Ron Athey’s 1994 Minneapolis Performance and the Anatomy of a Media Scandal
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Ron Athey’s 1994 Minneapolis Performance and the Anatomy of a Media Scandal

Jon John and Ron Athey (L to R) performing in Sebastiane, 2014. Photo courtesy the artist

“Between the story of a virus and a description of bodies who might disperse it”

Writing about Ron Athey makes me feel a little guilty. This sentiment has dogged me over the eight years that I have periodically addressed his work. Athey has staged his extravagant, visceral works internationally over a career spanning four decades, employing the intimacy of live performance to marry the grandiose sufferings of religious figures featured in Baroque compositions with the queer punk sensibilities of the club scene in which he debuted his earliest works. Deeply inflecting these performances is Athey’s upbringing in a fringe Christian sect that practiced bodily mortification in the name of salvation, and gloried in empathic identification with Christ’s bleeding body.

Yet a survey of media mentions of the artist turns up relatively little analysis of these concepts and aesthetics. This is particularly true after March 24, 1994, when an article appeared on the front page of the Minneapolis Star Tribune alleging that audience members at an Athey performance presented under the aegis of the Walker Art Center had potentially been put at risk of HIV transmission, because the performance involved bloodletting1distorted accounts of Athey’s Minneapolis performance were subsequently purveyed from local to national news outlets, from the Rush Limbaugh Show to the floor of the US Congress.2 Virtually every article and interview about the performance produced over the coming months would discuss Athey, HIV, and mortal risk in a single breath, often referring to an “AIDS artist,” as if the virus itself was his medium3.

Film still from David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire In My Belly: A Work In Progress, 1986-87.

I have elsewhere endeavored to map the dimensions of the political backlash against Athey’s performance, which was propagated almost exclusively by individuals who had never seen Athey perform in Minneapolis or anywhere else.4 And here is where the guilt comes in: does my work effectively contribute to an already sprawling collection of press that sensationalizes the hematic nature of certain of his works without considering their artistic importance? While I have in other treatments analyzed the performance itself, which included fragments of Athey’s works Martyrs and Saints(1992) and 4 Scenes in a Harsh Life(1993) in contrast with the fantastical accounts that proliferated in media reports and political grandstanding, I hope I can be forgiven for dedicating this brief discussion solely to the sociopolitical conditions that fomented the phobic response to Athey’s Minneapolis performance.

This seems appropriate both for the occasion of this essay’s commission—A Different Kind of Intimacy: Radical Performance at the Walker, 1990–1995 is, after all, an exhibition of press and ephemera related to live performance—and for the current cultural landscape. 2010 brought the near-instantaneous removal of an edit of David Wojnarowicz’s unfinished film A Fire In My Belly: A Work In Progress(1986-87) from exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in December, following a sensationalized account of its exhibition in an article published by the Cybercast News Service, a subsidiary of the conservative Media Research Center.5 As more recent confrontations over the relationship between challenging (and queer) works of art and the publics that might encounter them have resulted in ever shorter durations between complaint about a work and the evacuation of said work from exhibition,a careful consideration of the historic ways media spurs censorious impulses is urgently necessary.

The aforementioned  Star Tribune article is a peculiar one. “Bloody Performance Draws Criticism” was the first of several articles that art critic Mary Abbe would submit on Athey’s Minneapolis performance; yet the story offered virtually no analysis of the work within a broader cultural or art historical context, and thus did not fit the conventions of an arts review.6 The bulk of Abbe’s article amplifies the complaint of Jim Berenson, who after witnessing the performance had contacted local health officials, hypothesizing that audience members could have contracted HIV “if blood had dripped on them” during the performance.7 That the blood impressed upon the shop towels in question did not drip, and did not come from Athey (who is HIV-positive), seemed not to matter, as the perceived risk presented by Athey’s blood was conflated with that of his three co-performers.8

Yet as the article notes a few paragraphs later, officials in the AIDS epidemiology unit at the Minnesota Department of Health confirmed resoundingly that appropriate safety precautions had been taken, and that the audience had been in no danger. The already obscure reason for Abbe’s story becomes thus more unclear; as a piece of art reporting that makes no effort to situate the performance within an arts context, the sole purpose of the article would appear to be to relate the alleged threat of HIV communication—a threat which Abbe and the paper were obliged to acknowledge was not real. Five days later, Abbe would double down on her claims that the Walker had knowingly endangered its audience, writing in a follow-up piece that its decision to present Athey “was akin to adding blowfish to the buffet of a Japanese restaurant without warning the clientele.”9Given that improperly prepared blowfish kills the one who consumes it, the implication that Athey’s performance work posed a literal, biological threat to his audience seems unmistakable.

Ron Athey with Darryl Carlton (aka Divinity Fudge) performing Four Scenes in a Harsh Life, presented by the Walker Art Center at Patrick’s Cabaret, March 5, 1994. Photo courtesy the artist

Seeming to challenge critics who linked her coverage on Athey to the resumption of congressional attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts in the spring of 1995, Abbe declared her initial article “neither a review nor an editorial.”10 Abbe herself thus poses the question: if she had not intended her initial article to be interpreted as an arts review—her stock in trade during the entirety of her career at the Star Tribune—what kind of story, exactly, did she intend to write? More pointedly, what kind of story did it ultimately become via the mechanisms of its dissemination and popular reception? I propose that in writing about Athey’s performance, Abbe applied a formula by then well-established in the American news media, in which an author publicly identifies a person whose HIV-positive status is either known or suspected, to whom the author then claims to “trace” local cases of HIV/AIDS. The scapegoated individual, usually liminal in terms of gender, race, or housing status,11is then publicly condemned for “bringing AIDS” into innocent and unsuspecting communities. I refer to this style of narrative as the “Patient Zero” model—a term I adapt from Randy Shilts’s enormously popular and wantonly destructive book, And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic (1987).


Shilts, who was praised widely for his reportage on HIV/AIDS, provides a model for journalistic “exposés” on the epidemic by purporting to pinpoint the outbreak of AIDS in America in a single person, the French-Canadian airline steward, Gaetan Dugas. From a preliminary cluster study published in 1984 by the Centers for Disease Control that identified an anonymous “Patient 0” as the locus of an outbreak of AIDS-related complications in a network of gay men,12Shilts spun a depiction of Dugas as a vain, arrogant man who slakes his lust even at the price of his partners’ lives. To mass media outlets, the neat, novelistic13reduction of an overwhelmingly complex phenomenon such as the AIDS outbreak to a single, morally reprehensible source proved irresistible. Dugas would be henceforth immortalized, in the words of one newspaper headline, as “The Man Who Gave Us AIDS.”14

Yet the most obvious testament to the power of Shilts’s monolithic narrative is the scientific facts available well ahead of the book’s publication that contradicted it. Subsequent CDC research had uncovered that the incubation period for HIV averages between eight to ten years, proving that Dugas could not have been responsible for infecting men displaying symptoms at the same time as he.15Shilts singles out one of these symptoms—the Kaposi’s sarcoma lesion—for lurid focus in the book, equating the corporeal visibility of the skin cancer with the presence of the blood-bourn virus itself.16Through this process of identification and visualization, the Patient Zero narrative stokes and dramatizes deeply embodied anxieties surrounding people with HIV/AIDS, and performs the containment of these human “threats” by marshalling the surveillance and punitive powers of the law and the medical establishment.

The Patient Zero model, by 1994, would have been patently familiar to most Minnesotans: in 1986, local news station WCCO17dedicated the first prime-time television story on AIDS in the state primarily to Fabian Bridges, a young African American gay man accused of working as a prostitute and deliberately spreading HIV/AIDS in the Twin Cities. In March and April of the same year, the Star Tribune ran two separate stories about two Twin Cities–based sex workers, a white gay man and an African American woman, respectively, both of whom were accused of having sex with clients without disclosing their HIV-positive status. In confronting the “public menace” of the female prostitute, the Star Tribune went so far as to publish both the woman’s home address and police mug shot.18

Detail of program from Ron Athey’s 1994 Walker-sponsored performance at Patrick’s Cabaret. Photo courtesy the Walker Art Center Archives

Moreover, a look into Abbe’s files pertaining to the Athey story in the Walker Archives suggests that Abbe herself may have made a link between Athey and the Patient Zero narrative: her files contain two New York Timesitems pertaining to Dr. David J. Acer, a Florida dentist accused by the Centers for Disease Control of infecting six of his patients with HIV, despite their being unable to prove how this may have occurred.19The “AIDS dentist” story, however infamous at the time,20would appear completely unrelated to Athey’s performance if not for the common denominator of the men’s serostatus and the style of journalism used to indict them. Abbe’s rendition of Athey’s performance was repeated so broadly and so consistently at a national scale precisely because it was already so eminently familiar to journalists, politicians, and the public alike—a narrative vacillating, in the words of Cindy Patton, “between the story of a virus and a description of bodies who might disperse it.”21


1 See Mary Abbe, “Bloody Performance Draws Criticism: Walker Member Complains to Public Health Officials,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, March 24, 1994.

2 For an account of Rush Limbaugh’s version of the events of the Athey performance, see Jon Tevlin, “Did the Walker Go Too Far?,” Minnesota Monthly, October 1994, 47. For a discussion of the congressional attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts in retaliation for its role in providing to the Walker a general operating grant from which $150 dollars were budgeted for the Athey performance, see Judith Weinraub, “Arts Agency Again Under the Knife;” see also Jacqueline Trescott, “NEA Budget Sliced Over Bloodletting,” The Washington Post, July 26, 1994.

3 See for example “AIDS ‘Artist’ Draws Blood,” Human Events 50, no. 13 (April 8, 1994): unpaginated; see also “HIV-Infected Artist’s Show Draws Anger of 2 Senators,” The Los Angeles Times, June 21, 1994.

4 See Lauren DeLand, “Culture Wars and Culture Gaps,” Mn Artists, March 25,  2015. Both this essay and the one in which this note is included draw from research that informs a chapter on Athey’s Minneapolis performance and its representation in mass media accounts in my doctoral dissertation, “Invisible Men: The Risks and Pleasures of Self-Portrayal in the Work of Contemporary American Male Artists” (University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, 2014).

5 See DeLand, “Hide/Seek,” Quodlibetica, February 2011 ; see also “Live Fast, Die Young, Leave a Useful Corpse: The Terrible Utility of David Wojnarowicz,” Performance Research, Vol. 19, Issue 1, “On Abjection,” February 2014.

6 The article spares a glance at artistic content only in the form of brief quotes from Kathy Halbreich, then-director of the Walker Art Center, and John Killacky, who in his capacity as curator of Performing Arts had invited Athey and his crew to present their work via the museum. Halbreich is represented with a brief quote about the religious iconography and rituals incorporated into Athey’s work and Killacky with a sentence expressing his belief that Athey’s work addresses issues of homophobia and fear of AIDS. Abbe attempts no art historical or cultural analysis of her own. It is also worth noting that the article was published nearly three weeks after the events it chronicled—rather too late to constitute “news.” See Abbe, “Bloody Performance Draws Criticism.”

7 Ibid. Berenson, as Abbe noted in the article, called the health departments of Minneapolis and Hennepin County after witnessing the performance, who in turn referred him to Minnesota Department of Health officials.

8 Abbe simultaneously implicated Killacky, claiming he “did not know the HIV status of Darryl Carlton, the man who was cut. Nor did he know the HIV status of [Athey’s] two female assistants.” Abbe’s conflation of Athey’s blood with Carlton’s, and, to a lesser extent, with their two co-performers, Julie Tolentino and Stosh “Pigpen” Fila, is repeated unhesitatingly in scores of articles covering the Minneapolis performance thereafter. An article in Human Events, a conservative news journal, casts suspicion upon the serostatus of Athey’s co-performers, writing ominously, “The HIV status of his assistants is unknown.” In all the articles that raise the question of Carlton’s, Rifkin’s, and Tolentino’s respective serostatuses, none speculate whether any of the three were at risk of contracting the virus from Athey in the course of the performance—this is clearly not among the writers’ concerns. Rather, numerous authors seem to suspect that the performers are, by virtue of proximity to Athey, already infected, and thus potential vehicles of contamination for the audience, as well. See “AIDS ‘Artist’ Draws Blood,” unpaginated.

9 Mary Abbe, “Walker Seems Surprised at Reaction to Mutilation Show,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, March 29, 1994.

10 Abbe’s words appear in a letter to the editor published in Art in America, Vol. 83, No. 6 (June 1995), 27. They respond to “Multicultural Wars,” an overview of the current threats to both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities by Douglas Davis, who mentions briefly Abbe’s coverage of the Athey performance. Davis makes general reference to “uninformed news reports” on the Athey performance and accuses the Minneapolis Star Tribune of “gathering a sensational string of quotes from two eyewitnesses,” noting as well that Abbe had not attended the performance. See Douglas Davis, “Multicultural Wars,” Art in America, Vol. 83, No. 2 (February 1995), 40–41.

11 By “housing status,” I refer to the state of homeless or transient individuals.

12 D.M. Auerbach, W.W. Darrow, H.W. Jaffe, and J.W. Curran, “Cluster of Cases of the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. Patients Linked by Sexual Contact,” The American Journal of MedicineVol. 76, No. 3 (March 1984): 487–92.

13 Douglas Crimp describes Shilts’s treatment of Dugas as indicative of the “bourgeois novelistic form” to which And the Band Played Onconforms: see Crimp, Melancholia and Moralism: Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics(Cambridge, Massachusetts; London: The MIT Press, 2002), 53.

14 Ibid, 51. This headline appeared in the New York Post.

15 Ibid, 121.

16 In what is perhaps the most infamous passage of his book, Shilts provides this salacious portrayal of Dugas: “It was around this time that rumors began on Castro Street about a strange guy at the Eighth and Howard bathhouse, a blond with a French accent. He would have sex with you, turn up the lights in the cubicle, and point out his Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions. ‘I’ve got gay cancer,’ he’d say. ‘I’m going to die and so are you.’ Randy Shilts, And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987), 165.

17 WCCO also numbered among the Minnesota media outlets ranging from the St. Paul Pioneer Press to the radio and television networks KSTP, and KTCA that ran their own stories following Abbe’s initial article, speculating whether, in the words of KSTP-TV reporter Randy Meier, the performance had “jeopardize[d] the health and perhaps the lives of the audience.” Transcribed by the author from an undated KSTP-TV broadcast, videotape collection of the Walker Art Center Archives.

18 Ryan Patrick Murphy and Alex T. Urquhart, “Sexuality in the Headlines: Intimate Upheavals as Histories of the Twin Cities,” in Kevin P. Murphy, ed., Queer Twin Cities(Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota Press, 2010): 76–77.

19 The articles that appear in Abbe’s files are: Lawrence K. Altman, M.D., “AIDS Mystery That Won’t Go Away: Did a Dentist Infect 6 Patients?,” The New York Times, July 5, 1994; Sanford F. Kuvin, M.D., “No Evidence Clears Dentist in AIDS Case,” The New York Times, July 7, 1994. Courtesy of the Mary Abbe Collection of Ron Athey at the Walker Art Center Archives.

20 One of the accusers in the “AIDS dentist” story was Kimberly Bergalis, whom in 1991 appeared before a congressional committee on AIDS in Washington, DC, to declare, with regards to her own serostatus: “I did nothing wrong.” “Bergalis,” argues Simon Watney, subsequently “became […] America’s […] acceptable votary in the AIDS pandemic.” See Watney, “Art from the Pit: Some Reflections on Monuments, Memory and AIDS,” in Ted Gott, ed., Don’t Leave Me This Way: Art in the Age of AIDS(Melbourne; London; New York: Thames & Hudson, 1994): 66.

21 Cindy Patton, “Queer Peregrinations,” in Joshua Oppenheimer and Helena Reckitt, eds., Acting on AIDS: Sex, Drugs & Politics (London; New York: Serpent’s Tail, 1997), 235.

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