Ron Athey is known for testing the limits of his body through sadomasochism (you may have seen him with hooks in his eyes and a baseball bat up his ass at last week’s Brooklyn International Performance Art Festival), but this new work deals with the mind – and specifically, the possibility of a collective unconscious.
All week at the Lower East Side gallery, he’s been leading a workshop in automatic writing, called Gifts of the Spirit, that will culminate in a feverish performance Saturday night.
Wednesday, Bedford + Bowery sat in on a nearly six-hour session with a group of artists, professors, writers and even nightlife icon and correspondent Gerry Visco.
It began with yoga and light hypnosis courtesy of a YouTube video, aimed at putting everyone in a relaxed state conducive to freely writing. Then most of the twenty participants took their places at three enormous white paper Xs on the floor while three others used old typewriters to transcribe what a similar group had written the previous day.
Athey directed the process by reading from the memoirs he’s been writing since he was 18, detailing a childhood in the Pentecostal church in which he was deemed a prophet messiah who spoke in tongues to the congregation.
At one point he stopped mid-sentence and prompted the participants to “start writing” and they furiously scrawled their way toward the center of the X, writing absolutely anything that came to mind — whether a realistic narrative, a poetic verse or just plain gibberish. All to the accompaniment of songs by Little Annie, including the fitting “State of Grace.”
Influenced in part by his religious upbringing, Athey became interested in automatic writing as a way of achieving collective transcendence in the secular realm. “I like the idea of a collective unconscious and the writing going through a kind of algorithm,” he explains. “I like the ecstatic state of automatic writing and the challenge is to make it like a machine.”
Lia Gangitano, the owner of Participant Inc., notes that “the nature of this work is very different” from Athey’s usual performance art, which involves enlarging his scrotum, suspending himself from hooks, or tearing off a wig that’s attached by pins so that his head bleeds as if from a crown of thorns. Here he finds himself in the role of director, manager and even timekeeper. “There is nothing to get lost in, managing and controlling,” Athey says.
But that doesn’t mean the piece is without physical performance: The bodies of the automatic writers contorted, flexed and relaxed as they positioned and repositioned themselves on the gallery floor.
After the end of the long workshop day, the three paper Xs – now completely full of writing – remained taped to the floor, waiting to be turned into material for the next day’s typists. During Saturday night’s performance, you’ll be able to witness the group-writing process firsthand, as well as readings of the texts. And on Monday, Athey will speak at the launch of “Pleading in the Blood: The Art and Performances of Ron Athey,” a new book that gathers essays by and about the artist.
“Gifts of the Spirit: Automatic Writing” at Participant Inc., Saturday, July 27 at 9 p.m.; book launch Monday, July 29 at 7 p.m.; both events free.