Adam Milner’s Excavations of Everyday Life
by Paul Weiner
Adam Milner is a contemporary artist currently living and working in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Milner encompasses the everyday in his drawings, photographs, sculptures, and videos that often take on a performative tenor. He intervenes with collections of virtual and physical remnants of his own body, social interactions, and sexuality.
Milner has exhibited his work in a variety of venues including Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, Aspen Art Muesum, David B. Smith Gallery (Denver), the Fung Wah Biennial (NYC and Philadelphia), Gildar Gallery (Denver), McNichols Building (Denver), and Florian Christopher (Zurich). He is currently an artist in residence at Casa Maauad in Mexico City, where he will have a solo exhibition in August. Milner holds a BFA in Drawing and Painting from the University of Colorado at Boulder and is currently pursuing an MFA at Carnegie Mellon University.
I’ve noticed that many of your works leave the gallery setting and invade real time. For instance, you will post your self portraits of your face imitating emojis on Facebook in response to comments on statuses (Emoji Expressions). Do you actively construct these projects with the intention of creating art that exists outside of traditional art spaces or are they naturally evolving tendencies you have that you later collect, refine, and define as your artwork?
Many of my projects begin before I realize they have. Because so much of my work blurs intimately with my personal life, I’ll start doing something and then later realize that it’s the beginning of a “work.” I think that’s why I work in such relatable media: drawing, collecting, making photos and short videos, even performing in one way or another, are things that are commonplace for many people, not just artists. The Emoji photos are a bit different, though, in that I knew it was a performance for camera before it began, and thus was using it as an artwork to very directly think through questions I had about how performance relates to communicating and expressing emotion to each other. I suppose bringing those photos back into social media is a kind of joke for me, but it also gets at the heart of what I’m wondering about these portrayed emotions.
Dances for People I Miss (Untitled Dance 20), performance for camera, 2012-2016
Tell us a little about Dances for People I Miss. How did you come to these dance moves and how do they relate to the people you miss?
Dancing has always been something I’ve enjoyed, though it’s intimidating and very vulnerable for me. I wondered what it might be like if I removed the safety nets that usually surround me when dancing – music, a dark room, alcohol, a crowd of other dancing strangers and friends – and isolated my dancing. It became a way for me to sort of face that fear I had. The performances are very cathartic for me. I make the dances when I think of someone who I wish I could be dancing with, touching, laughing with. I find the nearest blank wall, set up my phone or computer, and dance. I never say who they’re dedicated to, so that they can live online as vague dedications to anyone. Maybe you could send one as an e-card.
Collections of personal information seem prevalent in your works. In Discreet, you photograph men you met online, and they make it clear that they are not consenting to show their faces in the photos. Have these men seen the photographs or their public usage as art? If so, how do they respond to this publicity?
These photos are, to some good degree, about compromise. The photos are documents of a negotiation process that the viewer isn’t privy to– we had to create a photo that both of us are comfortable with, and we both have very different interests. The men I’m meeting are often people whose names I don’t know, whose faces I haven’t seen until we meet. The men are interested in anonymity, self preservation. I have certain formal or conceptual interests I need to maintain. We’re both interested in safety, but also pushing that limit a bit. I think this conflict is what makes the series provoking. I don’t think any of the men have come upon their photos later, but I’m not sure. These are generally people who I don’t keep in touch with. Their interests lie in temporary, anonymous encounters, so staying friends or inviting them to the exhibition would go against everything that prompted our meeting in the first place. I don’t meet them under the agreement to make a portrait, that comes later. So I’m immediately creating a conflict when I mention any kind of document at all. The resolving of that conflict is what interests me, this meeting in the middle where we are both vulnerable, both at risk. We’re both willingly meeting a stranger who we have to blindly trust. They have an added vulnerability because of their need for anonymity and I become vulnerable by presenting this problem of the photograph. Once the problem is solved, we go our separate ways.
Many of your recent collages and drawings include bodily materials: semen, blood, belly button lint, hair. How did you come to these materials and with what processes did you apply them to the canvas? Are you ejaculating or bleeding directly on the paper or are you collecting these fluids and using them like more traditional art materials?
I’ve been thinking a lot about bodily traces– the marks and residues we leave behind as we live. I think drawing is a very natural endeavor and that everyone, not just artists, are constantly leaving behind marks on surfaces. Emma Dexter says “to draw is to be human,” and I think there’s something true there.
So I’ve been mining the body for a lot of my drawings. These substances come from looking at what sort of drawings my body already makes all the time (semen on a sheet, an accidental prick of blood, a loose eyelash falling to the table), as well as asking what materials I can mine from myself, a way to self-sustain. I recently learned that medieval artists working on illuminated manuscripts would sometimes use their own ear wax to give substance to the pigment, instead of egg yolk. I’m thinking of these materials somewhat like that, as accessible, regenerating, and personal, but also having certain specific material properties and certain cultural significance.
The drawings are so intimately made, often in bed or in my lap, and so it just made sense to begin pulling the material directly from bodies. Some drawings are very solitary and almost hermetic, while others are much more social. For instance, now a friend might hand me an eyelash across the table when they notice it on a cheek, and there are certain people I know who produce a lot of bellybutton lint which I try to barter for when I see them. As for how they’re made, I think drawings say enough for themselves already. It’s something I love about drawings, that they contain so much information. Every act of making the drawing is contained on the page. They’re transparent, unsecretive.
What have you found to be your favorite bodily material to work with?
It really varies. Each material has so much embedded in it. I might approach a material with a very specific memory or association, only to later remember its more cultural or political implications or learn about its historical usages, and then be seduced by its materiality and strangeness or beauty, and then remember another specific memory again. It’s an exciting thing to juggle, all these various ways to relate to a material.
Right now blood is really interesting to me. It’s such a powerful substance, so loaded and so valuable and personal. I like that I have this precious material in my body, but that nobody wants. I can mine myself and it will replenish and regenerate. Yet it’s almost dangerously cliche to work with, and I like that challenge too. I approached blood initially as this continually replenishing and beautiful material, only to realize how obviously political it is. Because of my sexual identity, I’m not allowed to donate blood, and it’s amazing to me how I have this really valuable and important substance that nobody wants. I think about how when I was 16, people would come to my high school and take pints of our blood—kids’ blood!—and then sell it. Blood reminds me of the complexities of who controls the body, who really owns it. And what it’s worth. These are strange questions. I often feel victimized when I think about blood. But yesterday I spilled a lot of blood onto a pillowcase and it looked like a murder scene— it was the first time the blood had looked so violent. I somehow had previously avoided aggression or violence in the blood drawings. But looking at the blood spilled and splattered like that, I couldn’t get recent news out of my mind— unarmed people being shot cold in the street because of their race, or the murder involved with war. Everything about the body is political and blood reminds me of that. I’m realizing that to make these works is a huge act of privilege. Looking at a lineage of art history, it’s easy for me to see these materials as drained of their potency, but at the end of the day these things are what they are. Using this material is equally personal, formal, political. Blood contains everything.
For your performance piece in the Fung Wah Biennial, which is essentially a road trip from Manhattan to various east coast cities during which artists intervene with the passengers, you dropped a vase in front of the bus and let it shatter. How did you come to plan this action?
That work (Conversation Around a Pot) involved an improvised phone call I made while on the bus. While sharing these really intimate stories and experiences over the phone, nearby passengers could hear snippets, receiving a sort of fragmented narrative of loss, longing, the confusing blurring of bodies that happens when one attaches to an object. All the while on this two hour bus ride, I was clutching this handmade ceramic pot, only for it to smash upon our arrival. That moment of loss and of breaking was important for me to share with those who had been on the bus, as well as passersby. It’s a hard performance for me to understand or digest still. Creating this moment of the pot breaking united me with the people around me somehow. And was also somehow a betrayal of their trust, even while they were strangers.
It’s part of a larger investigation around what performance in everyday life looks like. I’m really excited about moments I see throughout the day, moments in public space, that shake me out of my head, that make me see the world a little differently, or moments that feel like a strange gift. I saw this guy walking down the street bopping his head with headphones on, and as he passed this long building, his blue and white North Carolina Tarheels head-to-toe outfit matched the building exactly. And he walked along the building for like five minutes just perfectly matching it. And I wondered if he was even aware of this moment. For me, it felt like seeing a shooting star.
So I’m doing a lot of new performances in public space, things that are unannounced and can exist quietly as part of the fabric of the city. Some of the performances are for people in rush hour traffic. What if I continue to accidentally break a beautiful pot at the same time and place each week, creating a loop or forced deja vu for commuters? Another work involves working with performers to cry in public spaces like Chipotle or the post office. These performances seemed like a departure for me until I realized that they still have everything I cared about in the previous work, like repetitive behavior, a blurring of art and life, and a vulnerability and sincerity that can be confusing and hard to reconcile with the idea of performing.
I think my project Nowhere Voyage was the beginning of this. Going on a cruise ship hosted by Grindr, I essentially created this quiet week-long performance aboard the ship. I told people I met that I was there as an artist doing a performance, and then let things expand from there, as strangers became involved and audiences came and went and contexts shifted over time. I gogo danced on stages in empty bars, I gave my room number to everyone and waited for interactions, I performed for poolside cameras which connected to closed circuit televisions in the staterooms. It was an important gesture for me, to embark on a performance without knowing what it would entail, a performance with layers of audiences and other performers, something that sat so closely to the everyday that it could be confused as nothing at all.
We live in a time where the barriers between artistic mediums are breaking down. Painters, for instance, are making sculptures or videos and calling them paintings because of the philosophy with which they approach those mediums. When I see your drawings, I often feel as though I’m watching the direct result of a bodily action of yours taking place on the paper, particularly in the cases of your sleep drawings and the recent pieces involving bodily fluids. Your videos create a similar sense of voyeurism. Is it fair to say that these works, though not directly existing in the medium of performance, have the essence of the performative practice?
I’ve recently become comfortable introducing myself as a performance artist. I think this is important. Often these categories can limit the reading of work, but in this case, I’m really excited about other people starting to see the performative action involved at the root of all my work. It’s always a document or artifact of some performed or embodied behavior that happened previously. I think performance is inherently about repetition, about learning from what has come before and embodying that history, using the body to store and share knowledge. Performance is always about some pattern or repetition and using those modes to share experience. Whether I’m making a drawing, video, or intervention, I’m thinking about these things through the lens of performance, as actions of the body that the viewer is not always privy to. Sometimes we only see the resulting object. Thinking of things this way automatically creates distance and desire, to be reminded as the viewer that you are getting a glimpse into something but not seeing everything.
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