Tim Miller's Fierce Moment

by Katherine Agard

"Think of a fierce moment," says the performance artist Tim Miller, "and work out an action that goes with it." Miller will perform his Glory Box at 8 p.m. Thursday, Feb 17 at Harvard Dance Center, but, earlier this week, he was defining a "fierce moment" for a group of 14 participants in his workshop: It is a moment in which you feel that you’ve stood up for something, made a stand for yourself, felt that you were becoming the person you were meant to be. He’s inspired by the performance group Pomo Afro Homo’s piece Fierce Love – where fierce means fabulous and intense and distinctly human. In the course of three hours, each of us creates a short performance piece that is amazingly intimate and raw.

Later, I ask him who his best teacher was – cringing at the best in my sentence, as though such a moment could be properly isolated – and expecting him to name Merce Cunningham perhaps, or some other name I could place.

Instead he says: "My best teacher was not a performance teacher at all but a Mexican lesbian who taught me German: Fraulein Rodriguez. I certainly have had many inspiring performance teachers and cultural influences – Allen Ginsburg or whoever. But being taught German for four years by a butch Mexican lesbian is a very hopeful thing -- about difference and otherness -- that my own self as a queer person and as a German-English person was really grounded by. I think it's really building blocks like that that show how life grows and changes, and how surprising exchange is between people across difference."

In the performance group the other night were a non-native speaker of English and someone with a bad ankle. The performances created with these "problems" were particularly delicate even among the group of vulnerable performances and confessions.

"A lot of things that that I wished would happen last night were beginning to happen," says Miller. The group included college and graduate students, house tutors, alumni, staff and Brown students. Acting from an identity that is not privileged, Miller notes that whether or not the performers identified as queer or not "the night was very full of interesting queer spaces which may not have any effect on the long and complex history of queer identity at Harvard." We both wonder whether Harvard’s tricky history with queer issues will inform the work produced in the final group performance on Saturday.

Miller’s newest show – Lay of the Land, which he performed to Robin Bernstein's huge General Education class Gender and Performance last year – deals with the ways in which the cultural memory of the places he has travelled with workshops, performances or otherwise have informed his work. He laughs and speaks of another show, Glory Box, which he will perform Thursday, Feb. 17: "There’s actually a huge shout-out to Boston and to New England in the show I’m doing on Thursday. And I haven’t performed it in Boston, so that’ll be interesting."

Glory Box, which he created in 1999, deals with the struggles that Miller and his partner, the Australian writer Alistair McCartney, faced with same-sex immigration laws in the U.S.

"Alistair’s not here" he says in Glory Box with a sad smile. "I’m empty handed - because in June of '97 my country’s fucked up laws kept my partner out of this country." [Here's a video of Glory Box.] Since his National Endowment for the Arts Solo Performer Fellowship was overturned, Miller has always been vocal about continuing to fight injustices.

Miller mentors young artists, but he says the times have changed: "I certainly acknowledge that it’s harder now. It was easier to be poor in New York. We lived in a country where a young artist, as I was then, could actually imagine that cultural freedom sort of existed in this country, and you could actually get support from the federal government to do work that was oppositional. I’m mentoring three 22-year-old artists in New York, young queer identified artists. And the space that they occupy is wide open and very interesting and needs to be spoken about."

If Miller has anything to do with it, their stories will be filled with fierce moments.

[Caption: Tim Miller, courtesy the artist's website]