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In Conversation with Miles Greenberg

Buro Stedelijks latest exhibiting artist 😉

Last Thursday, Buro Stedelijk welcomed performance artist and bodily sculptor, Miles Greenberg. His piece, titled MANIFESTATION #23: TRUTH, is an audiovisual rendition made from the grand live performance of TRUTH in NYC. There, performers entered into a pool of lava-colored water to meet each other in a sword fight – yes, a sword fight. How is this translated into Buro Stedelijk? Glad you asked. As you enter MANIFESTATION #23: TRUTH, you wade through a floor of water. Here, you are immersed in an audiovisual sculptural experience that will tune you into your body, your space, and your presence. On show from now until the 31st of March at, it’s time to put your museum cards to work, because this exhibition is a total must-see. In fact, we got a chance to catch up with Greenberg and curator Rita Ouédraogo on the eve of the exhibition opening to talk all things from his upbringing, catharsis, and the body as a sculptural medium.

Starting off, how are you today?
M: I’m good. I’ve slept for the first time in probably about two weeks. I don’t think I’ve gotten more than six hours of sleep a night and even that was like a luxury. It’s been averaging between one and a half to four hours. I go to sleep while I’m working. So, it’s been really interesting to just float through. This exhibition has taken way more hours than our performance.

Oy, that’s rough, could you walk me through your journey to get to where you are today?
M: How far back?

As far back as you want!
M: I was born in Montreal. My mom was an actress in the theater at the time doing mostly absurdist Russian theater. She was part of this sort of Russian French Canadian troupe that was traveling around Europe, Quebec, and elsewhere. It was an interesting upbringing – I was a young kid on the street handing out flyers to my mom’s weird show. Eventually, we settled down in Montreal. I legally had to start school so I did. One day I dropped out with a very compulsive interest in being an artist. Theatre wasn’t really my thing but I was very attracted to sculpture. However, the body was the only thing I understood or knew how to use or manipulate. I was really attracted to the immediacy of the body but the permanence of the sculptural form. So I tried to reconcile this. Eventually, I ended up going to “The Artist Is Present” by Marina when I was around twelve. It gave me a sense of a language and changed my life in a lot of ways. It opened my eyes to how you could create something that people could access and I can identify with which didn’t follow a narrative form. That’s sort of how the performance kinda came about. Duration came about as a means of accessibility; allowing the audience to enter however many hours a day, breaking the sense of narrative.

And now I’ve gone from just performance into video and photographic performance and sculpture. Finally, I learned to make performances through sculpture and now I’m making sculptures by making performances.

It’s really beautiful you use movement and corporeality as your own language. Now starting from the beginning of TRUTH, can you walk us through how the project was conceived and its conceptual framework, especially regarding this idea of violence and love and how those polarities work together.
M: I have a really hard time talking about performances and titling performances before they happen. Obviously, I have to do both a lot of the time haha. But I don’t know what they’re going to be about until I do them. Largely my performances and the sort of forms that I pursue are adaptations of dreams; daydreams or sleeping dreams. It’s sort of this kind of fantasy. You see, I grew up playing video games, so a lot of these sorts of shapes and textures come from these kinds of battles. This kind of Mortal Kombat style. So, I didn’t really know what the performance was going to give, but I knew what it looked like.

Someone recently told me it’s better to talk about what artwork does rather than what it means. For me, it was a very interesting exercise in holding very extreme sensations in the body and how the body has these built-in tripwires to only allow us to experience certain things for a certain amount of time.

In “the Idiot” by Dostoevsky, he describes Prince Myshkin’s moments before epilepsy. He has this very poetic way of describing it as a moment where the beauty of the world and his sort of poetic ideation becomes too big and too capacious for his body. It somehow overwhelms him and then his physiology itself just shuts down from the sheer enormity of the universe. I think it’s really interesting how we have these experiences of ecstasy, agony, panic attacks, orgasm, that are all sensations that are so enormous we can only experience them for ten seconds to maybe ten minutes. I’m very curious about what happens when you extend those beyond that and into a sort of space of semi-permanence or even just a few hours. It has to turn into something else. What it turns into is determined by a lot of factors that tell you about the subject. It’s sort of always like an experiment. The sword fight looks quite fast-paced here at Buro Stedelijk but it was a very slow eight hours. Two at a time would go in and sort of battle it out and repeat, repeat, repeat. It was a training exercise. Eventually, the sword becomes something else. The water becomes something else. The figure in front of me becomes something else. You can’t really see very well because you’re wearing contact lenses, so you’re sort of in this dream state.

This feels very reminiscent of the state of moving meditation that martial arts explore. But maybe in an even more extreme way? At the same time, it’s this corporeal meditation on those exact extreme feelings…
M: Yeah! I was really inspired by Voodoo. I was in Haiti for about a month a while ago for Day of the Dead. I got to attend a number of rituals where people would routinely put out mattresses around the perimeter of the ceremonial place. At first, I couldn’t really figure out what it was until people started dropping like flies from the vigor and intensity of the possession. People who are around the perimeter, including myself, just sort of help to carry them over and lay them down, and then five minutes later they get up and just keep going and going. I think it’s something really poetic and romantic in dedicating yourself to an exercise that is so beyond what your physical ability is.

It also definitely explores bodily knowledge. You know, how knowledge is not only held in the brain, but our body contains its own form of corporeal knowledge – a knowledge beyond language. Thinking more about MANIFESTATION #23: TRUTH, how would you say it kind of maybe works in conversation with kind of your other works of performance? Especially because it has a unique layout design here at Buro Stedelijk? Do you think they’re all talking to each other?
M: They all come from different places but I think they all fundamentally do the same thing. This testing ground of something beyond language. And you don’t know what it is until it happens. It’s this cleaning of your spirit in a way. You go in and come out resolved in some way. So yeah TRUTH is definitely in conversation with my other work.

R: There’s also some kind of expiration to it. It’s also what Miles was just saying, that every time, it’s different. And while there is a lot of thought behind it and he’s quite rigorous, at the same time, there is always this moment for something unexpected to happen. Some kind of spontaneous moment within the performance. So, of course, if you’re doing seven and a half hours, not every single moment is choreographed haha.

M: Only about five percent of it actually is choreographed. Then there’s room for the performer’s body to take over. I can’t dictate that. I can’t dictate that of myself and I certainly can’t dictate that of other people. I always tell my performers it’s also about what they need here. You know, “get what you need from this.” That’s when it looks good and feels good. That’s when the audience understands it. That’s when it becomes accessible to people.

You know what it’s like? Have you ever been really hungry and not realized you were hungry but then you eat and you’re like “Oh my god, that’s what I needed.” My performances are a little bit more abstract than bodily functions, but kind of like this. There’s something that’s been liberated

R: Like a reset.

M: yeah!

It reminds me a lot of Greek tragedies.
M: Catharsis! Completely.

A complete catharsis of your hubris! So, as you said, only 5 percent of TRUTH is choreographed and we’re seeing that translation into a very multi-sensory experience here at Buro Stedelijk. Can you kind of walk me through how you translated that whole performance into a full sensory experience?
M: I think choreography is a word people attach to what I do. But at the end of the day, it’s not dance, it’s sculpture. What I do is I’ll give the performers and myself a form and be like, “okay, these are the marks you sort of have to hit. These are the shapes you’re cutting in.” The piece really starts when, as a performer, you go into that space of automation. That usually happens around hour four-ish. Cause three hours is just a long-ass movie. It’s when you start to lose that attention and just go into the physical. It’s hard to stay there; you can’t think about time, you can’t think about who’s looking at you. I tell my performers, “for the love of God, do not respond.” If you see a camera flash, because they usually can’t see through the lenses, “but if you see a camera flash, don’t get pretty.” you really have to stay and almost sort of blur yourself into perpetual oblivion. My reminder to myself – which my mother hates – is if I die right here on this stage I have to be happy with that, this may very well be, and should actually be, the last thing I ever do. If I go out, I want to go out in my shit.

And MANIFESTATION #23: TRUTH also very much implicates the viewer as a member of it. Could you speak more about this?
M: You know, Buro Stedelijk is very experimental. Amsterdam is very experimental. So, I wanted to make an installation that implicated the viewer just a little bit more. I don’t make interactive performances. You look at it as a sculpture. But I wanted to find another way for the viewer to actually integrate. In MANIFESTATION #23: TRUTH, you are surrounded by these figures on the screen but you’re not really physically connecting. Yet you somehow feel something in your body and you see the repercussions of your presence on the space around you because of the water. The water in my work has a lot to do with sensitizing the audience to minor detail. It’s different from standing on solid ground because when you move just the slightest bit you form ripples. It heightens people’s sensitivities and makes them feel every little brush on their fingertips.

It also slows down the viewer because there is literally more resistance to water. Taking the viewer out of their automatic sense of being and into the performance; watching bodies as you become so aware of your own.
M: I don’t like confronting the audience too much with anything that’s too demanding. I think that’s why there’s always a freedom to take pictures, to walk around, to go in and out as much as you want. It’s not too ceremonial. I find imposed rigidity makes the audience perform in a way that detracts from their experience. So, if I’m going to impose anything physically on the audience, it’s going to come from them. It’s going to be their own senses, mass, space.

When we were in there it was clear how the notion of the subject became heightened but yet also confused. The viewer is surrounded by screens showing people fighting in the water. Yet the viewer is also in water making it feel almost like they are there on the other side of the screen with the performers – but in a weird detached way. There is a boundary between the screen and the body. At the same time, the viewer also watches people watching the performance. The viewer can see everyone, but no one can see the viewer.
M: And you don’t really know which one you are.

Exactly. And then you become so aware of your own positionality within what’s going on, within this audiovisual sculpture. Being confused as the ultimate gazer because no one else can see you the viewer.
M: You’re the panopticon.

M: It is a little “Get Out” under the skin haha.

R: That’s actually something that I’m very happy we were able to create here at Buro Stedelijk, especially since it’s an experience where you can kind of step in and out. There’s a lot of freedom given to the viewers. So you can walk a bit closer to the screens, take a break, do what ultimately feels right. As the viewer, you see yourself in the reflection of the water but you also see the performance on the screens. So you are kind of forced to look at both you and the performance.

Building on that, there is also the reflection of the screens in the water. So the water is actually the one space where the viewer’s body and the performance coexist across the same medium. It can be seen as a meeting place of the two.
M: I love that reading. See, this is also why it’s interesting for me to do work that’s not always performance because I can actually talk to people about the show and see how people are interacting with it in real-time. I also come out to my performances if I’m not performing in it one day to see how people are kind of exploring it. It’s kind of new for me. Until recently I was always in the work, you know?

Yeah, to take a step back must be refreshing. At the same time, you probably wouldn’t be able to create what you create today without first always needing to participate in it.
M: Of course! you can’t, you can’t control it from the outside, you have to be so secure in how it works Before you hand it off to anybody

Totally! Is there anything else you would like to share today?
M: You know what, the other day I was doing this lecture at the University of Toronto. And sometimes I pull my titles from the things around me that I consume because they just feel right. So once I was watching the anime Bleach and some character said “admiration is the furthest thing from understanding” and I was like this is a perfect title. Anyways I’m doing this Q&A and someone raises their hand and is like “So this isn’t really a question but more of a statement…but is the title from Bleach?” and I was like pffft you sir! A medel! There’s something about someone pinpointing exactly where I get my references from. I have weird references and I love when people clock them.

Words by Glamcult
On show @ Buro Stedelijk from now until 31st March
Order free tickets for every Thursday night via www.burostedelijk.nl!
Images courtesy of Buro Stedelijk
Photography by Peter Tijhuis and Eva Roefs