II. PSi 15: (Mis)Performance Studies (Shifts & Goat Island)

As an alternative to conventional keynote lectures, PSI #15 proposed “shifts,” performances that also engaged critical presentations.  The highlights of these hybrid performances were conducted by well-known ensembles, such as feminist groups Split Britches and Subrosa, or experimental theatre veterans Tim Etchells (Forced Entertainment) and Matthew Goulish (Goat Island).  Due to circumstance, timing, and jet lag, I attended two performances by Goulish, which is unlikely, since I have long intended to compose a negative response to Goat Island’s final performance, “The Lastmaker.”  In short, “The Lastmaker” was one of the poorest performances I have ever seen.  I do not wish to dwell on a lengthy description of its contents, even less so in order to develop an argument dedicated to systematically “proving” its shortcomings.  In fact, I find negative criticism to be a tedious, and possibly even futile task.  I suspect that any act of criticism depends on a speculative judgment that is subjective and ultimately indefensible– it requires an analogical leap of faith that asks the reader to believe in the writer’s judgment, perhaps equivalent to the “as if” intrinsic to the function of fiction.  Suffice to say, I found “The Lastmaker” to be a hopelessly clumsy, intellectually affected failure, which sought to realize a postmodern collage of incidentally interlinking elements, but which never convinced me that it had undergone the tricky labor of unraveling and inhabiting that crucial “as if.”  Above all, its use of movement was astoundingly amateur: blocky, clumsy, and uncoordinated “dance” sequences transpired without a trace of recognition of the challenges posed by even minimal choreography.

Nevertheless, Goat Island– and its two principal agents, Matthew Goulish and Lyn Hixson– are critically beloved.  They both teach at The Art Institute of Chicago, (which admittedly has been assessed as “overly theoretical” by acquaintances), have been lauded by respected academics (Peggy Phelan, Stephen J. Bottoms, Adrian Heathfield), and developed much of “The Lastmaker” in residency at Zagreb’s Center for Dramatic Art, which evidently led up to their central role in PSI #15 at the University of Zagreb.  I saw “The Lastmaker” in Berlin, where it was invited by NYU’s Andre Lepecki to the inTransit Festival at the House of World Cultures.

The Lastmaker

The Lastmaker

I might be alone in my distaste for Goat Island, or at least “The Lastmaker.”  In a recent review from Theatre Journal, Stanford grad student Rachel Anderson (Stanford is another of their notable critical proponents; part of Goulish’s shift at PSI was organized by Stanford professor Branislav Jakovljevic) analyzes the performance in glowing terms, never mentioning movement:

“Pieces of the Hagia Sophia model, representative of the many transformative properties of space, shifted and blended with the bodies of the performers to remake a different structure out of the old. The components of the Hagia Sophia, the performance of The Lastmaker, the performance group Goat Island: none of these ceased to exist in that final moment of balance; instead, the group constructed a self-reflexive image that transfigured “lastness” into performance that never exactly ends and disappears, but always engages in the process of making and remaking, forever creating newness and possibility” (Anderson).

I feel compelled to insist that the Hagia Sophia model was clumsily forced, the culmination of a long-sought after release from the performance’s tedium and to question the ways “The Lastmaker” might possibly affirm some sort of inexhaustible fabric of spiritual-artistic activity– (this sounds like a critical crap-out, anyway)– but I don’t think can, or perhaps care to, prove this point.  You’ll have to take my word for it.  Despite the fact that other, more eminent voices have also affirmed Goat Island’s artistic acumen.  Take, for example, Peggy Phelan, whose writing I have long followed and admired:

“They achieve an incredible leveling of discourse and sentiment–to use that word again–and of physical gesture. So, Virilio’s words are not any more or less authoritative than the performers’ gestures, emotions, bodies. To the degree that the language fits the gesturing body, it carries a certain dramatic affect at the level of plot. To the degree that it does not fit, it serves as a kind of dramatic punctuation. Goat Island is highly sophisticated; their performances sometimes seem to me elaborate montages of these fits and misfits, the joins and disjoins between the gesturing body and thinking, between flesh and words” (Phelan).

I don’t get it.

The Lastmaker

The Lastmaker

So, having noticed the prominence of Goulish and Hixson at the Zagreb conference, I decided to faithfully attend their two performances in order to resolve the discrepancy between their critical acclaim and the hapless blundering that was “The Lastmaker.”  Much to my relief, in their defense, I gained an insight into what they do well– speech, writing, and theory.  When trimmed to its minimal elements, their technique as performers and individual personalities have a force absent from Goat Island’s ensemble performances.  Unfortunately, their group direction remained affected and clunky, incapable of transmitting their best qualities into theatrical space.  In particular, I was again struck by the odd awkwardness of their movement language, which I had always assumed reflected their works’ forced, seemingly psuedo-intellectual structures ( such a model of the “Hagia Sophia” as some supposedly penetrating symbol, or at PSI, a piece dedicated to a retelling of Dusan Makavejev’s Bergman experiment and a scene from “Sweet Movie.)  During Let us think of these things always. Let us speak of them never, at PSI, it occurred to me that their physical direction actually functions in the absence of transitions.  Lacking a central structural logic, their movement becomes nervously bulky and must rely on rash extremes: stasis and sudden exaggerated gestures.

(After writing this entry, I just found a video clip from this performance on the website of their new group, Every House Has a Door. I entreat readers to follow this link, which leads to a scene in which the actors are mimicking orgiastic rituals from Makavejev’s “Sweet Movie.”  Goulish is on the far right in a black winter hat.  Most importantly, it demonstrates the qualities of motion described above.  Note the cramped stillness, which abruptly becomes an exaggerated gesture, reflecting pointless excess of the orgy we cannot and would rather not see– an example of reliance upon extremes.  Later in the video, they a dance sequence that is consistent with “The Lastmaker”‘s blunt floundering.)

However, this stasis becomes a strength in the context of their controlled vocal delivery.  There were two opportunities to witness this craft and composure: Lyn Hixson’s introductory presentation at the first shift, “Abandoned Practices,” and Matthew Goulish’s staged reading, analyzing a bad joke as part of the Institute of Failure, a project conducted with Forced Entertainment’s Tim Etchells.  (Another sign of externally validated success– I have seen two performance by Etchells and liked both of them.)  Indeed, as Phelan suggests, in person they proved to be highly sophisticated, both in terms of intellectual range, writing ability, and the technical control of their body’s gestural and vocal cadences.  In particular, Goulish’s squirming gestures and slowly stilted speech pattern revealed a format that he adapts for his performers on stage.  It was wildly successful in this series of over-explicated jokes, but for some reason, it seems inadequate on stage.  Is it because this quiet, comically agonized voice depends on immobility– the immobility of text and the seated posture of reading– for its effect?  Whatever the reason, this comically cramped style seems to provide a model for a physical vocabulary that loses its loquacious charm, appearing instead to be ill-advised and thoughtlessly conceived.

Nevertheless, the Institute of Failure had virtuosic moments.  In particular, another Stanford graduate student’s (Sebastian Calderon Bentin) academic discourse on farting– for better or worse, Performance Studies’ definitive encounter with Eddie Murphy’s “The Nutty Professor”– distinguished itself.  However, given the insufficiency of theoretical sophistication to buoy Goat Island’s work, it seems fitting that Goulish cited a Sophist near the end of his psuedo-critical monologue.  For me, especially at the end of an exhausting, four-day conference, such comic sophistry provoked a certain anxiety: at what point does critical discourse serve to obscure the actual experience of thinking?  That is, something beyond language, which has lodged itself in the sphere of representation as it travels in fleeting pulses of affect, hinted at in inflections and gestures between words.  In encountering something that, whether intentionally or not, encumbers the already neglected field of thought, I am reminded of that decisive Platonic decree, whereby theatre was exiled from the Republic, setting the stage for the stage’s long history.  Certainly, in our present moment, in which tradition is dissolving so rapidly, the difference between the Sophist and philosopher has been rendered uncertain, and indeed, sophistry may actually be indivisible from thinking.  But there are other solutions emerging, which do not necessitate adding to the twaddle of professors (Nietzsche) nor to the proliferation of performance?  In my own contribution to PSI, I hope I began to suggest such an alternative: the audible silence of language.

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