Miguel Gutierrez: Touch My Actual Body

EPISODE 9
Choreographer Miguel Gutierrez talks about the beauty of confident mistakes and what you can learn about people by how they handle fruit.

ABOUT THE GUEST
Miguel Gutierrez is a choreographer, composer, performer, singer, writer, educator and advocate who has lived in New York for over twenty years. He has been presented in more than 60 cities around the world, in venues such as at Centre Pompidou, Festival Universitario, ImPulsTanz, Walker Art Center, MCA Chicago, and the 2014 Whitney Biennial. He is a Guggenheim and has received four Bessies. More information at miguelgutierrez.org.

ABOUT THE HOST
Neil Goldberg is an artist in NYC who makes work that The New York Times has described as “tender, moving and sad but also deeply funny.” His work is in the permanent collection of MoMA and other museums, he’s a Guggenheim Fellow, and teaches at the Yale School of Art. More information at neilgoldberg.com.

ABOUT THE TITLE
SHE’S A TALKER was the name of Neil’s first video project. “One night in the early 90s I was combing my roommate’s cat and found myself saying the words ‘She’s a talker.’ I wondered how many other other gay men in NYC might be doing the exact same thing at that very moment. With that, I set out on a project in which I videotaped over 80 gay men in their living room all over NYC, combing their cats and saying ‘She’s a talker.’” A similar spirit of NYC-centric curiosity and absurdity animates the podcast.

CREDITS
This series is made possible with generous support from Stillpoint Fund.
Producer: Devon Guinn
Creative Consultants: Stella Binion, Aaron Dalton, Molly Donahue
Assistant Producers: Itai Almor, Charlie Theobald
Editor: Andrew Litton
Visuals and Sounds: Joshua Graver
Theme Song: Jeff Hiller
Media: Justine Lee with help from Angela Liao and Alex Qiao
Thanks: Jennifer Callahan, Roger Kingsepp, Tod Lippy, Nick Rymer, Maddy Sinnock, Sue Simon, Shirin Mazdeyasna

TRANSCRIPTION:

MIGUEL GUTIERREZ: I made a piece once on this student and I’d be like, “Okay, the movement is like this”. He would do the most wrong interpretation. I was like, is he just fucking to me? And I was like, no, he thinks that that’s what I’m doing. He has some kind of like dysphoric thing going on, but it’s so beautiful. So I just gave him a solo.

NEIL GOLDBERG: Hello and welcome to, SHE’S A TALKER. I’m Neil Goldberg, and today my guest is choreographer, Miguel Gutierrez. But first, a reminder that we have all kinds of merch at shesatalker.com. We’re talking mugs, T-shirts, hoodies, little onesies, all adorned with the show’s feline muse, Beverly. If you’re listening for the first time, that premise of the show is that I use a collection of thousands of index cards containing passing thoughts I’ve jotted down over the years as prompts for conversations with some of my favorite New Yorkers. These days, the cards usually start as little recordings I make into my phone. Here are some recent ones:

“Going to the Memorial service of someone you don’t like out of obligation, knowing that at least they won’t be there.”

“How you kind of don’t understand Shakespeare, but you do too.”

“Another day I didn’t fart in class.”

I’m excited to have as my guest, Miguel Gutierrez. In the past I would have described him as a choreographer, but in our conversation I learned that he likes to say he makes shows, and that feels so right because what he does go so far beyond choreography to encompass his own music and writing and beyond. He’s presented these shows pretty much all over the world, and I’m so grateful he took some time to sit down with me in November at a recording studio in the New School near Union Square in New York City.

I’m so happy to have Miguel Gutierrez with me here on this podcast called SHE’S A TALKER.

MIGUEL: Yes and she is.

NEIL: And she is where I have full confidence that she’s going to be a talker. When I named this, I didn’t take into consideration how having a gender pronoun in the title causes it to be understood and received. I’m willing to ride that one through. I’m going to start with some questions I ask everybody. Okay, so Miguel, what is the elevator pitch for what it is you do?

MIGUEL: Oh, that’s a great question. The latest version of it, or the last couple of years I say is I make shows. Or I make dances, or I make dance based performances. But then I also always kind of add these extra little things like, “but I also am a singing performer, a singer, and I write things and”, yeah. So it ends up being this kind of like long sentence, and there actually is no elevator pitch. I guess what I’m trying to say.

NEIL: What do your parents say when their friends ask them what you do?

MIGUEL: Um, well, my dad died this year, so I don’t know what he would’ve said, but I think that. No, it’s, I mean, he passed this spring and, I actually just did a new piece about him. Or about my relationship with him, I guess. Uh, I made a new little short solo, called Unsustainable Solutions: Duet With My Dead Dad.Where I have like this video projections of him and I’m performing with him. So, I don’t know what my dad said. He’d said, you know, “he makes dances or he’s a dancer”. I think I often get kind of referred to just, I was like a dancer, which is sweet. Although then I get kind of angry cause I’m like, no, no, I make the thing. I get riled about it. Like there’s immediately like the Catholic shame that goes on top of that. I’m like, no, no, there’s nothing wrong with just being introduced as a dancer, but it feels like it takes away the creator of function. I mean, it’s funny because I don’t ever think about the idea that my parents talk about what I do so much, just like try to find ways of not talking about the fact that my sister and I are gay. So I think that there’s like this kind of like other sort of like redirecting that’s happening.

NEIL: Right. That reminds me of magic of misdirection. You know the idea?

MIGUEL: Exactly, look over there.

NEIL: Yeah. Do something flourish…

MIGUEL: My mom is really good at that. Like, I mean, God bless her, but it’s like, it’s like sometimes when things started to go like, took an emotionally sort of like a little bit tough place, she’s like, “Whoa, but the Turkey was on sale at Publix.”. You know? It’s kind of like, no, no, no, we were literally just talking about something kind of important, but that’s how it goes.

NEIL: You are the opposite of that. You do go there. You don’t go to the Turkey at Publix, you go right to the…

MIGUEL: I go right into it.

NEIL: You deep to it and that you’re, you’re deep into it. New slang. You heard it first here on, SHE’S A TALKER. But your work does seem to focus on the thing that might send culturally people to talking about the Turkey at Publix.

MIGUEL: That’s interesting. I feel like I got this from my dad, like I don’t like to bullshit. I mean I can talk silly about whatever, but if I’m on panels and like a professional context, sometimes, I’m just like, “What are we actually fucking talking about?” You know, for better, for worse. I have positioned myself in that role many times, and I think that sometimes I say “for worse” because I feel like sometimes this becomes like a formative expectation, of my presence to be like, “Ah, no, she’s going to get real.”.

NEIL: How does that specifically live? Like is it that you’re reviewing someone’s work for a grant and you just want to say like, “Can we all agree that this person is full of shit or that they treat people like shit?”

MIGUEL: I’m thinking more like if I’m on kinda panel, like, ah, dare I say this, but like certain dance landscapes because certain factions of dance can be really conservative.

NEIL: That’s interesting. Yeah, because dance, it would seem to me as a non-dancer, but a lover of dance that it encompasses like, ballet, and then the weird shit you do, sorry to call it, but you know you don’t.

MIGUEL: And that’s about all there is. Right?

NEIL: Between that falls the shadow.

MIGUEL: There’s, it’s crazy to me how much people can get away with just by like pointing their feet at the end of a terrible phrase. You know? It’s kinda like, Oh, that just fooled them. And I’m like, no. You know, when I work in France, I always laugh at this kind of terminology. You’d be like, “Oh, that was very strong.”. You know, they love like a strong proposal, you know? Propo. Sometimes it’s the things like conceptual things that I find kind of vapid, but because they’re just so legible, or sort of direct. Wow, that’s really a thing. And I’m like, yeah, that’s exactly the problem. It’s really a thing, isn’t it?

NEIL: What you just described, 100% lives within the art world. As someone who teaches, I notice that I often show work that has that extreme legibility because it manifests something I’m trying to convey, even though I don’t think it’s very good work.

MIGUEL: Interesting. I remember seeing this show a couple of years ago. I won’t say which one it was, but it was an evening of two artists. Yeah, it was exactly this thing. One piece was very recognizable. And how to have like an endurance aspect. And it was… I love that you just did that. But, and then the other piece was just more choreographically strange. Like it was just living in this other kind of realm of choreographic strangeness. And it was really not serving anything to you on a platter. I don’t know. I really came out of that concert thinking about impact in the moment and its detriments.

NEIL: It’s funny said the thing about endurance, like how do you feel about that? Because that really lives in the visual art world. It’s like durational work. It just feels like we have such an abundance of time that’s not taken up with survival-based labor that we can make art out of that surplus. We’re gonna commodify and sell back to you. I’m being harsh, but I really do feel kind of… You know what I really hate is someone doing a durational piece, and making sure that they are suffering or whatever you want to call it, is registering with the audience. You know what I’m talking about?

MIGUEL: Yeah. I agree that there’s like a tricky thing when an artist wants to be rewarded for the act of staying with something when there’s more than a zillion people in the world that don’t get rewarded for like showing up every day to their like low wage job. Or people have to like house clean every day for 10 hours. Or people who work on farms or people who work in Amazon, you know? So this idea that somehow like repetition and duration should then somehow be, lauded can be really irritating unless it’s interesting. Again, you actually define it better than like, unless it’s a really good idea, but it’s something that comes up sometimes in dance, people will perform intensity. And like hitting this wall, look, and now I’m hitting it. No, I’m hitting it super hard. And that all happens within the space of like 45 seconds and you’re like, that wasn’t that intense. And that’s almost like the opposite response where I’m like, this is actually not durational at all.

NEIL: Right, right.

MIGUEL: This isn’t painful and laborious enough. Right. Because there is often an equation. Between labor and value in dance, which also confuses me. People don’t think it’s good unless it’s hard, but it doesn’t have to be hard to be good.

NEIL: So Miguel, what is something you find yourself thinking about today?

MIGUEL: Oh, wow. Today. So I’m just thinking about this thing that comes up a lot with social media around just trying to understand where. Where activism actually is. It’s where does it actually live? Thinking about…

NEIL: Hashtag where does it live?

MIGUEL: Hashtag where does it live? Hashtag like where is the change actually happening? Even as an artist, which you ‘re like, wait, I’m an artist, I’m not a politician. And then I read this article briefly in the Times about Dolly Parton and they were talking about like, well, she’s lasted without really being political. And I was thinking like, is she not political? Cause I feel like she actually is very deft when I went to see her perform. I remember being really amazed at how she seemed to navigate the differences in the audience and she kind of made a space for everyone. And I’m like, is that because she’s not political? I’m like, no. I think she’s just really savvy. She understands what she represents, the different communities of people. She allows them to have her along both kind of her own terms, but also the terms that, that have brought them to her. So it was a very fascinating exchange and thing to witness. So just thinking about how I navigate activism and politics as a person in the world, in my work or in my relations to the people I work with. And just wondering if I’m being honest about that or not.

NEIL: “Miguel, let’s go to the cards.

MIGUEL: Let’s go.

NEIL: Let’s go

First card: “There should be a kinship term for when someone who likes your work also likes the work of a bad artist and you question your own work.”

MIGUEL: Oof. That’s kind of like when you’re fucking somebody and you find out who else they have fucked and you’re like, “Wait, what? Am I in line with that set of mother fuckers?”.

NEIL: Oh God, that is never good. That is so never good. It’s like a mirror. It’s like a fucked up mirror.

MIGUEL: I think about this all the time. Okay, so I’m reminded of this other time. I was in Paris. And I was doing a talk, Jesus fucking talks. And then afterwards the like one of the people who runs the space was like, Oh, that was so great, dah, dah, dah. And then someone mentioned this, other artist. And I was kind of like eye roll. And she was like, “Oh my God, I love someone’s work”. And I was like, okay, and whatever. Honestly, like I’m not interested in like taking away someone else’s excitement about another artist. Especially if it’s a dance artist, I’m like, great, let all the dancers in the world get as much love as they can possibly get. But there was that feeling of like, “Oh God, fuck”. And then of course I was like, no, but then what does she really think about me? Cause if she likes that and what I do is so not that. So it was just like this weird narcissism. It’s this narcissism?

NEIL: Yeah, but you say that as if narcissism is a bad thing.

Next card, MIGUEL: “It always feels so pretentious to refer to my art by its title.”

MIGUEL: Wow.

NEIL: How do you feel about that?

MIGUEL: By the title of the piece? So when you’re like, so as as in my piece Last Meadow.

NEIL: Exactly. I always feel like ” who are you?”.

MIGUEL: That’s the interesting thing. I don’t feel that way. I think I’m grateful actually that there’s this thing that I can externally refer to instead of just being like “my work”. Because when I say that title. It objectifies it and it actually kind of feels like a distance, is it? Then I feel like I’m actually not just talking about myself.

NEIL: That’s interesting.

MIGUEL: I don’t know If that’s true, but I think it’s the. But how did you experience that?

NEIL: It just feels so grand. It’s like not only do you spend your time doing this stuff, you give it a name and then refer to it by its name and stuff, but I like your approach.

Okay. Miguel, next card: “You can tell so much about someone by how they handle fruit.”

MIGUEL: Oh, like literally how they handle it. Like at a store or in general?

NEIL: Yeah, A store or wherever.

MIGUEL: Okay. So yesterday I’m at C-town near my new apartment. And I go in and there’s this woman that we were in the fruits and vegetables area and she’s on the ground and she’s taking these like. Oh, they’re not coconuts. I feeled embarassed. I don’t know what this piece of food is. And she’s hacking it against this like ledge to crack it open and looking at it and then determining whether or not she’s going to take it. And I was like, that is next level, like knocking on the, you know, the mango or like feeling the avocado.

And I was trying to pass her and I was behind her and I saw her in this act, the brutality, and I was like, I can pass her. Like I can’t be like, “Excuse me, can you please stop?” You know, hacking the head off that thing. I don’t want to fuck with her. But I guess that that’s true. I think about a friend of mine who’s just so hands and delicate with everything that she touches, so suddenly I’m really thinking about her.

NEIL: That’s interesting because this piece came to me from a, or this card, this piece. So guilty as charged, but came from watching a friend of mine test out plums and they were. It was just like, there was a violence in the, the shape of the fingers and stuff.

MIGUEL: Oh, that’s so interesting.

NEIL: And they are a person who I think brings a little bit of that energy to encounters beyond fruit.

MIGUEL: Oh. Because I work in dance and in somatics. I work a lot with touch and I’m often teaching things around touch. It’s crazy how so many people don’t even understand what they’re doing when they’re touching something, you know? And I’ll do exercises where it’s just like, okay, stand and hold my back, or hold my shoulders. And someone will be fully like pushing and like, yeah, don’t push. Don’t keep directional touch or people who are like so light, it’s just like auric touch. And I’m like,” No, no, no, you can actually touch my actual body”. Like you’re not a Reiki master, like calm down. People will be like, “Oh, I didn’t realize I was doing that”. So I’d think about your friend with the fruit, like maybe they don’t understand what they’re doing.

NEIL: Next card. Miguel. “I don’t like any of the art forms that are fundamentally tied to the uncanny: animation, puppetry, impersonations.”

MIGUEL: Really?

NEIL: Yeah.

MIGUEL: That’s so deterministic statement. Wait, it was animation, poetry, and the third thing was what?

NEIL: Impersonations, like impressions.

MIGUEL: Really, but we’re not talking about acting. We’re not talking about like actors who like, playing, Elizabeth.

NEIL: That’s interesting. I don’t think that bothers me, but there is that uncanny valley thing when it’s like a show about Dick Cheney. And there’s someone not Dick Cheney playing Dick Cheney, and they kind of look like him, but they kind of don’t. And there’s maybe some prosthetic help.

MIGUEL: Yeah, I mean, prosthetics, that’s a whole other next level. Have you ever seen like The Hours and just being like, no, we all know that’s not her nose. But then I’ve, like I always talk about, one of my favorite performances on screen is when Kate Blanchett plays Katherine Hepburn at The Aviator. Because she doesn’t look a stitch liker, but she really like embodies her. Talking about like how embodiment isn’t about imitation. So I’ve always been fascinated by certain actors ability to kind of get this thing, like the gestalt of somebody. So that’s, but I don’t feel like it’s what we’re talking about, but I think that. Yeah. I don’t feel like I even know enough about puppetry to have an opinion on it. I’m serious. Like I had to do this mentorship thing last year. Well, I have to volunteer. I was forced like Handmaid’s Tale.

And one of the people I was mentoring was a puppet artists. And I just like did kind of deep dive into the work before I started talking with her. She was a little kid. And I was like, wow, I just don’t know that much about contemporary puppetry. Actually, I don’t know that much about that world. It’s like a whole thing. You are loving, you’re evil. I just don’t know that much. It’s like a whole scene. But this is that thing, like everything is a scene. Because as I talked to her as she’d be like, “Well, I’m really not doing like what so-and-so is doing”. And I’m like, girl, I don’t know what that is.

NEIL: This card, actually connects to something we were talking about earlier. “The faces of people on panels or giving lectures as their bio is being read.”

MIGUEL: I love this one. This is like the center of so many things. Well I’ll have great. I’m being narcissistic. All I could think of was my own face. I cause I’ve recently been traveling a lot and, and it’s funny because I was at this one school and the teacher’s like, “I’m just going to do like a short introduction of you”. And I was like, “Okay, cool”. And then she fully like reads my full bio from my website and pronouncing things all kinds of wrong. I wasn’t mortified by that. I didn’t care that she was pronouncing things wrong, but I just thought it was funny. I used to just feel full embarrassing.

NEIL: You generally. You felt embarrassment or you felt like you needed to perform embarrassment?

MIGUEL: No, I felt embarrassment. I felt like, please don’t do this and think people can just read it on their own or. I feel like the list of things that it’s in the bio, the accomplishments. I mean, yes if I’m like owning myself, I could be like, it’s great and I earned those things, or I worked over there and it’s true. But I also feel like I’ve just old that I just like got stuff, you know?

NEIL: Yeah. You stick around long enough.

MIGUEL: I don’t know. Well, and then, okay, sorry then reminds me of, I was teaching at this poetry workshop thing a couple of years ago. I was teaching movement in this poetry workshop, but every night there would be readings. And the introductions were so. What’s the word? Hagiographic, just insanity. It was like, so and so, speaks the verse from a place of such profound longing, tenacity, and wisdom. And I was like, “Oh my God. It’s like literally they write couplets”. Like, what is, I mean, I liked that person’s writing too, but what? They’re like, you know, like “when I first encountered duh duh duh’s verse”, like verse. I can’t with this word. This word is killing me. So that was like, that made the dance intro seem like nothing.

NEIL: Next card, Miguel. This is a proposal for a photo project I haven’t done yet, but a photo series: “Control freaks sleeping.”

MIGUEL: Oh wow. Because here’s this place where they’re actually surrendering.

NEIL: Yeah. I mean, it came from me from a place of being on a bus with a friend of mine who’s deeply controlling, and they fell asleep and they looked so angelic. Like they weren’t going to tell me how to, you know? And I felt like, wow. I wish you could see yourself like this. You look so much happier unconsciously.

MIGUEL: The most fucked up thing that’s coming to my head now. I was like imagining like Hitler sleeping. It’s like makes you think of like Fascists sleeping. I know that’s like really bad to say there are universals, right? Or like universals as bad critical theory, bad. But I’m like, we all shit, we all sleep, we all got to eat. And it makes me think of just like the banality of evil and that sense of the banality of that there are these things that are shared. It’s different kinds of people.

NEIL: Let’s wind this up with question I like to ask everyone. Fill in the blank for X and Y. What’s a bad X you’d take over a good Y?

MIGUEL: Oof, God, what’s a bad X that I would take over a good Y?

NEIL: Or an okay X you’d take over a good Y.

MIGUEL: [Well, I guess I’m brought back to acting or performance, I guess. I’m brought back to like I love a committed wrong thing. You know, like I always say that to people I work with, like ” I will always love if you are really confident about your mistake.”. In the 90s I was dating this guy and he was a kickboxing teacher, and he had a client who was a teenager. And so we went to go see Greece at the friend’s school or something. And the girl who played Rizzo could not sing to save her life. And she did not give a fuck about it. She was like, “I could go out every night”. And it was just heavenly. I was in the balcony, just like, I love this person, so I will take a bad, confident performance over like a good safe one. I made a piece once on this student and I would gesture to him. I’d be like, “okay, the movement is like this”, and he’d be like. Like he would go, he would do the most wrong interpretation. I was like, is he just fucking to me? And I was like, no, no. That’s literally, he thinks that that’s what I’m doing. He has some kind of like dysphoric thing going on, but it’s so beautiful. So I just gave him a solo because I was like, what else do you do with this person? You give them a solo, like they, you can’t ask them to be like anyone else. So it was just like following Christ’s response, just support the thing that’s working. Just let him do this thing.

NEIL: Support the thing that’s working.

Miguel Gutierrez, what did I do to come to know you? I don’t know. It’s, there’s a probably a long chain of karmic past life virtue that led to this very stuffy sound booth. Thank you for being on SHE’S A TALKER. Miguel.

MIGUEL: Yeah, I’m so grateful. Thanks.

NEIL: Bye.

Thank you so much for listening to SHE’S A TALKER. I really hope you liked it. If you did, I’d love it if you’d take a couple of minutes right now to rate and maybe even write a little review on Apple podcasts, which really helps people find the show also by merge at, shesatalker.com. This series is made possible with generous support from Still Point Fund and with help from Devin Gwyn, Aaron Dalton, Stella Binion, Charlie Theobald, Eti Alamar, Andrew Linton, Molly Donniehew, Justin Lee, Angela Lau, Alex Qiao, Josh Graver, and my husband Jeff Hiller, who sings the theme song you’re about to hear. Thank you to them and to my guest, Miguel Gutierrez and to you for listening.

SHE’S A TALKER with Neil Goldberg. SHE’S A TALKER with fabulous guests. SHE’S A TALKER, It’s better that it sounds.”