Glory Be

Andy Campbell on Ron Athey’s Gifts of the Spirit

Ron Athey, Gifts of the Spirit: Prophecy, Discernment and Automatism 2018. Performance view, Vibiana, Los Angeles, 2018. Photo: Ben Gibbs.

IN APRIL OF 2017, Diamanda Galás gave a concert in Vibiana—the airy, deconsecrated cathedral named for Saint Vibiana that once served the Catholic archdiocese of Los Angeles. Her singular ululations and yowls (perfected in songs like “O, Death”) echoed across the space. I imagined her notes as a physical substance, filling up the nave of the church like a rising tide—apocalyptic and cleansing. Ron Athey’s lush and redemptive Gifts of the Spirit: Prophecy, Discernment and Automatism (a version of which was first staged in 2010 in London) performed here nearly a year later, is a kind of pendant to that night; his encrusted evangelism a spiritual sister to Galás’s repertoire of skeletal ornamentation. Both performers have survived the deaths of their friends and lovers, and remain witnesses to the deep injustices of our age.

Although highly choreographed, costumed, and ritualized, the central activity of Gifts of the Spirit was a feedback loop constructed out of intuitions and psychic energies, what Athey terms an “automatic writing machine.” On the altar, enclosed in a cube delineated by beaded curtains, the artist and some of his closest, lifelong collaborators—Divinity Fudge, Lisa Teasley, Michelle Carr, Stacy Ellen Rich—set up a séance around a glowing orange globe. Athey would, at points, come to the microphone and read an autobiographical text about his Pentecostal upbringing, and his interests in various forms of sorcery, ectoplasm, and divining rites, but otherwise this select group remained silent. Each time he spoke, he was answered in turn with an improvisational song, delivered by Iris Carmina Escobar Alba from the prow of the choir. On the lower portion of the altar, musicians of Opera Povera followed Sean Griffin’s orchestrations, and his grand, gestural notational movements. Griffin is Athey’s primary collaborator on Gifts of the Spirit (they are credited as codirectors) and his musical direction served as the basic lubricant for this machine. Meanwhile, on two long runways of white butcher paper criss-crossing the nave of Vibiana, over a dozen performers, each wearing tunics stitched with an alchemical or astrological symbols, internally processed the words and music, transforming them into automatic writing across the papered floor. These bits of text, which ranged from barely decipherable scribbles to rant-y inner monologues, were then studiously clipped and torn from the path to be reproduced by a group of typists wearing black-and-white formal wear. Every ten minutes or so, Divinity Fudge would emerge from the ritual, his long striped gown trailing behind him, to collect the typed pages, which he then ceremoniously brought back to Lisa Teasley—who cut up these texts with a pair of scissors, collaging them into libretto books. Athey would speak, Escobar Alba would sing, and the performative circuit continued three times over.

Ron Athey, Gifts of the Spirit: Prophecy, Discernment and Automatism 2018. Performance view, Vibiana, Los Angeles, 2018. Iris Carmina Escobar Alba. Photo: Ben Gibbs.

I cannot adequately convey the things that came out of Escobar Alba’s mouth—but they were tensile and tough, and became a vibrato that pushed not only through her lips but from her fingertips as well, which were often extended outward in mimicry of birdlike flight. This was whole-body singing, bringing the volume-enhancing acoustics of the church to heel as a massive amplifier.

For most of the night I stayed close to the séance, as far from Escobar Alba as one could be; still—she knocked me flat. At one point she came down from her perch and engaged in a direct call-and-response with Athey, who had emerged from the séance, speaking in tongues. Soon thereafter she and two other vocal soloists—Michaela Tobin and Sharon Chohi Kim—took the automatically-generated libretto and, while singing it, worked the rest of the performers into a physical and vocal frenzy. Like Maenads lost in festival revelry, these performers extended beyond themselves—earnestly transmitting the spiritualism at the heart of Athey and Griffin’s operatic spectacle. At its greatest pitch, this multitonal sound took over the bodies, minds, and emotions of performers and viewers alike. There was no room left to think about anything else, as these artists brought an audience into presence. A woman in front of me began to weep, and it took a full minute for her companion to put a gentle, comforting hand on her back. This was a tempest, whipping healing torrents of sound around the interior of a former house of God.

And then, like a Southern summer storm, it was over. The automatic writers and typists reappeared, now holding candles at the back of the choir, and let out a final group vocalization. Soon they ceased, placed their candles on the ground, and filed out.

Gifts of the Spirit is an ambitious endeavor—a vast expenditure of fiscal and psychic resources whose only output seems to be a collectively authored text. But of course, Athey’s audience left with more than a string of words. This scale of performance adequately matches his reputation. He is something of a guru to many artists on the fringes of accepted contemporary art discourse. With a practice defined by an ethics of generosity, Athey has, throughout his life in performance, remained open to the vicissitudes of collaboration, even with the shifting signifier of the Divine. The roster of performers and audience members who came to witness this piece could be drawn as a complex interpersonal map. Unlike Surrealist automatism—a practice in which an individual accesses their unconscious—Athey’s is located firmly within the social. If this world is a trial, Gifts of the Spirit suggests that the only way we’ll survive it is together.


Ron Athey and collaborators performed Gifts of the Spirit: Prophecy, Discernment and Automatism on January 25th at Vibiana in Los Angeles for an event presented by The Broad.