I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
In Hallelujah!, documentary filmmaker Catherine Gund-Saalfield takes us into the world of performance artist Ron Athey and his company. The stylized cuttings, piercings, wrappings, and beatings that take place in works such as Martyrs and Saints and Four Scenes in a Harsh Life have made Athey one of the most controversial figures of the performance art scene. His sometimes brutal and bloody stagings have also made Athey, who is gay and HIV positive, a favorite target in the ongoing kulturkampf of the cultural right. In Hallelujah! , Gund accompanies Athey and his troupe to locations in the U.S. and abroad, documenting their performances and talking with the members of the company about their lives on and off stage. I recently spoke with Gund-Saalfield about her experience in making the film, and her thoughts about the questions of sex, religion, pain, pleasure, race, gender, the body, and its transcendence that Hallelujah! so powerfully explores.
Kendall Thomas So how did the Hallelujah! project start?
Catherine Gund-Saalfield The first time I saw Ron Athey was at P.S. 122 in October of ‘94, because my friend Julie Tolentino was performing with him. That piece, Martyrs and Saints, really hit me hard. Almost a year to the day after I first saw Julie and Ron, they invited me to Mexico City for two weeks of preparation and a one-night marathon performance. But for a long time I didn’t know that I would make this movie. They wanted me to videotape the whole trip because of the incredible environment: a former nunnery with huge ceilings and various chapels, and a stone courtyard with old ruins. It was a four-hour extravaganza. In the opening scene, “Nurse’s Penance,” the performers sew their lips together and do some other procedures. Some of the audience was sitting very far away, so we set up monitors of what I was videotaping and put me up on the stage to shoot close-ups.
KT So in effect, you became part of the performance?
CGS Exactly. I started with a specific role in Mexico—both as an adjunct, outside person taping, and as a collaborator with a role in the piece. That turned me into their full-fledged documentarian.
KT Did you have to build relationships of trust with the performers, and they with you?
CGS Definitely. I don’t know how that happened—it’s the biggest mystery of the whole process—except that I had a very close relationship with Julie who was a central figure in the group. For starters, when I arrived in Mexico, I connected very easily with Ron, whom I had met several times before. We gave ourselves ground rules for how to work together. We weren’t friends before Mexico, but we had talked a bit. I was clearly part of a broader community and I think people felt comfortable with that. They’re a very trusting group; that’s the basis on which they work with each other. I wouldn’t say they accepted me into it though. It was more a process of identifying each other as part of a larger group that already existed.
KT Did you ever feel, as a documentarian, like a voyeur?
CGS I feel more like a voyeur now that I’m not filming. I see Ron perform, but I don’t have my video camera, so I just watch. And some of it is hard. People act like watching the performances is really easy for me and hard for everyone else. It’s not easy for me. Even after having seen the material and understanding the context—which makes it easier to understand the work—there are some really difficult scenes like when he cuts his face and puts 30 syringes in his arm as part of the suicide scene. When I go see him perform without my camera, it’s unmediated; I’m in direct contact with the feelings and emotions and the reality of what I am seeing. My camera put a little separation between me and the pain and blood of this material, which made it easier for me to maintain my own identity in relationship to the people I was filming.
KT How have your post-Hallelujah! conversations and reviews changed your conception of issues of audience and spectatorship? Specifically, do you have a different view of the spectator’s situation now than you did while you were documenting the performances?
CGS A part of me didn’t believe there were many people who would or could watch this movie. But I made the movie partly because relatively few people had seen Ron perform and I wanted to make the work more widely available. Performance art is so different from video or film in which a lot of people can see it over and over in many different places without fatiguing the artist. The audience has been much more forgiving and generous than I’d expected. I focused on the art of Ron’s work, performance, art history, Ron’s theories and philosophies about life, popular culture, fashion, and politics. I brought all that into it so more people could engage beyond the blood and the guts, beyond the sensationalism. And they have. In that way the film has succeeded.
KT Do you think you have created a potential audience for his performances through this documentary?
CGS A lot of people have told me that though they couldn’t watch the performances live, they liked seeing them on film. So, I don’t think they will go on to watch a live show, but that’s not something Ron and I ever explicitly set out to do. I was intrigued that it didn’t seem to be his concern; he doesn’t need the general public to see his work. It wasn’t important to him to be portrayed as funny and sweet, even though I think he is. He comes across charismatically, very smart and warm in the movie. But he isn’t interested in being acceptable to people.
KT What, if anything, do you think is lost or gained in one’s encounter with Ron Athey’s work once it’s been “mediated” in a documentary film, or in a gallery performance—where one expects to see a certain kind of artistic practice?
CGS His work changes the place it’s performed in. When he performed at the Matthew Marks Gallery, Nan Goldin’s photographs were being exhibited, which was a happy coincidence since her work is also about transgression. His performing there meant his artwork was included on the roster of what one might see at that gallery on a given visit.
To answer the first part of the question: frankly, I don’t know if he’ll do any of the trilogy again. This was an unexpected effect of making the film. Especially because we were angling to make it possible for him to perform Deliverance—the third piece in the trilogy—in the United States, which he’s never done.
But I got an e-mail from Ron recently saying that he feels like the movie has made it possible for him to move on, to see the trilogy as a finished piece. He wants to work on his new piece about maternal lineage, matriarchy, incest, and being raised by women. He wants to work with fewer people, do different things with his own body and his own limits. In general, I think the movie provides a useful context in which to view his performance work. That’s a gain.
KT How did your previous work prepare you for the Hallelujah! project?
CGS There are two parts to that answer: style and content. Stylistically, I had the intimacy of the little camera which I always use and I wanted to contextualize as opposed to just cut between talking heads and performance. I wanted to play with the edges of that, even within the performance. The film takes you up to the performance and through it to afterwards. Some people can’t actually tell when the performances start and end. The film’s about a group of people, a portrait. I love exploring people, their personalities, characters, and histories. Although I’ve always been a documentarian, this piece is completely different from my previous work in that it’s feature length, it took me more than two years to make and cost more money. In terms of content, it started out for me as a film about AIDS. Most of my other work has been about AIDS in one way or another—or about art. This brought those two things together. Athey’s artwork is so powerful to me because AIDS is about losing all control over your body, losing control over your life … And Ron, through his work, does the opposite. He’s constantly controlling, testing, reining in … he’s the master of his body. It’s a different way of looking at AIDS, life and death, than the more traditional approach of educating about treatment and stigma.
KT It’s interesting you should say that AIDS informs the film, because that’s not what I took away from it. It was, indeed, this set of questions regarding the body—embodiment, corporeality—that you’ve addressed in relation to AIDS. But I took the interrogations and explorations you documented in Athey’s work to encompass a much broader field than AIDS.
CGS I am so grateful to Ron for allowing me to see the bigger picture that includes AIDS, but doesn’t in every moment stay tethered to HIV or AIDS issues. Before, the struggle I was having—that we were all having—because of the AIDS crisis, was very literal. I think Ron’s work acknowledges that AIDS is never an isolated event, never a single issue. So though I identify Hallelujah! as an AIDS story, it’s not, in any traditional sense. It could relate to a specific time, how because of the cocktail—protease inhibitors—the representation of AIDS is very different from what it was five years ago. A lot of issues play a role in the movie, but HIV was the initial aspect of Ron’s performances for which I had the most direct understanding of or need to work with—much more so than religion. I don’t have an institutionalized religious background. In the movie, the symbolism and meaning of spirituality are exactly how Ron identifies them. AIDS placed everything in a much broader context, and that’s what drew me to it.
KT Were you aware of filming against, or in response to, the sensationalization of Athey’s work in the so-called mainstream media and the cultural right? Particularly in light of Athey’s HIV status?
CGS The fact that he’s HIV positive is the only reason they’re interested in his blood at all. Obviously, he has these other reasons to do what he does. I wouldn’t foreground HIV over other influences in his life, but a lot of it comes back to that. His ideas about mysticism and life and death are about trying to find meaning in life—and the feeling that he’s going to die soon. A lot of the blood and body work is about attacking his emotional and physical pain with another pain, to dilute it, diffuse it, or get rid of it.
KT What makes this work queer for me is Athey’s articulation of Protestant religious sensibility for which the topos of blood—specifically, the blood of the crucified Jesus—meets this notion of the contaminated blood of a person infected and living with HIV. The aesthetics of his performances have the effect, if not the intention, of redeeming—indeed, of making sacred—what has been an object of profanation, vilification, and demonization in our culture. It’s a counter-discourse onto which he hitches this specific religious history—which from your documentary seems very close to his heart.
CGS I think it motivates him.
KT So this articulation of sexuality and spirituality—even a sexuality associated with HIV gay men and the shadow of death—becomes redemptive. There is a powerful transformation in his performances of each of these terms and the relationship among them.
CGS The issues you’re talking about are all about him being gay, even though he gives a perspective that doesn’t fit into the traditional gay rights movement. The use of blood in the performance work is not about it being his blood, or about his blood being HIV positive. When people are bleeding, it’s not about HIV. HIV issues and blood come up more backstage, where performers sterilize their syringes, have their own workstations, and pierce each other with gloves on—they take precautions. They think and they talk about the people in the group, including Ron, who are HIV positive. The most bloody piece is the “Crown of Thorns,” which both Ron and Pig Pen do in the trilogy. The cutting on Darryl’s back is bloody, and is probably the most infamous scene. People have said, “Oh, the blood was splattering and dripping”—but that wasn’t the point. Ultimately, the bigger message that he’s putting out is about gay symbolism, and its representation within religion. Or pleasure, and how that plays out in death and vilification.
KT But two very different meanings of passion get played out on the stage. Given the prominence of Athey’s work and the contestations that have been going on about queer cultural politics or queer aesthetic practice, and the support, or withdrawal of support, it’s very interesting to reflect on this whole question of blood. Not just Athey’s blood, but the idea of blood—and dirt, of having “dirty” blood.
CGS The biggest constituencies responding to this film were the right wing, the mainstream gay community, and the art world, and I think each response can be examined in terms of Ron’s blood and his bloody performance. You were asking about the reaction in mainstream culture to the blood, or the way it’s so sensationalized by the right wing. I wasn’t thinking about the right wing when I was making this movie, but there were certainly times when I was thinking about the art world and wanting the film to be more palatable, to be something that people would embrace as art. Obviously, I worked through it because those definitions are silly; people are so hell-bent on defining art; meanwhile artists just keep making it. There were times though, when I’d be watching raw footage, and my daughter or her friends would come in, and I’d turn the monitor off and not want them to see it. I’d think, I wish I was making something that I could share with everyone in the world. You don’t have to be a small child to not want to see this footage. There are people, my mother and friends, who embrace me and support me as an artist but don’t want to watch the film. I thought about taking out the really bloody scenes. I discussed it with my editor, because he acted like he was editing Bambi—nothing bothered him—but there were times when even he would say, “I guess you’re right, somebody might not want to watch this moment.” Then I realized that you can’t leave any of Ron’s work out and be making a movie about Ron. This blood is the work. The pain is the work. The body stapling, piercing, cutting is the work.
And then gay people and the queer press think they know everything about what Ron’s trying to say. Someone interviewing me for a gay magazine asked how the gay press has received this film, and I said, “This is the first article that’s been written for the gay press and it’s an interview and profile of me, not of Ron or of the film.” Meanwhile we were reviewed in every paper in New York and L.A., Paper, The Voice, The LA and San Francisco Weekly, New York Magazine, on the Internet and about 30 other publications. There was much more distancing from the gay mainstream press/community, than from the art world.
KT Why do you think that’s so?
CGS The mainstream, gay, middle-class white movement is about assimilating. This work is about a margin, an extreme, the edge; this is freaky, kinky, way-out there, whether it’s size, race, gender, hairstyle, politics, accessorizing, or whatever.
KT It’s an open rejection of the very idea of the normal as relevant at all, and certainly of the “normal” homosexual.
CGS Ron—even in his most literally gay moments—is not conforming to any commonly held notions of queer … at least by queers. He’s always counter.
KT There’s something extraordinary about the ritualized use of the body in the work. It references a lot of the cultural history of evangelical religion, for example, in the United States. There’s a wonderful moment where he’s dressed in white, like famous white women evangelists of the first half of the century.
CGS Where he’s Miss Velma, in Four Scenes in a Harsh Life.
KT Right. One thinks of some of the great figures in the history of popular American Christianity, like Aimee Semple-McPherson and others. It’s about a gendered body that straddles the boundaries between masculinity, femininity, and isn’t, of course, specific to the question of AIDS. I found that scene fascinating. What sort of gendered relationship to Athey’s work did you develop in recording this work through your camera?
CGS I feel very comfortable among the folks in Ron’s company. Gender is so all over the place in that work. When I would start to crook my head and be confused about a scene—say the “Strip-Joint” scene—with the beating in the bar which was difficult for a lot of reasons—I’d try to make it a simple statement about race or gender. Then I’d think about the circumstances, the literal coincidences that make his pieces what they are. Ron’s not ignorant. He’s saying, “I’m not going to pretend people don’t see what’s actually there when I put up the scene with a given person playing a given role.” Sometimes the people beating up the stripper are boys and sometimes they’re girls, and sometimes they’re both. That stuff makes my head spin. That scene questions what it provokes and that’s what Ron’s trying to do throughout with gender. He plays St. Sebastian in his crown of thorns at the end of Martyrs and Saints. Then the first scene of Four Scenes in a Harsh Life opens with Pig Pen wearing the crown of thorns, and St. Sebastian is now a woman. You wouldn’t believe how many people don’t realize, even after the movie, that Pig Pen’s a girl. There’s a tumult of gender in Ron’s work and in the company.
In interviews with each of the performers, I asked them what they wouldn’t do in performance in terms of their personal understanding of themselves and their own boundaries: what was really hard for them versus what was less of a test of either their physical or emotional abilities. One person said, “I won’t do the scrotal infusion anymore, I think that’s a really painful thing.” You never see the same guy doing it a second time in any performance. (laughter) It’s not popular. But the girls obviously didn’t have that problem. Pig Pen will do almost anything. The one thing she won’t do is act like a girly girl: “I could do two hundred piercings with bells, but I’m not going to wear a skirt. That would be pressing my boundaries.” Cathy Opie talks about that too. But when we were in Mexico, she went for it and played the stripper with Darryl for the first time. Ron really likes to give his performers the opportunity to explore aspects of themselves. Often, the issues raised are about gender, even though on the surface it looks like they’re about a piercing here, or a piercing there.
KT You talk about the documentation of a certain ritualization of pain in Hallelujah! that you tried to achieve; what about pleasure? Did pleasure emerge as a specific object of your attention in the course of making this work?
CGS At the risk of sounding sober (laughter), the pleasure for me is about the people and their relationships, about working together and being creative. I love collaborating with people. That’s what both Ron and I do. It’s about talking to people and finding out what they want to do and what they can do. People really jump into Ron’s work and bring their full selves and participate on all levels. People aren’t acting as characters in a role. Darryl would say, “Who would do what we’re doing as a job?” (laughter) Working with them and making art is what’s pleasurable to me. And it’s clearly pleasurable to them.
The specifics of the work are pretty heavy, although it’s not always as heavy as one might think. There are great, funny moments, like Miss Velma and his cinched waist and his buxom self. I know funny isn’t exactly the same as pleasurable. But there is a consistent, low boil of humor in order to convey what Ron is thinking. His work is participatory … it’s performance in ways that I didn’t understand before. I would have slipped around a bit with private/public: “Aren’t you just doing private acts in public?” Ron has said, “I don’t want to bleed in bed, I just want to kiss somebody.” Whether people do or don’t practice various forms of S and M in their private lives is not a direct correlation to this work. Viewers are eager to make more of that connection than what actually exists.
KT What about pleasure on the side of the audience?
CGS I wonder if people get more pleasure out of seeing the movie than seeing the real thing, or the other way around. I don’t know, since pleasure comes in such a muddy way. I made a decision not to include any mediators in the movie: no critics, no audience members, nobody who would frame the experience for the viewer of the film. It took a lot of effort to work with the temporality of performance art and get that down on the more enduring medium of film. I was dealing with the richness of bodies on film, which in my opinion are as rich as they are in performance. This slippage was about expanding the audience of performance work. I didn’t want it to be like watching television where a critic is telling you what’s happening and what to think. I wanted it to maintain that unique pleasure.
And the Senate got a lot of pleasure out of Ron’s work after the Walker Art Center debacle.
KT What was that?
CGS They did the cutting on Darryl’s back at the Walker Arts Center. One member of the audience claimed that HIV-positive blood had splattered around, which was patently wrong. But it caused an uproar and Ron became one of the NEA scapegoats because the Walker had received some NEA monies. The funding issue went on to the Senate floor. Clearly, the politicians, carrying his bloody picture around the Senate floor, got a lot of pleasure out of getting to see Ron hanging like St. Sebastian with his crown of thorns.
KT You were talking about the whole question of disgust. The actual word you used was hard; you thought the film would be too “hard.” Or that people would be disgusted by it.
CGS Disgusted or horrified. I did interview audiences members, although I didn’t use them in the final cut. They would say something like: “That … was … incredible …” (laughter) There was one very articulate man in Croatia who said, “There are no lies here, and if there are lies, they are lies worth telling!” But there are people who think it’s sickening or horrifying or disgusting or violent. It raises a lot of different issues for each of us, from our own backgrounds, our pains and our pleasures.
KT But two things elide: the question of pleasure and the question of disgust. I wanted to ask you what you think the relationship is between this work and what might be called an aesthetics of disgust. What would you say to someone who took the position that this is the public acting out of pathology?
CGS Private horrors. Ron’s personal history does include cutting as a form of self-mutilation…which is not what I think this work is about. But it would be difficult not to compare it to his life experience. He says in the movie, “There are moments when I think, It’s just little Ron and I’m slashing myself, trying to get attention.” But there’s a public aspect that distinguishes Ron’s performance. There is a big difference between Ron’s private and public life.
Even before I knew I would make a tape, I was interested in talking to people about the work because I lacked an understanding of why people thought it was all so horrifying and disgusting. For me, disgusting doesn’t relate to this work. Horrifying does, because his performance work manifests all the horrifying experiences he’s had. It becomes part of his autobiography, something that you understand led him to this place, but can’t always see in his work. His whole relationship to race is not something that people see. He was part of the most fanatical, crazy, religious, white household and he was poor. He grew up in the middle of a black and Chicano neighborhood and was raised by people who said, “We love all of God’s children, but just don’t bring any of those colored people home.” He was very isolated by the religion in his life, which is part of what he responds to in performance. That little nugget of his history explains a lot to me about what he’s doing and what he’s thinking and how he feels confident enough to face it on the stage.
KT It’s a kind of abjection that he performs, but it’s a defiant, assertive abjection.
CGS There is something horrifying in the isolation. It’s an effort to be part of what other people take for granted as being their culture and their society. He uses performance as a way to make sense out of things that are irrational. Someone asked him if he could think of one thing about his childhood that was traditional, one thing that other people might have done as children. He couldn’t think of one example that was regular or normal. He talked to me once about romanticizing the Mexican families who lived down the block from him. They had huge extended families and people would bring food and spend the night, stay for a long time, there was music … You could say that’s a stereotype, but to him they were real and stood in stark contrast to his relatives. No one ever came to visit his freaky people. He said a few relatives made an obligatory hour-and-a-half visit once every five years: “Who would want to come and hear about the Second Coming…again?!” To him, the image of family generated by his neighbors really meant something—warmth, staying power … people who liked each other and wanted to be with each other.
KT In following the lives of this group of people, your film ends up conveying this voluntary association of the defiantly abject. It’s a family, but a loose family. People come and leave. One definitely senses, even though most of the interviews that made it into Hallelujah! are with individuals, that the sharp line between performance and life that they make reference to in order to explain what it is they do, is not all that sharp. What goes on onstage could not happen if the relationships weren’t built up before they take the stage.
CGS Not everyone who performs comes from such an isolated situation as Ron. He was born into an abject situation, already separated out as this baby-Christ, and then, it’s true, he found other like-minded people. But they all have very different situations in terms of their family histories: one person’s parents are both dead, another is very close with her family and they even came to see the movie. It runs a real range, which is important to point out. There’s a way I think of Ron’s story as the pinnacle for the performances, but there are other interesting relationships and reasons people have for performing. You could probably find every performer, at some point on tape, self-identifying as a freak. It’s an understanding that their role in this society is not mainstream. It doesn’t fit into the definition of normal. And that is not about victimization, or a giving over to being disrespected or disliked. But it is why they found each other.
KT We are talking about a performance practice which is obviously about ritual. It makes me think of Walter Benjamin’s idea of the aura—and whether the whole documentary film project is a necessary failure. Is it the loss of the aura that makes the film of Athey’s performances easier for people to watch?
CGS It’s that, and it’s also an intersection necessitated by Ron’s understanding of himself and his HIV status as being something that goes against the temporality of the performance work. So it comes out of him, though I’m not sure documentary would work the same way for other performance work. Part of the reason the collaboration worked so well is that he was working as much on the movie as he would on his performance. It wasn’t like any performance artist documenting his work for longevity. Hallelujah! intersected with his own sense of mortality, played out in his chosen medium of performance art, and then played out in his real, human life as a performer.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee