My wife and sometime collaborator Stephanie Burke and I recently completed a 140-mile walk as a perforance piece called “Walking to Mordor.” The walk was based on an Easter egg introduced in Google Maps three years ago: if you asked it for walking directions from “The Shire” to “Mordor,” instead of the usual “Walking directions are in beta” warning, a pop up announced, “Caution: One Does Not Simply Walk Into Mordor.” The line is Boromir’s, from The Fellowship of the Ring. Ignoring his naysaying, the two hobbits Sam and Frodo proceed to do exactly that.
The line, as spoken in the 2001 film, spawned an Internet meme which consisted of a still image of Boromir, hand in mid gesture, coupled with a line of text reading, “One does not simply…” followed by whatever the author wished to decry. Instances date back to at least 2004. In 2011, Google Maps joined the party by adding the Easter egg to their walking directions. Along with the warning, however, Google actually did provide a map and directions, from a restaurant called “The Shire,” in Chehalis, Washington, to a tattoo shop called “Mordor Tattoo,” in Arlington, Washington, 138 miles away.
When I showed Stephanie the joke, she mentioned that, coincidentally, she has family in Chehalis, and had spent some time there growing up. It didn’t take long for us to decide that it would be fun, and funny, to take Google Maps’ directions at face value, and walk the route. Almost immediately thereafter we realized we had to commemorate the journey by getting tattoos at Mordor, and that the tattoos should be of the map of the route. We documented the project with a series of photographs called “Instagram vs. Holga.” Stephanie, a trained photographer, shot on the cult classic crappy medium format film camera, while I, with no more than a couple of undergraduate photography classes under my belt, used my phone’s camera and the everyman’s favorite app.
As has happened with more than one previous project, we didn’t set out to make art. Our process is more often that we have an idea for something we’d like to do, and then, almost against our wills, we realize that it is starting to look quite a bit like art. Or at least like things that other people call art. And certainly, going for a long walk has quite a history as a form of performance art. It has spawned books, blogs, and even a society. Well-known examples include Francis Alÿs,Regina José Galindo, Simon Faithfull.
The history of walking as a form of performance art can never be severed from its history as a form of protest. Galindo’s 2003 walk from the Congress of Guatemala to the National Palace, her feet dipped in blood to leave red footprints, was intended as a protest against Guatemala’s former dictator, José Efraín Ríos Montt. Montt had formerly led a military regime known for widespread human rights abuses, and at the time of Galindo’s performance was running for President in a democratic election.
Not all of those who have walked in protest have identified as artists. Perhaps the most famous example, internationally, is Ghandi’s Salt March or Salt Satyagraha. By directly and pointedly disobeying a British law against domestic salt production in India (forcing Indians to buy imported British salt), the march essentially started what became the international Civil Disobedience Movement.
Inspired by Ghandi, A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The march itself covered barely more than a mile, from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, though the 250,000 participants (60,000 of them white) had traveled from much farther away by bus, rail, and plane. Some spent 20 or more hours on buses traveling as far as 750 miles. Two years later, voting rights activists marched 54 miles, from Selma, Alabama to the state capitol in Montgomery. The Selma to Mongomery marches are commemorated by a National Historic Trail.
America’s racial history (obviously still in the making) continues to inspire performance artists. In 2009 I reviewed Meg Onli’s Underground Railroad project for Art Talk Chicago. (Five years later, her work holds up better than my early efforts at writing.) Presented as part of Twelve Galleries Project and curated by Jamilee Polson (who is also this blog’s managing editor), Onli’s project consisted of her retracing, on foot, the route of the Underground Railroad: a 440-mile journey, in Meg’s words, “in search of blackness.”
Exploring another form of blackness entirely, Chicago-based curator Amelia Ishmael co-edits Helvete, a journal of Black Metal theory, in the first issue of which was published David Prescott-Steed’s “Frostbite On My Feet: Representations of Walking In Black Metal Visual Culture.” (If you’d like to read the article for yourself, the entire journal is presented for free, as a downloadable PDF, at the above link. A print edition, also available, is well worth the price.) “Frostbite” tracks a few reference points linking walking with Black Metal culture. Principally, it finds the common ground between a grueling trek into the Norwegian tundra, led by Gaahl (former Gorgoroth frontman), and the author’s own experience walking the mundane streets of an Australian metropolis while listening to Burzum:
In this case, “blackened walking” is seen to be less about the activity of walking itself and more about the circumstances under which one can move through space—walking not just for the sake of exercise, pleasure, or getting to the shops on time. With the modern world (invested in trains, planes, and automobiles), the slow, simplicity of a walk (Walking? How pedestrian!) seems to have lost some of its value. However, walking is capable of bringing one’s focus back to a fundamental question of what a body physically needs to do in order to transition through, and therefore go on, in the world. Perhaps mourning the forgetting of the existential significance of walking, “blackened walking” pays respects to walking as the chance to explore self-determination and a readiness for the unknown.
We hadn’t conceived of the “Walking To Mordor” project initially in terms of its connection to Black Metal, but as we walked, Prescott-Steed’s phrase “blackened walking” echoed in my mind. The connection, however ephemeral, clarified itself in my mind as I looked over Tolkien’s maps of Middle Earth, and researched his languages. Two of the bands mentioned in “Frostbite” take their names from Tolkien’s writing. Gorgoroth is an arid plateau in the northwest corner of Mordor, surrounding Mount Doom; the name comes from Sindarin (the Gray Elven tongue) and means “dreadful horror.” The name of another band, Burzum, means “darkness” in the Black Speech of Mordor.
Far from the tradition of protest marches, whether as performance art or otherwise, “Walking To Mordor” was in some was a playful exploration of what happens when a joke is taken 138 miles too far. A linguist became an author. His book became a movie. The movie spawned a joke. The joke became a meme. The meme became an Easter Egg embedded in the principal means by which Americans today naviage their world. With every breath spitting in the face of Alfred Korzybski, originator of the phrase, “the map is not the territory,” most of us today confuse a glance at Google Maps, followed by a drive in the car, with exploration. We think of distances first in minutes of driving, or hours of flight. The landmarks we note are gas stations and Starbucks locations. Google Maps has become the average person’s understanding of the world. Moreover, our culture is becoming one of remakes and mashups. References have taken the place of wit: “that’s clever” has been replaced with “I have heard that before.” Tolkien has been reduced, in the public imagination, to the origin of nerd-chic Internet memes, and we have tried in our way to be true to his work by dragging a piece of derivative humor, kicking and screaming, into meatspace.
by Autumn Hays
It’s that time of the year again. Summer is here and this tends to be a prime time all over the world for performance art festivals. The best part is, if you are in Chicago you don’t have to go anywhere to experience some of the finest international performance art. Rapid Pulse International Performance Art Festival has entered its third year. This year the dates for the festival run June 5-8th and 12th-15th. This years line up proves once again to be very promising. If you are interested in performance art it is an event not to miss.
Rapid Pulse is curated by Steven L. Bridges, Julie Laffin, Joseph Ravens, and Giana Gambino. Together, they bring a wide range of artists to Chicago each year. Rapid Pulse seems to touch on a wide range of genres, embracing theater, visual art, public practice, video, tech, music, and dance all the while dedicated to presenting work that is essentially performance art. If you have not had much experience with performance art or wish to have more, Rapid Pulse delivers a selection of artists that will provide you with a comprehensive look at performance art all in one festival. The lack of typecasting within performance art and the curation of this festival is part of what makes Rapid Pulse dynamic.
This year they will present works from notable artists, real heavy hitters in the performance art world. One of these artists is Kira O’Reilly (UK/IRELAND) who works with tightly controlled body movements that will leave you mesmerized. Then there is Alastair Maclennan (UK/IRELAND) who creates durational performances and sculptures with eerie and nostalgic objects. The multi-member performance group known for their radical actions and border crossings of all kinds, La Pocha Nostra (USA/Mexico) will also be performing. I’m very excited to have the chance to see Lai Thi Dieu Ha (Vietnam) who created a work that used bird feathers to explore sexual identity in a provocative work that in her home country was extremely controversial. As well as Jason Lim (Singapore) will also present his delicate and introspective work; He is a notable figure in performance art and directs “Future of Imagination” in Singapore.
As expected, Rapid Pulse includes emerging artists who you may not have heard of, but you should get to know. I am very excited to see the work of Jessica Elaine Blinkhorn(US) whose work deals with disability and intimacy, Julie Vulcan (Australia) whose meditative work with salt explores ideas of transcendence, and Raquel Punto(Mexico) who deals with filth as a form of performatve evidence. Aiming to foster a supportive community of performance art and artists here in Chicago, Rapid Pulse also features talented local performers such as Mical Samama, Mikey McParlane, and the Antibody Cooperation, among others. In all they have 28 live artist presentations in vivid, exuberant, poetic, and boundary pushing performances and it is definitely worth attending!
Besides the performances which mostly are held at Defibrillator Performance Art Gallery, Rapid Pulse has a wide range of additional offerings. There is an amazing video series of performance art videos held at the Nightingale Cinema. This year they added a performance art workshop lead by Kira O’Reilly that is an amazing opportunity for local performance makers. Though perhaps not as attended as the performance work itself, the festival offers artists talks and panel discussions that are not to be missed deviling into the cusp of the most relevant perfomantive discourse. Still the jewel of the festival is the live performative events and I know this summer I will not be missing a single performance.
Full List of participating Artists: Alastair Maclennan, Alison Crocetta, Anna Brown, Antibody Corp, Boryana Rossa, Carlos Martiel, Diaz Lewis, Disorientalism, Espand, Freya Björg Olafson, Jason Lim, Jessica Blinkhorn, Julie Vulcan, Kira O’reilly, Lai Thi Dieu Ha, La Pocha Nostra, Linda Hesh, Manuel Vason, Matthew Prest, Michal Samama, Mikey Mcparlane, Peter Reese, Raquel, Punto, Sandrine Schaefer, Teoma Naccarato. For the full schedule and more information visit: rapidpulse.org
Guest post by A.Martinez
Kate Ruggeri is a Chicago-based artist, DJ, and curator who has shown at Roots & Culture (Chicago), Green Gallery East (Milwaukee), Western Exhibitions (Chicago), and Important Projects (Oakland). She is one of those people who exudes a humble cool, yet is enthusiastic about all she’s committed to, and excited about life and the people and things in it. After a handful of years of staying in touch from afar, I wanted to connect more closely to ask Kate some questions about her life and her work before she moves to New Haven in July to pursue her MFA at Yale.
A.Martinez: Were art and making art important to you from a young age?
Kate Ruggeri: Oh, yeah. Totally. My parents were always really encouraging. In elementary school I started taking drawing classes outside of school. I won a few poster contests. I used to do this thing every year called The Olympics of The Visual Arts, which is a New York State program. Pretty much you assemble a team, work on a year long project, and then compete against other teams. When I got a little older I got really into dark room photography. You know, carrying a camera around all the time and developing film in your bathroom. My mom and I took figure drawing classes together. A lot of colleges have art classes for kids during the summer, so I was always doing that too.
Martinez: How long have you kept a journal? And what does this practice of journaling do for you and your art practice?
Ruggeri: Since elementary school. I think my first one has a little lock on it. I never really stopped. It’s actually super important, to clear your head, to drain it. I try to write every day. I feel very scattered if I don’t. For art making, it’s good for me to work through ideas and to understand impulses I have. Often I make something and I’m not sure why I made that decision or was drawn to that form. Writing brings everything to the surface. It brings clarity. Studio work is one way of thinking and writing is how I detangle everything. Not just artwise, but life wise. It’s all the same, of course.
Martinez: How long have you had your own studio space? What does it look like?
Ruggeri: After school I had a tiny studio in a building across from Moonshine on Division. It’s been torn down since. I’ve been in the spot I’m at now for a little over a year. It’s a co-op at Damen and Fulton. I moved in there after my old spot on Elston burned down. We have an entire floor that is divided amongst us. My studio’s a mess. I see other people’s studios sometimes, and they have a turntable and little plants and it’s very cozy. My place is like a construction zone. I like that better. It lets me focus on the work.
Martinez: What is a typical day in the studio like for you?
Ruggeri: Nights are better. I like working when no one is around. You can play music loud. I believe in a witching hour. It really depends, though. I usually am working on one sculpture and 4-5 paintings at the same time. If I just finished something big or just installed a show, I draw and watch movies at home. I don’t really have a routine. Ben Medansky once described his ceramic studio as being around a million crying babies. That’s how I feel in there. I work a lot in series, so I just treat 6 pieces at the same time, and then have some experiments going. Right now I have some exercise balls I’ve been sort of doodling on. Then I’ll carve on these wood paintings until my hand hurts. Then I’ll cut some wood shapes out to paint. Or dump plaster on something. It’s a mix of working on very planned pieces and experiments. Everything always changes though.
Martinez: How do you begin a painting?
Ruggeri: Putting something down, anything! I break it in. I try not to think about it too much and just get the ball rolling. Usually it’s a good color.
Martinez: You work in both 2D and 3D- how does a piece become one or the other?
Ruggeri: When I was in school I used to trip myself up with that question. I can say now that they’re all paintings. I’m a painter that has sculptural impulses. I try to feed both ways of making. I try to be democratic about it. The larger sculptures can be exhausting to make, so there is often a down period of just painting and drawing before starting one again. Material, color, and mark making can drive a piece to be 3D or 2D. Finding a good object. Seeing a particularly inspiring show of painting or sculpture.
Martinez: What artists inspire you?
Ruggeri: Philip Guston, Mike Kelley, Matisse, Picasso, Claes Oldenberg, Cy Twombly, Franz West, Rauschenberg, Joan Miro, Giacometti, Sterling Ruby, William J. O’Brien, Jonathan Meese, Mary Heilmann, Huma Bhabha, Gerhard Richter, Howard Fonda
Martinez: You have a pretty extensive record collection and DJ monthly at Danny’s. Do you feel there’s a connection between your music endeavors and your art-making?
Ruggeri: Yes. It feels very connected.
Martinez: What musicians inspire you?
Ruggeri: Parliament/Funkadelic, Dead Moon, Congos, Minutemen, Bad Brains, Robert Wyatt, Brian Eno, Miles Davis, Captain Beefheart, Sparks, Beach Boys, Lee Scratch Perry, Roxy Music, De La Soul, Neil Young, Patrick Cowley, Big Star
Martinez: What do you typically listen to while in the studio working?
Ruggeri: It’s different every time, chosen for the day and mood. But Nas “Illmatic” gets played a lot. J.Dilla, Shuggie Otis, Pastor T.L. Barrett, Skip Spence, Velvet Underground. Mixes from friends. Jorge Ben, Milton Nascimento, Witch, Amanaz are all good…
Martinez: Do you do collaborations with other artists?
Ruggeri: Sure, I’ve done it a few times. Right now I’m working on a collaboration with Alex Valentine. He gave me these plates to draw on, and then we’ll print them together on newsprint, and then use them to paper mache a sculpture. It’s great because Alex is primarily a printmaker and I know barely anything about the process. I love the idea of making a sculpture made out of drawing. A perfect hybrid.
Martinez: In 2012, you co-curated a show, “Quarterly Site 11: Line-of-Site“, at Western Exhibitions. How did you land this opportunity? What was the experience like for you? And do you think you’ll curate more shows in the future?
Ruggeri: Jamilee Polson Lacy asked me to do it. She’s been doing these curatorial series for a while now, asking artists to curate a show at a different gallery. It was great. I got to work with Alicia Chester and Karolina Gnatowski. It’s fun to be on the other side of things, and it gave me an opportunity to create a show entirely different from my practice. I really wanted to see a show of top notch performance work. Curating is a lot of work, but I would love to do it again. I think the trick is when you start to think, “Why isn’t ___ kind of work being shown? Why hasn’t someone curated a show about ____?” is when you should get on curating a show. I’m starting to feel that, but I would need the right time and space.
Martinez: You and I actually met while undergrads at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. What is something that has stuck with you from your education and experience there about being a painter, artist, or person?
Ruggeri: Something that always stuck with me is remembering how I felt there: supported, invigorated, and that changing the world was definitely possible. It’s good to protect that enthusiasm, even when you’re working 9 to 5 and feel too tired to go to the studio.
Martinez: How has your experience at Ox-Bow School of Art as student and then again as a fellow affect your art? How long were you there total?
Ruggeri: Ox-Bow. Oh, man. I first went in 2007 as a student, and pretty much tried to take as many classes there as I could. If you got work study, you just had to pay for the credits, which I needed anyway. I went three consecutive Summers and one Winter. The Summer of 2010 was great, I took a class with Jose Lerma called “Expanded Painting, Expanded Sculpture.” Not hard to see it was a big influence on me. I was really lucky to receive a Joan Mitchell Fellowship this past Fall and I was an artist-in-residence for 5 weeks. As a student, classes meet everyday. I also had to wake up every morning to clean toilets for work study. This time, as a resident, it was like being at a beautiful retreat. There were only other residents, I had my own studio, and I got to structure my own day. It was incredible.
Martinez: Congratulations on your acceptance to the MFA Painting program at Yale! What are you most excited about in starting this program in the fall?
Ruggeri: Thanks! I’m most excited about a fresh start. And making better art.
Martinez: What do you think are some interesting things happening around the city of Chicago art-wise?
Ruggeri: Ryan Travis Christian has a show up at Western Exhibitions that I need to get over to. William J. O’Brien at the MCA. Isa Genzken at the MCA. Alexander Valentine has a show at 3433 coming up.
Martinez: What are you currently working on?
Ruggeri: I’m finishing up a re-make of a sculpture I lost in the fire. It’s a harp. I just wrapped up these brooches I made for the Three Walls Gala coming up in June. Starting some new paintings. I keep thinking I need to stop because I’m moving, but I have some projects I want to do before I leave. I have an ongoing series of fake album covers, and I have a photo shoot coming up for the next installment.
Martinez: Your recent show, “Tropical Depression” at LVL3 just closed May 4th. Do you have any other openings coming up?
Ruggeri: No, thankfully! I’m moving to New Haven end of July. I’m trying to tie up loose ends.
Martinez: Is there a piece of advice, art related or not that you think of often?
Ruggeri: Say yes to all opportunities offered to you. Avoid excessive thinking about the past and future.
To find out more about Kate, her artwork and her upcoming shows go to http://kate-ruggeri.com/
All photos courtesy of the artist.
A.Martinez is a freelance art and music organizer living in Chicago, IL. She is currently working on a performing arts summer festival called The Living Loop, and will release her first book of poetry this summer.
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April 15, 2014 · Print This Article
Recently, I was fortunate enough to be in conversation with artist-choreographer taisha paggett. Paggett, who splits her time between Chicago and LA, is one of the many Chicago artists to be included in this year’s Whitney Biennial. If you’re in New York this week be sure to check out her performance at the Whitney starting on Weds.
Paggett’s works for the stage, gallery, and public sphere include individual and collaborative investigations into questions of the body, agency, and the phenomenology of race. Here we discuss her interest in dance, performer-audience relationships, and feeling-thinking through performance. More information on her work and practice can be found here.
I thought we’d begin with a few questions around your interest in choreography and the body, focusing in on how both might communicate a certain set of politics and also what I perceive in your work as an interest in how knowledge is produced through the body. How did you arrive at choreography? What does dance do in your work and what are it’s limitations?
my work was initially interested in addressing identity and the scars of alienation from fitting into neither a black community nor a white community, as well as the experience of coming into my sexuality and having to confront another layer of otherness. (an immediate aside: i’m a bit self-conscious using these monolithic, over-generalizing terms but you must understand that where i grew up was insidiously segregated and conservative—there was a white side of town and a black side of town and i lived in and simultaneously belonged fully to neither). it took me some time to see that my story was not a thing to make work about over and over but rather a frame or a perspective from which to ask questions. i do believe that we are reflections of our surroundings—that environment is a living entity which informs us and vice versa, and perhaps its that perspective which makes me as fascinated with space as i am with bodies… human geographies and spatial geographies.
i wasn’t initially interested in making work, i was only interested in opportunities to dance without having to make many decisions. i loved moving, i loved the type of thinking it required and i loved utilizing my body. what propelled me into making work was the accumulation of experiences in which i had to recognized how differently my body and sexuality read on stage in relation to my peers. there was a Black (modern) dance world and a white one and i grew up in the latter (again with the monoliths…) dance is tricky because it’s very collaborative and so much about relationships and interaction. more often than not as a dancer you’re living through or interpreting someone else’s vantage point… over time i started to develop an analysis in class and rehearsal that made it hard to continue moving—as much as i loved it all, i got to a point where i could not overlook the fact that i was participating in a pedagogy and performance of privilege that did not align with and required a disavowal of my own experience of the world. on top of that, i became interested in better understanding this notion of Black dance and how it was being articulated.
i’m going to stop there because i realize that i’m going long on just one aspect of your question but it’s true that those experiences politicized me and propelled me into creating work. my work continues to think through and beyond the conventions and methodologies of dance as a way to approach and create performance structures. for example, training as a type of knowing… dance is a performing art form and bodies are perpetually changing so one must be diligent about training the body. there are certain actions that one repeats to train specific muscles. it makes me think about repetition as a conceptual framework for understanding how knowledge enters the body. we are what we repeat—consciously or not, which means our habits are a type of becoming as well. i’ve created structures based on the repetition of a single set of identifiable actions (for example, Decomposition of a Continuous Whole in which i was blindfolded and drew on a wall with pastels and crayons a set score of movements over the course of several hours). the beauty of repetition is that it’s never completely the same–something in our external or internal environment is always shifting despite our desire to stay consistent and that friction within the repetition is how i believe we come into knowledge.
what dance does in my work these days is give me permission to get elemental and create what to me feels like momentary utopias of people coming together to share an experience. stripping away the excess, stretching out the movement slow as if to slow down time so that we even breath together. i guess it gives me permission to create a contemplative space… i see performance as an offering on both sides: the performer offers an experience and the viewer offers their presence. i’m also interested in creating structures that make the viewer realize that their body is as much a part of the experience as mine is… a momentary togetherness. this is true of my work with Ashley Hunt as well—we’re interested in activating the physical and sensorial body of the “viewer”… that one cannot come to an experience with only their eyes…. that the formation of the political subject requires bringing the conscious body into the equation.
Watching documentation of some of your work I am taken by the way you pay attention to speed and the control with which you execute movements lends your performances a kind of uncanny quality, a sense of mystery that calls attention to the shapes made by the body. Can you talk a little bit about your approach, how you construct movement and compose the works?
i’m not certain how long i’ll be in this slow period but it’s still very fascinating to me. i construct a framework and score first and then live in the experience of fulfilling that score. in most cases i don’t know ahead of time exactly how i’ll respond to the score until i’m in it, and because repetition is often part of the equation, i have to grapple with retracing the previous iteration of the movement (as when the score loops and i start back at the beginning) and living in the experience of doing it again based on mental and muscle memory. my approach to slowness is, on a basic level, definitely about wishing to slow down time—in an era in which everything is accelerated i feel it’s important to have a practice that goes in the opposite direction—but it’s also about wishing to create an experience that i can track and grow through in some manner. tending to the world “out there” but also being able to construct a dialogue with my inner world, my mental fluctuations, the energies that get turned on in the performance experience.. . there’s a kind of martyrdom in dance sometimes where it’s all about the audience and being frontal and impressive and virtuosic and mostly directing energy out out out and i’m interested in other possibilities, other virtuosities… my process toggles between intuition and research. sometimes my structures are informed by a certain set of readings, and sometimes they are informed by a desire to wear a certain set of clothing because they remind me of something that i can’t easily articulate.
I am thinking now about what audiences can do. How they join the work and how, for lack of a better word, they might be manipulated in the process.
i’m not interested in manipulating the audience though i supposed that would be a logical sequence for those artists who wish to take it in that direction (draw the audience in to the work, get them activated, and then twist the scene against them..? it’s a bit predatory and not my mojo—or at least i HOPE the audience doesn’t feel manipulated in my work– but sure, bringing the viewer “in” always has the potential to become manipulative because they come with a certain vulnerability and set of expectations to simply be invisible watchers…) that said, i don’t feel there’s anything particularly radical about folding the audience into a work or seeing them as part of the work. for me it grew out of an interest in paying attention to the larger frames—not just what happens “on stage” but responding to the surrounding structures and systems as well.
American modern dance critic John Martin, writes in American Dancing from 1936, “What, then, is the means of contact between the dancer and the spectator? When we see a human body moving, we see movement which is potentially producible by a human body and therefore by our own; through kinesthetic sympathy we actually reproduce it vicariously in our present muscular experience and awaken such associational connotations as might have been ours if the original movement had been of our own making. The irreducible minimum of equipment demanded of a spectator, therefore, is a kinesthetic sense in working condition.” I believe Martin’s point here is to invite audiences to feel through dancing as opposed to thinking through dancing.
I really like this though i’d add the point that “feeling” ones way through a dance is the same thing as “thinking” ones way through… if dance can do nothing i hope it gets people to understand that ideas, feelings, logic, argument, etc etc etc can and does happen across the body. that’s what makes me so irritated by the popularity of competition dance (a la So You Think You Can bla bla bla franchise, not to mention regional competition dance etc, etc): it reduces all of that intelligence into spectacle and in that realm i don’t think audiences are feeling-thinking through their bodies and experiencing kinesthetic sympathy as much as applauding and salivating over skill and effort. i think it puts forth the idea that the body is something to champion, a lame horse to be disciplined rather than something to listen to and from which to think-feel. sure, this is one perspective and we need multiple perspectives, but this is what’s educating people on dance and that’s really unfortunate, a lost opportunity. i teach in academia and i witness and work with a lot of incoming students who’ve danced for most of their lives and can do a heap of cool technical actions and dance for hours, yet are disconnected from their bodies physically and psychologically. i’d go so far as saying those experiences within my teaching practice have played a great role in shaping what i pay attention to in my own work, my desire to move away from formal notions of virtuosities towards the more contemplative, nuanced, elemental, even murky and i can only hope that an audience is willing to go there with me.
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 itâ€™s relation to the AIDS crisis. Atheyâ€™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, Atheyâ€™s work grew out of a complex performativity that still informs his art practice today. In 2013 Ronâ€™s first book dedicated to his work was published entitled Â Pleading in the Blood: The Art and Performance of Ron Athey,Â edited by Dominic Johnson. The book includes writings by peers and scholars such as Guillermo Gomez-Pena,Â Antony Hegarty,Â Robert Wilson,Â Lydia Lunch,Â Bruce LaBruce,Â Amelia Jones,Â Jennifer Doyle,Â Homi K. BhabhaÂ 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. Itâ€™s not like London is warm, itâ€™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 â€™99 doing Solar Anus so at Hot House and at Chris Kellnerâ€™s gallery Hook Torture and I hadnâ€™t realized I havenâ€™t been here since then.
AH: Yeah itâ€™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: Iâ€™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 amÂ interestedÂ 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. Itâ€™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 donâ€™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 donâ€™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. Whatâ€™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 youâ€™re not fighting the white wall sucking the light out from one minimal light that happens to be shining. Itâ€™s a more controlled situation and I do work in lighting illusions and those sorts of things. So thatâ€™s if Iâ€™m being precious but itâ€™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 donâ€™t come out of this tradition of thinking of live art as an extension of gallery, my work doesnâ€™t come from there, I fully understand work that does but Iâ€™m not so keen on thisâ€¦ of course I love the perfect image, the perfect photograph but thatâ€™s not the work. Iâ€™m always concerned with how many cameramen are in there. I thought we were watching a work.
AH: Especially nowadays with camera phones itâ€™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. Itâ€™s impossible to know. Itâ€™s a mix of things, which is what it should be.Â Also itâ€™s about what mode you are in. Itâ€™s obviously not acting, so itâ€™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, â€œPleading in the Bloodâ€, and your process of making it.
RA: To start out with the book, you have to open archives that you didnâ€™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, youâ€™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 didnâ€™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 Ronâ€™s work in person. He performed two works on two separate nights, â€œIncorruptible Flesh: Messianic Remainsâ€ and â€œSebastianâ€ featuring Jon John and Sage Charles.
Messianic Remains is part of Atheyâ€™s Incorruptible Flesh series. The series started in 96â€™ and references the dark reality of living with AIDS. Athey talks about the piece saying it stems from â€œstill living but not living bodiesâ€. 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 Atheyâ€™s body as a post-AIDS entity: a survivor. The work also looks at Atheyâ€™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.Â
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 preparationsÂ for this performance were not part of the audiencesâ€™ 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 Atheyâ€™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 â€œDivineâ€™s Funeral.â€
The very next day Ron Athey, Jon John and Sage Charles preformed â€œSebastian.â€ While interviewing Ron I had asked him about Working with Jon John and Sage.
â€œWe have this great chemistry where we trust each other, we donâ€™t have to plot out everything. Youâ€™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 donâ€™t know. I think thatâ€™s where live work can be surprising. If you know what you want to prove rather than explore something youâ€™re just strong-arming a result. The potential of live experience is so beyond that outlined vision that Iâ€™m doing. It took me a long time to understand that.â€
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 performanceâ€™s best ritualistic shamanism. Jon John then fills the role of St Irene and begins to heal Athey, spreading lotion on Atheyâ€™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 Atheyâ€™s work certainly isnâ€™t for the squeamish, but despite the inclusion of blood and body modification I didnâ€™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 Atheyâ€™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.
â€œIâ€™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 itâ€™s actually not what itâ€™s about. You donâ€™t know what itâ€™s about till you do it live, thatâ€™s why itâ€™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.â€