Goat Island's The Sea & Poison Credit: Nathan Mandell. Goat Island Archive, Library and Special Collections, The School of The Art Institute of Chicago.

Chicago’s most iconic artistic companies have a habit of beginning in churches. Call it divine intervention, call it convenience, call it inexpensive, but it’s fitting that these troupes come to fruition in sacred spaces. Usually in the basement. Goat Island, an inimitable performance art group that emerged in the late 80s, did things aboveground, however, and initially held shop in the gym of a Lincoln Park church.

From 1986 to 2009, the collective generated influential pieces such as It’s Shifting, Hank, and How Dear To Me the Hour When Daylight Dies, using theatrical techniques and text to explore enormous, open-ended questions like “Why were you in pain in such a beautiful place?”

Now, a decade after Goat Island’s final performance, the Chicago Cultural Center is hosting goat island archive—we have discovered the performance by making it, an immersive semi-retrospective paying homage to the troupe’s impact on visual art and theater. I call it a “semi-retrospective” because it’s very much a reawakened, moving creature—complete with a recreation of the original church space and ten different performance activations. Its curators, Greg Lunceford of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events and Nick Lowe of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, believe the exhibition is about activating the vast archive, bringing it into the now and naming its meaning within the contemporary. It’s a perfect fit for the Year of Chicago Theater.

The Sea & Poison was Goat Island’s sixth full-length piece.Credit: Nathan Mandell. Goat Island Archive, Library and Special Collections, The School of The Art Institute of Chicago.

“It’s movement as poetry and poetry as movement,” describes Lowe. “The idea of text and movement being interconnected is something that crystallizes in Hank.”

During the company’s run, Goat Island players included core members Karen Christopher, Matthew Goulish, Lin Hixson, Mark Jeffery, Bryan Saner, and Litó Walkey. Associate members were Cynthia Ashby, Lucy Cash, CJ Mitchell, Judd Morrissey, Margaret Nelson, John Rich, Charissa Tolentino, and Chantal Zakari. A Chicago roster if there ever was one. Contemporaneous with the emerging cultures of AIDS activism and Riot Grrrl, Goat Island possessed a distinctly punk edge, found in their use of specific music, their DIY resourcefulness, and the zine-aesthetics of their publication assets.

“Going back in time has extended the archive beyond itself,” says Lunceford. “Conversations with artists around the world have started new conversations between artists. In a way, it’s given birth to another type of archive.”

“The initial concepts for the exhibition were based on the ideas of ripples and echoes. We knew from the beginning that looking at the archive was just another piece in the history of Goat Island,” Lowe adds. “There are lots of people out there who’ve been influenced, who to this day say, ‘Goat Island changed my life.’ Something was informed in their work that came out of the experience of either doing a workshop or seeing a performance. One of the important things for us has been reflecting those kind of ripples.”

The church gym that served as Goat Island’s rehearsal space has been recreated at the Chicago Cultural Center.Credit: Courtesy City of Chicago

Performance art is a genre that resists documentation. But Goat Island’s diligent use of photo, video, and new printing techniques — digital forms like Xerox that allowed for speedy reproduction — resulted in an enormous archive. Many of these pieces are on display at the Cultural Center.

“With Hank, they started to produce more complicated printed material. It’s text-rich. It’s sharing detail,” Lowe says. “Somebody got an early Mac, and it really started to change the visual presentation.”

In that respect, the gallery is also a comment on the relationship between performance and technology—or the body and the disembodied.

“I wanted to make sure the exhibition showed this whole technological narrative,” Lowe says. Many of the show’s moments highlight the circular nature of media use—there’s no such thing as true obsolescence when old media is constantly becoming new media. Take for example the setup of U-matic tapes comprising a timeline along the entrance. “It goes through CDs, floppy discs, slides, different kinds of photo formats.”

Such a comprehensive archive is a rarity for artmakers and institutions at the end of the century. So much information was lost as storage shifted from analog to digital.

“It’s now well-known that digital evaporates. The archival materials suddenly disappear,” Lowe says.

“We’re looking at the technology available in the time period,” Lunceford adds. He says that the exhibition will evolve as time passes, with improved tech to come in and replace the older modes, reflecting the narrative arc of Goat Island and how it engaged with new practices. In conjunction with these rotating media, performance artists impacted by Goat Island have been asked to come in with new pieces that respond to the troupe’s historic works. It’s about forming a larger discourse that reaches towards the contemporary and gives the future a living archive to work with.

No man is an island, after all.  v