Ron Athey: Gifts of the Spirit

It’s rare that I should be blown away by performance art; challenged perhaps, occasionally touched, but more often contemplative and with a tendency to drift along with my own imagining, straying from the intended path. But tonight I was grounded firmly in the present moment as legendary body artist and former Pentecostal ingénue Ron Atheyunveiled his latest ‘channelling’ in the historic and pitch-perfect surroundings of The Whitworth Hall at the University of Manchester.

Presented in conjunction with The Queer Theory of the Avant-Garde conference, ‘Gifts of the Spirit: Automated Writing’ is a performance installation conceived, scored and directed by Ron Athey with automatic composition and music performance by Othon Mataragas. Accompanied by 16 automatic writers, organ, piano, 6 typists, 4 editors, 1 reader and a glossolalia chorus, a curious audience poured into the historic chamber unsure of what to expect. What followed was a direct challenge to the Manchester International Festival in the form of a memorable lifetime moment.

Athey himself was seated upon a raised platform and took the role of reader, conducting the event via a protocol of stop-start initiations for those engaged in production and interpretation. He was placed alongside the chorus, an eclectic mix of types with the distinct appearance of a council or representative body of tribes; the mourning mother, the money lender, the darkling prince, the eunuch, the woman of titled means… these are my interpretations, certainly unintended but no less valid than any other of the wild imaginings that bubbled to the surface during the course of the event.

The parquet floor was papered in a giant ‘X’ made of multiple layers, crawling across and upon which were the writers themselves. At a signal the scrawling began as Athey read from his unpublished memoirs, providing prompt and raw source material for transcription and unravelling. The chorus, for the moment largely silent, were hunched across planchettes that slid and jerked beneath their fingers, eyes closed in readiness as open conduits to the spirit realm.

As the writers edged forward across their own text which grew at a prodigious rate, assistants farmed the words as birds follow a plough to pluck at pink worms unearthed in the soil, tearing or cutting with scissors and carrying across to typists seated at the edge of the walls. These blank-faced sentries transcribed and elaborated using ribbon and carbon sheets, occasionally pausing to lean forward and rip the now drained pages from the facing wall to squeeze further psychic pulp from a new scrap.

Greek composer and pianist Othon Matarangas sat in the organ gallery overlooking proceedings, thundering a dark, pounding fugue from the resonant pipes that floated atop the clattery tap-tap of the typewriters. Now editors leapt up to perform their task, taking the typed sheets and scoring, censoring, highlighting and re-ordering words, sentences and phrases which were then cast back upon the table for the glossolalia chorus to use for their rendition in earnest.

Singing, screaming, yelping and weeping, the atmosphere grew tense and heavy as the speaking in tongues began. One man sat and wept, some edged closer as others inched toward the exit, a female writer stretched and writhed across her patch of paper in what seemed very much like an ecstasy. Speaking for myself, I felt relaxed and comforted, as if the air was filling with a marshmallow viscosity that dulled the shrieks and at times terrifying sounds of the singers.

And then it was over – the link broken. As an example of a group collaborative effort, whether it be for theatrical effect or with a determined if mostly theoretical intention, the result was truly unnerving. Ron Athey is not mocking but celebrating and re-appropriating a personal belief system often dismissed as nonsense, and in doing so I found myself complicit; no longer an observer but an active participant. A wish is a form of summons, after all. Goosebumps were most definitely raised, while as for the sprits of the netherworld itself, who can say. It wasn’t for want of trying.

Bren O’Callaghan’s blog