Flesh is my medium. Miles Greenberg is a New York-based performance artist and sculptor. His work consists of large-scale, sensorially immersive and often site-specific environments revolving around the physical body in space. These installations are activated with extremely demanding durational performances that treat the body as sculptural material. These performances are then captured in real time before the audience to later generate video works and sculptures.
You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.
Miles Greenberg, you were born in Montreal in 1997 and started your career as a performance artist there when you were only 17. Did you then prefer to learn by travelling and by experience than by going to university?
It happened to be better for me. I pride myself that I managed to create my own education out in the world. My medium requires an immediate interaction with the world. I can’t do what I do holed up in a studio and then present it when I feel ready. The act of creation itself has to happen in front of a live public. That proximity with culture, people and the world was more helpful to me than school.
For the next step in your career you went to China. How was it?
I had studied Mandarin, and when I was 18, China felt like somewhere I could explore outside of the paradigms of my culture. I was fascinated by its complete foreignness to me and my complete foreignness to it. It was somewhere where I felt very independent, because Mandarin is not a language that any of my family can speak. It was an avenue for me to stake a claim to an artistic identity, somewhere with no connection to the rest of my life.
You then moved to Paris and now to New York?
I moved to Paris and École Jacques Lecoq where I was studying every movement technique and theory that I could get my hands on. Physical theatre, mime, butoh, voguing, etc. After about three and a half years, I found there was a lack of opportunity in Paris for young Black artists. There’s a fixation in France on fashion and what is fashionable and when I was being interpreted as an African American, foreign, imported kind of artist, then people were interested in me and would offer me opportunities speaking in English. But when I spoke French people ignored me, because in France people are not really quite in touch with the diversity and the depth of their local scenes. I love Paris and I owe it a lot, but I had to leave to do the things that I wanted to do, and New York was the place.
“I work rigorously to achieve the images that I have in mind.”
HÆMOTHERAPY I, 2019, Reena Spaulings Gallery, New York, USA
Miles Greenberg, you did performances at the Palais de Tokyo, the famous museum in Paris?
I owe that to the incredible curator Vittoria Matarrese, who is championing some of the most interesting work in performance and new media in the city. It’s changing – it’s already changed an enormous amount in the three years since I left, but now I’ve been between New York and Reykjavík. I’m very, very happy in both places. I recently went to the Louise Bourgeois: Paintings show at the Met and there’s this quote from her. “Even though I am French, I cannot think of one of these pictures being painted in France. Every one of them is American from New York. I love this city. Its clean-cut look, its sky, its buildings and its scientific, cruel romantic quality.” That’s it for me.
To prepare for your performances do you give a lot of attention to your body, your diet, your lifestyle?
I work rigorously to achieve the images that I have in mind, because the truth is that I have no idea whether or not what I’m going to do is ever going to work. I don’t rehearse. I don’t practice. I just create a scenario, and I have to have the ideal physical ability under those conditions to be able to execute it. For example, Oysterknife is a piece where I walk on a conveyor belt for 24 hours without any breaks. I had no idea whether or not I was literally going to die doing it. I trained very heavily. I stopped drinking for six months. I stopped eating certain things. When I was at 150% of what I could do to prepare, I tried it. The first time I ever walked on the conveyor belt was in front of a public. That element of risk allows for a lot of serendipity, a lot of chance, and a lot of beautiful mistakes.
Why did you recently stay inside a box with insects for a long time?
Those insects were owl butterflies and atlas moths. I have this phobia, since I was a child, of large moths with defensive eye patterns to scare away predators. They make my skin crawl. It’s so visceral, so deep in my DNA, that I had to find a way to confront it head on. When Marina Abramović asked me to produce a durational performance for 5 hours for her programme on Sky TV and gave me carte blanche, this was my first idea.
“I think the difference between theatre and performance art is like the difference between a window and a door.”
When did you start working with Marina Abramović?
Around five years ago, we did a workshop together in Greece. I did it with her and three other artists, and we spent five days together on this island. She was instructing and giving exercises in her method of preparation that she’s developed for her personal performance practice. A lot of those have come into my practice. She’s been a mentor to me, and extremely generous with being a constant source of advice.
You also worked with Bob Wilson at The Watermill Center. What is the difference between being an actor in a play and a performance artist?
Bob Wilson taught me a lot when I did the Watermill Center programme. He is so decisive. My work has a lot of scenography, that was definitely developed in working with him.
I generally have a bit of an aversion to theatre. My mother was also an actress for many years in the theatre, she did École Jacques Lecoq and lived and worked in Paris for a decade, but I personally have avoided theatre all my life. I was in a play once. My friend and neighbour, Jeremy O. Harris wrote a play called Black Exhibition. While one of his other plays, Slave Play was on Broadway, I was in this much more experimental off-Broadway production, directed by Machel Ross. The repetition, every single day delivering the exact same lines with marginal variation, became so intense after a month. The repetitiveness of being an actor and having to deliver the same thing in the theatre, over and over again, is in itself very ritualistic, but it’s very different from performance art.
What is performance art?
Marina always says that ‘in performance, the knife is real and the blood is real; whereas in theatre it’s ketchup and a plastic knife.’ I think performance art is something that you cannot rehearse. It’s something that happens – more like a continuum, rather than a line from point A to point B. There’s no fixed point of view. You can’t look at it just from one angle and get one story. You should be able to ambulate, to be able to look at it in 360 degrees – from the front, from the back, from the side. There’s a high level of unpredictability, and everything should be real – it’s all very Artaud. The performance has to become life itself. That’s why I’m so attracted to long durations; we’re talking 7 hours, to 24 hours, to multiple days. The longest I did was 8 days, 8 hours a day. Because that many hours is unwatchable. You can’t sit and watch what somebody is going to do for 8 hours, and the performer can’t plan what they’re going to do for 8 hours, either. Extremely human moments happen, glitches where the body just takes over. It’s like voodoo, something comes out of the ether and possesses you. It requires of the performer a genuine transformation that, ideally, they don’t really come back from.
I think the difference between theatre and performance art is like the difference between a window and a door.
What did you do for 8 days?
I spent 8 hours a day lying on a piece of steel being covered, from the ceiling, with cane sugar syrup. This was for the Bangkok Art Biennale. I would get almost solid at the end of every day.
OYSTERKNIFE, 2020 , Marina Abramović Institute, PHI CENTER (Live Streamed)
Video Still courtesy of the artist
Admiration Is the Furthest Thing From Understanding, 2020, Bangkok Art Biennale, Bangkok, Thailand
Photo: Kanrapee Chok. Courtesy of the artist and Bangkok Art Biennale.
PNEUMOTHERAPY II, 2020, Galerie Perrotin New York, New York, USA
Photo: Maria Baranova, Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Perrotin
Late October, 2020, La Totale, Studio Orta-Les Moulins / Galleria Continua, Boissy-le-Châtel, France
Video Still courtesy of the artist
Fountain I, 2022, WORTHLESS STUDIOS, Brooklyn, USA
Photo: Maria Baranova, Courtesy of the artist and WORTHLESS STUDIOS
Water in a Heatwave, 2021, BoCA–Biennial of Contemporary Arts, Lisbon, Portugal
Photo: Bruno Simão, Courtesy of the artist and BoCA–Biennial of Contemporary Arts.
“I’d like for my work to be seen as universal.”
Miles Greenberg, you yourself become a living sculpture. Would you like to become a sculptor?
I’ve always wanted to be a sculptor. My ideal art viewing experience is going to the Louvre and walking through the marble halls where I can navigate around La Victoire de Samothrace or other works that are going to be there forever. There’s total permanence to the experience. You are completely free to get what you want of that experience at any moment. There’s a belief that it’s always there for you. I wanted that to be the experience that I recreated with human bodies. Of course, there’s no way to get human flesh to act like marble, but if for some hours somebody has unrestricted access to that space then maybe there’s a very similar contact that happens that’s almost healing.
How do you perceive the public that comes and goes and looks at you? Do you sometimes feel like an animal in a cage at the zoo?
I try to avoid a dynamic of subjugation in that way. I use all Black performers and myself, but the gaze is very loaded. I use opaque white contact lenses in all my work. The eyes of all of my performers are completely covered with a white film so the performer can only see very vague shapes, shadows. The audience think that you’re completely blind and so does not fear that moment of disruption when you stand up in the theatre because you’re not happy or because you have to go to the restroom, so automatically people feel a lot more engaged and opened up to their own personal experience. They have the control in that moment. If they want to look close to you, or if they want to stand far away, take photos or talk to somebody. I have absolutely no problem with however somebody wants to consume my work and there’s no formatted proscenium relationship.
These days I am told that there is a greater interest being expressed in the world of black writers, artists and actors. What do you think about this?
The dominant culture, let’s be clear, is still white, straight and cisgender. Of course, there is a much bigger dialogue on inclusivity that didn’t exist five years ago – didn’t exist two years ago, with regards to young Black artists, queer Black artists, trans artists, artists of all abilities and diverse backgrounds, but I don’t believe in the fundamental reorientation of culture you’re alluding to. It’s already an inherently racist point of departure to say that we are favoring Black people in art today.
We look at white bodies and white people as neutral territory for the exploration of the broadest gamut of the human experience. Black artists are expected to illustrate a very specific kind of pain, in order to somehow absolve the white audience of its responsibility towards it. When we don’t, oftentimes white audiences will project those themes on the work. But my work isn’t really about race. It’s important to tell the difference between tokenism, representation, and truly inclusive practices.
I’d like for my work to be seen as universal. And that starts with centering the conversation on what the work is actually about, rather than fixating on the identity politics surrounding the artist who made it.
Thank you very much for this conversation.
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Portrait of Miles Greenberg. Photo: Andreas Laszlo Konrath.