April 22, 2015

On Being-Hated: Ron Athey, Whip-Its, Envy.

I know these posts usually start with something coherent, like where I am or where I might be going. How I want what I want when I want it, that sort of thing. Maybe it’s weird for me to assume that any of this might be interesting to you, voyeuristically or whatever. But god, I’m so tired I’ve gotta be honest. I did a lot of fucking drugs last night so my head hurts

Incorruptible Flesh: Dissociative Sparkle, Ron Athey (2006)

I know these posts usually start with something coherent, like where I am or where I might be going. How I want what I want when I want it, that sort of thing. Maybe it’s weird for me to assume that any of this might be interesting to you, voyeuristically or whatever. But god, I’m so tired I’ve gotta be honest. I did a lot of fucking drugs last night so my head hurts; I’ve got all of Disintegration by The Cure on repeat and I just can’t afford to feel anything right now.

Okay, so I say this as if it might actually mean something for me to do ‘a lot of drugs’, but the truth is that the reality of my ‘doing a lot of drugs’ is just as hallucinatory as the drugs I might have done if my love for drugs had any kind of teeth. It doesn’t. At this point in my life, I’m basically straight-edge. I even have the tattoo to prove it, sitting neatly on the back of my left calf, a little heart containing a friend’s name (‘CASS’) in big bold letters, and the classic XXX under it — for my commitment to no drinking, hard drugs or cigarettes. To the X-rated B-movies I love. To the triple kiss of death because each kiss represents another sustained and sustaining heartbreak. What I mean when I say I did a lot of drugs is that is that I did five measly whip-its, which is not many drugs at all. But it’s enough to mean that I won’t have to care either.

An old friend — older and wiser than I am — once played in a riot grrrl band called The Exes Exes. She’s now an astrology-based social worker who believes in the universe. She reminds me often that change is not the enemy and that there is a lot to learn from following one’s desires. But I’m whiny and young; that seems difficult and I’m tired, and it just seems to me that I don’t know, there is always a lot to regret, too.

I quit drinking when I was 16 because I was roofied and assaulted. I quit smoking two weeks ago and everything’s still fuzzy. I quit drugs after college because I smoked a gigantic blunt with a friend while watching the children’s dinosaur movie The Land Before Time; we invented a genre of music called DINOCORE that was so terrifying to me that I knew weed would never be the same again. I’m a paragon of innocence — even my death drive is tame enough that the only way it can manifest itself is feebly: biking in the city without a helmet.

I’m so tired right now that I can’t even hurt myself right, which is pretty pathetic. Whip-its aren’t anything but a form of drugs-lite, my weak approximation of everyone else’s risky behavior. Did you just crack a beer to take the edge off? I’m fucking envious. Right now, that envy is all I have.

Because here’s the thing about being-hated. You can be as smart about it as you want, but the fact is that it hurts. And when you know you can’t ever truly escape it, you have to find a way to survive it. When you have to live through watching others enjoy the thing you want, you can viscerally feel as though you’d like to wrench someone’s material reality away from them. And at that moment, your survival might — weirdly and paradoxically enough — mean feeling envy.

Melanie Klein writes about how “envy is the angry feeling that another person possesses and enjoys something desirable — the envious impulse being to take it away or to spoil it.” In being-hated, one is envious of the good life, the life unlived. But the truly interesting thing about envy is that it’s hallucinatory. In other words, most people “deal with their incapacity (derived from excessive envy) to possess a good object by idealizing it” (Klein). And when you know that you can’t ever have the thing that you want, it becomes a variation of the most inflated object one could imagine, a swollen and watery vision of perfection.

I’m at work and I’m so tired but I’m on Gchat with Michael Tom, who tells me about this job he’s up for in Austin. It’s in the genre horror TV industry and I really want him to get it, so I cross my heart and swear that I will say 100 rosaries for him every day until his interview. Not that doing so would be inconsistent with my aesthetic, but even if it were, I would do it — I’d kill for the same gig, though. I mean, who doesn’t want a crack job in an industry full of blood and gore?

I write to him that “i wld eshew my art for you.” Michael Tom says in return, “V. sincerely touched by this statement // want it in the form of a neon sign or something, ‘I WOULD ESCHEW MY ART 4 U’.” I say, “i wld.” And I mean it, too. Because even though I’m envious, I know that like every dream, it’s prettier in my head than it is in reality. Like every horror convention teaches us, there’s just no guarantee that when you try to materialize an idealized hallucination that it won’t come after you with a fucking saw.

And while envy might help you cope with never having the thing you want, it’s also sure to spoil any kind of relationship you have with it, no matter how faint. The frightening thing about envy is that it could go so far as to entirely ruin your ability to desire.


Incorruptible Flesh: Dissociative Sparkle, Ron Athey (2006)

It’s the weekend, but I’m tired and I can’t get out of bed. I’m biting my nails, looking at pictures of Ron Athey’s performance, Incorruptible Flesh: Dissociative Sparkle, a painful endurance piece in which Athey subjects his body to a number of surreal and physically extreme distortions. It’s impossible to separate this piece from Athey’s experience as a HIV-positive person who survived the 80s. Something about every procedure he’s forcing his body to endure seems envious of an untainted, pre-AIDs crisis Adonis, a personage that can no longer exist. Each alteration is melancholic as much as it is absurd, a simultaneous longing for, yet caricature of the idealized qualities of the gay male body — nubile, young, and sexual.

In this piece, Athey forces himself into the template of an undiseased hallucination, postulating this ideal body’s limitless potential as malleable to the extreme. And that’s exactly what it is — extreme. Athey is stretched out and affixed upon a rack of metal bars. Instead of the taut skin of youth, his face is distended by tiny hooks, pierced into his flesh and tied tightly to the frame, dusted with powder in a grotesque form of Botox. Instead of a large, uncut phallus, his genitals are injected with saline, engorged and translucent from the weight of the liquid. His asshole stretches around a baseball bat he’s impaled with. For five hours, visitors are invited to don medical gloves and touch him.

José Esteban Muñoz cites Eve Sedgwick in his book, Disidentifications, observing that processes of identification are “fraught with intensities of incorporation, diminishment, inflation, threat, loss, reparation […] Identification, then, as Sedgwick explains, is never a simple project.” Athey’s performance could be a failed process of identification wherein his older, HIV-positive body unsuccessfully attempts to materialize a cultural memory of gay youth.

Athey’s actual body becomes a fantasy turned effigy, greasy and shaking under the audience’s hands. His performance is an apparition of perfection, carried to such literal lengths that it has begun to turn against itself, devouring itself into abhorrence. Glistening under the light of a mocking disco ball hanging above him, there is something dreamy about how envy has manipulated Athey into painting himself a poltergeist, pushing the hallucinatory experience of idealization from its reparative fantasy into a troublesome materiality. Desire here is obliterated even if it is the piece’s monolithic driving force. It can only remain as a tattered haunting, one that neither audience nor performer can escape.

I’m biting my nails in bed and I rip a sliver of skin off my cuticle so blood seeps from my finger. Even if envy could be a defense for being-hated, it seems that its hallucinatory idealization must always degenerate into a reality that’s somehow violent, somewhat cruel.


I Miss You!, Franko B (2003)

I’m so tired, but I’m at work — my eyes are closing and I’m just trying to stay awake. I’m on Gchat with Michael Tom at the same time as I’m listening to a truly terrible song by emo band My Chemical Romance called “Famous Last Words”. The song starts, “now I know that I can make you stay/ but where’s your heart?” It’s addressed from a person to someone they love who has left them for someone they love better. It’s snarling in the vocal, but the guitar’s too steady, and doesn’t yearn. It seems to flatten desire with a steady riff that swells in volume but never in complexity. Like envy, it might be distracting; swirling and resonant. But it’s also deeply boring. Who fucking cares?

Someone in the video falls over, screaming, clutching his chest as though his heart’s being physically dragged out of him, like it’s attached with a wire to the lover who’s walking away. Calmly, I drip saline into my eyes and a co-worker thinks I’m crying at my desk again. She says, exasperated, “Trisha, not again.” I don’t correct her.

I can’t stop clicking through the photos. I’ve never seen this performance in person, but for me, the most interesting part of it is not Athey’s endurance, or even the ornate apparatus of ecstasy and sorrow that he has beautifully sketched with his body. I’m fascinated by how an attendant must drip saline into his eyes, every few seconds for five hours, because he can’t blink — his lids have been pinned back. This perfect interval of care should be regular and reassuring, should offset the deep cruelty of his self-inflicted torture. But this steady dripping is more excruciating to look it than the tableau itself — it puts the rest of his pain in sharp relief. I’m Catholic though, so maybe it’s just me?

I’m tired, I’ve got a cigarette burn on my arm that won’t heal like it’s supposed to, and I can’t stop thinking — if hallucinatory envy must always become cruel, then perhaps its most sinister aspect is masquerading as a site of care or repair. It could pretend to cut the pain, soothe the wound, but its effects could just end up worse than the damage of being-hated.

Perhaps reparation is simply as impossible as obtaining your object of desire. There’s just no out from absence. Where’s your heart.

I’m so tired. It’s early in the morning and I’ve got a piece of toast hanging out of my mouth, swearing as my fingernails tear another hole in my black tights. I’m trying to get everything done but my head’s throbbing. I’m putting Neosporin on a cigarette burn on my wrist, inflicted by a lover.

Having a long history of knowing how to hurt myself, in good ways and bad, means also having a vast knowledge of how those wounds heal, how you can help or hinder the process of repair. I’m having trouble healing this burn, and wondering if its stubborn refusal to close up and seal is related to my needing the pain as a form of care. Pain is hallucinatory. It makes everything it touches louder, more intense, more intimate. If I hurt myself, my head goes quiet.

I always think of whip-its as an uncannily aural drug, which is, paradoxically, similar. Every step of preparation makes a sound, from the clinking of the canister as it hits the cracker, the screech of the cap as you screw it down to break the seal, the loud hiss of air entering the balloon. A whip-it makes everything sound amazing; but it’s not enhancing noise around you. Rather, it makes everything quiet. It’s an amplification of silence, your body, breath, and your heart all entangled in one resounding cave. One that you can almost convince yourself is a presence.

When I think about the way a lover might look at someone else, my stomach drops as though someone’s scooped my insides out. I’m hollow. I have to learn to be better. My ears are ringing. Yeah, you might be in my veins; but where’s your heart.

Whip-its, otherwise known as nitrous oxide, come in little steel canisters, because their practical function is literally to whip cream. You can put them into large metal jugs to aerate liquid and discharge it, with a loud hissing noise, as foam, like you see at any Starbucks or corporate coffee joint that might sell overly sugary, caffeinated beverages abjectly assembled by some poor, harried barista. But you can also break these canisters open, put the gas into a balloon and suck it into your lungs. It’s just like at the dentist’s, right before they rip teeth out of your jaw, bloody and triumphant. Where they use nitrous oxide as a weak anesthetic, something that doesn’t quite put you out cold, but instead localizes a bizarre numbness.

Someone told me once that 60% of necrophiliacs are dentists, because they feel disidentified from their patients; because even though they’re used as identifying markers like you see on TV in CSI, teeth are the most depersonalized body part that humans possess. I don’t know if that’s true, but I wonder if dentists feel envious that other doctors get to have intimate conversations and relationships with their patients. I wonder if that’s why some of them might like fetishizing bodies, cold and stiff from rigor mortis, a love object that’s already broken or destroyed — a body that no one else would want and that no one else can have. I feel numb.

I’m tired, so it definitely doesn’t matter. Harmful or not, like an emotional anesthetic, envy’s “idealization is a corollary of persecutory anxiety” it’s what allows for protection against the consistently painful state of being-hated —the easiest defense against it. It might make things worse in the long run, but ultimately, as Klein writes, “envy not only seeks to rob […] but also to put badness, primarily bad excrements and bad parts of the self, into the mother […] in order to spoil and destroy her.”

Sure, it might be what allows you to survive the pain of failing to take the good object for yourself. But it’s also what makes you want to ruin it for others. To make sure that no one else gets to have it either, no matter how imaginary that destruction might be.

Hasn’t revenge always been the highest form of care?

I’m just so tired. I’m at work again and I’m watching a video of Franko B’s performance at the Tate Modern entitled I Miss You! In it, he’s painted entirely white. The veins in his arms have been surgically sliced, held open with calendulas. He walks the length of a runway, set up like a fashion show, bleeding steadily onto the ground. Illuminated by lights and the flash photographers at the end of the walkway, he walks slowly and ceremoniously. Beneath the brightness, his blood is glossy and lucid. The ethereal caress of the glowing bulbs might seem fantastical, but when set against the stark violence of real blood, it’s all swallowed and reversed, swept up in a muddy affect that is viciously circular. Where is it? Love.

Love here might be an inflated ideal of which Franko B is envious, but I don’t care. I’m just so tired. I don’t know what envy does anymore, apart from consume everything; implement a violent reality masked as reparative fantasy.  I can hear the drip of Franko B’s blood even as I’m captivated by his face, childlike and serene.

I’m at work and I’m so tired; someone tosses me a bottle of eye drops. The saline runs down my face as I blink, so it hides the fact that I’m already crying. Last night, I did five whip-its and the world melted. If I don’t get to feel better, at least I can hallucinate a moment in which I get to literally experience everything crumble.

At least for a minute, I can imagine everyone else has to suffer. I don’t even want to watch it; I just want them all to suffer too. Where’s your heart.


Since the author has never seen any of these performances in person, her knowledge and descriptions of these pieces are indebted to Jennifer Doyle’s tremendous book Hold It Against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art (Duke University Press, 2013).





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