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Ron Athey, A.I.D.S. and the Politics of Pain

Pain and restraint provide us not with an overtly political subversion but with the aesthetic subversion of the subject itself- prior to political possibilities, and thus all the more capable of subverting them. It is because the personal is the political - and, more to the postmodern point, because we can and must only resist power at the same microlevels at which it manifests itself - that the aesthetically shattered, postsubjective, ascetic, erotic, sadomasochistic body becomes politically subversive.[1]

Performances such as those of Ron Athey, that deliberately blur the boundaries understood to exist between 'pleasure' and 'pain', are often viewed with scepticism by the media in part because Western society is generally orientated towards using technology, science and industry to provide increasingly complex ways of cushioning the body from experiences of discomfort or disease and their association with disorder.[2] I wish to suggest that Athey, in blurring binary distinctions in relation to pain and pleasure, allows other traditional binaries also to be placed under scrutiny. In particular Athey's work underscores and parodies binary notions of masculinity and femininity.

Athey's performances may in addition be considered to focus spectators attention on how our acculturation in the West determines and prescribes the 'limits' of representation, that is, what is "unrepresentable" in Jean-François Lyotard's sense of the word:

That which denies itself the solace of good form, the consensus of taste […] that which searches for new presentations.[3]

Athey's work, through the presentation of the 'unrepresentable' effects a socio-political agency of excess. This excess refers to that which is passed beyond or falls outside of categories in a way that draws attention to the limits of representation or the edge of the limit. In excess, Athey effectively performs in a territory that is, by definition, largely unmapped, but through his public occupation of this zone, he opens it up for definition and interpretation, so that the boundary shifts and the limit to be transgressed is relocated once more. In skirting around and through the limits of representation, I suggest that Athey's work offers a number of provocative means of resisting traditional representations of masculinity, pain, and pleasure as well as people living with A.I.D.S. or H.I.V. infection.

Ron Athey became a victim of the controversy surrounding the National Endowment for the Arts (N.E.A.) after a performance at the Walker Centre in 1994. In this performance Darryl Carlton takes part in a scene called the Human Printing Press. Small incisions were made in a pattern on Carlton's back, and Athey used surgical paper to make prints from the cuts. The prints were clipped to a washing-line pulley rigged above the audience so that they would pass above the heads of some members of the audience. It was erroneously reported in the press that blood dripped from these prints splattering the audience and that spectators were franticly trying to leave the premises. When it was discovered that the N.E.A. had contributed money to the piece, outrage was expressed from many quarters, as the media focused in upon the story. Thus I would argue that Athey's H.I.V. positive status was a critical factor in the attempts to condemn and suppress the performance of his work. The combination of cutting and bleeding and Athey's H.I.V. positive body was interpreted in the media as a threat to audiences whose ignorance of how H.I.V. is transmitted became all too apparent in the aftermath. Although there was never at any time a risk of infection for the audience the 'bad' press for this performance ensured the withdrawal of support from funding bodies like the N.E.A. The withdrawal of funding & media coverage effectively ensured that Athey was unable to perform his work in publicly funded venues in the United States. However, there were several other factors that contributed to this latent censorship: his open homosexuality, his display of the naked male body, but more particularly his use of religious iconography in unconventional and irreverent ways, and his use of masochism and the abject body in performance. I will argue that masochism is central to his performance work and also the chief motivating force behind the widespread desire to suppress his disturbing vision. I am suggesting that masochism appears threatening because Athey uses it to question the place, function and meaning of religion through his appropriation of Christian symbolism. His masochistic practises may be used to consider how it is possible to blur the sorts of boundaries that we understand to determine our individual subjectivities. That is, he uses masochism, with its potential to 'shatter' or fragment our sense of a cohesive and fixed identity, to raise questions about both the nature and location of the self and the relation of that self to society. By calling the very basis of identity: the self, into question, masochism may be used to enact the mutability of individual identity in a society increasingly faced with doubts and uncertainties concerning the relevance / permanence of its structuring mechanisms. These acculturated mechanisms of power, according to Judith Butler, effectively structure our understanding of the gendered body, and by extension, I am arguing, support the social hierarchies that maintain ideals of 'desirable' gendered subjectivity.

This article will demonstrate how Ron Athey's performance works, using masochism as a key element, achieve a poignant critique of the structuring mechanisms of patriarchal power and patriarchy's influence on notions of fixed subjectivity, particularly 'desirable' masculine subjectivity. I will highlight how these structures of power have been used to suppress and shape the representation of A.I.D.S. in art and performance. The forces of culturally determined positivity mean that the masochist, guilty of allowing or carrying out unnecessary acts of intentional self-harm, without culturally recoupable results, is likely to become marginalised as pathological. That is, if his or her actions do not appear to have some culturally justifiable or approved aesthetic purpose, for example, to win a race, or to 'improve' the condition / appearance of the body in line with Western ideals, he or she is understood as 'sick'. This is not merely because of a masochist's penchant for purposefully interfering with their corporeal and psychological integrity and thus disrupting the aforementioned boundaries, but because of the masochist's claim to enjoy, gain peace through or even revel in the experience. Indeed this idea of the apparent contradictions of masochism is one that Nick Mansfield's Masochism: The Art of Power is particularly concerned with. Mansfield noted that a number of previous theories of masochism only expressed its dynamics in terms of the polarities of pain and pleasure.[4] Mansfield instead suggests that there can not be such a rigid separation between these apparently opposed sensations. He surmises that there is no clear division between these experiences and that a large proportion of our physical perception of pain and pleasure is dependent on how these bodily sensations have been culturally inscribed.

In addition there is a connection to be made between the still dominant tendency to make polarised distinctions between sensations of pain and pleasure and attempts to blur these 'binaries' through the marking of particular parts of the body through inscription, piercing or cutting. As I will subsequently argue, this break through the skin may be used both as a source of group or social identity and / or may serve as a locus of sensual intensity that may supersede that presented by sexual relations that privilege the penetrative behaviour of a heterosexual couple and traditionally place the ‘instinctual’ needs of the male over the ‘sensual’ desire of the female.

According to Alphonso Lingis who researched the inscribed body in non-Western societies and recorded his observations in his ‘Savages’ chapter of Excesses: Eros and Culture, such modifications may also be used to increase the surface area of erogenous zones, thus increasing sensual pleasure, through an initially painful experience.

The savage inscription is a working over the skin, all surface effects. This cutting in orifices and raising tumescences does not contrive new receptor organs for a depth body […] it extends an erotogenic surface […] it's a multiplication of mouths, of lips, labia, anuses, these sweating and bleeding perforations and puncturings.[5]

In addition self-inflicted body wounds may be used in some societies as metaphors. Rifts and disagreements within a community may be remedied through a symbolic incision made in the body of a member. The successfully healed wound heralds a return to harmony. In addition there are numerous anthropological examples of societies that use scarification to signify rebirth of an individual, particularly when undergoing rites of passage.[6] Although Lingis’s attention in Excesses was centred on relatively small non-Western, non-technological societies, his study seemed to provide confirmation to individuals like Fakir Musafar, 'father' of the Modern Primitive movement[7], that there is a deep-seated desire in many people to undergo ritual processes that include masochistic elements.

Performance and Permeability

A body that is permeable, that transmits in a circuit, that opens itself up rather than seals itself off that is prepared to respond as well as to initiate […] would involve a quite radical rethinking of male sexual morphology […] in the rethinking of sexual encounters and sexual pleasure demanded by the AIDS crisis, with its possibilities of a nonphallicized male sexual pleasure.[8]

While Athey's reasons for making his work are not consciously a political statement directed against power disparities, I would argue that his work does present a subversion of patriarchy's structuring systems. This subversion works through his exposure and parody of socio-cultural constructions of masculinity and the constrictions these constructions impose. I want to suggest that Athey's work questions whether the penis, with its attendant economy of sexuality / pleasure, is necessary for a 'complete' experience of the body. Through his concentration on, and manipulation of the penis, particularly in his work Deliverance in which he is symbolically castrated with a staple gun in one scene and in another uses an enormous double-headed dildo with a fellow performer to mock the obsession with penetration, and the mystique that supposedly surrounds the penis, Athey makes parodic reference to the machinations and assumptions of phallic power. Although Lacan would argue that the penis is not necessarily correlative to the phallus, that is, that the possessor of a penis or the male, is not automatically the person in possession of 'power' or the phallus, I would agree with Jane Gallop in her chapter 'Beyond the Phallus’ in Thinking Through the Body where she asserts that there remains a tacit association between penis and phallus that conflates the conceptual with the physical, so that the male is more often popularly conceived of as possessing and asserting power than the female.

The Movement Away from Phallocentricity

In the wake of the countless A.I.D.S. related deaths during the 1980s, a growing number of people in the gay and heterosexual community in Los Angeles were looking to express themselves and their sexuality in ways that heightened their awareness of the body as perhaps a sexual encounter might, but that did not necessarily expose them to the new H.I.V. risks now associated with the reception and exchange of bodily fluids that may occur in penetrative sex.[9] This expression often took the form of tattoos, piercings, cuttings and brandings. These actions allowed individuals to experiment with alternative ways of experiencing the body that did not rely on a phallic economy. That is, a wish to move away from, or at least reconsider, the receptive qualities traditionally associated with acts of sexual consummation; away from the image of the male body as impermeable. For in the act of cutting, piercing or tattooing, the presumed integrity of the male body, not usually associated with seepage and leakage, enters a temporary or even a 'permanent' (genital piercing) liminal zone which may arguably be aligned with the feminine and its associations with the flowing of various body fluids. In this way, these practices represent a rupture in the accepted understanding of the male's bodily integrity. Furthermore, the relationship of intimacy and trust that must be kindled in order for such activities to take place may be an important factor in bonding individuals or members of sub-cultural groups.

The apparently masochistic nature of these practices and their increasingly prominent incidence during a time of sexual uncertainty and technological change has been interpreted by some as a 'return to the body'. That is, in contemporary society, our individual sense of agency may be diminished because of the increased way in which the body is given over to pervasive mechanisms of control : the medical screening of the body to determining our 'fitness' / health,[10] the manipulation of our genetic future through research into the human genome and gene therapy. Political control exerted through the limitation of access to resources and funding determined by such factors as the ability to deal effectively with bureaucracy. Information technology used to compile and exchange personal information in ways that have few controls to ensure confidentiality. In addition there are concerns relating to the pressure of social and self control exerted to police the boundaries of the body from contamination or 'pollution' (particularly in relation to body fluids). Indeed, Dr. Armando Favazza notes that self-mutilative behaviours often arise in societies facing "destabilizing conditions":

Diseases; angry gods, spirits, and ancestors; failure of boys and girls to accept adult responsibilities when they mature; conflicts of all sorts, for example, male-female, intergenerational, interclass, inter-tribal; loosening of clear social role distinctions; loss of group identity and distinctiveness; immoral or sinful behaviors; ecological disasters.

Self-mutilative rituals […] serve to prevent the onset of these conditions and to correct or 'cure' them should they occur. The rituals work by promoting healing, spirituality, and social order.[11]

It could be argued that Favazza's observations seem to support the parallels that can be drawn between the disruption caused by A.I.D.S. related illnesses, the increased ambiguity surrounding gendered identity and social roles, and the desire to use masochistic practises in a ritual process enacted to effect a social 'healing'. That is, the disruption of the social body may be 'cured' through the use of the physical body in acts of reclamation. In this context the modified body, deliberately altered in accordance with the specific wishes of the individual, becomes the surface over which we may gain a sense of our own agency and self-determination. This may especially be the case in circumstances where groups of individuals have found their personal, financial, class or cultural status has meant exclusion from many aspects of mainstream culture and society.

Actions that deliberately ruptured the body's surface, particularly those that caused blood to seep, became especially provocative in the context of widespread fear and uncertainty surrounding the many manifestations of A.I.D.S. related illnesses in the 1980s. Moreover, the relative sexual freedom and openness that resulted from various revolutionary changes of the 1960s and 1970s was not something the gay community wished to see threatened by the rising incidence of A.I.D.S. or the tactics of the religious right-wing in the United States who had begun to figure significantly in anti-homosexual rhetoric.[12] The A.I.D.S. crisis was utilised by politicians like Dan Quayle and Pat Buchanan as an opportunity to reinforce and proliferate their own essentially conservative ideas, in particular representing gay men as inherently deviant, 'sick' and contaminating. By contrast, members of the gay community, some of whom had derived a sense of their own agency through their adoption of masochistic and or marking practises, were beginning to use art and theatre to explore and create alternative forms and images of A.I.D.S. and gay men.

The Representation of A.I.D.S.

One of the primary focuses of A.I.D.S. representation in the arts during the 1980s was, naturally enough, an attempt to prevent the disappearance in mind and memory of those who had suffered and died. Several so called ‘A.I.D.S. plays’ in fact were catapulted into the mainstream and enjoyed widespread popular success in the United States, Britain and abroad.[13] Such popular success however, probably contributed to the public perception of A.I.D.S. as a white, gay man's disease as it was white, gay, men who were primarily represented on stage and were responsible for the staging of these works, as well as making up a large component of the audience who attended. These productions, which were widely reported in the media, thus focused upon a relatively small section of the gay community.

The popularity of these 'A.I.D.S. plays' may in part have been due to the fact that they did not confront the viewer with the ‘ugliness’ of illness. That is, in an attempt to work against connotations that conflate gay sexuality with sexual perversity (in its popular negative sense) and sickness, considerable effort was made only to present ‘positive’ images of gay men. Illness, in this light, was carefully staged in order to make the 'reality' of A.I.D.S. visible but without reinforcing the idea that homosexuality itself was a sickness.[14] By contrast, Ron Athey presents an uncensored version of what he understands to be the 'reality' of sickness, perhaps haunted by the horror of his own physical fragility in the face of this virus. Athey uses performance to collectively raise and appease his personal demons but in a way that confronts the audience with his 'real' HIV positive body. That is, while many theatrical works dealt with the representation of people living with A.I.D.S., Athey presents people living with A.I.D.S. to an audience who are aware of his H.I.V. positive status. This fact subtly alters our relationship with the performance, creating a sort of intimacy born out of his risky self-exposure. Athey is not concerned with sparing the audience any of the details, but wishes the audience to embrace the experience fully and to soak up every hideous detail. The immediacy of Athey's performance work works in opposition to any sense of complacency that has arguably come to surround the current notion of A.I.D.S. (in the West) as a dangerous but containable disease.[15] Nor will he allow his audience to be lulled by the panacea that has been offered by science and social forces. His insistence on reopening the wound of A.I.D.S. and revealing its devastation repetitively, gives ample political reason to those who wish to ensure that his work is not supported.

Athey's connection to the activities of a sub-cultural underground arose as a result of his go-go dancing at the nightclub Club Fuck. Athey became involved in live piercing and demonstrations at this club. These activities soon extended into a performance. It was his montaging of short tableaux developed at Club Fuck that culminated in his 1992 piece Martyrs and Saints. This piece is specifically about A.I.D.S. and the first tableau is called 'Nurses Penance'. It begins in a hospital setting suffused with uncomfortably bright light. There are a number of 'sick' performers on stage. Some are on gurneys, some in wheelchairs, all are in states of physical abjection having been cut from black body bags. Here, Athey and his co-performers enact the pain and humiliation of the exposed and abject body by using grotesquely caricatured and brutal nurses to carry out publicly, physically degrading and intrusive examinations. It would seem that the nurses attend to patients in this abrupt manner because it is only by maintaining a psychological distance from events that they are able to mentally survive the horror. That is, the nurses suffer too or do 'penance' through their necessary dealings with the sick. What is not clear is what 'sin' has been committed to make penance necessary. However, what is clear is that Athey intended to use this performance to highlight the plight of sufferers. Perhaps this work may be considered a personal act of witnessing; an acknowledgement of all the friends and colleagues he and his co-performers have lost to A.I.D.S., and of the associated grief that they experienced. In this respect the piece is both a tribute to lost friends and a mechanism to assist in the process of their collective grieving.

But presenting the abject nature of A.I.D.S. related illnesses on stage is not an unproblematic choice to make in the larger picture of A.I.D.S. representation. The focus in Martyrs and Saints and Deliverance is almost entirely on the horrifying physical manifestations of disease and suffering and the mental anguish that results. The company of performers often act as Athey's auxiliaries. By which I mean, their identities as singular and specific beings experiencing difficult circumstances themselves seems overshadowed by the always compelling presence of Athey. While we do indeed gain what amounts to an autobiographical insight into Athey’s story, there is always the danger of seeing performers who deal with their H.I.V. positive status or are living with A.I.D.S., as always already dying and that real or potential illness is the only reality of their lives. Athey, in this performance piece, acknowledges illness and suffering in a clinical setting ('Nurses Penance'), this effectively constitutes one reality. But his second scene 'Saint Sebastian' moves beyond the hideous but mundane 'reality' of the hospital to present us with a melodrama of suffering reformulated through the appropriated imagery of a Christian saint. Myra Rifkin whose androgynous body propped on a crutch is lanced with arrow-like protuberances and spinal needles, adopts a pose that is deliberately reminiscent of St. Sebastian. Rifkin is a relatively small, precariously naked woman who waits defenceless and close to losing consciousness, while the audience seats themselves. Saint Sebastian's suffering is given meaning because it represents his resistance to relinquishing his faith. St. Sebastian is also the saint prayed to in times of plague because the arrow marks are seen as analogous to the pock marks of disease. In adopting this image, Athey may wish to draw parallels between the outsider status of St. Sebastian who would not give up his god, and the masochistic performer (outsider) Rifkin's acceptance of the 'arrows' that pierce her body because she will not relinquish her homosexual identity. By associating these images with the previous scene, there is a tacit implication that those who resist hegemonic constructions of gender like Myer Rifkin, and more particularly gay H.I.V. positive people, are like martyred saints existing in a largely secular society and that their illness / difference marks and separates them and perhaps even gives them an iconic status in a sub-cultural context. In addition the ambiguity that surrounds her androgynous form echoes the sorts of gender indeterminacy that has persistently surrounded religious images of this saint and many depictions of Christ.[16]

By contrast, Athey enters cross-dressed as a large tightly corseted woman in a white dress, who speaks of Athey’s pre-destined vocation to enter the ministry. His appearance in drag both subverts his talk of his religious destination (women traditionally excluded from this role under Christianity), but also perhaps underscores the presumed emasculation of men who devote themselves to God to the exclusion of 'earthy pleasures'. Athey, as the large domineering woman, plays the ritual nurturer and healer of mortal wounds in drag that seems to simultaneously emphasise his maleness (the dress highlighting his musculature) while undermining or rather parodying his masculinity (he moves with feminine grace and surety in a way that demonstrates the constructed and performative nature of gender). Athey leads Rifkin to a bath, removes the 'arrows' from Rifkin's body, wiping her blood and anointing oil on her face and body in gestures of healing which work in contrast to the abrupt ministrations of the nurses in the previous scene. So, Athey moves from presenting grisly 'truths' about sickness to representing the 'deviant' body as a suffering icon in a way that is perhaps designed to evoke in the spectator the often strangely emotive beauty of religious depictions of pain. By adopting these religious references the piece moves some distance away from the problematic associations I mentioned in relation to the A.I.D.S. body, but that may be equally applied to any body that 'deviates' whether through gender or illness. Rifkin endures with patience and forbearance a series of piercings. Piercings that have been carried out according to her own will. Athey presented Rifkin as someone with a heightened status and dignity, like a martyr waiting to die who is elevated rather than diminished by the situation, and as such she becomes subject to our almost reverent contemplation. It is by drawing parallels between 'outsiders' like Rifkin (and by extension a representation of other excluded people like those living with A.I.D.S.) and martyrs that Athey subverts conventional readings of the 'deviant' body as abject and contemptible or the A.I.D.S. body as already dead or awaiting a potentially ugly, ignoble death. In the final scene 'The Crown of Thorns', Athey himself, making deliberate reference to Christ's Crown of Thorns, has surgical needles implanted through his scalp, evoking images and comparisons with the most famous martyr in Western society. This is not a quiet resigned act of acceptance but, like his actions carried out through Rifkin, this is a glorification of his own situation, a resistance enacted through the borrowed iconography of Christ.

Making a Mark

Athey describes his work as being about "right now", that is, about his immediate reality.[17]. However there would seem to be little doubt that as a man carrying a potentially fatal virus he would like to leave his ‘mark’ behind, both literally and metaphorically. Because of this desire for some tangible, permanent reminder of his own life and in an attempt to give his own life meaning, Athey became much more interested in both the ritual aspects of what he was doing and with presenting an event that could be witnessed live, in the flesh, by members of an audience. I will argue that for such an individual, accustomed to exploring his sexuality through the enactment of dominant-submissive fantasies with others, performing for an audience may have provided a means of extending the ritualisation of his experiences, ordeals and visions in a way that gave him a masochistic sense of empowerment. In the process of creating such performances Athey wished to create and leave an imprint, seeking recognition and confirmation as something more than:

[…] some stupid fag who died of AIDS?[…a] damaged boy

who was never a minister, who rebelled and lashed out,

a self serving queen driven to promiscuous sex who contracted

a disease and died?[18]

That is, Athey sought both recognition for his work and recognition from observers who witnessed his physical and psychical pain in order to achieve confirmation of his own existence and the significance of that existence beyond the designations of identity as either sick or queer. Indeed, for Athey, the message has always been of tantamount importance[19]. His rhetoric on this matter still echoes the zealotism of his Pentecostal upbringing, an intensity that belies his proclaimed atheism. Brought up to believe that he was ordained by God to become the new Christ, it is difficult not to see echoes of his sense of the significance of these early prophecies for his future revealed and expressed by his totemic status in performance. Athey is using performance to achieve a different kind of 'divine' prestige but one that proclaims a parallel message and that still retains him as essential and prominent protagonist. According to Jeff Spurrier, writer and next door neighbour of Athey, this message is "a big FUCK YOU", which he further elucidates as:

A statement of defiance on behalf of all who feel marginalized:

the black, the gay, the female, the tattooed, the pierced, the

branded, the fist-fucking, the poor - all the wayward children

who refused to be good and listen to Aunt Vena Mae and Jesse Helms.[20]

Athey positions himself as the conduit through which the disenfranchised may make their presence felt. Through the increased visibility of Athey's work and the controversy that has created further publicity, the potential political efficacy of his actions is promoted as his message of provocation reaches out beyond the 'converted' confines of the marginalised groups themselves and into the middle-class mainstream.

The martyrs of early Christianity attached strikingly great importance to the fact that their suffering ad majorem Christi glorium was seen. These witnesses to the faith desired to have witnesses of their martyrdom. They loved to show their wounds and their disgrace. They wanted all the world to know about their passionate zeal.[21]

Athey, as I mentioned, directly draws on the images and atmosphere of Christian iconography in the process of making his works, particularly depictions of crucifixions or martyrdom, imbuing them with contemporary meanings. These meanings, as I have already discussed, are usually concerned with the representation of the HIV positive body. The 'positive' body as a sort of post-modern secularised saint. The images of sainthood and martyrdom seem to have become a palimpsest for new cultural inscriptions concerning gay and A.I.D.S. representation. I would argue that Athey is unable or reluctant to shake off the sort of collective and shamanic experiences of his early Pentecostal upbringing, both as an especially revered child marked out for a unique role and as an adult re-making some facets of these images through his own body and those of his collaborators. Is his reinvestment in the 'sacred' and his use of religious iconography an act of collusion with the Christian idea of revering a specially chosen individual who has some 'divine' purpose? I would argue that Athey does empathise with the subjects of religious images and their often barely suppressed sensual quality, because he shares their sense of being a maligned outsider. But he aligns himself with outsiders like Jesus Christ or St. Sebastian, not as an act of collusion, but as a reversal of the power of the cultural forces that have shaped his early existence. That is, for instance, in casting himself in the role of the abused martyr he takes on for a brief transitory moment the sort of outsider status accorded to Christ when he was raised upon the cross. That is, Athey in his own way follows the Christian credo to emulate the life of Christ and share in his suffering. But it is also this self -imposed alignment with the sacred son of Christianity that may incense and raises questions regarding the limits of artistic expression, blasphemy and the dis-investment in phallocentricity implied by the figure of Christ[22].

That is, it is implied that the ideal follower of Christ adopts Christ's submissive model of behaviour, deferring to and accepting the greater wisdom of God regardless of the consequences. The Christian, in this way, could arguably be seen as religiously destined for masochism. However, this docility works in contrast to the driving, potentially sadistic force of phallocentricity, creating a conflict of interests. And if H.I.V. positive people, particularly gay male H.I.V. positive people, adopt Christian iconography as a symbol of their disenfranchisement and, furthermore, re-invest it with apparently masochistic overtones how does this appropriation inflect back upon the cultural currency and values of Christianity? It is this overwriting of Christian imagery in a palimpsest effect that alters the resonance and potential interpretative readings of such imagery and the ideology behind it that appears to be one of the chief concerns of Christian critics of any art or performance that utilises Christian iconography. In Athey's re-presentation of sacred imagery there has been construed an attack or a threat to the Christian religion itself. The crucified figure of Christ, has been the object of two millennia of contemplation reminding Christians of their 're-birth' and redemption resulting from the spilt blood of a tortured body. Jon Erickson writes:

To make something that belongs to others your own, you must

transgress, that is trespass, across those boundaries separating

what is yours from what is theirs. I make it mine, so the effectiveness

that your meaning gives to it is devalued. This doubleness is at the

core of both parody and travesty: the ridicule of authority[23]

Athey's work may be understood as a site of struggle for the possession of this symbolism, a transgression that Erickson suggests undermines the authority and power of the original bearer of meaning. However, although Athey's work may present a new inflection upon the traditional iconography of Christianity, it seems unlikely that it poses any serious long term threat to the faithful. Instead, I would like to suggest that Athey's appropriation, while it may on the one hand be construed as a "ridicule of authority" that undercuts the exclusive reading of saints as being important to and belonging to Christians' alone, I don't believe Athey's borrowings necessarily "devalue" or reduce the "effectiveness" of this imagery. But rather he complicates and increases the surfaces over which these images may be read, adding layers and permutations of meaning that may be regarded as testifying to the continued power and resonance of the original images taken from their Christian settings. I would like now to consider Athey’s Deliverance in this light.

In Deliverance (a title that arguably could be considered to be religiously referential), we, as witnesses to Athey's testimony, may see our own vulnerabilities and uncertainties reflected through the performers suffering. However, in contrast to the use of the Crucifixion in a Christian context, where sacrifice serves as an intermediary or bond between god and 'mankind', there is not the consolation and prize of eternal life to appease and bind spectators after witnessing the performers' suffering. So what purpose does this ‘sacrifice’ serve? According to the Bible, Christ’s sacrifice and death sees his body returned to earth, entombed behind a rock that is later found to have fallen away. He appears alive three days later on the road to Emmaus (according to Luke 24:13) or in front of Mary Magdala (according to John 20:14, Mark 16:9, Matthew 28:9). His rebirth signifies that his sacrifice was beneficial rather than pointless because his resurrection and assumption into heaven sets a precedent for those willing to follow a Christian god. In contemporary times, Christ's, symbolic remains, are shared in the ceremony of transubstantiation and communion. Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss wrote in Sacrifice: Its Nature and Function;

It is the victim or its remains which will pass on to the sacrificer the new qualities it has acquired by the action of sacrifice. This communication can be effected by a mere blessing […] But the most perfect way of effecting communication was to hand over to the sacrificer a portion of the victim, which he consumed.[24]

If we are to apply this type of dynamic to the performance work of Athey, we as the audience become the communicants who feed with our eyes upon the sacrificed body of Athey. His 'death', like Christ’s, is inevitable. His 'resurrection' occurs through our participation as witnesses to his actions and as bearers of the collective memory of all that has taken place. In the context of contemporary North American politics, Athey's adoption of this sacrificial trope may be read as a parody of some of the religious right wings' concern with sacrificing 'gayness' on the altar of A.I.D.S. That is, the belief that A.I.D.S. represents a retributive act by God on 'sodomites' and that the 'gay body' must be sacrificed as an act of purgation for society as a whole. Moreover, the way in which Athey has chosen to stage the 'gay body' replacing the body of Christ as martyr, I suggest underscores the injustice and lack of mercy shown to both Christ and to those persecuted as H.I.V. positive or as homosexual. Done in this way Athey effectively questions the ethos of Christianity as a faith of compassion and tolerance.

Following the same lines as the Christian story, Athey remains always the willing participant providing little resistance to the numerous physical intrusions, for if that which is to be sacrificed is genuinely reluctant it becomes a less worthy offering.[25] Thereby the violence and the passive response to it, become both justified and imperative. And yet resistance remains on at least one level, even in the person of Christ who reputedly uttered a few words of reproach before bleeding to death.[26] For resistance is a confirmation of subjectivity and is arguably at the root of the fluctuating dynamics of masochism, for without any sort of resistance, you already manifest the qualities of an object. As an unresponsive object, it is not possible to provide the necessary acknowledgement of another's subjectivity that is part of the role of the human sacrifice and the masochist in sado-masochism. But in terms of Athey’s performance in Deliverance, his whole desire to undergo and repeat these actions indicates a resistance to accepting any sort of socially sanctioned control over the exhibition of physical boundaries. Athey's 'sacrifice' may also be a reflection of his own resistance to any sense that he lacks agency in the face of his potential illness. A resistance manifest as controlled and testing violence against the body.

Furthermore, the masochist actively seeks to control and experience the painful situation so that he/ she may be alleviated from anxiety created by suspense so that what is actually experienced as pleasurable is not the pain itself, but the anticipation of pain and their own control over the circumstances of that pain. In this way the masochist uses suspense to extend their personal power over their own body. This aspect of masochism may therefore be particularly important if we consider it in relation to Athey’s HIV positive status. Most of us try to avoid anticipated pain but it has been observed by Favazza that there is also a tendency to attempt to reduce our anxiety regarding future pain we know we will experience by submitting ourselves to small controlled doses of pain. These actions require our active participation but remain under our control. It could be possible that by putting his body through ordeals of humiliation, degradation and endurance Athey may be able, in small part, to allay his fears and control his anxiety over any AIDS related illness his body may succumb to. Psychiatrists like Favazza also believe that these types of actions, that is, acts of apparent self-mutilation, may provide a valuable means of recalling the self back to the body, a way of dissipating tension in a cathartic manner that prevents greater acts of self-harm. However, by including Favazza's interpretation of self-cutting I do not wish to suggest that Athey's actions are pathological. What I hope to suggest is that in carrying out masochistic ordeals in performance, he may be going some way towards providing himself with some sort of psychological protection and adaptation to the notion of his future suffering and death.

The Contract and the Witness.

By choosing to stage the intensely personal, as Athey does in every one of the pieces that make up what has come to be known as a trilogy (Martyrs and Saints, Four Scenes in a Harsh Life, Deliverance), it is clear that Athey wants witnesses, that is, an audience to share this visceral, exposed and haunting experience.

Why the fucking bloodbath? The shit? The vomit? All performed on a well-lit stage so that, hopefully, no details will be missed. To take a stab at it, using these bodily functions, assisted by the voice, words and sound, I'm testifying. I'm wanting people to endure these real experiences, and grasp the ideas behind them. I'm sure it's because I'm damaged, but I want it to be heard[27]

Until the idea of God was rendered questionable in the Western world during the nineteenth century, God was widely considered the most important witness.[28] However for Athey, a performance audience serves this purpose, observing his tortured body, recognising him, confirming his subjectivity despite the cruel ministrations that sometimes appear to reduce his body to the level of object. This ‘bearing witness’ is central to Athey’s work and again could be said to sustain a direct relation between his discarded faith and his masochistic performance investigations. His work is there to continually emphasise that it is not a video, it is happening now and it involves real bodies. As I have previously suggested, this presented 'reality' works in contrast to the 'reality' represented by the actor. We, as spectators, may view the actor, but the actions of the masochistic performer are 'witnessed', and our reception of the performance on stage means that we are then able to give testimony. That is, a tacit contractual agreement is made. Witnesses by implication become liable, by which I mean bound by the 'law' of the masochistic contract. This idea of being bound to give testimony is also important when considered in the light of other performers and performance groups that advocate a 'witnessing' of events.[29]

This position suggests a desire to both encourage the audience "to be here and be now" as well as to engage with what is happening or has happened with a view to examining its larger socio-political relevance, " thinking, talking and reporting" or giving testimony as a responsibility and response to the performance.[30] Peggy Phelan, points out that this may suggest that "ethical action might not be completely dependent upon empirical truths".[31] The performance works of Forced Entertainment deliberately incorporates and works with elements of 'fact' and 'fiction' thus highlighting for the audience the constructedness of any 'truth'. Phelan suggests that we, cast in the role of witnesses, may be equally provoked to "ethical action" by the fictional injustices or "traumas" as we might be by watching 'real' events and that a number of other performance groups, dance and theatre practitioners are concerned with exploring "a new political ethics" and dealing with "ethical responsibilities"[32]. In addition Phelan draws attention to the role a witness may play "to continue a conversation that without your intervention would cease"[33] That those who have died or are in other ways absent may, through witnesses, have a continuing presence and resonance. This is significant when considered in the context of the parts of Athey's work, like Martyrs and Saints that were specifically devised in response to and as a remembrance of friends who had died of A.I.D.S. related illnesses. However, Phelan also points out it should not be assumed that by "produce[ing] witnesses rather than spectators" that those witnesses will necessarily respond in an ethical way or agree with the 'message' received. Phelan asserts that in this way, witnesses themselves resist objectification as a "product" of the performance.[34] This is also an acknowledgement that the witness and the role of witnessing or giving testimony remains a dynamic, indeterminate and unpredictable element of a performance.


Throughout Athey's work, there is never any doubt that he is the central protagonist and director. His role as director enables him to ensure that his company is persuaded to carry out his instructions. Moreover, by having painful actions inflicted upon Athey's person in a public arena an inversion occurs. Instead of being reduced by these proceedings he is enlarged. To have so much attention devoted to him alone has the effect of adding to his centrality and importance:

The perpetrators of violence are subordinated to their victims,

and are even described as being in obeisance to them, in positions

of rabid worship the victims of violence are glorified by the violence

they suffer, and are presented as well above their captors.[35]

Athey appears virtually naked with his signature 'Crown of Thorns' constructed from spinal needles. A group of women chastise him with ropes, whips and insults as he is herded across the stage stumbling and falling all the while. The focus of the scene is entirely on his predicament. All attention, all energy, both from the women who surround him and from those who watch, falls on his castigated form. Through his suffering and degradation he is distinguished as the protagonist and master of all that occurs. His fellow performers are instruments to construct and support him on this pedestal of potential martyrdom. In this post-modern morality play all their actions concur with Athey’s desires. Desires which transgress the limits of representation for masculinity, through his apparent, though not actual, subordination to a group of powerful women, and Christianity through his appropriation of imagery based on the life of Christ. Transgressions effected through the careful and deliberate use of humiliation, degradation, pain and restraint.

Pain and Restraint

Masochism and sadomasochistic practices work towards challenging the constructs that have been established around Foucauldian notions of the disciplined social subject.[36] According to Karmen MacKendrick, is evaluated in terms of his/ her production and consumer value[37]. This allocation of some sort of commercially definable material value to the individual is a dimension of subjectivity that is becoming more and more important in Western capitalist societies. Ron Athey's performances, presenting masochistic pain and restraint experienced across the exterior and interior surfaces of bodies that move in the peripheral zones of this economy, would seem to use performance as an acknowledgement of Athey's 'failure' as a 'good subject'. However, this 'failure', because it provides 'witnesses' with evidence of ways in which alternative subjectivity can be experimented with in spite of the restraints imposed by internalised power structures that encourage conformity to socio-cultural norms, actually wins Athey and his fellow performers an ironic, perverse sort of victory.

There is a sense of being slammed, repeatedly, into the wall of

oneself, against one's own ego boundaries until these break, and,

with them, shatter the descriptive capabilities of language.[38]

MacKendrick's description of violent rupture is both brutal and liberating, it suggests that in order for a new subjectivity to become possible, the old must be fragmented - abandoned. By the same token I am suggesting that in order for Athey to deal with his potentially sick body he masochistically fractures and destroys the boundaries of his own subjectivity through pain and restraint. For example, in Deliverance, Athey and two other male performers are restrained and hung on meat hooks, in a tableau that mirrors the image of Christ and the two thieves. Then other (female) performers administer painful and physically intrusive materials and substances into and through Athey's body. He does this first of all to lose all sense of his subjection to the constraints imposed by subjectivity, and then to achieve a greater sense of mind/ body integrity. Through a deliberate manipulation of binary oppositions in which Athey as mind / subject treats his body as an object to be restrained and to be inflicted with pain, he manages through a process (pain and restraint) to temporarily 'lose himself', highlighting and questioning Cartesian ideas of mind/body division. One of the ways he does this is by recreating a piece of his past as a drug user, Athey, in a now controlled environment, inserts thirty hypodermic syringes in a pattern up one arm in Four Scenes in a Harsh Life. These syringes, despite being empty, still induce physiological changes in both Athey and his audience as he presents his past in re-made form. There is bleeding too, that provides physical evidence of the needles intrusion into the body’s interior. This may be seen as the body’s own authority making it’s presence felt, the blood flow a confirmation of life. So the body remains at once both subject to the mind’s control and independent of the deliberations of the will so that certain physiological events, like bleeding, act as evidence of the impossibility of the complete reconciliation between mind and body.

So, paradoxically Athey confirms his subjectivity through the body that he has subjected to a masochism designed to relieve him of that subjectivity. The pain that may be used to ‘shatter’ and dissipate a bounded sense of self, may subsequently be understood as a process which confirms his subject status. That is, the pain and restraint causes a submersion of the self, a temporary loss or disappearance of subjectivity beneath the waves of pain, but before overreaching personal 'limits' or succumbing to the enticing embrace of Thanatos and continuity, that is, really 'drowning', the buoyancy of the body returns subjectivity and discontinuity. This would appear to be a truly vicious circle. By enacting ritualised performances of suffering he attempts to both draw himself back to a controlling subject position but in doing so he also engages with the object-like status of his body. He uses the destruction of his subjectivity, annihilated by the process of self-inflicted injury on the object, to prove his subject status. This seemingly contradictory desire to confirm by destruction may be a manifestation of masochism that is a step towards what I have previously discussed as Mansfield’s "total subject"[39].

The masochistic subject includes its own object within it - repeating, imagining, creating and destroying, even being it. The object is always

both interior and exterior to the subject - completely under control, but

only by way of its own independent authority.[40]

This is more than just an attempt at objectification of the body. "The masochist’s dream is of being his own object".[41] This impossible and paradoxical desire is, according to Mansfield, part of the masochist’s whole effort to achieve a point where there are no binary oppositions but indifference between such traditional polarities as pain and pleasure, power and powerlessness, masculine and feminine. In this way he becomes his own 'other', his own object of desire.

This subjectivity represents the highest aspiration of the masochistic subject - the subject to whom every apotheosis and abasement is always available; to whom there are no alternatives - who can operate power while remaining technically removed from it, even critical of it, who is, in short, capable of (being) anything.[42]

This is a subjectivity apparently released from any and all the constraints associated with fixed notions of subjectivity and it's orientating and ordering mechanisms. This allows for an almost schizophrenic (split-mind) state, which may be considered liberating and empowering for those, like Athey, keen to reach to the limits of their embodied experience. In contrast to schizophrenia as a disorder, this state results from certain deliberate physical, psychological and political choices. That is, I do not wish to suggest that schizophrenia as a medical diagnosis is necessarily liberating for any individual that is afflicted with it, but merely that parallels may be drawn between masochistically induced fragmentation that may be used performatively to liberate, and states of mind associated with schizophrenia.


There is no question that Athey’s own story remains central to whatever he creates. He uses masochism as a trope adopted by a number of sub-cultural groups because it allows him to explore the sensual limits of the body and to display his discoveries / fantasies in performance. As a white, gay male dealing with the unabridged aspects of A.I.D.S., his explorations have unintentionally revealed the fragility of the current construction of still dominant power relations based on heterosexual phallic power. Ron Athey's use of masochism strikes at his flesh before death does, both confirming his mortality and defying the inevitable forces that have control over our existence through the fragility and temporality of the body. Through facing his inevitable death through masochism he embraces a temporary state of self-annihilation, he explores an area close to death without succumbing to it in a fashion similar to what Bersani terms psychic shattering. Masochism allows him to confront the likelihood of a premature death through his H.I.V. status and to use this as a source of creative energy to formulate works that recall the historic positioning of the artist, as one who immortalises him/her self through their works and remind us of the brevity of life, even if this reminder is for 'right now'. He does not seek solace in the religious faith that buoyed many people in the past, but determinedly creates his own mythology of convictions, drawing on the residue of his skewed Pentecostal upbringing, his self-abusive past and his empathy with graphic religious depictions of suffering. His shamanic remaking gives birth to his own form of body worship with the assistance of his willing disciples and fellow performers and the all important audience of testifying witnesses to create a masochism that reveals both power and defeat.

[1] Karmen MacKendrick, Counterpleasures, 1999, p121.

[2] Bryan S.Turner, The Body and Society, 2nd Edition 1996, pp209-210.

[3] Jean Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, p81.

[4] Nick Mansfield, Masochism: The Art of Power, pp70-72.

[5] Alphonso Lingus, Excesses: Eros and Culture,1984, p34.

[6] See Armando R. Favazza, Bodies Under Siege: Self Mutilation and Body Modification in Culture and Psychiatry, 1997, pp154-155.

[7] Steve Mizrach, 'Modern Primitives' "Modern Primitives": The Accelerating Collision of Past and Future in the Postmodern Era,

[8] Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Towards a Corporeal Feminism,1994, p201.

[9] Film, Hallelujah :Ron Athey A Story of Deliverance

[10] Simon Williams and Gillian Bendelow, The Lived Body, p22.

[11] Armando R. Favazza, 1997, p226.

[12] See Judith Stacey's article 'The Neo-Family-Values Campaign' in The Gender Sexuality Reader, pp.453-470.

[13] For example Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart and Tony Kushner's Angels in America, arguably still the most familiar theatre pieces that dealt with AIDS.

[14] Sander Gilman, 'AIDS and stigma', Acting on AIDS: Sex, Drugs and Politics, eds. Joshua Oppenheimer and Helena Reckitt, 1997,p113.

[15] In the mid-to-late nineties another shift occurred in the development of AIDS treatments in the form of new drug treatments. These new drugs and especially drug combination therapy presented the possibility of not only a longer life but of the potential to virtually eradicate the virus during the early stages of infection, that is, between the first third and sixth month of infection. (However, it is not known whether reducing the viral load with drugs at this early stage will improve the long term prognosis.) AIDS may therefore be considered less life threatening and more manageable, but David Roman fears this will lead to sexual complacency and has seen 'the banalization of AIDS' in theatrical representations. Roman views the critical and popular success of the musical 'RENT' as a symptom of this trend.

David Román, 1998, p275.

[16] Laurence Senelick, 'Skirting Christ' in The Changing Room: sex, drag and theatre, pp56-75.

[17] Film, Hallelujah! Ron Athey: A Story of Deliverance

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid. 'I am programmed to carry a message. The message is the programme, to be a vehicle. It’s the most important thing in my life - it’s like more important than my life [... ] It’s more important than me being happy. It’s more important than me being comfortable. It’s more important than me being healthy'.

[20] Jeff Spurrier, 'Blood of a Poet' in Details, February 1995, p111.

[21]Theodor Reik, Of Love and Lust, 1984, p241.

[22] Insofar as such an identification implies the complete and utter negation of all phallic values, Christian masochism has radically emasculating implications and is in its purest forms intrinsically incompatible with the pretensions of masculinity.

[23] Jon Erickson, 'Appropriation and Transgression in Contemporary American Performance: The Wooster Group, Holly Hughes, and Karen Finley', Theatre Journal, Vol.42, no.2, May 1990, p226.

[24] Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss, Sacrifice: Its Nature and Function trans. W.D.Hall,1964, pp39-40.

[25] Ibid., "So serious an operation could not be accomplished by too many precautions. For the most part it was wished that death should be prompt, and the passage of the victim from its earthly life to its divine one was hastened so as not to leave evil influences time to vitiate the sacrificial act. If the animal's cries were held to be bad omens, an attempt was made to stifle or prevent them." p34.

[26] The New English Bible, 1970 Matthew 27:45-46 'From midday a darkness fell over the whole land, which lasted until three in the afternoon; and about three Jesus cried aloud, 'Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?', which means, 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?….Matthew 27: 50 'Jesus again gave a loud cry, and breathed his last'.

[27] Ron Athey, 'Voices From The Front' in Acting on AIDS: sex, drugs and politics, , eds. Joshua Oppenheimer and Helena Reckitt,1997,p432.

[28] Theodor Reik, 1984, p242.

[29] To witness an event is to be present at it in some fundamentally ethical way, to feel the weight of things and one's own place in them.

[30] Ibid., p18.

[31] Peggy Phelan, 'Foreword' in Tim Etchells, Certain Fragments: Contemporary Performance and Forced Entertainment,1999, p10.

[32] Ibid., p10

[33] Ibid., p13

[34] Ibid., p13

[35] Nick Mansfield, Masochism: The Art of Power, 1997, p64.

[36] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish , 1991, p221

[37] Karmen MacKendrick, 1999

[38] Karmen MacKendrick, 1999, p119

[39] Nick Mansfield, 1997, p33.

[40] Ibid., p33.

[41] Ibid., p42.

[42] Ibid., p42.

Mary Richards is a lecturer in the Performing Arts Department of Brunel University.