Artists Share Tweet

Ron Ehmke

Ron Ehmke

b. 1960
American
Born: Lake Charles, Louisiana, U.S.

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.” [1]

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.” [2]

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.” [3]

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.” [4]

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.

 

[1] 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)

[2] 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)

[3] Ehmke/Brose, “The Entertainment …”

[4] Geoff Kelly, “5 Questions With… Ron Ehmke: Writer, Performance Artist,” Artvoice, 07/22/2010. http://artvoice.com/issues/v9n29/five_questions. (Accessed 08/13/1960)

 

Listen to 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.