by Autumn Hays
Considered to be one of the most renowned performance artists, Ron Athey began his works in the 80s. They are notorious for including aspects of S&M culture and it’s relation to the AIDS crisis. Athey’s iconic pieces focus on a wide range of subjects including sexuality, religiosity, trauma, gay identity, loss, illness and ritualism. Raised with the expectation that he would become a Pentecostal minister, and after running away to L.A. and coming of age in the milieu of the punk rock underground, Athey’s work grew out of a complex performativity that still informs his art practice today. In 2013 Ron’s first book dedicated to his work was published entitled Pleading in the Blood: The Art and Performance of Ron Athey, edited by Dominic Johnson. The book includes writings by peers and scholars such as Guillermo Gomez-Pena, Antony Hegarty, Robert Wilson, Lydia Lunch, Bruce LaBruce, Amelia Jones, Jennifer Doyle, Homi K. Bhabha and others. At the start of February, Chicago was host a legendary performance artist, Ron Athey visited Chicago. I was lucky enough to attend his performances, lectures and snag him for an interview. Here are some excerpts from our discussion.
AH: How it feels to be back in Chicago?
RA: I think I had more pre-anxiety about coming here, memories of staying here with Lawrence Steger and doing things with him. I was shocked and went into the shivers from the cold when got off the plane, not wearing long underwear. It’s not like London is warm, it’s moderate and miserable there. Where as here needing many layers, I dig it.
AH: Tell us about he last time you were here and the last performance you did.
RA: I had to look at my own notes, I was here twice in ’99 doing Solar Anus so at Hot House and at Chris Kellner’s gallery Hook Torture and I hadn’t realized I haven’t been here since then.
AH: Yeah it’s been a while
RA:Yeah, I mean climates change. Randolph Street Gallery closed and all those places I would have went back to.
AH: I’ve actually been through the Randolph street archives and have seen videos of your work there and you really could feel its loss once it was gone here. I am interested as you are here working with Defibrillator a newer performance space what are the correlation and difference between these kinds of spaces in this new kind of art climate?
RA: I think it just takes energy to make things happen. It’s not really that the climate is any different. A lot of spaces with the same history as Randolph Street that go back to NEA funded times, but really even before that these are artist run spaces and they don’t, move with the times. So there was this gap and it takes someone high energy like Joseph (Ravens) to get people to work together. I mean even for these pieces I am doing this week and that he realized that Defibrillator itself would be a crunch and he found the right place off site, this is another way of working the art space because the space is so important. Some pieces I feel like I don’t want to be in a place that shows work, like you know this site specific thing becomes a more neutral space than that black box or white wall hygiene kind of space.
AH: Your work is very versatile where you can perform in a lot of different kinds of spaces. I mean you can do that black box theater, the white-walled gallery, you can do performance art spaces or even S&M clubs so you have a versatility in where you can perform and also a little bit in your performativity, you engage various kinds of performance. What’s the difference in working in these spaces? Is there a benefit to being flexible?
RA: Well, I wish I could still perform in clubs still, but I did evolve out of that scene. That allowed me to workshop before even any idea of funding to make the gig possible came up. For some pieces I think I might be precious about it being there. I tend, since I started doing the self-obliterations, I like being in with the audience. For the most controlling side of me, a perfect black box with the floors freshly painted and super duper lights, because you’re not fighting the white wall sucking the light out from one minimal light that happens to be shining. It’s a more controlled situation and I do work in lighting illusions and those sorts of things. So that’s if I’m being precious but it’s not necessarily the best feeling, the way I feel interactive with the audience or the space. But I think to get away from those white gallery walls I did start staging pieces in the middle of the room so that the people are the frontdrop and backdrop. You know I don’t come out of this tradition of thinking of live art as an extension of gallery, my work doesn’t come from there, I fully understand work that does but I’m not so keen on this… of course I love the perfect image, the perfect photograph but that’s not the work. I’m always concerned with how many cameramen are in there. I thought we were watching a work.
AH: Especially nowadays with camera phones it’s interesting to have that camera lens constantly there.
RA: I think you have to think about what you are not experiencing while looking for that shot and also, do you care about the work, or are you just documenting your own life?
AH: So we touched on your definitions of live art and performance art. There are always different definitions. What are your thoughts on that?
RA: I think you get this polarization. This is the gallery school, and this is the theater school, but actually my background was through the Pentecostal church, particularly woman evangelists who did illustrated sermons starting in the 20s with Amy Semple McPherson, who built Angelus Temple in Echo Park and later Miss Velma (Jaggers) who built the jeweled altar from the Book of Revelations and who would appear as the whore of Babylon swinging in on a crescent moon using all the 70s technology, like the echo box, strobe lights and fog machines. So, performance art is this other type of sacred theater without the belief system in it. In abstract terms I might still use a thing like the audience is the witness, and its not about second guessing what their boundaries are, what they will experience, what they come in the door with. It’s impossible to know. It’s a mix of things, which is what it should be. Also it’s about what mode you are in. It’s obviously not acting, so it’s just full of these triggers to go into, not an altered state where you look like your fitting or asleep but some heightened state. I like art that rides a line between art and not art at all.
AH: I was wondering if you could tell us more about your book, “Pleading in the Blood”, and your process of making it.
RA: To start out with the book, you have to open archives that you didn’t even know existed. And here is where I have to give some kudos to social media. I am very linked in to people in LA, people from the late 70s and early 80s Goth and Punk scenes. So I was able to come up with materials, confirm dates, and stories through there, and then track down the photographers. All I ever had was the newspaper, the tabloids, the rough printed images, Xeroxed and scanned, you know that kind of thing. And then I started getting closer to the source of the original image. It felt like I was perusing someone from a David Lynch movie, you’re in a hotel room with seven 5by7s in a brief case. So you track that down and try to flesh out some of those stories, which is a harder period for me to flesh out. And working with Dominic Johnson who is a young academic at Queen Mary University, London. He was clear about what heavy academics who we liked in common, but I was clear that I didn’t want it to be one of those artist books with three academic essays in it and lots of pictures so that no one ever, except for people in school, ever read the writing because its inaccessible outside the bubble. I wanted to give it a testimonial voice not just an academic one.
AH: Do you have any advice for younger artists attempting to learn the craft of making performance art?
RA: The key element of making work is immersion. Rather than doing research as a strong guide, let it be something you soak up. There is nothing sane about making performance art.
Defibrillator, Hook Torture, and Mana Contemporary pooled their efforts to showcase Ron in Chicago this month. Each night was filled with a wide mix of viewers, from pierced punks and goths, old school Chicago underground, art students, and art academics, many eager to see Ron’s work in person. He performed two works on two separate nights, “Incorruptible Flesh: Messianic Remains” and “Sebastian” featuring Jon John and Sage Charles.
Messianic Remains is part of Athey’s Incorruptible Flesh series. The series started in 96’ and references the dark reality of living with AIDS. Athey talks about the piece saying it stems from “still living but not living bodies”. 10 years later in Glasgow, Athey did a solo individual piece, 6 hours long. The third part focused on the Mythological. Now this 4th and final chapter, was performed in Chicago at Mana Contemporary on January 31st. The work reveled in a religious grandiosity and explored Ron Athey’s body as a post-AIDS entity: a survivor. The work also looks at Athey’s own bodies ageing, and seems to shake hands with notions of death. The choreography is inspired by Kenneth Anger’s short film, Lucifer Rising.
The audience came in on to Ron laying down on ladder sitting on two wooden sawhorses with a baseball bat, swollen glands, and his head latched to a series of hooks in a crown of thorns style lining, his head connected to the wall. Though the preparations for this performance were not part of the audiences’ viewing, many felt the preparations, though unseen, were a large part of the work. Clear gloves were handed out and the audience dipped their hands in a pale Vaseline before taking turns touching Athey’s body as he laid on display. The offering of his flesh was both a gift and an obligation as viewers chose to experience the tension and pain up close. Ron than rises for a mythical, almost Egyptian dressing ceremony and moves to a new part of the gallery where he begins to read text from Our Lady of the Flowers, Jean Genet, specifically “Divine’s Funeral.”
The very next day Ron Athey, Jon John and Sage Charles preformed “Sebastian.” While interviewing Ron I had asked him about Working with Jon John and Sage.
“We have this great chemistry where we trust each other, we don’t have to plot out everything. You’re going to do what you need to do with the goal of making this action happen. Easy directions within a choreographed frame. What is Sebastian? I don’t know. I think that’s where live work can be surprising. If you know what you want to prove rather than explore something you’re just strong-arming a result. The potential of live experience is so beyond that outlined vision that I’m doing. It took me a long time to understand that.”
In this work Athey is taking on the role of St. Sebastian, a saint that has also become a homoerotic icon. The event starts with Sage and Jon John making their way through the crowd in a procession towards Ron, who is already hung up on a ladder, tied with red rope. As Sage drums, Jon John climbs a second ladder to meet Athey and begins piercing him with arrows. Ron begins to scream and chant in performance’s best ritualistic shamanism. Jon John then fills the role of St Irene and begins to heal Athey, spreading lotion on Athey’s body, eventually removing the arrows and as Athey bleeds he helps him depose down from ladder and onto a table where they cover him in a white cloth. For the final and perhaps most touching part of the performance, one that had echoes of the NEA controversy, Jon John cuts sections of cloth-covered in Athey’s blood and places them in tiny frames handing them to random audience members.
Ron Athey’s work certainly isn’t for the squeamish, but despite the inclusion of blood and body modification I didn’t find the shock value of the work to be any kind of crutch or sympathetic tool. Rather is was a means of performativity that outwardly engaged Athey’s body as a gay, post-AIDS, religicized, performative body. When looking at his work, the dense symbolism and actions, the controversy and the intense metaphoric value, I feel like ending this with one of my favorite quotes from my interview with Ron Athey that I feel addresses his work, process, and in a way the very practice of performance art.
“I’m actually at this place in performance art where I think everything is just an entry point. You can say this is about your mother, this is about this accident, this is about AIDS, but it’s actually not what it’s about. You don’t know what it’s about till you do it live, that’s why it’s live work. I have to bring something to life to make work. There has to be uncertain things within the framework of the piece that allow it to go as it will.”
Matt Wolf is a non-fiction filmmaker whose work finds inspiration and subject matter in the lives and work of other artists. His debut feature film, Wild Combination, profiled the elusive musician Arthur Russell. Russell’s prolific recordings (mostly unreleased and in continual flux) and performances ranged from minimalist new music to disco to country-tinged power pop in his too short life. Through a variety of recent releases of these lost and found gems over the past half-decade and Wolf’s poignant, sensitive documentary, Russell’s profile has raised.
I absolutely adore Arthur Russell and was ecstatic to see Wolf’s documentary when it made its way around the festival circuit in 2008. Documentaries about artists, to my eye, are rarely successful at generating the heat and intensity of their subjects. Perhaps conventional logic dictates that the documentarian’s duty is to present the material in a straight-forward and information-driven mode. The very impulses toward idiosyncrasy, subjectivity and innovation that drive the work of these artists are often lost in the translation to a different context.
Wolf’s work is vital because of the care he takes to ensure that his formal, conceptual and aesthetic decisions reflect—though subtly—the works and lives of his subjects. The pacing is delicate and deliberate without feeling slow. The shared emphases on biography, work and social context entwine to produce fleeting documents of artists who have passed but whose influence still grows.
I Remember, which was released last year, profiles the artist and poet Joe Brainard. Brainard is best known for his poem cycle of the same name and for his work in collage, painting and assemblage. For the piece, Wolf has constructed his own collage of found footage and archival images of Brainard with a swirling conversation between a recording of Brainard’s own reading of I Remember and the poet Ron Padgett offering a very personal biography of his best friend.
Wild Combination is available on DVD and iTunes. I Remember will screen at the Ann Arbor Film Festival and Images Festival soon and can be streamed online or rented through Video Data Bank. Wolf’s latest film, Teenage, premieres this April at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Because it seems a good a place to begin as any, I’m hoping you might tell us a bit about your background—where you grew up and were educated, the types of jobs you’ve held to help you make work and, most important, your evolution as an artist. When did you realize you wanted to make films? Did you begin by being in bands or making paintings or was filmmaking always the goal?
I grew up in San Jose, California. I was a teenage gay activist, and I thought that I’d grow up to work in politics. I was on Good Morning America, lobbying my legislatures and stuff like that, but I also wanted to be an artist. I got obsessed with ‘90s queer independent films and directors like Todd Haynes and Derek Jarman. And then I started discovering video art and experimental films by people like Sadie Benning and Kenneth Anger. I was inspired to become a filmmaker, so I enrolled in film school at NYU.
It didn’t really occur to me how traditional and industry-oriented NYU would be. But I stuck it out, and eventually had the filmmaker Kelly Reichardt as a professor, which was really inspiring. During college, I got involved in the art world. I was writing art reviews for magazines, and most of my friends were visual artists. So when I finished school, I worked in a painter and video artist’s studio. Slowly I got some opportunities to make short documentaries about artists first for the public art organization Creative Time, and later for the New York Times. It was around this time that I started making my first feature Wild Combination.
My first experience with your work was through Wild Combination. Arthur Russell’s music has long meant the world to me and I was excited that someone had chosen to make a film about his life. To me, one of the most effective strategies in the film is your use of time-specific camera and media formats for your “reenactment” shots. Be-walkmaned Arthur on the ferry is shot on VHS tape, while Iowa is captured in luscious super-8. More so than the interviews, these moments tie us to the spaces, places and feelings of those periods. Can you talk a bit about the process of creating those reenactments? Do you, in your own mode of remembering (and as a filmmaker), see your own past in such aestheticized forms?
Making “fake archival footage” is one of my main filmmaking interests. I love working with found footage, but I like creating my own vintage-looking material too. My new film Teenage, which is coming out this Spring is a pretty expansive look at the birth of youth culture. In the film, I’ve made recreations that are shot in the style of period home movies. I shot scenes with vintage 16mm camera bodies and uncoated lenses, used experimental printing techniques to further degrade the footage, and then even organically got dust, scratches, and dirt on the films. Viewers shouldn’t necessarily be able to identify this stuff as original, staged footage. A lot of people will think it is archival.
The first moving images I ever saw of Arthur Russell were these de-saturated, extreme close up shots of him performing cello. They were shot on an old VHS format. I knew that was the material, texture, and feeling I wanted my film Wild Combination to have. I’m always trying to make films that have a cohesive form to them, even if I’m drawing on eclectic material. The recreations I film are a kind of visual glue that tie all the elements together.
Arthur Russell didn’t have immense media exposure from which you could draw footage, but there are numerous tapes of him performing that could be utilized. To what degree was the film shaped around the footage you were able to find? Were there scenes you were unable to include but that demonstrated something about Arthur you wanted to show? Also, I was struck by how many of the credits for this footage belonged to other legendary downtown figures (Phil Niblock, Jean Dupuy). This shouldn’t be too surprising considering where they were shot or his audience, but I’m curious if this lent itself to another kind of collaboration or, at least, an opportunity to reflect on the rhizomatic, entwined structures of artistic community.
There was a tiny amount of documentation of Arthur. If I had been a more experienced filmmaker, I probably would have said there’s not enough archival material to make this film. But that limitation proved to be a really productive challenge for me, and it helped me think more creatively about the filmmaking. It contributes to this sense of mystery about Arthur, the subject who is absent from the film. But really, I’m using every existing filmed recording of Arthur that exists. It was cool going to Phil Niblock’s loft to pick up a VHS tape, and the Kitchen’s archive was very generous in helping me access Jean Dupuy’s wonderful video documentation of Arthur performing “Eli” from the performance event “Soup and Tart.”
Arthur Russell and Joe Brainard share certain similarities. They were both born far from the coasts but found their way to the cities (and New York, in particular) about as quickly as they could. They both operated on the fringes of their particular scenes but were well-loved by their peers and small but devoted audiences. They were both gay and casualties of the AIDS crisis. I’m curious what about these figures (beyond the incredible work they produced) drew you to them.
Lately I’ve been thinking of those two as “gentle gays.” They both had a certain intensity and self-deprecating quality to them, but they also seemed like incredibly sweet people with a sensitive demeanor. I’m really interested in telling the stories and exploring the biographies of artists who died of AIDS. I think a lot about what New York and our world would be like if so many brilliant queer people hadn’t died prematurely. In some senses I imagine myself as a peer to them today.
I’m interested in the artistic inheritances of queer art (in particular from the 1970s to the 1990s) to makers in the present. Because of the tragic ravages of the AIDS crisis, so many of that era’s great makers’ lives ended much too soon. The question is broad and will be necessarily subjective, but I’m hoping you might have some thoughts on these questions of inheritance, lineage and historicization.
This is all stuff I think about a lot. Being queer is an important part of my identity. But often times I don’t really connect to contemporary gay politics. Queer culture from the past is what resonates with me the most. I’m not entirely sure why that is, but I know I’m not alone in that feeling.
Regarding these questions of inheritance, there is an incredible book I would recommend: Sarah Schulman’s Gentrification of the Mind. It’s a memoir about the AIDS crisis and ACT UP movement, and Sarah discusses how AIDS lead to the gentrification of Manhattan. She reflects on gentrification not just as phenomenon in cities, but a phenomenon of consciousness.
I imagine one of the pleasures of making documents/portraits of artists is the chance to interview and work with their peers. Are there artists through whose interviews you’ve felt a particular closeness or whose way of talking about your subject was particularly illuminating? Did the chance to have a relatively narrow topic (one artist) allow for a conversation that touched on other, broader topics (I imagine talking to Philip Glass about Arthur Russell is easier than talking to Philip Glass without a subject at hand)? What sorts of lessons about artistic kinship and community have you learned through these interviews?
I love interviewing people—it’s one of the most stimulating and rewarding aspects of making a documentary. To me a good interview is a two-sided conversation, not just a series of questions. Through my work I’ve met a lot of really interesting artists and thinkers. I believe that any good biography transcends its subjects and is about other cultural histories, or larger ideas. For Wild Combination, the biography was a way for me to also explore the setting of downtown New York in the 1970s and 1980s, the intersections of pop culture and the avant-garde, as well as queer culture and the impact of AIDS.
I Remember is described as “a film about” while Wild Combination is “a portrait of” their subjects. Without dissecting hairs or whatever the phrase is, I’m interested in these small designations. Do you think of these works (and perhaps in contrast to other projects you work on) as being distinct in their processes? Or, perhaps, do you have ways of describing the shift between portrait, document, documentary, essay or non-fiction (or other categories) filmmaking? Are these terms useful in the construction and reception of your work?
Both projects are really portrait films. A portrait isn’t a definitive biography, it’s a selective and artistic treatment of a subject. I didn’t interview everybody that knew Arthur Russell or Joe Brainard—I make focused and somewhat selective choices about how I would present their stories. That’s how I can be specific in my filmmaking rather than general. To me, it’s about making creative non-fiction, rather than straight documentaries.
I Remember was commissioned by Nathan Lee while he was at Bard’s Center for Curatorial Studies. How did this come about? How does making work as a commission differ from other forms? Did knowing the work would exist in a museum exhibition (I’m assuming) before screening spaces impact the way you made it? Do you consider these works to be collaborations with your subject?
Nathan was really supportive, and gave me free reign to make whatever project I wanted. I had already started the Joe Brainard film, but needed an excuse (and some financial help) to finish it. I was excited about the opportunity to work in a gallery space, and to explore the documentary form in an elliptical, non-linear way. I felt like the structure of Joe’s poem “I Remember” speaks in circles, so it felt right that the film could play that way too. Truth be told, it’s only since screened in festival contexts, so I think it really is perceived more as a self-contained documentary, but I think it works in both contexts.
Your next major project is about teenagers. Can you discuss the project a bit?
Teenage is premiering in April at the Tribeca Film Festival. I worked with the author Jon Savage on the film—it’s inspired by his book of the same name. The film looks at the pre-history of teenagers, and examines youth culture from before WWII. It’s really about the role youth play in shaping the future, and how society oppressed and controlled youth before they were finally recognized as “teenagers.” It’s not a traditional historical film—the entire story is told from the point of view of teenagers. It’s been a major project that I’ve been working on for four years, so I’m excited for it to come out soon.