Q&A with Steven Miller
Steven Miller curated the show currently hanging at SOIL Gallery, called Beyond the Western Lands. Photographs by Miller and Adrain Chesser are accompanied by Jeffry Mitchell’s sloppy, sexy ceramics and Brian Britigan’s Rabelaisian drawings of bulls, balls and excrement. The show delves headlong into queer mythmaking and the imaginary, homoerotic iconography of the wild West. At the opening, homemade sarsaparilla was served.
I’d been looking for an excuse to ask Miller some questions about his work. His large prints at SOIL are compositionally stunning and convey a dark, ritualistic eroticism tempered with palpable (sometimes perverse) tenderness. Miller’s a busy guy, but he took time mid-flight to write these responses to my questions.
Where do the ideas for your imagery (particularly in Wild Boys) originate?
When I was 20 I ended up living in a ramshackle dive in New Orleans' Ninth Ward with ten other people. My roommates were male strippers, punk rock kids and these acid dealers who were all about ritual magick. They fed me a steady diet of psychedelics and books like Crowley’s Book of the Law, Robert Anton Wilson’s Cosmic Trigger, Bataille’s Story of the Eye and William S. Burroughs’ Cities of the Red Night trilogy.
I’d read of Burroughs’ cut-up method of writing and decided to read his trilogy the same way – I’d open up the book at random and read the weirdest gay cowboy porn ever. Just the weirdest shit about greasing up holes with animal fat and fucking in the old west; about outlaws being hung to death and coming everywhere; and gangs of gay youths terrorizing others in the post-apocalyptic West for their sexual pleasure. Somehow these cut-up stories started mingling in my mind with all the mystical texts I was reading, plus I was taking acid all the time. The visions I had are essentially the basis of Wild Boys. It’s an ode to the imagination of my psychedelic youth.
The series has most recently taken on symbolic aspects of my early childhood and current life that get reimagined through the lens of this strange universe. It’s all convoluted and basically doesn’t matter to anybody but me. But the weirdest thing is that there really is a narrative that runs through the whole thing and I’m still filling in gaps of the story with every additional photograph. The place Burroughs created has become my own alternate universe where I get to imagine and recreate the most fucked up and beautiful parts of my own life.
When you shoot the scenes is there ever actually a ritual or performance being enacted? They're meticulously staged, but it looks like there could actually be some shit going down.
I love the fact that I’ve got this magical device called a camera that creates a bubble of acceptability and allows my friends to get naked or intimate in public. That’s one aspect of ritual that runs through everything I do. But making the photograph is the ritual, usually. All the setting up is my clearing the space and owning it through costuming and props. And then the ritual is complete when it appears on a wall and affects the viewer. It’s that simple. There has been the occasion when I have gone into trance in the midst of making a photograph. It’s like being on a mild psychedelic. I can usually function but everything takes on extra meaning and sometimes I end up useless and laughing hysterically. As far as all people involved being in some form of ritual trance—I don’t think I could operate a camera if that was the case. I would get pulled in by energy like that way too fast and would abandon taking photographs so I could participate.
I like the phrase "imperfect Utopia," which you use to describe this alternate, queer universe. What does that mean though? Why conjure Utopia that's imperfect?
Well, nothing is perfect. That would be BORING. But the quote you’re referencing comes from José Esteban Muñoz, who writes in his book Cruising Utopia, that “Queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world.” I loved reading that quote because that’s how I felt about Burroughs’ universe that I’d made my own. It’s a utopia in the sense that queers have agency and autonomy—much more so than we do today. Autonomy not in the sense of “we can get married and serve in the military,” but more like, “we run this fucking planet, and things don’t always run smoothly.” Believe me, if it were queers and not the rich running everything, I bet more people would be happy. Maybe not the fundamentalists, but whatever with them. They’re banking on the afterlife anyways. Good luck with that!
Everyone's getting lathered up about Elles. I'm ambivalent. I feel a little uncomfortable ghettoizing females in the arts. It seems like we should be beyond that, but clearly we're not, hence the ambivalence. Gay artists run into the same thing, being perpetually perceived as Other. What do you think of this? Of Elles?
I haven’t seen Elles, so I can’t speak to it, but I certainly understand about being ghettoized as an artist, queer or female. It’s a double-edged sword: when Hide/Seek came to the Tacoma Art Museum, suddenly every institution in the region wanted work from me. At the same time I can’t get a queer gallerist to take me on because they don’t want to be seen as being too politically narrow-focused. Straight women curators have been my best advocates because they see the parallels between being queer and being female in the art world.
How has Saint Genet/Implied Violence informed your work (or vice versa)? Some of the motifs and performers are crossing over in Wild Boys.
Ryan Mitchell from Implied Violence (and now St Genet) asked me to work with them for their Dorothy K. piece that toured in Austria and appeared at the Frye afterwards. I loved working with them and traveling to Krems and seeing this multi-layered performance piece that scared and confused the Austrians. So yes, it did influence me. Wild Boys became richer and more complex as I realized I could put layer after layer of meaning into these photographs that might not make sense to the viewer but had deep significance for me.
The Prophet photograph is my ode to Ryan. Where I had done what I could to blend his vision with mine for Implied Violence, here I placed him in my Wild Boys universe with allusions to his “real” life (the bloody arm references the leeches Implied Violence used and the Genet book in his other hand references his current endeavors). In the Wild Boys universe, he’s the prophet, traveling back from the future of 1986, bringing porn polaroids and their new bible, Our Lady of the Flowers, to his queer gang. It all makes sense, doesn’t it?
And yes, Ryan and I are in the midst of creating a huge new piece for St Genet that will appear at On the Boards next year.
It seems like you'll stage and shoot almost anything. Not for shock's sake, of course - there are poignant subtexts running through it all. But is there anything you won't do?
A black friend asked me to photograph him being lynched by an angry white mob. I couldn’t do it. It was just too volatile and there was no way that it wouldn’t be misconstrued. I also have little interest in photographing fetish roleplay or things like that because I find it incredibly cheesy. Seriously, does the world need one more photo of a hot chick in latex looking cruel? I think the answer is no. Other than that, there is only one thing I can’t do: corporate headshots. It’s the only photography job I’ve been fired from.
Beyond the Western Lands is on view at SOIL Gallery through September 29, 2012.
Image (courtesy of the artist): Blood Oath, 2011