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Staying silent or speaking out: the response of performance artists Bobby Baker and Ron Athey to the stigma around mental and physical illness

[So this is another piece of work for university. If you want to know where any of the sources are from drop me a comment and I'll let you know - thought it would be a bit much to post whole bibliography on here!]


It could be said that we are most aware of our bodies when ill or in pain. Mental illness and HIV physically impact on the body while also coming with a stigma, heightening self awareness of the body. The individual may be dragged down by stigma or they may choose to fight it. Bobby Baker and Ron Athey choose the latter option. Baker suffered with cancer (Popova np) but it is her experience with mental illness that she draws on in performance. The misunderstood and taboo nature (Ibid) of mental illness provokes the need for discourse. Athey is HIV positive and so is labelled a HIV performer – a label laden with shame and stigma. John Freeman writes that ‘morality amounts to […] a shared and subsequently imposed set of conventions’ (82). Here, Freeman is talking about body art but this could be applied to the performance art practices of Baker and Athey. As respectable mother and wife Baker “should not” be talking about depression and rolling around in food materials. As HIV sufferer Athey “should” be looking after himself (Schilling 5) not causing himself to bleed. Athey and Baker challenge preconceptions about illness, the patient and cause ‘destabilisation of culturally stereotyped expectations’ (Freeman 96) in their work.

Bobby Baker

Baker is a British, female performance artist who wears a trademark white coat – referencing the domestic and clinical worlds she lives in. Baker was diagnosed in 1996 with a personality disorder (Gardner np) with symptoms ranging from ‘acute anxiety to emotional disregulation’ (ibid). Baker addresses these experiences in her work through humour: part of her personality but also a defence mechanism. The work is autobiographical but inevitably edited and Freeman might define the work as an ‘authorised fiction’ (96) – a version of events which protects the privacy of the artist while serving a particular message.

Connected to her need for humour Baker plays with silence in relation to mental illness (Lobel 32), getting close to a private, dark moment but only allowing it fleetingly (Etchells 79) before swiftly returning to the safety of a witticism to the audience. Baker addresses difficult subjects with a playful approach: through verbal engagement with the audience and incorporation of food materials. She keeps herself firmly in the role of domesticated British woman and avoids the appearance of ‘pretentious’ (Dolan np) artist. She remains on level with the audience rather than placing herself above them. Baker uses comedy as a method of engagement to gain understanding on a topic which could easily alienate audiences.

An example of this comedic approach is when Baker sat on the back of a truck belted into a seat for Pull Yourselves Together (2000), a performance on the roads where she would shout this phrase at passersby; alongside others such as “get a grip” or “cheer up darling.” The performance was part of Mental Health Action Week and expressed the inadequacy of these expressions. It was not with bitterness that she delivered these phrases but with ‘irreverence’ (Baker Redeeming np). Her charismatic embodiment of the average British woman and non-threatening presentation allows her to make these provocative points. These expressions do not help sufferers. By placing them in this simple performance context she addresses the ridiculous nature of stigma: in her joyful declamations with an undertone depicting that it really is not as simple as that. It is this disarming nature of her expression which allows for contemplation (Dolan np) – progression towards understanding and destigmatising mental illness.

In Drawing on a Mother’s Experience Baker tells the story of her experience of motherhood. As she narrates her experiences she provides visual representation of the story by creating a “drawing” on a white sheet. She uses food materials such as eggs, treacle and Guinness. Each narrative point is represented by adding a material into the, eventually gruesome, mixture on the sheet. Baker depicts a typically British mother – slightly shambolic in her presentation as she runs about the stage making a mess and then apologetically clearing up after herself (Heddon 144). To get her story and message across Baker performs a version of herself (Freeman 88) which may ease the difficulty of truthful revelations.

The moment in Drawing where Baker reveals the beginning of her mental illness maps the distance between the persona she presents and the truth she is revealing:

‘I spent a great deal of time in hospital. (Baker lays down in the “drawing”. The audience groans then laughs.) Oh it’s lovely. It’s really cool actually! (Both Baker and audience laugh) And, uh, (sighs), it was, well what was so (runs hands through her hair) terrible was that – I couldn’t get better.’

Baker keeps the audience laughing with her asides. She tries to skirt around the difficult verbal material by focusing on the texture of the physical material of the drawing. Thus far she has narrated the usual difficulties of motherhood but here she enters darker territory. Where Baker had previously appeared eccentric and shambolic, trying to remember what material is added next or to clear up, here the hesitation is out of fear. This matriarch suddenly appears vulnerable in her awkward stumbling towards the end of the sentence. The laughter dies down to a silence where the audience realise this isn’t funny anymore – Baker was seriously ill.

Drawing does not have a sombre tone. It depicts the experiences of motherhood with its ups and downs. Baker allows her quirky and amusing behaviours to coexist alongside this darker narrative which she allows us glimpses of. Through doing so Baker conveys how mental illness is just that – an illness and not a personality in itself.

Ron Athey

Athey began his performance career gogo dancing in clubs, then conducting live piercings. These were ‘more like demonstrations than performances’ (Hallelujah np). Freeman writes on Artaud’s rejection of ‘mimesis’ and ‘imitation of life outside life’ (87), and perhaps Athey’s acts would have fallen in Artaud’s favour: no attempt at mimesis but rather the genuine article. It was this liveness, this affecting a real body in the presence of an audience, which gave Athey his performance artist status. He realised he had a series of ‘living tableaux’ (ibid) and put these together to form his first show.

It is the combination of his provocative work putting the body seemingly at risk alongside his HIV positive status which causes controversy. He is not just a performer but a pathologised performer. While Athey is healthy, the shame around the illness, the death of loved ones to the AIDS virus and the awareness of his own mortality all metaphorically, and quite literally, bleed into his work. Athey’s work is also shaped by his religious upbringing by ‘generations of pentecostals’ (ibid). The messages within Athey’s work are often overshadowed by blood-letting which is taken out of context and sensationalised by the media. Blood in performance art is still shocking to an audience but the presence of HIV blood ‘represents danger, contagion. It implicates the audience’ (Ward 145) – even if not at physical risk, its very presence can elicit fear.

Many of Athey’s works do not make direct reference to his HIV status but comment indirectly through continued performative methods which are physical despite his condition: inflicting wounds to the body or live sexual acts. However Martyrs and Saints was a performance which fully engaged with the issue of ‘the AIDS catastrophe’ (Hallelujah np). The piece opened with an image of grotesquely made up nurses in drag, including Athey. The lips are bloody having been sewn together and the eyes are marked with glitter: portraying a community defined by glamour, silence and pain. Tightly wrapped body bags are cut open to reveal live, naked bodies. Athey gives an elegy to the victims of the ‘slow, painful disease’ (Hallelujah np). Through this speech we see a community refusing to hide away but instead marking and mourning these losses: insisting it is not shameful but despicably sad. Athey pleads – ‘Please – he must be remembered as more than a piece of meat. Don’t make him be just another one gone, no longer feeling the pain, and in a better place now’ (ibid). These words are spoken with bitterness: a protest against words of condolence which do not fit this experience. The stigma around HIV is inhumane: treating its victims as either shameful ‘pieces of meat’ or as cold statistics – ‘just another one gone.’

Athey tries to comprehend loss through his spiritual upbringing. He makes a comparison to the sacrifice of Christ but quickly interjects - ‘but most often the demise seems pointlessly brutal’ (Hallelujah np). Religion can no longer make sense of such losses or provide hope. If those experiencing the condition and its losses can not make sense of what is happening, then the ability to articulate the experience to an unknowing audience becomes difficult. Athey uses his artistry to attempt to articulate the experience of living alongside the AIDS virus.

The nurses then wash the naked bodies. Martyrs and Saints shows what it is to be a patient having to go through ‘horribly embarrassing things’ (Hallelujah np). We are shown, for example, a needle going through a penis. This is something we don’t want to think about - not to mention see live onstage. Equally this is something sufferers do not want to experience but they don’t have that choice: we suffer in empathy. Athey shows through these images that ‘it’s just that hard all the time’ (Ibid). Rather than merely feeling “sorry” for victims of the AIDS virus the audience can begin to understand their daily struggles. By having the courage to put these images onstage Athey is progressing public perception of the condition. However it is a very select audience who wish to see these performances and so its ability to engender social change is limited. Limited though it may be, Athey’s work should be credited for providing truthful presentation which may be a source of comfort for many. Freeman writes that it is ‘the truth that we crave’ (89), including the ‘visceral truth of the body that bleeds’ (ibid). In a time of modernity, mass and micro media it is easy to feel distanced and desensitised. The liveness of this work plants the audience in reality, even if it is a difficult one.

The last statement Athey makes in the documentary Hallelujah is that:

‘… living with HIV and watching a lot of people die makes me just tremble […] with this anticipation with “Oh my God I’m alive today and anything amazing or horrible can happen but at least it’s still happening.’

This statement infers foresight of Athey’s mortality. There is urgency and liveness to his work as he knows his lifetime, and thus also his body of work, is limited (Hallelujah np). For that reason his creative process is like a ‘frenzy to make it bigger, to make it more…to make it mean something’ (ibid). So he continues to push boundaries: he wears a crown of thorns made of needles, he shares a double-ended dildo and he undergoes an enema onstage. It is his protest. Stigma could be seen as offending someone outside of the understanding of a subject. It ridicules the very idea of stigma when this offence is nowhere near the suffering of the affected individuals. The performers present complex images and dismiss those who judge and misunderstand by continuing to progress within the art. Let the outsiders be disgusted because for this community: this is real and no one else will ever know that pain.


It is easy to have sympathy for a cancer patient. The illness is physical and destroying their body. You may not understand their experience but that much is clear. Baker is able to contrast the experiences and states that ‘the isolation and anguish of severe mental illness was much worse than having something physical that people could understand better’ (Suffering np). Baker is relatable and this gives the claim power as does her focus on mental rather than physical illness in her work. Mental illness does not discriminate and yet people are shocked to think that a woman they might see in daily life as merely eccentric was hospitalised forty-two times in eleven years (Gardner np). Yet it is important to note that Baker and Athey do not aim to shock. They depict their life experiences through performance art and it is societal stigma which fuels controversy. For the performer it is almost less about the condition itself than the liveness of the work. They may revel in the ability to surprise but potentially more so because it evokes performance’s ‘capacity to arouse […] awareness’ (Cesare 9) of the relationship between audience and performer. The audience becomes close to the performer: in Baker’s case to intimate details of her life and in Athey’s - through physical proximity to his naked, bleeding body. To be provoked in the moment in performance is an experience which stays with the individual – a ‘spectator’ (Freeman 89) and ‘witness’ (Etchells 13) to pushing of boundaries and, in Athey’s case, the brutal shattering of stigma.


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