Late last week, Lady Gaga caused a swirl of controversy when, during a Doritos-backed concert at SXSW, a woman on stage puked green liquid all over the pop star during a performance of “Swine.” For Gaga, it was another headline grab meant to convey the song’s message, but for others, including Demi Lovato (who has battled an eating disorder), the stunt was a glorification of bulimia. “Bottom line, it’s not ‘cool’ or ‘artsy’ at all,” Lovato tweeted. “Putting the word ART in it isn’t a free card to do whatever you want without consequences.” But tell that to Millie Brown, an L.A.-based performance artist who until last week was best known for vomiting multi-colored milk on canvases for years, but is now the woman who barfed on Gaga while riding a giant mechanical pig. Not bad. We recently caught up with Brown via Skype to address the criticism surrounding her performance, how it came together, and why vomiting can, in fact, be art.
How was SXSW?
It was fun! I got there on Tuesday and Gaga and I met up on Wednesday and decided to do the performance.
So it was a last minute thing?
It was. Basically, the night before I flew into Austin I found out she was there and she found out I was there so we were like, shit, let’s do something!
And how did you feel up there?
I’ve never done a performance on that scale before. She’s the first person I’ve brought directly into a performance. Other artists have wanted me to vomit on them but I said no! I chose her because I knew she understood what it was all about. She appreciates performance art. So doing that stuff live with her, with that kind of energy from the crowd, was really amazing.
The performance is getting some backlash, as expected. Gaga explained in her Keynote speech that you two just wanted to represent the song and its message. Can you tell me about that?
It just made sense to both of us. It worked really amazingly with that song and the idea of purging all that bad energy and getting rid of it.
How has your work progressed since you first decided to vomit rainbows in 2005 with !WOWOW!? What are your goals?
My whole thing is about pushing my own boundaries and right now all the performances I’m doing are mentally and physically taking me to the limit. I just shot a really insane film called “Pendulum” that will be showing this summer, but can’t say more because it’s a surprise! I just want to keep challenging myself further with new experiences. I have a lot of performances outside of the vomit art that are coming up soon.
Some critics are ‘concerned’ that your performances are bad for your body. How often do you vomit rainbows?
I do it every couple months. I do live performances, films, I create canvases, and there’s always at least a month break between doing that.
Demi Lovato suggested you and Gaga glamorized bulimia with your performance. Other people have accused you of promoting eating disorders as well. What do you have to say about that?
We didn’t glamorize anything. All of my performances are meant to inspire viewers to question the concept of classic beauty and femininity, rather than perpetuate those standards girls and women are faced with every day; the ones that cause eating disorders in the first place! I think there’s an obvious difference between using my body to create something beautiful and to express myself rather than using it to harm myself and conform to society’s standards. My work rebels against those standards! I do understand how it could be triggering to some, but as an artist I can’t censor myself to keep everyone happy.
I’ve had eating disorders and never even made that connection. If I did I’d only think you were trying to bring the subject to light and make people question it, rather than trivialize or fetishize it.
Exactly, lots of people who have suffered from eating disorders have come and talk to me to say it made them think about it in ways they never had. They found it therapeutic. I’ve met more people who have suffered and been affected positively by my work than negatively. Of course online people are much more likely to say negative things.
Absolutely. How do you deal with that criticism?
At first I used to read all the comments and I’d find them upsetting, people wrote death threats and talked about my mother and stuff like that. I don’t read that shit anymore but I think if it affects people that strongly, it’s fine because that’s the point of art. It’s supposed to provoke emotions and encourage people to question things. It’s equally important if it enrages them or inspires them.
I feel comments are often harsher when directed towards women and shame is a common theme, like they want you to be ashamed of what you’re doing.
Yes, especially when it’s about eating disorders. Anyway it’s insecurity and it’s a really strange thing, people hide behind their screens and think therefore they can say whatever they want. Morals go out the window!
Do you think this means all people are secretly meaner than we think?
Well I think people are just more likely to write a comment if they hate something. If they like it they’re just like, “this is great,” and move on, but if they hate it they really want to express that! I feel people feel it’s their duty to express that. I’ve never wanted to be a part of that but sometimes I do read comments and think, “who would say something like that?”
Speaking of comments, someone once wrote in response to a performance of yours, “why doesn’t she just spit the milk?” Why is it so important to you to surrender completely to your body rather than allowing a bit of control, for the sake of comfort or “common sense,” as some viewers would suggest.
I’ve explored many mediums of art and performance art speaks to me the most. I’m using all of my body and this is how I can express myself best. Yeah, I could just throw the paint but the whole process is what’s really interesting to me. To create something really raw and primal. You can’t edit or control this.
You have “everything is possible” tattooed on your arm. That’s Matthew Stone’s quote, right? I know you two go way back.
That was a !WOWOW! mantra. Everything is possible and the universe will provide.
Have you seen that come true?
Yeah! I think now more than ever. Just believing that everything will happen and will be amazing.
You’re always so well-dressed during your performances. People have asked, “why wear suede shoes when she might vomit all over them?” How important is image and fashion to you?
It started with living in the co-op, with Gareth’s Pugh‘s studio in our house, I realized fashion really is art. For me, the clothes I wear represent my personality. If my personality were a pair of jeans and baggy t-shirt, I’d wear that to my performances. It’s not like I’m dressed like that the rest of the time and dress differently on stage! Other times I do take the fashion statement out of my performances and just go naked. Not for shock factor but just to keep it purely about my art.
Are you making coffee? What milk is that? I was actually going to ask you which brand you prefer for your performances versus daily life.
It’s Silk! This was the first one I tried and it’s delicious.
Can I take a screenshot?
They should sponsor you. Or at least throw you a party. Instead of vodka there would be soymilk shots.
Weirder shit has happened.