I was totally in love with in third grade. He lives in Alaska now, and I was performing up there, and it was so incredibly moving to reconnect with him. He’s a straight guy, but he was like “Oh yeah, I knew you were in love with me.” (laughs) He could have been making that up, but it felt true to me. We had a very ardent friendship when we were seven or eight.

Would you consider what you do to be activism?

I mostly think of myself as an artist, [but when I perform at schools] they’re bringing me as an artist to engage in social material.
I think my presence in this series at Concordia isn’t that unusual, they’ve had lots of artists, like filmmakers, people I’ve done a lot of work with around HIV/AIDS during the crucial, most horrific times. The ‘80s and ‘90s were kind of my formative period as an artist, as I was coming of age. In some ways, that provided the template for the kind of performance I was doing around HIV/AIDS as a young man.
I really saw the connection between what I do—organizing a massive civil obedience in front of a federal building in Los Angeles is intimately connected to my performance. I would do the week before to help get people to the event, help encourage them to do civil disobedience and get arrested, and a year later to be making a piece about a particular action. The conversation is very connected, especially, and I’ll be talking about this in my performance event.

I think my performances carry a lot of the social texts and things I think about, but I especially want to position as how, in some ways, the formative period of the AIDS crisis trained me as an artist and an activist. Not to overly acknowledge those separations, to see it as a continuum in a way. Our creative selves, our private selves and our public selves are in this big charged conversation with each other, and that’s true for artists frequently.

Can you describe your experiences in terms of HIV/AIDS a bit more?

Well, I was very involved with ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, which is incredibly active all across the States and Canada. It was one of our most binational moments in a way.

I was one of many, many artists who were doing AIDS activism, challenging governments, international agencies and stuff. Mostly, I was there as a grassroots activist. But also as a performer, since I was pretty prominent and I was under direct attack of the Bush administration, who took away my National Endowment of the Arts grant because of the content of the work I was doing around gay identity and AIDS politics. I sued the President of the United States and took the government all the way to the Supreme Court throughout eight years in the ‘90s, so I was in a particular position to be pretty useful.

Also, because I was doing work that I desperately needed to make, I spent my 20s assuming I wouldn’t live to be 30. I assumed I would have been positive, and I ended up not being, which was an enormous and very pleasant surprise. I kind of, from the age of 21 on, assumed I would be dead pretty soon. So I took that into my work, and it informed everything I did through my 20s, and has informed all my creative work. So it’s that space about being ready to be engaged in grassroots political activism and also taking it into my work.
Because of the material I talk about, the stories I tell, the unspoken feelings, panics, pleasures that come, I think probably the piece I’m going to do to finish my event at Concordia is this one I really love doing [and that] I made it in the worst of the AIDS war when more people were dying that year, 1991, than had died previously.

I did this piece that is just really fun, and beautiful and sexy about an act demonstrating the Bush administration’s AIDS and anti-art policies that ends up in this big gay sex orgy that brings down the government. And that’s when my artist self kicks in and why I can’t run for political office. For me to allow that beautiful, ecstatic Walt Whitman erotic transformative vision is most important and useful for me as an artist, and probably more useful than what I do as a political activist.

How has your experiences with HIV/AIDS affect affected you, personally?

I was 21 years old in New York the first time I had to visit a boyfriend who was dying in a hospital—and I now work with a lot of college undergrads in that 18 to 22 age group as I travel all over the country. It’s the age I was when I had to go watch my friends die and worry that I was next. That certainly is an enormous reality.

[It affected] my performances—growing up as a gay kid and suddenly finding myself in this incredible, existential, “who’s going to die next?” period, how that transitioned into more overt political activism of direct action on an international level to really engage global policy around AIDS, these periods of going to international AIDS conferences to really try to shift public policy, not just in the US or Canada, but internationally. It was taking place on a very big stage.

I have done a lot of performance workshops with groups of gay and bisexual men and a good chunk of whom would be HIV positive, or with AIDS, or not knowing, which was really where I earned my community arts chops, doing that kind of work so much. And again, and again taking it into my pieces. I had a boyfriend who was positive, and around ‘93, ‘94, people were figuring out, how do we relate? I felt it was really important to make a piece, being somebody who was negative, what was my experience being intimate and being in this relationship with this man, Andrew, who was positive. Nobody had made a piece about that yet. And living in New York, it felt like a very purposeful piece to make.

It wouldn’t be a piece we need to see now, and I don’t perform even sections of it now, because its not uncommon now, and there’s been other cultural representations. Those are just a few examples, but you know, taking that kind of energy of how we claim agency as bodies, as queer people, as sexual people, into the public arena and performing the possibility of that is something that is part of what I do. Especially when I go to these super conservative Baptist colleges as this giant radical queer performing the possibility of otherness in the foothills of the mountains of North Carolina, there were people coming out in classes, which they never do there.
It was really quite exciting, and I think it’s sort of where the activism of the performance itself is really the most useful.

Despite the elections yesterday, are you optimistic?

Americans have to be optimistic or we’re banned! (laughs) It’s sort of the big sin, the slightly lunatic American optimism even when it’s completely without evidence.
The trend is obviously positive. I don’t know if I will live to see America grow to be as progressive Canada. Probably not, the two countries are different. On the other hand, I kind of have to nudge my Canadian friends and remind them that that you have Stephen Harper as prime minister, and we have Barack Obama, so the world moves in mysterious ways.

There’s no straight line of progress—certainly not in the US, where it tends to be not the question “Will we ever enter the 21st century?” but “Will we ever enter the 20th century?” Some states do, and some just completely crazy-making, backwards places. But that’s it. The trends lie, especially if you’re around, as I am, lots and lots of young people. People under 25 are a whole new kind of Americans. If they ever really wield their power as citizens really strongly, and they did two years ago, which was how Obama got elected, he was really a candidate of young people, and when that happened, as those people get older, unless they completely tune out and the US becomes a fascist dictatorship—which is always possible—I think the long term prognosis is quite hopeful.

Though it is strange that we just re-elected the person who was governor when I was in high school. I mean, Jerry Brown is a good guy and I’m happy he won, though it is very strange that 30 years later, he’s governor again.

How do you feel about Obama’s relationship with the queer community?

Sadly, a lot of the young people who made sure he was the democratic nominee, there certainly is a lot of disappointment. I’ve been very critical of Obama, and I’m critical of him in my new show, and not just around the absence of any real progress on gay issues.
You know, with these massive majorities, it’s very disheartening that in those two years, that he didn’t manage to do anything for gay people. It’s pretty fucked up. So that’s a very strong critique. But not just that, he’s been incredibly centrist in his economic policy, this very bad health care bill that was so not socialism, so not worth bothering with if we weren’t going to get universal health care. I pay thousands and thousands of dollars and get no healthcare. It’s just insane that you still have to pay every time you go to a doctor.

That said, now that we’re in a new situation, I’m sure it’s going to be easier to be a bit more supportive now that the Republicans have the House of Representatives. My bottom line with him is that he’s been very disappointing in some ways, but he’s an enormously compelling, transformative figure. The US was the first western country to elect a person of colour as head of stage. A hundred years ago it’s probably the only thing we’ll remember about his presidency. It’s quite a big thing, especially for a country with such a big, tangled history of racism.

Now, we have to keep pushing him to do the right thing, but also watch his back. I’m sure they’ll start trying to impeach him next week. The next two years are going to be horrible! So, that’ll clarify his thinking a little bit, but will also make him bolder. That we’re still kicking gay people out of the military is just insane and has become a really horrible symbol of how gay people are disrespected in the United States.

How did having your National Endowment of the Arts grant revoked affect you?

It happened in 1990, which was a super formative moment in my life. I was coming into my authority as a performer, coming out of my 20s, feeling more confident. It was also the year I tested HIV negative. After nine years of assuming I would die at any moment, it was like “Hmm, maybe I’ll get to stick around.” It was the year the most people were dying in the first word.

In the US or Canada we can mark that period where things changed in ‘95 or ‘96, way less people were dying, which was not the case in places like Africa. It was a very charged moment, feeling very full of my voice and my citizenship and my creativity, I was incredibly involved internationally, so that suddenly the government was messing with me. It was just one more of a feeling of being under attack. I used the same skills to draw in addition to that, and to use my publicity moments, all this access to mainstream media I suddenly had, I was being interviewed to make my point about censorship and gay activism and AIDS activism.

And in the US, the kind of attacks on artists were really linked to artists engaged in HIV/AIDS. Some of the most powerful, confrontational work being done. How could you not engage HIV/AIDS? It was this giant, global plague. If you weren’t making work about AIDS in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, what were you making work about? Which includes mainstream culture of films and Broadway musicals. It was just so at the heart of our international focus.

In some ways, it was a very powerful moment. I didn’t personalize it as much as some of the other three artists. I was probably the person the most in the trenches as an activist in a way. I had very dramatic support, press people in New York who were there immediately helping me craft how we were going to respond to this. I wasn’t in isolation.

It did mean I stopped getting invited some places. I was touring internationally since I was 22, I’ve been at this for a while, so it’s suddenly I had been being invited, here we go with North Carolina again, but I work there a lot… I had been performing there two or three times a year for five or six years and suddenly those invitations completely stopped and conracts broken, so I lost a lot of work. And I spent eight years taking the case to the supreme court which was emotional and complex, and strangely I never made a piece about it, even though it was such an enormous chapter of my life. I didn’t want to give it any more airtime.

It was terrible, but it wasn’t nearly as terrible as going to two funerals a week, which was an infinitely worse way that my government was trying to destroy queer peoples lives through inaction. Eight years of not saying the word AIDS from the White House until 90,000 Americans had died. In comparison, it was a pain in the butt, but it wasn’t keeping me up at night.

I read that you were teaching these days.

I’ve taught a lot over the years, kind of a professor at NYU and UCLA and Claremont School of Theology, surprisingly. Now, these days, I mostly do residencies. I go spend a week or two or a quickie of a couple of days. So that’s quite a common thing, and that’s how I really engage. Teaching at all these kind of university residences and shorter term visits, and the professional workshops I do.

Seven or eight times a year I work with a group of people for a week or two and we create an original piece, and that process is really exciting. It’s directing, but it’s also a kind of teaching. I’m very woven into higher education. I work a lot at the US and UK at universities, and I’ve done university gigs in Canada before, but not too many.

So this trip, I finally get to take the VIA from Montreal to Toronto, which I’ve always wanted to do. It intrigues me for some reason. (laughs) I’ve just never taken my way down from Quebec to Ontario, so it’ll be fun.

Well, it’s my duty as a proud Montreal to shit-talk Toronto…

Oh, yes! (laughs)

What do you hope people take away from the lecture?

A little on format. They’ve promoted it as a kind of performance lecture. It’ll probably be about two-thirds performing and a third talking. The pieces themselves carry ideas, and things I would talk about in a speech, but rather [I] just perform it.

I think what I hope wit this piece, is a charged day for me, November 11th. We don’t pay too much attention to it in the US, but in Australia or England, everyone’s wearing a poppy, remembering the people who died in World War I, and there’s always been a bit of linkage between the incredible slaughter of that war and especially in the English and French speaking world, the disruption of culture, since almost everybody died. (laughs) 18-25, something like 40 per cent died, there were almost no men left, especially in England and France, but in North America too. So on that day of all days to be doing this talk is very interesting to me. My hope is to share some of the ongoing strategies of a certain period, especially in North America, and North America really sets up the model of AIDS activism and cultural activism.

Whether it’s me, or my longtime friend, the filmmaker John Greyson, who I think did some of the most amazing work as an artist in response to AIDS in a film he made called Zero Patience. I love that in that period they tried to blame Quebec for bringing AIDS to the world! They blamed a Montreal flight attendant for somehow bringing AIDS to the world, and John’s film beautifully unpacks the absurdity of that.

So this has been one of our very powerful North American ventures, so to share some of those strategies of how art and activism are concocted. But for me, even larger, it’s always that, including even when I come to, as we project to our northern neighbor, this much more progressive, less homophobic, blah blah blah, at least institutionally, complex country of Canada….Which is still a very complex place, and if you’re 16 years old, from a screwed up family in New Brunswick, you might not feel much better, or even worse than me at 16, growing up in a giant city in California.

So we keep having to create that queer space and even through Facebook, little notes I’ve been getting from Concordia students, mostly from queer students, “I’m so glad you’re coming,” or “It’s important we have queer cultural events.”

I’m sure there’s tons of stuff happening, it’s such an amazing city, but even then I think it still counts. But for me, the real interesting thing is to connect the dots, how to claim agency and voice as a gay person, having our stories present and counting, and then connecting that with a really important template of cultural and political activism of the last 25 years around HIV/AIDS.

I hope it will really give people a charge, historical location, but also future possibilities, including the final performance, the wild protest that becomes a big gay orgy that can overthrow the US government. That’s the ultimate lesson! (laughs)