Caro Meets Spoken Word Interview Theatre Interview

Ron Athey: Acephalous Monster

By | Published on Friday 18 October 2019

California-based performance artist Ron Athey is something of an iconic cultural figure, best known for his boundary-pushing body mutilations and work inventing new forms of ritual and celebration.

This week in London he performs ‘Acephalous Monster’, a piece partly inspired by the secret society of Acéphale, a 1930s anti-fascist review and magazine published by philosopher Georges Bataille.

I arranged to speak to Athey ahead of that performance, to find out more about the show and the creative behind it.

CM: For those unfamiliar with what you do, can you start by explaining for us what manner of work to expect from you? How would you categorise this performance in terms of a style or genre? What tools do you use in performance?
RA: NOT live art. I’m a mystical theatre queen. I use literary quotation. And costume drama – I go through four characters in five scenes. And a bit of live physicality. And graphic penetration on screen – to illustrate sex magic such as the “conception of the minotaur” or, as I like to joke, the world’s first glory hole. I’m definitely not a minimalist, I love a good show.

CM: Can you tell us what this show is all about? Does it have a narrative?
RA: I have a research based practice. In my desperation not to succumb to nihilism in these ridiculous world times, I kept returning to the past.

The release of ‘The Sacred Conspiracy’ prompted me to pull out all of my Georges Bataille research, Bataille on Nietszche, the post-death of God premise. So, no narrative, but chapters.

The meaning of the madness of Nietszche prompted by the horse of Turin; Apotheosis; ‘Pistol Poem’; and not to stay in the spectre of WWII, the early 80s writings of Genesis P-Orridge from Esoterrorist, from her I have permission to cut-up and re-use, and I did for the final scene, which I’ve recorded in voice-over and is projected in a “word virus” effect.

CM: What themes do you explore through it?
RA: The mathematics of fascism, the archetypal power of myths and legends brought to life, a garish but, maybe a first for me, comedic, Louis XVI, and a bejeweled cephalophore. Learning to love the monster through text, wordplay, language and non lingual vocals.

After a projected quote that’s the foreward to Bataille’s My Mother – “…terror on the edge of the grave is divine and I sink into the terror whose child I am” – a four minute overture in the dark, ‘Acephalous Monster’, opens with a choreographed interpretation of Brion Gyson’s ‘Pistol Poem’.

This piece was recorded at the BBC studios in 1960, random permutations of vocalising one through five, while gunshots accordingly shoot at distances of one through five. The set is a five by five square grid.

CM: Can you tell us about The Acéphale – what it is, and how it played a role in inspiring this piece of work?
RA: The Acéphale is headless and castrated, aka Useless Man. His stomach is a labyrinth of guts. His crotch replaced with a skull. This was the mascot of the secret society and the Acéphale journal from 1937, as designed by Andre Masson.

The first issue was dedicated to recuperating Nietszche from the Nazis. This interests me deeply, that this philosophy could be bent in either direction, and Bataille and company make certain a specific reading is laid out.

Also the readings of the headless instructs us to look at gnostic headless gods, the headless St Denis – patron saint of Paris – and class war: to celebrate the beheading of Louis XVI.

CM: Would you describe your work as political?
RA: Obviously there’s a polemic, but taking a group that articulated all of this just before the Nazis occupied France. And a PTV before Operation Spanner. But then my escape valve: Dissociative Sparkle. Wigs and jewels and masks, and the big premise: Dionysus vs the Crucified One.

I’m not drawing a line in the sand, I’m trying to feel the timeline. I’m trying to find my own place and stand, against nihilism.

Do I need to state I’m against racists and fascists? What did we – in California – go through the 70s for the have 30s and 50s issues? It’s a soul crusher, the literalness of this moment. The absolutism.

CM: Can we talk about your past a bit? What drew you to this career? What made you want to express yourself this way?
RA: I’m a fantasist, an escapist, an ecstatic. I’m a double Sagittarian. I’m also melodramatic and run scenarios in my head. I love trying to bring a vision to life. I don’t always succeed but where it lands can also be interesting and unexpected.

I was raised to be a minister, to be open to receiving prophecy, channelling automatic writing, glossalalia. When my belief left me, the gifts didn’t. I consider this my practice, and fortunately, as I turn 58 in December, I made the right decision!

I don’t know how to follow live art trends. I try to make a sacred theatre so precious it always fails on some level, but my goal isn’t to be perfect, but to be 100% in it! This has happened three times in almost 40 years.

CM: Who or what has influenced and inspired you most during your career?
RA: I came out of underground music scenes in LA, I studied the role of Solange in Jean Genet’s ‘The Maids’, with my first boyfriend, Rozz Williams from Christian Death. This opened the Genet door, I still appropriate text from ‘Our Lady Of The Flowers’. Yes I’m a Francophile!

Then Williams Burroughs and Brion Gysin were a most important door, how to re-organise material, make a new logic, let go of strong arming narrative. There are still word virus concepts unfolding!

More recently I discovered the poetry machine of Liliane Lijn. But closer to what I chose to do as an expression, the artist Johanna Went was performing alongside LA hardcore bands and at smaller queerer art functions. I saw this work as both actionistic and shamanistic.

I also went to see Annie Sprinkles’ film ‘Deep Inside Annie Sprinkle’ at one of the big XXX houses on Hollywood Blvd, and that led me to her LOVE magazine, which featured an unknown Fakir Musafar. The body modification door! These body/sex/philosophical doors were key to coming of age in the 80s and still are the source.

CM: What would you say have been the highlights of your career thus far?
RA: Travel and working with like-minded people in different situations. London became a second home. I’ve repeatedly returned to Glasgow, Ljubljana, Lyon, even in the 90s, NYC was so different from my west coast culture, yet this work resonated. I don’t see myself graduating into one place.

The last tour of Europe this spring, I performed at the Kunsthaus in Graz, a squatted factory in Riga, a gay pride week festival at the Contemporary Art Museum of Macedonia in Skopje, a dance space in Brussels for Trouble Festival. In short, wherever I fit, whatever sounds interesting.

CM: Do you have any as yet unfulfilled ambitions? Or grand plans for the future?
RA: Shoot an arrow in the sky… if it goes real high!… Yes I do, though, getting close to 60 and still winging it, I’m more concerned with finding energy to keep making projects.

I’m collaborating with the amazing Hermes Pittakos, whose imprint is all over ‘Acephalous Monster’. The character developments, art directions, and he performs with me in the first and last scenes. We are continuing to work on video projects and collaborative actions.

He lives between Athens and Berlin, so working from his space, we have a project to make in Delphi. Yes these myths can be actualised! I’d like to focus on a writing practice again as well.

CM: You mentioned spending time in London and Glasgow. Have you spent a lot time in the UK in the past? What made you want to bring the show here?
RA: I came to London for the first time in 1985! And went to Tabboo! I came back to perform in 1994 at the ICA London, and would always do late night shows during the run at either FIST or Torture Garden. I did one of my only development residencies at the CCA Glasgow in 1996, where I worked with a researcher and explored all these religious ecstasy ideas, formally!

And in 2009 I moved to London for six years! The gloom and doom weather wasn’t my cup of tea, but it was good to become part of the fabric of England for a chunk of time. So, of course I come back! This is my fourth touring project in the UK.

In 1995 I toured ‘4 Scenes In A Harsh Life’, in 2002 ‘Joyce’, in 2005 ‘The Judas Cradle’, which was also a seven city tour. Very happy to return to Colchester, Glasgow, Manchester, London, and for first performances in Norwich, Leeds and Cambridge.

CM: What’s coming up next for you, after this UK tour?
RA: I’m a mentor in residence at MAKE outside of Dublin the first half of November, then onto a pitstop in Athens. Back then to California to a AAR – or American Academy Of Religion – conference in San Diego, where I’m receiving the Religion And The Arts Award. Though religion, magic and belief systems are my personal scholarship, I also have a pervert complex so this a big deal!

Next year, art historians Amelia Jones and Andy Campbell have curated a survey show from my archive, that will open at Participant Inc in NYC, September 2020, and travel to other US cities – and hopefully a UK venue. This show has a same-named catalogue available next month, titled ‘Queer Communion by Ron Athey’.

Depending on funding and related venues, this could prompt a series of performing pieces from the archive, or commissioning artists I think should reinterpret – rather than redux – the works, such as ‘The Solar Anus’ or ‘Self Obliteration II’.

Hopefully this will open to opportunity to re-stage the opera I made with Sean Griffin/Opera Povera, based on the ‘Gifts Of The Spirit Automatic Writing’ performance I created in London. We staged a giant version of this last year at the Cathedral of St Vibiana, with a string quartet, sixteen writers/chorus, six typists, two editors, four vocalists – including the primi Carmina Escobar – and the grand conductor Sean Griffin.

This was made possible by a grant from the Mike Kelley Foundation and production support for the Broad Museum. A breakthrough for me in terms of production size, and a stellar collaboration with a medium just above my head! But somehow we captured both the spiritualist world and the operatic divine in one performance. Feeling full-on for the next two years!

Ron Athey performs the London premiere of ‘Acephalous Monster’ at Toynbee Studios on 25 Oct. See this page here for details.


Photo: Rachel Papo