An Infection of Theology: An Annotated Interview with Ron Athey
Ron Athey and Karen Gonzalez Rice
In this collection of comments from a conversation that took place in his Silverlake studio on 15 August 2007, performance artist Ron Athey sketched vivid outlines of his Pentecostal childhood and discussed its impact on his performance art. Athey recalled a chaotic, high-stakes, and deeply felt religious experience rooted in the bodies of believers. As a young child in Southern California in the 1970s, Athey regularly attended worship services in a range of Pentecostal settings, from tent-revival healing services to tiny storefront churches to late-night prayer sessions in his grandmother’s living room. Across these locations, he witnessed the collective experiences of uninhibited dancing, convulsing, and vocalizing that for Pentecostals signals divine presence and provides evidence of one’s communion with God. At the margins, beyond the reach of Pentecostal denominational hierarchies, these diverse religious communities delivered eccentric, immediate, and powerful worship experiences that, even years after leaving the faith, have continued to resonate with Athey and shape his performances.
[Note: Athey’s words are bolded; my annotations are italicized and indented.]
Pentecostals have the ability to prophesy and conjure within your own spirit body. There’s a lot of independence there, which also opens the door for dissension and fights. It gets very melodramatic in those churches with the politics, because there are no rules.
We had prayer meetings at home. The women in our family would be speaking in tongues until three or four in the morning. On a school night, we would have to try to tune it out and sleep.
Athey was raised in a household of Pentecostal believers who attended raucous, sprit-filled revivals and staged intense prayer gatherings at home. Pentecostal services in the 1970s (as in the present) coalesced around intensely physical actions called the “gifts of the spirit,” which located divine presence in the bodies of participants. Speaking in tongues brought forth an ecstatic, wild, and generally unintelligible outpouring of sounds. Dancing in the spirit animated believers’ limbs, and both singing in the spirit and prophesying activated the vocal cords to overflow with visionary speech or song. Influenced by the autonomy of these actions, and restless with received tradition, the matriarchs of Athey’s family personalized their Pentecostal beliefs and practices. They applied the gifts of the spirit—particularly prophecy—to everyday life, elaborating a complex, imaginative religious narrative that situated their family history and their hopes and dreams for the future within an authoritative Biblical context.
The level of prophecies was insane at my house. My aunt was going to bear the second coming of Christ, marry Elvis Presley, and have twin sons.
Whenever a big thing [from the family’s prophecies] wouldn’t happen, that would test [our] faith. The Job story came out every time something fucked-up happened, and then my grandmother and I would go away to a motel and fast for a few days and just pray around the corner, and come back skinny and crazy.
At a young age, Athey assumed shared responsibility for the family’s spiritual life, allied with his grandmother and aunt, who frequently experienced prophetic visions. These pronouncements of God’s will organized daily life for the household and offered the family, and Athey in particular, a role of cosmological significance.
I remember loud noises and flamboyant clothes. All these women with wigs on—because it was the early ‘70s, like ’69—came over with greased up hands and they raised the pulse and were shrilling into it.
In contrast to the intimacy of services at home, hundreds or even thousands of believers attended tent-revival meetings in hopes of being healed of their physical ailments, addictions, mental illnesses, and all manner of wounds. Participants’ excitement and their anticipation of healing miracles intensified the physicality of the gifts of the spirit and created a revelatory din, a visual and aural spectacle. Anointing oil further enhanced this atmosphere. Shining, sticky oil often poured from the heads and hands of revival participants and provided a visible, tactile reminder of the informe, the overflow or excess that characterized the gifts of the spirit.
Usually everyone would be speaking in tongues…
Most people who speak in tongues start with the same sentence of phonetics, which is their lead-in. Almost everyone starts with the same yearning sound, which is described as pleading in the blood. There are usually three distinct sections: pleading it in and then this rebuking comes out of nowhere, filtering through the sort of angry noises people make in church (what are they yelling at?), and then this rejoicing ecstasy almost like raining upwards.
Or sometimes it’s described as group hallucinations of fire, like fear and a down-home screaming. I’ve been in many churches where everybody thinks the walls are on fire, a spiritual fire.
A Pentecostal spirit really worked in that church. When I was a child, you could look at me and I was just enraptured and crying. The neighbors, tearing up their shirts into little squares and passing out baby tears…
Athey displayed an early affinity for spiritual showmanship. Relatives considered him a Pentecostal child prodigy and expected him to showcase his gifts during private prayer and public healing services. In soaking up his tears and sharing these wet scraps of fabric, his neighbors were participating in the common revival-tent practice of collecting tokens of miraculous events. Handkerchiefs soaked in anointing oil or tears, and even bags of sawdust swept from meeting floors, served as mementos of the spiritual power witnessed by believers.
The power of hysteria […] witness[ing] hysteria and listening to hysteria affects your body chemistry. The voice penetrates; high voices affect your endocrine system. There is a science behind it.
It is a contagion of hysteria. The glossolalia and the movement (like the dancing in the spirit) is so spasmodic. The only insight I had into it as a child was my mother. She was paranoid schizophrenic, manic depressive, and severely epileptic. Her epilepsy voice was almost the same as her other [speaking in tongues] voice and her dancing in the spirit would often end on the floor with a seizure. That’s the sort of thing that is neurological, even if [as a child] I believed that it was from the Holy Spirit.
A traumatic and severely abusive home life complicated Athey’s childhood experience of the Pentecostal gifts of the spirit. The extremity of emotional abuse, domestic violence, mental illness, and other conditions of home life paralleled and contributed to the immediacy of the family’s high-stakes religious sensibilities. Athey’s sensitive observations about the embodiment and transfer of the Pentecostal gifts of the spirit reflect these paired experiences of religious and trauma.
I lived in another realm that didn’t really fit in with the world.
I was raised with two sisters and a brother. None of them were brought into the religion because they weren’t as open to it as I was. They weren’t ecstatic so they couldn’t reach that state. So I was never able to blame it on the adults. I always had to own my own involvement in it. I was speaking in tongues when I was nine. I just remember that wanting, and figuring out I had to tune into this vibration that had a beat in it.
[We were] isolated [with] passively racist white people […] who didn’t want to have anything to do with the outside world. We weren’t allowed to have friends or to bring them home. So there was never a sounding board, there was never a reality check. When I was 15 and became socialized, it all just fell apart. And Elvis died, you know what I mean?
[My] work has always paralleled my HIV infection and what was an infection of theology, when I found out about all these insane prophecies that had infiltrated it. That was a classic example of poor people associating into celebrity culture. Fantasies like that mondo Elvis sort of thing.
After his painful recognition of the extremity of his family’s personal religious practices, Athey began to question his participation and eventually rejected both Pentecostalism and the violence of his home life. Although Athey left the faith—and left home—as a teenager, Pentecostal notions of healing took on renewed significance during the AIDS crisis of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when he was immersed in the unrelenting grief of caring for the dying, burying loved ones, and living with the then-certain death implied by his own HIV-positive diagnosis.
Within a few years of leaving home, while still a teenager, I couldn’t understand why these things kept coming back—the states of ecstasy—because I was always prone to ecstasy since I was a young, young child.
I saw these cycles always repeated and these vibrations were still in me. They would never leave me. No matter what I believed, no matter how angry I was, I still responded exactly the same way to stimulation and life issues. I seriously sought to understand this thing and what was mine, in the aftermath of it.
I started writing “Gifts of the Spirit” at eighteen years old, trying to understand where they came from in my childhood and how I still had them, still not really understanding that I was an ecstatic and I was always going to click out into another world that could range from a meditative state to a dancing-in-the-spirit state.
In “Gifts of the Spirit,” Athey outlined his spiritual biography, and he has continued to revise this text into the present, most recently in Pleading in the Blood: The Art and Performances of Ron Athey, edited by Dominic Johnson. He has also directly explored his Pentecostal roots in the Torture Trilogy (1992-7) and less explicitly in performances to the present.
The drive of my work was [that ritual] state, even aesthetically. Revival meetings are about vaudeville, you show up in a new town and something big better happen the first night or there’ll be even less people the next night.
[In the Torture Trilogy,] when I started making images of the dead [in] that trance state, that wasn’t purposeful. Right after [writing] the notes I recognized it as being akin to these displays in church.
Even in the absence of belief, the embodied practices of the Pentecostal gifts of the spirit—and particularly the pursuit, sustenance, and collective presentation of what Athey has called the ecstatic state—have infused Athey’s performances with the physicality, spiritual virtuosity, and high-stakes intensity of the revival tent and the living room prayer meeting. His actions repeatedly have mimicked the gifts of the spirit, from overflowing bodily fluids to the collective witness of healing. This communal experience, which derives from his early Pentecostal actions, has remained central to his work.
Ritual state […] wouldn’t happen without an audience. There has to be a witness; that is where this whole thing seals up. […] Witnesses are a wall of energy, even if they all hate it. It is still being seen, it is formalized: that is the fuel that transforms it from just putting saline in a body, or pouring blood out of a body, or the pleading of the blood.
The last couple of years I have been thinking, “Why the audience?” There is another school of performing where people perform to the camera. There is still a witness on the other side of the product, [but] I do not get it because I need the witness. […] There is an amazing text by Jean Genet from Prisoner of Love: […] if the witness does not color the experience in a personal way, the witness is of no use.
Athey, Ron. “Gifts of the Spirit.” In Dominic Johnson, ed. Pleading in the Blood: The Art and Performances of Ron Athey. London, Bristol: Live Art Development Agency, Intellect Ltd, 2013. 42-54.
Karen Gonzalez Rice is Sue & Eugene Mercy Professor of Art History at Connecticut College. Her book Long Suffering: American Endurance Art as Prophetic Witness is forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press series Theater: Text/Theory/Performance in 2016.