By Valerie Jean Johnson
For the past twenty-one years, from its home base on the hardwood floor of a church gymnasium in Lincoln Park, Goat Island has been slowly, carefully, perhaps somewhat imperceptibly, changing the world—one word-gesture-breath, one performance, at a time. Since its Thanksgiving Day inception in 1986, when founding members Lin Hixon, Matthew Goulish, Greg McCain and Timothy McCain began by simply agreeing “that we would share a kind of ‘impossible problem,’” the Chicago-based performance group has toured internationally, taught classes and workshops, lectured at arts festivals and universities, written a book, lost members, gained members—in its current configuration Goat Island is Karen Christopher, Goulish, Hixon, Mark Jeffrey, Bryan Saner and Litó Walkey, supported by eight associate members—and devised nine performances. Yes, nine. In twenty-one years. Why so few? In the company’s own words, “It takes us that long to get it how we want it.”
Over the past two decades, GI has developed its unique way of making performance that defies most of the demands—and the logic—of the mainstream contemporary arts culture. Combining movement, music and text, the company is an amalgamation of postmodern dance, experimental theater, performance art and something else, something slightly beyond the grasp of any easy categorization. Championing slowness over mass production, focusing on the potential of real bodies in space over elaborate sets and ornate costumes and dedicating sometimes as many as three years to the research and development of each of its hypnotically rigorous and sometimes confoundingly complex works, this company has remained steadfastly committed to making art and sustaining collaboration for longer than most of us can perhaps imagine staying in one place, one job, one relationship. And it is now, after the creation of a body of work that has toured the world and influenced the development of so many young artists in the U.S. and abroad, that Goat Island presents its ninth, and final, project, aptly titled “The Lastmaker.” From tonight through April 6 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, we all have a first and last chance to experience, and to question, what it means to say goodbye, Goat Island-style.
It is immediately evident when reading work by or about Goat Island that they are much more than what one might think of as a typical “theater” or “dance company.” They are a community, a family—so close that they literally finish each other’s sentences, combining and challenging their individual thoughts, ideas and movements to create work that is greater than the sum of its parts; no element is classified as “his” or “hers,” “mine” or “yours”—it is shared, collaborative, multilayered and “ours.” What Mark Jeffrey, who is originally from the UK and moved to the U.S. shortly after joining the company in 1996, likens to “a classroom… a laboratory” where the group is “trying to understand what it is that we are working towards through this process of devising.” I was able to speak by phone with Jeffrey only hours before his transatlantic flight to the UK where the company spent a few weeks touring and teaching last month, and caught up via email with company members Christopher, Saner and Goulish while they were overseas. Despite their unique, individual take on my queries (I asked the same questions of each member), this sense of a collective consciousness and unity was a foremost element in nearly all of their responses. Bryan Saner describes it as “an inclusive art practice, [in which] our commitment to a lifestyle is equal to the commitment to the performances. In fact, they are interrelated and nurture each other.” And it is with the same collaborative nurturing that they look towards ending.
Why end? Why now? Goulish explains, “We decided this as a company early on, prompted by Lin’s suggestion. She felt we could make one more piece together before our work would begin to suffer from repetition of an unexciting sort. I think she felt compelled to force us into the unknown, both in terms of what might come after the company, and what the procedure of making a last piece might produce. I think we surprised ourselves with our own creative exuberance.” Far from a heavy heart, Goulish describes a “lightness and relief in the decision [to disband the company], once it had been made, an escape from habit, a freedom from the known.” Jeffrey echoes the potential inherent in moving towards the unknown. “We often talk about this idea of ‘What is a celebration?’ How do you celebrate the arc of these nine pieces of work?” he ponders. “There’s a sort of stability…safety there. But we’re also wanting to give ourselves a sort of jolt, as it were, as artists, and also to think about… the sense of what it is to go into the unknown… what is it to transition, what is to change, what is to give yourself a renewal from this huge solid foundation we’ve all experienced. It’s a big risk, and believe me, it’s one of pain. It’s an ending that’s part celebration and part [asking], ‘Are you destroying something? Are you saying goodbye to something?’ And all these different emotions start to come up. I think we’re all very careful, and you work together, but you also work alone on that sense of ending… everybody is going through a different journey with ending.”
Describe the last time you had sex. Create an event of bliss/create an event of terror. Why were you in pain in such a beautiful place? Create a shivering homage. Invent an arrival. How do you say goodbye?
This is where Goat Island begins: with a question, a directive, the aforementioned “impossible problem.” For their eighth piece, “When will the September roses bloom? Last night was only a comedy (a double performance),” the question was “How do you make a repair?” Inspired first by old how-to manuals and spurred on by the difficulty in trying to find any such manuals in bookstores today (indicative of the sad fact that, as Goulish says, “The United States no longer repairs. It ‘disposes of’ instead”), GI adopted and adapted the skins and voices of Paul Celan, Simone Weil, W.G. Sebald, Tommy Cooper, Lillian Gish, James Taylor and dogs. Pawing, sniffing, scampering, scratching, growling dogs. In “It’s an Earthquake in My Heart,” from an initial study of immobility, the performance space assumes the shape of a Chevrolet insignia, populated with tiny trees and artificial snow. And from the exploration of “pilgrimage” in “How Dear to Me The Hour When Daylight Dies,” the slender Karen Christopher transforms onstage into “Amelia Earhart, Aviation Pioneer,” in one moment, and the carnival curiosity Mike Walker, America’s fattest man, in the next.
It was Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia and its transformative existence through history as a Christian church turned Muslim mosque turned secular museum, coupled with the decision that this would be GI’s last performance, which sparked “The Lastmaker.” When funding prohibited the company from physically traveling to the site, they focused their attention on the Croatian dzjamija, an architectural structure with a very similar history to that of the Hagia Sophia, which they were introduced to while on tour in Zagreb. During the lifespan of the ornate circular building with its Byzantine dome, it has gone from museum to mosque and back to museum again. From this research, Goat Island has structured a dance sequence in thirteen rounds, with “each round adding a triad of detailed movement,” examining the histories and multiple identities of these “double buildings” by translating the very structure of the architecture into movement for the body. And all of this is achieved in nearly bare space, with a few small props and costume elements accenting the main focus of the work: the performers bodies and voices. They have set out to “construct a last performance in the form of a human foot that weighs two tons and remains in good condition.” It may sound strange, hard to grasp, but that is precisely what makes the work so fascinating. “You really have to see it to believe it,” Karen Christopher explains. “There is no illusion in a Goat Island piece, the special effects appear in the mind’s eye. In our [work], traffic jams, a forest grows, an earthquake creates havoc, a monument burns, all within a small space surrounded by audience. The art of suggestion takes us on a great journey within. And as [the] great meaning-making creatures that we are, we can conjure up vast images within the landscapes of our own minds.”
That “great journey within” is something that GI has been dedicated to putting out into the world beyond just the performance space. Pedagogy is integral to the individual daily lives of the members and to the group as a collective—Hixson, Goulish and Jeffrey each teach at the School of the Art Institute, Christopher teaches in the Film/Video department at Columbia College, and Saner was integral in the development of a family cooperative elementary school in his neighborhood. In addition to the short workshops and seminars the company started teaching 1989, they have expanded into offering intensive weeks-long summer schools, both in Chicago and in various cities abroad. (SAIC will host the final summer school in July of this year.) These summer schools are highly sought-after opportunities for artists young and old, experienced and novice alike, who are eager to experience the company’s singular style of collaborative devising in hopes of taking the ideas and techniques into their own work. In their tradition of drawing from varied sources and media, GI invites artists of all disciplines to work and study together, nurturing and negotiating the very idea of community that has sustained the group’s existence beyond two decades. It’s hardly surprising that a Google search of “Goat Island Performance” turns up nearly as many hits for resumes and biographies of GI students as it does information on the company itself.
Writings by and about the company, their creative process and educational methods have also been collected in a book published last year entitled “Small Acts of Repair: Performance, Ecology, and Goat Island.” It’s a fascinating study of the company through the voices of its members as well as those of various critics and scholars who have followed their work over the years. At once personal narrative, technical manual and cultural assessment, the book is, according to co-editor Stephen Bottoms, “An attempt to mirror, structurally, the workings of a Goat Island performance. As such, it has no single or dominant ‘author,’ but represents a creative collaboration between varying voices.” This multiplicity is a defining characteristic of the company’s life and longevity, out of necessity and by design, finding ways to live and flourish as artists: in addition to those with teaching careers outside of GI, Christopher works as a videographer for Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine and Saner is a carpenter and furniture designer. Jeffrey, who has been expanding into curatorial work, spoke passionately about this multiplicity: “The thing that’s important to me, and I think this also comes from the experience of Lin [Hixon] is what happens in the space of being interrupted. So the fact that I can go into a classroom and see how that feeds into one’s life, or how going into rehearsal can feed into the classroom, or a conversation, so it’s not so hermetically sealed. Rather you are a citizen, and therefore a citizen in a civic way. I appreciate being part of [that] community.”
The Chicago leg of “The Lastmaker” tour is at once a goodbye and welcome back, as it marks the happy return of Goat Island to the MCA, where they appeared in the museum’s inaugural season of performance programs in 1997. The MCA will also host two post-show talks with the artists, as well as a roundtable discussion of the company’s work, led by art historian Claire Bishop. Peter Taub and Yolanda Cesta Curach, director and associate director, respectively, of Performance Programs at the MCA, are keen champions of the company’s work, and are confident that both audiences who have followed GI and those for whom “The Lastmaker” will be a first introduction to the pioneering performance group, will find echoes of their own lives in the piece.
Curach says, “There’s something very significant for all of us in a work that addresses the psychology of ending, and exploring what lasts. These are issues we confront in small and big ways in our work and in our personal lives. And the fact that they are encouraging a dialogue to speak to how one relates to differences in culture and politics and religion because all of that is also meaningful. It’s important to see this work also because [Goat Island has] influenced so many other performance groups, including dance and theater groups. They’re keenly interested in discussing how subsequent generations are creating work that either rejects or absorbs things that they’d begun twenty years ago.” For the Goat Island novice, perhaps the most important directive is in a single word: openness. Giving oneself over to the possibilities of something that has never existed before, and will not exist again. A singular vocabulary. A once-in-a-lifetime gift. The company describes this openness in its collaboratively written “Letter to a Young Practitioner”, saying “the act of receiving, and the acceptance of this gift is an important philosophy [we] adhere to, especially in the practice of one’s artwork. Through receiving one can see many different levels of how to be influenced, to take on others’ thoughts as presents and reinterrupt them into your own mind and body. Once the digestion of the gift has been articulated in oneself then you can begin to understand the nature and the power of sharing. This idea of ownership becomes a wider participation, and one of interaction, circulation and creativity.” And the potential inherent in that reinterruption is something that the members of Goat Island will undoubtedly continue to embrace and encourage, wherever future endeavors may lead. “We intend this end to present itself as a beginning,” says Lin Hixon. “We end Goat Island in order to make a space for the unknown that will follow.”