Detail, open storage display, "goat island archive–we have discovered the performance by making it," Chicago Cultural Center. Photo: Nicholas Lowe.


A Question for Performance Art:

What Can One Do with A Past?

by Noa/h Fields


The state of performance art in Chicago? It’s happening, it’s happenings: plural, and never still. Performance art is a fluid form, so it’s no surprise that it resists containment.

I won’t bore you with an exhaustive catalog à la Emergency INDEX, Ugly Duckling Presse’s former annual snapshot of international performance art. Instead, let me give you a few glimpses into our city’s vibrant scene.

Performance art, as instantiated in the gallery context, is closer to visual art, a sort of live sculpting in time that works with the body, site, and duration. Of course, genre borders are porous, and in DIY spaces like No Nation or Oh!klahomo, the offerings can be adjacent to poetry, dance, punk, conceptual and video art, and nightlife. This is to say, performance art is far from a singular “state,” even within city borders.

Nevertheless, I am noticing a trend. A backwards-glanced turn, as several of Chicago’s major institutions of performance art, including Goat Island Performance Group, Links Hall, and DFBRL8R Performance Art Gallery, celebrate landmarks. It is as though Chicago’s performance world has collectively turned into Orpheus. Except this look back won’t banish our love to the Underworld…

Chicago writer T Fleischmann’s gorgeous and riveting new book Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through, a queer blend of memoir and art criticism, asks a question I find reverberant with this particular moment in Chicago’s performance spheres: “What can one do with a past? / What I mean is, what can we do with our bodies?” With its renewed attention on the body as well as on lasting legacies of bodies of work, contemporary performance art shows us new ways to animate and reactivate Chicago’s pasts.


We Have Discovered the Performance by Making It

The Chicago-based Goat Island Performance Group made an international splash on performance art during its stint from 1986–2009 with its emphasis on collaboration, language play, and creative response. The Chicago Cultural Center honored its lasting legacy with a retrospective for which the city of Chicago commissioned nine new performance works in creative response to each of Goat Island’s major works. These were all performed in the spring and early summer at the Cultural Center’s exhibition, which reconstructed Goat Island’s performance gymnasium.


Hancock & Kelly, An Extraordinary Rendition, 2019. "goat island archive–we have discovered the performance by making it,"

Chicago Cultural Center, 2019. Photo: Nicholas Lowe.


A retrospective featuring new work is characteristic of Goat Island’s modus operandi, with its sustained drive to build on performance archives through “response” in all of its conjugations (pedagogic, creative, and critical). Through dialogic response, past extends into the future. As founding member Mark Jeffery commented to me in a personal interview, “It’s not about re-enactment but response: it’s about keeping the work alive not only through seeing an artifact but to have new, now contemporary artists from different media respond to the work.” The commissioned artists were selected by the ten former members of the collective: each member nominated ten artists who they felt were influenced by the groups, and then a vote whittled these nominations down in consideration of diversity of medium, age, and nationality.

Prior to their world premieres, each of these new works were previewed as works-in-progress at nine satellite venues all around the city as part of Mark Jeffery’s biannual IN>TIME performance festival. As a title, “IN>TIME” captures performance art’s rigorous preoccupation with time as both form and material—something that can be choreographed and heightened. But also, to play in time is to play in sync, and in this spirit, the festival orchestrated a harmonic coming together as multiple artists and sites around in the city played in time with each other. From museums to basements, from the established to the emerging, most of the usual suspects showed up on this map of Chicago’s performance art circuit: Links Hall, Hyde Park Art Center, Comfort Station, DFBRL8R Performance Art Gallery, Gallery 400, Red Rover Reading Series, Oh!klahomo, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago, with the commissioned international artists programmed alongside local performing artists. In this way, the ghosts of Goat Island circuited throughout the city, imprinting various sites with its cultural memory. The festival brought together geographically dispersed strands of performance art’s scene, closing the gesture by “coming home” to the reconstructed gymnasium installed at the Cultural Center.


Links Hall at Forty

Links Hall’s 40th season gave occasion to reflect on its legacy as the closest thing the Midwest has to Judson Church. Yes, our very own long-running space for intrepid, experimental movement research, from contact improvisation to post-Butoh to puppetry, Links Hall has been a reliable place for curators and performers looking for an empty white room to incubate new work. Throughout its “Pay-the-40th-Forward Season,” Links Hall donated its space for artists to perform in rent-free—a generous gift to nurture the city’s emerging talents.

The 40th anniversary celebration LinkSircus in March featured a full line-up of back-to-back performances in its two theatres, from the likes of Bob Eisen (founder of Links Hall) and Jessica Cornish, Asimina Chremos, Honey Pot Performance, J’Sun Howard and Jennifer Karmin, Kristina Isabelle, Rika Lin and Tom Lee, Same Planet Performance Project, The Seldoms, and Zephyr Dance. Due to the simultaneous nature of the event, my experience as an attendee could only include a sampling of the offerings. Needless to say, however, the lineup was deep, as were the linkages it outlined.

Look back, look forward: singing, poetry, contact improv, Butoh, and more linked up for the night in a showcase that potently brought together of artists with diverse practices throughout the city.


Robert Walton, Exhuming Johnny, 2019. "goat island archive–we have discovered the performance by making it," Chicago Cultural Center, 2019. Photo: Nicholas Lowe.


What Remains

In anticipation of its tenth anniversary next year, DFBRL8R is turning back to its archive of performance objects, or “relics,” as founder and director Joseph Ravens calls them. DFBRL8R invited Dutch artist Ieke Trinks to guest curate an exhibition of these objects in February. Given the ephemeral nature of performance (which, unless it is photographed or video-recorded, might live only as long its audience is present), an object exhibition is a unique intervention to the problem of building a performative / performance archive.

Moreover, in conjunction with the exhibition, DFBRL8R has announced a global open call for new artist works to activate these artifacts through live re-performance. The call invites artists to experiment with “the significance of material leftover from performance,” asking, “What affects an object’s status? What value does it have when it is not specifically an artwork itself, or not intended to be an art object that stands on its own? These materials are relics that once had a functional or symbolic purpose.” Rather than being put to pasture, the relics are put back in free-play, giving them a second life.

Artists can choose to craft proposals with or without knowledge of the object’s contextual history in their original performances, creating opportunities for resignification of the objects in a new circulation with new hands, methods, and forms. For audience members with intimate histories with these relics (bound to happen, since the last decade is still recent memory), all of the performances could have a palimpsest quality, with overlapping layers of the past and present peeking through the object as it is activated in performance.


Today, Chicago’s performance art spaces are creating exciting new work that revisits what remains of the past. But what’s next for Chicago’s performance art world remains to be seen.


Noa/h Fields is a nonbinary poet and teaching artist living in Chicago. Their chapbook WITH is out from Ghost City Press, and they are writing a book on the poetics of queer nightlife.



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