We don’t have illusions that absurdity isn’t the ground floor: A Conversation with Miguel Gutierrez
By Laurel McLaughlin
Miguel Gutierrez spoke with me over Skype about his forthcoming West Coast premiere of This Bridge Called My Ass for PICA’s TBA19. Act 1: Neon lights, stretched spandex, furious typing, skin rubbing against the contours of the floor; Act 2: a telenovela with twists on twists—these were just some of the riveting and disparate movements that I half-expected to slink in the corners of the screen as we spoke. Miguel generously shared more than a modicum about this elastic work that generates connectivity in the room amongst performers and viewers alike, while also clearing the ground floor for the possibility of disconnections, and even absurdity.
Laurel McLaughlin (LM): This Bridge Called My Ass, 2019 was co-commissioned by The Chocolate Factory, Centre National du Danse in Pantin, PICA/TBA, The Walker Art Center, Wexner Center for the Arts, Bates Dance Festival, Kelly Strayhorn Theater, and Montpellier Danse, and premiered at the American Realness festival this past January. What are you looking forward to in this iteration at the TBA19 festival? And how might this experience differ from your previous premiere, Last Meadow, at TBA in 2009 with the Powerful People?
Miguel Gutierrez (MG): This is our first tour in the U.S.—we did the piece in New York in January and then France in June—and what was very apparent for me in performing this piece in Europe and France specifically, was that for the first time in my work, this is a piece that lives inside of its own terms. Without putting too fine a point on it, or using this language in a trendy way, I was definitely aware of the way in which the work resisted or confronted a colonial gaze and confounded that gaze. Or, at least, that’s my perception—maybe I’m projecting. I don’t know what people in the audience actually thought. But the way that the audience was in France versus New York, the work was existing in a realm of values that is “other” than what those audiences normally see.
To then bring it back to the U.S. and then go to Portland is a really interesting shift. It’s been about 6 years since I performed at TBA, and so I imagine there’s been a demographic shift in Portland, but I don’t know. It’s rep is that it’s a really white place and I’ve been sniffing a bit through social media to see if I can identify at least a Latinx community—which it seems like there is one. I hope they’ll come to the show! And even if they don’t, there’s both a kind of conceptual expansion that occurs by bringing the work to different audiences and then there’s the logistics of a spatial expansion in a space that’s quite different from where we did it in New York. That was part of our bringing the piece to Europe—learning about how we can adapt the work.
LM: This next question segues into something you just mentioned—the legacy of colonialism. So, in the work, Alvaro Gonzalez, John Gutierrez, Xandra Ibarra, nibia pastrana santiago, Evelyn Sanchez Narvaez—are “mapping” an “unstable terrain of bodies,” as you say in the description. The first action, “mapping,” struck me as a colonialist impulse—as a means to contain or circumscribe within Western knowledge—and yet, the work composes a prescient resistance with its instability. Could you discuss these concepts of mapping and instability?
MG: Words that came up a lot when we were working were landscape, ocean, islands—these land or terrain-like terms, or earth-based terms. A lot of that was coming from Stephanie Acosta, the dramaturg, who was in a privileged position of watching us, endlessly, through a zillion improvisations that we did and continue to do—because the first chunk of the performance is improvised. I think that for a while now, independent of this piece, I’ve been getting at a practice improvisationally and choreographically that is about reframing values or expectations about what a conventional visuality might be. I think earlier in my career I was position-y, or saw this as my platform or whatever, but now I just see it as my work. And so, I think there was already an interest in illegibility.
With this piece, because it was about bringing this particular group together really consciously, and the way in which that was, for lack of a better term, a turning point, it foregrounded Latinx identity and very quickly the conversations turned to, “well we can’t force unity amongst us.” One of the strange histories about the history of that term “hispanic,” is that it’s a governmental term almost, which is about conglomerating disparate cultures within one term, inside the political and social context of North American convenience. That’s true, but it’s also true that I’ve looked to other Latin American people and cultures for affinities. So, there’s that double bind when you’re existing in a minoritarian culture where you’re fucked by the terms available, but also you use them and you work in and across them. Something about that kind of inability to arrive at a singular representation of identity, or to arrive at a singular representation of people being together—that became critical to have in the piece. And, you’re not asking this, but I’ll offer it, my own desire to move past—that’s maybe insulting or patronizing maybe—but my desire to situate my relationship to these questions outside of a conventional discourse of testimony, or pride, or resistance in this kind of way that, let’s say This Bridge Called My Back really claims, and really necessarily so, was important—and in the way that all minoritarian identities have these discourses running through them where people assert a certainty from another position. I have a lot of understanding of that, and the appropriateness of the time and place for that discourse; but inside the studio and inside the art-making practice, it becomes more confusing for me to live in that certainty. Everything about my relationship to artmaking has always been about taking an idea and knocking it off of its podium.
LM: Going back to the term hispanic and how that was an impetus or departure for the work, you mentioned in the context video for the piece that you all recognized failures or ruptures in the term, which was then followed by unbridled “play” in rehearsal with boundaries and limits. Do these negotiations take place prior to every performative iteration?
MG: Yeah definitely, it got woven into the piece. I pushed us into an improvisational practice. I resisted directing in a conventional way—to the chagrin of the performers. I think halfway through the process when we were finishing up a residency in France last summer there was definitely a pushback from the performers when they were like, “No really, what are we doing? What are we moving towards and what is the shape of this?” And what I was sort of interested in, and what kept coming up was, that I didn’t want to shape it, or that I didn’t want to put my hand on it in this legible way of a choreographer. It felt important to me that we could live, in as long as we could stand to, in the hell of not-knowing. In doing that, ironically, what did happen, because we did the practice so many times, was that these other systems of communication came up and took over. Within that, I could make distinctions between this and that. And we came up with a list of words that led the improvisation. And for each run we focused on four or five of those words, and then the next time it would be another set. They’re not esoteric terms. They’re really action-based. And that was coming out of me observing what we were doing with each other, not what I was demanding of the group. I would watch and think, “Well it seems like we kind of lean into this action and that,” so let’s foreground that. It was this reverse engineering process. Part of that was being a person that performs in the work—for better or worse—I can’t hold a compositional sense of the whole thing, ever, when we perform the first chunk of the piece. It’s always a bit nerve-wracking taking that chance, but also liberating. It’s not about me dictating, but us negotiating in real time, the possibilities. In that part of the piece, we’re committed in engaging this practice, not about arriving at a singular image—and this can be confusing for an audience. We kind of have that, but it doesn’t resolve. For me, that felt beautifully analogous to the experience I was having, of irresolute searching that’s committed to itself.
LM: Part of that searching came through the atmosphere that’s created by the fabrics connecting and disconnecting performers to one another, and the neon lighting, designed by Tuçe Yasak, that cast sickly and simultaneously beautiful glows across the performers. How did this set—or terrain—create a sense of chaos, but also understanding among performers?
MG: The materials and fabrics came out of a response to our first rehearsal space in New York and people were using yoga mats and covering themselves. And I thought that was interesting. Then we were rehearsing across from ABC Carpet & Home, so we did a field trip one day and I noticed that carpets and shags that were very colorful really compelled all of our attention—I mean that’s what the store fucking is! And then the next day I said, “Okay, let’s meet at Spandex World,” a fabric store in the garment district in New York and we spent a couple hours there thinking about the color palette. We wanted materials to feel like little territories—they’re abstract enough but really tangible. I had written this essay about abstraction and I was at war with myself and continue to be about abstraction and content as this binary. So, I was interested in that in the fabrics. I was resistant to using the materials in this graphic, beautiful way. There’s a version of the piece where we could’ve made it beautiful, but I quickly was like, “No, I don’t want to have some stupid reverence.” It’s not about intending to destroy, but it’s not about some stupid, body-object thing because we’re people with stuff, and it showed a negotiation between us and the world. I really hate fake objectification of “the body”—even that term makes me nauseous. So, it evolved and you know, you just follow it.
LM: Turning to the title of the work, it comes from This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, a third-wave feminist anthology featuring scholarship by Audre Lorde, Gloria E. Anzaldúa, the Combahee River Collective, among others, and edited by Cherrie Moraga and Anzaldúa. The anthology challenged the preceding legacy of white, heterosexual feminism. How does This Bridge Called My Ass build upon, react to, or depart from this pivotal scholarship?
MG: Well it’s funny, I went to see Cherrie Moraga read a couple of weeks ago and I mentioned my show and she was like, “Huh,” and then was like, “send me information,” and I still have to do that; but I was nervous. It’s a fraught question for me. I’m a dude citing this feminist text—let me be really clear about that—but I used to walk around San Francisco as a 19-year-old, carrying that book around. Pre-phone, whenever I had a moment, I would just sit and read things. There were certain people in that book—for example, Audre Lorde with “Open Letter to Mary Daly”—who were so powerful for me. This was inside of a context when I was super involved in queer activist stuff and there were particular delineations around race, identity, ethnicity within that city. My sister was involved with a very butch, Mexican dyke, who was really embedded in the Chicano queer scene. I was kind of lost, I think, in the world of white punk queerness. So, there was a lot happening, and I was trying to assert myself in that world, but I was also confused and 19. But some of those feelings and questions continue to roil me and the culture.
I was aware a couple years ago, with the phenomenon of the Facebook rant that some people employ, that this language and writing has been with us for some time now. And now, as a 48-year-old fag, I can read this rant, both as testimony and the reality of what this person’s experiencing, but I also see the art historical, cyclical nature of it. And a lot of that is because shit’s still fucked up. And part of it’s that we have a narrow conception of how to talk about certain things. We’re limited by language, while at the same time it gives us voice. And working in dance and performance, I incorporate language into my work, and I don’t see dance as non-verbal language. I see dance as a mode of perception, and a way of enacting multiplicity and interiority. And my experience with my interiority is that it’s conflicted all the time. I’m always in a sturm und drang internally and emo all the time. So, I can be in the studio and imitate a million voices and dance like a pig and all of these kind of things at once and there’s a kind of lawlessness for me in the studio practice. And I also understand that that idea is critique-able, because who has the right to think that they can do anything? But I think it’s incumbent upon me as an artist to hold an awareness of how these conversations exist in culture and also be aware of my own feeling about it. A lot of times when I align myself with certain political positions, it’s a strategic solidarity. I don’t necessarily agree with all of it, but for all intents and purposes I stand on the fucking line and try to understand the nuances. I’m always in this conversation about how these things co-exist because there’s a way in which politics is extraordinarily un-imaginative and extraordinarily boring. So, there’s only so much of that kind of thinking or enacting that I’m interested in, before I get really fucking crazy, and I want to take my clothes off and poop on the floor.
LM: Alongside that anthology paratext, the work also incorporates Latin-American songs and the melodramatic form of telenovela in what I believe is Act 2—could you share how these operate in the work?
MG: Sure, well the songs are really present in the first chunk because we use the computers to generate the soundtrack in real time and we manipulate them with DJ programs and Ableton. Then the telenovela is in a section where we arrange the space in a different way and do the telenovela. It’s often the case for me that I really hold these two different perspectives on something. I’m a triple earth sign, so I’m very blunt and unsubtle about the way I think about things and I’m interested in something for the way it can be blown apart, and then also for the way it can be sewn together. I see these both as fictions, and frameworks for presenting something. And I mean fiction, not as a lie, but a way of telling a story.
And, you know, while all this is happening in the studio, my boyfriend, who is not Latino—he loves Mexican telenovelas. And he often watches an hour a day just to practice Spanish and I started watching one with him. My mom watches telenovelas and I used to watch when I was younger, although they were never a huge part of my childhood. And I just started—I was into the ridiculousness of it, because it’s so stereotypical with gender and power, and also it was so wonderfully absurd. This also happens in American soap opera, but there’s an extremity in telenovela—for example, this motherfucker was broke and now she’s rich, and she fell from a helicopter, and landed on a coffin, she stays alive, she wears a wig, she escaped the thing, she shot her captor who she had a kid by… So, there’s these insanely elaborate choreographically complex narratives that just really don’t trouble themselves with reality or continuity sometimes. And I thought, this is a really amazing avant-garde text. Here’s a perfect example of this incredibly weird cut-up, but it’s so situated in identity, language, form, and role. We all know, the actors know, the audience knows, that these are all just roles. But we surrender to it. And again, there’s this double-consciousness when you engage with it, and this is a pretty sophisticated mode. It’s not as simple as suspension of disbelief where this person becomes that thing, because it’s ridiculous and we laugh. Some of the old ones are really nutzo, pre-CGI, and really thrilling. So, I felt strongly about honoring that legacy of absurdity that exists in Latinx culture and that I hold within me.
And, I haven’t foregrounded this aspect of myself in previous work, but I’ve always felt that that kind of interest in magical realism or ridiculousness is a kind of outgrowth of my Latin American identity. I mean, if you’ve ever driven in Bogotá, you’re aware of the disorder. There’s no lines and everyone fends for themselves. It’s a logic that I understand. I get that insanity. If you’re in Brazil and you stop at a red light, you go, why would you wait? If you’re in any Germanic country in Europe and you do that, they look at you like you’re the anti-Christ. For me, this ridiculous logic reflects the world. And for me, the logic of North America doesn’t hold. Any South American or Latin American person is so not duped by overbearingness of imperialism. They’ve experienced it first-hand and been fucked-over by it. So, it’s like we don’t have illusions that absurdity isn’t the ground floor. Like here, people are like, “Oh my God, Trump, things are so crazy.” But it’s like, bitch, things were always crazy. And yes, this is next level crazy, but it was always here. Sorry, I’m going really far away from the question, but it felt interesting to me to welcome this literal product of Latin American culture into the room because it was a way for me to address and acknowledge the dynamics that were happening within the room. Instead of avoiding, I was just like let me exaggerate the fuck out of it. And again, Stephanie asked, “What happens if you take literalism to its end point? You’re back in abstraction.” And it really landed when she mentioned that one day in rehearsal. I completely heard that and it felt really generative.
LM: The combination of these references you’ve described creates a dense spatial, embodied, and temporal configuration—oscillating between exhaustion and pleasure, exhausted pleasure, and pleasured exhaustion—for both the dancers (I would imagine), and the audience. So, could you tell me a bit about this interplay between audience and dancers, exhaustion and pleasure in This Bridge Called My Ass?
MG: Yeah, that’s interesting. I don’t know that everyone is pleasured in watching! I definitely never use the word exhaustion in the process, even though it does happen in the practice. I don’t use it intentionally because it’s tempting to perform exhaustion as a kind of marker, or value, or effort, in dance.
I delight in the audiences that are delighted and that stay with it, but I feel like it’s important for each person to have their own ride and that includes being pushed away from what they’re seeing. In this particular piece, it’s literally because one of us has draped a big, stupid curtain in front of them. And again, that’s very intentional. That’s an ethic of the piece. Not to frustrate the audience, but to acknowledge that you’re not going to see the whole picture here. We don’t even know what the whole fucking picture is, so neither do you. So, I think for the person who thinks dance is a series of images, it’s a very confusing piece. And I think for the person who wants to understand the piece, it will be confounding and I hope it will be confounding. This idea of audience—it’s always moving. We look at the audience and sometimes it’s playful, sometimes it’s seductive, sometimes it’s just looking back. Sometimes I feel, especially after doing the show in France, really aware of the ways in which I don’t want to make assumptions about the audience, and I’m really committed about the practice of the group together. So, there is this real feeling of, you are invited to observe, witness, and if you feel like it’s including you—cool. Maybe that inclusion exists across cultural, ethnic, or racial lines, but I don’t presume that it always does. I know Latin Americans who saw the show in New York and they were like, “Oh my God,” and then I know there were some who were like, “meh.” In a weird way, I’d love to say that every Latinx person who would see it would be affirmed, but I don’t think that’s true. It isn’t meant to be a universal Latinx piece by any stretch of the imagination. So, it’s a dynamic question and I don’t have one answer for it in the same sense that I’ve ever felt that any one audience has one response. The ecology of the audience is so different from show to show. And this piece really foregrounds that, even though it’s always true. There are going to be the people who are with it and the people who are like, “what the fuck.”
LM: Your point about certain things being available and others not for the audience, and the variance within that, feels revelatory to understand about contemporary performance.
MG: Definitely. As we’re seeing so many artists of color claim their space within the avant-garde—for lack of a better term—the inclusion and exclusion gets really heightened, but those questions were always there. When the white avant-garde was claiming universals, we know that this is a naïveté, we know this is a fiction. For me, it’s not as simple as, “I’m only able to identify with this kind of work and not that.” No. Because I think desire is really hard to legislate. And there is plenty of super-fucking white art that is gorgeous, and I claim as a forebearer to my practice. But I also understand that the value assigned to a certain way of being within a form has everything to do with power, has everything to do with supremacy, has everything to do with tradition, and has everything to do with who was the critic at that time, or who was the hot dude who everyone wanted to fuck at that time—or woman that everyone wanted to fuck. I understand how art unfolds in the world. That is playing out in the audience, too, in each individual person’s conception of what they were coming to see and what happens when they actually see the work. Whether their idea of illegibility is an open space for interpretation or their perception that illegibility is a wall—all of that’s in there for me. I don’t need to land in one place about it, but the audience might.