The Grant You Wish You Could Write

By Miguel Gutierrez

January 13, 2022, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE
Color photograph portrait of Miguel Gutierrez looking softly into the camera. He is bathed in orange/red light.

Photo by Marley Trigg Stewart. [ID: Miguel Gutierrez looks softly into the camera while biting a rosary, bathed in orange light. He is a light skinned, Latinx cis-man with short black hair and beard speckled with grey, glitter on his face, and a purple gem on his cheek. He wears a black t-shirt and sequined jacket.]

Hi I’m spending over a hundred hours of unpaid time to hopefully make it into the three  percent of people who actually get funded by your organization. This narrative, or, “the fucking Grant I have to write,” as I’ve come to call it to my friends, my family or any  random idiot who I hijack into conversation about it, may come off a little disjointed. That’s probably because I worked on it after rehearsal, exhausted, or on the subway as I headed to rehearsal, or during the afternoon instead of rehearsal, or on a weekend night while looking out the window with all the longing of a melancholic woman in an 18th century British novel watching all the carefree 9 to 5’ers cavort  through another fun-filled weekend.

My piece, um yeah, so my piece. I really don’t fucking know what it’s about or what it  will look like. Probably it’s about how fucked up the world is and how I can’t really  afford to live in it and how I still can’t believe that my ex ended up with that guy and  now I stalk him on Instagram or how my parents just never really got me and my dad  slowly died over the course of ten years while my mom’s world got tinier and tinier cuz  Medicaid sucks and no it doesn’t matter if you were an immigrant and worked your ass  your whole life to raise two kids and gave them an education you still end up watching  your husband shit in diapers while you fight on the phone with some bitch who says  she doesn’t understand what you’re saying because of your Colombian accent while  you argue for the hundredth time for more nursing hours on the weekends.

Maybe it’s about how when I walk downstairs from the studio to use the bathroom at  the bar below I see, as usual, a bunch of drunk, fashiony white people sitting at tables  being attended to by people of color, who bring them their drinks and hold the elevator  open for them and bus their food and clean their rooms at the adjoining hotel and  basically spend their entire work shifts on their feet, and I feel a combination of disgust  at the situation, a sigh of internal relief that I don’t have to be in that situation, and a bit  of wonder and guilt that I spend my days in studios thinking about things like, “Should I  reach for the mustard colored fabric with my foot or my hand?”

Perhaps you, or, really, the folks that are actually looking at this application – folks who  I’ve seen when we go to each other’s shows, folks who I wish I knew better (well some  of you at least), folks, who, like me, are all overworked and short on time and more or  less in competition with each other so there’s always a low grade paranoia coursing through us that one of us is gonna get the next grant or award or gig that the other one wanted, so it precludes us from ever being able to form true collegial intimacy – will  decide what percentage of money I should get from the pot o’ money that was  originally made by some ruthless, rapacious capitalist in the oil or steel or auto  industry, who mercifully, for us, came to a late in life realization that they probably  should launder their “I-am-a-colossally-greedy-asshole” reputation by getting into  philanthropy. If so, please know that I would like the biggest percentage possible of  that blood money. The hiccup of ethical consternation that this whole process puts me  in is far outweighed by my anxieties about paying my bills, as well as my worries that I’ve made a terrible mistake in asking other people to work with me on this piece,  which results in me taking on responsibility for their financial fates as well.

Believe me, I know that I’ve put myself in this position. I know. As one heartless foundation director once shockingly reminded me in an exasperated voice, (when as a stipulation of applying, I called her first) “This is the difficulty you have to accept for having chosen this life.” Which I’m sure she said while sitting in her paid by-the-foundation office chair, in her paid-by-her-salary outfit, in her paid-for-this phone-call job.

I know that I could have just followed the brain drain and moved to Western Europe like  so many of my friends did to enjoy the life-saving benefits of a well funded social safety  net and the artistically affirming benefits of an actual dance and performance market. I  know I could potentially be nursing at the teat of a state that doesn’t see art as  frivolous or elitist. But instead, somewhere along the way I got it into my stupid head  that it was more “meaningful” to stay in the U.S. and do my work here. You don’t  abandon your mother just because she’s sick, right? I heard that on NPR once from  someone who had chosen to stay in a war torn country. Somehow I felt that, as fucked  up as it is here, the contours of its fucked-up-ness helped shape a way of making art  that was less pretentious and more emotionally direct than what I saw overseas. (Also,  I low key hate Europe.) Now I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the smartest choice. But who  really wants to start at square one in an entirely new country once they’ve reached  middle age. So, again, here I am, writing you.

Incidentally, counter to what I wrote a few paragraphs ago, I would like to offer that  maybe this life path hasn’t exactly been a “choice.” Which is to say, I can’t really do  anything else. I mean, I HAVE. I’ve been a stripper, an escort, a barista, a receptionist, a  file clerk, a mail clerk, a retail worker, a busboy, a waiter, a bartender, a stage manager, an aerobics instructor, a substitute personal trainer, an academic research assistant, a babysitter, an usher, an elevator operator, a dance teacher, a workshop leader, and more recently, a guest professor. Some of those jobs I got fired from, some of them I left willingly, and some of them I do still because how else is there to survive if I don’t have SOMETHING that is relatively consistent even though the only thing I really want  to do is just make stuff. But what I mean to say is, and I know it sounds extreme, I  can’t really do anything else for too long before I just want to die. Whenever I’ve held a “regular” job for too long I feel the life force being sucked out of me like a Dementor’s kiss. So there it is. Making art is basically my ongoing anti-suicide prevention program.

I’m not trying to emotionally blackmail you (or am I?) because I imagine, or I HOPE,  that you walked into this arrangement with only the best of intentions. I know you want  to be helpful. I just want to sneak this whole “I’ll die if I can’t make art” thing in there so  that when you’re looking at the narrative or the work samples or the budget or when  you inadvertently allow your presumptions about me and how you THINK I’m doing financially to guide your discerning judgments, you have at least the most honest  sense of what the stakes are of this shit for me. Which are, yes, my life. My teeny tiny insignificant life is in your hands. No pressure.

I know somewhere in here I should be saying that my work will help X community or address X issue, but I feel all kinds of ways about this. Do you think that what I’m doing isn’t enough? Like it’s not enough that I’m trying to pay everyone and myself a decent  amount of money so that for the duration of the project we can think of ourselves as artists first and foremost? Cuz sometimes it feels like you asking me to attach it to something beyond itself says that its virtue or justification only exists when it  accomplishes something recognizable. It feels like you’re herding my imagination into a corral at the Utility Ranch. I get it, sort of, but I’m also confused, because a lot of my favorite work eludes or exceeds the fulfillment of a political platform point. Or maybe it’s just that I think that the politics can be braided into the thing itself. It’s messy, and it  should be. I’m not trying to abdicate responsibility and say artists can just do whatever. I know that we’re in the world and we can be just as shitty as other shitty people. But I’m trying to tell you that I am about the world and also not about it. The world sucks. The options available to us for real change suck. So instead I’m just making different worlds. I’m shaping a fierce but fragile possibility. I know it’s temporary. How could so much feeling be sustainable?

And honestly, if the government wasn’t full of cowardly, self-serving assholes, and if this were actually a representational democracy as it claims to be LOL that had actually  dealt with, in a real way, its initial psychic and material wounds of genocide and slavery, we wouldn’t be asking artists to live up to ethical metrics that are never demanded from, say, tech dudes, who court angel investors to drop $100 million on developing apps that hail you another gas guzzling car.

Art is messy. I’m messy. I’m actually mad at you right now because you’re asking me to not be messy. You’re making me come to you and play by your rules. I’m supposed to hand this in on time and the numbers are supposed to match for fuck’s sake. When really what should be happening is that you should be coming to me. You should be with me as I carry the heavy suitcase of props and costumes up and down the walk ups I’ve lived in. You should be with me as I console the performer I’m working with who’s crying because their own messiness doesn’t fit into the stupid parameters of what the world deems to be acceptable behavior. You should be with me after the show when I’m sitting in the dressing room, emptied out, thinking about how that person whose opinion I care about walked away from me in the lobby. You should be with me when an idea I’m excited about keeps me up at night, gets my heartbeat racing and I run to my notebook to write it down before I forget. You should be with me in the shower (sure, why not) when I let the water run as I stare into space, lost in the  possibility of strange images and dreams that I’ll try to actualize the next day in  rehearsal. You should be with me, you should be here when the clarity and the fear of the task at hand means I can’t escape the constant battle between self consciousness and authority. But no, instead you’re making me come to you. Sometimes you even say shit like, “Just write as if you were speaking to us.” Bullshit. If I were speaking as  “myself” I’d just say, “Give me the money. That’s all I need from you.” Please don’t pretend you want to hear how I actually speak. You wouldn’t like it.

I’ve lost the thread. I don’t know who I’m even addressing this to anymore. Chances are that you, the person who is actually reading this, are just like me. You’re probably an artist who thought, yeah, sure, I’ll read those applications and make that $500 or whatever, and for a brief moment I’ll feel like it’s right that I get to be the one who makes the decision. Even though you know that next year, the tables will be turned and the person who applied last time is sitting where you are now, and so it goes.

And I know that in all likelihood I’ll be doing this next year, and the year after that, and ad infinitum because capitalism and the rising costs of the standard of living and because the arc of economic justice bends towards Bezos. I know that if we were graphing this on a classic supply and demand curve, my dance friends and I would and will always be way past the equilibrium of any configuration of those intersections. There’s too many of us and apparently we want too much, which is just to say, what we actually need. Because yeah, I need this. Why would I fucking apply if I didn’t? I’d  literally rather do anything else. Watch birds fight, roll in the grass, take up fencing, masturbate, Sudoku. Anything. But mostly, the thing I’m writing you to give me money for. It’s the only thing I know how to do. Correction. It’s the thing I’m here to do.

This article appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of In Dance.

Miguel Gutierrez is a choreographer, music artist, writer, educator, podcaster, and Feldenkrais Method practitioner based in Lenapehoking/Brooklyn, NY. He has been described as the “love child of Chita Rivera and Yvonne Rainer.” His work has been presented internationally in over sixty cities. Recent projects include This Bridge Called My Ass, a performance that queers tropes of Latinidad, and SADONNA, his sad-version-of-Madonna-songs cover band. He has received a 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship, four NY Dance and Performance “Bessie” Awards, and a 2016 Doris Duke Artist Award. He was in the 2014 Whitney Biennial. He is a guest professor at Princeton University and in Hunter College’s MFA Art program. He works out the feelings laid out in his essay in his new podcast Are You For Sale?, which examines the ethical entanglements between art making and money.