“Water in a Heatwave” Miles Greenberg latest performance piece
A conversation between performance artist Miles Greenberg and electronic sound artist and music producer Julian Jesus about their collaboration on Miles’ latest performance piece “Water in A Heatwave” that took place in Lisaboa, Portugal. In the minds of two creatives, a collaboration without limits and with aligned minds.
MG: Tell me about your experience on our latest collaboration in Lisbon.
JJ: I found [our collaboration] had a really interesting dynamic in that you kind of only gave me a little dotted line for what you were going to do, and I only gave you a little dotted line for what I was going to make. I was working on this piece a lot when I was in the Canary Islands, you were in Toronto. You trusted me almost blindly, and I had to interpret your piece almost blindly.
MG: Yeah, all I gave you was WhatsApp voice messages and a single-page PDF.
JJ: That’s why it was so shocking for me to see and feel the piece, because it was like, oh my God, I knew that it was going to be this, I knew so well. I found it really interesting to express to someone else how you and I were collaborating on something, and neither one of us really had too much idea and detail of what the other was doing.
MG: Well what I loved about this was, with performance, no piece exists until it’s been shown to an audience; by the time I know what it’s truly about to me, everybody’s already seen it. There’s a lot that’s impossible to pre-meditate with regards to meaning in live work. It’s just a hypothetical until it’s performed. And beyond that, oftentimes what I do means something very different to me than what it will mean to anybody else.
MG: My piece Late October is called Late October because I had no idea what it was about. (laughs) I named it after the time of year. I only figured out what it was about once I was inside of it, and there’s no way to change the title once you’re on stage. So I’ve really learned to embrace serendipity in that way because I have no other choice.
This new piece kind of trickled down from Late October in a way. I called it Water in a Heatwave. It was about this total starvation I was feeling for physical affection and touch, and longing for somebody else’s full physical giving of themselves. It’s like an ode to that moment of complete abandon to the senses and to the body that happens during sex, or any other form of interpersonal physicality – When I think back to the moment in which I conceived of it, I was feeling extremely lonely in a hotel room in Paris, so it really checks out. But I didn’t know that this was what it was about until I was performing.
I’m really happy that this is also somehow related to how the music came about; what I’m hearing from you is that there was a sort of incantational approach to your process in which you were invoking something that you didn’t really know what it was until it’d been put fully into motion.
JJ: Yeah, ‘convulsive necessity’ is the way I like to think of it.
MG: Totally convulsive.
JJ: I borrow the word ‘convulsive’ from [André] Breton in Mad Love. He says, “True love has to be convulsive.”
MG: That’s beautiful.
JJ: I’m constantly transposing that onto every passion. And I see art as this convulsive necessity. It’s a volcanic eruption. It’s really what it is. And that’s why I think that in the nature of true art in all of its sincerity … The artist will learn from the piece more than anyone else.
MG: What I love about what you did for Water In A Heatwave is that you created a piece of music that can at once exist completely without bodies, but is also extremely hospitable to them, which is very much within the school of thought I come from. When I was working for Édouard Lock, he used to have the dancers rehearse with one song the whole time, which was never going to be the song that would make it into the final piece.
We were doing a workshop in Beijing, and while creating this new piece, he would play Strangers in the Night by Frank Sinatra over and over and over and over again. He believes that movement and dance should be able to exist completely independently of music; you should be able to perform any dance piece in silence. And so that became part of my upbringing… That’s why it was so organic and easy to trust you with whatever you were going to produce, because I knew that what I was going to do was never going to be 100% contingent on it, but it was going to somehow coalesce. Likewise, I didn’t share any kind of movement schematic with you ahead of time it was just a shape and an idea that you interpreted in a different way than I did. Even numerologically, we were on somewhat dissonant signatures. I was thinking in fours and you were thinking in fives, but I think that it was really interesting for me to watch those two universes collide in a way that felt like they had always known one.
Your work is so perfect to be inhabited by bodies like that – I performed the piece personally the first three nights of eight, and the last two, and that was the first time I’d heard it in its entirety was while I was performing. I’d made a point of not listening to it to the end until that the show. It was really interesting to navigate through. It sounded like a forest growing out of a desert.
JJ: I tried to mimic what I thought your idea was of moving in space and allowing time to flow. So what I tried to do was kind of abstract, but in a star shaped way, stretch, a looping melody in a way that if you trace the star, you wouldn’t feel the melody, it would just kind of weave in and out of you. But then as we saw often, the melody, like a star would be like… a body would maybe move in the shape of the star and the melody would appear. Does that make sense?
MG: Yeah. Tell me about numerology.
JJ: Zero difference between numerology and obsessive compulsive disorder.
MG: I have both, tell me about it.
JJ: It’s just a way of cataloguing. Numerology, I think, is best described as putting an archetype to energetic frequency. So like five feels like this, four feels like that. It’s all very synesthetic. And actually I grew up inventing my own numerology, which, as I grew into learning about it, most of my theories on each number and what they represent ended up ringing true to more established schools and theories of numerology.
So actually, I allow myself to deeply believe in it simply because of the fact that for all intents and purposes, I invented it for myself, and then I discovered that others were feeling the same way. Everything I do have to be a sort of specific numerological pattern, even walking, much more my work, but that work was very, very, very five, but that five obviously was a dedication to you.
MG: Thank you, you know five is my biggest number. My name is five letters, I was born at 5:55AM, my birth date is all divisible by five. I have a similar experience with numbers, and growing up with OCD as well, really having like a deep obsession and even like an anxiety with the numbers and the patterns that stressed me out or that felt like they indicated death or felt like they indicated –
JJ: Oh my god, what was your number that death is looming?
JJ: Four. Oh my God, wow.
MG: And this piece was all fours for me, so I just leaned into it, and I turned 24 last week, so it felt like four was looming… so I thought I would loom a little over four, but with ultimate vulnerability.
But I guess numerology was this way of framing my compulsions and finding a happy intersection with it where these associations could exist in the real world and not just in my head. It allowed me to make those obsessions my friend as opposed to something that felt like it was my enemy. Because even in the tarot, Death and The Devil are not bad cards. There is no “bad card” in it, which I sort of love.
There were these performances that I started doing right when I moved to New York called Hæmotherapy (I) and Pneumotherapy (II), which you also did the soundtracks for. They were my first solo works and I was interpreting my own body through these “emotional ailments.” It was this sort of simple idea of locating metaphysical pain in different parts of my body and translating these feelings that I couldn’t really put into words or verbalize so concretely, into pseudoscience. I was kind of miserable when I got here for a while and had a lot to navigate, and I wanted to somehow geolocate the pain I was feeling – Like, say “This feels like it’s in my blood” or “This feels like it’s in my lungs” as a means of finding a solution. “This feels like it’s in my muscles, and it’s weighing on me like this,” and “this is the movement that it’s creating.” Pneumotherapy (II) was about grief and grief, decidedly, is always in my lungs, and betrayal always feels like it floats around my sternum. It was very interesting for me to read later on as I was developing these works that there are a number of medical cultures around the world, notably traditional Chinese medicine, that actually do locate your grief in that lung region, probably because that’s where you feel it.
Anyway, I felt I there was something that I knew I had to get out of my lungs, so I decided to bombard them with four thousand stems of lilies, hyacinths, amaranth and magnolia, and I did a whole sort of pneumatic piece only to learn that those feelings were very confirmed. Did you know that plague doctors in medieval Europe stuffed those beaked masks with flowers and herbs? They essentially thought that disease was transmitted by smell, called ‘miasma.’ Both times I’ve done one of these “–Therapy” pieces, they’ve been to address something very specific in my private life. And every time I get down from the performance, I feel like it’s actually worked.
JJ: So it’s like an antidote.
MG: Yeah, going deeper into the discomfort. And for seven hours or eight hours or 24 consecutive hours, only dealing with the task at hand and the energy of the audience. I think it’s important to stay connected to the intention of the piece throughout its duration. Tell me how you feel about this as it relates to music.
JJ: I think that’s where performance and music really differ. Your work is immediate because it happens only as it’s happening, and once it’s over, it’s gone, as far as the actual piece is concerned. So I understand that concentration of sincerity. However, I think that with music, it’s getting that same concentration of sincerity, turning it into a pigment, and making sure that everything you work with has that pigment, because as you’re composing a piece, as you’re working on anything musically, you can easily get distracted, influenced, infected. You could lose sight of the end goal … Because what you’re saying of expressing, and connecting, and touching with the piece as intended, if there’s not that pigment of sincerity, it’s lost. Do you understand what I’m saying?
JJ: Sometimes, the most strong piece I could write comes from immediacy and the smallest amount of editing as possible. When I wrote that Rosewater album, I just did it staring at a mountain, writing melodies, saying that the melodies are never going to change, and just sending them straight into my version of post-production and elaboration. The melodies were sincere because they were as immediate as maybe a performance art piece.
JJ: … but it had nothing to do with time. It had to do with immediacy, and sincerity, concentration and sincerity. It was all a pigment.
MG: Well, that was actually going to be my next question: how do you know what direction to take? Music, to me, is so daunting, because it’s infinite. There are no constraints to the sound, to the sonic palette that you can use. We were talking about this in Reykjavík recently, I remember. There are so few constraints. I have a very close relationship to constraints. I love constraints. Music is an unconstrained space. I mean, sounds are thousands of times, millions of times more varied even than the colors that we have at our disposal for visual art. My favorite constraint in my practice is physics and the limitations of the body. There’s only so far you can go, it’s not that abstract. You can push your limits, but it’s still totally insignificant compared to what you can do pushing the limits of sound. I guess I’m curious about your relationship with rituals and practices that ensure a certain containment to the ideas that you produce and direction.
JJ: My most important love is classical music, so I always take that as my palette of constraint. For example, this needs to pull melancholy. I know the exact type of classical string that would move me in the direction of melancholy, so whatever I experiment with, it could be a car motor, but if it’s evocative of a string quartet, it works for that piece. If I want something a bit victorious or grand, I think of brass. Then, what type of brass? What sounds come in? How are they timed, in terms of a classical piece? All of that can be fitted into …
Also, sure, there’s infinite sounds, and infinite sounds you could use, but there’s also sounds that at any given moment are appealing. Just like one day you’ll wake up in the mood for R&B, the next day you’ll wake up in the mood for Aphex Twin. You know what’s calling, so when you’re writing the piece, you know what the feeling is. Then, I’ll be like, in my universe of desirable sounds at the moment, what is a victorious horn? You really narrow it down to a really small number of sounds.
MG: I never thought of it that way. Do you have a classical music composer idol? Who do you want to be when you grow up, classical music-wise?
JJ: I’ll say Satie. I know it’s an easy one, but my biggest thing with Satie is Satie was a composer, illustrator, poet, writer of insane narrative prose. Some of my favorite writings are by Erik Satie, and he was just an absolutely spread out, incredible, way ahead of his time intellectual.
I think all of his music is that pigment. His melodies are as deep and dark as his words are, and they say the exact same thing. It’s just like over-layered validation of the intense amount of sincerity in his voice and what he needed to express, so I definitely want to be Erik Satie when I grow up to have a published book next to a pressed record that are actually just talking about the same, exact, simple idea.
MG: That’s brilliant. That’s exactly what I’m trying to do with sculpture right now, is have people understand that my sculptures and my performances are identical.
JJ: Why do you connect them?
MG: The way that I approach sculpture is in the exact way that I approach the body. The way that I look at it is exactly in the same way that I look at the body. The body is something that has developed over millions of years through evolution and adaptations. I’m just trying to be part of that conversation, of literal evolution.
Some of the most complex technology and the deepest wisdom that we even have access to lives in our bodies. I want to read the language that bodies have created through survival of the fittest and try to write some poetry in it. I want to write poetry the language of how our bodies react to external stimuli in general, whether that be on a short term, like a reaction, or a pathogenic reaction, or whatever…Because those are our responses, immediate responses to the world that our body creates. It gives us a fever when we have a virus to kill it. It makes us feel hungry when we need nutrients. It gives us sexual urges to procreate. It gives us all these cues. Then, on the scale of generations, the body will change shapes to better adapt to where it lives, to its environment, through trial and error. It’ll make your hair straight if it’s cold. It’ll make it curly if it’s hot. This has to do with airflow. It’ll make your skin darker, if there’s a lot of sun, or lighter if there isn’t, to balance the production of vitamin D. It’ll make you taller, or shorter, depending on availability of food or oxygen.
So, I’m really just enamoured with the microscopic and the macroscopic systems that allow our bodies to adapt and, in some ways, love us. How they keep us, and how they perpetuate us through time. I want to respond to that in a poetic visual language that, I guess, honours and abstracts that very functional path of evolution.
JJ: Where do you think you and your work lie in that? Where do you find yourself on this evolutionary map of the body’s ability and capacity within ability to express itself, and the emotional state of its pilot?
MG: The way that I’ve developed my language is by listening to what already exists in nature, and then abstracting it in a way that feels right to me, and feels like a language that comes from me. Anyway, I guess my last question for you would be, how do you know when you’re finished a work?
JJ: You never do. I feel like every artist will say the same thing. I don’t know.
MG: They won’t, because I absolutely know when a piece of mine is finished. It’s when everybody’s gone home.
MG: You know?
JJ: Then how do you know when you’re finished coming up with it?
MG: Ok that’s different. Maybe then I don’t. I do know that my work has gotten a lot simpler, though, so I find myself feeling ‘done’ sooner.
Early on in my career –– which essentially started, by the way, two years ago –– I was so overboard with the aestheticization of everything. I just remember packing in so much visual information that I’ve gradually stripped away, partly because I was relying on other people. I was working with stylists, and with people who come from fashion. It was a lot of fun, but I’ve now shed a lot of those layers. I was also very heavy-handed with the optics of my identity, and was really just getting to know even who I was. I mean, whatever. I was 20. I had to try things and it was an important exercise. The thing is, with performance, you have to learn and develop in public.
Now I feel like I can create these hyper-surreal images, or on the contrary, hyper-realistic images, but in either case I don’t shy away from simplicity now. I try to hit people’s senses the hardest with the least amount of stuff, and use simple strategies to achieve that. For example, I think mirrors work really well because they throw off light in all these really subtle and disorienting ways that make you feel like you’re going into a new space when, in fact, you’re not. They act as portals to blur the boundaries of a room. I still use the contact lenses a lot, because when you erase the eyes, you look at the body very differently; as a single shape as opposed to as a person. Even using corn syrup instead of water sometimes, where people will look at it and they think it’s going to be water and then they look a little closer and the laws of physics for water have changed suddenly; ‘why is it so slow?’ Things like that that are very, very minute but in fact so structural to our perceptions. Smell, patterns of light, things that really trigger a huge departure between inside and outside that are actually super, super small and easy. So I focus on details like that.
JJ: It’s all more obvious.
MG: I think that the main construction of the piece, the backbone, now resides in the actual performance. I’m not hiding behind decoration anymore. Chekhov says that if there is a pistol onstage, it must be shot. So for me, every visual element must be functional.
JJ: And setting intention as limitation, maybe.
MG: Yeah, and same with the sculptures. The sculptures are quite intricate. But at the root, the idea is extremely simple. And I rely on that quite heavily, simplicity.
JJ: I guess maybe thinking about it in a way I maybe never have, I guess the most finished I feel with the piece ends up being when the excitement and the passion of the work is threatened by a newer incoming idea. I’m not sure it has to say that that’s when the piece is necessarily done, but it means that that’s when I’m done with the piece.
MG: That’s a bar
JS: Yeah. I mean, it’s just more that. It’s kind of you could build forever. It’ll never be finished, really. That’s the idea. The “I’m done with you,” you know what I mean? I could express in so many ways this same feeling, but talk about evolution. It’s like move forward and a sort of onto the next to always rebuild on the principles that always end up stacking upon each other anyways.
MG: Marina [Abramović] always says, “More and more of less and less,” which I really like. And I try to kind of bring that into my life in any way possible. The things that should be the biggest should come from the absolute deepest, most sincere and simplest place, which is why Oysterknife was such a success. There was so little going on and yet the spiritual weight of it was so heavy for people. Whereas Late October is just a completely different orientation of that, but still kind of, I think, somehow similar. So those are the two poles of my work.
Have you ever abandoned a piece that wasn’t done, but that you were done with?
JJ: All the time. It’s kind of like when you consider that when you’re working, you’re having a dialogue with some sort of energetic space that you haven’t really defined. And that energetic space kind of walks out of the room when you’re mid-sentence you’re like, ‘Okay, fine. Fuck you too.’ (laughs) You know what I mean? It’s like, ‘Okay, if that’s how it’s going to be, cool. I’m done too.’ So I do a lot of that with a lot of pieces. It’s like when you’re just expressing yourself in an argument with a lover. It’s just kind of like when you catch yourself repeating the same thing over and over in a way that’s not interesting or engaging, you know that the point isn’t going to land smoothly on the runway. And so I kind of deem it unfit for exposition.
MG: Do you see your work as a lover?
JJ: Oh my God. As every ghost of every lover that’s ever walked.
MG: Is it a lover or is it multiple lovers? Is it a new lover every time you engage with it?
JJ: That’s an interesting question. That’s an interesting question…Maybe it’s just the same idea of a lover, but constructed a bit differently each time. Because for me, “lover” is something that I kind of project onto, at least in physical form. I mean lover in every sense. It’s just projections of desire. So as that shifts, so do the embodiments of what “lover” means.
MG: Is sex performance?
JJ: I’m going to volley that question back to you because you’re the performance artist. Is sex performance?
MG: God, I should be ready with an answer if I’m going to ask it…Yes, yes it is. But you shouldn’t be fabricating anything in sex – it’s a performance of what is already there. You are only performing to translate and render visible your existing feelings and bodily experiences in a way that the other person will be able to accurately interpret them.
I think that good sex means good performance because it’s a skill to make yourself understood to another person, like public speaking. You are rendering yourself and your love for that other person legible in the way that you know that they will be able to recognize it in their own language. It’s all about materializing the immaterial between two (or more?) people.
JJ: Love that.
MG: Thank you. Anything you would like to add?
JJ: No, I really enjoyed that.
MG: Period. Me too. That was great. Thanks boo.
PHOTOGRAPHER: Nuno Vieira
FASHION: Gabriella Norberg
HAIR AND MAKE-UP: Beatriz Texugo
TALENT: Miles Greenberg miles.greenberg
EDITOR: Timotej Letonja
CONVERSATION WITH: Julián Jesús
SCENOGRAPHY: Marie De Testa
PHOTO ASSISTANT: Estefânia Silva
Special thanks to Carpintarias de São Lázaro, Lisboa