I first met Andrew Zealley in a small dark room in the 519 Community Centre, as a participant in his one-on-one performance piece called Disco Hospital, described as a “new queer shamanism ritual combining therapeutic touch and sonic therapy”, as part of the Rhubarb Performance Festival. The ritual involved a sage smudge, reiki, and a variety of tuning forks , and despite my initial skepticism I emerged with a feeling of renewal and revitalization.
Andrew is a Toronto composer and sound artist, who developed Disco Hospital as the thesis project for an MFA studies in the Interdisciplinary Master’s Art, Media and Design (IAMD) program at OCAD University.
His thesis exhibition -Disco Hospital: Safe and Sound - opens today (on the vernal equinox), from 6 to 11 pm at OCAD University Graduate Gallery, 205 Richmond Street West, Level G. The exhibition runs through March 31 2013. Select one-on-one rituals are offered by appointment.
I met with him in his studio to talk about his life, the role of queer people in non-conventional healing, collaborating with AA Bronson and Robert Flack, the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and the art emerging from the resonating impact of those intersections.
Henri Fabergé: When you first came here you were strictly a sound artist, or musician. did you already have in mind this shaman ritual?
Andrew Zealley: It had been working towards that. I was in a show called The School for Young Shamans that (General Idea’s) AA Bronson put together in New York in 2008. I did the sound for that, and I had done some other collaborations with him that had to do with loss and memory. A show that I considered to be my first sound art was in 1990 with Robert Flack. It was an HIV/AIDS related show about alternative healing, which is really what I'm still interested in, non-western healing methods and magic, and the role of queer people in all of this. The pandemic for many years became this kind of catalyst for people in the arts community, to galvanize them and create work, but also to seek out the answers that the medical industry was not providing. It was a practical exercise as well as a creative one.
HF: So your first interaction with shaman practices was in 2008?
AZ: It's been a long process because even when Rob Flack and I were working together in the late 80s and early 90s, there was a lot of energy going into recovering the history of queer people, which had been removed from the Western history books. We discovered this really rich history of people who were intermediaries of knowledge and healers and pedagogues, whose respective roles really changed over the course of the shift to patriarchy. So that was the beginning of understanding that there was a connection there. But even as a kid I was really interested in magic and the woods and alchemy and hugging trees and all of those stereotypes. And I come across them now in the context of scholarly reading (laughs).
HF: You had those instincts at an early age.
AZ: Yeah, and in the early 90s when everybody was passing away like crazy, there was really a lot of awareness raising about those ideas. AA was really active in that as well, because he was primary caregiver for Felix (Partz) and Jorge (Zontal), and other people as well because you were looking after those who were close to you. So you learned about how to tend to the sick and dying. And I guess people turned to maybe not specifically magic but alternate forms of healing, and a search for some kind of an alternative to conventional medicine that wasn’t solving the problem.
Have you seen the film United In Anger? It’s really an early document about Act Up and the other AIDS activists from the period of the 80s. The medical industry back then, when they went into new drug testing they could take ten years. But people were dying in six months from being tested positive. So they really had to go and break the doors down of these buildings and say “enough, you have to get going”. It was breaking that mould, that pattern of drug testing but also investigating other things like subtle bodies, and etheric bodies. I think a lot of that energy is why those complementary and subtle energy therapies are more prevalent now, because there was a lot of work done during the 80s to check it out to see if it was going to do anything.
In the mid 90s there was a period just after Jorge and Felix died, when AA started hosting these ritual alchemical events. One of them was a dream circle that lasted for 6 months, where we would go every week and take our clothes off and sit in a circle. He had an obsidian stick that was passed around, and when you got the stick you got to talk about the dream you decided to bring to the circle for that week and then people would ask questions about it.
There was also the Body Electric, which was a school based in California run by Joseph Kramer, that was really trying to bring intimacy back into gay men’s lives when they were so afraid of infection. People didn’t know if you could kiss somebody, could you touch somebody, what were the parameters? A lot of issues, fear and shame but also internalized homophobia really became widespread. and a lot of them still are in a way, theres a lot of misunderstanding about HIV. Just because there's one pill a day doesn’t really solve anything. But during the time of Joseph Kramer’s work and AA’s work, it was a garden that started to grow. The first show I did with AA was called The Quick and the Dead at the Power Plant, that show was about loss and memory. He had done some research into post traumatic stress disorder that was experienced by the Jewish community after the Holocaust, and asked why is there no comparative study for the queer community in relation to HIV/AIDS? Then we did another piece for this label in Germany where they would publish 100 gatefold sleeves and one sleeve was a record by a sound artist and the other sleeve was a piece of art, so he did a photo series of gay men queer men naked in their beds to restore the bed as a sign of love and growth, as opposed to a sign of dying. I did the record for that, and it was a piece on dreams. Then we did a show called Healer, which was when he was really developing the healer personae, and so that was the first piece when I was recording the sound of a healing session, that was 2004. AA’s healing practice was multifaceted. He set up this thing called the AA Bronson Butt Massage Spa, specifically focusing in on the idea of the butt as a place where you hold your darkest secrets and working on that as a way to help people. Clearly a very slippery topic that was difficult for a lot of people to take in. His most recent work is about shamanic characters and doing work with queer spirits, visiting different sites like Fire Island, and going into the wooded areas where there has been decades and decades of cruising going on, but talking about ghosts that remain in those spaces. And I'm interested in those things too, especially in bathhouses and darkrooms where I think there are those energies. People come for pleasure but they also in a way are coming to die.
HF: Coming to exorcise some of their negative spirit...
HF: Or not necessarily negative, but a place where you don’t have to hide those secrets.
AZ: I never really went to bathhouses until the early 90s...I went once in 1981 to the Barracks, because I was pissed off at a boyfriend (laughs). And oddly enough that was the year that the Barracks got busted. But I started going in the early 90s and it was such an experience to discover this comfortable environment that was very social, it wasn’t just a sexual place. And the experience of being intimate with people who are strangers made me think about going on a long plane trip or train ride, and you have a stranger beside you and sometimes you end up having incredibly deep conversations with this person you don’t know. There’s something about the anonymity that allows you to enter into places that you wouldn’t normally. And I think the same can be said for bathhouses, not across the board but there are incidences where there’s an exchange of energy. I certainly learned about putting my hands on people in that environment, and the power I had doing that.
HF: Well, there is that intimacy in a therapeutic session as well, when you're doing reiki or massage or the ritual that you’re working on, you’re in such close quarters and contact with your subject. Whether you know them or not, do you feel like you develop a relationship with them?
AZ: Of course, if you remember when you and I did the session, I usually ask the person to talk a little bit about themselves, and then when they actually lie on my table I specifically ask them how they're feeling in their body, and I remember you had very clear direct answers to the questions, I thought, oh wow he’s in touch with the way he's feeling right now. Because there was a physical answer and there was also this other psychological answer that you had given me. And that helps because that’s the little window through which you get into the person, and then when you do the scan of your hands on their body you can start to feel where things are balanced and where they’re out of balance. And in terms of the music, in my switch from music to other disciplines, I did a lot of collaborations with other people, film and television scoring, music for choreographers for theatre installation, and this program (IAMD) gave me the ticket to try these other things in a more concentrated way. My interest in sound is still there but the study was to understand about listening, and not just making sound. Or sound as the object of listening.
HF: What do you mean by that, sound as the object of listening?
AZ: Listening is an active gesture, and sound is the object of that gesture. Sometimes you know where the sound is coming from, and sometimes you don’t and that changes your relationship to the sound and your experience as well. When you don’t know where the sound is coming from, what’s known as acousmatic, you start to invent things about the sound. When somebody is lying on my table they’re hopefully in a completely relaxed state, ideal for listening. And when I use the forks, I think you said afterwards that you felt kind of spaced out, because its quite intensive hearing the stereo field back and forth. And then I place the vibration near that chakra centre, and it’s activating things. It’s a very focused listening exercise at that point, which I don’t think the participant is necessarily aware of, but they’re in it.
AZ: We think listening has to do with this cochlear thing, and that whole process, but I think we listen with our whole body. It’s the same with the mind, everybody thinks its up here but I think it’s actually through our whole body. Our body is remembering things through our whole life.
Naomi Yasui: In our culture through Western medicine we learn to disconnect different parts of our body, and different symptoms from one another.
AZ: And Western medical practice is dissociative in that way. The doctor does not treat you as a whole entity, it’s very detached.
NY: I guess people learn that about their bodies, and then carry that into the rest of their life, whether how they interact with one another, or experience things.
AZ: That’s right, whereas holistic medical practices are about the whole picture, they want to find out about your history, your family, your relationships. Whereas the doctor is just looking at the organ isolated from the person. There’s lots of miracles going on in that field, but at the same time there’s a lot of risks going on. We now just tend to give over our confidence and our belief to that practice without questioning it.
NY: I love the direct connection between how you live your life and your art practice. I think it’s something that’s lost in a lot of contemporary art.
AZ: It's true, especially with all of this theory based art. I grew up with Yoko Ono. From when I was a kid, John and Yoko were my heroes. My dad bought me her first album for Christmas in 1970, and I bought a copy of Grapefruit when it came out and then in the early 90s I got her to sign it, which was a great moment. She was the first person where I saw that integration of life and art. She was doing it all along, but then she and Lennon just started doing it without even questioning it.
HF: Even outside of their practice, it was as if they were just living art constantly.
AZ: Yeah, filming everything that they did, recording the sound of everything as a way of documenting, the War Is Over billboards, the bed-ins, all of that.
NY: It makes it accessible.
AZ: People can relate to it, but I think people also learn, it’s a sharing of knowledge and experience.
HF: These sticks you've been creating, are they inspired by a tool from a shaman ritual?
AZ: The original idea was a power stick. In a ritual setting they could be what you use as a talking stick, but also in the way that this could be a wand. In the back of this (Faggots publication), the credit is that I play the wand. But then in another book, I credit myself as clinical sonician, just playing with words. So initially they started as power sticks, I collected them on autumn equinox last year and then on winter solstice I soaked the tips in india ink. I've been binding them, and some of them have been used in a sexual ritual, to be jerked off onto, to load power into them. And with the bells they have a musical quality. It could be part of a ritual, or it can just be an object, or an instrument of sounds. And the play of words with faggot, that etymology of words I was interested in. On some of them I added this symbol of the infinite cock ring as a statement on life sex energies.
HF: AA Bronson was creating work that directly inspired you towards this path, also the work you were doing with Robert Flack. Do you see your current work as a progression of those influences?
AZ: I think the work comes out of the same place that AA's work comes from, and it really is about the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and taking some kind of action to find some kind of healing resource through all of this. He was certainly a guiding force in that. I met Rob at Art Metropole, we were both young men working there in 1980. It was a pretty influential environment to be in. Then we all went off and did our things, and then at the end of the 80s I met up with Rob again and we decided to do this work together. He tested positive in 89, and it was around those two weeks that I had some serious issues with my liver, the consequence of being in bands for fifteen years. But even at that point, even though I could see that my diagnosis was serious, his was more serious. We took that opportunity to go into this learning phase, how do we resolve, what are we doing here? By the early 90s when big waves of death were happening, Rob and I had done one piece together called Empowerment that was at Garnet Press Gallery, and that work now is in the National Gallery, his visuals and my accompanying sound piece called Nature: This Is A Recording. When the National Gallery contacted me to include my piece in 2006 I remastered it, because it was done on a Tascam cassette four-track, so i took the opportunity to clean it up. We also released a version through Art Metropole to commemorate the show. AA admired my taste in music, and I used to make mixed tapes for him all the time, and Rob too. Right until the last night of Rob’s life, I took tapes to him at the hospital that night. In my thesis I actually talk about some of those, the thesis has an autobiographical narrative running through it.
In 2001 I tested positive myself, which was a big surprise to me. It had a debilitating impact on me, because i felt like a statistic, a 40-something male turning positive in the late 1990s. That really swallowed up my identity, and I became very withdrawn through that process. So this exercise has been me confronting that and effectively doing something about it.
HF: Has it given you any sort of closure, or is it more an ongoing search for answers borne out of that pandemic?
AZ: It’s still ongoing, and i think it's important. There were so many artists' voices responsible for creating awareness about it in the 1980s and 90s when government and church and school would not talk about it. And I think its important for the message in work to be happening again. When I've done presentations at the school here for undergrads about art and HIV/AIDS, I have a number of the students come up to me afterwards and say "I thought I knew all about this, but I didn't really know." And that to me is a little shocking, but I understand that's the way it goes. Every ten years, all the things we are knowledgeable about and that are important in our lives, it just kind of vanishes, and the next thing becomes important. But the pandemic's not over, and the one-pill-a-day is convenient but...convenience doesn't address things like toxicity, and what does it mean to take a medication for the rest of your life? What does it mean when people reject you, especially now that there's this big move to disclose right away when you meet somebody because of legal implications. To have someone just turn and walk away from you. So it’s complicated territory for a lot of people now. My own doctor says that most of his younger patients, their concern is whether they will still look pretty with the medication. Because of things like lipodystrophy, the fat moves around on your body, you can get a hump or you can get this weird belly. So their concern is about the visual aspect, it’s not about the fact that there are also a lot of psychological side effects. It's like wearing it around your neck every day, that you have to take this pill forever. Sometimes I think, what if there's some kind of catastrophe and the pharmaceutical company shuts down? You go to those places, whether they're valid or not, you just start thinking what if...
HF: You're dependent on a drug that's not necessarily always going to be accessible.
AZ: That’s right, dependency. and I had some pretty savage experiences with some of the medications. There's one in particular called Sustiva that is quite successful in terms of the goal of HIV/AIDS treatments, especially with the cocktail that started in 94, which is the combination therapy. Sustiva is quite successful with numbers, however one of the active ingredients is ergot, which is also in LSD, and can create incredible head trips in people who use that medication. Inconsistently. You could take it at bedtime and wake up at three in the morning and feel like you're on psilocybin. You end up walking into walls and shit like that. I had a friend who said, "well that sounds perfect for you!" But I like to know when I'm taking that, or be selective about when I want to have that kind of experience.
HF: Not be jarred from your sleep in confusion.
AZ: And if you have any kind of history of depression, which is common in the queer community, it can trigger very serious psychological issues. I know one friend who was taking it for five years, and for those last two years he could not leave his apartment. really savage stuff. I know people who have gone on drug strikes. 'Big Pharma' push doctors to give their clients this drug. The success rate is there but it's a potential trade-off with the side effects. My one friend couldn't take the Sustiva anymore and he said “I'm not going to take it,” and his doctor said “well, you have to,” and he said “well, I'm going on a drug strike. And you're going to have to figure out where you stand on this. Because this is where I stand.”
HF: A lot of pharmaceutical drugs now are rushed through the testing process, which I imagine because of that immediacy of need, probably a lot of those drugs that were put on the market at the time were still in experimental stages.
AZ: Initially that was the case, and that was the result of the activists saying “we need them, we're going to die anyway, so we'd rather take something experimental.” But a lot of those drugs were quite savage. In the case of Sustiva, there's a lot of documentation, and if you google it you'll come up with not only Big Pharma's information about it, you'll also see a lot of media reports about lawsuits and a lot of user issues. And one of the ways that they’ve tried to resolve that is by rolling it into the one-pill-a-day, so this thing that's out there call Atripla, is actually Sustiva, but they’ve given it a new name. It’s a very political act.
HF: It is hard to stay away from the world of conventional medicine, when it has some substantial results.
AZ: Of course, and they do seem like miracles initially. However, I think it's also good to keep a clear view that there are a lot of political and economical agendas happening at the same time. In one book I was reading, about cancer treatments, I believe something like only 7 percent of treatments are successful. But there's a huge industry around that illness. There are profits being made like crazy, but only 7 percent? It seems so low to me. With the idea of the second opinion, I think we should look for that outside of the Western medical sphere. In my project here, one of the books I read was Foucault's Birth of the Clinic, it's a foundation of my thesis. Learning about what is now called positive medicine, what we know as hospitals now really started as a place of penury, for the poor, so there would be somewhere for them to go. Government and the affluent citizens making a gesture, to take care of the poor, and through research and observing it became about wellbeing and health. The idea of clinics started to come out of that, but the politicians and the church started putting their fingers into it, and the original goals started to become clouded by those other agendas.
HF: Were you reading that book as a counterpoint to Jodorowsky's Psychomagic, which is much more about the queer, unconventional, holistic approach to medicine, whereas the clinic is more like a mill?
AZ: Foucault refers to the hospitals at one point as "temples of death." Positive medicine is really about man's finitude, that the end is there, it's inevitable, and studying the body as it heads towards that goal, let's call it. Those two books are the primary readings in my work because they're the two sides of the coin for me. There's all the practical stuff in the Foucault, which also comes through his queer eyes, which adds that color to it, but the Jodorowsky...do you know Joseph Campbell?
HF: The Power of Myth.
AZ: He's always said that the shaman is the person in any community who has a complete psychological breakdown and just falls into the pit, but in the process of crawling out of the pit, finds some new way to perceive things, and in turn the cure for that individual is to become the curer for their community. That falling into the void and pulling out is the training for that. And that’s what I see mirrored in the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and for certain individuals who have survived from the beginning of it, you're wearing it on your own skin. And I had to learn it a second time when I tested positive myself, I thought I really understood this situation but I obviously didn’t.
HF: Being surrounded by it, versus being in it yourself.
AZ: Yeah. There was a big statement in the late 80s with Act Up, they used to say “infected or affected, we're all HIV positive”. And I didn’t really understand the depth of that statement until I tested positive. I had done work on the issue, and researched it, but it becomes another learning process when you're on the other side of the fence.
HF: So do you feel like you fell in the pit and crawled back out again?
AZ: Well it certainly did feel like a pit. I was in a ten year relationship, both my partner and I tested positive, and he was from a different culture and did not want to talk about it.Then life takes over, my mom got sick with Alzheimer’s, I spent a year looking after her, and my own things got on the backburner. Then I realized seven years had gone by and I hadn’t really told anybody. It was really difficult for me to be in that situation, after creating all of this work about it. I felt like my silence was a dishonour to the work.
HF: Do you feel like your own work changed after you were diagnosed?
AZ: In 2005 I did a piece with Ultra Red at the AGO called Silent Listen. There were seven audio artists, it was during the International AIDS conference, and they invited delegates to come and make a statement into what they called the public record. Each of us as audio artists would record someone, and play back that verbal statement but manipulate the sound, and then keep doing that with each layer until there were just layers and layers of statements and effects happening in the room. That was all really positive, but there was a roundtable at the AGO after that performance and I didn’t say a word. I was frozen in that moment, because I thought, how do I talk about this, I haven’t even told my own family. It became a struggle, my partner said “why do you want to tell people?” Do I have to have a reason? Because I desire to tell people, you know. And the Sustiva was really wreaking havoc on my mind, it took 6 months to clear out of my system. We separated and then divorced, and in 2009 I got my own apartment, and I was just like, what do I do now? I'm in my 50s, I had what I thought was the perfect relationship and now I'm a single person again. How do I put these pieces back together? Coming here (to OCADU) was part of the solution.
AZ: I don’t think queer defines homosexuality. straight people can be queer too. It starts with homo people. In my own research the first time I came across it is in Burroughs, and some of the beat poets starting to take on that word as an identifier that you feel like you are outside of all of the normative things. and you don’t care. You actually cherish and cultivate those differences instead of trying to hide them. It’s full ownership of the difference. And its a very political position to take, because there are lots of gay people I know who don’t like the word queer. To me, queer has a political aspect to it. It can be sexual, but its more of a political and social position to take.
HF: It seems in the sense of the word queer that there’s this comprehension, this understanding of why you're different from the establishment. Different than say an outsider artist, who is unknowingly working outside of the conventions.
AZ: It’s a bit of a reappropriation in the same way the pink triangle is a reappropriation of something that was intended in a derogatory sense. You take ownership of it and you empower yourself by doing that. The queer thing is certainly that. There was a movement in the early 90s called Queer Nation, which came out of the Act Up movement and that group of activists, and it was really non-assimilationist gay activity. It’s not “we want to get married, we want to be like straight people, we want to get media attention and acceptance”, we don’t care about any of that. We are different and we're proud of those differences. To me, homosexual people are different, they have different sensibilities, they have different ways of seeing things. To say “queer perspectives”, it’s a very grey zone, but I think those are different ways of seeing and experiencing life. Everything is built around this heteronormative framework, and all the binaries that come with that, and queer is really outside of that, it has nothing to do with those things.
HF: Speaking about tradition of shamans, it seems in the past that they were more a part of the establishment of those societies, the role of a revered healer, but when you transplant that to modern Western society, it "queerifies" that role in a way.
AZ: There are lots of examples of shamans, in South America and Central America, also indigenous cultures in North America, also in Siberia and throughout Asia. Shamanic practices happened in almost all cultures except Western European cultures, which is where you start to get a very structured, rational way of being. But a lot of what we see as religion was really what was practiced as magic before.
HF: I guess magic goes against the medical industrial complex.
AZ: It's not seen as rational.
HF: do you believe in magic?
AZ: Yeah, I do actually. I think that the way we are brought up now is to believe all this rational stuff, and all this scientific stuff, our eyes don’t even see the magic now.
HF: I asked someone that earlier today, and we were discussing how you can even discern what is magic or not. There are things we claim to understand in this modern world that to someone even fifty years ago would seem like magic. Even just carrying this body of molecules through space could be described as magic.
AZ: I think children are very aware of those properties, even if you want to consider the aura of energy around a person as being a magical property, I think children see that but as you go through the education system and through the social system, all of that becomes dissembled. Because its replaced with rational thinking, so we're no longer looking, we're just thinking through this system of categorizing everything in order to understand this chaos. Music is a bit like that, but it's a bit more like mainlining the chaos and trying to make some kind of sense out of it.
HF: Some of the best music and art captivates you but you can't explain why.
AZ: That reminded me of another thing that campbell says, that the shamans of today are artists, people who deal in those discourses that do not fall into the rational, that can’t be justified. It’s poets and dancers and painters, they are the shamans of today, and they are in a way living on the periphery. This experience of coming into this academic environment, to study art or to learn to talk about it, feels to me a bit like capitalism's fingers trying to pull artists in as well. It’s the last bastion that they haven't gotten their hands on yet.
HF: I've encountered artists coming out of OCAD like it was a mill, and that perhaps there isn't necessarily a place for them outside of the academic context.
AZ: I feel that too, and I've also felt that about queer people. It's like the floodgates have opened, a lot of people who don't seem like what I understood gay people to be, people who had a sense of aesthetic awareness. That’s how I was raised, my father told me "gay men really know what style and design and art is about. They are responsible for those things." I remember standing at the corner of Church and Wellesley and saying to a friend "my god, we could be in Fairview Mall! what is so different about this corner? It feels pretty mainstream to me." But you realize that there are lots of colours in that community.
HF: And there is a current push towards the development of a gay-normative lifestyle, for lack of a better term.
AZ: Yeah, but it also has a lot to do with the advertising industry where there’s money to be made. It’s not just about acceptance.
HF: Are you going to continue this practice after you've completed this program?
AZ: Yeah, the process for me of coming into this program allowed me to look at all of the work I've done in the two decades before, 21 years after I had done what I considered my first sound art piece. That was about HIV/AIDS, and getting my portfolio together and writing my proposal was the first time I sat down and examined all of that work and saw all of these connecting arcs, big and small. Artists are taught now to think in those terms, and figure out the theoretical underpinning, but sometimes it seems too calculated to me. I think there has to be a balance. It was important for me to make those connections and see it and clearly it was successful enough to get me into this program. It has really helped me to be guided through certain levels of theory, as long as you're aware that it's not the be-all and end-all. i see this as part of my trajectory. I've accumulated lots of hands-on hours doing the rituals and the therapeutic sessions, and i would like to continue after this. But I also just want to make some disco music. (laughs) I was emailing with an artist in Berlin, Benny Nemerofksy-Ramsay, and I said "I can't wait until my MFA is over, I just want to make disco music" and he said "I want that on a t-shirt."