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
I met my Papa Ron Athey in the glory days of 2007. A decade is a world apart in time, but on the night before our widely reviled President’s inauguration, Ron and I found ourselves in the house where we had first met—the 1920s Silver Lake bungalow he has lived in since 1991, and where I lived from 2009–13 while he was in London.
Ron guest-starred in Rick Castro and Bruce LaBruce’s Hustler White (1996), which was filmed in the same house; many years later, I made an experimental film there with my then-boyfriend, Rhys Ernst, in which I break through a crumbling wall in the living room to discover a parallel dimension. In the odd way that time laminates itself over a bygone era—the same space yet totally changed—I found myself there again.
Athey’s proverbial brand as a performance artist includes bleeding, speaking in tongues, and blasting his audience into the stratosphere with visceral, fantastical visions, hypnotic voices, and wild laughter. People often faint, vomit, and hallucinate at his performances. To speak to Ron is to become a completely embodied presence at the intersection of art and language, a liminal space with no name.
Athey’s work resists formal introduction: he is an artist’s artist, a visionary, a dreamer, a transformer. Ron has blazed a path from the margins into clubs, galleries, and museums around the world; from the Pentecostal churches of his youth to the legendary goth punk and queer venues of the underground; from downtown SRO hotels to Hollywood. He’s even made it into the filthy mouths of evangelical lawmakers looking for ways to defund the NEA.
Speaking to pioneers like Ron is the best way to glean survival strategies. We artists, queers, and outsiders observe our legacies of perseverance and bravery, finding witchcraft contact zones of overlap, and passing information from one generation to another.
Ron Athey I grew up under Nixon. Asshole-ism is ruling again and it’s not new to me, although I feel devastated. Where do we go from here? The tone is so low. I always run from that, the same way I run from pop culture.
Zackary Drucker Do you think being overly didactic in our messaging would be similarly low?
RA I never try to lay out the rules. But I hear a lot of encouragement for art to embrace activism again. Look at AIDS art or feminist art from the 1980s. Or Jenny Holzer’s Inflammatory Essays, with lines like, “Just fuck yourself up before they do it.” These works are probably more relevant now than in Reagan’s time—if only we didn’t have so many calluses from that era. I do like directly hitting it, but maybe not naming it. I did my weirdo work with Rozz [Williams] in the ’80s. But my real me-work happened in the ’90s. It was the time of identity-politics monologues, but I was working in visual poetry, trying to make art history links within a theatrical format.
ZD Identity politics have become central to the culture wars we’re currently in. Do you see parallels with the identity politics of the ’90s?
RA I’ve always lived in a world of identity politics. When the trans movement came forward, it not only became visible; it also formed into something new. Now, my fifteen-year-old niece or the daughters of my friends all identify as pandrogyne. They are able to buy a little time at puberty, or even presexuality, to have more than two options. Being something “illegal”—that just doesn’t exist anymore. Even if a kid doesn’t have cool parents, so many others do.
But what are the next identity politics when a bunch of fascists are running the country? How do you play with that? One example that influenced me was Karen Finley’s The Black Sheep, a poem cast in bronze as a sculpture. The poem starts at an AIDS funeral but then moves to a dysfunctional family, with the mother saying, “I don’t know how to love somebody like you!” AIDS was such a nightmare because those who were sick were judged. And why? Because we came from dysfunctional families who never loved us for whom we were. Then, when we died of the plague, there was a righteousness coming from both directions.
ZD I’ve been thinking a lot about world events that have altered our paths, or the way we live our lives— about times when suddenly the stakes have changed. What world events have most influenced you in your lifetime?
RA I have definitely thrived in the apocalyptic ones. I was raised by Dust Bowl refugees from Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. The family’s life savings lived in a hat box up on the third shelf. That kind of upbringing and religion are a huge part of me. I’ve recently returned to studying theology in a strange way. I started a Bible study group with some friends where we read the Book of Revelation.
ZD That’s the apocalyptic part?
RA Yeah, the closing chapter of the New Testament, which was really about the Roman Empire and occupation. St. John the Divine wrote it in a hallucinatory form. These texts still resonate with me. What is this desire for faith? When my whole world was consumed by AIDS, when people around me started dying, when every one of my heroes was gone, it felt like the book of apocalypse was happening. So that period influenced and scarred me in such a way that I lost faith. I had what you call a God hole. If you lose all of your friends and community and have to start over, you have a community hole.
ZD How do you stop the draw of an abyss without diving in? How has loss shaped your work, and where are you now, in 2017?
RA End-days capitalism hasn’t been good for me creatively. The need for food and shelter chokes out creativity. And the fatigue of being a starving artist in a Lady Gaga world is really boring—the way things are consumed but not given back by anyone. I never qualified for Obamacare because I don’t have a job, so I went back to AIDS Healthcare Foundation. I lived in England for six years, where you just show up at the doctor and get treated—a much more humane situation. In the States, I have to fight for my medication.
I look at Germans and their collective guilt. Will Americans have to be ashamed of being Americans? I’m such an American. I hate that my specific definition of that has to be taken from me. But it’s a hard thing to defend sometimes.
My whole life I’ve resisted our culture’s anti-intellectual obsession and its abandonment of the working-class. There’s no way to represent class politics, except for whatever the Occupy movement gave us. There was one minute where nobody wanted to be the ninety-nine percent. I feel more anarchistic the older I get. I don’t believe in the system, I don’t believe in behaving. I believe in staying out of jail, but that’s about it.
ZD I don’t think we have to abandon our identity as Americans yet. I think it’s something to protect.
Given your origins in the Pentecostal church, how do you see the role of fundamentalism in the current political circumstances?
RA Christian or Islamic fundamentalism? I guess they’re related when it comes to reactionary views. It’s impossible to have a discussion with an absolutist. So it’s hard to offset latter-day capitalism and voting against your own interests in the name of keeping it sacred.
When I was young, I didn’t understand how people like Jean Genet could be against gay rights. They wouldn’t stand up for it. Genet and people like him were from a special place of things happening, like cottaging and trade—before everything was defined and split and separated and dyed and plucked and defined again and again, and turned into a culture of desire with lots and lots of rules. That’s what they saw coming and they ran.
ZD What advantages do you think that position offered them?
RA Excitement, authenticity—even if you operate within repression or resistance to that from the beginning. It feels like we’re getting into big issues that came out of the Nixon, Reagan, and two Bush presidencies. I have a lot of friends in their early twenties who mostly know Obama. But it’s really different to have the enemy in power. Sometimes it’s good to know again who your enemies are. We can fight for our rights.
ZD I think that we’re well-prepared. Decades of social justice movements have increasingly gained momentum in recent years. Galvanizing these movements to create a new world order, in opposition to something that is unashamedly soulless and evil would be really exciting.
RA How long can an entire population be bamboozled by Walmart and no health care and the fact that you can have a fucking gun? I grew up in a labor union household, and I’ve existed in a queer, abject, slightly illegal bubble most of my life. And then, because of progress, I started feeling disconnected because I can’t relate to what we used to call hetero society at large. When it actually started to feel like integration, the discussion became big, but progress became mediocre. When a community forms in order to survive, that’s powerful. It has to define itself and take care of its members and communicate outward. Something gets lost when that’s not needed. We need a group.
ZD The shift that happened over the past few years was probably due to the pervasive spread of social media and the digital revolution, which has created an illusion of networks and communities that don’t actually provide tangible forms of exchange.
RA I think social media has created a network of mobility like they had in the ’60s, when people knew each other in every city, and went on journeys and pilgrimages.
I’m returning to the ’60s. I’ll make that statement. I’ve never made it before. I’m a punk, even though I was a Disco Queen. Coming from a black and Chicano neighborhood, the crusty Jesus hippies creeped me out. When the radical faerie thing happened, I was still creeped out. Ugh. I didn’t want a natty beard with a bead on its tip or a crinoline; I didn’t want to sit in the mud with a Barbie. I could have done that in my backyard if I needed to, but I didn’t. (laughter) But I like the idea of being communal, of having networks of friends all over. I used to live between Palm Springs, Joshua Tree, and LA.
I think we can expand and have a better quality of life. That’s something the hippies learned by not being so materialistic and holding everything up your ass as yours.
ZD When the election happened and the call was made, I had the sense that all of my conversations were going to be dominated by this for years. That was a devastating prospect for me—realizing that my consciousness would be dominated. Is it possible to look in a different direction?
RA That’s the challenge. And challenges can be a good thing.
ZD What are you working on?
RA I am working on a collaboration with Sean Griffin, a composer who runs a music department in Guanajuato, Mexico. I’ve worked with him before on this Catherine Sullivan–Mike Kelley piece that we toured in Germany around 2004. With this piece, I’m going back to spiritualism and automatic writing and I’m taking them to another level. I want all the automatic writers to be women over seventy who are psychics. I want to reach out to a psychic community rather than the type of people that take art and performance workshops. I worked with the psychic community a bit in Manchester and pulled in a couple of Somerset witches.
I have two grant applications out for this new piece. It would be a nice change to be funded by my country for once. (laughter)
ZD What have been the hurdles in getting funding in the US?
RA Mostly institutional squeamishness. It’s harder to carve out space here if you don’t fit into one of the categories: dance or gallery performance art. I’m a brat; I’m still reckoning with the end of black-box performance art, like the magic show or the Passion play. I feel manipulated by durational work, like it’s supposed to be deeper and more meaningful just because it’s long. Performance occupies this weird sideshow space in the art world, as if all you’re showing is a bunch of sculptures and then someone does a snazzy performance at the opening. Sean Griffin and Juliana Snapper taught me that writing a score can look like anything you want, and it can bring any sound out of you or an instrument.
ZD What new roles for performance do you see on the horizon?
RA There will be more activist performance. I think the performance that I want to see is too expensive to happen in this era. It’s technology performance, like video mapping—wearing a projected image that follows you within the boundary of your body. I want to work more with lighting. It all started with the God spot, the Victorian spotlight that’s almost like a fire within the spotlight—so it’s a double spot. I used it for the performance of Messianic Remains at Stanford a few years ago. It creates phenomena with an intangible element.
ZD Do you believe in God? (laughter)
RA EHHH. I used to hate God and be anti-God and anti-Christ. And then I decided that I was a mystical atheist. I suppose I’m an agnostic but I’m still God-damaged. I do believe in energy and order and transformation. I believe in magic by the power of intention and focus. I think it’s undeniable. But do I believe that because I’m a Sagittarian and I’m an iron ox in Chinese astrology? The time I spent at CalArts was so like, (whispers) “Ahh, I knew you were a Sagittarian.” People were leveling their astrology readings before they’d even talk to you.
Let me show you what I’ve been working on. The Bible study group I’ve been meeting with includes Ashon Crawley, who’s doing black studies and queer theory, and he wrote this book Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility, which opens quite dramatically, if you want to know where he’s coming from.
ZD (reads the first page out loud) “I can’t breathe. July 17, 2014, sharpened it. Eric Garner repeated it eleven times while camera phones captured his murder, while the excesses of police violence—the excesses that are central to and the grounds of policing itself—accosted him, grounded him, choked him.”
RA Blackpentecostal Breath is about taking this notion of being unable to catch your breath and then linking it to the 1906 Pentecostal movement, which was started by a one-eyed black minister and a multi-racial congregation in LA in a house on Bonnie Brae Street. It’s a hell of a foundation; it goes back to God, to psychic movements, and to ecstatic experiences. That psycho-neural memory doesn’t go away. That’s the psychic energy, the magic energy, or the divine energy. Divine is such a huge word that I hesitate to use it. Except when I’m being grand.
ZD But the hole that you mentioned earlier, is it a ritual void or part of a larger structure?
RA I guess redefining the hole and finding a new logic for it made it go away. By putting a wall up and saying it doesn’t exist anymore, that’s when I had a hole. (laughter) There is a part of charismatic worship that has to do with pleading and being answered. It’s from a dramatic humility that is absolutely empty. That’s why, in order to use this intense experience, I borrowed James Baldwin’s phrase “pleading the blood.” This is the bridge I need when imagining or constructing phenomena, a way of calling the spirit into the room. Pentecostal services change the vibrations running through everything—sound, motion, energy. The Charismatics would hold people hostage in their vision—that’s what happens in those churches! People get rattled and shaken and they have their pitch changed by the person leading the chorus.
I read Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. In the most dystopian, no-future sort of setting, she starts channeling a new religion. I’m obsessed with channelers and the messianic complex—that moment when the pressure hits this critical point, this impasse. It starts by hearing a voice and having to write it down. I call that dissociative sparkle, a moment of profound excellence born of misery.
ZD That’s kind of your life performance.
RA I need to find the discipline to write again. I feel blocked. That’s why automatism is a good tool for me. If you’re stuck, do a hypnosis meditation and automatic writing! I’m looking at the recent displays of the Butler archives, particularly Lynell George’s research as her fellow. Butler had to write like fifteen affirmations to go to the store to get groceries and come back. She wrote her way through everything: through writer’s blocks, through low self-esteem, through financial anxiety, through flying high on a MacArthur grant and then wondering what to do on the other side of that. Biographies help me when I’m the most frustrated. I don’t understand the flow of life. Then I read the Roland Barthes biography and realize that he never became what he was supposed to be because he had tuberculosis. He didn’t have a PhD so he never had a full salary or security at the university. When you look deeper you find that a life is never what history tells you it is. Have you read Sarrasine, the Balzac novella that Barthes takes apart in S/Z?
ZD I’ve read S/Z, but not Sarrasine.
RA It’s about an old castrato at a party, who tells the story of the different layers of his life. Neil Bartlett’s play Sarrasine had all these old queens in it, like Bette Bourne. It must have been miraculous.
ZD Do you still teach?
RA I found some of my visiting or adjunct teaching posts stressful because I empathize with the students, especially the poorer ones who took one job too many and are failing at the schoolwork. That’s heartbreaking. That was my story: I tried to go to school two times and I couldn’t pull it off.
ZD Because of the realities of—
RA —not being able to afford food, shelter, and education. The first time I studied science and the second time I studied philosophy. I was trying to study with Johnny Golding at the University of Greenwich in London. While I’m not a populist, I’m also not an academic. I don’t want to be quoting Deleuze, Guattari, and Kant. It’s an inaccessible language for a lot of people.
I find writing painful. I’m more of a jotter and a jagger. I go on a writing jag.
ZD I do the same thing. I admire people who can keep a regular writing practice.
RA Especially journal writing. I think, Why do I have a garage full of props from performances I did in the ’90s? Why do I have cases of clippings and programs and contracts? Do I believe that leaving something behind means something? Does it matter if you end up in art history, or in history at all? I don’t have that existential quandary about the cheapness of life. I think that a decade is a nice chunk of time to assess oneself. In the ’80s I got my shit off, in the ’90s I got my shit off, and in the aughts I kinda kept rolling on that. We’ll see about the next one, which could be the last. Once you pass fifty and you’ve had a hard life, you can’t really bank on being eighty. That is why I’m a health nut again. I want to be sixty wearing dolphin shorts with ripped legs and maybe a little bit of belly because I’m not gonna starve my way into old age, that’s for goddamn fuckin’ sure. (laughter) Legs and a belly.
The sun makes me tick. Whenever you go into the desert, find a hill to stand on and breathe in the driest, most reverse oxygenized air. And whatever felt like a knife in your side, you suddenly chuckle about it. “Oh my god, I’m alive, I’m standing in the wind, I can see real constellations, even the fuckin’ Milky Way above my head.” Part of apocalypse culture is worshipping nature.
ZD Is that what doomsday preppers are doing? For a brief time after I moved here from New York, I used to think of LA as the Wild West.
RA I’ve never been tempted to live in New York but I’ve been going there regularly since the mid-’80s. I’m nostalgic for the club Mother, which had all those sofa rooms and Chi Chi LaRue and Kathleen Turner and Pookie and Lady Jaye, who was Jackie then—it was all about talking, going into a side room and making out with somebody, and then going on the dance floor to shake it out. DANCENOISE, Leigh Bowery, everyone going to town pulled a ten-minute act out of the bag for Jackie. I think maybe everyone will be more party-centric under Trump.
ZD Yeah, like a return to hedonism?
RA And the kinds of connections that happen with people in those spaces, when you’re up late and the city thins out, and you’re off your face a bit. See, I always want to go back to that space.
ZD Who are the unsung archetypes of this lost history for you?
RA Oh god, this should be one of my specialties. Still living, we have Sheree Rose, who keeps Bob Flanagan alive. My first inspiration is Johanna Went, who was pivotal in helping people see how images can become shamanic. Back then, at these clubs, Johanna Went, Black Flag, and a mutated classical band called Fat & Fucked-Up would all be playing. I feel like this cabaret format is a part of postpunk that isn’t completely understood. It offered a lot. In New York, people like Klaus Nomi came out of the scene at Ann Magnuson’s Club 57. Here in LA, we had theoretical parties at a leather bar. Lily Tomlin, Edie the Egg Lady [Edith Massey], Vaginal Davis, and Sean DeLear were all there. And then the kids who played were the earliest versions of Jane’s Addiction (Psi Com) and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. More importantly, there were really horny, rough gay boys and older, fist-fucking leather men in full leathers with that rancid Crisco smell on them. We needed the clash to have a sublime movement; we needed to scrub some things, and not have it all separated into little safe groups.
I know it’s always tricky to talk about race, but I grew up in a neighborhood where my family were pretty much the only whites. And a black family raised me because my home was too dysfunctional. The spirit of that era was achieving colorblindness. I was there, but now I feel like I’m not allowed to have my own experience regarding race anymore. If another middle-class white person calls me out for privilege, I’ll pull out a knife. (laughter) I think the call-out, coming-for-you tactics have gone too far.
Now we’re gonna be fighting for something real—not who’s coming for who and who has suffered the most and who has been cheated the most. The victim culture always has to reset. Click! Clean it up, stop being evil.
ZD I wonder if the silver lining in the face of the larger obstacle will be less infighting.
RA But there won’t be. I just think the inside policing goes too far. Everything’s been appropriated since the beginning of time. Are we only allowed to play alone in our own exact identity? When I imagine progress, and a more juicy, sexy world to live in, I don’t see everyone all pinched up. It’s an uptight period right now. I miss the progressive wave I felt in the ’70s! If my abject diamond theory is correct, things are gonna sparkle.
Zackary Drucker is an artist, cultural producer, and trans woman who has performed and exhibited at the 2014 Whitney Biennial, MoMA PS1, Art Gallery of Ontario, San Francisco MoMA, and elsewhere. Drucker is a producer of the docuseries This Is Me and the Golden Globe- and Emmy-winning television series Transparent.
Li Young Lee