Ron Athey - Interview (2012)
It's hard for me to write an introduction for this interview... Ex-L.A. punk, ex-Rozz Williams (Christian Death)'s boyfriend, ex-drug addict, seropositive, extreme performance artist, writer, what other words can I use to describe RON ATHEY? This man's life is incredible and so is his work... (Raph Gordon)
Where did you grow up? Your work is dotted with religious symbols. Is there a link to your life as a child?
I grew up in Pomona California, the gateway to the Inland Empire (I'm only proud of that regional reference after the same-named DavidLynch film with the genius line, ''do you know how to get the bus to Pomona?'') Yes the religious lens, raised Pentecostal in a Catholic neighborhood. So the obsession with Spiritualism and ecstasis is from my family's religion, but the iconography from catholic.
What were your first contacts with punk rock?
As a teen, between 15-18, I went to an all-ages disco called Odyssey, there was 'new wave' crossover, and also the streets around Oki Dog, the look excited me before the sound.
What was Oki Dog exactly?
Santa Monica Blvd. (in the neighborhood we call East- West Hollywood) hustlery, druggy hangouts, no one was necessarily local but came thereabouts to be out of it and find action on the sex and drugs and money and punk rock front.
How was the L.A. Punk scene at the time? What were the best bands or venues?
Is it true that cops were violent towards punks – I heard about some crackdowns at Black Flag gigs for example ?
I don't know how real the crack downs were, I remember the walls in one venue collapsing, and the roundup during the Nash/Holmes Wonderland murders around Oki Dogs again of punks being thrown in paddy wagons. But you paid a price for being a freak, bottles thrown out of cars, aggressive questioning like you were demanding attention from regular people on the bus. But I wouldn't cry oppression, it was an exciting street life time when amazing prostitutes were still working the streets.
Speaking about street prostitutes, what is your view about it? Do you think it should be legalized ? What has it to offer to this society? Do you have nice memories about this time, some anecdotes maybe?
Of course it should be legalized. But I guess through escort agencies it sort of it, as long as it's invisible to the public. I miss the street prostitute days, nice view, both the crimped bleached haired fishnette women or big dicked men in flimsy synthetic shorts, the rampant exhibitioism is hard to imagine. The 60s into the 70s brought a lot of public sexual expression and tolerance. This continued into the 80s where it got locked up in a box with severe 40s shoulder pads.
|Ron at a Christian Death's show, early 80s|
|Premature Ejaculation's performance|
Whiskey-a-go-go. I tied Rozz to a cross, slashed his palms with a straight razor, put a wedding dress on him and a fiberglass clown head. Christian Death shows employed various theatrics.
Were you involved in bands too (as an artist, or musician...) ? Was punk rock an influence to your future art work?
Largely because of my involvement with the band member, Rozz in Christian Death, Eva O. in Speed Queens/Super Heroines, Edward Stapleton in Nervous Gender. Also Pomona is situated between LA and Orange Counties, so we went to gigs of Adolescents, TSOL, Black Flag, Circle Jerks, as well as LA clubs which would be also SF bands like Avengers and Dead Kennedy's. I think the influence of my future art work more came from the next wave, Industrial Music shows at the LA Press club, and Desert Exodus, which included Einstürzende Neubauten, NON, Factrix, Monte Cazzaza, and heavily, Throbbing Gristle.
|Premature Ejaculation - flyer|
|No Mag's PE session|
Nietsche and COUM transmission. But more immediately, the performance artist Johanna Went, who often opened for bands like the Germs or Black Flag, and held up with a hardcore audience. The Burroughs / Gysin cutup technique, concepts of randomness, transforming the abject, trance state, definitely influenced us. The project started as a noise/sound concept, psycho/neuro acoustics, but imagined visuals / rituals havin' this power even more intensely. It was unselfconscious and largely intuitive.
Funny you talk about Burroughs and Gysin, because I just wrote an article about the Dream machine Gysin did, a stroboscopic flicker device that produce visions or hallucinations. Have you ever heard of it or try it?
Yes and yes! And i think these ideas are being moved forward again in many ways. The quest for 'yage' has manifested, cut ups and randomness, a detached but dig-in stance to esoterica, are super important.
You did very few gigs with Premature Ejaculaton. Could you tell us about them, They became very famous for their violence and provocation? I think you ate a dead cat on stage? How was the reception in the audience?
We only did two PE gigs, both at Arts Building in Pomona, and one performance for camera for NoMag, which was in 1981. SM, ingesting roadkill, throwing things at the audience. The second performance, which was largely made up of members of OC bands, the audience made art shields!
|"New year's eve 1983, tweaking on crystal meth at a friend's loft in Downtown LA"|
Is it when you were in the punk scene that you begun using drugs?
Before, my drug problems were in part regional. There was a lot of heroin and pcp in high school.
You know you're seropositive since 1986. I'm not seropositive, but when I think about people carrying this disease, for life, it's like having a loaded gun at your head everyday and not knowing if someone will or not, pull the trigger... How did you react when you learned about it? Has it played a rôle in your performances, in your work on human bodies? In the way you see life, and pain?
This has been a crazy trip, because in 86 it was a death sentence. And now in 2012 I don't take meds, apparently I have a slow to non-progressive strain, and stay healthy. But the trauma from carrying it, living under a dark cloud that became not so dark, to a 'post aids' era where it's not the main issue, it's like there is something wrong with this picture. So much of how i think and the work I make came from this pressure chamber. Remember to listen to Diamanda Galas' Plague Mass, I saw it 2 times, and how it resonated like a proper mass for us affected. But it was also a unifying element as well.
When did you start getting piercing and tattooed? Why did you decide to tattoo your face? Is it because you wanted to be considered as a marginal, out of the society? And, now that tattoos are well more accepted in society, do you think tattoos (or body art in general) have the same impact, the same importance as it used to have?The face was both fetishistic (the tears) and to be marginal (the spider), were my first ones. No, they can't have the same impact now that they're more common. And I feel lucky I met good artists – Bob Roberts and Leo Zulueta – at the very beginning. They are still important to me, but in a way i'm glad in traveling customs doesn't freak out as much as they used to!
When and where did you start your performances?
Premature Ejaculation and bands were the 80s. In the 90s I carried on being a dancer at club Fuck!, an early techno dance / bod mod party in silverlake. What started as piercing scenes developed into some of my most enduring images, like the st. Sebastian. And then at LACE and Highways, then to Chicago, New York and London within a couple years.
You're dealing with pain and self mutilations in your shows. Is it only for entertainment, kind of S/M show, or is it a spiritual quest? Or a way to feel alive? Is there a message behind your performances?
These practices morph in and out of personal/private, some only stay alive in art expression. I am into very intense body experiences in fucking that are beyond genital penetration and orgasm.
It must have been subject to controversy to make art performance where you bleed in front of an audience when you're HIV positive?
Well, I began doing bleeding work with PE, so this precedes my HIV status. And I never risked transmission, I only worked with the same material in different times, which have went full cycle. I think in Martyrs&Saints I did merge the HIV status with the martyr complex, but in other works it was not important, yet the polemic present.
You mentionned two times projects leaded by Genesis P. Orridge and Cosey Fanni Tutti (COUM Transmissions and Throbbing Gristle). When did you discover their work and what does it represent for you? Do you think they had an influence on your work, or maybe you share the same purpose behind your separate works?
When I was 19! I was fortunate also the time Rozz and I lived at ToxicShock Records, which was rich with zines / publications and obviously music, but not only from that era, it was the other history, everything from yippie culture, Zappa, Residents, through Throbbing Gristle, SPK, the beginning of the tabloids RE/Search, NoMag, and punk / underground culture sneaking in gay porn mags In Touch and After Dark.
Do you see a difference between the S&M scene in the 80s and today?
It was less exposed in the 80s, SM was one of the many things commodified and coopted in the 90s frenzy that made the term 'underground' obsolete.
How was the atmosphere of the leather nights in LA in the 80s? I feel it like something new and rebel that was happening at the time. A new free area for gay people.Leather clubs / nights / sexclubs / afterhours were an epiphany for me. I couldn't get my head around the marlboro man clone of the late 70s. I just didn't know how to access it. And the leather moment then was over the top, public sex, body mods i had never seen (pumped and tied off giant nipples, P A s, scars, it was an entire realm that i wanted to explore, even moreso that it frightened me in that shaking in the chest feeling because it was so unknown, foreign to my experience!
You were hosting GIMP nights in the early 2000s along with VAGINAL DAVIS. Coud you explain what was it about?
G.I.M.P. Unlmted was a monthly performance and installation event, wherein vag and I were able to host other artists, local to LA and passing through town, without the usual year long wait to fit in the program of an arts venue. Typically we showed 3 performance acts and two installations. But this is very hard for a small door charge to cover. It evolved into Platinum Oasis, sponsored by OUTFEST film fest for two years, then visions of excess, which we programmed in Birmingham UK, London, Ljubljana Slovenia. I've carried on with this project with Lee Adams of the London club Kaos, and it has also shown in Copenhagen. The idea was to show multiple interactive installations that were truly interactive and not corny, that inspired interventions / actions and sexuality! And they often did.
You also did performance tours with Vaginal Davis, right?
Vag and I have performed on many of the same bills, and a few times together. Most recently in 2009 in Naples and museo MADRE.-
You're living in London now, what is different in Europe compared to Los Angeles? Why did you choose to move?
I have worked a lot in london and europe since the early 90s, and after 47 years in LA, needed a kick in the ass. I don't prefer to gloomy weather but it is an interesting challenge to start a life over again
You said to me you're currently working on a new book... Could you tell us about it?
Pleading in the Blood is a monograph of my 30 years of performance, and will work on both an art history context and the way my work evolved out of scenes, as opposed to the academy. Writings by myself, the editor Dominic Johnson, academics Amelia Jones and Adrian Heathfield, amazing socio-political / sexual writer Patrick Califia, arts journalist Cynthia Carr (aka C.Carr from Village Voice NYC heyday), Lydia Lunch, as well as many of my collaborators soprano / musicologist Juliana Snapper, artist and movement performer Julie Tolentino, Slava Mogutin, Franko B., and more! Still gathering photos, is such a look at how media changed from the 80s to the mid 90s/digital age.
Have you ever thought about writing novels or poems?
I used to write journalism, I write essays and prose, but not poems or novels!
Your performance, The Solar Anus, is a direct reference to George Bataille's essays. Are French writers a part of your influences in your work? (if it does, Who do you like to read in particular?)
Absolutely, my self-education is francophile heavy, starting with Jean Genet, and going up to my philisophy studies reading Deleuze. Of course the Beats and Patti Smith were instrumental in helping me understand another way of life when i had teenage angst / isolation and felt hopeless. Hubert Selby Jr... Here i could go on forever!
What are your current or future plans (except the book)? Will you be back on the road soon?
I am still working on a large experiment, Gifts of the Spirit: Automatic Writing, a performance installation that requires 30+ persons, a hypnotist, workshopping, and Othon Mataragas playing auto-composition on piano. This is a bit more ambiant, using my memoir as a starting point for 16 automatic writers, then going to 6 typists on manual typewriters (think of this as a soundscore as well), to 2 cut-up editors. And they are read back, the algorithm from a collective unconcious. I have shown this in london and manchester, and just finished the last performance of my solo Self Obliteration cycle in New York City on my 50th birthday, which was December 16th.