Ron Athey & Sue Fox Discuss GIFTS OF THE SPIRIT

by JC Gonzo

Extreme body artist Ron Athey‘s latest large-scale performance installation Gifts Of The Spirit: Part 1 occurred at The Whitworth Hall in Manchester, UK. The piece centered around the art and experience of automatic creative manifestation, including writing, vocalization, and music. Having not explored a subject on such a massive and involved scale in over 10 years, Gifts of The Spirit included the following: 16 automatic writers, 6 typists, 4 editors, 1 reader, a piano and a glossalalia chorus. The event was entirely fabricated by Athey himself, with additional music performance from automatic composition from Othon Mataragas.

Previously, Athey has explored sexual desire, trauma, spirituality, and the occult — all through filters of S&M aesthetics and religious iconography. Regarding Athey, visceral is an understatement. I sent Ron Athey and Sue Fox, a fellow participating artist of the event, questions on their experiences during and after.

Firstly, enjoy this comprehensive video from Mile End Films documenting the event.

You’ve explored automatic writing before, with JOYCE for example. What are other themes you explore and how does automatic writing fit in? Was Gifts Of The Spirit a new experience in terms of your art practice?

Ron Athey: I was scratching at the concept in Joyce, which was from a very personal perspective. I was trained to be a psychic child and groomed for a ministry. While i did receive the gift of speaking in tongues, i failed at automatic writing. I always wanted it to be more than channeling the spirit of a dead person.

What prompted you to explore automatic writing on such an expansive scale?

Ron Athey: I’ve explored automatic less extensively in a few projects, but not in and of itself. The initial size of this Gifts of the Spirit performance was in the response to the site: the initial work-in-progress was last November at Queen Mary University London’s Great Hall. The other impulse was to de-personalize the memoir text, which i think is already loaded with ‘ye olde rugged cross’ sentiment, so to reiterate it but run it through a colder process of taking the hypnosis accessed ‘collective unconscious’ allowed it to free up. And Whitworth Hall pushed the form even further, by both the involvement of the participants (man already worked in automatic text projects or had interest in psychic/enhanced experience.)

Has there been any response from the automatic writer/spiritualist community on the piece? What have been the repercussions, reactions and responses since the event?

Ron Athey: I don’t know if we tapped into the experience but for a smaller section of the performance we used four auto-writing planchettes based on the Victorian model, that were intially for use on a ouija board and then were outfitted with pencils to continue with automatic writing and drawing. The make of these planchettes — who makes them to order — Peter Leckie at AstroLec, who is one of the few sources of planchettes, happens to be near Manchester and hand delivered the order. He had googled me and was curious and enthusiastic about the project. In trying to track down a supplier of planchettes we called many occult and esoteric bookstores and received warnings from a few people about playing with fire.

The public context in conjunction with the grandness of the event puts what is otherwise a very secluded or private practice into spotlight, yet according to many participants there was a level of intimacy involved. Did you aim to achieve this?

Ron Athey: Yes, I think the energy of the collective unconscious depends on feeling connected (thereby shutting out the spectators) and also on not being over-prepared. They were only excerpts from the text I read in the performance once. I think they tapped into each other and developed a rhythm of their own.

Why did you extend the medium into music (the glossolalia chorus, piano, organ) adding another element to the act of automatic writing itself?

Ron Athey: I wrote the movements of automatic writing out as a soundscore graph, rather than script it. I’ve never ‘seen’ a performance through this lens, maybe I’m developing Synesthesia? Though I the only training/experience I have with music is the development of The Judas Cradle with Juliana Snapper. I think looking at music from the opera perspective opened up my understanding of the possibilities of sound and quotations.

From where did you seek out and enlist the many writers, typists, performers, and so on? (Sue Fox, for example?)

The producers 2 Gyrls sent out a call the required a CV and a couple essay questions about why they wanted to be involved. And I was looking for a hypnotherapist who got the project and would be involved in the workshopping and performance process as well, and Sue Fox was abolutely stellar. I haven’t worked with a large cast since the 90s, it was amazing to develop this work with them and control the chaos, and somehow keep a lid on the chaos. Everyone got that it had to run like a machine, all stand-outs and showboating curbed.

What is planned for the second installment of Gifts Of The Spirit?

Fierce! Festival in Birmingham spring 2012.


Artist Sue Fox worked alongside Ron Athey and many others in Gifts Of The Spirit.

Here is a list of involved performers: Ron Athey, Othon Mataragas, Sue Fox,  Nina Whiteman, Vasileios- Pavlos Kountouriotis, Llewyn Máire, Teemu Metsala, Russell McEwan, Mark Greenwood, Nathan Jones, Roberta Hoffman/D’angelo, Michael Mayhew, Eleanor Byrne, Nick Kilby, Rachel Holmes, Alice Kemp, Luci Fiction, Rachel Parry, Barnes-Wynters Michael, Joey Hateley, Alexander Simmons, Jonathan McGrath, Peter Jacobs, George Arnett, Charlotte Rodgers, Joanna Brown, Agata Alcaniz, Phaedra Shanbaum, Roger Bygott, Olivier Richomme, Lewis Church.

I asked Sue Fox some questions:

Those who experienced this event have described it as terrifying, enlightening, transcendent, beautiful, and alarming. I hear many wept. How would you describe your experience?

Sue Fox: My experience of the gig was utterly profound.  I was swept into some deep unconscious cavern where I witnessed and felt the great pressure for Ron to be saintly when he was young. My heart was exploding as we went into the seance and I felt a deep welling of sadness and empathy for Ron. I had visions of his family abuse. I could not stop crying and wailing as the wave of feelings pulled me in deeper.  It all felt like such an intense but brief period of time but I just went with it…..floating freely with everyone in their altered perception.

The layers of creativity were manifold with people in their creative zones, soaring into their higher potentials. The group unconscious was unlocked for many days to tap into artists and whoever was there to experience this gig.  The sound was so quiet in the beginning with the low hum of countdown and the soft scribbling of pens, there was the shuffling of movement as limbs slid and the tapping into the paper, as if it were skin to carve and trace.  Typewriters began to stir and tap tap tap in this gigantic hall.  The last time I was here was when I graduated with a bachelor or Arts Degree!  There was the steady voice of my soft-paced voice, continually counting down and using words like ‘floating’, ‘sinking’, ‘letting go’, ‘being’ and ‘truthing’.  And then Ron would read things to act as catalysts for automatic assemblages of feelings, words, imagery all pouring out like an artistic deluge of chaos and ecstatic meanings. A cacaphonic rendition of piano boxed out and organ crescendos crucified the air.  The space was torn with stigmata, resembled a deluge of blood on the cross.

Those watching could not help projecting the deep wounding, the high of creation, the hidden space, the solitude within the group, the open template.  People got close to the seance table as if drawn by static or magnets, and stared endlessly at the almost severed heads, where planchettes were moving with strange pencil marks, and voices were stirring, eyes were hallucinating, voices were dismembered and broken…. breath was being taken and retrieved…..faces changed into others….we did not know or recognize ourselves in the aftermath……we morphed into strange beings….. Faces began snarling and spitting. And there was the slow sob of the mother and the archetypes all coming through. And there was the evident despair at the thought of Ron’s abusive Aunt Vena, watching and chastising and bullying him.  I felt a violence there. I got angry. I wept for everything. I felt the deep wounding, the confusion of him as the child being made to do and be.  I revoked the painful psalm they made him sing. I savaged the microphone with feral sounds that appeared from other places, disjointed and then pulled back together again, watching then not. I was inbetween places, past and present, interstices of memory and connective flashbacks that razored my heart from the very heart of him.  I was lost in a daze, in a hypnotic state… trance.

What exactly was your involvement with Gifts Of The Spirit? How did you get involved with Ron and his project?

Sue Fox: I knew the organisers Gyrlgrip, Llewyn and Lisa, who are friends of mine and who I have performed with through Michael Mayhew.  I was aware of Ron’s work for years being an artist/performer myself…and found his work to challenge and offend, which I love art to do.  I knew they were gonna get him to come to Manchester and I was like I have got to meet that lovely and extraordinary man. At first I just offered to do whatever they had in mind and then asked to be an automatic writer. Ron had other plans for me however.

We began to write a lot to one another and sent some dirty-laden text to one another of what we were up to and it kinda snow-balled into us really getting along. Lisa then asked if I knew of anyone in hypnotherapy and I told her I had done a lot with my buddhist/meditation/martial arts training for decades and then I got to devise and work on ideas with Ron prior to the weekend workshops.  We are peers and I felt an instant kinship with him. We are both very transgressive in our ways but deeply creative and spiritual beings.  I ended up running all the hypnotherapy/guided visualisation/qigong workshops throughout and really got under people’s skin with my free associative ideas and metaphors; plus even better there were many of my friends & acquaintances there like ex-students and facebook friends who I had drawn into the Athey net also and this meant I knew others and could throw in things in the regression work I did. It was like being with my family doing this amazing gig and I learnt such a lot from Ron and the raw interaction we all had!

What have been the repercussions, reactions and responses since the event?

Sue Fox: The event got people creating verily. Some were writing and making images. Others watched and cried into themselves. Some asked questions. Others walked into blank spaces, twisting around, looking at what had been written, thinking………stoned on art!  There was a lot of activity afterwards and I just wanted to be quiet. When we went to the party in Hulme I started to experience the most strangest physical states.  I could not see fully out of my left eye, my left hand got pins and needles and went numb and then my tongue did also. I felt afraid and disorientated. I couldn’t cope with people talking. I needed to get away and sleep and be by myself. No-one really seemed empathic when I was telling them what was happening.  I headed off home to relieve myself from such an exhausting five days!

I was fine by the following morning but slightly at odds with what went on. Perhaps we needed time to ground ourselves and come back together as a group after we performed. The left side is all related to the female side of the body so one could say that I experienced the intuitive side of me.  It is a symptom of deep hypnotherapy to have those symptoms.  Sight, sound and touch all affected.  Perhaps touched by the souls of the dead.  Souls that hurt. Things that wanted to come in and do some explaining on that night!

How did you feel about it’s expansive setting and public context?

Sue Fox: There has been little follow-up with ‘Gifts of the Spirit’….there was a blast of blogs and images/film snippets but there was no collective activity or archive. It seems to have disappeared like the smoke in the charnal grounds. No-one has really discussed or analysed the chain of events. Perhaps the best person to enlighten us all is Ron. I did not even share with him what I saw.  It is as if spirits are stripped, doused with petrol and set alight only to drift to other corners of earth.  A meeting of minds and hearts no less.  Exhiliration and then the dirge.  Strip lighting and sterile settings after the banquet orgy-feast of ‘perfume’.

I loved the lavish Whitworth Hall it was set in, so parochial and yet in it was unleashed the archaeic minds of artists and free-thinkers working spontaneously not in any fixed academic way.  The grandness created some kind of royal court scene where you could imagine times past and eras of other beings in social intercourse.

Had you practiced automatic writing or modes of a similar vein before? How did Gifts Of The Spirit fit in with your own practice?

Sue Fox: I have used all kinds of free-wheeling ways to create. Spontaneous writings on wakening and sleeping. Writing on drugs. I wrote six novels on ‘art, sex, dark minds and the voice of the cunt’ (some 600,000 words straight out in three years). I have written all my life since being a young child.  Writing is easy.  I find myself when I write and save myself over and over.  I fall into my heart and my cunt.

I am an international artist known publicly for photographing the dead. I visit abbatoirs, cemetaries, dominatrix dungeons, hospitals, churches, funeral parlours, morgues, asylums, derelict buildings and anywhere I can face the taboo nature of life and death, love and sex. I am heavily influenced by Bataille. I have appeared in several films, in ‘The Exposition of Death’ by ARTE with Boltanksi, and ‘Vile Bodies’ with Witkin, Saville, Serrano & Mann. I have shown my photographs in France, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Australia, Denmark, Canada, Ireland, and had my work next to the YBA’s, Hirst and Lucas in London. I am in a great many publications including  I currently take images of sex. My work revolves around the body. I work as a permanent part time photography lecturer at M.M.U. and I am a martial arts teacher and trained naturopath.

The gig continued my fascination with the taboo and the occult and in pushing boundaries and entering new terrain.  The whole experience was on the subterranean level, where I like to reside in the abyss watching states of mind. It was akin to my meditation practice. I had no idea what was going to occur but just dived in unafraid. I love fear and terror anyway. I like to utilise raw energies for art and sublimate them. Performance is such sweet succour for me, even if it leaves a dirty taste in my mouth and a fierce pulsing cunt.

I intend on working with Ron in the future and keeping up our contact. Infact I am just gonna write him a letter now. I can feel it pouring forth, the gift of tongues, of uncensored minds, of sharing in our blood-red darkness. Hallelujah for Ron Athey. Lovin’ that man. Such a savage, brilliant mind. Amen.


The following images are from Lisa Newman, taken at a workshop with Ron Athey and Sue Fox working a group through Qigong, shared body work, yoga, and automatic writing.