Miles Greenberg Wants You to Be Free
At 22, the performance artist, actor, and Marina Abramović-protegé is just getting started.
Greenberg's performance at Reena Spaulings in New York. Photo by Maria Baranova, courtesy of the artist.
The last time I had to think about the olfactory system, I was cramming for a high school biology final. I memorized the information, took the test, and, as with lots of things I studied in high school, forgot about it immediately. So it goes, I imagine, for many people—but not Miles Greenberg, the performance artist and actor who, at 22, can already call himself a protégé of Marina Abramović, a former artist-in-residence at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, and a “big anatomy nerd.”
In his performances, Greenberg chases luminous beauty with the rangy athleticism of a marathon runner. For Eine Romanze, which he performed at the Palais de Tokyo last Spring, he turned an eight-second interaction—a missed connection—into an eight hour long performance, which unraveled over three days. I met him a few weeks into the run of Black Exhibition, an experimental theater piece on black queer sexuality written by and starring Jeremy O. Harris. In it, Greenberg plays the Japanese author Yukio Mishima, one of three writers—the others being Kathy Acker, and Samuel Delany—the main character invokes for inspiration and guidance. The part is hardly of a piece with his performance art, but he plays it with the same intensity that lifted him into the art stratosphere while he was still a teenager. He talked to GARAGE about dance, neurology, and standing still for seven hours.
What was being a high school student in Montreal like for you?
I chose to leave two weeks into 12th grade. I already kind of knew that something like that might happen in my life, so I had kind of prepped for it. I studied a lot of languages. I traveled. I did perfume school.
I think addressing the olfactory senses is one of the most intimate things that you can do to another person. The olfactory system contains some of the shortest sensory nerves of the body. It's very closely associated with memory. When I was 17, I just really wanted to learn more about things that touched people.
I’ve heard your work described as Afrofuturist—is that a fair description?
I think of [Afrofuturism] as my way of interpreting the fact that my black experience has been, up until now, very independent of what one can call black culture—I didn’t really grow up around any kind of black culture. So if I do any work around blackness, it comes exclusively from my physical experience as a black person in the world. And from all those experiments, I've compiled an experience that is my own. But I don't make black art like a lot of other black artists do, where they can make reference to their histories and their past, because I don't feel like I have one. So—forward motion and forward looking is sort of what I have to offer. That’s Afrofuturism for me.
Did you grow up knowing you wanted to perform or act? I always wanted to sculpt, really. Performance was sort of an accident. My mother was in the theater for many, many years before I was born. She was part of this absurdist kind of Russian theater troupe before and through my upbringing. So I never did daycare. I grew up being the kid who ran around Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I also didn't grow up around anybody my age.
Any particular artworks or performances you remember from that period?
I was, I think, 13 or so when I saw Marina Abramović in The Artist Is Present. My mom took me. I didn't really know what performance art was at the time. The very last piece in the show was this big stone slab, and you were supposed to lie down on it and just kind of process what you'd seen. And it was the first time in my life that I remember 20 minutes passing in the blink of an eye. I don't really know what it was, but it changed my physicality, changed my physiology.
And then you got to know Abramović later on, right?
When I was 16, and then we fostered a dialogue. She's a mentor in my life, but also one of the most wonderful and nurturing people I've ever met.
She’s also done a lot to popularize the idea of “performance art,” and in recent years that term has been thrown around a lot. What does it mean to you?
I think that performance art for me is just a way to interact with the world based on what I have at my disposal.
My rule with a performance is that it has to start before the audience is welcomed into the space, and it has to end after they leave. I hate the idea of sitting people down in a dark room and making them consume something from beginning to end. I'm very strict about creating as much freedom for the audience as possible.
How do you approach performing in a play, versus performing in the pieces you’ve choreographed yourself?
[Black Exhibition] is never going to be something that is for everyone. So you have to look at the audience like wallpaper. And we have to dominate the space. It’s our space that they're coming into. And that's something that I've honestly never had the courage to do, to be able to really assert your existence and your presence. I think [Harris] does it in a way that is so unapologetic. I tip my hat to anybody who's that free.
Recently you performed at Reena Spaulings gallery in lower Manhattan. It seems as if making art in a smaller, perhaps more intimate space is going to be different than doing so in a place like the Palais de Tokyo. Especially since you performed for six hours.
It was seven. [Laughs] We were closed off for about 30 minutes before and 30 minutes after, the idea being that nobody sees the beginning or the end. And sure, [the gallery] was smaller. But part of my use of sound is to mitigate that and make the space feel almost infinite. I want people to leave knowing that the event is still there. That’s the way I think about space and think about creating these immersive environments. In my ideal world, the audience members leave and, to this day, think that I might still be there.