Tim Miller grew up in Whittier, California, the hometown of Richard Nixon. He became an activist early. In 1974, still in high school, he wrote a letter to the then-President saying, "As a son of Whittier, I am ashamed and I hope you will leave office."

"That he actually did leave office!" Miller recalls. "That created the totally unrealistic idea that great things were possible, that change was not out of the question."

While Nixon survived disgrace to become an elder statesman, Miller went on to become, as he describes himself, "a fairly out-there obnoxious queer." Known for his autobiographical monologues delivered with minimal props, he's one of the most important performance artists working in America today. He will appear on Saturday at the Kerr Cultural Center in a benefit performance for the local chapter of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power).

Miller's use of the word "queer," which began as a derogatory term but has now been co-opted in defiance by the most radical members of the gay community, gives a good indication of the kind of in-your-face gay activism he practices. It also helps to explain why Miller was one of four artists denied funding last year by the National Endowment for the Arts. "There were three queers and one queer-friendly," he says, referring to himself, Polly Hughes, John Fleck and Karen Finley. "We were also probably the four best known and the ones who had toured the most. It was not a coincidence."

Miller is being brought to Phoenix through the offices of Peter Wirmusky, a member both of ACT UP and of Phoenix Art Museum's Contemporary Forum.

After viewing a tape of Miller's "Sex/Love/Stories," Wirmusky says he was surprised at how "warm and fuzzy" much of the material was.

"I expected it to be outrageous, confrontation, upsetting," he says. "But it's not that way at all, and that's a comment on the NEA."

Speaking by telephone from his home in Los Angeles, Miller says he was delighted that ACT UP had invited him to the Valley. "It's usually a museum or a theatre or an alternative space or a university," he says.

Founded in May 1990, ACT UP Phoenix announced its presence here by affixing condoms to thousands of copies of the Arizona Republic. The gesture protested what the group considered a homophobic editorial cartoon. The group has also lobbied for including disabled people among the groups protected by the hate crimes bill, specifically to protect people with AIDS. ACT UP also staged a "die-in" at Patriots Square and drew the attorney general's attention to a clinic in Tempe offering spurious AIDS treatment in Mexico.

"We hope that Miller's performance here will raise AIDS awareness and activism awareness," says Mark Colledge, a member of ACT UP Phoenix's steering committee.

The group has linked art with politics before. ACT UP was responsible for the posters warning men to "Wear Condoms or Beat It" that covered vacant buildings downtown, and is readying another poster for distribution this week. It will be directed at President Bush's remarks on AIDS being an avoidable disease.

Performance art such as Miller practices, formerly a somewhat esoteric genre, is booming. When he attended an alternative theatre conference in North Carolina this year, Miller says, fully a third of the 200 people in attendance identified themselves as performance artists. As a founder of New York's PS 122, one of the most important spaces for the genre in the Eighties, and of its Los Angeles counterpart, Highways, he has been at the center of the movement's growth.

Performance art, which was the subject of an excellent series of articles in the journal Artweek last year, has been around since the early part of the 20th century, when the Italian futurists linked it politically with their anarchism and the Dadaists with the embrace of the absurd. Modern performance art got started in the late Fifties, with staged events called "Happenings."

Much of the work that followed was visually oriented, having more in common with dance than anything else. Bruce Nauman filmed himself walking with a peculiar gait in a square pattern. In 1970, an artist named Marioni drank beer with his friends at the Oakland Museum. The debris from the get-together became the installation. Some performance artists have been more entertainers than artists, and some, like Spalding Gray and Eric Bogosian, have entered the mainstream.

In the past few years, however, performance art has become overtly political and intensely personal. Radical feminists have used the genre to further their agendas, as have African Americans and gay men like Miller. There's even a group in California called the LAPD--the "Los Angeles Poverty Department"--that employs homeless people as performers.

That politicization, some critics say, is the result of the policies of Ronald Reagan and George Bush. "I love Spalding Gray's work," Miller says. "But it does sort of gear toward the concerns of white men, like buying houses in Vermont . . . . Now we're seeing a lot of work coming out of communities in crisis, whether it's queers dealing with AIDS and homophobia, or African Americans dealing with 2,000 gang deaths a year in L.A."

His own work, he says, is an attempt to build a community. "We need to create a culture that will help us deal with the shit."

Miller's work is grounded in his experience as a gay man.
"There's been a very strong tradition of artists using the genre to relate not only an artistic message but a political one as well," says Bruce Kurtz, curator of 20th century art at Phoenix Art Museum and a founder of ACT UP Phoenix. "He's one of the best."

Miller's interest in avant-garde art began in high school. Although he describes Whittier as a town "mired in denial and dysfunction," being an artist was the coolest pose at his high school. Los Angeles was mercifully close, and he'd go there on weekends. His parents, too, were supportive after Miller discovered his sexual orientation ("The same summer Nixon resigned," he says), although they were not in any way bohemian. Miller thinks his traveling-salesman father and his mother, who worked in a department store, were simply too tired from the shock of elder siblings living in sin and experimenting with drugs.

Before he turned 20, Miller had moved to New York, a place he describes with hilarity in the monologue he will perform at Kerr. He carefully notes the addresses and the rents of all the apartments he stayed at there, which included one he and a friend called "The Mall of Death." Three people killed themselves by jumping in the airshaft; the two would watch drug dealers scurrying out of the building next door like roaches coming out of a toaster when you shake it.

The work opens with a recollection of an early sexual experience and a surrealistic description of flying through the air over the Hollywood Bowl. It chronicles his reaction to friends dying of AIDS and to his own increasing politicization. The final segment begins with a description of the 1989 demonstration outside L.A. County Hospital, at which Miller gave a performance for which he was later arrested. The end, too, creeps into surrealism, again with an airborne imagery of universal reconciliation.

Throughout, Miller repeats the phrase, "Time passes," which both charts his own growing maturity and lends poignance to the relentlessness of AIDS. And throughout, he mixes humor with pathos. "Let the people know the work is funny," he urges. "I'm such a little ideologue I sometimes make the work sound more sober than it is."

One of the most moving parts of the performance--Miller's favorite--wasn't yet part of it at the time of Miller's rejection by the NEA. It's interesting to speculate what Jesse Helms would make of a man's removing his clothes onstage and addressing his penis. In the context of the entire performance, however, the act is devoid of prurience. Rather, Miller presents himself as a naked child crying out to God for answers. The moment ends on a life-affirming note. "Get hard, because the world can be a fine place," he says.

Since his rejection last year, Miller has both reapplied for an NEA grant and sued the federal agency. He'll know by the end of this month whether he will receive the grant, which will amount, he guesses, to $5,000. In the meantime, he has also ridden his notoriety to success.

"The NEA has given him a much broader audience than he had before," Wirmusky says. "The NEA made him a nationally known performance artist."

The work opens with a recollection of an early sexual experience and a surrealistic description of flying through the air over the Hollywood Bowl.

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Anna Dooling