The Québécois artist joins Document to discuss the Black origins of surrealism, the future of performance, and being a low-key biohacker
It won’t surprise you to hear that much of art history is whitewashed—sometimes literally, as in the case of the Greek and Roman statues of antiquity. The myth of their whiteness began in the Renaissance, when the sculptures were unearthed after years of exposure to the elements had eroded their original coat of paint. Though they had once been painted in a variety of hues—a practice known as polychromy—they were assumed to have always been colorless, rendering white marble the assumed default for restoration, as well as the universal standard for artists emulating them from that point forward.
In the first minutes of Miles Greenberg’s latest installation, Late October, seven performers—some staged on pedestals, not unlike a classical work of sculpture—are painted in glistening, pure-black body paint. Blinded by white contact lenses, they revolve slowly, their nude bodies sharply defined against the ice blue water that surrounds them; the deliberate nature of their movements in the cavernous industrial space evokes a sense of slow-burning tension—a continuous spatial gesture that, Greenberg explains, both “renews and relies upon the romantic capacities of the Black body in space.” Produced in collaboration with six dancers, the performance is intended as a meditation on the Black body as poetic architecture. Yet while Greenberg’s work often centers on corporeal movement, the Québécois performance artist doesn’t think in choreography. “To me, the human figure has the same architectural value as anything else. It just moves differently; there’s an entropy to it,” he tells me. “I think in shapes and space, which is the point of entry for me.”
His performances, which unspool over a series of hours or even days, aim to create physical spaces where it feels possible “for people to walk in and transcend.” A protéegée of Marina Abramović, Greenberg started performing at age 16, and has since amassed an impressive history of exhibitions and artist residences. When Miles and I connect in the wake of his latest performance, it is the night before his 23rd birthday—he is, unsurprisingly, a Scorpio—and he is on a train out of Paris. We discuss the Black origins of surrealism, the role of the artist today, and the finest television of our time.
Camille Sojit Pejcha: I’m interested to hear about your transition into, and out of, the performance headspace. What do you do to get in the zone? Do you have any rituals to bring yourself back down to Earth afterwards, or is it more about setting systems in place that make it a natural comedown?
Miles Greenberg: I eat a papaya before and I eat a papaya after—that’s really important for me.
Camille: What!? [laughing]
Miles: Papaya is really great for you and digests very well. I’m very rigorous about my methodology! To not only endure the performance, but to be totally fine before and after, requires a process of onboarding and offboarding. The day after Late October… Girl, you don’t even want to know what the shower looked like with all that body paint. It was a total nightmare to wash… My stage manager and I did it all by hand, and it was, like, five hours of scrubbing. That was a full-on durational performance in and of itself!
Camille: So what’s the system?
Miles: It’s this in a nutshell: Vegan, raw diet, lots of fiber, very specific vitamin intake. I’m a very low-key biohacker—I’m into nutrition, and I really love learning about anatomy, so keeping my body in a condition where I’m very responsive is how I feel the most creative. I’ve never been a professional or trained dancer, but I like to move a lot; I do physical therapy, pilates, mobility training. I have a really great trainer who used to be one of the head trainers at Cirque du Soleil—’cause I grew up in Montreal, that’s our heritage. We have fries with gravy, we have maple syrup… And we have the circus.
“To me, the human figure has the same architectural value as anything else. It just moves differently; there’s an entropy to it. I think in shapes and space, which is the point of entry for me.”
Camille: Life is about balance! On that note, I would be interested to hear a little bit about how learning to push your body, to sustain rigorous durational performances, has changed your relationship to comfort and pleasure?
Miles: That’s a very good question that I’ve never been asked before. My nature is that I’m wired to execute; it’s a weird coincidence, because my name in Latin means soldier. I have self-imposed order in almost every aspect of my life, in part because I live with OCD, so I have all these constant rituals. I’m mostly in control of it, but I am in some ways subject to the rules of my brain, which is a very strict internal mechanism. That said, I also am on precipice of starting to binge-watch Emily in Paris, so…
Miles: If I’m not working I watch a lot of cartoons; I got really into Rick and Morty. There is a natural balance that happens somehow—I guess rigor is just a factor of my personality, it’s never even been a question in my life. I grew up with a Russian absurdist theatre tour bus as a daycare, so it might be my Eastern European side!
Camille: I mean, that all sounds pretty convenient for your brand of performance art—or is that the wrong way of thinking?
Miles: I would argue that it’s sort of how it happened. I mean, other than the fact that I didn’t go to art school and I don’t know how to do anything else. My body is what I had access to, and it’s also what I have the most control over. I suppose it’s also true that what I do as a job is essentially a total sublimation of my mental illness; I’ve turned my work into therapy in a lot of ways, and I’m very grateful to be able to do that.
Camille: Tell me about your latest piece, Late October. How are you thinking about performance in the context of COVID, which has radically reoriented the way that people relate with one another in physical space?
Miles: With Late October, I wanted to give the piece itself space to breathe and become what it would be, especially because I was collaborating with so many other performers. I come more from a visual background; I don’t think in choreography, I think in shapes and space, which is the point of entry for me. I’ve definitely been reflecting upon what human touch means to me, but I think the boundaries of human interaction for my generation—I’m, like, a year into Gen Z—are very fluid; for instance, I was raised on video games, and that has been a big inspiration. There is a porousness in the age of technology that allows for a slightly larger leap of the imagination.
“I only use Black people in my work, for no other reason than because my physiological being exists as a Black body; it is not entirely confined to that experience, but it is the center of my world.”
I also think the work will always be done—the performances that require a kind of proximity we no longer have access to will have to wait, but we will find other things to say. It’s not necessarily the medium’s job to adapt to a temporary world situation. But I do think that when you’re doing your job as an artist, you’re permeable to the world and pick up on certain frequencies; there are themes that surface in the collective unconscious.
Camille: I’m interested in your use of white contact lenses in your work—how does it function for both the performer and audience?
Miles: I was thinking about a way of creating a boundary between audience and performer. It started out with a blindfold until I came up with the white contacts, which strike the perfect balance between the function and the aesthetic, which contains references to voodoo, elements of myth… But mostly I was looking for something for the audience, to make them see the body more as an object, so that they don’t feel seen and observed by the person performing.
Talking about the Black body can be very taboo in Europe, where I lived at the time, and there can be a sense of confrontation with white observers who are scrutinizing the Black body. The use of contacts allows people to observe and to absorb information without putting them on the defensive. I find it to be quite strategic for both parties. I can see a little bit through them—it depends on the grade—but it helps me go deeper internally. So it serves multiple functions, but it’s mostly to insulate the audience from the performer.
Camille: By changing the gaze, you diffuse a lot of the social codes around ‘normal interactions.’
Miles: Yeah. I just really not interested in discussing the subjugation of bodies in my work, or the idea that these are Black people performing for a white audience. I only use Black people in my work, for no other reason than because my physiological being exists as a Black body; it is not entirely confined to that experience, but it is the center of my world. For most of my life, I have been able to witness and understand questions of love, life and the universe through art that was expressed exclusively through the white body. And I don’t think it’s so much to ask that in my universe, I feel represented by the images that I create, and that I get to investigate the body which I inhabit. I get very, ‘My house, my rules; about it!’
Camille: You have said that you didn’t grow up around Black culture and community. Do you think there is a relationship there, in the idea of non-relational work?
Miles: Not having had very close ties to Black culture on a communal basis has given me a bit of a carte blanche—pardon the pun—to feel really experimental about that! Because it’s all within me, my Blackness is a very personal discovery and it’s still occurring every day. That said, I never set out to make art about Blackness—it’s more like I expanded the universe between my ears into a physical space, and I try to make it useful for other people.
The main thrust of my work is about creating architecture around these human experiences—namely intimacy, isolation, anxiety and things that came about through my own experience with mental illness. It’s not so much that Blackness is the lens, but that Blackness is the tool—and I’m much more interested in using it as a paintbrush than as a subject matter. That is in part because I don’t necessarily feel qualified; there are histories I don’t feel fully educated on, that I am still learning just as much as everyone else. An artist I really admire, Rhea Dillon, coined the term Humane Afrofuturism, and I’m paraphrasing here, but it’s sort of her take on a version of futurism in which you, as a Black person, are making work that does not require you to decide the future and the fate of the entire Black diaspora.
“It’s not so much that Blackness is the lens, but that Blackness is the tool—and I’m much more interested in using it as a paintbrush than as a subject matter.”
I think it’s easy to make an assumption about the work because it’s involving only Black people; however, whenever performance work is presented through white bodies, it is read as neutral. And I think that the assumption that the white body is a neutral signifier, and that whiteness itself equates to neutrality, is both extremely violent and totally absurd.
Camille: Absolutely. This reminds me of a beautiful essay by American Artist, ‘Black Gooey Universe,’ that touches on some of this, by talking about the history of computer interfaces and the way that whiteness has been encoded into technology as a universal neutral. And it’s the same thing… White male artists get to inherit the universal neutral and make art about anything, and then everyone else’s work is read through the sphere of identity.
Miles: Exactly! Similarly, not all female or queer artists should have to talk about those issues—what we’re asking of artists, specifically right now, is absurd. There’s a lot of questions that don’t necessarily have answers. I also want to make a point in that I’m not trying to encourage colorblindness either, with my work or anybody else’s. I am just making the point that Blackness can be used as a tool for things other than examining its relationship to whiteness. That is something I didn’t really have the language for until after OYSTERKNIFE, my 24 hour performance with the Abramovic Institute; I think it was like, hour twenty two of the performance that I figured out how this was relating to the origins of surrealism and its relationship to the Black body. There is an idea that all Black people have this special relationship to the fantastical, and we have all found this common thread with one another, across oceans and islands and up and down the biggest continent on the planet. Suzanne Césaire called it “a permanent readiness for the Marvelous.”
Camille: That’s a really beautiful way to express that.
Miles: Freedom Dreams by Robin D.G. Kelly is a book about the radical Black imagination and the origins of surrealism, and another thing they mention is that part of why there have been so few Black artists associated with the Surrealist movement is that to them it was almost sort of comical—the idea being that we have always had this incredible relationship to fluidity, these different modes of operating, and seeing the world. I’ve been trying to reflect and focus on those poetic capacities [of Blackness] when I feel as though my existence is being really relegated to my potential death. The only way I was able to get through June, July, August—up until now—is to come back to this natural tendency, the idea of readiness for the marvelous. Black resilience is one of the most advanced bio-adaptive technologies that the human species has yet to produce. There is beauty in how we respond to adversity, how we adapt to our environments and interpret them in ways that exceed and extend beyond reality and then back to it—and the fluidity with which we do that. Finding poetry in the world in ways I believe are inherently Black has been my salvation.
Camille: That feels implicitly related to performance as well.
Miles: Thank you. I think right now more than anything, we’re really faced with a question of what is necessary in art, and what should art do for us. I really am focused on creating terrain that feels generative for everybody involved; I think that creating space for dreams and reality to merge, spaces where it feels possible for people to walk in and transcend—I think that’s where we get something interesting, something urgent and necessary and authentic. For myself and other people of the Black diaspora, I’m really interested in pushing back at the prescribed confines of what we’re told that our flesh inherently must mean.