Interview with Tim Miller, co-founder, Highways

Posted December 03, 2014 by Anonymous
Bartholomew Ryan
Interview Date: 
Thursday, January 6, 2011
Person Interviewed: 
Tim Miller
Place of Interview: 
Interview conducted by phone with Tim Miller in California and Bartholomew Ryan in Minneapolis.

BARTHOLOMEW RYAN:  The following interview is being conducted with Tim Miller, on behalf of Art Spaces Archives Project, a project based at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College. The interview is taking place on the sixth of January, 2011. Tim is in California and I am in Minneapolis. The person conducting the interview is Bartholomew Ryan. Tim, it’s great to talk to you.


TIM MILLER:  Good to talk.


RYAN:  I thought we would start with the early days of your performance art involvement and your move to New York in 1978. Could you tell us what propelled that move and talk a little bit about your time in New York and the founding of PS 122?


MILLER:  Sure. It’s something I’m thinking about a lot right now, because we’re at the thirty-year anniversary this fall when myself and Charles Dennis and Charlie Moulton co-founded and became the first co-directors of PS 122, in September 1980. I was just there performing my new show and I’m starting this mentorship program for emerging queer performers. So I’m working with these three twenty-two-year-old lesbian and gay performers in the Lower East Side, who were probably about, well, maybe a tiny bit older than the age I was when I co-founded PS 122; I think I was twenty-one, but pretty close. And imagining the same challenges and adventures that they’re going to have as they’ve arrived in New York City from various places, mostly college, to start seeking their fortune and claiming their voice and all that. And in some ways, the problems are exactly the same. You have horrible jobs and it’s expensive to live and you need space to work and you’re battling these challenges in New York City and stuff. So in some ways, as I hit town still a teenager, for all the usual reasons, including the ones that these young artists I’m working with in New York now are doing—to be in the midst of things, to be in the biggest city. Clearly, cultural life in America has decentralized dramatically in thirty years, but New York is still quite a big place and it’s still incredibly central. And if we’re going to argue there is a point of centrality, certainly in creative practice and performance and visual art and all that, we’re probably going to— No one will win but New York, clearly. Who knows? Twenty years from now, that may not be so sure; but I think it’s unlikely to change. So all of those reasons are still in place, to go and seek your fortune and have adventures and find love and not end up decapitated in the Hudson and all of these things, especially for me, as really kind of a kid—I’d only had one year of college, at the University of Washington in Seattle, I was nineteen, looking about twelve. I hadn’t even fully grown yet. I was still five eight and a half and would grow two and a half inches my first year in New York.


RYAN:  Wow.


MILLER:   You know, I was still like really— I’d gone through puberty really late. I was really like a little kid, hitting this huge city, where I literally did not know a single person. Being such a West Coaster and everything, and had lived my whole life— I had never been east of Arizona in my life. So you know, these are— not to Horatio Alger it, but these are quite common ways people come to New York, if you didn’t grow up in Connecticut or Pennsylvania and had relatives or whatever. So in some ways, very, very quickly, I was facing the usual challenges of finding a horrible job and a horrible place to live and eking out a survival. But pretty quickly, I fell in with a group of performance and dance people, through this kind of open improvisation, kind of post-modern dance and performance event, and found myself, well, with the boyfriend, with a horrible job and with a horrible place to live.


RYAN:  And what was the performance?


MILLER:   It was something called Open Movement. Well, then it was called Open Dance. It came out of—which is actually interesting, because it’s the way these lineages work—it’s something Bob Wilson—  Well, Bob Wilson, at the Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds, his space, which I think maybe just recently closed, as he went ever more operatic post Einstein on the Beach. This kind of hippie community, because the Byrd Hoffman School for Byrds was this amazing space and place where people gathered. Mostly around— well, completely around his work and vision, of course. But they’d always had this open improvisational dancing jam, I think for years. And then Charles Dennis, who had been in lots of Bob Wilson’s pieces, would later become one of the co-founders with me, of PS 122, I’m pretty sure he and a few other people started this. So in a weird way, the sour dough pancake yeast came out of the Bob Wilson stuff. And very much— I’m glad we’re talking about this because actually, I never made that leap and it’s actually interesting, considering he was clearly the dominant interdisciplinary artist of the seventies, as I arrived. He was the Wagner of downtown and all this. Poor thing. [they laugh] To be the Wagner of anything. But it was kind of this amazing gathering of artists that would happen every Monday or Tuesday—I think it was Tuesday night then—on Prince Street, at 99 Prince, just in the heart of SoHo. And lots of the most interesting performance and dance and interdisciplinary performance people would come and improvise and move around and hook up and the usual history, the formal and erotic history of any art movement, which are all kind of parallel, of course.


But then the real challenge, of course, with New York is always space and just to segue a little bit, you know, keeping an eye on Highway’s goal of this challenge of creating space and where do we hang our hat, where do we have a place to perform our work, to teach, to move around, to hook up. That image I have in that essay, which I think you’ve got, of the Myspace Highways.


RYAN:  Yeah.


MILLER:   That image of that tree house from when I was a kid, which is very strong to me, is what PS122, which was on the second floor and felt a little like a Swiss Family Robinson tree house, perched, in a banyan tree or something.  That’s this huge, powerful challenge and especially for performance, which requires public space, which requires a place you can sit— not always; people perform in their homes and in site-specific [spaces] and all that. But the vast majority of performance activity of all sorts happens in spaces that have some volume and dimension and electricity and protection from the elements, and all those things that are pretty important, unless you’re always wanting to work in an arch under a bridge in London or Boston or New York.


RYAN:  In a previous conversation that we had, you talked about wanting to chat a little bit about PS 122, because you felt that the cultural, artistic and maybe political stakes at that moment were very different to the ones that emerged later, with Highways. So what were they? What was the urgency of the time for you, or the need?


MILLER:   Well, there was certainly— it would’ve been the next thing I got to, actually, which is, you know, that desire for space. Of course, which is also the desire to have a place to advance your career, to realize your artistic vision, to get reviewed in the New York Times and all of that, which are the other reasons why performers need space. And New York, you know, attracts maybe the most ambitious people on planet Earth. It’s the vat of narcissism and ego, which is partly why it’s so amazing and interesting. And class and all the other privileges that go with who manages to hang their hat there. All of those things were super-key to this, as partly this is the space where I’m going to get to perform and be the youngest performer in New York City, kind of—which for a long period, I was, just since so few people move there as teenagers—and almost immediately, start performing. Some people do, if they grew up in the East Village. I would say David Wojnarowicz, who we will talk about later, was certainly there working as a street hustler as a teenager; a whole other kind of work. But his artistic career starts extremely young in New York. But I would say the kind of jumping off point of that period, even with this kind of punky, politically oppositional posture, really, it was pretty career— There was a strong focus on career, there was a strong focus on the collapsing of false separation between disciplines. The ideologies of it, as contrasted with Highways’, which opened  literally just a few years later, ten years later, are completely different, with a much more directly situated in politics and multiculturalism and artists in society and all that. There was actually not a whole bunch of that, even though we were actually plumping ourselves at PS 122 into the middle of a really complex, culturally diverse neighborhood in the very earliest stages of gentrification. The East Village, the notion of the word East Village, was seen as a word created by real estate developers to destroy the neighborhood. I mean, even now, I still can only use the phrase without kind of cringing. And Alphabet City is even ten steps more of a real estate developer’s term, something that no person who ever grew up on the Lower East Side would ever use that expression; something for white kids from Westchester to feel more comfy with Avenues C and D. So the neighborhood was actually fraught and complex and mostly not white, and in some ways, would’ve been an amazing template for where interdisciplinary performance would be ten years later. But it wasn’t there at that point. There was certainly a strong posture of challenging form and sexuality and what content was up for grabs; a rejection of postmodern cool, and the rejection of the collapse of meaning and claiming of a more direct, expressive set of narratives, cultural identities and politics. And you know, in some ways, the origins certainly of my journey are really— The first thing I ever did at PS 122 was organize the first festival of gay men’s performance art on planet Earth.


RYAN:  That was 1980?


MILLER:   In 1980. And I just did a panel, actually, with Peggy Shaw of Split Britches in New York, about that period, a core period of especially queer cultural space making at that time in the Lower East Side. So in some ways, the materials are there, but I would never have probably used the rhetoric I would use a few years later to place it in that context.


RYAN:  And could we explore the idea of postmodern cool just a little bit more, because you’ve also referred to a kind of disenchantment with figures such as Merce Cunningham and Robert Wilson at the time.


MILLER:   Well, some of it is as a lefty Marxist-Feminist queer boy, fresh from being in a horrible punk rock band, doing songs by the Marquis de Sade, it was this kind of frustration with the previous generation’s—well, really, almost two previous generations— And with the Cage-Cunningham aesthetic— maybe three, my almost-grandparents’ generation of artistic practice and stuff. Which at the time, I kind of brattily, --and which I think you might be referring to— had this huge frustration I also felt as a young, gay artist at the incredible closetedness of these generations of gay artists. This phenomenon of gay men, gay artists in New York really creating the avant-garde, but doing it really, for all intents and purposes, closeted. Whether it’s Cage, Cunningham, Bob Wilson, Rauschenberg, Johns—the whole lot of them internalized. We will lick the boots of the ruling class, and not talk about any of this stuff. It’s there in their work constantly, although obliquely. It was something I was very aware of and publicly was denouncing them for at the time. A kind of new, more aggressive kind of queer cultural identity was percolating. And Keith Haring and I, we were quite close our first years in New York; we’re exactly the same age. Well, we would be if he were alive. But we arrived the same month in 1978 and met almost immediately. And Keith, who would have a whole other journey, of course, in his work, but also similar— All the early work he did was incredibly queer-identified. I can remember his first piece he ever did at Club 57 was this amazing Lick Fat Boys [laughs] almost Dada sound poem. It was really quite amazing. So I would say that there was a lot of that, those kids who had just arrived in New York with artistic studies, knowing who our progenitors were, but then also really wanting to push things into more challenging political, sexual, queer spaces. So those were all strong, strong impulses. But for me, a lot of it was just the desire for direct intent, for meaning; this tedium I felt with this idea that we are constantly obfuscating meaning through postmodern strategies of— you know, alienating them or even Cage-Cunningham chance procedures, you know, trying to drain all meaning from action. And I’d been such a Cage-Cunningham party liner. I really had the fire in my eyes. And then at some point, it just started to feel so limited and so 1950s. And you know, the critique always about all of this—the US State Department, the CIA loved Abstract Expressionism and all these formal approaches, because it meant art stayed absent of content, absent of politics. In some ways, Abstract Expressionism and postmodernism, I think…You know, there’s this whole book that claims that Ab Ex was basically a creation of the CIA and the State Department. They rewarded it dramatically. And this was presented as trying to create the model of a de-politicized, de-contextualized artistic practice, was really part of US imperialism, too. But I’m leaping off into that, but that book is extraordinary, I think.


RYAN:  I think these all create the moment for Highways. I know you had a strong early reception in New York, critically. And I recently read a play that you did with John Bernd called Live Boys in 1981.


MILLER:   Right.


RYAN:  And it’s very interesting to me because it feels almost slightly abstract. There’s this almost Beckettian flow back and forth and a lack of definition about what it’s about, I would say.


MILLER:   Right. No, you’re right about that. And it’s firmly within that layering, and even almost more so. But I think in real time, because our bodies were so present and there and young and cute and naked, the corporeality of it stayed quite real time and rooted, and maybe even more on the page. But you’re not wrong in that; I think it is there. And that was true not just in the work I did with John. Certainly, you know, I was a creature of my time. That we were bringing so much text in was such a departure from, certainly, high postmodern dance practice and stuff, and multiple layers of text. So the layering is a familiar collapsing of meaning by means of multiplicity and stuff.  But within the heart of that, of course, there are all these extremely specific direct statements around identity.   There’s that triptych of I bought two bialys; a delicious eastern European bread…vaguely bagel-like…I fucked him in the ass, I love New York. [They laugh]  The I-heart-New-York thing was, I think, fairly new at the time. I think it was 1979 or ’80. And one of the most successful ad campaigns ever.  Introducing the emoticon, I suppose, I-heart-New-York. That piece, Live Boys, which the scholar David Gere opines is the first-ever mention of AIDS in performance anywhere in the world, sadly. There’s that sequence of John talking about the skin problem and — you know, something going on.


RYAN:  Yes, in hindsight that is an incredible sequence, really quite moving and eerie.


MILLER:  Which then later in the year, John does a whole piece called Surviving Love and Death. I would say that’s the real departure, this inchoate feeling of, okay, we need to bring our identities, we need to bring our queerness, we need to bring our politics forward, was already in place. And then certainly, with the arrival of AIDS, it became the order of the day. What else can we do? You know, very soon, within a year and a half of PS 122 opening, within six months of John and I doing that piece, he was in the hospital. John was only twenty-five at the time, I think. [He was] one of the very first people sick with AIDS, and the only person in our downtown artist cohort sick in 1981. So it was suddenly very much in my world. And that, of course, changed everything.


RYAN:  Right.


MILLER:   And it transformed, not for me, immediately— I wish that I had been a little more quick on the draw. But partly, because I was a kid, I was twenty-two years old. I was having to go visit my recently ex-boyfriend, [who was] sick in the hospital. How does a 22-year old take in that he may not make it to twenty-five? That was the feeling in those years and it informed how we lived and made art. I really had no idea what was going on. It took me a couple of years to really figure out how that was going to formulate in my work. And also, I was on a high career dudgeon and I was running the hot space in New York as one of the co-directors, and my work was getting commissions at Dance Theater Workshop, and in a couple of years, I’d be the youngest person ever commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music for the Next Wave Festival, to create my enormous, spectacular flop. [they laugh]


RYAN:  Democracy in America?


MILLER:   Yes. I mean, in the scheme of Brooklyn Academy of Music Next Wave Festival flops it’s not high on the list. There’s been so many over the years.


RYAN:  I know. [laughs]


MILLER:   They’re shotgun collaborations.


RYAN:  Yeah. Well, just to digress, I feel like almost everything I see at the Next Wave Festival, there’s always that huge ambition, but…? But well, let’s leave that behind. So you get to Democracy in America, and that’s in 1984.


MILLER:   Right. And I would say that’s where, generally in New York at that point, we were missing the boat. We were still hooked up to this—My work always was engaged in political themes. And my first work Postwar which I think of as a really strong piece and I toured all over the world with it at a very young age, in that fast track mode. In some ways, if I’d trusted that more and been less lured by the kind of Wagnerian Next Wave spectacle, I might— Which it’s just really hard to do, especially with not enough money to do it.


RYAN:  Right.


MILLER:   And I ended up dislocating my creative vision in a strong way. But I was still only twenty-five. There was plenty of time to— Well, since I didn’t die of AIDS at twenty-five, there was time for me to keep formulating things. But that was this big, shocking moment of suddenly— Not just John, but lots of people are sick, lots of people are dying. I’d just gone through a kind of artistic death, which now seems so who cares, big deal. I was allowed to do this amazing, high-spectacle thing at the age of twenty-five at BAM, and failed spectacularly, and still be a kid and still be ready to then turn it into what really has become my work since then, of really focusing on the performing, the writing, the embodiment, the queer politics of it. And in some ways, that’s all disciplined by necessity of suddenly no one was going to give me huge pots of cash anymore, [They laugh], which I think was a blessing. It was not helpful to me. They should not have commissioned me; I was too young. I didn’t know what to do. It’s worked out just fine. But even more, being disciplined by suddenly, okay, we’re in a plague. Not just the AIDS plague, we’re in the Reagan-Bush plague, we’re in the kind of complete counterrevolution against the expansiveness of the late sixties and seventies in the US, and the counterrevolutionaries were in charge and turning the clock back and there was work to be done. And so naturally, over that time, Highways would be in a petri dish that was completely different than PS 122, and would respond in ways that I think made sense of the real feeling of class war of the Reagan-Bush administration and the repackaging of racism, which is why the Republicans took over the House yesterday. You know, the Southern strategy to have Southerners know they have a racist stronghold in the Republican party to maintain power, which has worked ever since. And most immediately and most in my body, the fear that I was going to not make it to thirty. But those are all the materials that as I focus back on in my work, primarily as a soloist with occasional collaborations with my boyfriends, I used to launch into Highways.


RYAN:  In a sense, you have the aftermath of Death In America, where you want to move back to the terrain that you had been exploring before, which was a one-person, two-person type scenario. And then you have the ability of certain kinds of performance to respond very quickly to things, to trauma and political developments.


MILLER:   Right.


RYAN:  To have a more activist potential. In 1986, you decided to move back to L.A. Can you tell me what was going on at that moment that made you make that decision?


MILLER:   Well, it’s my hometown, which has an appeal. I was drawn to the climate and family. My dad died in ’84, during the whole BAM production—just a few months before the BAM stuff. It was a very hard year for me and it led me to get more homey. There are less savory things I was feeling. AIDS was so overwhelming in New York and was slightly— well, more than slightly less so in L.A. Things were easier in L.A. You could live a lot better. $500 in New York bought you a dump, and in L.A., you’d get a little bungalow in the hills, with a view of the whole city and a hot tub that didn’t work. But the idea of even having a hot tub that didn’t work in New York, [they laugh]. Just that you could look at it was very, very appealing. I was also having— I’d come back to L.A. and premiered my new show, Buddy Systems, which was really the piece that became more my queer performer-writer-humorist self, and was hugely successful in L.A. and New York. And I came back and did a long run in New York and redeemed myself by having this big hit that ran week after week after week at PS 122 and was getting all this great press. “Miller is back!” [they laugh] you know, so then I felt like, okay, I’ve redeemed myself; I can get out of there. I’d had my— ’86, I was still mostly in New York, and in Europe a lot. My partner had been Doug Sadownick, who I was with for many years, who also was a New Yorker from the Bronx and was ready to leave.  But partly, really what was going on there was I was suddenly finding the discourse in L.A. was so much more exciting than in New York, in terms of what I was interested in. It was starting to feel like New Yorkers primarily only spoke about their careers, which is still true, to some extent. I mean, New York is a very career-focused city. People move there— And partly, it’s such a difficult city to live in that that binds you even closer to thinking about your individual personal résumé, career. It wasn’t a hotbed of social vision, to say the least, at all. New York was actually very behind the rest of the country, in that regard, in terms of community-based work, multiculturalism. Partly because the stakes of Eurocentric avant-gardism were still— The stakes were so high and the goodies were pretty plentiful on the tree; it retarded all kinds of other—pardon that expression, I’m trying to— I used it in one show and finally a learning disability activist said, “You must stop saying retarded.” [they laugh] It’s hard, though, since I’d already lost lame, so I digress, though in a way, not, because it’s that specificity to identity and otherness; since I am not retarded, I’m not lame, to use those words unconsciously bears looking at. But suddenly I was out in L.A. and I met Guillermo Gómez-Peña, who I think is one of the most important artists on earth in that period, and was working with Guillermo and the other artists in San Diego-Tijuana, around the Border Arts Workshop. Rachel Rosenthal and her eco-feminism, her performances, which were so inspiring; John Malpede, in the Los Angeles Poverty Department, who’s certainly been at the Walker Art Center. They are turning Highways into an incarcerated area. I don’t know if you know their work around the homeless on skid row?  I think it’s some of the most thrilling work anybody does on earth. But they’re recreating the conditions of the men’s jail at Highways, with the same proximity of bunks, and the audience is all going to be crammed into a very small space. A hundred people, it’ll be, I think. I’m glad I’m in town for it.


RYAN:  That sounds good.


MILLER:   My bratty thing I would say at that point, when I was in New York is, God, I have to go to L.A. or Tijuana to have a real conversation about art in society in this country. It did feel that way. It felt like except for AIDS activism, that nothing was happening in New York, that it was still completely on its sort of dying model of formalism in service of rich people and bank portfolios; so absent of oppositional social vision and cultural diversity— also, 99% white and completely Eurocentric oriented. And really, this kind of fantasy of an old European avant-garde that doesn’t really exist after World War II, anyway. I’m tapping back into the dudgeon of the time. But those were the strong feelings, that New York was operating in this old mode and that we had to be in Mexico City or L.A. or, Bangkok to actually think about what’s going on culturally on earth right now, in a time of a global plague. And those are the materials that really fed Highways. The people like John Malpede’s Homeless Performance Ensemble and Guillermo Gómez-Peña in the Border Arts Workshop, and Rachel Rosenthal’s eco-feminism, the real explosion of queer performance that was going on in L.A. at that time. And John Fleck, who would later be one of the NEA Four with me, whose work was just so exciting to me, and still is. And he’s a great guy, as well. So in some ways, it was for my artistic survival. I was feeling really starved of inspiration, discourse, politics in New York, and I could come and live in L.A. and play a role in my hometown.


RYAN:  So, in the years leading up to ’89, to the founding of Highways— Can you talk in a little bit more detail about the kinds of artistic interactions you were having? For instance, it would be nice to know more about Guillermo Gómez-Peña or John Fleck or the culture that you were experiencing that you liked. And then lead that into yourself and Linda Frye Burnham’s decision to found Highways.


MILLER:   Sure. Linda, who I had known when I still lived in New York, because the main magazine for performance art, High Performance, was based in Los Angeles and was big and glossy and perfect bound. And that was certainly one of L.A.’s big contributions. There were a couple of other journals in New York, Performing Arts Journal and—


RYAN:  Lynda Frye Burnham was the founding editor of High Performance magazine.


MILLER:   Yes, it was the biggest and flashiest, and by far, the longest lived. It lasted for twenty years or so, and is the main document of performance art, mostly in North America, but also internationally, for that period. So, meeting Linda, we immediately connected. She’d been very aware of PS 122. And there had been a period of an enormous amount happening in L.A. and all of this energy and a feeling that there wasn’t enough space, and the spaces that existed weren’t, in some ways, committed to the social vision and energy we were seeing exploding out of communities of color and Guillermo’s work and LAPD, and this enormous vitality that was existing in L.A.—as the second biggest city, but the city most committed to a kind of international multiculturalism model, since it is the most diverse city in the United States and has been a minority white city for many years. So it’s a very interesting template, and also not facing Europe, but facing Latin America and the Pacific. As we would’ve imagined, the New World, the world we occupy in our hemispheric identity in the Americas and the Pacific Ring, which is really where most of the world lives. It’s this Pacific-facing, Latin American, North American, Asian-American world, as opposed to North Atlantic vision, which has dominated. And those are big materials and were creating different formations. But as often happened in this way, it is that kind of Eurocentric model of Tristan Tzara hanging out with his friends in a café or something; we would hang out at Linda’s house or my house, and Guillermo would be there, Rachel Rosenthal, or a really important theater director, David Schweizer, who worked with John Fleck a lot and now is back in New York. But we would just hang out and perform and talk and conspire.


And over time, really— They were very heady— Forget Paris, ’68; think Paris, 1871. Real communard. And the commune of that feeling of social breakdown, which creates this broken spot that we can reform something. It was full of high political, very complex and rich and subversive kinds of politics, and that embraced the body and the Artaudian signaling through the flames of plague, as we were. I mean, partly because our number—There were so many gay men, including gay men of color and of all cultural identities, who were literally dropping like flies in our community. So that kind of Artaudian gesticulation through the fires was very alive in that work and added to the urgency and the high rhetoric and the feeling. I think artistic movements should carry that heat. If we’re going to really be iconoclastic, which is literally to break the icon that that fever and fire should be there. And I certainly felt that. As I look at my public statements at that time, compared to my public statements at the age of twenty-one, as PS 122 opened, I was dumber then, as well, and less politically savvy and more just feral, [they laugh] as young artists are. I think I sent you that opening manifesto for Highways.


RYAN:  Yes.


MILLER:   We printed that eight and a half by eleven, and our huge broadsheet announcement of our first season. Highways went from not existing to having performances six nights a week. It was just non-stop activity and literally hundreds and hundreds of artists; from two weeks of L.A. Poverty Department, to me premiering a new show, to Artists Confronting AIDS doing one of their media-based projects around AIDS. It was very, very stimulating. It was exciting from the get go in a way that PS 122 certainly wasn’t exciting. And we were also getting huge attention. Partly because I was a very visible performer, and at that point, I was thirty when it opened, in May of ’89. And Linda was the editor of the most established magazine. It was a very interesting collaboration to people all over the world, too.


RYAN:  Right. And I know that the building, the 18th Street Arts Complex was co-founded by Burnham and the artist Susanna Bixby Dakin.


MILLER:   Right.


RYAN:  Dakin’s statement about the complex was that it would be, “a place where no inalienable attribute—skin color, ancestry, culture, sex or sexual orientation—defines or limits one's value.”  How did you and Linda get the space with the 18th Street Arts Complex?


MILLER:   Well, as always, with both of these—and this is the linkage of PS 122 and Highways—space doesn’t just happen, which I think is your quite-on-target, leading question. Something needs to happen. Unless Linda and I had been wealthy or Charles Dennis and Charlie Moulton and I had been wealthy—we certainly could never have bought an enormous school building in New York City, even in the late seventies, after the city was in fiscal default and not the yuppie paradise it would become in a few years. You need a magic wand of some sort.  Now, some of that magic wand is agency and is taking a chance, and literally as with P.S. 122 sneaking in a side window and starting to squat and claiming the space. It was an abandoned school building. There was a little activity in there, but it was a lot of unused space. And then making that a fait accompli, you know connecting with the local Democratic party head, who was across the street; my ever interest in political structures and stuff. So that was our magic wand, that we had a little window to claim an abandoned public building in New York, that is today worth— you know, I can’t even imagine the tens of millions of dollars that building is worth; probably a couple hundred million dollars at least.  It’s a very valuable, huge piece of real estate at First Avenue and 9th  Street. If we did now know what we did then, we would probably be declared terrorists and put in prison. Squatting and just taking over a space, but you could get away with stuff. So that was that magic wand. Over time I bought a suit and started going to city hall to make sure they didn’t take away from us, which they didn’t.


The magic wand in Highways’ case was Sue Dakin, who had a long history as a real politically progressive patron of the arts, especially in performance art, as well as an artist herself, and wanted to buy a large piece of property in Santa Monica, both as an investment— which it turned out to be an incredibly good investment, [laughs], since it was bought at a very low period and that property is now— that part of Santa Monica is some of the most expensive property in the world, at this point. Vast amounts of construction and big buildings. But that wasn’t why she did it. She wanted to create a space very much like what you’re describing there. And certainly, Highways became the most visible kind of flagship. And you know, we had to pay rent, but it was pretty modest rent, just as PS 122 always had to pay rent. But again, when we started PS 122 formally, after the city had hassled us, it was pretty modest and we were paying it to the 122 Community Center. Without those magic wands— I think it’s always really important to acknowledge this, because I know, especially young artists in New York right now can feel really like, what do we do? This city’s so expensive. But you know, it wasn’t easy then, either, but I was just not having to take the subway.  And it was cheaper. You could be poor. Before the kind of increasing corporatization of youth in this country, where you have to have a cell phone, have to have this— I lived on almost no money. I would eat a 60-cent knish every day for lunch. That was my budget for lunch was 60 cents for a knish and sauerkraut, which I have a lifelong love of knishes. [laughs] So that magic wand of some sort was really needed to be there. Linda and I were pretty well connected, and I’m very entrepreneurial, as one has to be to be a successful freelance artist in this country. We might’ve figured it out somehow. But real estate’s pretty challenging. We almost rented a space downtown. But then Sue Dakin said, “Well, I’ve really got this vision. I want to make this happen.” You know, it wasn’t the ideal location; it’s almost to the beach; it’s a little bit far away. Though L.A. generally looks— The Westside of L.A. is the Manhattan of L.A. It’s the power core and the class core, which in some ways, also made it not appropriate, not the most ideal space for Highways, in terms of its political mission. But Santa Monica is, in its own way, a very diverse and super—as it’s called, the People’s Republic of Santa Monica—a very unique place and incredibly beautiful and has been a place where artists from all over the world have gathered since the thirties.


But the real thing is there was an amazing building and it was a really perfect space. The space Highways occupies is the space where the feminist artist Judy Chicago created most of The Dinner Party. It’s this historically significant room. The Dinner Party was created in various places, but her primary studio was in what was then not the 18th Street Arts Complex, which are kind of World War II era, built for that purpose with aerospace and munitions and all that. A big open space. So it was a really great place for our project. But it wouldn’t have happened without Linda’s long-time connection to Sue Dakin and their shared artistic and political vision. And Sue having some wherewithal to make it happen.


RYAN:  You found the space, and then straightaway, you organize a season; is it you and Linda going out and tightly curating a first season? Or how does that emerge? And if you could feed into that a little bit more about the multiculturalism that existed then in a very strong way, and maybe in quite a utopian way, that since then, has been— that no more exists in the same way.


MILLER:   Right, right. No, it’s a very— if I indulge myself blabbing about Paris, 1871 or ’68, there’s certainly post— You know, the Olympics transformed L.A. in a really rich way, in 1984. It was a hugely successful Olympics and very exciting, and, no traffic, which everyone was worried about. But it really unleashed a lot of energy, a lot of civic energies, as a successful Olympics can do in a city. And suddenly, also a lot of notions that had been strongly brewing there, that L.A. is the capital of the Pacific Rim—which of course, it is. The two largest ports on earth are in L.A.  L.A. is this giant motor of— L.A ports are the two busiest ports in human history, and all the goods move through there, mostly made in China and Japan, so that people can buy them at WalMart in Thailand.  And there was certainly all that rhetoric, “Well, L.A. is the twenty-first century capital of diversity and Pacific Rim”—And some of that is civic boosterism, but it was also being matched by artists’ deep sense of community. And in some ways, just to trace back, because we’re going to talk about funding and the NEA stuff as we go along, California is now fiftieth in funding for the arts. We are the worst state. The end of Schwarzenegger’s debacle here is that we are fiftieth in the States. There is no arts council. They have an office with a desk and a fax machine. It’s behind Mississippi. By far the biggest state, by far the richest state has no funding for the arts. But when I moved here, California, with 38-million people— it was never in the top per capita, because there are so many people, by far, the most populous state. But there was a really amazing arts council. And for years, they had done—and this is where what we do with public money really affects things—for years, the only way you would get support in the state of California—and it was significant support—was by identifying yourself as an artist in the community. And then you would literally— you could year after year, if you were conceiving an art project that really served some notion of a specific community of diversity in California, you’d be getting $900 a month, up to ten months a year, to do creative workshops in the community context. It totally transformed California, and ended up transforming the country, because this is where L.A. Poverty Department comes out of, this is where all my work around AIDS activism and queer men’s stuff, Rachel Rosenthal, Guillermo Gómez-Peña was doing a lot of this work. It was the way we got support. They weren’t just giving us money to go explore in studios; they were giving us money to go explore in society. I was literally being paid by my state to do ongoing performance workshops for the culturally and racially diverse gay men’s community. So in a moment when the gay men’s community is in a completely embattled space, I’m being funded by my state to just be doing really, really extraordinary research and community emboldening. These workshops would happen a couple times a week. They’d sometimes have 90 or 100 people at them. They were my stadium concerts of workshops.


RYAN:  And these took place at Highways?


MILLER:   At Highways. Yeah, it really started right as Highways opened, and it was the huge motor for— ACT UP beginning in ’88, which really also— ACT UP and Highways were really partnered in fundraising, in the  public eye here. We would use the space all the time. People would be trained for civil disobedience actions in Highways. We would collaborate on giant, and as I wrote about in that essay, quite dirty fundraisers. [they laugh] with thousands of people.


RYAN:  Well, I’m very intrigued by that one. That’s the party Trouble in 1991. We have to talk about that. But yeah, keep going.


MILLER:   Well, it kind of sowed some of the increasing radicalization of queer creative practice and body-based performance. We’re literally having people hanging by hooks in their skin, from the rafters of Highways, and female ejaculation workshops squirting every which way. An L.A. artist like Ron Athey, who did so much work at PS 122, of course, then would also shake your institution years later. Ron’s work really is— though he lives in London now, Ron’s work really comes out of this period in L.A. and this real body-fluid moment of urban primitive stuff; and the multiculturalism and the weird way urban primitives actually trouble multiculturalism for its essentializing of tattooing and piercing and all that also was really exciting and created these big fights and then big resolutions.


The work that was happening in L.A. was really transforming national discussions in lots of ways, including the periods when Guillermo and Coco Fusco were living next door to Highways. Because people were living at the 18th Street Arts Complex, as well, hearing Guillermo and Coco fight through the walls, during performances. [they laugh] He wouldn’t like if I tell that, but I’m sure he’s talked about it. That human dimension. It was extremely stimulating and exciting, and there were all these people in close proximity. And political practice was really happening, we were doing all-night AIDS vigils and literally para-theatrical performance ritual work, and then literally going right from that to a public demonstration that was—a very charged.


RYAN:  Okay. It’s such a vast topic. But let’s think of it now for a moment. So it’s ’89, ’90, the space is forming itself and the family of performers or the kinds of people who are going to be performing there is being decided. I’m curious, did people just pour in and present themselves, or did you have a lot of people in mind already?  Meiling Cheng has written very well about the kind of work that was coming out of Highways, and she describes it as self-presentation. And she concentrates on people like Luis Alfaro, Joan Hotchkis, Danielle Brazell, Dan Kwong, Denise Uyehara, Shishir Kurup, Guillermo and you.  [In other Los Angeleses : multicentric performance art / Meiling Cheng.  Berkeley, CA : University of California Press, 2002.]


MILLER:  Well, there was already this super-energized community of artists that were made up of those people you just mentioned and the L.A. Poverty Department, and John Fleck; and Karen Finely was through all the time because she was living in L.A. quite a lot. But we were really committed to artists living and working in L.A., because there were so many. And we were feeling that artists were generally under-served in L.A.; that there was this huge explosion of activity and it wasn’t in the current.  The existing artistic organizations, both mainstream and not so mainstream, were not really with it. Partly, you always have to be in opposition to what currently exists, or why are you starting something new?  The first six or eight months of the space pretty much programmed itself, because it was people who had been really involved in conceiving it in the heated, late-night informal performance sessions, fuelled by pot and cheap wine, as they always are. 


To literally just be hanging out and suddenly, in people’s houses, just start turning them into performance spaces, and this realization we needed space. So the first months there, Highways opened with a premiere from L.A. Poverty Department, after an opening bash that was with zillions of artists. And our first interesting multicultural crisis is that we were opening on Cinco de Mayo, which is an important holiday in Mexico, of the day the French were defeated in the nineteenth century at the Battle of Puebla.  It’s not an important holiday in Mexico; it’s actually an important holiday in Latino California, and we hadn’t marked it in. So there was a process and a fight and a discussion, and we ended up transforming into this big pilgrimage in the neighborhood and ended up drawing all these new people in. So it was a very positive resolution to a cultural and racial and community crisis, our opening weekend.


Highways was shut down the next week because we weren’t up to code, after months and months of work. Literally, Highways chained. So the homeless artists are homeless. It was a very, very big moment. There was so much ready and waiting to go, from all different kinds of communities of people. People like Keith Antar Mason, who was really core to interdisciplinary performance in the black community in those years, and his whole company of people— It was very super-exciting.


We also didn’t have any money, so we generally said yes to— You know, if anything was at all in the ballpark of interdisciplinary performance, engaging identity, social text, it was going to happen. There was some feeling that Highways was anti-formalist, which it was, in a way.  We were clearly privileging a certain kind of socially contextualized work, and people who weren’t doing that other kind of work could, and understandably did, feel left out of the party. Which at the time, we understood; but we also weren’t overly concerned about that. Because we were at war and people were dying and there’s this urgent— And also, the late eighties war on immigrants in California; you know, Prop 187 — Actually, the New York Times just wrote yesterday, “You simply cannot do that in California anymore and think that you will ever be elected to political office.” You know, what you can get away with in Arizona today, you simply cannot do in California and have a future as a party, in the most Democratic state, where every single person is a Democrat, in public office, statewide office. Even in this last election, amazingly.


So the urgency of the time was making us perhaps a little ham fisted with our ideology—which I would not apologize for. I think that was certainly true of AIDS activism at that time. The heated battles and controversies that were going on then demanded a powerful and strong response. But within that, if you look at those— Well, Highways still— I don’t know if you’ve seen a calendar in print, but it’s just chock-full of just tons and tons of stuff. You can barely read the calendar, there are so many performances. And the current artistic director, Leo Garcia, fulfills the core vision of Highways, even in some ways, more than Linda or I ever did. He’s doing a really amazing and fantastic job there, so I’m very happy. I was just looking at it this morning because partly, I wanted to see when the LAPD piece was happening. So you know, certainly we were saying no to people, but all we offered was literally, exactly 50% of whatever was sold at the door went to the artist.


Highways became very quickly, as PS 122 was, a very hot space to perform. And the press and radio and TV people were very interested in what was happening. But it became an important space, especially for work that was exploring social text, community, cultural, racial, sexual identity, and certainly, what we were known for.   Also the artists were very respected and acknowledged as community leaders as Guillermo would call it, that we were also ambassadors from communities. Which is very high rhetoric, and I’m sure Guillermo would not use that kind of language now. He would contemporize it in some way. But we certainly felt that; that we were, when Guillermo Gomez-Pena and I along with Elia Arce, Ruben Martinez  and a couple of other people collaborated at the Central American Cultural Center on a project, we were also there— You know, I’m, on some level, an ambassador for queer white boys in L.A.


RYAN:  So that was a whole period of self-presentation or biographical performance that was exploring and foregrounding aspects of identity, often aspects marginalized within the majority culture.


MILLER:  Right.


RYAN:  But with all of these different modes of concentration and awareness depending on your position and gender and so on. It sounds like already from the beginning, from the Cinco de Mayo story, that there was a constant negotiation by everybody to actually become aware of the way in which they were capable of transferring learned prejudices .Did that create a lot of tension at Highways? Or was it something that was actually productive—


MILLER:  Well, both, of course. You know, there were big fights — White people don’t like confronting their structural racism, any more than a black person wants to confront their community’s homophobia. Who really wants to look at their shit?  Nobody. And everybody’s got it. So you know, we were ready and eager to fight and die— well, dialog vigorously, make up, fight again, put it into the work. And often these cultural battles would be put into the work and structured in interesting ways. The discourse of the multicultural misunderstanding showed up in the pieces themselves—usually as some kind of model of, “Okay, this is how the bomb goes off and this is one way we found to take it somewhere productive and interesting.” The most dramatic example of that, which Meiling writes about,  which was also the height— the most BAM-y of all of the Highways events, was the Warriors Council project, which I think she writes about in that essay. Which had very high visibility and a Rockefeller grant and all this money, and took the ambassador notion and really furthered it along, with myself and Dan Kwong and Keith Mason and Linda and Francisco Letelier, who’s an amazing artist, and whose father was the Socialist foreign minister for the Allende administration, which was overthrown by the CIA; and eventually, his dad was assassinated, with the tacit approval of the US, on the streets of D.C., in Dupont Circle. It’s shocking.  It was a very interesting gathering of people. Certainly, at the time, I would’ve thought we had done enough of our homework to make it work. Having suddenly lots of money and already a national tour set up never brings out the best in people, either.  Though we were around each other a lot, we hadn’t engaged in a big, long project. I could see where the fault lines were. But Linda lingered a long time, and then it— It certainly had the terrible event.  It was called the Warrior’s Council and was working from that multi-cultural notion that we were each ambassador reps of our communities. I mean, it did come off, and actually, the piece ended up being kind of amazing. But it had been fraught with so much—There’d been so much crisis and conflict that it certainly fractured Linda’s ongoing commitment to being able to stick around. And not too long after, she and her partner Steve left for North Carolina.


RYAN:  That was in 1992?


MILLER:  It’s ’92 or ’93, and I was premiering a new show, My Queer Body, and was hung up with that. It has been written about and discussed, and maybe someone other than Meiling covered it, just because Highways was very visible.   It wasn’t just happening in Highways. Around the same time the Rodney King riots happened, or insurrection, depending on the rhetoric you use; they’re both flawed, I think. And really, what you had mentioned earlier, the period of that kind of gorgeous, perhaps simple-minded—or over-simplified, at least— multicultural visioning of L.A., which fueled the Los Angeles Festival and the director Peter Sellars, who was living here and was a close colleague, as well and running this biggest festival in the country and the festival that was showing what an urban cultural festival should be, about really embracing the entire city and the neighborhoods that white people are afraid to go to. The fact that the worst urban rioting since the Civil War really kyboshed a lot of people’s sense of risk taking and it begins a more nationalized—nationalized in the sense of people sticking close to their communities—it certainly kyboshes a really rich period of cultural and community experimentation. And not just in performance and performance poetry and dance and performance art and stuff, but in economies and what buildings got built where. Construction really stopped in South Central L.A. completely. Supermarkets pulled it. I mean, it was across the board. You can’t have hundreds of buildings on fire, in 1992, and not— As I was leaving to go to the Walker Art Center to perform my show Queer Body, and to do a residency at the university for two or three weeks. As I left, there was a National Guardsman with a machine gun, an M-16, in front of my house, as I flew off to Minneapolis to go to Powderhorn Park’s May Day. [laughs] Suddenly I’m leaving a city where hundreds of people have just died and the fires are everywhere, and as I flew out, the city was completely on fire; and suddenly arrived to, nice upper-middleclass white Lutherans parading in their festive attire. [they laugh] It was as stark a moment as I could have experienced, probably. But I was actually very relieved, because I was very happy to get to Minneapolis, because L.A. was really scary.


RYAN:  Was that the ending of that spirit then?


MILLER:  To me, that’s not the ending, it’s the beginning. It is the ending of— It ain’t simple, you know, cultural change is really hard. It’s the ending of the Reagan-Bush era, as well, and it’s pouring that energy— That period, as these conflicts were going, Highways is also this— my city exploding, the presidential election and the big shift that was going on there, which ended up being the decline of ACT UP.   Wrongly, of course, the assumption that a Democratic administration would mean we don’t have to fight quite so hard. Though not wrongly altogether, but certainly, we should learn our lesson. Electing a Democratic president is only the beginning; it doesn’t solve anything. You then actually have to get them to do something—as we’ve discovered in the last two years, yet again. But we should learn that lesson.


But for me at Highways, it actually just means, okay, this actually begins the work. And it changed it, it made it harder, it made it more hard-won, it made any time we— We couldn’t be glib about border crossing, in terms of cultural stuff, especially around this real border that exists, not just between black and white in this country, but between black and Asian, between black and Latino. Just this powerful way the riots transformed not just L.A. but the country at that moment— It was just such an enormous— We hadn’t had anything like that for almost thirty years in this country, and haven’t had anything like that since, except some whole other kind of thing like 9/11.


RYAN:  Or Crown Heights.


MILLER:  Yeah.


RYAN:  But it’s different.


MILLER:  Crown Heights is a very small— the thing was a couple of blocks.  Mostly because of Anna’s work [Anna Deavere Smith made separate documentary performance pieces about the events in Crown Heights and the L.A. riots], it’s heightened in that way. But literally, L.A., the entire city was on fire, even into Hollywood. Just everywhere. It was quite something.


RYAN:  What did that do? Did that create some kind of resentment? Or did it say that things are far deeper than we thought? I’m trying to imagine why that would cause a schism— Because in a sense, you could say that the riots are confirming the kinds of oppression that were probably being talked about by many artists at Highways, right?


MILLER:  Well, yeah, definitely. It made it very tangible. The high rhetoric. If we’re going to use all this rhetoric around the— Reagan-Bush are making war on people of color in this country, on gay people suddenly having— our city being in a war. It did all of those things. But it also— it shut people down hugely, and people got scared and hunkered down and stayed home. People got afraid to travel, much like 9/11 would make people, for a period, a while, not want to get on a plane. It made people not want to leave their neighborhood in L.A. That period where Peter Sellars would get hundreds and hundreds of people from all over L.A. to a public park in—South Central just suddenly stopped. It suddenly became impossible for people to go outside of their racial, class, neighborhood affiliations, to be with other citizens. It marked Highways in a big way. Highways was actually— Santa Monica was almost untouched by the riots. I lived in Venice, which had many buildings burn. But it’s just next door to Santa Monica. But it certainly made people not want to go drive across town. And made how artists were relating to each other change, and suddenly there was enormous heat and actually, more expressed heat, actually, between the black community and the Asian community, especially the Korean Americans. And so many of the businesses burned had been Korean. And Highways does the largest festival of Asian American performance art in this country. Dan Kwong curates, and did that for years and years. Both those communities were strongly represented at Highways, and it made for some very heated exchanges. But that means the work begins. No one said it would be simple. We were naïve to think that it would be. Or that one space could, to an extent, do that, any more than one space could undo the excesses of corporate capitalism or something. You can do a little bit and you can shake the tree some and you can inject some new sets of ideas and discourses into the audiences and into the print and electronic media and social networking we have, which is still what we can do. But it can’t do everything.


The theater performance study scholar Jill Dolan says that in performance spaces—in her book Performance as Utopia—we create these short moments where suddenly we see that it could be different; the audience in the room becomes the larger group of citizens, becomes the larger city-state, nation-state. And I think that does happen. Or the articulateness of a performance suddenly transforms the way people think. It clearly does, because images and metaphors are powerful. Sarah Palin creating the term ‘death panel’ destroyed the possibility for meaningful health reform in this country. She is an extremely successful performance artist, in that way. And she is, I think, primarily a performance artist, not a political creation—whether it’s her reality show or certainly, Warholian to the max. But just as an example of how a metaphor could—in this case, a completely false metaphor—would completely transform public policy. And it did.


On a positive example, I can remember Guillermo doing this piece at Highways. He does a very clever piece that I think he and Emily Hicks created, called English is the Official Language, addressing the absurdity in America, but especially California and the Southwest—where  English is the official language. It is the official language in Los Angeles and San Diego and San Luis Obispo; in Marina del Rey and Playa del Rey— You know, a state where virtually every place is Spanish. How could it be the official language in a place that is Spanish at its core.  It’s so funny. It’s about a three-minute piece. I’ve seen him do it many times in the middle of nowhere in Nebraska, and see it transform an audience to get it: Oh, this is crazy; we can’t be that country. [laughs] And you know, of course, every state that tries to declare English the official language passes it; I don’t think any state has rejected it. But you find powerful performance rhetoric that with flair and humor which makes some marginal tangible changes. And certainly, the L.A. insurrection/riots challenged how that needed to happen in a strong way. That’s early on; Highways hadn’t even been there three years yet, and has been there for another almost twenty years now, and the real more substantial work comes after that period. It comes after the promotional utopian— You know, that kind of almost avant-garde Chamber of Commerce multiculturalism that’s not actually grounded in the real day-to-day conflict of how hard life is and how entrenched power gives it up hardly at all, and only through very, very persistent projects. So that, to me, is the ongoing work. Which I’m happy now that— I haven’t run Highways for ten years, and I don’t know if I could ever start another one of these creatures. But every time I go there—and I go in a couple of weeks, to see L.A.— I’m looking at the photo right now; just this incredible, packed like jigsaw puzzles, three-level bunk beds from the prison, like they are in the prisons. Highways will be turned into the L.A. men’s prison for a week. What an amazing thing that the space still is there to make that— You know, LAPD could do that piece somewhere else, but it’s going to be very, really powerful and interesting to have it there.


RYAN:  So I’m conscious a little of time, unfortunately because I think there’s so much interesting stuff to cover. It looks like we have around forty minutes left. So what I thought it would be good to do is, just to sort of stay off ACT UP and NEA for a few minutes, and maybe just give me a summary of those later years for you at Highways, in terms of running the institution. Is it possible to do that? Or are they just too intertwined?  Maybe you could mention just one or two of the key figures who worked with you during those years administratively and so on, and talk a little bit about how the Highways vision became more cemented. Where it was by the time you left?


MILLER:  Right. They’re linked, but just quickly, I would say then these structures— They’re the other things that organizations are challenged by, like this period of quick growth, because Highways did grow fast, and suddenly it was— It literally went from not existing to existing almost 300 nights a year of performance and huge amounts of attention. People were very excited to be there, because we were new and print journalism was still very, very influential and the L.A. Times was in love with us. Everything we did, practically, was getting features on the cover of the Arts page. We were doing so much interesting stuff that it was worth the attention. But it was tons of copy of a month-long festival of performance art coming from the gay Mormon community. where gay Mormons go to survive, [they laugh] and wild reworking of the opera by Hector Berlioz, about the fall of Troy, Les Troyens.  There was no paid staff, so we didn’t have overhead. All the money was going to rent, bills, and 50% of every dollar going to the artist. Leadership changed, with Linda leaving, putting a much greater burden on me gathering other staff, money got harder and tighter, in a way, as we professionalized, as it always does. If everyone’s volunteering— Its actually not that hard to run a volunteer arts organization, where earned income is a major factor— Because there was a lot of earned income; we were packing the place. I think tickets were probably ten bucks, mostly then. But still, if you have 140 people there, Highways is getting $700 dollars and the artist is getting $700. It was multiple nights a week. Not that it was always that full, but it was often that full. Money was moving. An artist could make money, which has always been important to me.


Then Highways merged with the 18th Street Arts Complex and it really professionalized, and suddenly our part-time staff became full-time staff, and were getting benefits. And then the 18th Street Arts Complex had a huge shrinking and we separated. And none of these need to be explored in detail because they’re sort of a garden variety of growth, budget problems, collapse, cutting back, people gettin laid off. I suddenly had to be the full-time unpaid artistic director again, primarily running the space, for the last— maybe from ’96 to 2000. And then by the time I was ready to step down, things were quite solid and we hired Danielle Brazell and had a small but living-wage-paid staff. Artist’s living wage, which is not what most people would think of as a living wage, probably. Not many people, anyhow. So those structures were all there. They had mapped that journey. I would say the artistic mission stayed constant during that whole period.


I was always doing these queer men’s performance workshops, which were a really— They were really kind of a pulse for Highways. They were hugely attended. I mean, it was free. It didn’t cost anything. So it was where our utopian space was very present, in this free thing that people could come to. For the first years, literally almost every week, someone who would come to the workshops a lot would die. And then happily, by the mid-nineties, that stopped. It was this real space of community knowledge and mourning. That continues now, with a younger curator, someone who I worked with ten years ago at Southern Methodist University in Texas and lured to come to L.A. He now does these Queer Monday’s events, which have become the ongoing comparable gathering space now that’s really generated a lot of support. So things just keep shifting and changing.


The two artistic directors since me, Danielle Brazell and Leo Garcia, have both done extraordinary jobs. And Leo’s been there now maybe six or seven years, and is, I think a fantastic artistic director for Highways. But the mission and the vision and— If you look at Highways’ calendar today, you would see incredible continuity of mission, politics, cultural vision. It’s queer work; it’s work engaging incarceration or homelessness, as LAPD’s work is; it’s plenty of body stuff and sexuality, which is the thing we didn’t touch on with some of the complexities of Highways as a kind of body positive, very— not just queer sexuality, but like, you know, Annie Sprinkle’s post-porn modernists and the aforementioned female ejaculation workshops. Highways was a space where people got laid, too, which I write about in that little essay. It was sexy. What art movement ever wasn’t also about getting laid?


Highways, it’s such a—and this will lead us to the NEA stuff effectively, I think—it’s a period where, after almost a decade of AIDS, we’re reclaiming the body. Not just the queer body, but the sexual body, the electrical with manic body, the sexually present citizen’s body. And that was informing all the work of mine or Ron Athey or Annie Sprinkle or Guillermo, as well. His work is so much about embodiment and his own complexly gendered body. But there were lots of naked bodies and enemas and guts put in butts, the reasons why we love performance art. [they laugh]. These incredible performances, but also not just that.


RYAN:  This is Myspace Highways?


MILLER:  Yeah— And it’s not even a very long piece. It’s the only piece I’ve written about Highways in that way. So, all of that is super-buzzy. And a lot of that was predating the culture war and the beginning of the attacks on Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano in ’89. The culture war is really about AIDS, I think, whether it’s Mapplethorpe’s work or the Piss Christ and the body fluids— it’s the heat and energy of creative response to AIDS that really engages the culture war. So it’s not surprising it would begin again by attacking— Just the irony of this is how Republicans celebrate World AIDS Day, by attacking an artist who died of AIDS, is so horrific. And I, of course, then put it in my show in New York last month, what was happening that week [Miller is referring to a decision by the Smithsonian to censor a David Wojnarowicz video from the exhibition Hide/ Seek in response to a single complaint by a religious activist]. So within that highly-charged, embodied reclaiming of that that goes on in the end of the eighties, amid the feeling we’re all going to die, which certainly, any sexually active gay man in L.A. or New York or San Francisco was probably feeling. You know, I never got tested until maybe a year after Highways was open. I was afraid—


RYAN:  ’91, yeah.


MILLER:  I thought it would make me not able to open Highways if I— I just didn’t want to know. And then that I wasn’t positive was quite a surprise, of course, and a welcome one, and an ongoing one, happily. I was so worried it would take my edge off. But that was one of my very Eurocentric, romantic, suffering artist kind of notions, I suppose, but it didn’t seem to actually impact things that much, one way or another. It certainly wasn’t surprising, as the work got bolder, more socially and politically engaged, more naked, more sex-positive, that the culture war would get rolling so dramatically. And I was doing it with that in mind, since I was so visible. By that point, I’m thirty-one when the NEA stuff happens  Highways and ACT UP had staged the only artists’ civil disobedience of any size. Hundreds and hundreds of artists arresting the government for crimes against the First Amendment, and dozens of artists arrested; the only mass artists’ civil disobedience action during the culture war period.


RYAN:  That was in 1990. It was called Art Attack. It’s been described as a mock arrest of the Los Angeles Federal Building.


MILLER:  Yeah.


RYAN:  To—


MILLER:  Draw attention to what was going on. We put Bush on trial for crimes against the constitution— There are great photos. [inaudible] edited down into a little video, because it was quite a visual spectacle, chaining the building up and all that.


RYAN:  And that, along with two other major ACT UP events, which I don’t think we’ll have time to cover in much detail, which were your week-long vigil at the Los Angeles County Hospital, in ’89; and in 1992, the Republican National Convention protests. Perhaps we could segue from that activist period of ’89-90, into the NEA.


MILLER:  Right, that makes more sense. Because certainly, in that period, like any pitched battle, there’s the stuff happening on the West Coast, the East Coast, stuff happening in the middle, conventions and AIDS conferences. Or in Atlanta, where I finally got to interrupt NEA chairman Frohnmayer, at the Southeastern Arts Federation, and just scream at him, “Liar! Liar!” [they laugh] It was so great.


RYAN:  What year was that?


MILLER:  Maybe ’90. Well, it must’ve been right around then. I think it was later on in the summer of 1990.


RYAN:  Wow.


MILLER:  I was in Atlanta for a performance and with ACT UP Atlanta, we disrupted, interrupted his speech and put a big banner—I think the Atlanta Journal Constitution ran a photo—“Frohnmayer Equals Censorship.” So this is where it was also not just things happening in L.A., both Queer Nation and ACT UP were national phenomena. But all of these, they’re similar. They’re either very successful or they’re horrifying, as the Republican convention was. 1992 was just such a charged year, of the L.A. riots and my own work and the Republican convention that summer and the presidential election that year, and so much was cooking. The Pat Buchanan culture wars speech. To be a few blocks from him in Houston, with teargas all over my hair and face, was the best way to hear his horrible speech. But each of those have their specifics, which we don’t need to go into; there’s been much written about it all.


Highways was at a moment where we were starting to get NEA funding. And from that point on, because though many artists were under the gun— Well, certainly, nine or ten artists were, in a very visible way, attacked by the government—the NEA Four and Mapplethorpe, Serrano and David Wojnarowicz and Artists Space were the most visible events of that year. The real problem is what that does out in the world and how that communicates to younger artists, in this real sense of, uh-oh, we’re screwed. In our [NEA Four] Supreme Court case, the so-called “chilling effect” of what this does to expression generally, which I think is pretty terrible and sends a terrible signal to young artists. Maybe it’s a realistic one. I assumed at nineteen, when I got to New York, I’m going to do amazing work, and within a year or two, I’ll be getting funding from the National Endowment for the Arts; and in a year or two, I was. I think I was twenty-one when I got my first NEA grant, for a piece that had someone dressed as Ronald Reagan in a mask beating the shit out of me. So that was the country I was naïve enough to think that I lived in. But I actually did live in that country then. You would get funding. A bright young artist from California would get National Endowment for the Arts funding for a piece called Postwar, where Ronald Reagan, at one point, beats the shit out of me.


We don’t live in that country any longer, clearly. Individual artists will not get funding from the NEA. It doesn’t exist anymore, except for literature. But artists, theater artists, performance artists, a choreographer—there is simply no funding for an individual at the federal level anymore, except for poetry and fiction. So that makes it impossible. Not that you won’t get supported in some other way or in certain states or in certain cities and counties; but the general vibe is, we are heavily policed now. Our expression is heavily policed. The fact that all they have to do is say boo about this already censored and edited piece of David Wojnarowicz’s and that people will cave and pull it out and no one resigns. Though I did like –I think the New York Times ran it this morning— that those same artists that did the iPad action in the gallery are now out in front of the museums, which I think is quite good.


RYAN:  Yeah, [inaudible].


MILLER: On one level, as we talk, this is of course quite disheartening, that the culture war never ended; we, for the most part, lost it. If you look at the cultural infrastructure, just in terms— And this is, I think, quite purposeful for us to talk about. If you look at the artistic infrastructure in 1990, the US had an incredibly rich— I would say certainly not as well funded as a comparable set of— like the regional arts centers in the UK. When I would go there, I would think it’s like I was coming from a Third World country to the First World.


RYAN:  Right, well, let’s see where they are in a year’s time.


MILLER:  Well, they’ll mostly be closed.


RYAN:  Yeah, that’s—


MILLER:  A whole other thing. But we lost the culture war dramatically. You look at the spaces that were thriving and vital in 1990, the vast majority of them no longer exist. It’s sort of amazing—and maybe only because they’re in the two biggest cities—that the two spaces I co-founded are still there, and both— Well, PS 122 is a huge organization. Huge staff and budgets and it’s about to redo the entire building and build up two floors. And Highways has never gotten as big, because funding was never as in place for it. But it’s thriving and is vital and active as ever. But the reality is the culture war decimated Chicago and St. Louis and Miami and so many— And L.A., too. There were many more organizations than there are currently. And Chicago, which had probably more artist spaces than any other place between— Well, certainly other than L.A. and New York. They virtually all folded during the nineties, one after another, Randolph Street, N.A.M.E. Gallery. Chicago had one of the richest infrastructures of any city, and the kind of general attack on these spaces and the limiting of funding— They can’t live forever as volunteer organizations. So it means now that the one surviving place in Chicago, which I work at a lot, Links Hall, its ongoing vitality is just hugely important, I think, because it was the oldest of them. It’s the same year as PS 122; it just turned thirty, and that it’s still there and as busy ever is really great, even though Randolph Street was the much bigger organization; an almost PS 122 scale venture.  In that sense, so many of the spaces were lost, or were changed.


This is a different discussion, but I would say the Walker was profoundly changed by what happened. Not just because I think the most experimental and bold person in the Walker’s history was running it then and was just so— John Killacky was just really traumatized by that stuff around Ron Athey. But those things happen in an organization’s history. They certainly weren’t going to do something like Ron Athey ever again. [they laugh] As is painfully obvious. So that goes into the institutional history.


RYAN:  This is all tangentially related, but we haven’t talked a lot about the mechanics of the NEA Four, and I don’t think we need to because that’s covered very well in a lot of essays. I mean, obviously, just for people who are reading this later, perhaps you can give a short account.


MILLER:  I’ve got my super-short version just because it’s something I’m asked in interviews all the time. But just in that, a few months into the heat of the culture war— And I knew it was coming because I’d had friends in Washington warn me to be ready, and I was about to be at a big arts conference in the mountains of North Carolina, as this was all coming down, and a lot of NEA people were there and acting weird. [they laugh] But under the pressure of the religious right, who hated George Bush, the daddy— They knew he needed to throw some more, mostly queer, flesh to their meat grinder. So he, violating his oath of office and the constitution, tampered with an independent federal agency and instructed them to lose some artists. Me and Karen Finley, John Fleck and Holly Hughes, just because of the content of our work, are unanimously recommended National Endowment for the Arts solo theater grants. They were in theater; it wasn’t in art or— It was going to be my first theater grant I’d ever gotten; I’d always been getting choreographers’ fellowships and interdisciplinary kind of stuff. Things were already really fraught, and this is literally six weeks after we had arrested the government in Los Angeles and dozens of artists [were] arrested. It created an enormous response; it was all over the media. And using all my ACTUP kind of organizing skills to respond, we, the four artists, along with the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights, would eventually sue John Frohnmayer and the Bush administration for violating the constitution—we would win most of the case out of court and they would pay us all the amounts of our grants, if not the grants themselves, and pay all court costs. But then as you rightly said, we won in the early stages. And the truth is, we won our issue of getting our grants returned completely. And what went to the US Supreme Court was not that, but this notion that general standards of decency were valid criteria for denying grants, which had been declared unconstitutional from the bench of the Ninth Circuit; and that’s what went to the US Supreme Court—over the next eight years of my life. And that is what we lost at the US Supreme Court—which is not a loss for me and Karen and Holly and John; it was a loss as a principle in this country, that actually, if you get tarred with the notion of being indecent, then it’s perfectly constitutional to deny you federal support of any kind. So that’s the nutshell.


RYAN:  And obviously, your side’s argument was that indecency was a very broad term?


MILLER:  Yes, and incredibly imprecise and abused historically to shut down jazz clubs, and used to require actors to stay in the same hotels as whores, since actors were barely one step up from whores. These decency leagues existed at the turn of the century, and were common in the US and the UK. It was code word for ‘artist’, ‘queer’, ‘of color’, clean-up-the-slums movements and it has a very nasty, long history, this word ‘indecency’. Very 1900’s.


RYAN:  Right. And how did that and the ongoing struggle with the NEA Four affect funding and other issues at Highways? Like if that impacted Highways, in what way did it?


MILLER:  It kyboshed the feeling that we were going to grow.  In some ways, we were— The places that were hit harder were really places like Randolph Street in Chicago, which was a real interdisciplinary flagship—visual art, dance, performance—space. They’d grown quite a bit, and were already hooked up to funding. So places like that, as the whole funding spigot got turned off—and especially places like Randolph Street or Highways or PS 122, that had been doing lots of solo performance and work engaging politics and sexuality and stuff, which were obviously the ones most under the gun—they were hit the hardest. Highways wasn’t really receiving any funding yet. We were actually on an earned income model at that point, which actually meant, in some ways, we could roll with the punches. But it meant that we weren’t likely to grow in the way that I had imagined, just from my experience nine years earlier, at PS 122; that we open the space, and within a year we’ll get money from the New York State Council [on the Arts] and these other agencies; within three years, we’ll be getting NEA funding— Which is exactly how it panned out, just as I assumed I would be getting NEA fellowships for my work. And I got many of them. I think had almost— well, maybe ten of them, before the NEA Four stuff happened. So it kyboshed that feeling of growth for the new spaces. But you could really say Highways is almost the last space that was founded during this period, from 1975 to 1990. And it’s very clear how it happened. The Carter administration passed this thing called the Comprehensive Employee and Training Act, CETA.   It was one of the most important things the Carter administration did. Which was a very successful economic stimulus thing, and it suddenly meant all these arts organizations could hire somebody half-time. It created a job for hardly any money, and it’s where a lot of them really started. They suddenly could corral a little bit of federal money for someone, a half-time coordinator, and they really flourished and it actually engendered big changes in neighborhoods. One art job, as we always see, creates a dozen or so other restaurant, transit [jobs]— Arts do a lot with nothing, especially at the entry level. You know, the bigger the organization, the less impact it has. But in a new organization, hardly any money goes a long way. So the kyboshing of Highways, it limited our sense of how we were going to grow. And in some ways, Highways— It’s hard to look at another space that started in that classic alternative art space way, after Highways. Partly, who in their right mind would start an arts organization like that in the heat of the culture wars in the early nineties and the feeling that the field was screwed and all that? Just suddenly— And also the Internet was arriving mid-decade and suddenly a whole— It’s not like this is the only way to do interesting things; it’s one actually very old-school way. Still very important; people need space to go to. So in some ways, it affected Highways not that dramatically. 


Early on, we had grants in to the NEA, and then we assumed we wouldn’t actually get any of them, once this all happened, since I was an artist, but also an artistic director. None of the other artists had a portfolio of a space, in that way. They were individual artists. I was an individual artist, but also an artistic director of a new, very visible arts organization. So all the focus that was on me was also brought onto Highways, which made it extremely unlikely we were going to get federal support.  If Highways had been four or five years old, it might’ve had a much more negative effect. Because we were so new and hadn’t actually gotten used to incorporating this funding, we just knew, okay, we don’t live in a country where the First Amendment is respected under federal law. We must disabuse ourselves of that notion. And so we came up with other strategies. But organizations that were dependent on that money and that were starting to get—


RYAN:  You know, Artists Space in New York’s budget was halved after the controversy surrounding the Witnesses: Against Their Vanishing exhibition in 1989.


MILLER:  Exactly. Right, well, because that was so heated. And that show was so amazing.


RYAN:  That brings us to Wojnarowicz conveniently, which we said we would touch on at the beginning as it is so in the news now. That was one of the key flashpoints within the culture wars, the show that he did with Nan Goldin at Artists Space.


MILLER:  Right.


RYAN:  About AIDS and about death, about artists who were dying or had died. And so here we are, quite a long while after that, where there has been a strong falling away of an activist-embodied performance art movement with any kind of mainstream reception. We can certainly relate that to the loss of NEA funding, and therefore, the instrumentalization of art via other avenues such as the market that implicitly has a less vested interest in work like that happening.


MILLER:  Right.


RYAN:  But then we come to this moment, in 2011 with the Wojnarowicz work being pulled from the Smithsonian show in an act of censorship precipitated by right wing objections to its content. Perhaps you could just talk about your reaction when you heard about this and how significant you think the development is on a broad scale?


MILLER:  Well, certainly, last month I was experiencing it. And I suspect within a month, you and I would be having a different conversation about this, because the initial hearings in the House on the NEA will probably be called. They’re testing the waters and they’re sensing that this is— the Republicans may be sensing it’s time for another culture war.  Of course, had the Smithsonian and the National Portrait Gallery actually shown a little spine and responded more vigorously, since there had actually not been a problem, there had not been complaints— It was such a minor part of what is, I understand, a really interesting show. I haven’t been to D.C. since it’s been up I was assuming that this means the Republicans are gearing up for another big push, which is something Republicans do about every twenty years. Almost like clockwork, every twenty, twenty-five years, they gear up [for] an attack, from the thirties to the fifties, the end of the seventies, early eighties, the main culture war. And it’s been twenty years now and there’s— They try this business periodically and it’s really effective for a while and then it loses its heat and then they move on to something else—usually immigrant and gay bashing, which are perennial. So I’m assuming we’re going to see a lot of this in the next little bit. They have their listservs and David Wojnarowicz is clearly on their Google search. Someone fed this information to Speaker Boehner, with his big mallet on the cover of the New York Times this morning. And people immediately bailed. For me, just being in New York while this was happening— I wasn’t close buddies with David [Wojnarowicz], but we knew each other. I probably met him when I was nineteen, and we almost lived together at one period, but he thought my apartment was too much of a dump—which shows you what a dump it was. [they laugh] An apartment which I would later do a piece about, called The Maw of Death. [Ryan laughs] But anyway, Madonna moved in after I did, but that’s a whole other story.


RYAN:  Oh, wow.


MILLER:  David was really one of the most amazing artists. He had my favorite art band, 3 Teens Kill 4.  He was such a great soulful figure of the Lower East Side. To be there while this was happening was very upsetting to me and I put it in the show in New York, since it all hit right as I got there. Well, the days before World AIDS Day on December 1. All of that feeling that I have when I’m in New York, of my dead friends and lovers and artist comrades that are not there, and I walk by their houses and tenements, so it was very upsetting to me. And he can’t speak for himself, but just that twenty years later, its still, his body, his corpus of work, is still subject to these pricks. It’s very nauseating, the limiting of his ability to talk about his imagery and his complex identity as a Catholic [through his work]. It’s just such a grotesque attack on an artist who died. So I assume we’ll see more. And it clearly already makes everybody go weak in the knees.


The very next week the MOCA head Jeffrey Deitch, whitewashing the mural in L.A. I wish I’d seen it because I know right where it is. It was, I think, an amazing, really interesting piece, from a complicated artist. But clearly, museums should not be whitewashing 200-foot-long murals in public, before you do a big show about street art. [laughs] I’m amazed he’s not—it looks like he’s getting away with it. The artists in the show are so happy to be in the show. They would be the most effective protestors. They should all be, of course, refusing to participate and MOCA should be made a laughing stock, but you know. 


One of the good things is in performance you don’t really ever make any money. Visual artists actually have this narrative where they— Because visual art is so motivated out of money and bank investment portfolios, and people make money and work goes in a collection. Everything ends up getting owned by a bank, it seems. But it makes them act very weird. Where performers have almost no idea they’re ever going to survive, much less make much of a living. So I think it sometimes can make them behave a little more ethically.


The culture war pretty much has been dormant since ’93, on the federal level. Funding has been meager, but consistent. There hasn’t been another giant congressional orgy of NEA bashing. Things have been happening in state and county and city [levels], of course, and the Brooklyn Museum and specific incidents; but I suspect— I’ll be very surprised if it doesn’t get rolling again. And they’ll clearly try to abolish the NEA at some point in the next month. It seems very naïve to think they won’t try to do that, since they’re going to be on the big symbolic, meaningless budget cutting, without actually doing any real cutting of the budget.


RYAN:  So with this in mind and to conclude our conversation, because I know you have to go, what do you see as the future role of organizations like Highways?


MILLER:  Well, I think I would come back to where we started when we were [first] speaking. I just finished at PS 122, actually doing something I’ve never done at PS 122, which was this kind of intense— I was doing my new show for a couple of weeks, but I was also doing—


RYAN:  Lay of the Land?


MILLER:  Right, yes. Lay of the Land. And I was doing an intensive performance workshop for ten days, and we created a piece with eighteen performers, almost all of them twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three. A few people further along, but almost all really young artists.  Spaces are essential, because without the PS 122, where I first ever taught a workshop, when I was twenty, I think, teaching performance workshops there— I’d never taught anything. To me, that’s where spaces are still just super-crucial. We need that room with some lights and enough heat when it’s cold, and a structure to support it, and a place  where we can perform the piece that we have created, which in this case was called Knead, K-N-E-A-D, like to knead dough or something, and there are multiple meanings of course. The future of these spaces is not just the artists themselves, but the future of the space is to keep being there; to make space for the artists that don’t, say, just want to be operating in digital space, in the perceived way we understand digital space, of social networking and the Internet, but in the original and most important meaning of digital—of our hands, of our fingers, of our connectivity, of our ability to be in the room together, to make it light, to make it dark, to make it scary, to make it dangerous, to make it sexy. And to me, in that sense, the ongoing role of these spaces—the two I’m most close to, PS 122 or Highways—has not changed; if anything, it’s gotten even more urgent. The deep need we have as humans to be around each other, I think is simply a constant. And if anything, now that we are around people, in some ways, less and less, and we’re relating to our laptops and PDAs more and more, that that space where you’re around stinky, farting, belching humans, that you may want to see or want to avoid or want to go home with, or want to transform society with, is just ever more important, actually. So to me, that’s certainly what went into these two spaces that I feel lucky that I got to be involved with and to co-found and run for many years, the two of them, is to create that rich space where that goes on. And whether it’s for a fifty-two-year-old artist like me to go back and perform at PS 122, as I just did, or for one of the mentees I’m working with, who I found in Texas and encouraged him to come to New York, young Brigham Mosley, who’s twenty-two and is, I think, just going to do incredibly interesting and important kind of queer work, as a super-fundamentalist Baptist queer boy from Oklahoma. He’ll do work I can’t do. He’s from an identity that was, thank God, not part of mine, my suburban sort of middleclass, leave-him-alone kind of tolerant parents and stuff.


So for me, that’s both the future of these spaces— It’s sort of, my future in these spaces, as well, to launch as many really sharp, dangerous young artists out as possible. And certainly, that fuels the bulk of my activity, which is teaching. I perform a couple of hundred times a year, but I teach many, many more hours than I perform. So that, to me, in these spaces, whether it’s Highways or PS 122 or Links Hall or the Mickee Faust Club in Florida, as one of the newer spaces, only ten years old— It’s an alternative arts space serving the disability and queer community of Tallahassee, Florida. And it’s an amazing, amazing building, in this arts district.  It’s a post-culture war success story. Run completely on a volunteer basis; no professionalized staff. But I did performances and a workshop there last year, with a group of both— about half disabled people, and about half queer people, and some overlap queer disabled people. To me, that’s a new space that feels like it’s creating a new opportunity and new sets of community exchange. I travel so much and I get to see, front row, how these places are percolating. And now I just felt like I talk too much. I introduced something new. It wasn’t in my big windup. [they laugh]


RYAN:  Well, maybe let’s make the self-deprecating comment about the windup and use it as conclusion.


MILLER:  Well, yes, that is good. That had occurred to me, as well. [they laugh]


RYAN:  Tim, thank you very much.


MILLER:  A pleasure, a pleasure.