Miguel Gutierrez is a singular force in the performance world, blending dance, drag, poetry, comedy, and song into what he prefers to call “shows.” The 43-year-old artist’s new work “Age & Beauty Part 1: Mid-Career Artist/Suicide Note or&:-/” premiered as part of the Whitney Biennial—an hour-long duet with 24-year-old Mickey Mahar, it is a choreographic tempest of queer desire, complete with fuchsia nail polish and a bleached-blond beard. He met with Jarrett Earnest to discuss this piece, along with his ideas about aging and embodied knowledge.
Jarrett Earnest (Rail): You started your performance at the Whitney Biennial by saying you are thinking about the queer theorists J. J. Halberstam and José Esteban Muñoz. We know there isn’t a reductive one-to-one correlation between theoretical ideas and your art, so how do you see the function of that announcement?
Miguel Gutierrez: I noticed during the work-in-progress showings that I was doing a little introduction like that and I thought there was no reason not to do it in the final piece—it cuts through the preciousness of starting a show. Also the beginning of the piece is such a “beginning”—it has a “showness” to it; it felt strategic as a way of delineating the difference between what it is to watch a show, and what it is to have a more vernacular interaction. In the work there is a consciousness of different states of performativity that we are all engaged in. I’m always fascinated by the ways we shift being seen: “Now I am an object to be seen”; “Now I am a person who is seeing”; “Now I’m having a conversation”; “Now you fucking sit there and watch.” These are different contractual agreements between audience and performer. It is useful to have that soft tone at the beginning, and, for the people who are interested in those writers, it’s a way to frame the piece in relation to ideas—to propose that a dance is about ideas. Of course it always is, but if you just name the idea then you get that out of the way.
Rail: It’s in the small first-floor gallery: you are there engaging with people as they come in, the end is terrifically awkward with you saying, “Okay, it’s over, you can leave now. I’m serious it’s over you can leave.” Being there the entire time allowed us to take advantage of the communal gallery space—foregrounding our shared space and presence in a way theaters are constructed to obliterate by insulating the performer from the audience.
Gutierrez: I was concerned with what it is to see a performance at a museum, which is something that happens a lot now. When Anthony Elms invited me to be part of the Biennial, I said: “Just to be clear, I make shows—a huge part of what I do requires attention over time.” I’ve noticed that when I go to museums and there is a video, or something time-based, often people will come in for three minutes, or even 15 seconds, to take a look and then leave. There can be a shopping mentality in museums, you can also just wander like you are in a garden. I was concerned about that dynamic, people walking into my space and not necessarily expecting to stay for the duration, so I begin by laying out the rules: “This is a 55-minute piece—” Of course people can leave if they want, no one is forced to do anything, but I think it is important for me to set the context for attention. In that particular environment it was critical because the threshold between the room and the lobby is so thin.
Rail: One thing that seems key is scale. The dance pieces in the last Biennial were very big—an entire floor. I read an interview a few years ago where you said you were trying to “aggressively maintain a smallness” even though success is pushing you to be bigger. How did that factor into this piece and how does scale work in performance?
Gutierrez: I had already been working with Mickey Mahar on the piece, rehearsing in small studio spaces, and I said to him that it might be about “performance in a gallery,” not knowing what the venue would be. When we started talking about the Biennial I was told that that gallery is where the performances were happening. I wanted a dedicated, separate space—I knew I was going to have loud music and I didn’t want to impinge on anyone else’s work. I think there is something for me in smallness, or rather intimacy—we’re in this funny time where intimacy is the radical act we can move toward. As things get so un-intimate, so public, so shared, so big, of course it makes sense that performing artists want to find a way to create intimacy as a value. For me it’s a double-edged sword because I like intimacy but I also want people to see the work, which is why I decided to perform it 25 times.
Rail: In making a piece for the Whitney Biennial, as opposed to in a dance context, what different assumptions or awarenesses were you contending with?
Gutierrez: The thing I am most aware of, which dovetails nicely with my recent concerns, is that I am hyper-conscious of how the piece looks. I bring my values of attention and time, and because this is a visual art context I want to be very specific about how the dance looks, literally using a kind of framing, a specific pictoriality. Also, doing it with Mickey Mahar who has such an extraordinary visual presence—the contrast of our bodies next to each other was important to me. Foregrounding the visual is something I usually resist because I hate how dance is often reduced to the visual. People get caught up talking about a movement vocabulary or weird notions of beauty or how hard you’re working—all assumptions based on your body, so it can be harder to communicate that dance is also about more than that. For me what is happening in my work is that an energetic situation is being instigated through the medium of dance.
Rail: Besides referencing the theorists, I was also into your Blake quotation. You ended your introduction by saying: “Last summer I was reading the complete works of William Blake and I found he ended a letter: ‘I have a thousand and ten thousand things to say to you. My heart is full of futurity.’” I think that is a lot more interesting than the “queer theory” part of the intro, which seems obvious. How did you come to Blake?
Gutierrez: I found that book in my house, I have no idea where it came from and it has since disappeared. I was literally meant to find that letter and that was it. For the queer theory stuff, I have had a fraught relationship to “theory” most of my adult life. It’s become more interesting to me, though I sometimes feel when I’m reading theory that it addresses the same things as spirituality but in a weirder, more pessimistic way. There is an aggressive intellectual monopolization in theory that seeks to deny transcendental notions of the body. I love that Blake was unabashedly talking about spirituality. I draw a ton of inspiration from that—where you are beholden to something that is moving through you and answering to something that is big. I don’t shy away from that even if sometimes it makes me embarrassed—it’s just where the work goes.
Rail: Walking over here this morning I remembered a passage from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that so perfectly fits your work and ideas:
1. Man has no Body distinct from his Soul; for that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age. 2. Energy is the only life, and is from the Body; and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy. 3. Energy is Eternal Delight.
Blake is a visionary artist—he is envisioning a new world—and I took that idea into your piece because of the introduction. Is your work “utopian”?
Gutierrez: What is great about José Esteban Muñoz’s idea of utopia is that he’s not talking about a dumb utopia. He’s saying, “Let’s be considerate, let’s be mindful and also inventive—let’s celebrate inventiveness.” It might be a really tricky reality wherein we have to negotiate difference—that is not easy. For me the shock of encountering that Blake quote was that word “futurity,” which has become a buzzword in queer academic circles, partly because of José’s writing. Futurity in 1803! What an incredible encounter to consider. Any art I make is in a sense a vision of the world, but I don’t think of it as that simple—art is not a reflection of reality; I think art is a construction of a new reality or a specific aspect of reality.
Rail: In that sense do you see an ethical dimension to making dances?
Gutierrez: Of course, your choices represent things and representation is embedded in politics, which are value systems—there is a politics in how you make work and to how you treat the people you work with. You are dealing with the ethical dimensions of power and representation when you choose to put something on a stage. This piece has a very particular reality because I chose to work with Mickey who is a specific body and also representative of something else, as all bodies are. There must be a specificity to why you choose to represent a certain body.
Rail: On that note, let me say I like the title’s ambiguity in relation to you two: it’s “Age & Beauty” without either word being clearly defined or attached exclusively to either—you both are different ages and have different beauties. You didn’t say “Youth & Beauty,” which might have been more closed down, placing both parts on the younger performer. How did you start working with Mickey?
Gutierrez: I saw him in a show and thought he was amazing. I was drawn to whatever the hell he is. I had already been thinking about doing a series of pieces called “Age & Beauty” but I didn’t even know what they were. It wasn’t like I was looking for some super young-looking skinny white guy, it was just an interest and I’m good about answering to those kinds of interests in myself. When we met I was so excited by who he was as a person—he so quickly revealed himself to be a very smart, funny, interested person, which meant it could be a real process. When you are making a piece you are spending time with someone and like any relationship you want that time to be exciting.
Rail: I’m in the middle of reading the complete works of Tennessee Williams right now. Every character is hysterically yelling about YOUTH and how its loss is THE END. I recently saw a reading of Justin Sayre’s play Click of the Lock which deals with how gay men “live in an economy of Youth and Beauty,” as he puts it, which I have a fundamental problem with. All this was on my mind when I saw your piece and I thought it was interesting that you were dealing with those intersecting structures: gay men and dancers as inhabiting an overlapping “economy of youth and beauty.”
Gutierrez: You have a problem with it because you just don’t like it?
Rail: I don’t like it and I don’t think it is necessarily or essentially true.
Gutierrez: That’s nice—I wish I didn’t feel like it was true, but I do. How old are you?
Rail: I’m basically the age of the “young” dancer!
Gutierrez: Just wait!
Rail: Please help me understand, because I think this is a problem of socialization and representation, both of which are necessarily malleable.
Gutierrez: This is an ongoing question for me about how I feel in culture. If dance is your medium you can’t not think about age in relation to your body because you are feeling the difference, the change—the time-honored notions of the cruelty of aging in relationship to what you can actually do. I’m seeing five body-workers in two days so I can keep going—not because I’m in a desperate state, but because that is the work it takes for me to keep doing the work I’m doing. There is a consciousness around the value of youth and I see it in myself; I am very drawn to younger people, to their naïveté, and I project a lot of myself onto them, or I see people who remind me of versions of myself and I want to know them or I want to fuck them or I want to be fucked over by them. There is some weird mythological thing being played out there. I was growing up when AIDS hit and there was a notion that you weren’t going to grow old as a gay person, you’d hit your 30s and that was it. Even though that isn’t true now I think I was really affected by it and suddenly I’m confronted with a sense of trying to understand how I fit into this landscape. Let’s add to the mix the Latin American aspect of my identity; for me gay politics has always been fraught with racism, sexism, and ignorance of a range of issues that have value in my life.
Rail: If we are talking of opening up a spectrum of movement and bodies, part of that seems not only like opening up the types of bodies but the ages of bodies too. How has your relationship to your body and movement changed, which seems about being both “mid-career” and “middle-aged?”
Gutierrez: I am lucky that when I was still pretty young, like 19, I was living in the Bay Area and I saw a lot of dance and I remember having a very clear notion that I wasn’t going to become the kind of dancer I really wanted to be until I was in my mid-30s. I don’t know how that came to me but I remember looking at a lot of dancers and seeing that I’m in a process. Up until that moment I was very burdened by classical notions of where you’re supposed to be at a certain part of your dancing life. When I came to New York and I started seeing performances here I was struck by the fact that the performers I enjoyed the most were older: people who had a ton of experience in their bodies. I remember seeing Vicky Shick and thinking, “wow, that body has so much beautiful information!” Nevertheless the politics of viewing are embedded in beauty and desire. For example you see these rays on the ground at the beginning of “Age & Beauty” that go directly to where Mickey is standing because when we first started doing work-in-progress shows I noticed that everyone was staring at him. And I still notice it. Literally I could feel that 80% of the audience’s eyes were looking right at him and I thought, “Fuck, I’m over here busting my ass and everyone is looking at him,” so I wanted to highlight that. I don’t know if that is true for the whole show but I do notice it at the beginning.
Rail: That was not my experience of the piece.
Gutierrez: I am looking at the audience; I can see where their eyes are. I’m into the problem of that, and that is part of what this piece is addressing. There is also a thing when a choreographer is in a piece the dancer becomes much more the object of the desire than the choreographer; you can hate a piece but still love the dancer. These are just dumb ego feelings but unfortunately they are related to your sense of self in the world and your sense of desirability. In any performance there are erotics at play; there are always notions of who you want to fuck when you watch a show—in dance, bodies are so vulnerable or sexualized. I don’t shy away from any of it. You would be very naïve to think it’s not there.
Rail: I felt Mickey as a dancer, as a foil for you, was pointed and it actually made me a little uncomfortable because he is a “type”—innocence to your experience—a twinky boy with nothing to say whose purpose is to be consumed as a sexual object by older men—
Gutierrez: Funny, I don’t see Mickey that way at all—maybe that gets projected onto him. I feel like that gets complicated throughout the course of the piece, especially when he has a solo moment because he is such an impressive improviser and has a sophisticated gangliness in his dancing.
Rail: He’s an excellent dancer. I think it has to do with presence and eye contact: you are all about staring directly at everyone in the audience. He isn’t looking at anyone, he receives the look—that is why audiences would rather look at him, because it’s more challenging to really look at you. It’s structural.
Gutierrez: Yeah, I’m confrontational. Our temperatures are different. He is good at this thing of absorbing the gaze. I am someone who meets it and pushes into it, which is an aspect of my work that gets me into all kinds of trouble—people don’t feel comfortable with it. Sometimes even I don’t feel comfortable with it, but it’s just a place that I go. It brings content to the work around these questions of: What is it that I need from the audience? What am I hoping to get? When someone looks you in the eyes you are suddenly reminded that you are there too. I am very sensitive to the fact that I don’t want to be an object—I certainly don’t accept that as an endpoint of my own representation as a performer. I think my entire life has always been negotiating being a thinking and feeling body and my desire to be seen, felt, and appreciated. I hate when people reduce me even to the word “dancer.” I also make all the music and write all the words and create the visuals, but then I get called “dancer” which feels like a diminishment. I’m an artist! Of course, if they forget I’m a dancer then I’m just as pissed.
Rail: You are investigating embodiment at the intersections of movement, images, singing, and writing—what was your first awareness of that knot?
Gutierrez: When I was 19 I first saw the Joe Goode Performance Group. At that point I had already seen Contraband’s and High Risk Group’s work, which was also dance, text, and music, but when I saw Joe’s work “Remembering the Pool at the Best Western”(1991)—an incredible piece about AIDS and out-of-body experiences—it was like I was seeing the form that I belonged to in its fullest incarnation. I didn’t even know that it existed, and I remember being really clear that that was what I wanted to do, and dancing for him ended up being one of my first dance jobs. At that moment it didn’t occur to me that my writing would become part of my work, or that sound-making would.
My entire professional career I’ve worked with choreographers who are great writers—these people who are allegedly masters of the non-verbal who have perfect command over their verbal representation. In my earliest work those things were present and then they came back at least 10 years ago, when it became necessary to speak in the work and make sound again.
Rail: I loved your writing piece about “The Perfect Dance Critic,” especially: “The perfect dance critic doesn’t secretly wish that everything was the way it used to be.” I think one of the important legacies of people like Deborah Hay or Yvonne Rainer is that they had to speak and write as part of the work, to help people catch up. You are similarly so public about writing and speaking; I wanted to know how you see it as part of what you do?
Gutierrez: Once I realized that it was part of the work I was happy to absorb it as such. I see talking about my or other people’s work as a form of advocacy, as a form of representation of other people’s ideas. I’m in a privileged position because I have a peer group of artists that I admire and I can talk to them—I don’t need anything from them so we can talk in a real way in a language familiar to both of us. When I am in a public situation it becomes important to share that language. I know that most people don’t live in a world where they spend five to six hours a day in a studio rolling on the floor and dealing with themselves physically or emotionally, so it is important to find language to talk about what I am doing for those who may have a sense of trepidation in validating their own ideas about what they see. This is an ongoing problem of performance, specifically dance: people often feel illiterate when they see it, because they don’t have knowledge of dance history in the way they do of art history. I’ve always been conscious of the fact that dance artists seem to know a lot more about other art forms than other forms seem to know about us.
In that regard I really think about and consider the words I choose in public talks, which changed something about my relationship to my audience. I’m not interested in talking down to an audience; I assume people are smart and that they want to see complicated things. When they don’t want to then they can go do something else. The audience for what we do is ultimately small, and that is completely fine; I’m not interested in commercializing it, or in needing it to be some massive thing, but I’m also not precious about talking about it. Most of the time people just need to feel that they have been given permission to have opinions about things they don’t understand. I work with teenagers as a volunteer mentor, taking high-schoolers to the theater and talking about it—it is powerful advocacy work for the form. It shows me that if you create the right context people will shock you with the depth and complexity of their responses.
Rail: Are there statements or criticisms from critics or other artists that you think are perennial misunderstandings?
Gutierrez: I joke in “HEAVENS WHAT HAVE I DONE” (2010) that people say my work is “messy,” and what I hear in that is that there is a lot in the work—I don’t make minimalist work, and minimalism is very sexy to people now—there is real primacy placed on reduction. There is also a primacy placed on being specific, which I like quite a bit. I’ve been arguing that my work is embedded in time, so there is a constellation of ideas that have a relationship to each other throughout the course of a piece, and that you are navigating this landscape of ideas—that is what I think people mean by “messy.” Of course I’m only going to hear the parts of it that make me feel insecure, and a lot of times those things are based on what I imagine to be trendy, and how I am succeeding or not succeeding in relation to a very specific market and group of people and values.
I know that a lot of my work is complicated to present because it requires actual theatrical elements and there has been a trend for some time now, certainly in a festival culture, of making pieces that can come up or come down immediately to satisfy that context. There is also an aesthetic of people who perform in museums wearing their day clothes with no lighting, which has been happening for a long time. I’m not very in on those conversations to know what is keeping people from my work—maybe they think it’s too emotional or too first-person narrative.
Rail: I am interested in your collaboration with Jenny Holzer, “I SAY THE WORD”(2010), because it’s in the “experiments” part of your website as opposed to “pieces.”
Gutierrez: I think it was tough because it wasn’t really a collaboration in the sense that we both brought something to the table that was manipulated by the other person. We didn’t have any face time. It was a curator-imposed decision, and I am very wary of any curator-imposed decision when it comes to art-making. In general they don’t have the best ideas; ideas should come from the artist. It taught me to be rigorous about things that appear to be sexy on paper. When I was approached by that presenter I had just premiered a show I had been working on for a year and a half and I thought, “Why wouldn’t you just book a show I already have which is really good?” The problem with these curatorial models is that they are invested in novelty, in being able to say, “I commissioned this for our institution.” That is what was so great about Anthony Elms for the Whitney Biennial, he imposed absolutely no rules on what I presented. I was already making something new so it worked out well, but if I wanted to go back to an older piece I could have. I appreciated that so much.
Rail: How do you see the relationship of the video and photographic documents to the live performance?
Gutierrez: In visual art there is a tradition where people are like, “I took a shit in this tiny gallery; I was the only one there but I took 5,000 pictures and I’m selling the pictures for $500 apiece”—I think that’s fucking clever and dance people just don’t think like that—we’re not that clever. It really does shock me: to me that is the “beautiful” intersection of conceptual art and capitalism.
Rail: Do you always see your photos and videos as secondary to the lived experience of the piece?
Gutierrez: I have so far. I don’t make the videos public because I want people to sit down and watch the piece live—it was created to be seen that way. It’s not that I don’t think you can get something from watching the video, but it is about live time.
Rail: That seems to me the defining assumption that distinguishes dance as a form.
Gutierrez: My little book WHEN YOU RISE UP (2009) is texts from my shows. I could also probably make a record of the music from my shows. I’m aware that these things could have other manifestations of themselves and if I were cleverer I would be more aggressive about marketing them. I feel like people are figuring out how to get out of dance and into the visual arts because they want to make money. I know plenty of artists make things and don’t make any money, but there is bluntness to the commodification of visual art that doesn’t happen in the performance world, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing—it takes a kind of adulthood to talk about money and ask for what you need. A lot of times when you come up in dance you’re kept in this constantly infantile state where you are not expected to ask for what you need, and if you do ask for it then you are a jerk. Then you look in the paper and see someone sold a crappy sculpture for $400,000 and it’s like, “Holy shit, that’s more than twice of what it costs for me to make one show that involved 14 people’s labor for three years.”
Rail: Why don’t you want to be called a “performance artist”?
Gutierrez: You’re right I don’t use that term. I tell people “I make shows.” They are a weaving of dance, text, sound-making—I put it in an active voice, rather than “I am a …” I’m not a noun, I am a person who does things. Dance has been the mothership for 25 years; I don’t know that it always will be. What I love about dance is its lack of pretense and its direct engagement with the body—that everything I need I can find through the body. I love that in visual art contexts there is a high value placed on intellectual content; sometimes I find that pretentious and stupid, but most of the time I’m really excited about it. I appreciate when people want to talk about things in a complicated way because in dance, particularly university dance contexts, you sometimes find the opposite to be true. The U.S. dance presentation landscape is also tremendously conservative, so it is useful to attach myself to other legacies—the history of body-based performance art from the 1970s for example, is relevant to me. Certainly when I look at my or someone else’s work I think the most critical thing is the relationship to time: “Does this person have an understanding of the value of what time is and how they are working with it?” As someone coming up through dance and theater I’m very fucking sensitive to the value of time. I’ve certainly seen visual art-based performances that are not. Or that are using time in a way I never thought to. It cuts both ways. I also see dance performances and think, “girl, go to a gallery and see how people are making stuff!” I’m not trying to sound like a big soupy relativist here but I just respond to things that are good, I don’t give a fuck what their tradition is.
JARRETT EARNEST is a writer who lives in New York.