Miguel Gutierrez On Performance, Presidents, And Becoming Teachable
When you are a performer, do you ever feel like you must perform yourself? Miguel Gutierrez (he/him) is a multidisciplinary performance artist, educator and arts advocate. Miguel’s works include This Bridge Called My Ass, a piece that bends tropes of Latinidad to identify new relationships to content and form, a book titled WHEN YOU RISE UP available through 53rd State Press, and numerous essays, including “Does Abstraction Belong to White People,” published on Bomb’s website. He also performs sad versions of upbeat Madonna songs in his music performance project SADONNA. Miguel sat down with Mash-Up Americans to talk about vulnerability as a director and experimental artist, what he would choose for a national monument, and accepting that he’s not Nicki Minaj.
How do you mash up?
I suppose that changes somewhat on any given day. But in general, I would say I’m a cis-guy who uses he and they pronouns. I am queer, I am first-generation immigrant, Latinx. And sometimes I identify as a POC – person of confusion – [laughing] because I’m read as white, and I’m also read as Brown. I identify with the brownness, but I also acknowledge the white-passing-ness. So yeah, those are the kind of identity marker definitions, but I feel like beyond that, there’s other ways of describing me [laughs].
Would your answer change if I asked you how you identify today?
I feel like what I’m identifying myself with most of the time is an emotional identification. A sense of myself, in relationship to my emotional life, or myself, those are the kinds of things that I’m feeling myself to be. Now when I go out in culture and I interact with others, suddenly, these other kind of identity markers become much more pronounced to me, because I feel like those identity markers are significant more when you’re talking about “in relation to,” but in terms of me feeling myself, when I wake up, I don’t have the sense of like, “I’m a man,” you know, like, I wake up and I’m like, “Oh, I’m tired,” or “I feel really out of shape,” or “I’m really sad about X, Y, and Z thing.” Those are the kind of ways I’m identifying my sense of self.
Looking back at how the last year has taken us through something of a gauntlet of this country’s shadow… what are some of the things that have been sustaining you?
Whew. I mean, my boyfriend. We’re cohabitating, so a lot of the humor and the laughter comes from that interaction. He’s a very, very funny person, and he’ll just send me flying into laughter. I watch a lot of comedy on YouTube. I like to watch a lot of stand up and sketch comedy. I feel like there’s a version of me that’s a stand-up comic, so I really appreciate it as a form. Riding my bike has always been like Prozac. I just love riding my bike. FaceTime calls with my friends or talking to my mom — I talk to my mom every day. These things kind of keep me afloat. I just read an incredible book by Maria Hinojosa, Once I Was You. And I love reading Melissa Broder. She’s a friend of mine, so I feel like I’m getting to talk to her when I read her work. I’ll watch the British baking show, and I’ll cry, and be happy for them, but lately my big TV binging thing has been How to Get Away with Murder. I’ve just been obsessed with that show.
I just don’t ever stop making stuff. Like, it just doesn’t happen. It’s not an option.
Has this past year impacted your creative approach? What’s feeling important for you to focus on right now?
Well, that’s kind of in process. I made the decision to go back to school this year to finish college, because I never finished college 27 years ago. So I’m a senior in college right now. Some of the creative stuff I’ve done in the last year has actually been for school, which is kind of hilarious and weird, although also great, and not that different from having to make something for any other situation. I’ve been sort of theorizing, like, what is school? And I think school is just a series of deadlines. And then a diploma is just a confirmation that you met the deadlines, you know? That’s what the diploma should say: “I did the deadlines.” I haven’t been pushing so hard on dance performance work in the past year. I’ve leaned a lot more into making music, and slowly trying to make a little record of my own (non-Sadonna) songs. I’m taking advantage of the university system to complete a thesis, which is basically an anthology of my own writing from past shows and essays that I’ve written. I just don’t ever stop making stuff. Like, it just doesn’t happen. It’s not an option.
Where do you feel most at home?
I guess the first thing that comes up is the spaces in my life where I feel like I don’t have to contend with the burden of gauging someone else’s perception of me, although there is never full escape from that. But home can be that place where I don’t have to track my performance of myself as intently as I do in other spaces. So like being in my mom’s home, being with my sister, being with friends I’ve had for a really long time. Being literally in this apartment. I feel like one of the things that I experience as a performing artist is constant scrutiny, or assessment of other people’s scrutinies foisted upon me. And so I really appreciate the places where I don’t actually feel like that scrutiny is happening.
As you talk about feeling at home, and also how you feel when you’re dancing… how do you create home for your creative process?
I need to feel safe — and by safe I just mean, I need to feel like I can bring the vulnerability of my ideas to the room, and people aren’t just going to be laughing at them – or that’s not going to be the only reaction. So for me, that’s just about cultivation of a certain kind of intimacy. First and foremost, it’s probably about the selection of collaborators. Those are people I want to be in a room with, they’re not people I feel like I’ve been forced to be in a room with, and I’m interested in the alchemy of our energies together. And because I make “experimental work,” what that really just means is that I commit to not knowing what it’s going to be for quite a long time. The process is not just the fulfillment of a vision. The process is literally a process of discovering, “Well, what is this vision even?” So that’s what defines experimental to me, and that requires a certain kind of patience on everyone’s account.
So it’s also about having some boundaries for that space and the conditions to be focused on the process rather than the product?
Right. I think that’s part of my job as a director: to steward that “not-knowing-ness.” To recognize when we’ve reached a certain threshold of asking “What is this action here? What is this decision?” I don’t necessarily think I’m avoiding that to the very end, but different processes have asked me to trust myself and trust the situation for longer durations than others.
Who have been some of the inspirations or influences that you find yourself referring to, if not looking to for guidance?
There’s Ralph Lemon, who I just admire so much, as a choreographer, the trajectory of his work, and also the way that he kind of aggressively researches is very interesting to me. My friend Juliana May is a choreographer whose work I just absolutely love. I was very influenced by the work I did with Deborah Hay a long, long time ago. But Deborah’s work really kind of stays with you.
Ishmael Houston-Jones has been a huge influence. And as a friend, you know, Keith Hennessy, has been a big person in my life. Vera Mantero is a Portuguese choreographer and artist whose work I really love and admire. You know, like the list goes on and on (laughing). But those are people who I really kind of hold close as I’m working.
Work by Jumatatu Poe, who’s a choreographer who’s done some recent work that really had a huge impact on me. It’s this piece “Let ‘im Move You” which is a body of research that they did between 2016 and 2018, partly in collaboration with Donte Beacham. In the version of it that I saw, because I think there are multiple versions of it, there’s a kind of trajectory of the piece. I went from being like, “Oh, it’s a straight-up proscenium piece, and there’s performance on stage, and we’re here.” And then eventually the audience comes on the stage to like, observe, and then the whole thing kind of cracks open to being — what I experienced it to be was a sort of treatise on Black agency. And it was for me an incredibly powerful realization that they had created a situation where we were really just the guests. The audience, we were invited to witness but I knew, this isn’t mine to have, this is theirs to have, and to celebrate amongst themselves. And I’m allowed to be a guest here. And I found the clarity of that boundary really beautiful.
So the artist themself establishing that container of witnessing, rather than consuming.
Yeah, totally. Because that is such an enormous question, certainly, for artists of color of how they are going to be received and all the language we have to even talk about performance in that context, like, you know, “consumed” or “seen” or “witnessed” or “invited,” you know, all these different things, making me realize, like, the stakes of that are always in the room. So I felt like, oh, thank you for even bringing that attention to that. Because there’s always this kind of contract of observation or almost like ethnographic fetishization that can happen with performing, and so for a performance to sort take take back its own terms. And for that to be queer artists of color doing that is very, very meaningful, I think.
That makes me think of some of the themes around governance in your piece for Artists-in-Presidents, which was an opportunity for 50 artists to address the people through a speech, and run with that premise. What was important to you to bring to that project?
Yeah, it was an interesting provocation, from Constance Hockaday, building on the idea of the “fireside chat,” this kind of thing that we really associate with someone like FDR, who’s address to the nation was meant to be a healing and calming one. In contrast to someone like Trump, who, at least for me, any address he offered was just another instance of anxiety inducement. That said, I feel very critical, and just think the idea of the presidency is such bullshit. The lionization of that role to me is so weird. And also, the idea that somehow, oh, now we have a good president. And before we had a bad president, and before that, we had a good president, you know, the whole Obama to Trump to Biden. Like we all know, bullshit has happened under all these presidents and will continue to happen under all these presidents.
And yes, absolutely I’m happy that it’s not Trump, absolutely. He horrifies me in a particular register of horror. I just feel like the fact that that role exists in society, that there’s a person whose charisma can trump their actions — no pun intended — to me is really disgusting, right? There’s so much about upholding this quite bullshit notion of the USA, which is so enamored of its own exceptionalism, and that exceptionalism has been a hundreds-year long march of imperialism, genocide and enslavement. I mean, there’s no way around that. And so I don’t know why I need to sort of sit here and be like, “but this president!” You know, it’s like, no, this whole thing just needs to be like, redone, rethought, like I don’t know.
It’s an incredibly beautiful country that we live in, and then also, all of this is stolen. There’s no way around this idea that this has been taken, that people were literally made to disappear. I mean, it’s an irreconcilable feeling.
And so the context of thinking about that piece also happened with my boyfriend and I driving across country. Last summer, I kind of got stuck in Florida during COVID, and he kind of got stuck in Pasadena. We were each with our moms for a few months. Finally, I went out there to get him and I drove across country, and then we drove back. And we decided to take some more time. And this is also in the context of BLM protests and just our overarching experience, I think, was, wow, what a beautiful country. It’s an incredibly beautiful country that we live in, and then also, all of this is stolen. There’s no way around this idea that this has been taken, that people were literally made to disappear. I mean, it’s an irreconcilable feeling.
When we went to see the Wendy’s that had been burned in Atlanta and I was like, this should be a national monument. Like this should be absolutely preserved. Because this is way more telling of what this country is about, than Mount Rushmore. But in terms of what monument is meant to do, and should memorialize, if it’s about facing the truth of what this place is, that Wendy’s is just way more meaningful to me. I’m not going to speak for Constance, but I definitely felt like I did not want this to just be like, “Okay, how empowering would it be if I’m president,” you know, or how comforting could I be to others, and of course, I believe in comfort and healing all that. But I just was like, no, nationalism is gross. I used an image from that trip that my boyfriend took, and it was a very non-heroic image. I’m asleep naked in bed. So it’s kind of perverse in its own special little way. And I felt really happy. It was like, yeah, presidential portrait, like, fuck this thing of standing upright and looking at the camera with some sort of noblesse, like I have the answer, like, I don’t know if I can do that.
If you were in a room filled with other young artists now, like performers, singers, choreographers, writers, is there anything that you would share with them about pursuing your craft?
It’s on everyone to figure it out. I mean, I’m happy to share my experience, but I don’t see my experience as canonical AT. ALL. I mean, I’m literally in my last semester of my senior year, of a college program that I started 32 fucking years ago. So like, I am no model of anything, you know, I just have done my own weird route.
And then, depending on what scale of public profile you want to have, you are going to have to learn how to deal with institution. You know, people who are like, I want to do this my own way. And it’s like, yeah, that’s cool. But like, who’s gonna pay for the electricity bill? You’re always in relationship to some external thing that’s not you when you’re working or making stuff. So how you want to engage that relationship also defines the kind of work that you make. And I have my own way, that’s also problematic, that’s based on a lot of first-gen anxieties about assimilating or not ruffling feathers too much. You know, “thank you so much for the opportunity” script, right? That whole kind of thing, which I’ve come to realize, sometimes that works against me, because I haven’t asserted myself in ways that I should have. And also, I could have asserted myself in ways that would have structurally shifted the institution in a beneficial way. And so I have a lot of respect for artists who hold the line more intensely in that regard. It’s tricky for me because I have my own people-pleasing anxieties and tendencies. So it’s like, I’m always in a battle with myself about that, right? Like, why can’t I just be like Nicki Minaj? (Laughing) Like more badass, like, “Fuck you” and walk out of the interview, you know, like, I’m just not built that way.
And so I don’t think it’s for me to tell younger people “you shouldn’t…” Because they’re figuring it out in ways that maybe I could never have figured it out. But self love, patience, and look for the people who are your people. That’s the best advice I can give anybody, like, find your people. Any room is full of teachers.
Do you have any self-created rituals that you use in your work? For example when that feeling comes up of “Oh my God…This is where it goes south…”
Well, I was raised Catholic, but then I left the church. But I definitely feel like prayer or the idea of a conversation with God, or your conception of God, that’s still in my life. That doesn’t look like me being like “Hail Mary, full of grace.” Prayer is like a conversation that I’m having with whatever the forces are. When I perform, I have little things like I always do my powerful people prayer, which is, “I am strong, I am powerful, I am beautiful, I am divine,” or if it’s a group, “We are strong, we are powerful, we are beautiful, we are divine.” I have little things I tell myself, like “The only thing I have to accomplish is this moment that I’m in.”
I love the powerful people prayer. That’s really beautiful and super grounding and simple. Thank you for that.
Oh, yeah. Thank you. I didn’t make it. I mean, I guess I made it up, but I think other people have versions of it. I don’t even remember if it came on pretty early in making stuff, like it just kind of came into the room.
In terms of reflecting on the last year of your life, what would you put in a time capsule of the past year? Whether things you really want to carry forward with you, or just remember from this time?
I don’t want to just put in the good stuff because I want to reflect all the challenges. So you know, I’d probably put a little vial of tears. I’d put photos of my trip with Marley last summer, my boyfriend Marley. I’d put a recording of our therapy sessions together. I’d put recordings, all the songs I’ve been working on. My poems are pretty bad, but they generally are better than they used to be. So maybe I’d find a good one and put it in there. I’d probably cut some of my hair. Pictures of my mom and I on FaceTime together, my sister and I on FaceTime together. My Seamless password (laughing). I don’t know if this is true, but I think someone was trying to invent like a smell camera, you know, like, trying to take a snapshot room smell. We put eucalyptus up in the bathroom, and we’re a very incense-happy household. Like, my boyfriend is becoming a kind of low-key witch. So I’d want to capture some of the smells of that.
One of the things that comes to mind, I guess, is a mask [makes a bummer sound]. You know, I have a mask that I really love, it has The Scream, by (Edvard) Munch on it. I love that mask. I’d probably put that in there. Yeah, “monk.” I’m such a bitch that I know how to spell it. I’m always like, “Um, it’s Munch. Yeah, cause I’ve been to the Munch museum. He’s Norwegian, it’s in Oslo.” I actually did that to my frickin’ doctor. I was wearing the mask and he goes, “Oh, I really like your Klimt mask.” I was like, “It’s Munch.” And he’s like, “Oh.” I was like, oh my God. You’re such an art snob. Ah, God… so bad. So yeah, there you have it. So yeah, then it should definitely go in there, with a recording of that story, that’s like, I am still an asshole. [Giggles] Next to the super emo poem that’s like, “Oh my God. He’s such a thoughtful, sensitive person,” it’s like “and I corrected my doctor’s pronunciation of Munch.” [Laughs]