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.”
Just over 6 months ago, after 8 years of being a practicing contemporary artist, I graduated with my MFA. Though I knew my post graduation time would be full of unexpected ups and downs, and the struggle would be trying, I still had little idea of what it be like. Here I am with my degree, job hunting, making work and participating in the arts community like I knew I would, but there were a lot of things I was unprepared for. One of those things is just how shocking, depressing, uplifting, relieving, trying, exciting, lost, hopeful, and full of opportunity it would all feel. I know I’m doing well and trying as hard as I can, but it’s still hard to keep afloat.
So I think what I’m writing about is something that is not openly talked about. How when grad school is over, even though you get a lot out of the experience, somehow you’re also hitting the reset button and starting the climb all over gain. It’s a love/hate experience. I was even hesitant to write about it because maybe if I admitted it hasn’t been that great it will reflect poorly on me. But I was also lucky to have mentors to talk to who know there are many like me, struggling to get by in a depressed economy where the rules just aren’t the same as they used to be. It seems like every job is something I am not experience enough for, or too experienced for, Its like being stuck on a bridge in a traffic jam. I’m going to a place I can’t get to, leaving a place I can’t go back to and the bridge is packed with cars all going the same way.
Many in our modern era look at the pursuit of art practices as selfish, and worthless endeavors. If you went through college as an art major, you’ve already had to face it over and over. The same friends and family that encouraged you to be creative, expressive and a follower of the obscure thing called “your dreams,” then cringe when you tell them you are an art major. You are told that you better make a back up plan, and you’ll never make a living as an artist. Yet I can’t help but wonder, perhaps if we felt more supportive of the arts there would be more support there. The student studying to be an entrepreneur is often told what a brave contributor they are while the artist students are often told what a mistake they are making. To get through it, no matter who you are, you had to face discouragement from friends, family, teachers, councilors, bosses, the government, and in general the world is just not invested in you. Yet despite continuous discouragement for this hugely impactful and important cultural force we call art, you became an artist.
Part of the reason this post-school transition becomes such a struggle is the ever-present stigma of a successful artist. What exactly is the benchmark for being successful as an artist? Others often remind me that the probability of becoming a famous artist is very low. I respond by saying I never want to be a famous artist; I want to be renowned in the art world for what I do in a way where my practice is accepted but not famous. On some level my disinterest in fame has to do with a paradox that affects an artists once they rise to a certain level of fame.
Once in my undergrad while taking an honors art class with Haim Steinbach we were critiquing work and he said we needed to keep experimenting and not get stuck in one way of making. He explained that we were lucky, because he was now what he called a “dead artist” and we were not. As he was a famous and active artist, at first this first seemed like an impossible thing to say. He explained that once your artwork is found, the public/art market begins to push you towards remaking that one piece you became famous for. That even when you want to explore different avenues, it’s very difficult as a famous artist to get shows, funding or acceptance if you aren’t in some way reproducing the work you have become known for. And this is the moment, he explained, when you become a “dead artist”. By achieving the fame his work became constrained to it’s own commodification, killing his practice and in turn his art.
So what do we do when trying to forge our own way and build our careers after school? There are answers out there if you keep talking about it, and I am thankful for those out there who will discuss this openly. Understanding it takes time. You really are beginning again, but know that you are better off than where you began before. Plant seeds everywhere. You never know what is going to sprout and where it will lead. Say yes to everything you can, as you never know where it will go. Keep yourself humble, you’re not too good for any job. Keep yourself proud, no job you take is a shame to have as long as you are keeping your practice up. Keep moving forward every day. Make plans, improvements and goals. Know you are not alone and you are doing the right thing. And how do you measure your success? I’ve got to say when I take everything into account, knowing of course that success is a very personal reflection, I do think there is a clear way to know if you are a successful artist. That after all the pressure, aversions, and struggles you still keep making art. No matter how your practice changes, or where you are, or what job you have, or how stable you are financially, or wherever your life may lead: being a successful artist has nothing to do with that, but rather with you staying an artist. The continuation and advancement of your artwork and practice itself is the mark of a truly successful artist.
Special thanks for thier support and inspriation: Charles Rice, Mark Jeffery, Bradley Litwin and Haim Steinbach
December 17, 2013 · Print This Article
Guest Post by Autumn Hays
Over the last few years within the United States a growing interest has arisen in festivals that specialize in Performance Art, that offshoot of the visual Arts, who’s practices center around temporal body-based works. This festival-circuit format for showing performance based art works has already produced a strong development in terms of organizations and events outside of the United States. Often however it’s difficult for American performance artists to break into these circuits. Although there have some who have successfully done so, many festivals go years without showing a single American performance artist. This could be for many reasons, but one is certainly the relative lack of funding. Often the diplomatic and cultural establishments of foreign countries, such as embassies and consulates assist artists with expenses so that they can make and show artworks outside their country of origin. In the USA however, we do not invest money in the arts to the extent of other countries and thus American artists often have less accessibility to funds outside of their own pockets.
Performance art festivals are often intensive endeavors, involving a diverse group of international artists. Always on very tight budgets, these festivals often seek to supply food and housing for the artists for the duration of the festival, often lasting from several days to weeks. Unlike showing at a, gallery the festival becomes a sort of community or summer camp. Here artists and curators network and meet performers from all over the world. Viewership is open to the public but there is a community of support at many festivals where artist see each-other’s works, often living together and sometimes collaborating on the fly. Festivals are often popular for performance art as spaces willing to show the work, or spaces aware of the needs of exhibiting performance art are often few and far between.
The good news for performance artists is, the USA is starting to develop their own performance art festivals. These festivals seek to bring international artist to the USA while showcasing local talents. It will be exciting to see what other festivals are brewing here in the United States and some in and near Chicago itself. Here are three festivals to look for this year:
Lone Star Performance Explosion
February 19-23, 2014
This is the second time around for this international performance art biennale after a successful run in 2012. “LONE STAR EXPLOSION 2014 seeks to showcase performance art that pushes the artists and audience in new ways, especially performance art that questions fundamental assumptions about the way we experience time, space, relationships, the self, society, and sexuality. “ As many of our festivals on this list the line up features local, national and international talents in Performance Art. Lone Star Explosion 2014 is curated and directed by Jonatan Lopez and Julia Wallace. Confirmed artists include: Elia Arce (Costa Rica), Marce Sparmann (Germany), Natalie Lovleless (Canada), J. Morrison (NYC), Ryan Hawk (Huston), Roberto Sifuentes (Chicago), and over 25 more artists. http://lonestarlive.org/
Rapid Pulse International Performance Art Festival
June 5-15, 2014
This is year three for Rapid Pulse International Performance Art Festival, taking place here in Chicago. “The RAPID PULSE INTERNATIONAL PERFORMANCE ART FESTIVAL aims to represent a range of styles and forms in order to provoke thought and stimulate discourse surrounding performance art.” This intensive festival features performance, video screenings, artist’s talks and panel discussions. It includes a wide range of performance art from durational, public, and digital based works. Unlike the rest of the festivals on this list Rapid Pulse is centered in and around Defibrillator Performance art Space as opposed to being a wide range, multi-venue event. Artists have yet to be announced but the application period is closed and the curatorial process is beginning. Rapid Pulse is curated by: Steven Bridges, Julie Laffin, Giana Gambino, and Joseph Ravens. http://rapidpulse.org/
Supernova Performance Art Festival
Super Nova first took place in June of last year and word is the event will be back again this year. “SUPERNOVA will bring together emerging and established local, regional, national and international performance artists to present an expansive range of positions and approaches to performance art.” Though not confirmed Supernova came together well last year showing and they have to potential to continue on this year. Tough mostly national based artists, Supernova has the bones of a strong festival and hopefully they continue. Supernova’s 2013 Chief Curator was Eames Armstrong. http://rosslynartsproject.com/
The question that arises with these projects and others like it is one of sustainability. Performance Art festivals are often struggle all year to find funding for the next event. Often performance artists who wish to see this kind of festival thrive in the USA produce these festivals. These factors, and the fact many performance art specific festivals around the world struggle to stay open make the running of an international festival a labor of love, to say the least. Even if these festivals eventually come to an end, the recent creation of these festivals might be pointing to a new trend in performance art exhibitions in the USA. Hopefully the adoption of the festival format international performance festivals will continue to propagate more opportunities in the exhibition of performance art. It will be interesting to see if the new trend in festival production will flourish in the United States and if festivals like these will run strong and multiply in the years to come. Perhaps, the appearance of American Performance Art festivals, and the participation of American artists in them, may lead to an increased interests in American practitioners of performance works both at home and abroad.
Autumn Hays is an Artist, Curator, Teacher and Writer. She graduated the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with an MFA in Performance where she received the John Quincy Adams Fellowship. She received her BA in Visual Arts at UCSD. Hays was the recipient of numerous scholarships, grants and awards including two major Jack Kent Cooke association scholarships. Currently she is assistant curator at Defibrillator and Co-Producer of the 2014 IMPACT Performance Art Festival. www.autumnhays.com
Guest Post by Autumn Hays
Let us start off by acknowledging that there is a distinct difference between Queer and Transgender subjects. It’s important not to lump these two together. Though related and often overlapping, these are not interchangeable terms. Queer being a reclaimed pejorative for gay, and transgender being a person whose self-identity does not conform unambiguously to conventional notions of male or female gender. (see more.) With that in mind what I would like to look into a reoccurring concern in the discussions that take place around both queer and transgender performance art.
In the last month I have seen multiple panels touching on the subject of new Queer and or Transgender works. There was a definitive connection between all panels: and attempt to shake up current the definitions, and what some define as new codified zones of safety. When I say zones of safety, I am referring a kind of identity politics that sits safely in a form of expression that is confortable enough for new standards of acceptance. Artworks that sit in this comfort zone fail to realize the full potentiality of the subjects and often begging to forum it’s own predictable cliché. The challenging of the formulation of a tamed queerness or transgender performance is an often-highlighted theme appearing in new works. The formulation of a safely circumscribed zone undermines the attempt to reconsider the subject due to an inadequate scope.
Queer and or transgender arts panels often attempt to define the new wave of artists making work in these areas. Today many artists are attempting to define a new direction that departs from the identity work that came out the 80s and 90s. Often these earlier works are ascribed the quality of crying out for recognition. Much of the work being produced today is looking for finer definitions, as opposed to this preliminary awareness.
We could go on to talk about the subject of the word Queer as discussed during the roundtable “New Queer Aesthetics” in late October. Queer New York International Arts Festival (QNYI) had come to Chicago to exhibit a Queer Fest as an extension of the one in New York at Defibrillator Performance Art Gallery . The Chicago show featured artists Suka Off, Bruno Isakovic, Gabreiela Mureb, and Keijaun Thomas. Queer fest distinctly pulls itself away from other Queer festivals which they feel are accepted ideas of the term Queer. As one of the festivals curators, Zvonimir Dobrović, explained, the festival seeks to redefine and challenge preconceived notions of the term Queer. Not all work is made by the LGBT community and instead is defined loosely by a sort of norm-challenging ascetic. After struggling through various definitions, redefinitions, embracing, rejections, fears of washing out the word of meaning completely, and other post-modern linguistic dilemmas an audience member mentions queerness in regards to race, specifically the colored queer. Why is this important? Because the conversations began to progress from the semanticlogical, what is Queer, to what are current Queer issues are concerned about, who are we dealing with the queer female of color in art today.
This November I attended a panel at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Transgender / Arts : A roundtable on the future of transgender cultural production, which included panelists Trish Salah, Jules Rosskam, Julian Carter, David Getsy, and Micha Cárdenas. During the panel many valid points were made about Transgender art. Micha Cárdenas presented important question to the panel, “Where are the trans women of color in art?” Many of the panelist themselves who specialize in Transgender arts could in fact not think of a single artist. The panel began to discus a kind of film festival, performance and art transgender normative narrative. A washed down version, where you began to see something constrained, not quite all the way there. Sitting in a place somewhere in academia where it is comfortable and safe.
How does performance readjust and challenge Queer and Trans identity without losing site of the community in general? There is something that happens to us when we are about to fully realize the other; we find a way to compromise, to only go so far. Many Queer or Trans artist today are attempting to push at the boundaries of a newly accepted normative narrative and point at the things we are forgetting, those who still don’t have a voice. The Art world, the world, is still white male dominated. In a way the lull of sleep we put ourselves in this supposedly post-feminism, post-racism, post- sexism, post-gender issues world that we keep referring to as better than it was before is more dangerous. Because hiding under that comfort is the fact we haven’t changed all that much, we should be forging new grounds and making sure it doesn’t fall asleep.
If I was asked where the new queer or trans aesthetic is headed today, I would say somewhere within the struggle of continuous disturbance, in the understanding that things aren’t there yet and we have to keep shaking it up, shaking ourselves up, so we don’t become our own worse enemies, the perpetuators of a normative Queer of Trans identity. As performance art specifically keeps pushing on with another panel at the Hemispheric Institute for Performing Arts, this week discussing “Race & the Colonial Impulse: Queer Performance Practices”, I look forward t a continued discussion that bridges gaps in the dialogue between racial queer and transgender issues in the arts.
Autumn Hays is an Artist, Curator, Teacher and Writer. She graduated the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with an MFA in Performance where she received the John Quincy Adams Fellowship. She received her BA in Visual Arts at UCSD. Hays was the recipient of numerous scholarships, grants and awards including two major Jack Kent Cooke association scholarships.Currently she is assistant curator at Defibrillator and Directing Coordinator of the Rapid Pulse International Performance Art Festival. www.autumnhays.com