Matthew Goulish with Hannah Verrill and Matt Shalzi at Defibrillator Performance Art Gallery

by Anthony Romero

June 2012

In Molly Zuckerman-Hartung’s The 95 Theses on Painting, thesis number 58 reads, “In painting, the difference is that the accumulated evidence of changing one’s mind is allowed to remain as build-up, as density, or as sedimentation.” Written just this year, these words ring true for performance as well as painting, echoing Harold Rosenberg’s notion of the canvas as performance document, an object in the service of the performance event that initiated its arrival. Painting then, like performance, becomes not simply a place of empathic identification but an archive of activity that encapsulates the event.

Performance requires the document because it refuses linear time, choosing instead to short-circuit any sense of normalizing chronology in favor of a perpetual instant. In this sense, the performance is unwavering. It is both performer and audience who must realign themselves to the performance event, correcting their sense of time and space to fit the new orientation of the performance as it eludes them. This is one reason for the recent fervor surrounding the exhibition of performance documents. These documents allow the performance to hold our attention long enough to make sense of our experience. The problem now lies in capturing the event in order to reveal something of it to someone else.

Like Molly Zuckerman-Hartung’s thesis, the work of writer and performer Matthew Goulish traces the history of the making of the object in the object itself. On May 7 of this year Matthew Goulish launched his newest book, The Brightest Thing in the World: Three Essays from the Institute of Failure at Defibrillator Performance Art Gallery in Chicago. The release of the book, a collaboration between Goulish and Green Lantern Press, was celebrated with a reading by Goulish and a performance by Hannah Verrill and Matt Shalzi. As can be gathered by the title, the book brings together three essays written for the Institute of Failure, a collaborative endeavor between Goulish and the leading member of Forced Entertainment, Tim Etchells. The Institute, which exists primarily as an online archive, aims to “map the face of contemporary failure.” On the night of the book launch, Goulish read “The Butterfly Catastrophe,” a work that explores the Fibonacci sequence as well as the strange circumstances surrounding the freezing death of monarch butterflies in 2002. The essay, like much of Goulish’s work, is hypnotic in its subtlety. Propelled by Goulish’s calm presence and careful delivery, the reading was reminiscent of what Stanislavski identified as the kind of quiet theater experience one finds in the lingering shadows of a performance long after the curtain falls. A recent collaborative performance by Hannah Verrill and Matt Shalzi accompanied Goulish’s reading.

Matt will Eventually be in Hannah’s Area borrows from histories of dance and physical theater to build a hybridized form that literalizes the choreographic process. Andre Lepecki defines choreography as “a mode of theorizing that explores how to invent action.” Verrill and Shalzi do just this. They present the audience with a series of actions whose origins are repeated and revealed through the actions themselves. The performance begins with both performers entering to build a set. From there what follows is a dance with and around the set that culminates in a spoken text that recalls the dance just performed, but in more stable terms. By placing the dance—a performance mode which is necessarily abstract—beside the verbal, Verrill and Shalzi present us with two kinds of theorization. In doing so, they literalize the choreographic process.

When viewed next to each other, these two works activate the performance and its document as a mode of historicization. Verrill and Shalzi produce a performance whose self-reflexivity speaks to the impossibility of fully grasping the performance event, while Goulish transforms the textual document into a blurred form with his presence whose stillness is magnified by the illusion of movement. Each word, each phrase is a precise action that carries not simply the future thought but the unfolding present.

The Brightest Thing in the World
7 May, 2012
Defibrillator Gallery
Chicago