Between the sheets with Tim Miller and his ‘1001 Beds’
Performance artist’s latest book and tour showcase his writings and photographs
by William J. Mann
Throughout the ’90s and into the new millennium, performer and writer Tim Miller has worked at the intersection of performance, politics and identity, using his personal experiences to create fierce and funny explorations of life as a gay American man. His performances and books have ricocheted from the perils and joys of sex and relationships to the struggles of political disenfranchisement and artistic censorship.
In his new book “1001 Beds” (University of Wisconsin Press, edited by Glen Johnson), we have the most complete Miller yet — a raucous collection of his performance scripts, essays, interviews, journal entries and photographs, as well as his recent stage piece “Us.”
“1001 Beds” brings together the personal, communal and national political strands that have fueled his work from its beginnings and ultimately define Miller’s place as a contemporary artist, activist and gay man.
This intimate — sometimes really intimate — autobiographical collage of Miller’s professional and personal life reveals one of the celebrated creators of a crucial contemporary artform and a tireless advocate for the American dream of political equality for all citizens. No stranger to controversy, Miller’s performances have been at the center of the culture wars, the fight against AIDS, the battle for marriage equality and the struggle for lesbian and gay culture.
He was one of the notorious NEA Four, four performance artists who had their National Endowment for the Arts grants taken away in 1990 for the content of their work, a case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The performance “1001 Beds” is a raucous and rowdy exploration of Miller’s adventures in a performer’s life fiercely lived in his travels through love, politics and art.
From a gay teen’s head-on collision with life in a sleazy hotel across the street from the Hollywood Bowl to an ecstatic queer vision of a sex-positive future on a mattress in a police holding cell, “1001 Beds” is a fiercely funny, sexy and inspiring story about the transforming power of art and the richness of gay identity lived out loud.
Miller recently performed in Durham and Chapel Hill. From there he traveled to Wisconsin to perform at the University of Wisconsin’s TRANSConference.
We caught up with Tim Miller to talk about the politics, love and dirty laundry that jump out from between the sheets of his new book and performance.
Q. So tell us about “1001 Beds.”
TM. My new book “1001 Beds” just came out from University of Wisconsin Press. It’s a collection of my essays, performances, manifestos, performance touring stories from Tokyo to Chattanooga and my tell-way-too-much journals. There is also a fun and fierce new performance, based on excerpts from the book, which will be touring all over the place. I just finished shows in Durham and Chapel Hill.
Q.1,001 beds. You have been a busy man! It sounds nasty. Does that mean what we think it means?
TM. “1001 Beds” is a kinky and funny journey through the beds and hotels and life on the road as a traveling performance artist. I was doing the math recently and I figured that if I continue to tour as a performer for another 20 years, I will end up sleeping in at least 1,000 hotel beds in my lifetime on the road. For maximum poetic oomph, let’s say 1,001 beds.
Q. What do all these beds and travels mean to you?
TM. It seems important to think about those beds. To let them wash over me, crush me with their rusty springs, dust mites and polyester comforters that Holiday Inn will never once wash. When I was a kid, I once saw in a “Ripley’s Believe it or Not” book a monument to a bed. The image was a four-poster bed up on a tall pillar like Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. As you might imagine, the monument was somewhere in the Midwest — maybe somewhere near Peoria — an area I have racked up many of those 1,001 beds. Anyhow, this monument was a tribute to the bed — a place where most of us are born on, most of us die on and most of us spend one-third of our lives on. This idea thrilled me as a boy, since I loved being in bed greatly and knew in my life bed would loom large as an emotional, political and psychic hot spot. I knew my deepest sense of self would be forged in bed, history is made in bed, creativity and life force is generated from between the sheets.
Q. Is there one bed that jumps out at you?
TM. Hmmm. I think I would have to say the most important bed of my life has been a certain crummy hotel in London, the Adelphia Hotel in South Kensington, where I brought my Australian partner Alistair back to the day we met12 years ago. Who could know that on that bed that hot July night in London underneath that water-stained ceiling my life was about to be changed, challenged, deepened? Our lives, especially as gay people, are really written there in the sweat and heat of a tangle of sheets.
Queer performance artist Tim Miller is currently touring the U.S. to promote his book in a show with the same name, ‘1001 Beds.’
Q. You and Alistair have been struggling for all these years against the injustice of U.S. laws denying marriage and immigration rights to gay people. Where are things at today?
TM. As we know, in America, millions of gay people are denied all the 1,049 rights — and rites — of civil marriage equality that all our straight friends get automatically. If you want a smack in the face that will make you understand what second-class citizens gay people are in the U.S., all you have to do is fall in love with someone from another country. One of those big rights that accompany civil marriage is immigration — the ability to sponsor your spouse to remain in the U.S. — which every straight couple can do and no gay couple can. Alistair and I lucked out and were surprised he managed to get a business visa for teaching at a university that you can renew for a limited time, but he is now in his final possible period of 18 months on that visa. We will probably be forced to join the thousands of other American gay couples and their foreign partners who have been forced into exile from America. Every western country except America recognizes gay couples for immigration purposes. One of the things I try to do in my performances and this book 1001 Beds, is to let folks know how lesbian and gay relationships are completely stripped of civil rights under federal law. Someday our beds will be equal, but they sure aren’t right now!
Q. What do these 1,001 beds add up to?
TM. They have become the symbol of my life on the road as an artist and activist. My mission — and I have totally decided to accept it — is to be always ready to run around and perform my lean-n-mean homo-drenched performances, cultural agitating, teaching and generally being a way-out gay moving target. Whenever I need to hop on a tiny plane for Des Moines or Chattanooga and show the rainbow flag, I am ready to do this. This new book explores my journeys and adventures and observations of this mission.
— William J. Mann is the author of “All American Boy” and “Edge of Midnight: The Life of John Schlesinger.” Currently working on a biography of Katharine Hepburn, he can be reached through his website, www.williamjmann.com.