In conversation with Miguel Gutierrez
Brontez Purnell is a writer, choreographer, dancer, singer, and curator whose videos, “Against the Sun” and “Interview W/ WXXXL San Francisco,” were created for the Evergreen Review. He catches up with Miguel Gutierrez, another interdisciplinary artist, to discuss slut shaming, the mind-body problem, trimming weed, and performing for white people, among other things.
Miguel Gutierrez: Why do you think people are so confounded by interdisciplinarity? Do you think people yearn for “purity” of discipline?
Brontez Purnell: I think as with everything in life, it all comes back to slut shaming. For instance if you if you asked me what I “did” and in one breath I was like “I’m a queer, black, photo essayist, author, film maker, dancer, musician, weed trimmer, cocktail waitress, etc.,” there would be no way to perceive my character as a person other than anything less than whorishly promiscuous. You would think “That boy is an art slut. He’ll bend over and spread his cheeks for virtually any form of creative expression.” Again, pure slut shaming. This is how squares cypher us all the fucking time. Now I get people being a bit itchy in the crotch about how the term gets finger fucked into like every grant application now, and how just cause you pretended to play a flute in a performance piece that one time in college doesn’t necessarily mean you get to write “interdisciplinary musician” in your liner notes—this is also a fact. But when you consider that art is forever more the biggest mirror of life, how can we as artists even move past this? We live in a pretty fucked and ubiquitous gig economy. It’s not the era of masters. All the forms were “perfected” a long time ago. We as contemporary artists can’t really afford to just do one medium. If someone said to you, “I am only a photographer,” sure, you would respect it, but also it reads as “lazy.”. And perhaps even in a more bitchy summation “isolationist,” like who really has time to only hang out in a darkroom all day? I’ll tell you! A vampire! Also, what happens when purity (i.e. artistic monogamy) fails us!? I was stuck in the Appalachians for some reason at a roadside gas station looking at these really fucked up homemade quilts and it was mentioned “This artist has been quilting forty years” and I was like, “Why didn’t someone hand this bitch a violin or something. These fuckin’ quilts are insufferable!” But I kept that statement to myself. Also, as a performer we have to constantly be thinking in the 4th dimensional, 5th dimensional, 6th dimensional, etc. Like expand our theme past just one vehicle, or “the genre of remix” as one of my cohorts at Berkeley named it. Performers are super fucked as we don’t have the credibility of a painting. Like, a painting exists even if no one’s watching it. Performance quite literally doesn’t get to sit on its ass like that. I personally think performers are viewed as the biggest art sluts. I mean, it’s probably true. That said, I truly think that what type of art you do is a weird mixtape of what one has access to and what one gives oneself permission to do. To be honest, if I had had the access and permission I would’ve been a Calvin Klein underwear model, but given my teenage self esteem issues I became a performance artist. The disparity of the wage gap between those professions is ego-destroying and I probably shouldn’t say much more about it. But that said, I have to ask you, Miguel: do you consider yourself a slut for art? Was there a medium that you feel like you never gave yourself permission or access to? Did you ever secretly long to be a baker?
MG: I definitely think of myself as someone who will do anything for art. Like, in my everyday life I feel pretty boring, but on stage or in a performance I am comfortable doing anything, no matter how ridiculous or unflattering. I’m not afraid of much in that space. In terms of my career I feel very slutty. People will sometimes ask me, “Oh, why did you do that low-rent gig in such and such a place?” And I’m like cuz they fucking asked me to. I don’t get to pick and choose. It’s not like there are endless amounts of contemporary art spaces in the U.S. It’s cute when a friend is like, “Oh, you should be performing at Yerba Buena” or “You should do something at the “SF MoMA” or any contemporary art space of any U.S. city. I’m like, um, they haven’t asked me to. The nature of this profession is that it you have to be promiscuous. When I gear up to do a show in NYC it feels very much like, “Okay, which venue am I fucking/getting fucked by this year?” I don’t mean it in a negative way. I mean it in the positive slutty sense of like, “Oh this particular lover is really good at this and this and smells and feels this particular way.” Okay, maybe I also mean it in the negative way. I don’t know that it could be different unless you’re the in-residence artist at some fucking Stadttheater. Artists are the sluts/whores of the field. Venues are the johns/clients. Ultimately they have a lot of say. They have the “stable” job/income. (I know it’s not really that stable but it’s a hell of a lot more stable than a freelance artist’s.) They are the gatekeepers. They decide where their interests go and they know who they have to answer to. And the artist is like, “Oh, look at me, I’m wearing this new shiny dress this year!” Doing what they can to stay relevant/current. At least it feels like that. Especially when you get to my age and it feels like so much attention goes to the new, young artists. Whatever, I was one of those once, it’s just karma.
I love what you said about the danger of the purity of the discipline… The quilt maker LOL. I’m reminded of something Jennifer Lacey says in her performance Gattica: "In the future the term dilettante will no longer be pejorative.” That said, I do feel like I’m really good at making/directing performance and at teaching just cuz I’ve been doing it for a long time now and you get good at what you practice. I feel less good at music but I do it a lot as well. I feel okay with writing. Those are my main things. I think I’m supposed to make video art and maybe I still will. I like installation/sculpture but I think I’d be one of those artists who would hire fabricators cuz I’m not particularly crafty and I can’t draw for shit. I love lighting design and can nerd out about that but I don’t want to be a designer myself. Probably my biggest secret career is Hollywood casting agent. I don’t wanna be a baker but I watch that British show about it. It’s my Xanax. Do you have another shadow career?
In your interview with Irwin Swirnoff, he talks about distinction of brain from body. I always find myself raging at that distinction. Like, the brain is part of the body! Dancing has always been about a dialogue with my interiority—thinking, feeling. How do you experience yourself as a dancer?
BP: I have revealed the origin mythology of my love for dance only all too often, and I guess now once again. So, when I was a little boy I wanted to be Janet Jackson in “The Pleasure Principal” video and also Alex from Flashdance simultaneously, i.e. cool dancer girl who lives in a warehouse. This is who I am in my brain, mind you. My body of course tells a different story. I’m not skinny and I don’t have bangs. Now as the old saying goes, “It’s not how you look, it’s how you feel” and in that statement you have the personal manifestos of my dance career. My brain is defs part of my body but they are sometimes not all together in the same room. It’s like even when I’m having the best sex in the world and being all hella present and shit there’s still those inevitable moments of time when I’m think about In-N-Out Burger. I have at times gone onstage absent of mind. Looking at it all now I think that was a method of putting an extra mile of distance between me and an audience, which depending on what I was doing onstage was sometimes needed. It’s equally dangerous when I sit too much in my brain in a performance. Like I get this tunnel vision and every paranoid performer troop trope? is sandwiched between two mirrors in my brain echoing the thought into infinity. It’s so exhausting. Like “OMG, am I standing here too long? Am I entertaining enough? Am I thin enough? Am I a dancer or more of a dance deconstructionist? Who even fucking cares?” Literally I will have all these thoughts run together in my head in like .5 seconds. What I’m meaning to say is that if I’m not careful I can be present-minded to a fault, where my present-mindedness is actually putting me in a straightjacket. All these feels mixed together is how I experience myself as a dancer. Like I don’t know if I call myself a dancer ‘cause that’s real or for lack of a better word for what I am? Either way the question is unanswerable, because public image is sadly not what you think of yourself but what others see you as. Which brings up the question: Miguel, how do you think others experience you as a dancer?
MG: Oh, I have no fucking clue. It depends where I’m performing, I guess. In some places like NYC and SF some folks have a history of seeing me dance since I was in my twenties, but in most places they’re seeing me for the first time now in my middle-aged bear phase. But even as long ago as 2007 I performed once in Vermont and at least three times the reviewer talked about how surprised she was I could dance given how fat I was.
I find the whole experience of being witnessed such a strange combination of power and embarrassment, like I kind of can’t believe I’m still performing at all, but yeah, okay, I think I know myself in that space. With every show I make I start by thinking about how to not perform in it, but then once we start rehearsing I just get excited about being with the group of folks I’ve asked to perform with me. And then when a place can’t pay for a group piece they say, “Well can you do a solo? “Two years ago I did a piece at a festival where I hid myself behind a little wall and just told a story over the microphone while playing some videos of another artist’s work. I really didn’t feel like being looked at around that time. Wait, you’re asking me about dancing. Hmmm. Dancing is so complicated. I always call it the long ball-and-chain marriage. The thing I’ve been doing the longest, almost 40 years now. Yikes. There’s a lot of sentimental language in the contemporary/experimental dance field about older dancers who “know their bodies so well,” and sometimes that is true and sometimes it isn’t. I don’t feel like I’m presenting some well-earned wisdom when I dance now. More often than not I feel like I’m negotiating a fuckload of pain and impossibility physically and psychically. But that negotiation has opened up performative possibilities in the work that wasn’t there before, so go figure. I hear you about the need to protect yourself on stage. I tend to use all of that insecurity as content for the conflict I feel about the audience having showed up in the first place. But dancing…I spent so many years getting skillz and then I spent the bulk of my mid to late 30’s/early 40’s “deskilling” and now I’m like, "Oh shit, I want skillz again,” but I’m too old probably. Who knows, maybe I’ll discover that I’m super-virtuosic at a dance form I haven’t really tried yet :)
You mention the distinction of once dancing away from your demons, and that now you are dancing towards demons. What are your demons now? Have they changed and in what way?
BP: Well, when I first started dancing “professionally” (for severe lack of a better term) I basically was dancing to forget. It was in these super wild queer bands and everyone was drunk and naked. It was the early 2000’s. I got fingered in the pit a lot. It was fun. The type of fun that would get you called out these days. I was dancing to forget that I was 270 pounds in high school and I (at the time) had lost 100 pounds. I was dancing to forget Bush was president, I was dancing to forget how oppressive my life up until that point felt. And it was crazy! Like 25-plus-shows-in-a-month-Europe-tour crazy. These days I feel like the theater I’m in I’m more having a visible internal conversation with myself over and over and over again. I move torwards the anxiety and the uncertainty and try to find a way to map out my endurance within all these stifling variables.
MG: Werq. In watching the interview video and the poem, I was caught up in thinking about color in the white space: the black marker on the paper, the black umbrella, your jeans, your shoes, the stripes on your shirt, the color of the flowers. I know it’s boring as fuck to talk about the white cube but what are your feelings about it?
BP: Every time I’m in a white cube I feel like I’m dancing for IKEA shoppers. It’s true. I’m not even saying that to be a bitch, but there is something over all about it that’s anxiety inducing—like I shouldn’t spill wine in it. But then in this other way if I do spill wine in it, it will still read as a profound statement cause I did it in a white box. In a white box even your errors are correct. The white box really is an extension of how fucked up the world is. Like the proverbial question in the white box is “Who’s doing the work? The art? Or the white box?” In eight out of ten scenarios it’s the white box doing the work ,and I know a lot of people that are gonna wanna beat my ass for admitting that. No, in the piece you’re talking about I say a line about how “I refuse to call black negative space,” and it’s basically about the conundrum of the white box and how within the framework of color I (my body) becomes the negative space in the white box—let that sink in!—and really it should be the other way around. The line about how we interpret negative space stemmed from a fueled convo I had when I was younger about which is more important—the stars in the sky or the space between the stars? I was on mushrooms and the ponderance of the question was blowing my mind over and over and over again. I concluded that there’s more of an absoluteness to ether. I wanted to be the black part. Like does negative space work in reverse though? Like in a white box do I become the positive space since I’m the active “star” in it? I haven’t the slightest fuckin’ clue.
MG:Absolutely I think you are the positive space. I feel linked to what you’re saying with this because my last show, This Bridge Called My Ass, originally happened in a white room (The Chocolate Factory in New York) and now we are touring it in black box spaces where we are placing some white walls but not trying to convert the whole space to white. So now it’s the conversation with the white and the black. We're in France right now and let me tell you, even the black box feels like a white cube. It’s reeeeeal clean. So I feel like being brown bodies not just in this room but in this country creates this whole positive space thing you’re talking about.
I know you’re in school right now. I have to confess that I am so confused by academia. I teach in it a lot, but it strikes me as an incredibly inorganic space for learning. The imposed timelines, even just the idea of a class lasting only a certain amount of time. How afraid academia is of wildness, or things that can’t be neatly justified. And then with art school critiques, how the intellectual often supplants the experiential. I wonder what compelled you to go to school and how you think it’s affecting your work.
BP: Basically, I went back to grad school ‘cause I was tired of trimming weed. Right before I went I was stuck in the backwoods of Northern California trimming weed for this dyke who was trying to convert all of us to libertarianism. I took it upon myself to google “libertarianism” and somehow a bunch of porn popped up. Anyway the dyke libertarian stole all the weed from the farm and the trimmers didnt get paid! I finally realized that if you're brave enough to be isolated in an off-the-grid pot farm for some crazy ass libertarian dyke you are more than likely brave enough to get an MFA at UC Berkeley. Those are completely adjacent boundaries. Plus the art critiques aren’t so ego0destroying. People have told me to my face for years how much my art sucks. I don’t even feel that shit anymore! Plus student loan money makes my pussy feel expensive. I paid the University of California East Bay $60,000 for a theater degree. Subsequently my pussy should feel expensive. I’m not afraid of being in school environments mostly because my hair went gray early ‘cause I’ve had a hard life. People don’t bother me because they see my gray hair and aggressive disposition and probably assume I’m some form of burnout that will fuck them up if they come talking slick. I’m really I’m a total teddy bear, but I refuse to dye my hair out of the need for this particular type of camouflage. Can you unpack the statement “the intellectual supplants the experiential”?
MG: Ha, oh god, that story about the libertarian dyke. Fuck her. Sorry you didn’t get paid. She better watch herself. Hasn’t she watched La Reina Del Sur? Paybacks are a bitch.
I like your answer. It’s as good an answer as any. I understand that school and academia are probably the only hope any of us have of getting a salary like ever. I’ve been going bananas this year because I’ve been fighting with presenters to get real fees for my shows and they want me to accept the fees I was getting fourteen years ago. I’m like, "Um, girl have you gotten a raise in fourteen years cuz I’m guessing yes.”
What I mean by that statement is just that I find that in academic settings the value is placed in the interpretation of an experience more than the experience itself, right? Like, in my semiotics classes a million years ago I’m reading a critique by someone who is referring to someone else (who I haven’t read) who is referring to a performance/film/book that I haven’t seen/read. I’m not against this on principle or anything, I just think it’s interesting that the theoretical space itself is “working” on something that is often completely not in the picture for the reader. And then I also think about how many of us who are queerdos who have this perverted or strange work behind us probably could never have “explained” it neatly at the moment of its initial occurrence.. I’ll speak for myself here., It was all feeling and instinct and confusion and “Shit, I gotta finish this thing by Friday cuz that’s when the show is.” You know? Again, I don’t feel prescriptive about it. I think that as you get older you want different, sometimes fancier language and community for the work you’re doing because it’s working on different levels than you did when you were younger. Oh, and my last thought on this: This didn’t happen at a university, but I remember once seeing a dance at ImPulsTanz and it was this music and dance improvisation that was perfectly okay and then they had a “talk back” after it and they went on and on and on about it, trying to sound super smart and I was like well now you’ve just killed whatever fucking magic I may have experienced from watching this piece. Even though I totally like post performance discussions for my own work (that is probably cuz of narcissism), I think sometimes we can overdo it. It’s a fine line. But get that money, girl!