“I'm just trying to slow everything down to a fraction of the speed”. Through his uncanny and awe-inspiring performances, young artist Miles Greenberg connects with his environment to explore himself as a human being and to look into the intricate relationship between space and time. By making such an introspection, he embraces his identity: a black and queer body living in a society in constant change.
Miles, at only 22 years old, your background is impressive: performing in galleries and art institutions like Palais de Tokyo in Paris, travelling worldwide, speaking many different languages, etc. The present and future look exciting. But how has the process of getting here been like?
I grew up surrounded by art and artists. I was also very privileged to have been taught from a young age that travelling and worldly experience were just as or more important than institutional learning – I have my mother to thank for that. My first Venice Biennale was in utero and I haven’t missed one since.
Growing up mixed-race in a predominantly white environment was an education unto itself. I reflect back on a lot now because my earliest sense of identity was sewn around this feeling of being othered completely out of context. I had zero black cultural signifiers in my immediate vicinity, and whenever I did, I didn’t know the first thing about how to relate to them. I might as well have been green. For the first half of my life, I genuinely didn’t know that being black meant anything more than being singled out, and I never knew how to talk about it. The notion of Africa was foreign, the notion of African-America was confusing, yet everyone kept projecting these narratives of some relation I had to these entities I didn’t understand. That made me want to write them.
Not knowing or understanding where I came from made me want to communicate with people wherever they were coming from. Every time I travelled, I learned enough of the local language to use transport systems, order at restaurants, and deal with hotel arrangements. I’d always drill myself out of having an accent to sound as close to native as possible. I’m pretty shy, but I still always wanted to be legible, on some level, to every single person I met.
Your performances seem to get better and better to me: it is interesting to see how you combine and mix a wide range of realms and topics. Could you tell us about your creative process?
Thank you! I always like to lay out what things are very clearly; that starts first and foremost with an odour. I need to know what a piece is going to smell like before anything else happens. I work backwards from that. I light incenses and swatch oils and plants to find combinations I like. That’s why I can’t wear perfume while I work. I also listen to a lot of music. Lately, in the studio, it’s been a lot of Ryuichi Sakamoto, Chopin, Devon Welsh, Oneohtrix Point Never, Brian Eno and Caroline Polachek. Also, Astor Piazzolla – he’s my ringtone.
I would say, on average, about half my work hours are spent conditioning my body for what’s to come. I consider it a part of my studio practice. I’m extremely meticulous about what and when I eat. I always consume a litre of warm water with lemon, turmeric, Korean ginseng, various adaptogens and a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar every morning within twenty minutes of waking up. An hour later, a glass of celery juice. No solids before noon, no gluten, minimal dairy, and I keep to a very low-glycemic regime. Three times a week, I spend an hour in an infrared sauna, followed by cryotherapy, and I do regular physical therapy. I do colon hydrotherapy and intravenous vitamin infusions every change of seasons.
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What about before a performance? Any special rituals or training?
Leading up to a performance, it’s always as follows: two weeks of no caffeine, no alcohol, and daily full-body training; one week no carbs, raw vegan diet; five days no sex; three days sleeping alone, and one day of fasting. It’s never about weight, it has a lot more to do with keeping my energy levels consistent. It sounds like a lot to manage but now it’s all totally automatic. My kitchen is like an apothecary.
I’ve sort of inadvertently become an athlete; had someone told me I’d be calling myself that today five years ago, I would’ve laughed. Physical fitness is non-negotiable for me at this point. I believe that once you breach your mental or physical limit in any way, there’s no going back. Having my body highly responsive and in-tune has become a necessary condition for me to function, or even think, properly. Is that sustainable? I guess I’ll let you know.
Your performances show that you are making the space your own. In which ways does space enable you to explore yourself as a human being?
Space is of double significance to me; you have the space of the audience and the space of the performer. These are very distinct. The space of the audience, firstly, is the architectural framework I’m offering to the public for their interaction with the subject matter. It’s the most important space for me, and it’s in no way mine. My first question when constructing an artwork is always going to be, what does this induce in any given body that’s going to walk through it? Good art meets you where you are, full stop. I think that’s important to consider in how you structure something like performance. Making a space that feels universal, accessible, functional and legible to a wide audience requires a lot of precise calculations. If that isn’t clear from the get-go, you risk self-indulgence.
Then, there’s the space of the performer. This is much more free-flowing. It varies in dimensions, depth, and opacity. Marina Abramović calls it a ‘charismatic space’ and I love that. It implies this liminal, viscous state that can change entirely on the terms of one’s bodily automatisms. The interstice between these two overlapping spheres is, I believe, where that sacred energetic exchange between audience and performer lives.
I consider it an artist’s responsibility to immerse the public in some form or fashion. I’m really in awe of artists who are able to achieve that with a two-dimensional plane. I remember seeing this tiny Lee Ufan painting once in a palazzo in Venice, it was the size of a paperweight and had a single mark in the centre of it half the size of a fingernail, yet the way it was composed completely arrested my senses all the same. The reaction it gave me was so physical and all-consuming – I don’t know how to do that with a painting.
What I do understand, though, is how to manipulate the human body by knowing exactly what it is about a space that makes it respond. Lately, I’ve been working to build spaces up using bodies, plants, animals and minerals all in tight symbiosis with the brick-and-mortar of a room. I want them to become codependent and indissociable from one another. I know that my strength lies in my personal sensitivity to knowing instinctively what makes an architectural proposition resonate with human anatomy.
Being queer is part of your identity, which you keep exploring throughout your performances. You also say that you’ve learned and love the idea of living in a constant state of in-between, specific to the Gen Z, which I feel is also linked to the fluidity aspect of your identity. What’s the relationship between movement and fluid identity? In which ways does your work reflect Gen Z?
Fluidity is my bread and butter. I think that’s very quintessential Gen Z. I have the enormous privilege to have been programmed from a young age to consider first what something is and why it feels urgent to me way before I have to ask myself questions around what category or discipline it corresponds to. I feel allowed to define terms of value. I love that. We’re still quite far from true peace for queer people on a global scale, and it’s certainly divided in the United States, where I now live. But I do feel really hopeful about how I see kids engaging with their identities. It’s also very exciting that we’re starting to see young queer people get paid, too.
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It is interesting to see that you also explore the black body. You call yourself an afro-futurist as you’re part of the new black generation looking at the future of black people. In Nègraissance, you make a long-durational opera on Black identity with two other performers talking about that. We can even see this in the title, a combination of ‘Nègre’ (black) and ‘Naissance’ (birth). What do you want everyone to understand about how the black body has been perceived and treated through history?
I never set out to make ‘Black art’. It just so happened that, living in Europe, taking a sip of my coffee in the morning was political. No matter what I did, it was always going to be seen as some deliberate contemporary attempt at a déclinaison of the Négritude movement (one that I have a deep fascination and respect for but absolutely no desire to be a part of) in the time of social media. It drove me berserk. The truth was that I only ever wanted to use black bodies as the medium in my work because I have a black body. It’s a physiological convenience.
By my third year in France, I was so fed up with dumb questions that I felt like I had to make some grand forbidden gesture to match the drama I was being met with as a young black creator, so I declared myself an opera director. I called every performance I wrote an acte, an entr’acte or a ballet. Having done the Watermill Center and watched Bob Wilson construct his operas, I decided to be really bold and just assume that I could do it too. It did sort of work for a while. It lasted right up until I resolved with myself that every gesture I make is inherently a black gesture, and a valid one. It didn’t require a declaration.
I know my heritage, but if anyone thinks that my work is trying to retrace historical accounts or retell narratives of suffering, I think they’ve either missed the point entirely or I haven’t done my job. I want to think about my body, our bodies, insofar as it feels important to me. That’s whether I’m talking about oppression, elation, a broken heart, or otherwise. All of that is black if I’m the one living it. It is if you’re black, too.
Besides the body, you also approach the relationship between space and time. Your work generates a sort of notion of infinity: I feel that you are creating a matrix where you capture temporality. Is it a way to escape? Or on the contrary, is it a way to get closer to time and reality?
People ask me all the time if I’m meditating when I’m working. The best answer I’ve ever heard to that question came from an artist I admire enormously named Helga Davis, who starred in Robert Wilson’s Einstein On the Beach. “Hell no.” A lot of what I do is sort of dangerous. I remember one moment in Pneumotherapy (II) where I dissociated for half a second and I came very, very close to slipping off that rock. Remaining present is totally indispensable.
Let’s talk about your relationship with the audience. Your performances are not only contemplative but also participative, for example, in Vive La France, where you challenge the public to participate. However, at the same time, you create a barrier between your audience and you: sometimes, you wear some blinding contact lenses, and you always begin your performances when the public isn’t there yet then end them when they’re gone. Could you explain this paradox?
Nobody’s ever asked me about Vive La France before, so let’s talk about that. It was part of an exhibition in Montreal that I put on at 17 years old in a storefront I rented for a week. I plastered downtown with posters asking for performance artists to email me their proposals; I wanted to curate a show of only performance art, such that anybody could walk in and there’d be a piece running at all times. Some of what I got was so awful (one I remember was some white French-Canadian woman who wanted to cosplay a Puerto Rican and tell stories that never happened to her). I finally recruited some twelve artists, amateur to student to mid-career, mostly local.
Despite my best efforts, I didn’t quite manage to fill all eight hours a day for seven days, so I would fill in whenever none of the artists were available. I did something like five performances over the course of it, all different, of whatever was in my head. I had zero artistic identity at the time, so it was a great place to gauge a lot of things about my practice. Seeing whether or not I liked to interact with the public, for instance, was one of them. Turns out, I really don’t. Hence the white contacts at every show.
It started as a thing I’d just wear at parties, but blank, white eyes became a signature when I realized I wanted my work to be looked at like sculpture. It makes the body look uninhabited. It allows taboos between strangers to dissipate because suddenly you’re no longer dealing with another person but an object instead. I just want people to consume the work without being blocked by some baggage about what their consumption of my body means to them. If they don’t think I’m aware that they’re looking at me, they’ll look much closer.
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Your last performance, Haemotherapy (I), at Reena Spauling's Fine Art, aroused a lot my interest. Photos of the show reflect a sort of uncanny atmosphere. Could you tell us more about this project in particular?
Haemotherapy (I) was an idea I had in high school way before I considered making it a series. I was in love with the idea of creating atmospheric tensions dependent on the capacities of a given human body. The image came to me after watching those memory foam mattress commercials on TV where someone is jumping on a bed next to a full glass of red wine and it doesn’t tip over but you think it might; they always filled me with this barely perceptible mundane dread that I was kind of into. I liked the idea of authoring some hyper-specific potentiality for disaster, pushing it right up to its peak and then keeping it there for as long as possible. For a few hours, in a little bubble, I’m making quasi-disaster the norm. I guess that’s how I felt at the time.
It’s sort of how the world feels now. The immaculate white body over the wet red surface was my first attempt at invoking that tension. If my body were to fall and get stained, it would be for no reason other than that it fell apart under its own weight, or something like that. It’s about invoking some invented micro-apocalyptic accountability. Later, when I travelled to Haiti and studied their rituals, I brought in references to burials and sacrifice and the afterlife, the subject of blood as a conduit, but this was all an afterthought. It’s all just long-form for my own tiny inner compulsions towards death and infinity and a hell-bent desire to test their limits. Fuck it, I’m a Scorpio.
You collaborated with Centre Phi to produce a video where you read Advice From Dionysus, a poem wrote by Shinji Moon. The amazing visuals perfectly get along with the words that you are reading. I was wondering whether literature and poetry have an influence in your life and your performative work. According to you, what would be the meeting point between literature and movement?
Cinema has played a bigger role for me lately than literature. I’m pretty strictly non-verbal in my work, so I love images. I’ve been inspired by Haruki Murakami texts before, but he’s an exception. His fiction is extremely cinematic. Typically, at most, words might serve as ‘props’ in a gesture – contributing form more than any inherent meaning. I’m working on a piece right now for the summer that involves a novel, but the piece doesn’t actually have much to do with the text. The story’s a little boring to me, I just like that it’s long, intricate, and structured nicely. I like its condition.
I don’t talk about movement for the sake of itself when talking about my work. For me, unlike a lot of performance artists, it’s not very relevant to my process. At least it isn’t something I share much about. I have a form that I’ve developed privately for myself and was accumulated from all the teachers I’ve ever had. It doesn’t affect how I write work. I don’t choreograph, ever. The only part of my work that takes much conscious thought at this point is the architecture. The body just follows.
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