Angels on Your Shoulders: A Conversation with Tim Miller about Art & Activism

2014: This interview took place in 1989 and was published in Atlanta’s Art Papers in 1990. At that time, Tim Miller, performance artist and gay activist, and I had just started Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica.

Myself and Tim Miller at Highways Performance Space

Myself and Tim Miller at Highways Performance Space

1989 was the height of the AIDS crisis and our friends were dying. We and our artist colleagues and our audience were up to our ears in AIDS activism, marching, demonstrating and getting arrested. It was also the beginning of the NEA crisis, when conservatives in Congress were trying to defund the National Endowment for the Arts, another of our passionate causes.

At the time of this interview we didn’t know that Tim would be one of the “NEA Four,” four artists whose NEA grants were rescinded for being too controversial. We also didn’t know that Highways itself would have a visual arts grant taken away because the imagery in the application was considered indecent.

Tim went on to crusade for both causes, and after AIDS finally received some attention, he also took on gay marriage, a very personal issue for him since his partner (now husband) is Australian and couldn’t stay in the U.S. unless they were legally married.

 This interview was part of an Art Papers special feature called “Interventionist Art,” edited by Maureen P. Sherlock. Thanks to Paul Boshears of Art Papers for his help in fishing this out of the AT archives so I could post it here.

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I AM A MUTANT PERFORMANCE ARTIST FROM ALTA CALIFORNIA…3RD GENERATION…I AM HERE TO COLLABORATE WITH BAJA CALIFORNIA…THE PISSED OFF…THIS HEMISPHERE…COOL PRIESTS…THE PACIFIC OCEAN WHERE I LIVE…THE OCEAN AIR I BREATHE…THE OCEAN WHERE MY FATHER IS BURIED…

I AM A MUTANT PERFORMANCE ARTIST FROM ALTA CALIFORNIA…I BELIEVE MY SOCIAL ACTIVISM…MY SEX JUICY LIFE…MY PROVOCATEUR ORGANIZING…MY SPACE BUILDING…AND MY FAMILY SUNDAY DINNERS IN WHITTIER ARE AS MUCH A PART OF MY CREATIVE WORK AS MY PERFORMANCES…AND LOOK HERE SENATOR JESSE HELMS. KEEP YOUR PORKYPIG FACE OUT OF THE N.E.A. AND OUT OF MY ASSHOLE…BECAUSE I GOT WORK TO DO…

I AM A MUTANT PERFORMANCE ARTIST FROM ALTA CALIFORNIA…A FAG THRU AND THRU…WHO HAS SEEN FRIENDS AND BOYFRIENDS WITHER AND DIE AND I DONT KNOW VERY MUCH BUT KNOW A LITTLE BIT OF DEATH NOW…A ND THIS IS PART OF WHAT MAKES ME A MUTANT…AND IMPATIENT…AND READY TO GET TO WORK…WITH MY COMMUNITY…CONNECTING TO OTHER COMMUNITIES.

I AM A MUTANT PERFORMANCE ARTIST FROM ALTA CALIFORNIA…I BELIEVE OUR CULTURES CAN AND SHOULD BE WILDLY SPECIFIC…FUCK SO CALLED UNIVERSALITY AND NEUTRALITY…LEAVE IT TO TELEVISION…AND OUR CHALLENGE IS TO CONNECT THE DOTS…LEARN FROM EACH OTHER…FIND THE INTER-CULTURAL. INTER-GENDERAL…INTERDISCIPLINARY COMMON GROUND FUTURE FOR OUR CITY.

– TIM MILLER L.A. 1989

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1989

In January 1988 I was a freelance writer about art and social issues. I linked up with performance artist and gay activist Tim Miller and we began to plan Highways, a performance space in Santa Monica that encourages intercultural dialogue and art about social issues. In the process I have become far more politically radicalized than I used to be, largely because I interact every day with Tim Miller and other members of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power).

ACT UP is a national, locally based grassroots organization at the radical fringe of AIDS activism. Its motto is: Silence=Death, Action=Life. Its strategy of swift and terrible public retribution against enemies of the cause has resulted in better care for AIDS patients, swifter release of drugs, and continuing pressure on our homophobic and neglectful government. Part of the great strength of ACT UP is its contingent of artists who create graphics, photographs, videos and performances for public demonstrations.

Tim’s work has always been autobiographical, a mixture of humor, monolog and movement that charts a young man’s voyage through the minefield that is gay cultural identity in this country. A Los Angeles native, he moved to New York at 21 and helped found Performance Space 122 in the East Village. Tim joined ACT UP when it began in New York and continued as an active member when he moved to Los Angeles in the late ’80s. He created a manifesto for the week-long demonstration at L.A. County General Hospital, and most recently he was arrested with 84 other activists on October 6 for blocking the Federal Building in Westwood.

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Linda Burnham: What does this kind of crisis do to an artist’s life?

Tim Miller: Obviously it connects you deeply with the reality of the world, the planet, fate, ultimate destiny. It cuts a lot of bullshit out, cuts a lot of competitive stupid stuff that can tends to dominate the art world or any world when it’s not in a crisis that can bring people together to do what needs to be done, a level of seriousness and challenge to tackle the big stuff. It decentralizes the artist’s life. We talk about this endlessly: the artist-as-citizen issue where your time as a creative artist—which is still really special, as you know, little precious jewels—goes to organizing efforts and political activities. Before, there was this great romantic split between making a living and making your art. And now it’s like—who cares about that? Everybody’s got to make a living and we’ll do that one way or another. The real thing is how much energy can keep your work going, keep trying to save the world and creating structures that encourage other artists to work and to be activated as well.

Burnham: Do you find yourself less or more able to focus on your artwork?

Miller: That decentralizing thing is really freeing. You stop being this neurotic creature that’s worried about your every mood or anxiety spell or whatever. It means you have an impossible amount of work to do, especially trying to find some way of being creative within that; it’s hopeless but you just sort of do your best and get through each day’s tasks. As opposed to—well, what is writer’s block within this kind of context? All that kind of psychologizing about creative process still exists because creative inspiration is something that exists, but you start getting it in other places that are less about your blood sugar and more about being in intense situations that challenge you, that manifest your relationship to the state. A lot of people have laid aside their cultural upbringing within a bourgeois European avant-garde tradition, and their self-image, for other kinds of activity.

Bumham: Do you think that the last ten years have brought you any closer to the sense of what the artist’s function really is in humankind?

Miller: This is the good question. That’s where the idea of making work for demonstrations and the intensity of that life situation is so important. It brings up the image of entertaining the troops, like Bob Hope in Vietnam, God forbid. But in a way that’s your most useful self. Like I say in the manifesto—the cultural building block of having to inspire, warn, comfort each other around the feeble glow of the fire, as opposed to this fabulous, money-laden, chic theater kind of thing. Most of the work you and I are interested in is basically all about trying to make sense of things around a modest campfire or some kind of small light—in the sense of “the wolves are out there.”

Burnham: What’s a good example of artists doing that?

Miller: Well, there’s no illusion of enormous power and prestige and empire around L.A.P.D. (Los Angeles Poverty Department, John Malpede’s performance troupe of artists and homeless people). It’s a much rawer and human kind of building block that derives its power and beauty from something besides international hip. That’s a big change I think. It makes artists more interesting and stronger—probably who most of them want to be and why they wanted to become artists anyway, to help and to explore things, the things that really upset you. Long before I had any sense of art issues, I had a sense of injustice, of the world of unfairness. Maybe, to be quite honest, what precedes that is a sense of otherness, which all artists, certainly all gay artists, feel. But after that, the strongest emotional and intellectual challenges were about the world. It was the ultimate challenge and task to see that it exists, after growing up in middleclass Southern California, the great dissonance of that, and then taking it into writing and organizing, but especially into the work itself.

Burnham: I’d like to get to the particular character of ACT UP and ACT UP/LA. There’s been criticism of the organization because it is so radical and outspoken. What attracts you to the combative style, for instance, the incidents of heckling politicians who take a friendly stance but are too soft in general, and the constant exposition of how little politicians are doing and the statements against working inside the system?

Miller: The great thing about all those things is they are so consistent with the history of the avant-garde, of shocking the bourgeoisie. Except now you actually do it, you don’t pretend to do it by being in coffeehouses. You actually go to the halls of justice and law and power and confront them on their turf, not in dada cafés.

Burnham: You’re actually confronting the structure of the establishment, the things that hold it up.

Miller: So that whole idea of “oh, you’re just a crazy artist and you’re critical of everything” (that being just a sort of neurotic or ingrown position) becomes a really outgoing and directed kind of response. It’s all pure performance—challenging, exposing dishonesty and lies and contradictions.

Burnham: What changes have you seen in ACT UP In the last few months? Things seem to be heating up even more.

Miller: L.A. has gone though a very complicated peace-making between the most activist oriented and the more administrative oriented. What happened in L.A. at the Federal Building [an October 1989 protest] has not happened in any other city in this country, where the major bureaucracies line up with ACT UP on civil disobedience. That’s never happened in New York.

ACT UP/LA demonstration October 7, 1989, at the Federal Building, L.A. (Photo by Chuck Stallard)

ACT UP/LA demonstration October 7, 1989, at the Los Angeles Federal Building. Tim Miller front and center in glasses. (Photo by Chuck Stallard)

Burnham: The major bureaucracies?

Miller: The major [AIDS} organizations: the head of AIDS Project L.A., Being Alive, The Gay Community Center, Minority AIDS Project, Cara a Cara. Also, that was a very mixed-race, straight/gay, male/female, worker bee/executive director kind of event. It’s what was most important about it. Very important things are going to come out of that for this community, which is the biggest, richest, and most organized gay community in this country. It’s always been hyper-organized. It was the first Gay Community Center.

Burnham: What has been the most interesting action you’ve taken part in?

Miller: The real departure point in terms of L.A. and in another sense for me as an artist, the hospital vigil, was the most important thing that’s happened so far because it was about the creation of an alternative space [Tim and many others demonstrated for an AIDS ward at L.A. County Hospital, where AIDS patients were dieing in the hallways). I think the two most important alternative spaces that have happened this year in L.A. were Highways and the vigil, because the vigil was also a cultural event, it was a performance space, it was happening every day—music, poetry, dance, performance art—and that’s a very useful model for a lot of the things we’re talking about. The artist becomes really woven into the community as a worker. Everybody talks about being a “cultural worker,” but I think people are really starting to realize what that means, people are living it. John Malpede’s definitely a cultural worker.

Burnham: It means putting in the hours, 9 to 5 and longer.

Miller: And most of it is work, not writing sonnets. The work also happens to be highly creative and makes for really interesting art. When the art finally does happen it comes forward intimately woven into life and community, whether it’s the way the dozens of people like myself who are artists, but also really involved in AIDS activism—in a way that changes the image you have of yourself in the world and what you do and your sense of service and being connected. The other thing that was really important about that as a model, is that it had tangible success—the AIDS ward exists. It was the beginnings of a more culturally diverse movement that has really come to fruition; people are beginning to know how to deal with each other. Major healing has gone on between gay Latinos and Anglo-Europeans.

Burnham: Because of ACT UP?

Miller; It’s helped a lot, because people have been ready to go into conflict with each other and are ready to not write each other off on both sides.

Burnham: One of the things we brought up when we did our AIDS panel at Highways was the impulse toward activism that’s come out of the AIDS situation. And I don’t mean political activism—I mean you get an idea and you do it, instead of letting it sit there on the table, because you might not be here tomorrow. So things have sort of sped up because of this. I feel we can link that with the ACT UP “zap” philosophy—you know, do it now, do it quick, strike while the iron is hot.

Miller: Right, which is also ideally connected to the whole reason for being an artist in this particular realm (performance), which is to respond quickly, effectively and surgically to what you want to do. I really see this with Guillermo [Gómez-Peña], one of the founding artists of Highways who lives in Tijuana and makes performance about border culture and binational issues. It’s like a ray gun. He’s going zzzz-t. It’s very specific. There is no other art form or cultural way he could get at that, he couldn’t make a movie about something that specific, he couldn’t write a novel about it, but he could prepare a text, something he wrote that morning, and present it for public absorption that evening.

Burnham: It’s related most closely to the way poetry functions politically in Latin American countries, I would guess.

Miller: My first impulse with performance, the reason I liked it, was because it was quick, it’s still the reason I like it.

Burnham: You’re not required to come up with three acts and scenery—

Miller: You don’t show anybody a script—

Burnham: You don’t really need any money—

Miller: You just do it. And that’s probably why ACT UP and those strategies appeal so much to a certain kind of artist. This artist is intuitive, wants to move quickly, doesn’t want to be bogged down in bureaucracy or over-discussing, and just wants to do things that are grounded in process, as every artist’s quick decisions are. And ACT UP is most successful in its ability to quickly respond.

Burnham: There’s another whole strain that’s interesting to talk about too. Richard Schechner said at a conference last year that he felt that performance outside of the gallery or theater, in the street essentially, was extremely influenced by the civil rights demonstrations in the South—that watching the strategies of black activists at sit-ins and marches provided a formal impulse for artists to get out in the street, not necessarily to affect things politically, but just because they saw and fell in love with the power of the moving image in the context of everyday life.

Miller: Yes, I think that’s the most recent example. But it goes so much further back. Look at all the great romantic French paintings of the students in the streets and the triumph of liberty and storming the barricades.

Burnham: Yes, but I guess I mean more avant-garde, less populist kinds of imagery, actions that would be more in line with the formal art thinking of the day. Then you talk about the immediacy of being able to come up with an idea and use it quickly. We grew up with that kind of thinking: protest songs. Bob Dylan and his terrible voice and his guitar—the voice of Everyman. A devastating concept at the time.

Miller: There’s a weird mirroring of folk and punk—both basically populist movements, both three-chord phenomena. Basically the idea that anyone could pick up a guitar and play “Blowing in the Wind”—and most of us have.

Burnham: And it wasn’t so important to be a virtuoso.

Miller: The thing to think now is where is all this going?

Burnham: Right now the art community is having to respond to the NEA crisis with Congress. All over the country people are trying to figure out the best way to affect the situation.

Miller: One lesson we’ve learned in L.A. is that we are working too slowly.

Burnham: It’s interesting that at NAAO (the annual meeting of the National Association of Artist’s Organizations in Minneapolis in fall 1989) in the discussion of this issue, ACT UP came up a lot. Everyone was so stalled about the crisis and people would bring up ACT UP as an example of responding in a strenuous way. And now here we are with the L.A. Coalition for Freedom of Expression, desperately stalled and wanting so badly to link up with ACT UP. So here’s ACT UP link­ing arms with an art cause.

Also there’s something that keeps coming up when we talk about wanting to get out and demonstrate regarding the NEA—people say, how can we do that in light of what’s going on in El Salvador—I say it myself. And then somebody else will say, well, it’s all linked. Here we are again looking to ACT UP to join with the artists because the issue of homophobia is present in both the AIDS situation and the NEA situation. What about this idea of it all being one issue—The Unification Theory?

Miller: One enemy of the Unification Theory is comparisons. Comparisons are odious, the Zen master would say. Everything is different, he would say. It’s 60,000 dead in this country versus 80,000 in that country. Per capita it’s a lot heavier there, but we live in this country. And two intimate friends of mine have died in the last two weeks, as opposed to six strangers in El Salvador. It’s hard to compare. They’re just different and they’re both really important and linked.

Burnham: As taxpayers, in some way we really killed all of those people.

Miller: Right, some are killed by where the dollars go and others by where they don’t go. So that’s the power of the state in terms of dollars and cents and it connects things. But sadly we don’t have the luxury of being picky. There are five or six front-burner issues. Central America is clearly one of them. AIDS is clearly one of them. Homelessness is another one. The environment is one, and abortion, and there are two or three others that are either killing thousands or will eventually kill everybody or are just great psychic scars in our national life, like the scar of our relationship to Central America. It’s just bigger than everything else right now. Just as we are all going to have to be fluent in terms of cultural diversity, we’re all going to have to be at least as fluent in the front-burner stuff.

Burnham: How?

Miller: We all have to be articulate and activated on those issues, the things that are absolutely the worst on the injustice meter. They are also the ones for which we are both responsible and able to do something on a daily basis. It’s in our self-interest.

Burnham: In my experience, in this NEA crisis, as you said, we’ve learned that we didn’t act fast enough; in some ways, ex­perience with ACT UP has taught us to strike faster and stronger. Do you think that’s a spirit that’s going to spread through all these crisis communities? Will we see more outrageous zap actions happening around homelessness?

Miller: Yes. At any given time certain things have led the way to a new social energy. Obviously the civil rights movement did, and Vietnam, the women’s movement, and gay liberation all came from that reinterpretation of Gandhi’s reinterpretation of Tolstoy and Tagore’s philosophies. So it’s reincarnated in an interesting way.

Burnham: You’re talking about ages—civil rights, Vietnam. Can we come to a thesis that activism is speeding up because of AIDS activism now?

Miller: I think it’s been the front line for the last two or three years. It helped refuel and prepare people for women’s health clinic defense actions. Also I know in all these cities ACT UP and its troops have been crucial for those actions. For whatever reason, more and more middleclass people are well versed in activism—and not in a romantic way, not for this month or for one event, but as an ongoing daily practice, almost a meditation.

Burnham: But we’re so over-extended.

Miller: Yes. And it’s not going to get easier. You don’t finish it, you don’t acquire wealth and retire, you just keep working. That idea is very strong in ACT UP, that it is a great privilege to continue to work when people are dying. That is it when the ultimate reality is present—death? The great luxury of exhaustion, being able to work till you’re tired is a great gift of life, because it means you get to go to sleep and wake up again and work some more. And think if any of us were being dragged kicking to an untimely death, how you would long for hard work and fatigue and hammers and typewriters and computers and the privilege and great joy of work. That keeps people from burning out. Because the ultimate burnout is when your friends die. You see very little burnout in AIDS activism—you do not have the luxury of burnout because the stakes are too high. This is true of all the communities in crisis, especially if you don’t have a choice. I will not be offered a choice, my friends will keep dying. Hopefully I will not die because it’s more fun to be doing this!

The other interesting thing is that every extra year I’m getting is like frosting, I definitely could have been dead two or three years ago.

Burnham: You must have been paralyzed with fear.

Miller: I was really scared in ’84-’85. Then I started to come out of it. leaving New York helped. There wasn’t the feeling of what was to be done.

Burnham: What if we suddenly found an AIDS cure, would all of this activist spirit stop?

Miller: AIDS won’t go away. There probably won’t be a complete cure, there will be tiny increments of improvement, it seems. The crisis situation is going to stay. It seems like it’s not going to be exponential—two years ago we thought conceivably by right now that 200,000 people would have died instead of 60,000—but they think a million people or so are HIV positive and some undetermined number of people will die. People are still getting sick. It’s going to stay with us.

Burnham: What is the most important thing for us to do?

Miller: We have to be building on all the positive things we’ve been talking about—a continued vigilance, and the willingness to go to meetings when we don’t want to. I don’t have to fool myself to feel we’re doing something worthwhile here at Highways. The bulk of our energy should be going into this project. We’re doing something really interesting that’s not bullshit. It’s going to provide us with the tools to do anything else that’s useful.

Burnham: What about your own work? What will be your emphasis?

Miller: Artists like me can’t think that they’re just working citizens who also happen to be making art. We have to keep refining the dialog about what it means to be doing your own work but also contrib­uting significant parts of your art energy to other activities, to keep refining that idea and do more within your communities. For me it’s to keep on being one of many weird poet laureates of gay male sensibility in Southern California in the late 20th century, which is more role than any artist should have to think they have to take on. You don’t have to create the uncreated consciousness of your race. You have to be a little bit helpful in articulating a small corner of your time and community. And figure out what it is to parcel out your energy to your many activities and keep them all energized and alive. Say I got some fabulous career opportunity like an HBO special where they want to do the trilogy of my solos as a “masterpiece of late 20th Century performance art around gay themes” or something [laughsl. It would be a tragedy and a betrayal for me to leave other things I’m doing. It would be an equal tragedy for me to become only an administrator or a bureaucrat or an activist and not keep the work going. So those have to play off each other. That’s a very useful two angels on your shoulder.

You don’t have to create the uncreated consciousness of your race. You have to be a little bit helpful in articulating a small corner of your time and community.

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For more information about the beginnings of Highways, see this story.

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