The turn of the decade brought a new and salient challenge in the form of a bitter and galvanising battle over the then chair of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) John E. Frohnmayer’s veto of grants awarded, following a peer-review process, to Miller and three other artists – collectively, thereafter, the ‘NEA Four’. The blatant political interference of the Bush (Sr.!) White House in the business of the independent NEA, in violation of the First Amendment rights of the affected artists, led to Miller and his colleagues successfully suing the federal government: though a more recent Supreme Court ruling has once again shifted the ground by enshrining the right of the NEA to take ‘decency’ standards into account – though it anyway no longer makes grants to individual artists. For Miller the fight was both vitally necessary and an unwelcome distraction from the creative business of making work and engaging in more grassroots activism.
A series of acclaimed performances – funny, energetic, strenuously candid – continued through the 90’s and into the brave new millennium: the best known of which, perhaps, is My Queer Body (1992), a daring and dazzling confection which, astonishingly, emerged out of the vortex of the punishingly long NEA throwdown to show Miller at his most combative and charismatic: he starts as a sperm, “swimming upstream”, and ends, typically (and pointedly) sweaty and exhausted, declaiming sexed-up visionary queer poetry while Ravel’s Bolero rages tumultuously about him. A series of more recent works, starting with Glory Box in 1999, deal with Miller’s on-going struggle simply to be with the man he loves, the Australian writer Alistair McCartney, in the face of the US federal government’s refusal to extend to gay couples the immigration rights that pertain to binational heterosexual couples.
The almost impossibly romantic story of the beginning of Miller’s relationship with McCartney – as well as steadfast reference to the obstacles still before them – is just one of the threads that Miller pulls together, with his usual passion, guileless humour and lyrical bravura, in his new piece 1001 Beds, which played a couple of weekends recently at the Drill Hall. A recently published book of the same name, which comprises scripts, essays, documents and images from the whole span of Miller’s career, contains the essay in which he first explores the symbol of the ‘1001 beds’ that he estimates he has slept in whilst on the road over the past 25 years, a striking (and characteristically erotic) metaphor for the cumulative work of travel, of performance, of making new connections, that has been his mission, often through dark and dangerous times.
So that’s ‘Miller’, the capital-A artist, and (to my mind) the great poet of the body-in-theatre. But when we met in London a couple of weeks ago, the day before I saw 1001 Beds, I could have sworn I was basically hanging out with Tim. Just Tim: intellectually promiscuous, butterfly-minded sometimes, gossipy, gracious, and still, 1001 beds down the line, as cute as all get-out. (Though it has to be said, he had in his twenties an ethereal beauty that makes the documentation of his early performances look kind of fictional.)
I didn’t have very much in mind by way of prepared questions for Tim because I figured we’d probably just chat about stuff – as, indeed, we did. I’d asked his friend from way back, the writer and blog-artist Dennis Cooper, if there was anything he wanted me to ask Tim on his behalf, and he suggested I bring up the Russian Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, fondly recalling (as does Tony Kushner in his effervescently lovely foreword to Miller’s anthology Body Blows) Tim’s very early piece Paint Yrself Red / Me & Mayakovsky. So I had that up my sleeve.
I arrived at Tim’s temporary Bloomsbury apartment to find him in good spirits, though a little exercised by the loss of wireless internet access in the block. Fresh from an appearance at Fierce! in Birmingham, he had been back in London at least long enough to buy provisions (including, unexpectedly, own-brand instant coffee) from Tesco’s, and before we got down to the oh-so-highbrow conversation we nattered inconsequentially for a few minutes while Tim demolished a good-looking plate of chicken, hummous and tomatoes. It was the unexpected revelation that, at the start of his career, Tim had had a (live) chicken as a collaborating partner for a while, that had me reaching for my voice recorder...
TM: ...You know I’ve got chicken all over my face.
CG: That’s a great opening line.
[Mr Miller leaves the room momentarily. Returning:]
TM: ...‘Tim Miller wiped the Tesco grease from his face’...
CG: So tell me about the [collaborating] chicken.
TM: I was still vegetarian, though barely, at the time – I think that’s partly why I got it... I was nineteen and I was living in lower Manhattan, just below Soho, a little canal where Chinatown starts. And, you know, they kill the chicken for you right in the window and stuff. So I went and bought one, and said ‘I’ll kill it at home’. Because I wanted to save the chicken. It was probably the usual studied American impotent sentimentality of, like, save one chicken...
But then I kind of lived with it for quite a long time, maybe seven or eight months. I had a beautifully huge, like, parrot cage -- but then I would let it out and it would walk around the house. It was kind of quite... e-for-eccentric queerboy freak. And I used it in a lot of my early performances. And then eventually I liberated it to a farm upstate. But within forty-eight hours a dog ate it.
TM: So there’s the Zen slap. Like, ‘you think you can save a chicken! Ha ha ha!’
CG: But I think this is the fate that awaits retired performance artists, isn’t it? You get sent away and a dog eats you.
TM: Yeah, upstate New York, there’s some farm you get sent to. ...So that was the chicken. That really makes me... The image of the chicken in the cage on my fire escape is so vivid.
CG: I guess you got billing over the chicken.
TM: Well we were Los Dos Chickens, since I was certainly nineteen looking about twelve at the time... You know I think there’s a Tim & Chicken poster or something. It’s early on. I think – since Dennis [Cooper] cued you to ask about Mayakovsky – I think the chicken showed up in some of my Mayakovsky performances. I’m always curious what these core embarkation points are for what anybody gets obsessed with, and that’s certainly an ongoing one, Mayakovsky: a rather doomed example of... you know, engaged artist, artist in the world, artist in society, artist trying to change things...
At the time – when I was nineteen, twenty - I used to spraypaint all over the East Village, in Cyrillic letters, a line from the Mayakovsky poem ‘A Cloud in Trousers’: “I shake the world with the might of my voice, / and walk -– handsome, / twentytwoyearold.” Such a great, youthful originator... And of course you know he had a whole avant garde career before the Revolution, as a young man. He’s not much thought of any more, but still quite interesting, and certain core people – like Dennis, who was more in his poet mode then - would certainly have had some relationship to Mayakovsky.
CG: But how, at what point, did you encounter Mayakovsky? How does that happen? I mean, you’re growing up in Whittier – which I know slightly and am fond of...
TM: Oh, you’ve been there, that’s right.
CG: For about a month.
TM: You were in love. Do you need some more water?
CG: I might do if we’re going to talk about that.
TM: You might need a mint julep... But you actually went out there.
CG: I lived the Whittier high life. Yeah.
TM: God, that’s rare, that I ever... Alistair’s never been to Whittier. It’s on our list. Uptown Whittier’s kind of cute-ish.
CG: I loved it.
TM: Those were kind of my childhood... That’s where I’d go to the movies... I grew up a bit more suburban. Imagine that. Well, Whittier’s a little bit of an old late-nineteenth century town; I grew up in East Whittier, which is pure Fifties suburbs. But I’d ride my bike up there.
CG: But I think it’s really fascinating how you get from Whittier to New York and Merce Cunningham and... The way you tell it, it’s like that’s just what naturally happens to people who are growing up queer in Whittier. Like, that’s how it goes. But how does that happen? What were the models that you had when you were growing up that said, there’s this whole other life out there...
TM: Of course when we talk within life narrative, it’s as edited and concocted as anything, and my dog-and-pony show routine on it is kind of an oversimplification, but... What most inspired me was feminist performance artists, seeing all these women at the Women’s Building in LA in the late seventies when I would have been in high school seeing things... Taking the bus to downtown LA, which was sort of the centre of lesbian performance art on the planet, probably, it was a big big feminist arts centre. And it was very thrilling to me. As feminism still is, even now, you know.
CG: Sure, yeah.
TM: I meet these little nineteen year old gay boys who are women’s studies majors... Let’s face it, the rigour of the discourse and the politics is still more articulated than gay men’s. I mean how can you not relate to some general terrain of Marxist-feminist analysis? So that was kind of important.
And my horrible feeble punk rock band.
CG: Oh really?
TM: Yeah, with my first boyfriend. I write about it a little bit in Shirts and Skin. His horrible Orange County punk rock band that I started doing stuff with.
But probably the main thing, like for lots of us, is just that queerness demands motion, affiliation... You know, how do I read myself with [regard to] the avant garde, the outsider, the artist-rebel? All of which are of course sexy, erotic archetypes as well. So all that mixes in pretty juicily. And would I have been so programmed to move to New York without Allen Ginsberg, and Beat stuff? I mean I was already living in the second biggest city in the country. But LA, especially then, was quite a different story than New York, and still is, as a place for an artist to seek their fortune. Vast numbers of people seek their fortune in LA for all kinds of other reasons, whether it’s millions of undocumented immigrants, or film and tv stuff...
I think it’s just finding that heat of affiliation and connection and, out of feeling isolated, trying to understand: I’m connected to, like, queer people from essentialist history, and from the primordial... you know, Gilgamesh... And I’m such a history head. I like context.
So as an American kid, as an artist, New York sort of ends up calling you at some point. Which includes being called to Mayakovsky. If you’re interested in politics, Mayakovsky and his pals are sort of the progenitors, in Russian Futurism and Italian Futurism, the origins of live art and performance.
In a way it’s kind of obvious, I had the RoseLee Goldberg Performance [Art from Futurism to the Present] book... But then also wanting to see how that connected to political praxis, which is something I’m always interested in. Knowing the rocky history of art and praxis.
In the same way that we look at Dennis’s blog, and the quite remarkable community that’s generated there... Not that we know these people, but assuming one believes anyone’s profile... Which I just generally do, because credulity is more fun than scepticism. Don’t you think? I’ve never said that before, but I’m sure I will again...
I mean Dennis is this major queercore person for anyone who reads English, and so people want that linkage. You know, it would have been amazing, when I was a kid, if I’d been able to find spaces like that, on the internet. I’m sure I would have been very drawn to it. And now you can.
There was a big New York Times article last week: apparently now there’s even this huge pressure on extremely major rock’n’roll acts to really tend their MySpace community, to go and put in a good hour a day – and not just have your assistants do it. And I find that kind of fascinating: that suddenly now even extremely famous people, not just avant garde cult fringe folk, are also having to be disciplined to this kind of community. It’s interesting.
CG: I’m certainly very interested in the strength and the usability of those communities and what the value is and harnessability of that [online] community feeling in real-world spaces. I have this kind of question in my head about what virtual spaces can be used to do in the real world. And the reason I wanted to ask you about this was: obviously you were instrumental in setting up two really important [real-world] spaces, P.S.122 and Highways, and I’m wondering about the importance of having a space that you can identify with and relate to and make stuff happen in, the importance of that to all kinds of intersecting communities, and whether actually there’s any kind of displacement of that real-world activity by virtual activity. I feel very uneasy about that. I’m interested in the opportunities of those virtual spaces but I wonder how much they make harnessable, energised things happen in real spaces.
TM: Right. Well, I like to imagine that they’re not oppositional. Though there’s ways they are too. If we assume that the vast majority of virtual space is erotic discourse, and certainly some good chunk of that ends up in actual real-time hook-ups, if that’s our formula, that actually means there’s quite a dynamic and... um... fluid relationship --
-- between them. I have my blog, because I know I should, and I post lamely every month, almost, which means like, why bother? But someone then visits and they usually email me and then I have an interesting conversation. And, you know, those people end up at shows all the time. Which is not so much significant in terms of the crassest motor of all this activity, which is ‘Let’s make money and sell CDs and make Pirates of the Caribbean make more money than anything ever has in history.’
But abundance is a bit bogus. We have limited time, limited attention; the compelling fever of being online is so overwhelming and junkyish. And I’ve got it! So you have to imagine that it does on some level keep people from exploring... If you’re, like, beating off to XTube all day long, you know, you’re done. You’re maybe not going to go fall in erotic poetic love with someone. Sexual energy is certainly finite.
Happily we don’t have to choose: the choice is beyond us. It seems mostly a kind of interesting synergy. As all live performers do, I privilege the shared real-time moment. Because frankly, as we may all see in our lifetimes, this may all stop working. I mean, I think the likelihood of that is high. That twenty years from now, we’ll be: ‘Remember when we had electricity?’ It would take a very small set of events to make the internet no longer exist, and suddenly, you know, actually, it’s the ceramics people who are really going to...
TM: Well, our oldest stuff is pottery. It’s stuff that lasts. Books don’t last. So that’s kind of an interesting thought. I think within that it’s really important to keep our essentialist digital human duty, which is to connect, real-time, finger to finger – where 'digital' comes from. I teach performance a lot and we hold hands so much. The other digital time, where our hands and our skin touch each other, our fingers entwine...
Right now for me though it just feels really rich. And it’s like, you know, after being in a rehearsal with twenty nineteen-year-olds at Illinois State University or something, I go home and think about what we did and send them some questions, some provocations, and some of them read it that night and some of them read it the next morning and some of them don’t read it, and it changes the work the next day when we come in.
Unfortunately the people putting the most thinking into this, [are doing it] for crass marketing reasons. It’s ‘How does this get people to give us their credit card number? Or make them buy something? Or show up the first weekend of a blockbuster movie?’ So that’s the sort of dispiriting thing. But then it will also make people go to some length and some expense to scurry up to Glasgow, maybe a city they’ve never been before, to see Dennis’s Kindertotenlieder piece, and that’s kind of amazing and numinous. ...A word we use in California a lot.
CG: World centre of numinousness.
TM: But I think it’s a good question. Especially to imagine, what are we going to do without it? Because I presume if nothing else the technology will change so dramatically that this will seem like the wireless or something. You know, the old wireless. Or those wax things, you know, the early phonographs.
CG: Going back to early stuff... I wanted to ask about your transition through the early 80’s pieces, the bigger pieces... Maybe you can talk me through one of the earlier pieces, like Postwar?
TM: Yeah. Which was also the first piece I ever did here. I did it all over England long before I was touring in America, in 1982.
from Postwar (1981)
CG: This was kind of a breakthrough piece in terms of the number of people who were paying attention to what you were doing.
TM: Yeah, it came out of a whole period of about a year of doing a new solo every Monday at P.S.122, which kind of coalesced around this... That was a very strong piece, and really very appropriate for 1982, you know, to be a 23-year-old performer, sort of the youngest performer getting attention in New York at the time. I just saw Michael Clark’s company in Birmingham, who I met that year: the two young things of the Dance Umbrella festival in London, going [cat-like hiss] at each other. Especially because I got the BBC tv show. I don’t remember what it was called. ...Omnibus?
CG: Oh, OK.
TM: They did, like, twenty minutes on me, and Michael was cursing me. We had a chat on Saturday, I hadn’t seen him in years...
But anyway, it coalesced into this very strong piece about growing up and hamburgers and Reagan and this huge early-80’s nuclear panic moment, especially ‘82. Because Reagan and Thatcher – the special relationship which always wreaks havoc on earth, as it is with Blair and Bush now – were remilitarizing Europe. So to be doing work around that general anxiety of childhood and...
There’s no queer stuff in that piece, but I’d already done a piece earlier that year with my boyfriend at that time, John Bernd, called Live Boys, that was a big successful thing in the New York demimonde, you know, lots of press and stuff. But this [Postwar] was the other thing that I was really interested in exploring: my place in history, a lot of counting back and figuring out where I fit, and the current situation as I saw it then. Lawnmowers and hamburgers. A very Californian piece. And apocalyptic. And it connected strongly both in the States and here, I did 25 cities in the UK, all over the place. I’d never been anywhere in America, and suddenly I was performing at Crewe & Alsager College!
But also, amid the blood-drinking New York career-obsessed artists’ community, it was really this desire for... You know, this huge 80’s presumption, to make the big spectacle, the huge overarching masterpiece, and Postwar was quite a good piece in that general Wagnerian... You know, music, and heavy media, and five performers. ...But mostly me!
And then the next piece, The Cost Of Living, was even more a multimedia spectacle, and since I was having sex with Robert Wilson’s husband at the time, about a block from here at the Kenilworth Hotel... Is that still here? Jim Self, who is a wonderful choreographer and still my close friend. I know he wouldn’t mind. I’m encouraging him to write the tell-all book because he was with Merce for years and was Jasper Johns’s lover for six or seven years as a young man –
TM: - and then Robert Wilson’s husband during that crucial eighties period. So he’s worked the waterfront.
CG: There’s the lineage! Yeah.
TM: Anyway, you know, this huge desire for spectacle. And it was presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Next Wave festival, which is the gig to this day, the big mainstream-experimental gig. Had a huge failure there. So, you know, being washed up at twenty-five... Which is hard but good.
And really what happened was, you know, AIDS. And people were dropping like flies. And that challenged anyone who was in New York, especially, as the epicentre. And it really challenged my work: to get simpler, more direct -- and queered it hugely.
But then, I’d always been a writer, since I was a little boy, so it was also the reclaiming of my writer’s self. ‘OK, I’m not going to have the money to do these big spectacles any more, since everyone thinks they were so awful...
TM: ...but people seem to think I’m a good performer and a good enough writer. And I’ve got a story to tell.’ And I had a community to be engaged with as a gay person at this huge moment of crisis. So that was really the disciplining developmental kind of thing, I think. You know, how we behave when the world is falling apart – as it sort of always is, but there’s moments you’re more aware of it because it’s happening to your ex-boyfriend, to your neighbour, to your best friend you kissed when you were twenty-two... And that really coalesced it back down to this –- in a way highly theatrical, writerly... –- well, you know the work. I mean our work is very similar – your solo work, you know – humour, writerly, love of the language and specificity...
You know, you have something you want to get out. It’s an essay, really. I’m ultimately an essayist, my performances are really essays, they’re essays about something I want to get at. Maybe every couple of months I open up Montaigne and check one out, and they’re like performance texts! Completely quirky, odd perspective, obsessional... That has a real sustaining pleasure, and people connect with it. And the fun of humour.
And I do like performing. I read through the first half of the piece [1001 Beds] right here, since I have a big bed with a white duvet [as a set] at the Drill Hall, it’s pretty much the same set up [as in the apartment]. And as I was doing it I was thinking – this ain’t bad... [laughs] This’ll be fun tomorrow.
Also, the honing down -- the reality that there’s very little support for the arts in America.
CG: Sure, I was going to ask you about that: how does your work happen at all now? Is it entirely out of international connections?
TM: Well, I make most of my living in the States, by far. I mostly work in America.
CG: But in terms of the funding of it?
TM: It’s through gigs. I perform a lot. I mean our situation... – I have friends here who are hooked up to large pots of Arts Council England cash - obviously the vast majority are not, but there are certain people I know who are friends of mine and when I hear how much money... They probably get more money than, like, the American Ballet Theatre gets.
But what we do have there is the university infrastructure, which is quite rich. There are literally thousands of colleges and universities in the States and they’ve become the alternative arts space, at least for a lot of people. They’re the main presenters. And, you know, I can’t imagine anything more purposeful right now than connecting with 18-22 year olds. They need to rule the world as soon as possible, or at least rule America. Unless they become real sick fucks, once the current nineteen-year-olds are in power, America will be so much less fucked up.
So going into very very conservative state colleges in South Carolina or something, as I do, this is a huge opportunity to connect with people. And I really like young audiences, they’re really fun. And then the town people come too, and gay people get on their Rainbow Network hotline, so they know I’m around... And the press usually covers it. So I make money through the gigs; but, you know, they’re subsidised by college endowment or by the state of Illinois or Louisiana or whatever, there’ll be some freaky faculty member who’s making sure they get some money to bring me in. So that’s how I keep it together.
But I’m also fairly well known in my field, in the States especially –
CG: Sure, of course.
TM: - and I have several books out and people study my work. And I also have taught in universities off and on since I was twenty-two years old. So my work fits in that setting. Not all artists do. I was just up with Ron Athey in Birmingham and I know there are few [American] universities that might actually think they could pull Ron off without a major mishap. [sic] Or Annie Sprinkle, who’s so amazing. You know, you can talk about ass-fucking and -eating and take your clothes off almost anywhere, as I do, but you can’t really... There’s a whole bunch of things you just wouldn’t be able to do in universities, almost all of them, without someone getting sued. So every artist’s situation is different. But many of the colleges people go to, I’m sort of edgy enough but not so edgy that anyone’s going to lose their job. You know, I’m also a nice white boy and well-spoken and polite and behave myself for the most part. At least with the students. [laughs]
But if they weren’t there I’d be in a real pickle. And you know, you don’t come to England to make money. But I don’t have many needs financially, and I’d rather make my money by doing the stuff, performing and connecting and teaching...
CG: Obviously, as I’m sure you know, there’s a lot of distress here at the moment about the way that ACE funding for Grants for the Arts has been cut quite substantially, and this is really why I was interested to ask the question about how your work gets supported. I feel very conflicted about the situation in a way, because obviously it’s going to stop work being made that ought to be made, it’s going to stop people in the early stages of their careers who would be making bigger and more prominent work in fifteen years time, there’s that movement that that directly affects. But at the same time, it’s kind of... I’ve never been directly funded by the Arts Council –
TM: Just through venues.
CG: Right, yeah, a lot of indirect support, but nothing that I’ve asked for money for has ever been accepted. And one of the things that’s come out of that is the thread of performance that I do in people’s houses, which I’ve lived off when times are tough, taking work into people’s houses. So I suppose it’s this thing of feeling a little bit that maybe... you just do it. You find a way of doing it, and you do it. Which is a very difficult thing to say in a climate where people are struggling but also – I suppose what I’m trying to ask you is, whether you feel in any way constrained as an artist. You know, thinking about the scale you were working on twenty, twenty-five years ago, whether there’s anything still in you that’s, you know, ‘I wish I could still do that kind of widescreen –
TM: [mock sobs]
CG: - stuff now’... Or I guess it was quite a burning experience...?
TM: Yeah, it was so awful.
CG: So maybe that isn’t an appetite that’s ever come back.
I mean my first thought is, you know, that I’m doing pretty much what I want to do. But there’s probably some part of that kind of burning ambition for larger... What is that ‘larger’? Audiences, more money, more resources...
I think -- as you said -- though, I was so burned by that experience, it was so awful, it was the only time I didn’t like being an artist, it was the only work I made that I think was pretty terrible. So I feel like I probably got it out of my system, that desire for a larger...
And I live in Los Angeles, my friends are infinitely richer than me, I know the people who produce the interesting queer movies and tv shows and have that access to a large media, and I don’t really envy them. They have to go to all these meetings; I get to sit and chat with you. I feel quite privileged in that way, that I get to have very high levels of engagement and vast amounts of control. Also modest scale, but scale is amplified out through books and newspapers and people write about my work a lot, and all that [reaches] thousands and thousands more people than will see me perform. So that amplifies that out more.
I always question: ‘Am I really repressing something?’ A very American narrative! -- but actually a good question to ask yourself. But I don’t really think so. I feel so lucky to be alive, first of all -- you know, I could have been dead at 22, I so easily could have... I was in New York having vast amounts of sex at the age of nineteen, at exactly the peak moment, early 80’s, that last year when lots of people probably did get infected...
So I admit I take after my mom: ‘Whaddya have to complain about?’
Books are really important to me. I mean I’ve had dinner with Susan Sarandon, and she’s very nice, but to meet Pat Barker... that’s a stalk, that’s a celebrity. [panting] She’s so great, I love her. And again, the same stuff that really interests me: history, war, artists’ private lives: her themes are permanently interesting to me. So if I didn’t have books out, you know, that would upset me.
Very old media. But also one of my books, called Body Blows, you’ve seen it I’m sure... This Muslim guy in South Africa gets the book, and pulls sections, and has performed my material all over South Africa, where I’ve never been, I may never go. So I’m delighted that the book took me there, and he used the book to make something happen.
It could change, but I’m also kind of lazy. I like hanging out with Alistair, and, when I’m home, going to the beach. Writing in the morning. And I get an ample amount of time to write and perform. So the scale feels pretty agreeable. But that could also be me here in my forties accepting this is how it is. But it feels so rich and challenging within that.
My friend Rob Hooper, he’s obsessed with Marc Almond, he said: ‘You must read Marc Almond.’ It’s like a three-year-old book but I’m reading it. He’s been quite forthright... He’s, like, two years older than me. And also someone who was a fringy popstar: had a hit, a big hit in the States, more of a career here... and I’m finding the book quite interesting, just about that... Who are we, what do we do, what’s your life..., how much attention does any human being need?
CG: [laughs] Yeah.
TM: You know, what’s enough? I think I probably get enough. I feel quite content with that, which may be deep bourgeois programming of, like, enoughness... But I’m glad it is because it actually makes the day more fun.
I think I feel lucky to just enjoy things, and they can be quite modest. And that eludes people. And I think that’s sort of there in my work too. You know I’m very fortunate in that way, I’ve been looked after pretty well by media and press and stuff. And enough opportunities. And, like you say, I was getting funding when I needed it, as a young artist. And now I can make it work another way.
But in 1982 when I was making pieces where someone in a Ronald Reagan mask is beating the shit out of me, you know, without those NEA grants -- and I was working full time as a carpenter then -- I would not have been able to shift over, and that’s harder now for a young artist in the States. There’s literally no grants from the federal government anymore.
CG: You just reminded me of something, talking about media attention. The last time I saw you at work actually was about three weeks ago. I was in an apartment not unlike this in Plymouth and it was the middle of the night and I was watching cable...
CG: Larry Sanders. [An episode in which Tim is brought onto the fictional ‘Larry Sanders Show’ as part of a drive to book more cutting-edge guests. Tim performs the notorious sperm routine from My Queer Body – which ends with him announcing: “ECCE HOMO! Behold the fag!” -- but the segment is pulled from the show by Larry and Artie, despite their having praised Tim fulsomely to his face.]
TM: Oh right! Yeah. That’s sweet.
CG: I thought that was really great.
TM: It’s a fun episode. It’s a great teleplay. Very cleverly written. That was an extremely enjoyable process. In spite of the fact they wanted Karen Finley and had to settle for me!
CG: Oh really? [laughs] No way. I don’t believe that for a second.
TM: Well they didn’t tell me that but I knew that’s how it was. ...It worked out. People tell me [they’ve seen that episode] all the time. I need to get that little clip up on YouTube.
CG: It’s lovely, it’s really nicely done. And what I wondered was the extent to which – this might be labouring it a little bit – but it seemed to me like quite a plausible scenario in terms of... -- I wondered about the extent to which that whole process with the NEA also made you something of a cause celebre for a liberal media that was also not truly aligned with what you were doing.
TM: Well, you know, it’s so hard to say. The NEA stuff happened in 1990 at a point when I was extremely... you know, I was already the representative ACT-UP queer performer in the US, and touring all over. You know, late 80’s, suddenly I found my stride and hit thirty at the end of the decade and kind of was at my peak cuteness... Well actually I think peak cuteness was about 1995, it’s all downhill from there... But it’s quite a strong moment for me, and quite a fearless moment. Other than that I woke up nightly sure I would die of AIDS soon.
But [the NEA affair] was totally a huge national story in the US.
CG: And it took a long time to resolve, didn’t it?
TM: It unfolded over years. And immediately right after it I lost all kinds of work because people became afraid to present me. I was already touring 35 states in the US a year and I’d always worked in the south a lot. I’ve done a lot of community-based work in the southeast. Most New York / LA performers don’t work in the south, but I’ve had a long history. Most years, North Carolina’s the state I perform in the most -- really I’ve been adopted. People know I get it, and I’m extremely interested in the south. Or they’ve worked with me and so they bring me back. Repeat trade: which performers and prostitutes rely on, God knows.
But like you say, it did create some new alliances and inscribed me in terms of political and theatre-historical placement around the culture wars in the US. So I would never presume to think that there weren’t ways it increased my visibility. These days no one even remembers what it was, unless they’re studying it in college. And, you know, the right in America doesn’t really focus on this anymore. Kind of locally and occasionally. They’re more worked up over library books still, they’ve gone back to the old... Partly because they did destroy the National Endowment for the Arts, and they won most of the battles, in spite of our Supreme Court case.
But it certainly deepened and engaged my national identity as an American artist in duking it out with AIDS and the Bush family and homophobia, and of course in the last many years just widening that alphabet soup of NEA, INS, HIV..., into all the stuff I’ve been doing around marriage equality and immigration. Which in a way is continuity, you know, it’s more fucked-up federal American stuff.
So then the narrative about me is sort of a queer artist who’s in this ongoing -- multi-decade, at this point -- relationship to pressuring, exploring, challenging US federal government stuff: its laws, its agencies, its iniquities... So it’s hard to imagine –- I mean, many years of work previous to that, but it’s seventeen years ago this month –- so it’s hard to imagine what [my situation] would be [if the NEA battle hadn't happened]. Though certainly right now the political text that comes up is much more around what Alistair and I are going through with his status and the marriage...
CG: Where is all that right now? I think when you and I first met it felt quite imminent that you were going to have to leave the US and maybe move here or something?
TM: Yeah, that was right before Alistair got the first of two possible work visas; you can get two three-year work visas, and then you have to leave, and now he’s on the tail-end of his last one. So we have pretty much exhausted our options, and as of yesterday morning it was not looking... He teaches creative writing at Antioch University and they’re not really figuring out how they could step up and do the right thing -- sponsor him for a Green Card -- which is unfortunate. I hope that they will consider this, because otherwise we have to leave. So actually, this particular moment as we sit here, it feels quite perilous again. You know, you can pull it out of the fire a few times, but eventually if you don’t get a Green Card you do have to leave. And we’re much too visible to think about being under the radar.
TM: Alistair’s book is coming out next year. So it needs to be... We have about a year but it all has to get sorted out. We’ll know soonish. Certainly in the fall. You may be seeing a lot more of us...
But it’s been a huge, a much more sustaining, motor through a couple of different shows...
CG: Yeah. It’s a long haul.
TM: And also just within this cultural context... In America, you know, after abortion, the gay marriage thing is the big social battle going on. And to be –- back to Mayakovsky in a way –- to be one of the very few artists in the US who’s been doing a lot of work around this subject, it’s also generated a lot of opportunities because people are thinking about this, every single state in the country is relating to it some way or another, and people want to do cultural programming around issues that people are thinking about.
But, segueing to the new stuff: these ongoing battles, that’s partly where this 1001 beds metaphor is interesting to me. You know: how do we understand the shape of our lives, the volume, the mission of it?
This piece is also sort of about performing, more than any piece I’ve done. Not just my own performing, but also about art changing the world, or changing desire: you know, moments of... Getting fucked in the butt for the first time at seventeen and going to the Hollywood Bowl and hearing the Liebestod [from Tristan und Isolde] and it pulling you out of your first negative sex experience...
It’s quite a fun piece to be doing right now, just acknowledging the sweep of this conservative calculation of 1001 of these [pointing to his bed], and probably two hundred of those beds will have been in England, Scotland, Wales... I’m finding it quite a poignant and funny metaphor.
And also because most of us travel. I mean it’s the title of this new book but it came out of an essay I’d written –- someone wanted me to write about travel so it led me to think about the bed math, all the gigs over a lifetime... And so it meant this piece kind of began out of an essay. I’ve never begun a piece in that way. It’s kind of interesting.
Having come all the way up to date, that seemed like a good place to finish: but mindful -- in his life as in his performances -- of the power and the profound truth of circularities, Tim had another animal-related revelation with which to spin me out: this time, a Lonely Goatherd toy: a plushy animatronic goat which mimes to the song of the same name. Banish all thoughts of Billy Bass – clearly, this technology has really advanced quantumwise in the last few years...
TM: Have you heard this? I have to do it quickly. I wanted one, I almost bought one on line, but they have one at the Drill Hall. I love this, it’s really cute.
[Mr Miller activates the goat. Laughter.]
CG: It’s incredibly sophisticated.
TM: Twenty-five pounds. Thirty online.
CG: You did very well. You’re never alone with that.
TM: True. Well also Alistair’s a Capricorn and he loves goats, so it’s the perfect present for him when I come home. He likes that song. But something like that... That I have twenty-five pounds to spend on a singing goat. That is privilege. But also I could imagine enjoying that for the rest of my life. It’ll have pride of place...
A life in musicals.
CG: I just don’t know how I’m going to transcribe it. There’s no way of expressing it in words really.
TM: It would have to be an audio clip. Which is much too challenging. But [The Sound of Music] is almost my favourite musical. I did go. I hadn’t seen it since I was a little boy. I can’t believe I cried during ‘Do Re Mi’. ‘Do Re Mi’ is so beautiful, it’s such a great... You know I expect ‘Climb Every Mountain’ to..., but ‘Do Re Mi’...
CG: It’s just that drop of golden sun. It’s gonna sneak up on you.
TM: It did, it's true. It’s such an optimistic song. That people can learn to sing. I mean it’s really about art as a transformational tool. It's like, you know, you can change how people think or how they behave or how they relate to each other. And anyone can do it. I think it was something about that.
Oh I can’t believe I played the Lonely Goatherd.