Interview with Ron Athey
Listen readers, the wonderful thing about so-called “alternative entertainment” is that there is truly something for everyone. If high-brow contemporary dance isn’t your thing, try the twirling tassels of burlesque. If clowns and comedy aren’t for you, you can still enjoy the mind-bending beauty of the circus in a different form.
In light of this, there will always be performers and shows here at VBO which aren’t usually everyone’s cup of tea - but which still can awe us and move us and teach us.
This week, we have had the honour to talk to the controversial, transformative, boundary-pushing performance artist, Ron Athey. California-based, his unmistakable performance style explores S&M, self-mutilation and the sublime, and has been toured all over the world. Now he is back in London after five years with a new show Acephalous Monster. We sat down with him to learn more about why and how he makes the work he does.
1) I have heard your work described as being “not for the squeamish”- do you think you find braver audiences in Europe than in the US? Audiences more open to being confronted? Or is quite the opposite true?
I might have answered that sincerely in the 90s, but at this point, in an era where human cruelty is the new normal, I’m not sure the squeamish can’t get on board. I do usually work in densities where your gaze can go to video or form if ‘mortification of the flesh’ is bumming you out. Also, I’m not a populist, I wouldn’t switch forms just to be easier. It’s hard to say where exactly I sit in the history of live art. Actionist-inspired but definitely not doing mono-image work and never have. Body Art, yes, but always with a foot in theatre or at least the show!
One of the fantastic experiences I had during the years I lived in London, I spent 2010/11 sitting in Johnny Golding’s grad and post-grad philosophy seminars when she was at Greenwich. Wow, this guide through dialectics of the sublime, really understanding post-modernism, immanence… helped me pose a question: can these states be conjured in a live performance? And my feeling is, why do anything else? That’s where my passion lies. Grace, form, and the breakdown of stigma. For instance, the solar anus, re-contexualizing the butthole via a Georges Bataille essay from 1931 and the 1970s action photographs of Pierre Molinier, specifically his interaction with the “love spurs” and self-portraiture while self-penetration with the assistance of an attachment to a high heel. The project that came out of this seminar was Gifts of the Spirit: Automatic Writing.
2) It has been five years since you have performed in the UK, what has brought you back? And why now?
Sebastiane at the Coronet Theatre was my going-away show. I chose to stay home in Los Angeles for two years and taught at both California Institute for the Arts and USC’s Roski School, and reckoned with returning to California. (I don’t want to call it the States!)
During this time, I spent two chunks of time in the Mexican state of Guanajuato with the opera composer/director Sean Griffin. We took my automatism project (which was started in 2010 for a commission from the Air season at Queen Mary’s Great Hall). The development and production was a co-production with the Mike Kelley Foundation and the Broad Museum, both in Los Angeles, so it was a good homecoming!
Why now? I’ve shown almost every work I’ve made since 1994 in Glasgow and London, I’m very excited to actually tour Acephalous Monster to these cities as well as new ones: Leeds, Cambridge and Norwich are first times for me. Previous UK tours have been 4 Scenes In A Harsh Life, JOYCE, and The Judas Cradle.
As much of my work has sat in Spiritualism, automatism, and ecstatic practices, the link between US and UK Spiritualism and Moravian churches has been an interested research point for me. I took a lot of nods from the book, “Why Mrs. Blake Cried”.
3) How did you come across Georges Bataille’s Acéphale, and why did it inspire you, and this show?
I’ve dove into every writing of Georges Bataille as its been translated into English. Which of course was Story of the Eye, then The Trial of Gilles de Rais, Literature and Evil, The Tears of Eros, but it was most of the essays in Visions of Excess which changed the way i think. To understand that self-mutilation contains an economy! (Sacrificial Mutilation and the Severed Ear of Vincent van Gogh), the pineal gland, the solar anus, and real class warfare fodder, The Sacred Conspiracy. It was only a few years ago that all of the papers and related publications from the secret society of Acéphale were published, so I took this as a prompt. We (Lee Adams, Barnaby Adams, Kira O’Reilly) consumed this and squealed about it in real time. Previously, Lee had made a performance as that exact Andre Masson designed Acéphale, which he also has a tattoo of. There is a list of radical queers who’ve had that on them for years, including Slava Mogutin.
The inspiration though, came from reading Michel Surya’s Georges Bataille: An Intellectual Biography. You have the set-up, of the surrealist wars, the little bitch fights and competition between Bataille being cast out by Breton (who coined the term ’the scatological philosopher'), swiping at Sartre, Genet, knowing there is a shared lover with Lacan… anyway, Surya set up this intense anxiety about WWII and specifically, Nazi occupation. I couldn’t imagine going from regular problematic life to absolute fascism. That was some years ago, now I find myself wondering, how far is too far? How much ignoring is implicit, or collective guilt as a culture? I don’t make political judgements as performance, it’s more a parallel imagining, using chaos magic against dark magic.
Enter choosing to close the piece with a cut-up on a writing about cut-ups from Genesis P-Orridge’s Ecoterrorist. Bataille, On Nietzsche, positions that moment as the predicted “thousand years of chaos” after the death of god. The vacuum. And yet, the only failure being to succumb to nihilism. The solution: his madness dilemma: Dionysus vs. the crucified one. In Bataille’s sentiment, our responsibility to create new celebrations! Not rituals, but celebrations! Hence the use of the Minotaur in 3 sections of Acephalous Monster (the conception, the apotheosis scene, and the “horns of consecration” pattern that’s partially cut in each performance on my chest, over the sacred heart I had tattooed in 1983.
From Esoterrorist, and spot on to this point: "The myths and symbols of the past were attempts to articulate intimation of what is possible. The themes of mythology are not just archaic knowledge — they are living actualities of human beings.”
4) What does the figure of Acéphale, of the headless man, represent to you?
The secret society prescribed being exhaustive in this reading: look at headless gnostic gods. Celebrate the beheading of Louis XVI, Cephalomore (fully functioning beheaded saints such as St. Denis the patron saint of Paris).
5) How do you create your performances? Are they born of flashes of inspiration or are they long, shifting processes of iteration?
I refer to literature, film and art history, esoteric processes, the archetypal canon. It is always a question, an excuse to dig in deep and look at the subject, let go of the obvious result. And then - doing it! It becomes real with an audience, the witness. And really feeling if enough came across and how to re-address it. This is round three of trying new ideas with Acephalous Monster, it was commissioned and made in residence at Performance Space New York, we had the luxury of setting up and building a week ahead of time! “We,” being myself and Hermes Pittakos, a brilliant artist based in Athens who I met in the London years. He’s the proper art director of the piece, but also in the first and last scene (Brion Gysin’s Pistol Poem, and the post-porn video finale.)
Another challenge is to be clear, the piece is an onslaught of constant text, that stands in as narration, as word virus, as texture. Its projected as super titles, scrolled, video mapped. I’d like to push this even further.
6) So much of your work deals with self-mutilation, with pain, with trauma – and Acephalous Monster deals with the insidious, shifting nature of neo-fascism - do you think it leaves any space for hope? Or is that not the point?
All of these texts are super inspiring at the performed loaded with beauty. Maybe a suggestion to look to another sphere, another location of myths and return to the bubble of underground/counterculture intensity. My main schism with current thinking is that it’s too mainstream, too absolutist, too fundamentalist even! I don’t know why I’m shy about saying it, I’m always trying to carve out a spirituality that has more than blind faith, actually has a logic.
Also, the description of my work that sound like judgements come from a Christian culture, come from a culture obsessed with procreating and using the spectre of the child and a tool to censor everyone into the reality of an 8-year-old. NOT the slightest bit interested in behaving.
Recently I’ve questioned my adherence to social media decency standards. The only one that doesn’t have that is Twitter. Find me there for what the work really looks like! I do love a perfect image which takes a perfect photo. But is that the work without the strange boundary pushing of non-pornographic penetration? (meaning, something that could be described as a sex act that’s not produced into something to arouse.)
7) Do you ever go into a performance with a specific idea of what you would like an audience member to take from a show? And, if so, what are you hoping viewers will take from Acephalous Monster?
Yes, I want something to resonate! Maybe to crack open, or just to share what I feel like is the result of my research, my channelling. But I don’t presume to know what baggage someone’s bringing in with them! Audience members from the BDSM community, it is for them. Queer and liberal theologists? Absolutely! Regular Joes? Why not! But to say you missed the point, maybe I missed the point. Or maybe the context it was presented wasn’t quite right. There are a lot of factors which is why I love site-specific work. It throws another level of magic into the mix. If the piece resonates when you see it, don’t miss it in Manchester!
This intention does change and evolve, I do think of my work as performance, but not entertainment, so I’m not trying to bend into television. But I do enjoy the contrasts. Last tour I made a performance for Kunsthaus Graz with boychild, performed a free show of human printing press at a beautiful space in Athens, Communitism, opened a music festival in Riga, and performed acephalous monster at the Contemporary Art Museum of North Macedonia for Skopje Pride. I do feel kin, or even family, in all of those spaces.
You can see Ron in Acephalous Monster all over the UK throughout October, find out more here.