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COVER STORY : Art = Activism : Tim Miller is in the vanguard of a movement working onstage and off to preserve free expression and fight for gay rights

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It’s just after 6 in the evening on Nov. 22 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel and the preparations for the third annual Governor’s Awards for the Arts gala are getting under way. Security is tight; the arriving guests, at $250 a pop, are hustled quickly inside.

The Versailles Room is set for the nine artist and art patron honorees, sundry presenters and Gov. and Mrs. Pete Wilson to meet the press for photo and soundbite opportunities. Among the awardees are composer John Adams, author Wallace Stegner, Bilingual Foundation of the Arts co-founder Carmen Zapata and the first Hollywood star to receive a Governor’s award--everyone’s favorite Everyman, Jimmy Stewart.

Outside, the scene isn’t quite so cozy. Hundreds of artists and activists from ACT UP, Queer Nation and other gay and lesbian organizations mill around, angry about Wilson’s recent veto of a gay rights bill and ready to let him know. They wave placards and shout anti-Wilson slogans as the police hover, poised to intervene.

One face among the crowd has a special relationship with one of the honorees, although they’ve never met. Tim Miller--the self-proclaimed “all-American queer Jimmy Stewart"--is on the outside tonight, separated by politics and protocol from his counterpart inside. “Racist, sexist, anti-gay,” Miller joins in the chant, “Governor Wilson, go away!” The demonstration surges toward the hotel’s entryway and Miller manages to enter the lobby where he passes out ACT UP stickers before he is evicted.

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Better known as one of the infamous “NEA 4"--the artists who are suing the National Endowment for the Arts over grants that were recommended, then vetoed, last year--Miller has gotten used to the front lines of battle.

“I’m primarily an artist, but the vast majority of my energy goes toward cultural organizing,” explains Miller. “Maybe my work would be ‘better’ if I had more time to ‘be an artist.’ I don’t really think so, though. It comes from the artist-as-citizen model--which has always been degraded here, just as it’s been respected in Central America and elsewhere.”

Performance artist and gay activist, university teacher and co-founder of Santa Monica’s Highways Performance Space, Miller, 33, is both a homeboy hero to the left and target practice for the right. He recently founded (with Holly Hughes, another of the “NEA 4") the National Fund for Lesbian and Gay Artists, and last month was awarded an $8,000 NEA solo performance fellowship for the current year.

Miller has previously been awarded eight NEA grants for his work, which evokes both gay culture and local bourgeois suburbia. “Some Golden States” (1987), for example, is an operatic overture to California in which he talks about growing up in Whittier and the death of a boyfriend from AIDS. During the work, he simulates intercourse with a huge plywood cutout of the state. He frequently uses a matter-of-fact, conversational tone to address his audience . . . and his penis--a regular occurrence in the Miller canon.

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“He doesn’t threaten people by being too didactic or overbearing,” says L.A. actor-performer Michael Kearns, whose work also deals with AIDS. “He has this boyish, sexy, ingenue quality--the Jimmy Stewart analogy is valid--that the gay and lesbian as well as the straight population can relate to.

“If we heard the things Tim talks about from someone else, it might not be as palatable.”

Gentle and mild-mannered, he claims to be just a “gay kid from Whittier on Planet Earth,” but he calls himself a “cultural provocateur” and was once carried kicking and screaming from a meeting where he confronted NEA Chairman John Frohnmayer. He is committed to the notion of community, but also--by nature of being an artist who performs solo in works that are very personal--spends a lot of time thinking about himself.

But on a day like today--when artists and arts organizations throughout the country observe Visual AIDS’ third annual “A Day Without Art"--Miller’s most relevant role isn’t as the lone, controversial artist. He stars instead as part of an emerging vanguard of artist-activists, a generation of women and men, many from marginalized communities, who have been politicized around gay rights, AIDS, racism and reproductive rights issues.

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If historian Arthur Schlesinger’s theory about history running in cycles holds true, the ‘90s may be as fertile a time for American political art as were the ‘30s and the ‘60s. And Miller, whose performance art has addressed the AIDS crisis more and more directly, is poised to lead the way into the fray.

“Artists are crucial to transforming society. I hold that close to me,” says Miller, hunkering down in a pickup truck, heading south on Interstate 405 to a performance in San Diego. “Artists have been trained not to take that role seriously, but artists all over the country are demanding to take it back now.

“It’s definitely a new model, and a flexible one--which is good since there are so many attacks on the arts and communities right now. People have given up the luxury of thinking they can do just one thing.”

Foremost on Miller’s agenda, however, is the imperative for gay artists to confront government policies. “The main thing is this unbelievable double standard about the value that’s put on the life of a straight white man and on a gay person or a person of color dying of AIDS. That makes me want to drive my car through the White House. Of course, I’d have to get a car, first. And the extension of that is the incredible betrayal of Gov. Wilson by vetoing the civil rights of queers in the state of California.”

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Changing the world and making art, though, are each full-time jobs. So the problem becomes -- for Miller as for many who feel the calls--how to balance commitments, how to find 48 hours in a day.

“My feeling is that an artist in this climate--particularly a gay artist--cannot separate art and activism and Tim is a prime example of that,” Kearns says. “I’m awed by the way he’s able to entertainingly and artistically get across his agenda. I don’t know where his energy comes from, but he seems relentlessly able to maintain the passion of both.

The lights in San Diego’s Lyceum Theatre come up on a young man in torn black jeans and a tank top, plastered against the house-right aisle wall, yowling “H-e-e-e-l-l-l-l-l-p” at the top of his lungs. His left arm is raised high above his head, clutching a California flag potholder as if his life depends on it.

Miller begins the prologue, introducing the potholder and its history, moving from the aisle into and over the laps of the chagrined folks in the second row of the 500-seat house. Miller goes on talking about what you can do with such a prized potholder, how you can use it to hold a frying pan or the end of a burning California flag, and what some angry men and women have done with such flags at recent protests over Gov. Wilson’s veto.

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He’s not making all this up, either. It’s performance, all right--an improvisation that segues into a selection from his new work “Bodies of Water"--but it’s also documentary.

In the 36 hours preceding his splashy Lyceum entrance, Miller has been a teacher, cultural organizer, activist, artistic director and performance artist. This is definitely not the solitary, contemplative life of the garreted bohemian of yesterday--yet it’s all of a piece.

Friday afternoon, Nov. 15: Miller teaches a performance laboratory at UCLA. He gives his students an assignment to create a piece that connects an event from their personal lives with a political event.

Friday evening, Nov. 15: He careens from UCLA to Highways, where he piles into a car with a group of fellow travelers. They take off for a demonstration sponsored by ACT UP, Queer Nation, the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center and League America at the Warner Center Mariott in Woodland Hills. Gov. Wilson is set to be the keynote speaker.

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There, Miller and friends hook up with a crowd of about 500. They gather first across the street from the hotel, then in the street and in the hotel, disrupting the proceedings. The atmosphere is especially tense--with hundreds of police and the media out in force--due to violence at a similar Century City demonstration two weeks earlier. Eventually, the police move to clear the streets, using walls of mounted officers to disperse the throngs.

He has been arrested on several occasions before, including last year at the downtown Federal Building when artists in prison uniforms put on a guerrilla theater trial convicting the government of crimes against the First Amendment. But Miller has decided he can’t get arrested on this particular night because another duty calls.

Friday night, Nov. 15: Miller piles back into the car, darting down the freeway just in time for the opening of the Sodomite Warriors, a New York dance-performance duo, at Highways. After making sure all is set for curtain time, he schmoozes with the crowd, eventually wending his way to the stage area to introduce the act and put in a plug for upcoming events. When he finally gets back to his Venice home, Miller puts in a bit of time with his script for a performance he will give the next night.

Saturday morning, Nov. 16: Miller is on the road again by noon, giving an in-car interview as he takes the trip to San Diego and fretting out loud about how soon he can get back on Sunday.

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“When you feel the pull of many different calls--from your artist self, a community identity and a special event like Woodland Hills--if you’re not a juggler, you better become one,” says Miller of his day-in-the-life. “Inconvenient though it was, I needed to be (in Woodland Hills) in support of people who were going to get arrested, to be a witness to people getting beaten by the police.

“We’ve been trained to think that art is enough. Telling artists that ‘No, your art is not enough,’ is a challenge that people are hearing in many different ways.

“We have to go to demonstrations, be on commissions, force government types to release monies in the proper ways,” he says. “I don’t underestimate the cultural response as a way of keeping people’s energy up, of education and shamanic journey, but if you don’t also ease the suffering, then it’s not working.”

Mom spent most of her working days behind the counter at May Co. Dad was a traveling salesman. Tim, the youngest of four Miller kids, was born in 1958 and grew up in Whittier, “the home of the President.” He describes his “Euro-American middle-class family” with “the danger word: normal. " (Miller-on-Miller is often riddled with ironically hyperbolic self-satire.)

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After being a “bratty Dostoevskian adolescent” given to black nail polish and the sartorial excess of a high school Oscar Wilde, Miller fled to New York in 1978.

Nineteen years old, with no friends in the city and a “face like an open wallet,” Miller “wanted to do the big white man postmodern art dance thing.” There was a downtown scene happening then, as well as the explosion of spectacle art, encapsulated by the rise of Robert Wilson and Laurie Anderson.

Miller, who had begun making solo performances during high school, took a few classes, got to know people and struck out on his own, subsisting off day jobs.

As he recalls with self-conscious revision: “I was a bellboy on Central Park South where I learned class hatred carrying wealthy industrialists’ bags. Once the elevators broke and I--this little obnoxious postmodern performance artist--had to carry Natalia Makarova’s tutus up 14 stories, cursing the dominant Eurocentric culture every step of the way.”

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There was much more to our young hero’s life back then, though, than schlepping Soviet tutus. Things were beginning to get political. “With all the energy of the punk explosion, my friends were frustrated with the sleek minimalism of the Robert Wilson gang,” says Miller.

“There was a shift going on away from this aloof, formalist cool to a more aggressive stance: a desire to bring political content and peoples’ identity into the work.”

A major source of inspiration for Miller’s part in this shift was the feminist art movement in Los Angeles during the late ‘70s, centered at the Woman’s Building. “It’s the single hugest influence on the genre of autobiographical ‘personal is political’ performance,” says Miller of the groundbreaking group, which recently shut its downtown headquarters.

That vision was in part what led Miller in 1980--along with co-founders Charles Moulton and Charles Dennis--to create PS 122, still New York’s premiere venue for alternative performance.

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It was also an attempt to bring a bit of the Golden State to the East. “I came from California, which, because of Harvey Milk and Prop. 6 (the Briggs Initiative, which failed but would have banned gays from teaching in public schools), was the center of the gay activist political movement in the late ‘70s, to New York, which was considered more apolitical,” explains Miller. “I was experiencing frustration as a gay person. The art world was extremely closeted.”

Miller’s first big success as a performer--"Post War,” commissioned by Dance Theater Workshop--led to a flurry of media attention, and in 1984 came what he ruefully remembers as “the BAM debacle.”

Miller was in rehearsals for “Democracy in America” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music when his father died and, in retrospect, Miller says that’s what his work should have been about.

Instead, he was drawn into the vortex of the spectacle craze, the youngest artist ever to be commissioned for the popular Next Wave Festival. The result was “a classic example of toxic BAM syndrome . . . a mess of a piece” and “nightmare reviews.”

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“I watched the whole process of the big BAM commission and his getting trounced,” recalls Lynn Schuette, founder and executive director of Sushi, the venue that has presented Miller more than any other, save for the ones he’s founded. “It’s a setup--almost peculiarly East Coast. But Tim came back (to California) and developed a whole new response.”

Although AIDS had figured in Miller’s work as early as 1983, it wasn’t until 1984 that it became central. “By the end of the year, I was listening to what was happening,” he remembers. “I was beginning to feel my friends drop like flies in 1985.”

In 1985, Miller made “Buddy Systems,” an autobiographical performance created in collaboration with Doug Sadownick that tenderly but wittily explored the two men’s evolving relationship--as well as life with Buddy, their black Labrador.

In 1986, Buddy and the two guys moved to L.A. “It matched the shifting of my commitment to work dealing with being a gay person and AIDS,” says Miller.

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The coastal switch was also a professional boon. “I had no colleague like (L.A. actor-performer) Kearns in New York. Suddenly there was someone to talk to,” Miller says. “There was a desperate need I had for a community of artists dealing with issues.”

Miller found that politicization in L.A. “The community of artists in L.A. is probably the most politicized of any in the country, and that was true then, partly because of the Woman’s Building,” he says. “It’s also widely acknowledged as the most vital performance community. It became absurd not to be here.”

Some say the move put Miller in his element. “Tim represents a real difference between the East and the West Coast in terms of how artists are defined and supported,” says Schuette. “In the East, it’s a fellowship, the rich buying a product. In the West, it’s the artist-in-residence--the artist is supposed to integrate into the fabric of a community.”

That Miller is fueled by community is evident at Highways, the performance and dance space he co-founded in 1989 with Linda Burnham. Their goal was to program and develop work with a socially conscious bent.

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Highways has made its mark in just two years as an unusually active venue. Dominated especially in the first year by gay male work--and criticized by women artists and others for that--it has also faced the usual barrage of criticisms thrown at performance art.

The issue of “quality,” in particular, has become the club wielded not only at non-European multicultural art, but also at mediums such as performance that don’t adhere to traditional standards of evaluation.

Partly because the work is so personal, performance artists (including Miller) rarely employ directors, and performance art detractors are quick to dismiss the field as “bad theater.” But Miller says the whole good-bad discussion is a ruse.

“ ‘Quality’ is not necessarily my biggest concern; I’ve seen a lot of capable junk,” he says. “What’s exciting to me is work that changes how we understand the world, that opens a window for people to see another part of our city. That becomes the criterion, not if someone’s toe is pointed or if they have a well-turned text. ‘Quality’ is a dreary notion.”

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The way Miller assesses value--and, as an artistic director, he admits he must make editorial choices--is inextricably tied to his activist stance, but it’s also with a feel for where the vitality is in the art world at the moment. “The most interesting work is coming out of communities of crisis; it’s a deep cultural call,” he says. “It makes people come to the work in a charged way.”

“It comes down to the bugaboo of what ‘quality’ is and how we define it,” says Schuette. “Inherent in the West Coast model is that art responds to community. Quality of art has to do with the artists’ intention, not this outside art historical apparatus. So if Tim intends activism, then it doesn’t fall outside of a quality discussion.”

Miller’s most vocal detractors, of course, are not genteel formalists. In 1990, when NEA Chairman Frohnmayer denied Miller, Hughes, and fellow performance artists John Fleck and Karen Finley their grants, the action was widely perceived as a sop to growing pressure among conservatives against such openly gay artists as Miller.

Miller’s application included personal comments, which NEA staffers argued did not qualify as an artistic statement.

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“I am a mutant performance artist from Alta California, which is what this land was called before we stole it from Mexico,” Miller wrote. “I believe my social activism . . . my sex juicy life . . . my space building . . . and my family Sunday dinners in Whittier are as much a part of my creative work as my performance is . . . and look here, Senator Jesse Helms, keep your Porky Pig face out of the NEA and out of my (expletive) . . . because I got work to do.”

“He was turned down for political reasons, because (the four artists’) work deals with lifestyles that are not acceptable to the far right,” says David Mendoza, executive director of the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, which, along with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights, filed the still-pending suit on behalf of the four artists. “He is a gay man and his work is about being gay. The majority of the work that’s been attacked is by gay and lesbian artists, or deals with other issues such as feminism and reproductive rights.”

Miller didn’t take Frohnmayer’s veto lying down. He and about 30 members of ACT UP confronted the chairman with banners and accusations as he was speaking at a Southern Arts Exchange meeting at a Hyatt Regency in Atlanta last fall. It took five security guards to haul Miller from the room, ripping his shirt in the process.

“It made an impression on people--many of whom had watched me perform the night before--to see an artist manhandled and dragged out of the presence of the head of the federal agency,” Miller recalls.

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The Miller-Frohnmayer wars resumed when the latter spoke at a public forum earlier this year at Hollywood’s Ivar Theater. Frustrated by the chairman’s then-standard explanation of the veto (that it was more a procedural than political matter), Miller interrupted Frohnmayer with the accusation that he was lying to the audience.

On a more positive note--as evidenced by Miller’s grant this year--Mendoza says “things have changed. I hope it’s (Frohnmayer) realizing that caving in to the far right is not his proper role.”

At any rate, the “quality” issue is moot for the moment. Miller was ranked second among the top four applications in a pool of 124 (Hughes also received an $8,000 grant; Fleck and Finley did not apply this round). Mendoza says it was “clearly a judgment of artistic excellence, not what good activists they were.”

In “Stretch Marks” (1989), Miller imagines himself in a better place, another dimension where the fear of flying/AIDS/death won’t be quite so real. He materializes on a magical, mythical Venice beach, where he is free to roam, the love child of Gustav von Aschenbach and Maria von Trapp. But the piece has its darker side: People die in fiery plane crashes on Miller’s Venice beach.

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Even a love child has to grit his teeth now and then. While few would begrudge Miller the pains that the NEA imbroglio has brought so far, there is a bit of a silver lining.

“Performance art is getting new credibility,” he says. “If nothing else, a year and a half of front-page art stories made it visible.”

“There’s a whole new wave of social commentary (in art) that’s doing well,” says Mendoza. “Because Tim and the others have become visible, it’ll be harder to mistreat them. But it’s not been a bed of roses to be attacked.

“They’ve become the standard-bearers,” Mendoza continues. “They have enormous support, but we’re not yet as well organized as the fundamentalists. We don’t have as much money or cable TV stations, but we have a good sense of humor.”

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That sense of humor--far from the modus operandi of the dour black-clad bohemians of the early ‘80s--is intrinsic to Miller’s work. And like a Jimmy Stewart character, Miller is grateful for his wonderful life in art, even though he’d--aw, shucks--like to make things better.

“Maybe it’s a happy event that my deepest personal need and my politics are parallel now,” says the kid from the “normal” family in Richard Nixon’s hometown, his Pepsodent smile grinning out from above a well-worn “Silencio=Muerte” T-shirt.


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