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Memory and Complexity, Goat Island and things that are easy to understand

March 8, 2012

Meaning remains elusive in the work of Goat Island. Meaning does not develop in a linear fashion. The spectator pieces together fragments throughout the work and often a sense of a whole is not discovered until the performance has completed. It may take considerably longer to come to some understanding. Their performance remains incomplete until the process of memory, their own and ours combined, has had time to intermingle, collude and collapse into one; to speak of dreams past and future.

Watching Lucy Cash’s film has taken me right back to the front row of an auditorium space. A space shaped like a Chevrolet logo. Her work is remarkable; for the first time when watching a film of something that originated as a live performance, I feel all the things that I did that first time in the auditorium, seeing and feeling the sweat; acknowledging the presence of persons sitting with me. Collectively becoming and remembering “How we learned to love the world”.

In many ways Goat Island’s performance style is a process of simple subtraction. We start with very little, we make sense of fragments of information and over the course of time the audience is able to identify particular motifs and recurring images, dialogue, sounds and movement. There is no extraneous material in their performance and as an audience we become more comfortable in deciphering the performance and making connections as the piece progresses. David Hughes observes when in his review for Dance Theatre Journal he writes:

The work frustrates when a founding concept or a resolution or a straightforward meaning is sought. Partly this is because in some sense the piece is running backwards, meaning is flowing back toward its source – the founding moment is later, meaning does not flow from it….All their material comes with baggage. Their own and ours.

We are used to processing meaning in a linear fashion. When watching, or reading, or listening, we gather information and process meaning as we become exposed to it. Whilst receiving information we are developing a comprehension of the material and using this new comprehension to postulate on the development of the work, conversation or performance. Goat Island prevent a linear process of learning. We need the whole before we can begin to understand much of what is taking place. As David Hughes comments, the founding moment is often buried within the performance. But does this matter in developing an understanding of our own? Rather it encourages the spectator to formulate their own response to the performance without the possibility of somehow being ‘wrong’ in their interpretation of events. Learning, or understanding, is not necessarily developed through a receptive process. In withholding an ‘answer’ or ‘solution’ Goat Island place the audience in a position of power or authority. It is the audiences’ discomfort in this positioning that can lead to an initial mental rejection or barrier between the spectator and the performance. The spectator has to develop a means of understanding that they are comfortable with; a process, whereby, they can begin to make sense of the work. This process takes time, and for some it may be impossible to develop this understanding during the performance itself as Lin Hixon has said:

To have an experience together, it takes time….You have to let things take the time they need to fulfil themselves

The fragmented nature of Goat Island’s work enables links to be made between seemingly disparate and unconnected images. When a linear process of meaning making is impossible, we try to connect images or sections that are placed next to each other. Whether the sections or images complement or juxtapose each other is, to a certain extent, irrelevant. Indeed, the more the sections seem to conflict with what has directly preceded; the more the spectator has to find ways in which they are connected. At the beginning of a performance the only way in which we can begin the process of understanding is to attach something of our own onto the performance. We bring memory and experience to the work and attempt to fill in the gaps with the familiar. As the performance develops we may gather more information that helps to further the process of understanding, but by this time there is, if we have allowed it, an agenda that we have already begun to form as to what the work is ‘about’. It is impossible for us to put aside completely our need to make sense, when we view the performance we immediately want to understand. The disruption of linear time and order in the work of Goat Island is key feature of their performance style. David Hughes again:

It is our own memories and their concomitant associations that bring the work to life in the moment of viewing.

We are forced as spectators to engage with the performance in a manner which we are unused to, we have to abandon methods of understanding with which we are comfortable and develop a new set of parameters in which to engage with the performance. The structural make up of Goat Island’s work provides a space for the audience to assign their own meanings to the performance. During a post show discussion Karen Christopher was asked how they knew when a piece was finally ready to be presented to an audience after such a long development time, anything up to two years. She responded that the work is never in fact actually ready until it is placed before an audience, and only then is the work ‘finished’. The next time the piece is performed another negotiation takes place with a new audience and so the process repeats itself. The company are responsible for their 50% of the performance and the remaining 50% is down to the audience and what they decide to bring with them – their ‘baggage’ as it were.

It is with great sadness that I will never have the opportunity to experience Goat Island’s work again, the company decided to part ways in 2009. Cash’s films and reinterpretation of the live performances are the closest I can ever get.

There is much to be learnt from the work of Goat Island. Young practitioners, in particular, can take inspiration from the company’s rejection of linear narrative and spectacle; it is ok to make demands of the spectator and in doing so make them complicit in the meaning making process. In taking them to the edge of reason and showing them a route into their own past.

What is special about Goat Island’s work and what makes it so relevant and important to contemporary practice, is the demands and emphasis they place on collaboration – between the company members in the devising and rehearsal process and, crucially, between the company and the audience. Only through honest collaboration and trust is a bond established and through that bond is understanding and meaning shared.

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