Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Ron Athey – Gifts of the Spirit: Automatic Writing, Manchester

I am waiting in what appears to be a gothic lounge in a building of the University of Manchester and the air is already thick with humid art-speak. The room is also thick of people sporting tattoos, piercings and occultist Heavy Metal T-Shirts, a display of some half remembered connection with the spiritual and religious meaning these marks once communicated, and it could be a show of affinity with the tattooed and pierced Athey himself.

Before I can really think about it I notice that people are drifting away, so for reasons unknown I get up and follow them. Luckily the reason for the movement was prompted by the start of the performance. There's a curious tension in the scholastic surroundings of the Whitworth Hall, as I join the other members of the audience wondering around the imagined Victorian Gothic romance of the hall. Perhaps they trying to decide what they should focus on, the people on the giant white cross splayed across the floor, the table of mediums(?) on the stage or the empty looking people waiting at typewriter set against the walls of the hall. It's a big difference from the more formal and traditional way I saw his performance of The Judas Cradle way back in 2005.

Or maybe the tension is in me, as my own work has dealt with similar themes I have this feeling that I can see the strings as it where, it leads me to question what are we engaging with here? A genuine attempt to contact something unknown and beyond our understanding? Or just a collection of the symbols and actions which we associate with such notions of supernatural investigation? Are we meant to see it within the context of art history, the attempts of the Surrealists to connect without the aid of spirits with their mediumistic selves.

I guess these thoughts are rattling somewhere around my head as I watch the 'writers' scrawl across the giant cross I am not interested in what they are writing, the writing seems it become part of the drone of the church organ and Athey's voice. I begin to wonder how much is contrived and how much is spontaneous, how much is predetermined by Athey's hand. I also have think about how much of my own actions have been predetermined, well perhaps not predetermined but it appears that a certain set of conditions have been laid down. Of course the two major conditions would have to be supernatural aspect and the conventions of performance itself.

By allowing the audience to meander away the space, focusing on no fixed point could be considered an element of the performance itself. As the performance proceeds I note a change in the audience who change from standing at a distance to getting closer to the performers, some peer over the shoulders of the 'writers' as if they are ghosts and cannot be seen by the performers. Once a audience member enters a space within the hall others follow. In our actions as audience I begin to see a relation between us and the 'writers' each follow unseen paths, increasingly become more involved in what is happening around them. I wonder, admittedly retroactively, if we have become to a degree Automatic Viewers allowing or giving ourselves to the context and conditions to the piece.

When a Thank You, breaks through the storm of organ drone, yelping voices and keys clicking the spell appears to be broken and the audience reconfigures returns to its pre-performance set and begins to examine the detritus left behind as if to decode what just happened. I leave the space and step outside, its cooler and wetter; something has changed at least that's what I want to believe.


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