At the tender age of 15, I had a huge awakening: that all the prophecies and miracles and dramas that happened within my Pentecostal household were not only absolutely delusional, they were also perverted and illegal. It came on like a wave, and suddenly I realized there was no line to God. No Christ. No Bible. And, as until then I was living under a prophecy to become a minister, no future. I was empty and without hope.
I planned my death carefully, waiting until one afternoon when no one would be home. I bathed and fixed my feathered hair, put on a tight suit and light makeup. I took 25 Valiums, 5 Seconals, and a few phenobarbitals, and lied back like a perfect corpse as the pills entered my system. Then it got real and survival instinct crept in. I managed to walk out the door and stumble down the road to a payphone and call my girlfriend, who helped me through the endless vomiting.
Since then, death has been a constant companion, even more so in the three decades after 1985, the year I tested positive for HIV. Until it wasn’t. It’s been 30 years since I was diagnosed, and I feel healthy and have rarely been sick. I’ve come to consider this my “post-AIDS” life, a term that inevitably draws criticism when I use it. Yet, here I will.
When I tested positive, it was early in the pandemic and I didn’t have many friends who were sick and dying yet—or at least not out about it. But once I entered the realm of support groups I dove in headfirst. Death by AIDS-related disease was inevitable, and I had to prepare myself for it, but that didn’t stop me from getting tattooed every Friday. Getting inked while HIV-positive caused a huge rift in the tattoo community—needles, blood, HIV—and eventually the shop where I’d had all my work done placed a sign on the wall: “No HIV+”! There was an incredible female tattooist, Jill Jordan, who said she already used gloves and sterilized everything and therefore had no problem with it, so I continued.
Why was it so important to spend the little money I made on ink if I was dying? Because it felt empowering. Because I had a dream that I faced a spirit twin, and our tattoos were finished and we were levitating. Because I still felt healthy and horny. The blood, you could say, was coursing.
Fast-forward to July 25, 1994. The senator from North Carolina proposed an amendment, numbered 2396, which aimed to prevent the National Endowment for the Arts from funding art that involved “human mutilation or invasive bodily procedures on human beings dead or alive; or the drawing or letting of blood.” And I was at the center of it for a performance presented by the Walker Art Center at Patrick’s Cabaret four months earlier.
“Speaking of depravity,” Jesse Helms said, “this past March brought reports of an NEA-subsidized performance by one of these artists, a man named Ron A-they. It’s spelled A-T-H-E-Y, but he insists that it be pronounced like ‘A-hyphen-T-H-double-E,’ and I will try to remember to call him Ron A-thee as I refer. That is his picture, a very handsome man … if you like that kind of man. But let’s talk about him.”
Most people know my surname is pronounced, simply, Athey with a hard A, as in “atheist.” In Britain, where I live, there’s a presumption that I correct but don’t lose sleep over: rhymes with Cathy.
“Insists”? And “a very handsome man.” Pause. “If you like that kind of man”—silent snap, queen snap—“But let’s talk about him.”
In 1994, I didn’t have information about arts funding. I didn’t belong to any group of artists, any art movement. I was not part of the NEA Four. I considered my performance work more elaborate than actionism, but not quite theater. It was a visual testimonial, an invitation to go beyond minor (or, to some, major) limitations and experience the sublime, or at least an attempt to reach the sublime. Usually it was an interesting exercise in symbolist bloat. I’m not glamorizing my status as an outsider, but to be attacked, to smell the attack coming, was unbelievable because I wasn’t participating in this system.
I hadn’t even noticed the crossover point where I went from underground to clubs to special places in Los Angeles—LACE and Highways—to the Walker Art Center. It didn’t feel bigger: the budget was about half the usual size, which meant the production was cut in half as well, streamlined down to four performers, with set pieces that were functional but not right. (We used a weight-lifting seat instead of a medical exam table, but enough of the props were low-tech anyway: clothesline, balloons, cigars, tulle, brass bells, and limes.)
Laying down such a bullshit setup from the imagination of the senator, hijacking the committee with nonsense, then backing it up with infectious blood and accountability of tax dollars: it’s pathetic that this had to be answered to. That no one could really stop it. That after one more rough show in the States, I’d be more or less blacklisted until 2005.
The media was complicit in all this, of course. I worked for Village Voice Media for 18 years, so I was savvy: the heat affected me but didn’t finish me off. I kept my head down and focused on commissions and residencies offered in the UK and Europe and didn’t lose my mind. I realized I was snagged in something bigger than me. In some ways, I wish I had been more mouthy, called out more presenters for hiding, for not rebuking. Don’t slowly sink with the sinking ship.
What’s the fucking point of dealing with that—being defended/exploited in hundreds (yes, hundreds) of news stories over an endowment I never understood or received but did benefit from? In dealing with the fact that this came to light because of a local newspaper story of “he said/she said,” a story that sparked an avalanche of press and commentary, including from one pundit who claimed that “buckets of AIDS-tainted blood were intentionally thrown at the audience.” (For the umpteenth time: I’m HIV-positive. Darryl Carlton—aka Divinity Fudge, the man whose blood was central in the work—isn’t.)
What it came down to was the polemic of blood in that minute—the belief that all blood is HIV-positive, that, against science, it could be airborne—stoked the phobia of HIV disease, which was still a number of years from having any effective treatment.
Four Scenes in a Harsh Life, the performance that sparked all this scandal, is the middle component of the so-called torture trilogy, preceded by Martyrs and Saints and followed by Deliverance, an Arts Council England commission that premiered at ICA London in December 1995 and was shown for the following two years. Just to give context, Martyrs was Sebastian, the marriage of AIDS and martyrdom, the stroke of aligning HIV with plague in biblical terms. In Four Scenes it became clear this was an ongoing passion play: Sebastian returned but wounded. The cast of characters included a four-man bleeding machine, the Holy Woman, an ugly minister spewing “the many ways to say hallelujah,” and the brides of funken-christ married in a triage. Then came Deliverance, which via the trickster shaman, mocked everything, even the martyred body of AIDS.
The idea of AIDS martyred—finished—is admittedly controversial. Even now I get confronted if I use the term “post-AIDS,” but in 1995 to name the final scene in Deliverance “Rod’n’Bob: A Post-AIDS Boy-Boy Show” was premature. I’m about to hit the 30th anniversary of my HIV-positive diagnosis. I’ve only ever been ill a few times (including an infection treated by a drug that included among its side effects red tears!). My T-cells have never been below 400 but as high as 3,000, which allowed me to stop my brief experiment with the cocktail. At some point I was categorized as a slow- or possibly non-progressor, which has now been renamed “an elite manager.” And on occasion the AIDS doctor suggests I might want to go on drugs. Still, for whatever reason, I take no drugs and have no health problems at 53 years old.
In terms of post-AIDS, it’s not quite over, but it sure gets tiring. I tried to shake it a few times. In 1998, also fatigued with organizing the tours with a troupe of eight personalities, I gave myself the challenge to make my first solo, The Solar Anus, which was inspired by the 1931 Georges Bataille essay (which in turn inspired my tattoo) and the action photographs of Pierre Molinier. Suddenly the topics were extreme beauty, finding context for a live (self) sex action, and deeper exploration into using hypnosis via soundtrack and movement articulation. I categorized the new ink around my anus as my first intellectual tattoo, and the performance my first portable: it fit entirely in one case! Crown, walking stick, high heels with “love spurs,” powder, lubrication, DVD, speed rail set, and leather sling that made a chair. It was undeniable: even with all this glamor, there was a deep melancholy in the piece. Because the AIDS body was still present. Brassy, because defiant, because still here, because a survivor, because of AIDS.
So I just owned another way of looking at my work, that my identity and my experience is written on the body, whether or not the piece is “about” that. My mother. Addiction. AIDS. Faggotry. And, in whatever costume, the queer body.
I am in another transition: after living in London for six years I’m returning to California on May 1, 2015. Even with some rough life changes, I’ve made important work while living in the UK: an automatic-writing installation, curating more large-scale Visions of Excess events, and fulfilling the fourth and final installment of Incorruptible Flesh, a series started in 1996 with the late Lawrence Steger. This final AIDS-y piece ends on the delusional note of apotheosis, reflecting on both my surviving status and the insane religious prophecies I was raised in accordance with. The subtitle, Messianic Remains, is also an enactment of the sexualized corpse and includes both interactive anointing and bloated ritual theater. In it I take and adapt text by one of my literary saviors, Jean Genet, and specifically from Our Lady of the Flowers’ Divine. I extracted all the text relating to her death and funeral, and cut-and-pasted them into words that unfold within a Thelemic circle. Genet’s obtuse staging directions are still followed, but the decorum of his era is no longer necessary. There’s no need to wait for death:
Since Divine is dead:
The poet may sing her
May tell her legend, her saga
The Story of Divine.
The Divine Saga should be danced,
mimed with subtle direction
Since it is impossible to make a ballet of it,
I am forced to use words that are weighed down with specific ideas,
But I shall try to lighten them with expressions that are trivial, empty, hollow, invisible.
Ron Athey is an iconic figure in the development of contemporary art and performance. In his often-bloody portrayals of life, death, crisis, and fortitude in the time of AIDS, Athey calls into question the limits of artistic practice. These limits enable him to explore key themes including: gender, sexuality, SM and radical sex, queer activism, post-punk and industrial culture, tattooing and body modification, ritual, and religion. He began performing at underground galleries with Rozz Williams in 1981, in a collaboration known as Premature Ejaculation. In 1992 he began staging what was to become a performance “torture” trilogy: Martyrs & Saints, Four Scenes in a Harsh Life, and Deliverance. Recent works include Judas Cradle, Self-Obliteration, and Gifts of the Spirit: Automatic Writing, in which he explores his Pentacostal upbringing and the creation of an ecstatic experience. Also a visual artist and journalist, he recently celebrated the release of the first publication dedicated to his life and work, Pleading in the Blood: The Art and Performance of Ron Athey (2013), edited by Dominic Johnson.
“What it came down to was the polemic of blood in that minute—the belief that all blood is HIV-positive; that, against science, it could be airborne—stoked the phobia of HIV disease.”
“Even with all this glamor, there was a deep melancholy in the piece. Because the AIDS body was still present. Brassy, because defiant, because still here, because a survivor, because of AIDS.”