Years ago I had the pleasure of studying with Matthew Goulish at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. We met in a cramped, airless cranny illuminated by fluorescent lights, like so many university offices, seemingly antithetical to free-wheeling thought. But magic collects in the folds of Goulish’s clothing. A serene, intensely engaged presence, Goulish understood the shape of my work (though at the time I barely did). His guidance felt almost baptismal, the message: “I see you, and I will help you to become more of what you are.”
Goulish’s own work defies easy definition. A writer and performer, he creates lecture/essay hybrids. Though some reference outside sources, Goulish weaves influences both internal and external into something entirely new. His new book, The Brightest Thing in the Word: Three Essays from the Institute of Failure (Green Lantern Press) is a collection of essays that touch on seating strategies, Dick Cheney, cuckoo clocks, the Fibonacci series, butterflies and old friends.
Our Town spoke with Goulish about failure but not about Dick Cheney.
Our Town Describe the inception of The Institute of Failure.
Matthew Goulish For many years I taught a course at SAIC called The Ethics and Aesthetics of Failure. My friend Tim Etchells, the director of the UK theater company Forced Entertainment, visited one time and we met for lunch. I said, “I just finished teaching my course on failure.” He said, “Tell me about that.” By the end of the conversation he had proposed the IoF as a collaboration between us, to explore the ideas in writing and performance.
OT You write: “To understand a system, study its failure.” Can you talk a little about that?
MG It’s an idea from engineering. Why does your shoe come untied? Usually it is for one of two reasons: either the bow loosens, in a kind of gradual decay, or a lace snaps, which is sudden and catastrophic. But the snapped lace was also preceded by decay of a different sort, of the lace material rather than of the bow’s tightness. This system has two elements – the substance of the lace and the pattern of the bow. The failure illuminates the system. The idea is transferable. The more complex a system is, the more complex its potential failures.
OT You work in performance and on the page. How do you determine in which milieu a piece will most comfortably fit?
MG Performance and writing are very different modes for me. The performance work is fundamentally collaborative, physical, and spatial, engaging the elements of theater, as they say. The writing I do for it is devised for the team of performers and circulates around the ideas we discover together through the process. The writing I do individually, while also public (as a lecture), tends to take more of a subjective direction – like I’m a tour guide taking readers on a particular journey that has a degree of privacy. In that case, the focus is on the words alone and what they can do.
OT Part of your process includes “treating the entire library as a rough draft,” a sort of literary sampling. How did you arrive at that method?
MG I think it was a response to thinking of myself as more a reader than a writer, so when a question presented itself to me, I would remember fragments of language that persisted in my mind from my reading. At a certain point I decided to copy those fragments – analytical fragments, poetic fragments – and write in a way to connect them. My writing became an act of extending other people’s writing that I loved, into a language and shape with the task of addressing a question.
OT When you perform, you reference books, films, performances--what’s your aim in incorporating outside sources?
MG I think of it this way: I have no language of my own. My aim is to process, to coordinate, the various languages that I receive and to which I feel subjected. I want a reader to feel to some extent that I am not the writer speaking to them, but more the interpreter, sitting beside them.
OT In referencing pop or literary culture, do you worry about what will remain relevant? For example, you mention Star Wars, a stable cultural reference. Would you ever cite something without being certain it will have some degree of permanence?
MG I think I sometimes seek out events that feel impermanent, and deliberately try to include them. The ephemeral culture of the moment offers another inflection of relevance to the larger questions the essay explores, maybe especially if it is forgettable. I think writing can record what other recording technologies miss, or even value the devalued. I mean placing something fleeting beside something more permanent interests me for its implied analysis as well as its aesthetic whiplash.
OT Numbers are important to you. How do numbers influence text? What makes a number system literary?
MG Numbers indicate structure, which for me means pattern. Structure offers limits within which I can find creative possibility. I think clarity of structure can make a reader feel more at ease, especially if the writing takes unexpected turns. As long as the container is legible, the writing is legible – the echoes become more pronounced, as in music. Gregory Bateson differentiated between, for example, five as a quantity and five as a pattern. For me, numbers mean patterns. I would not say any number system is necessarily literary. I would say math and writing intersect in the concept of the pattern.
In honor of Goulish's book release, Defibrillator Performance Art Gallery will host two performances at 7 p.m. May 7th. Hannah Verrill and Matt Shalzi will perform a collaborative work, "Matt will Eventually be in Hannah’s Area," after which Goulish will present one of the lectures from his new book. The performance is free and open to the public. Those who buy a book at this event will receive a complimentary, limited edition broadside signed by Matthew Goulish.
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," (Soft Skull press) is available for pre-order here. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
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