Mental Escape is a series of live interviews exploring how the art world responds to today’s challenges. Livestreamed from Flash Art’s Instagram, Alexandre Stipanovich interviews artists, curators, gallerists, critics, and collectors about their hopes, fears, doubts, visions, and projects they are dreaming of pursuing once the dust settles. This series took place during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Welcome to the first episode with Miles Greenberg, artist and performer.
Alexandre Stipanovich: Hi Miles. How are you?
Miles Greenberg: I’m great. How are you?
AS: I’m good. I wanted to ask you a few questions. Of course, this big crisis affects your everyday life. On a more personal note, I wanted to know more about the man behind the performer. I would start with your background. You’re interested in a lot of various things around the human body. I was curious to know how that came about. How did you first become inspired by movement and choreography and space?
MG: My mother was in the theater for several decades. That was something that was kind of embedded into my DNA pretty early on. I grew up in Montreal, Quebec. We have an education system that takes us through one extra year in addition to high school. It’s kind of structured a little bit differently. It sort of counts as your undergrad, but you don’t quite go into university. You don’t quite get that full autonomy in your subject matter until a little bit later. It was a weird structure for me that I didn’t feel very comfortable in, so I dropped out quite early.
I knew what I wanted to do in some capacity, but I didn’t really have the tools. I never went to art school, really, technically, so I didn’t have the technical skill to paint or to sculpt. Had I been educated with those things… I just technically didn’t have a high school diploma when I left. I got into Central Saint Martins eventually, which I didn’t end up pursuing.
I just did residencies. I didn’t have any space to screw up one hundred thousand times and know what a polymer even is or how to cast resin or anything like that. I was super interested in all of those things, but I had to translate those to my body because that’s what I left with and that’s what I had. I just sort of stuck with it. I told myself I would go back to school when it made sense. That was five years ago now, when I left grade twelve, and it hasn’t quite made sense yet.
AS: Five years ago. That’s pretty recent.
MG: Yeah. I’m twenty-two now. I moved away. I quit school. I started working. I got a little studio in Montreal and started doing live performance events and participating in them here locally. I curated a couple of shows just in, like, storefronts. I think performance has always been very… it was made an option to me when I was thirteen, when The Artist Is Present (2010) happened. My mom was a big fan of Marina’s work. We flew to New York to see it at MoMA. That was definitely a bit of a catalyst for understanding a context in which you could make art without all of the accouterments.
AS: Tell me about the mindset. Before the mindset of the performance, which is usually very long — six, four, eight hours sometimes. I’d like to know how you make sense of different cultures you explore, like Butoh or Afrofuturism and more, maybe Marina Abramović’s influence. How do you use all those? Does it come naturally?
MG: I come from Montreal. It’s a very young city, a young country. I’m very lucky to feel like I’m a part of a space that operates, I think, quite uniquely in that it’s a little bit of a non-nationality that’s allowed me a lot of mobility. I think that people here are brought up with a culture of mobility, which is an enormous privilege, first and foremost. I grew up traveling a lot because my parents work. Especially coming from a multicultural background and growing up speaking five languages and sort of having that permeation and permeability with the world. I think that it’s just sort of given me a real hunger to communicate. I think that that’s really important for anybody, especially doing performance, because at the end of the day it’s kind of about a dialogue.
I always think about when I’m conceiving a work — it may seem obvious, but it’s kind of not — how it’s going to be consumed and how people consume culture and have a desire to communicate and to receive communication and to be touched or not or to be approached or not. Maybe I’ve assimilated different methodologies kind of approaching that through interactions with different cultures. I think that there is sort of a universal desire to be close to one another. That’s why this is a very interesting time, especially in my medium, because it relies on congregation in some capacity.
The way that people consume culture is going to be vastly different, and the way that people communicate is going to be vastly different. It already is. I mean, we’re doing this, but it’s going to be completely… the paradigm will shift — there will be before corona and after corona for all of us.
AS: Touching on that idea of universality, and maybe something that could be felt by anyone who walked into your last performance, for example, is the sense of authority maybe.
MG: Authority. It was an interesting piece to me. I think a lot about the experience of the performer in tandem with the experience of the audience and how those spheres sort of intersect. I think of it more as a Venn diagram, because I’m not experiencing everything that the audience is experiencing. The audience is definitely not experiencing everything that I’m experiencing, but there’s a mutuality and a place where those sort of touch. I think that liminal space, that synapse, where things fire between, is sort of a real sweet spot.
That’s where my whole love for this whole thing comes out of, because it’s also very immediate. You have that with a sculpture. You have that with a painting, but in a different kind of way, with a once-removed distance.
I don’t know about authority. That wasn’t what I was trying to exert, necessarily. For me it was kind of solitude. It was kind of isolation. There was some romance. There was some longing. A lot of references came out just before entering and in post. For example, the reference to a music box is really strong for me. The rotating figure in the middle, that is very kind of solitary.
It was all about lungs. Many different cultures — insofar as research, travel, and various cultures that I have been lucky enough to be welcomed into — have informed that research and that understanding. People can associate lungs with grief and with loneliness and with the death of a loved one. It’s kind of interpreted a lot in gesture and in dance and rituals throughout the world as this kind of caving in at the ribs.
I wanted to sort of find a way to heal that over a certain amount of time. I thought, if somebody could witness somebody healing it, almost like a frog dissection, like a real exemplar, “Exhibit A,” then maybe they could start to do that within themselves. That meant something to me.
In the Southern tradition in America, women would give music boxes to their lovers, especially mistresses. It was sort of the other woman and this longing. Also, the flowers were so that your lungs were filled with this… it was sort of inspired by a medieval belief that illness traveled through smell, and this idea of miasma and the cloud of illness, because they didn’t understand, obviously, how droplets or things were transmitted. They interpreted it as a sort of ethereal substance that would travel from person to person. That’s why the witch — not witch doctors, but the plague doctors — wore those beaks. Those beaks were stuffed, as you might know, with flowers, so that they wouldn’t breathe in miasma. Did it work? I don’t know. It was at least a very emotional attempt. That’s what it all is for me. Everything is an emotional attempt.
AS: The soundscape is also very interesting and very hypnotic. We definitely step into a different time-space realm, and it’s fascinating. I was wondering: How do you feel after six hours? You feel exhausted, but are you still clear in your mind or are you in a different state?
MG: It’s actually seven, just for the record. I do an hour before with no public. Six hours is what the public is usually invited to. That was my compromise, because I wanted to get into it. A big thing that I’m really resolute on and that was a little bit hard to pull off, so we didn’t end up doing it — typically, typically, typically, everybody gets kicked out before I finish, so that there’s no beginning and no end. What I did at Reena Spaulings, for example — because you have those windows at the back so people can walk by and see it a little bit, but it looks like a weird ghost that was all in white for that one. That was a previous piece. It’s my dream that people look up and they think that they might still see it. It was so cool. I went back a few days later and they’re, like, “People are still asking us if the performance is going on.” I think that’s fantastic because then it really makes me feel like I’ve done my job, having built something sculptural that feels infinite.
How do I feel? The next day, my boyfriend, who’s in the comments, could tell you that he fell asleep before me both times that I did this. It gives you a high. I went to yoga the next day. I don’t know. It’s always different. The preparation is partly so that I can bounce back afterwards and so that I don’t collapse in post.
AS: How do you prepare?
MG: It’s very strict, actually. It’s very, very strict. I do infrared saunas every two days. I do cryotherapy right after, so I blast my body with different temperatures. It sort of just helps give it resilience. No alcohol and no caffeine two weeks before. Diet, all raw vegan for about two weeks before. Colon hydrotherapy. Various things. I’m still doing it every day. First thing I drink in the morning is lemon water with ginseng.
AS: Where are you mentally when you prepare?
MG: People ask me all the time if I’m meditating. I had lunch recently with Helga Davis, who’s this amazing artist. She was like the original star of Einstein on the Beach (1976) with Bob Wilson. That was obviously a very intricate, complex piece of theater to execute. She was like, “People ask me all the time if I’m meditating.” She’s like, “Hell no. If you’re not on the ball, if my finger was not in some light, it was not going to be right.”
I was like, “The second that I started to dissociate in my mind while I was up there, I almost fell off of my rock,” which I saw in the video in post. I was like, “Oh my god.” I think that you have to be present. You have to be very present. Go with it and be aware of where you’re going. You go through some stuff. I would say I always leave having learned something. Nothing unexpected, but everything quite new.
AS: What is your interest in hypnotism?
MG: I don’t know much about it. I’d like to know more. I lived in Paris for close to four years. There was a big culture. I knew a lot of people that were going to go see hypnotists. I was like, “I’ll do it at one point, but I’m not ready yet.” Maybe now. Maybe after this. Maybe.
AS: Do you think you’re hitting a note of that?
MG: Yeah. It’s sort of an inspiration. Part of the reason that I haven’t wanted to delve too much into hypnotism is that I wanted to see how instinctively my practice developed into my own language of hypnotism and how the things that I construct and the spaces and paradigms and the context that I try to build can eventually, somehow, turn into some kind of a hypnotic space, but by my own sort of language. I’d be very into learning more at some point.
AS: You need the people to be able to work, to be able to perform, right?
MG: I don’t know yet. This whole shift in dynamic is really something that I think is going to inform that. I’m shooting something tomorrow. That’s going to be for camera. Have I ever really performed with no audience and no camera, nothing? Not really. Sort of, but not in a resolute sort of context. I’m really trying to figure out how to have dialogue now. As I said, everything is going to change, and everything is going to change for how people congregate around culture. It’s not going to be a day-to-night thing. People think that the floodgates are going to open. I don’t think that that’s quite true. I think people are going to have a lot of fear. Because what is now happening, and with good reason, is we’re being conditioned to fear the things that give us that kind of primordial comfort of romance, of physical touch, of human touch. What could more exacerbate our loneliness than stripping us of that? It’s really quite unique in that way.
It’s not like 9/11. It’s not like all of these other things that have happened in recent human history that we kind of have each other for. We’re all going through it vastly differently, and it’s a crisis, for a lot of people, to extremely separate scales.
I think it’s going to be quite interesting to see how people… I do not think that anybody is going to have a very big audience, in person, for quite a long time. I’m really trying to consider how to grow around that, and also what people need.
I think it was a real stroke of weird coincidence and serendipity that my last piece before this all broke out was about isolation and loneliness and longing and being completely isolated in the middle of this big palanquin around me with the skylight, and that it was about lungs. It’s kind of creepy. Who knows what is next anymore.
AS: Like an oracle. Do you think about your next performance or do you just rehearse?
MG: I had a lot planned before this all happened. Now a lot has changed. I have things in the works. I’m keeping everything quite fluid, which is, I think, interesting for every artist right now. Also, I think that there’s a lot of pressure to keep operating as we always have been. It’s okay not to have to produce right now.
I build everything like a sculpture. I think that my body and human tissue and other people’s bodies, for me, count in the same architectural value as a stone or as a flower or as a wall or as a pillar. The only difference for me is how time acts upon those forms. After seven hours a body will start to cave in. After seven days your flowers will start to wilt. After seven hundred years you might start to see a rock change shape a little bit. I think that the structure is still the structure, but how they evolve is sort of, for me, a part of the dance of the materials, and I think that my body is a material like any other.
AS: You are also interested in perfumes and olfactory architecture. How do you recreate that? Is that part of the performance as it happens or do you have some experiments beforehand?
MG: It’s the first thing I think about. It’s usually kind of what evokes shapes for me. It’s sort of this synesthetic relationship that I have to smell. I feel like I see it. I’ve always had a real fascination with it. It’s very closely related to memory, being that the shortest sensory nerves of the body, between your sinuses and the olfactory bulb, which is right here in your third eye, process smell. It’s like fractions and fractions and fractions of millimeters. It’s one of those senses that really touches people very quickly and very efficiently. It’s very romantic in that way. That’s why we think of it as such an intimate and personal thing. Hormones and pheromones are what attract us to reproduce. That’s kind of part of our human architecture. I see shapes in smells and I think about how they come and reach people. If I’m going to rehearse with a group — I do do rehearsals if I’m doing group performances, a little bit, just to get kind of a shape of it, but never too concretely — I will make sure that the scent is present, literally from the first meeting with the performers right up until the performance, entering the performance. It triggers memory. That’s how I passed my exams in school. I would spritz my subjects. Math was one. It’s really just a strategy.
AS: Tell me a little bit about House of Ninja. Did you have any acquaintances or friends there?
MG: I had quite a few friends in the ballroom scene in Paris. I used to walk a little bit in a couple of categories, but I was never exceedingly good at it. I didn’t really get deeply involved, but that was definitely a community that I really felt quite well received by for a long time. There’s one in Montreal as well, to some extent, that I kind of grew up around. It was more of that era. Kind of the transition between Montreal, and then Beijing in the middle, and then Paris, was kind of that. I have a lot of friends who are still very well involved and a lot of excellent performers who I’ve involved in my work in Paris before, like Snake Ninja. The way that their bodies move, it’s like reading a very strange book to me. It’s completely alien, so I love it.
AS: It’s incredible. I organized a small performance with House of Ninja in New York, I think two years ago, for a fundraiser, with the new generation and the older generation. It was insane. Tell me a little bit about you. On a day-to-day basis, how do you keep the morale up? How do you keep your spirit up?
MG: There’s a lot of grief happening right now. It is really hard. I have really the best of circumstances because I’m not having to still go to work. I’m in a country that is offering decent and progressively better unemployment benefits and compensation to its citizens. I feel like at least there is a general morale in the atmosphere here, in Montreal, right now. I’m here with my mom. We’re cooking every day, but the world is really bleeding right now. I have a hard time being, like, “I’m exercising. I’m working out,” when I know that there are loads of people who are still fully going to work in unacceptable conditions. Generally speaking, from my place of privilege, I have been able to read a lot. I’m trying to learn as much as I can. I’m not pressuring myself to be too creative. I think that’s really, really important. As one might imagine, I’m really hard on myself, just by default, so I’m really not trying to force myself to try to… it’s not going to happen.
I am studying Russian, finally, properly, with a tutor on Skype. I’ve also adjusted my traditional sleeping schedule. I’ve just sort of learned what my very intrinsic patterns are in my life. I’m fully nocturnal. I have not fallen asleep a single night, since this started, before 4:00 a.m. I actually woke up thirty minutes before we started doing this. My sweet spot for writing, for reading, for doing anything, for cooking, is 1:30 a.m. That’s just who I am. I’m very happy to be able to pursue those things and see what they cultivate in me.
AS: I’d like to know if you could recommend a book or movie or an album.
MG: I really like Haruki Murakami. I love his surrealism. It’s very cinematic to me, and it’s given me a lot of inspiration. It also feels like traveling. Even if you’re not into fiction, for me, it’s just so sensitive, and that’s really important to me — to stay sensitive. I have read all of it, so I’m not reading that right now. I’m almost done with Notes from the Underground, Dostoyevsky, because I want to read it in the original language before this is up.
AS: What about movies? Let’s talk about movies. Death in Venice was also a movie. What about Alphaville?
MG: I’ve actually never seen the Death in Venice movie. The book is fantastic. Alphaville is probably one of my favorite movies of all time by Godard. I have always been a big fan of his, but that was the first movie I ever saw by him and it blew my mind. For me, it’s the dance. It’s the sequence with Anna Karina and Constantine. I also saw Persona again, which is also an incredible piece of poetry. If you’re going to watch it, watch also Liv Ullmann’s commentary on it afterwards, because she really gives a really great context to it. That’s sort of what I’ve been watching. That and I’ve been watching a lot of Battlestar Galactica. I started it from the start. I really like that.
AS: You used Alphaville as a reference in your work.
MG: Yes, I did. It wasn’t directly about dystopia. That was the name, essentially, that I titled the work in progress. I was really lucky to be working with these twenty-five amazing performers. Once a week we would do these public presentations, but I had a studio. I was living inside the Museum of Ballet in Tokyo. It was one year ago, and it’s going to make me cry because it was one of the best couple months of my life.
I had been in Paris at that point. That was my goodbye to Paris. I had been in Paris at that point for three and a half years. It was amazing. It was my education in a lot of ways, but I found that the way that black people sort of exist there in general and my sort of wrestling with my black existence was very particular and unspoken in a lot of ways. Unlike in America, where I had already, at that point, decided to move.
I was writing all of these pieces that were using all black performers, and everybody kept thinking they were way too political, too political, too political. In France, if it’s not pretty and kind of sexy and fashionable in some capacity, or just done by some very pretty, skinny, white people, it doesn’t really fly in a lot of contexts. I was just so bored and frustrated.
I decided my number was twenty-four: twenty-four rejections of pitching this opera that I wrote after being at Bob Wilson’s Watermill Center, that I was just going to leave. I wrote a blind email through a friend of a friend, who I went to see in Tokyo, to one of the people there. They got back to me literally two weeks before I was going to leave. I had given up my apartment and I moved into the museum literally two months later.
That was just about taking space. It wasn’t dystopia for me. It was a utopia. It was creating this liminal space of creation where every single performer had the agency to communicate and every single audience member had the agency to consume exactly as they wish.
It was a kind of big chamber where there were stages set. It was inspired by Alphaville in some ways, kind of aesthetically and in terms of its rhythm, but the shape of it was Haruki Murakami. It was After Dark. After Dark takes place over one night, basically, like a twelve-hour night. So I divided the clock into four sections of three. There were four three-hour performances.
Basically, the whole thing, if you look at the whole month… Oh my god. Eden is in the comments. Eden is one of my absolute most incredible performers in Paris.
It really created a community. It was incredible. If you look at the whole month, it was one night basically, one twelve-hour durational performance. Everybody was given kind of cues. The room would flow as the segments of a clock. It would start at one point. It would go around. It would move to this point. It would go around. It would move to this point, around a central axis, where I was just calling cues. At the end was a kind of final destination and the room was a dance party, every time. That was what we did. It was great.
AS: Tell me, how do you reclaim a space without moving? I would imagine a dancer reclaiming a space would need to explore the space — maybe the height and the intention of the movement.
MG: I don’t think that I’m trying to exert anything on anybody. I think that that’s something that’s really important. I’m not trying to dominate a white audience. That’s really not the idea. Although, you know what? You would look at my DMs and you would know that people think otherwise. Got some interesting requests. I was working with a lot of performers who were… Part of Alphaville Noir (2019) was also creating stages where people could actually just bring their own art literally into it a little bit. I was inspired by [Jacqueline Thomas] for that. She creates these spaces, these living rooms, kind of family living rooms, sort of spaces that she kind of uplifts and presents other young, black artists. That was kind of part of it. They do that in a different way. I had dancers. I had performers. I had people from all different backgrounds. Me, personally, how do I reclaim space without moving? I think that I’m not even trying to reclaim it. I’m just trying to be in it, I guess.
AS: Inhabit maybe.
MG: When I’m performing, that’s definitely not what I’m thinking about. That’s not what any of this is coming from. My concerns, once I’m up on stage, are more that I’m dealing with a broken heart or something like that, whatever the subject matter may be, if I’m lonely or if I feel isolated or not. I think it’s just sort of an echo chamber. I’m trying to create space that’s an echo chamber for everybody’s sensations.
I didn’t grow up around black people. I grew up with my Ukrainian mother and a whole lot of traveling around the world and having loads of languages and culture. I had these complexes about having no connection to my origins. I could either choose to be from nowhere or kind of be from everywhere. My blackness comes into play just insofar as I understand my own body and how I grew up without the black body being a default but rather an alternative that I had to interpret myself through.
When I’m talking about reclaiming or kind of defining space in that way, it’s more just dignifying the body so that I don’t have to think about it and I can actually think about the things that are concerning to me and the things that I need to think about and creating a space where other people can do the same thing.
My echo chamber, my rules, and my body, is the start and the end. I think that it should be for you, too, and everybody else. I’m not trying to look up to these Greek figurines. It is a little ironic that you have these marbles that are up on pedestals and made to be emulated. That’s not really what I’m trying to do.
I’m really trying to give you a glimpse at the process of developing pain or physiological learning or something that can evolve over time, such that you can maybe do it in yourself. The only thing I want people to emulate is development. The black body is just my point of departure. That’s it.
AS: I wanted to have this interview based on that first impression I got when I walked into that performance. Authority is not the right word. Gravitas might be too strong. It’s maybe just transcendence and how it is to have you here and just going through a different time, a very long time. Maybe it’s pain and vulnerability that allows us to be in awe, really. That was incredible. Tell me about stretching time.
MG: Stretching time. Time is like an ingredient for me. I’m really into numerology. I kind of got that from Marina. She’s really into her numerology, which I adore. I learned a lot about that in workshops with her. I initially wanted to do twelve hours. She was the one who told me not to kill myself. Seven was sort of the number that I fell on. For somebody who considers sensitivity of the body as a primary concern in the work, I really don’t consider what the work is going to do to my body until it is happening. I try to liberate myself from my own limitations, such that I can build up to where they need to be, so that I can just sort of live up to my creative capacities. If I think about a piece where the human body has to be stagnant for three days straight, I want to think about that piece. I want to let it live exactly as it does. I’m going to get to that three days, come hell or high water.
AS: Do you think that every performance is a rebirth for you? Does pain bring a new state of consciousness?
MG: It’s often painful, sure. I still am a strong believer in the idea that you’ll never be in more pain on stage than you are in your life. I’ve said it before. I just believe it’s very true that it’s impossible to… you’ll just face realities. It’s cathartic, absolutely. You definitely leave different. That does relate to stretching time. Stretching time, for me, is just a strategy. Because I’m thinking about time in this way and because I’m incorporating time into the architecture of these performance situations, these installations, that happen to involve living tissue, that reacts to time in a certain way. Stretching time is a way of making that more sustainable and expanding the possibilities of what that architecture can include. Just as my physical conditions is very, very important to keep up, and physical fitness is sort of an obligation for me, I think that my perceptions of time and being in control of them are also just as important. Your brain consumes twenty percent of your body’s energy at all times. I try to visualize bringing that down to about seventeen percent if I can. Just doing less and focusing more and thinking in a certain pattern and in certain waves and slowing everything down. People have measured the brain waves of Tibetan monks in meditation, and it does make a huge difference. Your body ages differently. Your body interprets time differently. Your whole physiology changes around how you believe in and incorporate the notion of time into your perceptions. I try to get better and better at controlling that, such that I can do the crazy shit that I’m thinking about in my head.
AS: Get rid of the noise and go down into the essential. Well, Miles, thank you so much. That was fascinating to hear you.
MG: If there’s noise, there’s noise. It’s how you live with it. Thank you for having me.