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€
Guest Post by Autumn HaysÂ
Let us start off by acknowledging that there is a distinct difference between Queer and Transgender subjects. Itâ€™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:Â 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 itâ€™s own predictable clichÃ©. 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 â€œNew Queer Aestheticsâ€ in late October. Queer New York International Arts Festival (QNYI) Â 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,Â Bruno Isakovic, Gabreiela Mureb,Â 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 DobroviÄ‡, 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 Â included panelists Trish Salah, Jules Rosskam, Julian Carter, David Getsy, and Micha CÃ¡rdenas. During the panel many valid points were made about Transgender art. Micha CÃ¡rdenas presented important question to the panel, â€œWhere are the trans women of color in art?â€ 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 donâ€™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 havenâ€™t changed all that much, we should be forging new grounds and making sure it doesnâ€™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 arenâ€™t there yet and we have to keep shaking it up, shaking ourselves up, so we donâ€™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 transgenderÂ 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 isÂ assistantÂ curator at DefibrillatorÂ and Directing Coordinator of the Rapid Pulse International Performance Art Festival. www.autumnhays.com
This week: Brian and Patricia meet with artist Tony Labat who tries to teach PM how to roll her R’s.
Tony Labat was born in Cuba and came to the United States at the age of 15 in 1966. He has exhibited internationally over the last 30 years. Labat has received numerous awards and grants and his work is in many private and public collections. Labat has developed a body of work in Performance, Video, Sculpture and Installation. His work has dealt with and continues his investigations with the body, popular culture, identity, urban relations, politics, and the media.
This week has musical nods to the untimely passings of Kriss Kross’s Chris Kelly and Slayer’s Jeff Hanneman.
This week: Bad at Sports humbly presents Yael Bartana. We speak about her film work, identity struggles, the history of war and power, and just how an Israeli comes to represent Poland in the 2011 Venice Biennial.
Bio fromÂ Experimental Television Center
Yael Bartana was born in 1970 in Kfar-Yehozkel, Israel. She has a BFA from the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem, an MFA from the New York School of Visual Arts and participated in the Rijksakademie artist-in-residence program from 2000-2001. She has had solo exhibitions in many countries including Germany, Israel, Australia and Japan and has won various prizes such as the Anselm Kiefer Prize (2003) and the Dorothea von Stetten-Kunstpreis (2005).
Her work focuses mainly on the relationship between ritual and identity in Israeli society, looking at the practices that constitute identity, especially in its relation with traditional and contemporary notions of gender, place and ethnicity. In most of the pieces Bartana uses documentary footage shot in public or semi-public spaces at collective events that contribute to identity formation, such as shooting drills for trainee female soldiers or the carnivalesque festivities of the Jewish holiday Purim. Bartana currently lives and works in Amsterdam and Tel Aviv.