Blood and Funding: Experimental Artist Ron Athey Reflects on the Culture Wars

Kurt Ehrmann

Kurt Ehrmann

This weekend, the Walker Art Center, the University of Minnesota, and Patrick's Cabaret are taking a look back at the infamous piece performance artist Ron Athey did at Patrick's Cabaret 21 years ago. Sponsored by the Walker Art Center, the work was presented at the height of the AIDS crisis. "Four Scenes in a Harsh Life" involved flesh incisions and blood-soaked cloths raised into the air. It shocked audiences, and caused a national outcry. There was a call for censorship by the likes of Jesse Helms, and other conservatives were hell bent on getting rid of public funding for the arts.

This week, the Culture Wars: Then and Now begins with a discussion at the Walker Art Center tonight. It will feature Ron Athey, as well as former Walker Art Center curator John Killacky and art historian Jennifer Doyle. Feminist/queer theory scholar and art historian Lauren DeLand will moderate. On Friday, the University will be holding a symposium during the day, and over at Patrick's Cabaret local artists will investigate themes of censorship, contemporary queer aesthetics, and radical embodied performance on Friday and Saturday.

In anticipation for this weekend's events, we chatted with Ron Athey.

The piece you did at Patrick's Cabaret occurred in the height of the AIDS crisis. Have you revisited that issue in later work? 

I still do probably in the same way I did there, where it happened in a kind of AIDS apocalypse landscape. Everything I do, I see it as a post-AIDS body. I've been dying for 30 years of AIDS. I'm always figuring out how to deal with it... It's a big dark cloud that made me who I am.

I do work in the same esoteric spiritual way that the earlier work was in. In that way, it doesn't go away. But it's not active. I wouldn't make work directly about it... We were in a period where anyone's blood equaled HIV because that's was the main issue. That's what everyone was afraid about. From the very beginning, they didn't know if it was airborne. You'd wear a space suit if you visited someone in an area where someone had died of AIDS. 

Ron Athey

Ron Athey

What are your thoughts on the experience of doing "Four Scenes in a Harsh Life?" Do you have any thoughts about what went wrong in terms Congress' reaction and the cutting of NEA funding? Would you say your show was a tipping point that caused the Republicans in congress to cut funding for the NEA? 

Ron Athey: I don't think it was was the tipping point. I think it had already been going on. The NEA Four was considerably earlier. By then, they were like rabid dogs looking for weapons. Joel-Peter Witkin or Robert Maplethorpe -- people who never applied for arts funding -- they were targeted. Why? Because every house of art has some kind of public money propping it open... It's not really about the money. It's saying your hard earned tax payer dollars are paying for this rubbish. It is a really lowball way to get average people on board with you.  

Did you know this was going to cause so much controversy when you were planning it? 

I didn't, because I have to say I wasn't an insider. Before that performance, outside of L.A. I had only performed in Chicago at Randolph Street Gallery and more club-like things in New York. So I wasn't on the circuit, I never had arts funding, and at that time none of the people that were involved were colleagues -- I didn't know that scene. I didn't think a one-night scaled down performance at the Walker Art Center would be the one that exploded.   

Would you say your performance and the aftermath helped or hurt your career?

It absolutely hurt it. I didn't perform in the U.S. for 10 years, except when I did works in progress. I guess it hurt it on a level of just the art center scene that I didn't know I was going for, but on the other hand -- especially in my hometown and also through New Yorkers -- I would self produce. I still do that. I just self produced a show in London.

 ...I think this discussion is very insider/inside the institution. Like, what war on culture? Who's Jesse Helms? He died of a particularly rabid form of Alzheimer's a few years ago. That they are allowed to put on these shows within the U.S. Senate is ridiculous. And they won. What does the National Endowment of the Arts do now? Programs for children? It's not a world I'm remotely interested in.

It's just not my jam. So I don't have particularly articulate opinions about it except that I think maybe more education in the PR realm could be: Why do we go see art? To me it's just to further the evolution of concepts. 

I think it's funny. What's more threatening is capitalism. It's the style of Beyonce and Lady Gaga to steal absolutely everything from any artist that ever existed, and don't give them credit or anything. And none of those people give back... That's the war on culture to me.

Was your background in visual art or performance? 

I kind of came out of the music scene in L.A. I'd never been schooled. I came from a weird religious background. And in the '80s there was more performance art within the club scene. New York had a bigger arty circuit. [It was] another interesting time where things that changed the world happened not in a museum but in a nightclub.  

How has your work evolved since your Walker performance at Patrick's Cabaret? 

Since then, I sort of explored the company where I used eight to 20 people in a piece so it was more like theater. I did that work until the later '90s, and then I started doing solo work. And I kind of moved from that to do more collaborations with people. I find it interesting to work with someone totally different from me, whether it's a musicologist or an opera singer or a movement person.

Recently, I moved toward solo work because it's so expensive -- it's like a sink hole. I like being able to have different types of work that can plug into different situations. The thing I'm doing in London is at the Coronet Theatre. It's going to be a big standup with 600-plus people. 

You said you weren't able to create work for 10 years, what was the turning point of when it was okay to come back and start doing stuff again? 

I think it's because my own things that I did were really high profile... I think the climate changed a lot. I just ignored it until they asked me again, because I love performing and performing repeatedly in places is kind of a relationship. I've been performing in Slovenia for 19 years. I have a really long relationships in Glasgow -- I'm itching to go back. 


Culture Wars: Then and Now begins tonight at the Walker Art Center at 7 p.m. and continues Friday with a symposium at the University of Minnesota. Culture Wars Cabaret at Patrick's Cabaret is sold out.