Born: Lake Charles, Louisiana, U.S.
Ron Ehmke is a Living Legacy Artist at the Burchfield Penney Art Center.
Ron Ehmke is a writer, performer, media artist, curator, and educator who has made Western New York his home since 1982. Regardless of the medium he is working in at any given time, his work tends to be created in collaboration with other artists from a variety of fields (painting, film, video, dance, etc.), its subject matter is generally drawn from lived experience, and its look is often deliberately unpolished.
Ehmke was born in Lake Charles, La., and attended Rice University in Houston, Texas, where he received a BA in English literature in 1982. While living in Houston, he co-founded the theater/media collective Zoot Friends with writer/performer James Bergeron and filmmaker Eddie Harris. Together with other company members, the trio wrote, directed, and often performed in a series of plays whose “scripts” were typically brief lists of instructions for improvisation for the actors, who played variations on themselves as characters.
Ehmke moved to Buffalo, N.Y. to pursue an advanced degree in literature from the University at Buffalo; a chance encounter with local artist/curator Tony Billoni in a graduate seminar led him to begin presenting short performances at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, either solo or in collaboration with painters Catherine Howe or Anne Wayson. In 1985, Wayson, Ehmke, and painters Janet Lundeen and Martha Hurley formed the performance /visual art/media collective Public Domain, creating installations, short video pieces, and site-specific one-time-only performances.
In 1986, Ehmke became the performance programmer/curator at Hallwalls, and for the next 8 years he brought artists from the intersecting worlds of theater, dance, performance art, literature, standup comedy, music, and media to Buffalo, while also nurturing the work of Western New York performers. Making full use of the organization’s multi-disciplinary focus, he founded the biennial “Ways in Being Gay” festival in 1988. Many of the artists he brought to Buffalo also found their way onto Snap Judgments, a cable access series Ehmke co-produced with media artist Richard Wicka from 1991-95, in which the two men and their guests “reviewed” upcoming motion pictures purely on the basis of ad campaigns and their own gut feelings.
After leaving his curatorial position at Hallwalls, Ehmke set out to chronicle his experiences there in an evening-long one-man show, Not for Profit: A Personal History of Peripheral Art, 1972-92, which he toured nationally and which led to a commission by Hallwalls to edit a book commemorating the organization’s 20th anniversary. That volume, Consider the Alternatives: 20 Years of Contemporary Art at Hallwalls, in turn became the subject of a new monologue, In the City of the Dead: A Meditation on Middles (1996), conceived as the second in a trilogy of interconnected performances about art, money, and mortality collectively known as “The Dark Times,” developed in collaboration with director Margaret Smith. The third part, Welcome to the Sausage Factory: A Brief History of the Present Moment (1997), updated the storyline of the first two and touched on Ehmke’s years working as “Minister of Communications” at Righteous Babe Records, the record label established by Buffalo-born singer/songwriter Ani DiFranco, and freelancing as a reviewer of film, visual art, theater, and music, among other rent-paying jobs.
Ehmke reflected on the evolution of his collagelike approach to structuring both printed materials and performances in a 1998 joint interview with filmmaker Lawrence Brose:
“I love ephemera! … In lots of my monologues I incorporate personal letters, journal entries, stuff like that, because I like what happens when you take something written under fairly intimate circumstances and then present it to an audience of strangers. … When I worked on the [ephemera-packed] Hallwalls book, it dawned on me what a wonderful tool the computer is for a person who writes and thinks as haphazardly as I do. I know it's terribly late in the day to be having this kind of insight, but back in1982 when everybody else was raving about how their Macintoshes had changed their lives, I wasn't having any of that nonsense. I liked the hands-on aspect of literally cutting and pasting little scraps of paper together to make an essay or a story. I've always been envious of … filmmakers, with [their] little scraps of celluloid, and sound engineers, whether they're actually splicing loops of tape together or doing it digitally…. but I didn't really realize how to achieve it with words until I started receiving material for the Hallwalls book via e-mail and floppy disc, and I watched the bits and bytes of text and image move from [one person’s computer to another], undergoing various manipulations along the way. For the first time it dawned on me just how malleable and palpable language has become in the digital age. … I'm constantly lifting passages, relocating them, rewording them, which now feels as familiar to me as when I had my scissors and tape at hand. … Around the same time that I was piecing the book together, I changed my focus as a performer from one-night-only extravaganzas (and collaborating with Richard [Wicka] on very quick-and-dirty tapes, one a week) to much more meticulously constructed shows involving months of rehearsal and refinement. My greatest joy as a writer comes from being able to revise and rework a text, to find exactly the right way to express something. I love fine tuning more than anything else.” 
In a review of Sausage Factory, Patricia Donovan noted Ehmke’s “peripheral” stance and wrote: “… [H]e lives on the margins so he can occasionally boink us with a rubber bat, ask the impertinent question, stand in awe of the universe, and report on the ironies of the bombastic lunacy around us. … Ehmke is a child of his age, and so he presents himself and us as characters both enlightened and nearly crippled by our gloriously postmodern ability to paradigm-shift from moment to moment.” 
Ehmke noted the role of humor in his work in the 1998 interview: “… I don't really see anything wrong with entertaining people! In fact, I'm tempted to say that entertainment is a crucial element of politically useful art, or at least the kind of art that I want to devote my time to. …One thing I've learned over the years, both as a maker and an observer of art, is that it's a good idea to provide the audience with a certain base level of comfort if you want to get them to look at or think about uncomfortable subjects. I find myself frequently starting a show with something deliberately odd, and then acknowledging the oddness of it, usually with a joke.” 
Feeling himself at a stylistic dead end with the autobiographical monologue format after completing the “Dark Times” trilogy, Ehmke took an extended hiatus from performing in the late 1990s. In 2001 he went in a completely new direction, introducing the outrageously costumed, entirely ad-libbed “gender-disillusionist” persona “Ronawanda” as the emcee of a semi-public/semi-private performance/literary/music series called Suburban Samizdat, which Ehmke curated and produced in the basement of his Tonawanda, N.Y. residence over the course of the next decade. “Silly clothes give me license to be bigger onstage than I am in real life,” he told interviewer Geoff Kelly in 2010, “and that larger-than-life quality of theater is what has always fascinated me as an audience member in the first place.” 
The Ronawanda character also served as emcee of the Real Dream Cabaret, an improvisational performance collective Ehmke co-founded in 2003 with more than half a dozen other Western New York artists, originally under the auspices of writer/culture jammer Brian Lampkin’s Rust Belt Books in the Allentown neighborhood of Buffalo. Ehmke and many of the Cabaret’s other core members and guest artists were also involved (at the request of primary organizer Kurt Schneiderman) in the 2005 inception of the Buffalo Infringement Festival, a grassroots celebration of the region’s thriving community of creative individuals and groups whose work often flies “under the radar.”
Among the many other artists from WNY with whom Ehmke has frequently collaborated are media makers Brian Milbrand, Meg Knowles, and Ruth Goldman. In 2005 he was invited to present his work in the inaugural multi-site Beyond/In Western New York series, for which he devised a new performance format, Everything: An Evening with Ron Ehmke and His or Her Very Special Guests, combining for the first time his monologues, character improvisations, and solo videos, as well as guest musicians and other artists. He later toured “bespoken word” performances of Everything to colleges around the country, in addition to teaching workshops, undergraduate courses, and grad seminars at various universities and media centers from the 1980s through the present day. From 2004 to 2011 Ehmke was the associate editor of the city/regional magazine Buffalo Spree, and he continues to write for it and other publications.
In 2012, Ehmke was designated one of the Burchfield Penney’s first “Living Legacy” artists. In 2013 he joined the staff of the museum as archives assistant.
For more information on Ron Ehmke, visit everythingrondoes.com.
 Ron Ehmke and Lawrence Brose, “The Entertainment is in the Work: A Make Believe Conversation,” Basta!, Winter/Spring 1998, http://www.bigorbitgallery.org/soundlab/TEXTARCHIVES/ehmkebroseinterview.html. (Accessed 08/13/2013)
 Patricia Donovan, “In 'Sausage Factory,' Evidence of a Real Artist at Work,” The Buffalo News, May 14, 1997, http://www.buffalonews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19970514/GUSTO/305149843. (Accessed 08/13/2013)
 Ehmke/Brose, “The Entertainment …”
 Geoff Kelly, “5 Questions With… Ron Ehmke: Writer, Performance Artist,” Artvoice, 07/22/2010. http://artvoice.com/issues/v9n29/five_questions. (Accessed 08/13/2012)
Listen or read Ron Ehmke’s interview with Heather Gring for the Burchfield Penney Art Center, conducted on August 17, 2012. In this interview, Ehmke discusses his biggest influences, his lifelong passion for collaboration, and some of the recurring themes in his work. He also describes seeing a performance piece in the early 1980s by artist/musician Tony Conrad.
Transcript of the Living Legacy Project interview with Ron Ehmke
August 17, 2012
Transcribed by Cassandra Chu
HG: Ron, what inspired you to want to be an artist?
RE: Well, you know, some of the very first associations I have with art are watching the Johnny Carson show, the Ed Sullivan show, the Carol Burnett show a little bit later, and just being caught up in this, you know, kind of show biz-y world, and I don’t, I’m…I’m the kind of person who doesn’t draw a distinction between art and show biz, I mean all art is show biz, in a sense, and show biz is an art, definitely, and around the same time that I was watching those TV shows, my mother was involved in community theater, and so I got a chance to see backstage people with these weird things, like I remember women with glitter on their eyes, you know, eyeshadow and things like that, and it just seems…and then, you know, you don’t notice those things from the seats, the weirdness of the makeup, and so it just…it seems surreal; it was like an early kind of encounter with surrealism for me, but also realism, and also just the magic and the illusion of…of, again, show biz…and so, that just all seemed so incredibly romantic to me at a very early age and…and then, so I had one sense of what art was, or you know, what entertainment was. Then I went to college, and on one of my first weeks in school, I saw Godard’s movie, Weekend, and I almost walked out on it. I thought it was one of the worst things I’d ever seen. It was challenging everything I knew and believed, and it’s not like I hadn’t seen, you know, Altman movies, and Woody Allen movies, and some, you know, Birdman, some artsy-fartsy kind of things, but this...this Weekend just really disturbed me in a way, because I just thought that, you know, “That’s not a movie, how can you, you know, put a camera in the middle of a barnyard and just turn it around 360 degrees in slow motion? This is agonizing,” and by the very next day, I woke up, I thought…I went from thinking that was the worst movie I’d ever seen to the best movie I’d ever seen, and this was in the heyday, in the late seventies, of punk rock and the post punk movement, and around the same time that I discovered Godard, I discovered bands like the Clash, and especially the Gang of Four, who first of all, made really catchy music, but also had something to say, so it’s like they...they wanted…first of all, to…both of those bands wanted to really question all of the stuff about, you know, the glittery eyes and all the show biz trappings, and to really make…make statements, I guess, with their music, and that sounds really tedious, but it wasn’t to me, it was really thrilling, and so Godard’s politics and the Gang of Four and the Clash’s politics kind of merged in my head with this image of, you know, like the flashy kind of thing, and it just…finding ways to combine those two things became, you know, a real goal for me.
HG: Fantastic. Where did you go to school? Where did you go…where did you go for your college education?
RE: Well, for college I went to Rice University in Houston, Texas, and I was one of the lone liberal arts students in a field of, you know, science and engineering types, and this was kind of valuable because it was…I’m kind of used to being the outsider in any group. Like for instance, I’m assuming that a lot of the people that are in this, and I…I know now that a lot of people in this target, you know, in this program are visual artists, and I’m just not one. I wish I was, in a…in a certain way, but I’m just not, and I became really comfortable with the advantages of being an outsider. It’s kind of the same thing of living in Buffalo, as opposed to living in a flashier city, like New York City. You can do certain things when you’re on the margins that you can’t do, or you can’t do as easily if you live, you know, in the…in the sexy hub of everything, and so Rice was an early example of that, because I was able to…I had ideas for plays that I wanted to put on, and performances, and I was able to do it really easily because nobody else was doing that—there was zero competition, you know, for…it wasn’t like, “Oh, I want to…I want to write this play about the U.S.’s involvement in El Salvador and stage it,” and…you know, and there was no one saying, “Oh that’s great, but you’ll have to, you know, fill out an application, do a proposal,” and all that, it was just, “Okay, great, well we’ve got these, you know…we have these…these days open for rehearsal and for the performance and there’s no charge for any of this,” because it’s a…you know, there’s no competition. It’s just an open field. But you know, when you ask about school, I have to put in a word, I think, for a program that I was involved in between the ages of…let’s see…I wanna saw twelve and sixteen or so. The state of Louisiana, where I’m from, had a summer program called the Governor’s Program for Gifted Children, and this again attracted lots of bright science and engineering and mathematics kids, and that’s the kind of things…and philosophy…and those are the kinds of things we studied in the morning, but in the afternoon, we took these, just, amazing classes in…we staged, you know, full length—we only had six weeks to do this—we staged full length musicals and…and kind of classic plays, and it was such an incredible education in theater craft, in theater history, the kinds of things that…it was just really useful, so I learned more about the craftsmanship behind the sparkly eyes and the community theater kind of world, and then there were other people who were really ambitious and did…and again, did kind of their own projects, and I learned from all of that, and that was just…of all the education I’ve had, that was the experience at exactly the right age that just, you know, made it really clear to me what I wanted to do, you know, with language, with…with theater, with all of those kinds of things.
HG: That sounds like an incredibly progressive program.
RE: Oh, it was wonderful, absolutely terrific.
HG: Now, when you went…when you went to Houston, what was your major?
RE: English. Well, I was a psychology major for one semester, and the…the psychology teacher told us on…on the day that we were studying drugs, he told us that Elvis…oh no, that Eric Clapton’s nickname was “slow hand,” because drugs had destroyed his ability to play the guitar, and so I just thought, “I can’t take this,” and so, the guy was an awful teacher—no offense to the poor man—but…and I had at the same time, really wonderful English teachers, and literature was always, you know, where my heart was. The psychology major thing was actually kind of…originally a concession to my parents, who wanted to make sure that I…that I would have some kind of stable job, and they always said, “Well, you know you could write on the side if you want, there are lots of psychologists who are…who write books,” and so forth, and so I thought, “That makes sense, I should have this really stable, you know, professional job, and then I can have this kind of hobby,” and then I just realized, “That’s ridiculous. My heart isn’t in this, you know, stable thing, it’s in…it’s in the writing, it’s in the words, the language, so I should just eliminate…this other thing isn’t really working for me, so I’d rather put my time and energy into being the best I can at…at reading, and writing, I guess, and leave the other stuff to people whose heart is more in it.
HG: When you were in Houston, did you have any influential professors who really helped you continue to determine your creative path?
RE: Oh, I certainly did. There was a…in the English department alone, there was a guy, Terry Doudie, who was just a really gifted teacher, really made, you know, literature come alive. Later on, there was someone---and he’s actually the guy who got me to come to Buffalo—a professor named Ed Snow, who was kind of an eccentric teacher, had kind of eccentric methods, and was also very much interested in connections between visual art and literature. So, for instance, in a…ostensibly an English class, we studied Vermeer at length, we looked at connections between Vermeer’s work and poetry. We tried to…you know, to write about his work, to put into…into words what we were seeing, you know, on the canvas, which was a tremendous experience. Then there was a couple professors in the media study department…I say I was an English major, but I really spent most of my time in the media study department. That was the beginning of something that I’ve done my whole life, which is declare myself one thing but be interested in about seven other things, and spend most of my time, you know, in…in…with those other things, in those other departments. I’m not a specialist at all, I’m totally a generalist. But Brian Huberman was just this crazy guy who…he was a…he is a British guy just completely obsessed with the Alamo, and with the western, and it was…it was…I mean, you always hear about Europeans’ fascination with the wild west, and with myths of America, and he was embodying this in a certain way, but he was also very invested in…in social documentary, and there’s a very strong connection between the Rice media center and the media studies program at Buffalo. People like James Blue, who I never knew…Gerry O’Grady and others, there was…there was a lot of content, which is kind of how I ended up at UB. It was actually Ed Snow that recommended…he was a…he had been to both Rice and UB, and he said, “You know, knowing you, the person that…I mean that the place that you should really go to if you’re interested in being an English major, an English grad student, is…is UB because they have this really kind of visionary free form department, and I think you’d really like it there,” and he was sort of right, sort of wrong. The other professor in the media study department who was really influential was Thomas McEvilley, who made quite a name for himself as a…an art theorist in the eighties and nineties. He also was quite the character, kind of establishing this tradition…I’ve kind of noticed that media study departments around the country tend to attract these people who are total characters, and that really appeals to me in a way, and, you know, come to think about it—I’m just realizing this right now—I think a lot of what the appeal is…is that, for them, art exists outside of just, you know, in this case with media study, the screen, you come…you come into a movie theater, you watch a movie, and that’s the art, I mean…the kinds of people that I have in mind, they’re…they’re not just at…at Rice, I seem them at…in sort of the glory days of the media study program at UB, I see them here at Buff State…they’re really invested in their community in a much, much broader way than, say, your average…and again, your average English professor or…even a sociologist is, because the lines between career and life and community are much, much thinner, if they exist at all.
HG: Absolutely. I completely agree.
RE: You were asking about influences?
HG: Yes, I’m talking about influences.
RE: Yeah. Well I’m thinking of two that are a little earlier…
RE: One is my mother, who is the complete inspiration for this character that I’ve invented called Ronawanda, who’s kind of an emcee character. My mother was not only involved in community theater, but she was actually— although she would never use this term, and the term didn’t really exist at the time—she was a performance artist in her own right, because she would stage these incredible…well, they’re basically performance pieces with members of the…of the church, the…I think it was called the ladies’ auxiliary, they would do these fundraisers, and she would stage these fashion shows that were parodies of fashion shows and…although I don’t know that she would really identify herself as a feminist, she was absolutely a feminist performance artist of a…of a type somewhat like Pat Olezko, who was doing things using costumes, to kind of spoof the society at large, and these shows were very funny. She would emcee them, I learned everything I know about, you know, how to emcee an event through watching her, and watching her completely be herself. She could put on the craziest of costumes, but just be herself, be honest with herself, and with…with the audience in a way that was just really fun to watch, and really empowering. Her own role models, she would be the first to say, were Minnie Pearl, who is known to…to people these days through shows like Hee Haw, and she was a staple on the Grand Ole Opry…Minnie Pearl’s trademark was having…wearing wigs and clothes and things, and leaving price tags on them, which is something I’ve kind of been doing as a tribute to my mother, and to Minnie Pearl ever since. And then Phyllis Diller was another, I mean in my mother’s day, there weren’t that many women comics, and the ones that…that existed tended to be pretty self-deprecating, and so that’s, you know, not a really great option for a woman in any…even by the early sixties and by the early seventies, in…in Lake Charles, Louisiana, which is about ten years behind the culture, that wasn’t so inspiring, so my mother would take this kind of absurdist route, kind of like Phyllis Diller would, and not unlike Phyllis Diller and Minnie Pearl, she had this kind of…today she’d be called a drag queen, I think, because she’s a woman who looks like, or would…would create a performance persona that was like a woman performing as a man pretending to be a woman, so these, you know, there were just these layers going on, and my mother didn’t put a whole lot of thought into any of this, it was just what was funny to her, and what was funny to audiences, and…but I was completely…I wasn’t really making notes about all this at the time, but it absolutely influenced a certain strain of work that I did many, many years later. Another huge influence on me was the first collaborator that I had…a friend of mine, James Bergeron, who was about two years older than me but definitely felt like a mentor. Although he used to say that I felt like a, you know, a mentor to him, I guess you could say, so it was a good relationship, but James was really invested in collaboration, and felt…and this was in the late seventies—and again, this idea was starting to take route; not, it doesn’t sound so bizarre to talk about collaboration, I mean everybody’s doing it, it’s the hot, trendy thing to do—but in the late seventies, I think we were still caught up in this notion of…this romantic notion of the misunderstood artist who works alone against the world…and you know, you have the heroic artist figure with the…the little people behind him, or her…well, it’s gonna be a him, always. I think women really brought the whole tradition of collaboration, or the women’s movement really brought this notion of collaboration, non-hierarchical organization, into the foreground around this time period, and it took a while to catch on in the arts, so we wrote collectively, we performed collectively, we formed a group called Zut Friends, which started out as Zoo Friends until the zoo in Houston wanted to…threatened to sue us for taking their name, but we used…we used ourselves as the performers. We started out trying to write conventional plays that had other performers in them, but we had a lot of trouble getting other people to do…we tried using people from the theater community to do the kind of work that we wanted to do, and it was…it was tricky, it was hard getting them to do it because theater people are very used to…or particularly on that day, you know, “Get me the script, tell me the story and I will do it for you, I will, you know, invest some of myself in it,” and what we kept saying, the more of these productions we did, the more we kept saying, “Well, just use yourself as the basis for this, don’t…we’re not creating a character that…that we have, you know, solidly in line, we just want you to use your own experience as the core,” and it…it just got to be too hard to find other people who could do that, so we started becoming, kind of reluctantly, the performers in these productions ourselves. So I think I was trying to be…to be part of that world with a community theater model and all of that, the show biz-y kind of model, but it wasn’t working, because the other side of me, the side that was kind of rooted in the Gang of Four and the Clash, who are speaking from their own experience, it was just too hard to get those two things to jibe, and so we ended up performing in the productions that we did. And then what started happening was people would come to our shows, and like them a lot and wanted to be involved in them, and so we started recruiting audience members to become members of the company, which was…which was just…it felt really exciting, it felt like a form of audience participation that was much more long term than just going into some place and making the poor people in the audience do silly things, you know, for an hour or so, it was like having them do silly things for years.
HG: Talk about community theater or something, like this is…
RE: Real community. Yeah.
HG: …drawing the community into alternative theater, you know, that’s…that’s really cool.
RE: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. While I was at Rice, I think the last year I was there, Laurie Anderson came to town. She had just had…she wasn’t known so much as a performance artist in a place like Houston, there was no real performance art, that term…there was a show, actually, there was a show at the contemporary art museum that was looking at contemporary performance art, and it included people like Joan Jonas…trying to think of who else…I want to saw Trisha Brown, but I’m not sure about that…Colette, some other people. It’s possible that Robert Wilson was even part of that, it was…it was a stellar group, but James and I didn’t really care for most of what we saw in…in that show. It was a lot of kind of high, New York City late seventies, SoHo performance stuff, and it didn’t really speak to us in any particular way, and then Laurie Anderson came to Rice to do a one night thing. Not so much…I mean, she was booked as…I think on the strength of her college radio hit single, “O Superman,” so I think we were all coming to see that and then we got to see this incredible show instead and just, you know, just doing the most innovative things with the simplest of technology. It seemed kind of high tech at the time, but in reality, I think she was using things like overhead projectors and slide projectors and, you know, the technology wasn’t really all that advanced, but she had this gift for looking at those tools in completely new ways, which was so incredibly exciting, and…and that just became just this tremendous inspiration and it was just, you know, it was so exciting cause she did something that I had been wanting to see happen for a long time, which was to take the energy of theater and the energy of rock music, of a rock concert, the theater of a rock concert, and put those two things together, because the typical rock concert…there’s inherent theater. When I’ve taught classes about performance, I almost always start with rock concerts, because I think those—and I’m talking before the, you know, Lady Gaga era of…or Marilyn Manson, or whatever…of staging—I just mean, just any basic concert is filled with this kind of theatrical anticipation, like, you know, “When’s the band gonna come out? What are they gonna look like, if you haven’t seen them before, you know, what are they gonna play?” and a good rock show is structured like a good play is, but I wasn’t seeing too many people playing with that kind of stuff at the time, certainly not the theater side of things, which…I mean, Laurie Anderson, you can’t…you can’t categorize her as any one thing, she was doing all of the stuff at the same time, which was also inspirational to me, that she could do a lot of different things, do a little bit of a lot of different things.
HG: Sounds incredible. Around what year was that when she came?
RE: It must have been ’82…like early ’82 because I came to Buffalo right after that for grad school in the fall of ’82. And interestingly enough, one of the first things that I saw in Buffalo was a performance by Tony Conrad, which was at…in those days, the art department of UB was in Bethune Hall, which was this funky, three or four story factory with giant elevators, and just…it was like the quintessential artists’ loft kind of thing, there was a funkiness about it that you just can’t find in a more conventional, you know, academic building, just amazing things there.
HG: And that building was downtown?
RE: Well, it was North Buffalo, I guess I would say. It was near…well, I lived just a couple of blocks away from there, it was…I’m trying to think of what it was near…it’s, you know, a good five or six blocks away from the Main Street campus of UB.
HG: Do you remember what piece by Conrad you saw, or what it was?
HG: What you thought about it?
RE: Well, I’m trying to think…oh, yeah, I can tell you what I thought about it right away was, which was, “This is the first thing I’ve seen other than the Laurie Anderson performance that really speaks to me, that excites me as a way as an audience member, and that inspires me as a…as a maker of performance events.” I don’t know what the title of it was, but I do know that it…this was before Tony was kind of reinventing his minimalist music series, this was much more about…this was, well I can’t really call it conventional performance, but it was more…performance…it was…yeah, it’s really…Tony, unfortunately, has as much trouble describing these things as I do, so I don’t feel so silly trying to put a name on this. I’m trying to find a way to tell you that he had us, the entire audience, sing the song, I’m a Friend of Tony Conrad together, and it had a little bit of…I don’t think this was conscious at all, but it had a little bit of a Pee-wee’s Playhouse children’s show, like a…it was almost like a children’s show for extremely smart, but extremely dysfunctional children, and he treated us that way, kind of as children, and had us sing this very child-like song. I want to say, and I could’ve…I could’ve added this to the performance, but I could swear there was a scene while we were singing to him, he was sitting…if not on a toilet, something that looked like a toilet, a chair, going through, looking at film, and the film seemed to be kind of coming out of his butt, I mean there’s really no other way to describe this, so that you kind of got the sense of film as just this, you know, sort of excremental material. Now, you could probably ask Tony about this and he’d say, “None of that was in there, you dreamed all of that,” which is entirely possible, but I remember the song, and I remember kind of this joyous feeling, creepy and joyous at the same time. Creepy for kind of obvious reasons, but joyous because it was about the joy of creation in a certain way, and I just thought…it just completely blew me away, I loved it. A few years later, I had him as a guest speaker in a class that I was teaching on performance, and he did an equally astonishing thing in which he took this huge length of parachute fabric, the kind of stuff that he used in later…of his early minimalist performances. He talked…he told the class about how artists have bags of tricks, and he produced…in his bag of tricks, this gigantic amount of fabric and started encompassing the…the audience, slash the class, in the fabric, so that eventually everybody…it’s possible that not everyone was wrapped in, some people were wrapped in, and some people were excluded, while he’s telling us one of his, you know, classic Tony Conrad long meandering stories, and your mind is engaged in working out what his words are telling you, and meanwhile you’re experiencing just being encased in fabric with a bunch of other people that are, you know, your fellow students, and so you feel this certain closeness to them but also a certain distance from them because the only thing that brings you together is the fact that you’re in a class together. And so it was just another one of these moments of balancing kind of joy and creepiness. In subsequent years, I’ve really seen the way that Tony has influenced an entire generation of—well, several generations, several—yeah, several generations of students. When I first came to town, Paul Sharits was still alive, and was still teaching, and Tony Conrad was there, and for a very brief period, Hollis Frampton and still teaching. Frampton, I only got to know after he died through an incredible show of his at the Albright Knox, and came to realize that, I mean he’s just stunning…I mean, he was just this stunning talent on so many levels. But the department in the kind of early eighties tended to attract two kinds of students: the ones that gravitated to Paul Sharits, and the ones that gravitated to Tony Conrad. You could almost say they were the Apollonian ones that went to Tony, who were, you know, kind of intrigued…who were engaged intellectually with things, and who could work on this balance of joy and creepiness in their own way, and the Dionysian ones who…who gravitated to Paul Sharits, and tended to be…to kind of live the…the ideals of punk rock on a daily basis, who thrived no these wild stories about Paul’s behavior and who would try to…try to, you know, emulate that in their own lives, so it was just fascinating as an outsider, because again, I wasn’t in that department, but just to kind of watch, you know, year after year of students coming in and gravitating to one or the other of these kind of two polar opposites. They probably wouldn’t say they were as opposite as I thought they were, but…but it was like these two models for…for ways to…to be an artist.
HG: That’s actually phenomenal, because you know, Tony came in and he talked about his career and that sort of thing and he touched on Sharits a little bit, but we really didn’t get into talking that much about media study, and so I really love having this outside perspective on their dynamics.
RE: Oh, great. Well, I thought you might like that.
HG: Ron, could you please talk about your art—what you create and why you create it?
RE: Oh, God. Well, I really don’t like answering…I don’t know, the word “art” makes me uncomfortable, I think, because it makes so many people in our culture uncomfortable because they…they have all these crazy notions about…some artists have these crazy notions, but mostly people in the general community have these, you know, odd notions about what an artist is, and so I…I don’t want to appear odd to people, I guess, so I sometimes will just say basically at heart I’m a storyteller, or a fiction writer, even though not everything I do is written down and it’s…what I like about the term “fiction” is that it implies this certain craft; it’s not about whether something is true or false, whether something really happened or didn’t really happen. It’s about being…well, it is about being true, I think, but it’s also about being crafted and…and sculpted in a certain way, so in my life, that can take the form of writing, you know, for the page, or doing live performances, or making videotapes. I did a hundred episodes of a cable access TV show with Richard Wicka called “Snap Judgments,” in which we reviewed movies that we had not seen, based on everything but the movie itself. The marketing of the movie, our gut feelings, who was in it, all that kind of thing. And then, you know, and then I think things have taken other forms as well, but those are the main ones.
HG: Could you talk about the totality of your body of work, and some of the different themes that have emerged within it?
RE: Strangely, I can. I like to say that…that almost everything I do has to do with the relationships between art and money, although that’s not always true anymore, I think that’s…sometimes, that’s an explicit theme and sometimes that’s a sub-theme. The sense that art is a form of work which isn’t necessarily taken seriously by…by people who do things that are more conventionally considered work and I wrestle with this all the time about whether, you know, there was a movement, for a while, to refer to artists as culture workers to kind of have their work taken seriously in the same way, even if it’s only taken seriously by themselves. In my life, I noticed that performers—bands, performance artists, media artists, et cetera—are always getting hit up to do benefits for all kinds of causes, which is great, I think that’s a really wonderful thing…but the thing is, there’s never any thought to paying—or seldom any thought to paying the artists, but if you try to get someone who runs the lights, or does the sound or something like that to do it for free, I mean you just don’t even think about that, it’s automatically a budget item, and I think the…the deeper implication is that that’s real work, and that what artists do is really some fun hobby that, you know, they can kind of contribute on the side…that it’s…it’s not…it’s not work, and I like not resolving that question in any way. I have an entire performance that’s about asking this question and not really answering…not being able to really answer it, so…oh, other totality things! Now, one thing that connects almost everything that I do is that it’s collaborative. I don’t have a single style, I don’t have a single aesthetic, a single message, I mean I talk about the art and money thing, and that does recur, but I collaborate with other people all the time, and so I’m kind of seeing what it is that the two of us, or three of us, or twelve of us can do as a group, and working from that, rather than, you know, bringing a particular thing to the table.
HG: Can you talk about your creative process?
RE: Yes, I can, if…eureka! Two different processes: if I’m working by myself and if I’m working with other people. If I’m working by myself there’s an enormous amount of procrastination that goes into every project, doing everything under the sun except working on the project, which is all kind of like, stewing. I think part of it is the…one way to describe it is, you know, “Oh, the ideas are stewing and they’re germinating,” and the other…the other side of that is, “I’m getting this level of anxiety built up in myself, and I feel like, “Okay, I can’t…I’ve got to do this now, I can’t put it off any longer. Now, if I’m working with other people, it’s a completely different process. I love collaborating with other people, I always have, and I think part of the…it’s so much easier to do. Most of the time, ninety-nine percent of the time, it’s so much easier to do, and part of that is just having a sense of who the other person or people are, what they’re good at, why they want to work with me, what…you know, what they want to get out…what I can contribute, what they can contribute, and…and then from there, I very seldom, if we’re having planning meetings about a performance or videotape or something, I very seldom come to the table saying, “I want to make, you know, a five minute long videotape about this, this, and this,” or “I want the performance in the performance I intend to, you know, say this, do this, dress this way, et cetera.” I just don’t do that, I come with pretty much nothing, and see…and I feed off the ideas of the other people. I am very excited about making connections between other people and between people and ideas, and ideas and other ideas, people and other people, and so I just kind of come with…with nothing prepared, and feed off of the energy of…of the room, I guess you could say, and I try to find as much fun as possible. You know, another…oh, my god, another…I could spend the entire interview talking about mentors and influences and so forth, because there have been so many of them. There’s a Japanese performance artist slash choreographer named Yoshiko Chuma, who came to Hallwalls back in the mid-eighties, and then I kind of stayed in touch with her over the years…we did many projects together, and she has a way of…of saying that you should always try to do the easy thing. Like instead of…and she was referring…everything that Yoshiko says has a kind of double meaning, it seems like…like it can be related to the project at hand, it can also be a sort of life lesson. And she was talking specifically in terms of movement, physical movement. She’s working with dancers, and instead of trying to do movement that’s just gonna, you know, break your back and sprain your ankle and everything else, do the easy thing. So Yoshiko…Yoshiko would always say to do the easy thing, and she didn’t mean…she meant, you know, don’t do the movement that is, you know, like breathtakingly difficult and that’s gonna result in physical injury, just do the simple movements. Kind of…she kind of came out of the pedestrian movement school, and the Judson church, and other, you know, choreographers of the early seventies. She had…her own particular spin on that was just, you know, easy movement, and I think that that’s…it’s a perfectly good goal in life, to try to find the easy way to do things, and that’s part of the appeal of collaboration for me, is to look for the easy thing that you can do. You have twelve people working together, and each one does their favorite thing instead of like…it’s good if you, you know, kind of inspire each other to do more difficult things together, collectively, but if you each do something that you love doing, then I think that the end result is gonna be something that an audience is going to love seeing.
HG: So here’s another broad question for you: what do you hope that the audience takes away from your works?
RE: When you ask it, I think, salt and pepper shakers, any of the silverware that happens to be around…
HG: Or another way of saying that is, what do you hope to achieve with your art? I don’t like phrasing it like that as much…
RE: Right, right. Well, what I really like is, and I’ve said this about seven times already, but what I really like is people making…is connections. Connecting people…there’s something really powerful to me about, in this particular day and age that we live in, bringing people who don’t know each other together in a room for a certain period of time, say and hour, say, you know, could be in some cases four or five hours, whatever it is, or maybe even…maybe just fifteen minutes, but sharing the experience together, making connections, maybe they meet people that they haven’t met before that’s peripheral to whatever the performance is…maybe it’s planting ideas that, you know, register in people’s own lives that they can take away something, or just make a connection. Again, connections between people, connections between ideas, connections between ideas and people.
HG: So you moved to Buffalo in the early eighties and you came here to pursue a master’s degree in English at UB.
RE: Well, a PhD I came to pursue, and then I pursued it for a while and then it eluded my grasp, and so I ended up pursuing an M.A. instead.
HG: Along your trajectory as a performance artist and writer, what are some of the things you have had to do to advance your career as a creative type?
RE: Sorry, I just keep thing of the worst possible (inaudible-37:52) answers to these questions, but I had to (inaudible-37:56), it was horrible, it was absolutely possible. The whole year…the years of heroin were pathetic, it was painful, and yet I got a lot of sleep, so it wasn’t so bad. No, I don’t know…what was the question again?
HG: Well, the question was what have you had to do to advance your career in the arts?
RE: I wish I had done things to advance my career in the arts. I don’t feel like I really have done that much to promote myself as an artist at all. Every time I try to do something like that it doesn’t seem to work out. It works out much better if I just kind of live my life, and then eventually people come to me and say, “Hey, would you like to do a performance?” or “Would you like to write this essay?” or whatever. I’ve never been every good at the hard sell. In a way I wish…I wish I was that kind of person, but I don’t generally like that kind of person, so it has never really been a career goal of mine, so as a result, we were talking earlier about the career over the long haul as opposed to being the next Matthew Barney or something, like I don’t have any regrets…well, of course I’m riddled with regrets and, you know, kept away…all the time about this, but in reality, no I don’t like that kind of artist that is all about their career, that’s so driven by, you know, making work and getting it out there to an audience, or…they’re not even interested in getting it out to an audience, they want to get it out to the gatekeepers who will get it out to an audience, and so you’re constantly, you know, you’re doing this grant so that you can get that grant, so that you can perform in this space so that you can get invited to perform in that space, or show in the space or whatever, and that just holds no interest for me, so I learned a long time ago, when I was working at Hallwalls and kind of the heyday of performance art as…there was a lot of talk about performance art as the new vaudeville and that there was gonna be…this was gonna, you know, there’d be this circuit of spaces that people could perform in, and they could move up, you know, this kind of evolutionary ladder from playing spaces…to use local examples, from, you know, say, the Vault that currently exists right now to say, Squeaky Wheel, and from Squeaky Wheel to Hallwalls, and then from Hallwalls to the Burchfield-Penney, and from the Burchfield-Penney to the Albright, like these hierarchies and there was a period when people thought that that was really gonna happen, and for a few people it really did happen, but for the vast majority, it was nothing like that. I know lots of people who will perform at a space like, you know, the Burchfield one night, and the next night they’re doing a benefit or they’re just doing something that they love doing at the Vault, and then, you know, they might…they might get invited to do something at the Albright-Knox, but that doesn’t mean that they’ll never do these other spaces. You know, that hierarchy just completely fell apart, and as far as a national circuit, a lot of those spaces closed in the nineties, and so that didn’t become an option, so…and that doesn’t really bother me, I feel totally comfortable with that. I like the fact that I can do absolutely nothing for seemingly years at a time, and then have like a little mini wave of things happening, and then…and then nothing for a while. I don’t feel…I’m not the kind of artist that’s driven to be constantly producing and to be moving ever higher up that evolutionary ladder. I love it that, you know, there are little flukes where I get to do something in front of a large number of people briefly, or I get a certain amount of attention for a while, and then nothing for long periods of time, doesn’t bother me at all. And that’s very different than that show business model that I was first talking about with Johnny Carson and, you know, that whole notion of stand-up comics, you know…you play Carson and then you get to do this, and you get to do that, it’s like you’re…you’re awarded all of these possibilities with…that part of the show biz model doesn’t hold any appeal for me at all, it just doesn’t…well, it just doesn’t work…unless you’re extremely lucky, or extremely driven.
HG: What are some of your needs as an artist that the larger community can provide?
RE: You know, when I read that question I thought, this is kind of in danger of perpetuating the sense that artists need something from the society, when in reality I…I don’t think that I need anything from other people, I mean I can come up with a different answer to that but my gut response is I should be thinking more about what kinds of resources I can share with the community around me, not what people owe me. I don’t… don’t think that anybody owes an artist anything. It’s an artist’s job to take whatever resources they have at hand and to make something with those. I mean, that…that makes me think of the aesthetic of the blockbuster movie, say, versus the independent film. When I was in college, I saw a whole bunch of film noir kind of like B-movies from the 1940’s and 50’s, and they were made on a shoestring budget and I was always blown away by those, and this is the exact moment in our culture when movies started costing more and more to make, and needing more and more resources, and I have never once thought, “God, if only I had, you know, two hundred million dollars, I could really get my vision out there,” it’s more like, “Gee, you know, with twenty bucks, you can do incredible things,” and I’m always way more impressed with people who can do a lot with very little than, you know, do a little with a whole lot.
HG: What would help advance your artistic career? Think about that in terms of yourself, you know, don’t think about that in following anything that’s not true to your vision, but where do you see yourself going with this…and going next and moving on to?
RE: Well, I’ll tell you things that could…that would help out in a big way. I’ve been saying this for years about performance, is it has no kind of backing infrastructure. All the others arts have publications, they have…they have communities of people, they have…and this is changing a little bit as I say this, I’m thinking that the Internet is changing this a little bit, because I’ve seen some performance related blogs, and I’ve seen people writing about things, finally, and that’s so desperately needed—to have an audience that…and not even an audience, to have a genuine community that consists of audience members, performers, and a lot of those people are the same people, you know—you’re a performer one night, you’re an audience member the next night—to have that kind of community is really important. Buffalo…one of Buffalo’s tremendous blessings is that it isn’t’ really wrapped up in tight genres, like what I love about this place is that you’ll find a visual artist whose best friends are sculptors, and they love…you know, their friends are writers and the writers are all involved with video artists, and so forth, like there aren’t those rigid categories and I have genuinely…I have looked for it in other arts communities around the country and I haven’t seen it as much. I don’t see it in New York, I don’t see it in L.A. or San Francisco…it’s a thing that happens that’s unique to Buffalo. Having said that, it would be nice if there were kind of more of a…if there were more focus on performance, if there were people to talk to, like there’s a community of painters, say, that can go and do studio visits and things like that. It’s not really quite the same thing…you need a critical mass in whatever medium you’re working in, and you need…well, I could use that, I guess. I could use a lot more of that. That’s the one thing that I would really want.
HG: What advice do you have for emerging artists within the performance field?
RE: Oh, that’s very simple. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Just go out there, do…do whatever your passion is, and don’t worry about what it’s gonna look like, how cool you’re gonna seem, how uncool you’re gonna be, just do it and let the chips fall where they may. One of the…the performance that I learned more from than any other was one that I did with my friend James Bergeron I was mentioning earlier, where we did this incredibly elaborate production, and we spent, you know, weeks, months, putting this thing together and it went over like a lead balloon…half of the audience walked out on it…it just didn’t work, and I am so thankful for that experience, much more than for things that work really well, because if something works really well people just come up to you later and say, “Oh, that was really great,” but they’re not very specific about it. We knew exactly, you know, what was going wrong, and why, and when and so forth, cause we could just watch it, and there were mistakes that I made in that…in that style of work that I just vowed never to make again and you only learn those lessons if you are brave enough, I guess, to just make a fool of yourself. If you’re still making a fool of yourself after, you know, thirty years, then that’s…we may need to talk about that, but…but no, that’s okay, I mean, try things out, don’t…don’t have so much of the…of the finished product and mind. And that’s, oh my god, that’s another…I hadn’t thought of this until now but the key thing that I hear all the time from especially younger…well, it’s pretty much younger performers, is planning things in advance, is, “We’re gonna do this to the audience,” or “The audience is gonna, you know, the audience is gonna respond in this way to this or, you know, we’re gonna…this is what’s gonna happen,” and you can’t predict what’s gonna happen with an audience, because the audience is not a unified body that’s the same every time. You may have all these grand notions about what the audience is going to do, but when you get your specific audience they may response in a completely different way and you have to be open to what that is. This is more true, I guess, of live performance, but I think it’s applicable to any art form—to not have a kind of condescending attitude in regard to, you know, who’s gonna be seeing your work. Keep in mind that the people that are gonna be seeing your work are at least as smart as you are, if not, generally, smarter than you are, and so, you’re not gonna, you know, this is not 1890, you’re not gonna be shocking them, you’re not gonna be changing their lives by disgusting them or whatever, that just doesn’t…it just doesn’t work. People now and people ever since about 1920 or so just…if they go to that kind of performance, they say, “Oh, yes, I’m supposed to be shocked now.” That’s the only response that you get. Either that, or it just doesn’t register at all. It just, you know, flies over people’s heads. Don’t assume what the audience is going to do until the audience is actually there, and then you can’t make any assumptions, you have to play off of that.
HG: Is there anything that you wish you knew when you were starting your career as a writer and a performer that you know now?
RE: No. I had a lot of trouble figuring out the difference between that question and the earlier one because I would say to myself, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. I think, realistically, the thing that I would say to myself right now…to young Ron Ehmke, is be as brazen in getting your work out there, even though you find it distasteful. Go ahead and do it, it doesn’t hurt to follow through on connections. I mean, you spend all this time making connections so you may as well follow through on them and it isn’t the end of the world to kind of talk your work up. I mean, it’s so much easier for me to be self-deprecating than to be, you know, self-promoting, partly because I don’t like self-promoting people and most of my friends are self-deprecating so I feel right at home with them. But it’s okay, I’ve also…one thing I’ve learned working in the press, which is something that we haven’t talked about but, you know, I kind of make my living writing about other people’s work, is don’t be afraid to talk up your work to the local media because they need you as much as you need them. You want publicity for your, you know, and I know this question should be about myself, but, you know, it’s about other people as well. You’ve got an exhibition coming up, you’ve got a reading coming up, you’ve got a performance coming up…don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and get to know the person who works at the local newspaper, the local magazines, local anything…establish a personal relationship with them and tell them about your work, and again, be brazen about this because they need you…and they also have pretty good bullshit detectors, so there’s a word for your AJ file, but they have pretty good detectors built in that will tell them if you’ve gone too far, and hopefully you have a similar sense of self-awareness, but it’s no crime to kind of say to people whose job is to talk about what’s going on in the community, to tell them, here is something going on in the community that you should know about and that your readers should know about.
HG: Well, Ron, thank you so much for coming in to the Burchfield-Penney Art Center to participate in the Living Legacy Project.
RE: It’s an honor.