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.”
We are in the midst of a winter festival. Its occasions take place at a variety of locations across the city, featuring a variety of performance artists from all over the world. In each case, the art work at hand is dynamic and ephemeral; the culmination of hours/months/years of work fit into a small, public window of time. Audiences come to experience that time-concentrate and in so doing are transported. Born in the UK, Chicago-based performance artist, Mark Jeffery, is similarly invested in temporal, aesthetic exercises. Over the course of his career, he has a regularly incorporated collaboration and experimentation into his work. It seems fitting that he would address curation as well, opening the field of performance into an administrative capacity. The result is a bi-annual festival, IN>TIME. There have been two other iterations of this festival, in 2008 and 2010 — both of which were co-curated by Sara Schnadt and took place at the Cultural Center. This year Jeffery has expanded the scope of the project, curating roughly 26 different events at 15 different venues from January 11th – March 2nd, 2013. I wanted to ask Jeffery about the origins of this bi-annual festival, as well as how it fit in with his overall practice as an artist.
Caroline Picard: Can you talk a little bit about how IN>TIME 13 came together?
Mark Jeffery: There have been two previous editions of IN>TIME in 2008 and 2010 at the Chicago Cultural Center that I co-curated with artist and Chicago Artist Resource webmaster, Sara Schnadt. Sara has since now moved to Los Angeles, but during the summer and fall of 2011, before Sara left, we discovered that our contact at the Cultural Center, lost her job. At the time there was no support for this program to continue. As a result, we considered how we could expand this festival from a one-night event at the Cultural Center to a multi-venue festival throughout the city of Chicago. We were both excited to contact and connect with local venues and spaces that we already respected for their public programming of performance, symposia, exhibition, talks, and/or readings — spaces that already had an affinity towards IN>TIME’s desire to showcase performance practices in the broadest terms. We met with curators, directors and programmers of spaces in their venues, at the Palmer House, on rooftops of hotels, in phone conversations, in meeting rooms to discuss the possibility to program work in the winter of 2013. What we didn’t expect when we cast this net was that the community would be equally excited to focus their programming on performance, giving an extended platform to this experimental form.
CP: Does IN>TIME reflect on your own orientation/aesthetic agenda as a performance arts practitioner?
MJ: I was a member of the performance group Goat Island for 13 years and have collaborated with Judd Morrissey for the past 10 years. I take collaboration and working with fellow artists very seriously. I learn so much from working with others and during my time of making performance work I have had multiple opportunities to be in many diverse and interesting contexts to present my work since 1994. For me, I grow from conversation. I learn from working with others and I see that permission, openings and discovery happen when doors are opened. I think I discovered this as a student at Dartington College of Arts from my teachers Sally Morgan, Sally Tallent, Nancy Reilly, Rona Lee, Gillian Dyson, Roger Bourke and Tim Brennan. My teachers gave me access to being curious, to being open, to allowing my voice to grow, to not be isolated, but to discover other artists and other ways of working through connecting with others.
In Goat Island I leant from my fellow collaborators and performers and director Lin Hixson to open up a space, even if this was an uncomfortable risk. In coming to America, and in the ending of Goat Island in 2009, I suddenly had to be on my own feet, here in this Midwestern city, as an Assistant Professor in Performance Art. I had to be engaged. I had to become an adult. I had to share my knowledge of the spaces, networks and connections I had made now over the past 20 years.
Chicago is my home, it is a place where I can engage through teaching, through making, through performance and exhibitions — and now also through curation, as another way to open up spaces for? collaboration. I am grateful to be here and I am grateful that 14 venues are willing and interested in working with each other to make this dream come true. For the 2008 edition of IN>TIME Sara gathered a group of makers, curators into the Chicago Cultural Center in the summer of 2006. At that time I remember saying that I would love to see how we as a city could have a multi-venue performance art festival, similar to the one where I was first curated into in 1994 as a 21-year-old in Glasgow by Performance Art Curator, Nikki Milican and her National Review of Live Art Festival. Now, seven years later we have arrived.
CP: I am always suspicious of generalizations about localized styles or approaches to a given medium, but specific environments seem to facilitate peculiar dialogues. I have heard, for instance, that New York art performance is more integrated with dance, or that Europe is more open to experimental works. I don’t know if those comments are true or not, (they certainly came out of casual and speculative conversations) but I’m interested in whether or not you feel like Chicago has a particular conversation of its own. Does IN>TIME 13 respond to that at all?
MJ: Good question. I remember being in the library as a 19 year-old at Dartington College of Arts studying Visual Performance in the UK, (Dartington was a similar place / space to Black Mountain College). In the library I would read the High Performance and P-Form journals and read reviews about performance in Chicago. In 1996 I came to Chicago for the first time to join Goat Island Performance group. For me the roots of performance came from reading those articles, from being part of Goat Island and seeing the trail end of Randolph Street Gallery — a non-profit performance/gallery space here that ended I believe in 1998. In the past 15 years that I’ve been here, I have seen some extraordinary work from performance makers in their studio performance spaces and venues here with Lucky Pierre, Dolores Wilber and her collective, Julie Laffin, Joe Silovsky, Cupola Bobber,Joan Dickinson, Larry Steger, and more recently Erica Mott, Justin Cabrillos, Joseph Ravens and Peter Carpenter. More recently I think of Chicago as a place for experimentation, a place for artists to really explore and test rigorous ideas. It is a place for research to take place, and for non-traditional, informative intersections and overlaps that to spring up unexpectedly via collectives and collaborations. That is what I get excited about. My training at Dartington and also in Goat Island taught me to be open, to be curious, to not be hierarchical, to give permission, to open up new spaces. I am about to hit 40 in 4 months and to have known this practice now for over 20 years and still be working: that’s is what I am grateful for. Performance is a medium that is forever shifting, one of the things for me about coming to Chicago and living and working in America is that things can happen. I am ambitious and a workaholic and in a funny way I am thinking of this festival as my mid-life crisis! (this is my sense of humour btw). Sometimes you have to give yourself permission to ask and see what is out there. I am lucky now to be here two decades into this practice and that when I ask certain things, like a 14 venue performance festival where hybridity, where venues that wouldn’t normally work with each other have an opportunity for exchange, for dialogue and conversation. Where doors open and the container of performance can be a storefront gallery, a video installation, a reading, a movement art endurance work, a reenactment, a meeting between museum spaces, schools, galleries, DIY spaces.
CP: How did you go about organizing the programming?
MJ: The programming of the festival came firstly from Sara and I meeting with all the venues in the summer and fall of 2011 and then slowly from there having conversations to see about what would be the best fit for each of their spaces. Some venues suggested if a particular artist would be a good fit for the festival in regards what they were already considering, venues like the Dance Center of Columbia College with Zoe I Juniper or Museum of Contemporary Art with Miguel Gutierrez and Threewalls with Mary Patten and Mathew Paul Jinks. All the venues have really exciting work that will enter their spaces and showcasing incredible talent. I am excited about the three venues I have just mentioned in the openings these spaces can present these artists. I am also excited to see how these artists present their work here in Chicago. These are highlights, other highlights for me are being able to go back to the Cultural Center and have the US premier of Spanish, Swiss based artist Maria La Ribot perform her 5 hour work Laughing Hole. I have never seen her work live but have followed her work closely with a video work of hers I show in the classroom, a documentary called La Ribot Distinguida filmed at the Tate Modern in London and the Pompidou in Paris. Through the new director of Performing Arts, Shoni Currier at the Chicago Cultural Center we are able to showcase her work. Also at Joseph Ravens Defrillator performance gallery we are able to bring Singaporean artist Lynn Lu, she will share an evening with British visual art poet cris cheek from Ohio and two emerging local artists Kitty Huffman and Hope Esser. Croatian Movement Art Group OOURR, local dance artist Peter Carpenter will be on the same bill and have been excited to follow him these past two years. at Links Hall local Chicago Artists Every House as a Door, Erica Mott and Trevor Martin, Hyde Park Art Center and having artists in residents Minouk Lim from Korea and Croatian born London-based Vlatka Horvat. The challenge to me is to keep curious and to put things together that normally wouldn’t be together in a program. I like group exhibits where experimental forms of performance, movement. Language, actions, durations, emerging, established can come together. Again, to me this comes from my training and also wanting to connect people. The curator / caretaker is first to open up a space and the last to leave.
CP: Maybe because the title of your festival is IN>TIME, I’m reminded of the ephemerality of performance, and various conversations I’ve picked up on peripherally about how to document performance, how the documentation can eclipse the performance itself as an art object, or what happens to a piece when it is recreated in a different time and context, by different performers. I realize those conversations are vast and intricate, but it occurred to me that you might be negotiating some of those as an organizer, putting together a multi-faceted, multi-venue festival. How you have been dealing with documentation?
MJ: Last week eight students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago worked with London Based artist Kira O’Reilly with the three-week visiting artist class called FROZEN IN>TENSITIES that is a course driven exhibit at SAIC. Each week there is a presentation at SAIC of the work they have been doing with the artists. With Kira the students found an old filing cabinet that has been in the green room this past semester. The filing cabinet was full of files that is an archive of the performance department when it was being chaired by the departments founder Tom Jaremba and former chair and now Graduate Division Chair, Werner Herterich. I site this filing cabinet as it became both a rich treasure trove of correspondence and a source of material for students to respond to. There were files from Linda Montano for example, and Alistair MacLennan when they visited the department. This cabinet has been making me think about how do we document our lives now in 2013. What are our filing cabinets? How do we store and retain this information, this memory of being here, especially with performance? For the class we also have 3 rooms in the Sullivan Galleries, and so we are also having this conversation about the document, of how to archive what remains. It becomes an exciting challenge. Yesterday I helped Sabri Reed, the teaching assistant for the class, take the filing cabinet on a cart from the Columbus Drive building to the Sullivan Galleries. It was quite unwieldy and heavy, but became this opportunity to walk and mark those moments of exchange spanning the past 30 years across Monroe Street. The students are also going to insert a record of their work in the class into a file and put it back into the filing cabinet for the exhibit and this will remain.
Last week I also renewed the Goat Island website as it was going to run out, the domain name in five days or something. This position between the physical and the virtual, the mixed reality of archive and document is a really interesting question for me. If we don’t maintain the upkeep of our websites what does remain. What are our filing cabinets of 2013?
CP: This image of time keeps coming back…
MJ: To me this is an experiment. Since 2006 I have also been curating and have developed series of OPENPORT A performance, sound and language festival (2007) co – curated with Nathan Butler, Judd Morrissey and Lori Talley at Links Hall, Intimate and Epic (2006) co – curated with Sara Schnadt in Millennium Park and The Simulationists (2011) co – curated with Claudia Hart and Judd Morrissey at SAIC as well as the IN>TIME series. Time becomes an important thing and I often think about how to stamp time now as it moves so quickly (the 40 thing again ;)) – yet, if you take time to make something, I think something can come through and with Sara and I meeting all the venues 18 months ago, the results of this time has come through. I come from a father who was a herdsman who milked 200 Friesian cows each day, woke at 5 and worked till 8, seven days a week. A life’s work, working for over 30 years on the same farm. There is something in building a life through projects, through ritual, through time that you can get a lot done and through the creative make a place and space for opportunity to enter. Again for this I am grateful and I always thank my teachers for giving me the space, time and attention. You work towards something to thank them.
Further Information: http://www.in-time-performance.org/