An Interview with Hancock and Kelly

Jennie Klein (Ohio University), Richard Hancock, and Traci Kelly

For 23 years (1985-2009), Goat Island led the performance art scene in Chicago. In 2019 the City of Chicago mounted an archival exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center in honor of the collective. Goat Island, whose members included Lin Hixson (director), Matthew Goulish, Karen Christopher, Mark Jeffery, Bryan Saner, and Litó Walkey, produced nine major performances: Soldier, Child, Tortured Man (1987), We Got A Date (1989), Can’t Take Johnny to the Funeral (1991), It’s Shifting, Hank (1993), How Dear To Me the Hour When Daylight Dies (1996), The Sea & Poison (1998), It’s an Earthquake in My Heart (2001), When will the September roses bloom? Last night was only a comedy (2004), and The Lastmaker (2007). Rather than follow prescribed narratives and actions, Goat Island developed their work organically, allowing the performance to make itself through a process of dialogue, experiments, and rehearsal.  In honor of Goat Island’s legacy, the organizers of the event, Jeffery and Nicholas Lowe, curated a program of performances, film screenings, talks, and an exhibition entitled Goat Island Archive: we have discovered the performance by making it

Nine artists were invited to engage with the Goat Island archive in order to make a new performance based on one of the collective’s nine iconic performances, with hancock & kelly to be the first artists with a response to Soldier, Child, Tortured Man.1 The plan was to have the artists first present a work-in-progress at venues throughout the city as part of the biannual IN>TIME Festival curated by Jeffery for the month of February. The in-progress performances were followed by the final performances, which took place at the Chicago Cultural Art Center, whose largest gallery was transformed into a replica of Goat Island’s long time home: a church gym on Wellington Avenue in Lakeview, complete with a basketball hoop and recycled flooring. The final performances took place after the opening of the archival exhibition, which ran from March 29 to June 23. The time allotted for the sustained engagement with the work of Goat Island allowed hancock & kelly to produce a performance that referenced both their previous work UNION I-V (2017) and the style and process of Goat Island. What follows is an interview with them about their newest piece, An Extraordinary Rendition.

hancock & kelly An Extraordinary Rendition, Chicago Cultural Center (2019) Photo credit: School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Jennie Klein: How did hancock & kelly come to be involved with Goat Island Archive – we have discovered the performance by making it? Why were you in particular asked to participate in the piece? 

Richard Hancock: We were contacted in the summer of 2018 by former Goat Island member, Mark Jeffery, and the curator of the archive exhibition, Nicholas Lowe. They invited us to contribute to this project honoring the legacy of Goat Island. Nicholas, along with Greg Lunceford, Curator of Exhibitions at the Chicago Cultural Center, had envisioned an epic, evolving exhibition of the company’s archive that would unfold over the course of three months at the Chicago Cultural Center. This was a truly living archive that would not only feature a changing selection of objects, images, and documents, but would also include a series of specially commissioned performances responding to the nine works made by the company over its 22 year history. 

We had first encountered Mark — with Karen Christopher and Litó Walkey — at a Goat Island workshop programmed by Dance4 in Nottingham in 2004. Their work and methodologies were hugely significant and inspirational to us, and I would credit those as being foundational to part of our understanding of our own collaboration and methods for making work. 

Traci Kelly: It may be coincidental but the invitation also followed the Routledge publication Artists in the Archive: Creative and Curatorial Engagements with Documents of Art and Performance, in which our contribution had outlined our particular relationship with what we consider archival work and the operatives into which archives reach.2 We were very attuned to the shifting nature of the exhibition concept and the new responsive performance works commissioned that dovetailed with our own thinking around archives. For many years we have valued the rigour, the devising approaches and intellectual engagement of Goat Island as we have experienced them through workshop participation, as audience members and through post show discussions. Their commitment to pedagogy is phenomenal.

hancock & kelly An Extraordinary Rendition, Chicago Cultural Center (2019) Photo credit: School of the Art Institute of Chicago

JK: Can you give us an idea of the background for the creation of An Extraordinary Rendition? How did you do the research for this performance and in what way did you respond to the first performance Soldier, Child, Tortured Man from 1987? 

RH: The first material that we were able to access in terms of research was a huge Google Drive folder that Nicholas shared with us, containing video documentation from a performance of Soldier, Child, Tortured Man at PS122 in New York in 1988, along with scans of photographs, reviews, workshop notes, drawings, and programs. 

What initially struck me about the piece was the absence of any female-identified bodies on stage — this is the only Goat Island work in which that absence exists — and that immediately raised the question of how Traci and I would respond to that fact. Soldier, Child, Tortured Man deals explicitly with spectacles of masculinity, and the parallels between spectacles of sports/athleticism, and militarization/war. The concerns of the work are as urgent now as they were then.

hancock & kelly An Extraordinary Rendition, Chicago Cultural Center (2019) Video credit: School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Traci and I proceeded to individually map these concerns through to our present moment, exchanging copious notes and videos sketches of gestures and movement sequences, before finally arriving in the studio together in Chicago. We had collectively traced a path through toxic masculinities, privilege, violence, and the hypocrisies of white liberal ideals. Cheerleading choreographies were slowed down and abstracted as stand-ins for a kind of athletic spectacle which is heavily coded as ‘feminine’, blonde, and white. Fraternity hazing rituals were played out as early markers of domination and humiliation. Jackie Kennedy’s iconic costume and postures at the scene of her husband’s murder were redeployed as complex markers of a certain kind of white liberal fantasy. There is a real violence to these markers, their histories, and their consequences, and that violence weighs heavy and is rendered visible in the work. The power of structural violence is often in its ability to remain unseen, or to be normalized — at least to those who benefit from it. The line between privileged and oppressed isn’t always clear — and in this work — no hands are left clean. 

hancock & kelly An Extraordinary Rendition, Chicago Cultural Center (2019) Video credit: School of the Art Institute of Chicago

TK: We were more engaged with extending and speaking across to the cultural constructs Soldier, Child, Tortured Man raises such as the militarisation of self and society and the mechanisms of display and oppression, approaching the work as a source rather than an invitation to reenact. An Extraordinary Rendition reaches into the generosity of the archive rather than its stable aspects. 

Once we arrived on site we were able to spend time with the physical archive, which offered very different tactile qualities, greatly supplementing the digital material. After working through the archival material we began to address the central concerns in a way that made sense within our own practice. We began to send each other recorded quick responses, made in our own living spaces, which in turn evolved our thinking. In the first collective shift to physical architecture we then spent 5 days working together at GEDOK’s ballet hall in Stuttgart. From this time we identified which image-threads we were and were not interested in developing as we approached the crunch devising time at our 6018North Residency in Chicago as part of IN>TIME 2019. From this residency we moved directly into presenting the work at the Cultural Center, fine tuning and inserting new material up to the last couple of hours.

hancock & kelly Excerpts from An Extraordinary Rendition, 6018North (2019) Photo credits: Ji Yang

As Richard noted, we were struck by the absence of female identified performers in the original work and also the absence of the feminine in the narrative. For instance the original work has a section built around the play Mr Roberts, which takes place on a battleship during World War II — an exclusively masculine space which revolves around the valour of war. We wanted to unsettle the binary narrative, including the position of victim/perpetrator and create a space for movement and uncertainty around these codes and their signals. 

hancock & kelly An Extraordinary Rendition, Chicago Cultural Center (2019) Photo credit: School of the Art Institute of Chicago

JK: Can you walk us through the parts of your performance and explain what each part represented? 

TK: It’s quite a complex non-linear work, many threads are entwined in each of the gestures that reoccur with different intensities in different places. We had a set of propositions to guide our making and those themes emerge throughout the work in different guises. Without hierarchy the premises are: 1. Abstracted cheerleading routines 2. Fraternity hazing rituals 3. Amateur wrestling holds 4. Jackie Kennedy flees the scene of her husband’s murder 5. Military torture and amputation 6. Postures of reverence and defiance.

hancock & kelly An Extraordinary Rendition, Chicago Cultural Center (2019) Video credit: School of the Art Institute of Chicago

None of the developed images are illustrations of a single theme or narrative but exist within a milieu of militarisation and violence surrounding western cultural practices. The performance resists explanation in the format of a walk through and operates more through a mingling of ideas with rhizomatic uprisings. I would like to leave a space for the audience’s involvement in how the work meets them and the production of meaning. 

JK: A unique space that copied Goat Island’s original performance home in the Wellington Avenue Church gym was created in the Chicago Cultural Center for this event. Were there any restraints with performing in this space? 

TK: In the Wellington Avenue set we were unconstrained and explorative. An aspect of An Extraordinary Rendition is that the audience are frequently in a deferred space. For example they first encounter the work within the screened section, which denotes the locker room area. A slow choreographed action then takes place before we leave that space with the audience trailing behind us into the seating area. After the following choreographed sequence we leave them once more as the next movement takes place behind them. Other actions happen outside of the designated audience zone both within the screened locker area and in the library table area of the gallery, which is part of the Cultural Center’s furnishings rather than part of the set. Interestingly, one of our initial concerns was how two performers might occupy the seemingly huge area of a gym, and then we ended up extending the performance area. The broader performance space of the Sydney R. Yates Gallery in the Cultural Center came with some restrictions that shaped aspects of the work. We developed a section walking along the fourth storey marble windowsill, which was disallowed by the building manager. We relocated an alternative action to the long library table that was rigorously inspected before we were given permission to proceed. An image with helium balloons became an image with breath filled balloons that drifted down rather than floated up due to a fire department code. But these restrictions were ultimately productive as the adjusted images better suited the moment we were trying to create. What was quite special was the overlaying of two elaborate spaces, the opulence, architectural intricacy and fine materials of the Yates Gallery with the multiple suspended colour coded floor areas as a ghosting of the original nine Goat Island works and an area of raised flooring where the bleachers would normally be with incorporated doorways. It was an amazing feeling to walk into that space for the first time and attempt to process its richness in texture and time.

hancock & kelly An Extraordinary Rendition, Chicago Cultural Center (2019) Video credit: School of the Art Institute of Chicago

RH: The recreation of the Goat Island rehearsal space (by former Goat Island member, Bryan Saner) was such a layered and loaded act; a palimpsest of 22 years of performances, the outlines of their stagings placed one on top of another, and then suspended from the ceiling of the Sidney R. Yates Gallery — a room with its own histories and presences. It was important to us that all of these dimensions be taken into account. We were constantly inhabiting this multitude of spaces and temporalities, shifting between registers. Each of these spaces had their own rules and regulations, some of which we could choose to ignore and work against, and some which demanded to be adhered to. We wanted to honor the parameters of the original Goat Island work, but also acknowledge its present within this other architecture. The impossibility of embodying and presenting all of these histories and presences to an audience in a single space and moment, resulted in a piece that consistently shifted through the space. As Traci noted, the audience are taken first into what stands-in for the locker room area, then to their seats, only to be abandoned by the action again as it shifts elsewhere, always to a different terrain. The frustrations of these spatial dynamics embodied key concerns of the work, in terms of access; who is on the ‘inside’ and who is on the ‘outside’, and inevitably, who benefits from keeping others away from the table? 

JK: An Extraordinary Rendition is really different from UNION I-V, although you are garbed in similar clothing and again dealing with a kind of masculinity, since UNION I-V dealt with coal mining and miners. Can you address the difference between these two works, and if there were any similarities there as well? 

TK: In some respects the industrialisation of production from UNION I-V speaks to the cultural standardisation of gender and the undercurrent violence at play that we aim to disturb in An Extraordinary Rendition. Whereas UNION I-V presented a series of related works over several days, An Extraordinary Rendition is comprised of quite distinct sections utilising different performance zones within the same performance. It may not be a question of a great difference and more about compression in structure. The works differ in the viewing experience the audience have. In UNION the performance elements were made for a standing audience to have a predominantly front view or circular access to allow for movement around a single durational image, or a repeated sequence of images on a shift cycle.3 An Extraordinary Rendition creates a more complicated viewing experience for the audience as a considered discomforting device. UNION was very much a material investigation into coal and its derivatives in relation to personal and cultural histories. It was a very intimate enquiry as we lay in the dust, took it into our lungs and blackened the rims of our eyes and lived with coal’s after effects. There is an absence of matter in An Extraordinary Rendition where we are working with power shifts, acts of searching and escaping to shift the psychological economy between the performers, between the performers and audience and within audiences amongst themselves. In a more amplified manner than UNION and other previous works An Extraordinary Rendition presents the differing physical qualities, abilities, deficits and differentials of the performers bodies which are made more evident by movement and balance sections. 

RH: The structure of UNION allowed for, and necessitated, an unfolding of the work over a longer period of time. The work was encountered by an audience over a period of days and weeks from the initial print, through to the three live works, and eventually the online dissemination of the performance-for-camera images. Although framed very differently, An Extraordinary Rendition was also presented to audiences in very different ways over time, from the initial work-in-progress performance in the crumbling mansion house at 6018 North, to the three performances in the Yates Gallery, to our continued interventions within the Goat Island archive itself over the following week. These were a series of unannounced performances in which we took excerpts of the work into the spaces of the archive exhibit, performing amongst the objects, videos and other materials on display. UNION was framed explicitly as a publication across media, in line with our continued investigations into how different forms of research itself are marked and valued. We didn’t frame An Extraordinary Rendition the same way, but there was still a strong interest in how it could be performed differently as research and as an actual physical intervention in the archive. 

JK: What conclusions can you draw from the experience of working with the Goat Island Archive? What might you use again, and what might not work as well? 

TK: A good question and reflection point. I’m not sure about conclusions and end points— wrapping things up. It was productive to work with the archive as rhythm and texture, feeling its pulse through 22 years— a basement, an office, an exhibition, a response across diagrams, choreography and site, as a way of drawing close to its inner life. Our previous considerations of the archive have centred around what each of our bodies hold as a cellular code, corporeal archive and source to the other, particularly in the Lone Duets body of work and also earlier works that have mingled body fluids. In contrast, An Extraordinary Rendition approaches an external archive through graspable material traces and also ellipsis that I’m not sure are present in the same manner in the corporeal body-as-archive. We have returned aspects of the external archive back to the internalisation of the body, explicitly our bodies, incorporating it into our sinew, bones and fibre through performance conditioned by exertion, adrenalin and risk. We have entwined the Goat Island archive with our own body-as-archive where it will continue to register in new unanticipated ways over time, which is not exactly a reuse but a potential re-emergence. Idiosyncratically, the body gradually degenerates whilst it holds more ‘things’. Over time it will never “work as well”, it will offer something other.

hancock & kelly An Extraordinary Rendition, Chicago Cultural Center (2019) Photo credit: School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Jennie Klein is a professor of art history at Ohio University. She writes about the intersection of gender and performance art, as well as the institutional context of performance art. She has two book projects forthcoming in 2020. Responding to Site: The Performance Work of Marilyn Arsem, co-edited with Natalie Loveless for Intellect Press, and editor of Assuming the Ecosexual Position on the work of Annie Sprinkle and Elizabeth Stephens for Minnesota.

Richard Hancock is an interdisciplinary artist, choreographer, and performer. Working with diverse forms of image-making – including movement, photography, video, and text – he performs embodied investigations and gestural interventions into disciplines of philosophy, politics, and pedagogy. His current methodological interests are in the performance of expanded forms of publication.

Traci Kelly is an interdisciplinary artist questioning the boundaries of self through the political inventiveness of emergent inter-subjectivity. She holds an investment in diverse models of collaboration, which also extend into solo provocations. She gained her doctorate in live art practice from the University of Reading, 2010. Her micro-residency research model Seers-in-Residence was published by Nottingham Trent University 2014.  Kelly is based in Stuttgart, Germany.

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Notes:

  1. In addition to hancock & kelly, the artists included Augusto Corrieri, Robert Walton, Judith Leemann, Jefferson Pinder, BADco., Damon Locks Black Monument Ensemble Performance, Vlatka Horvat, and Ryan Tacata. Another performance on June 14, entitled nine missing scenes in response, was a multimedia event that wove the responses of the nine commissioned artists into one Happening.
  2. Richard Hancock and Traci Kelly, ‘Playing with Shadows and Speaking in Echoes’, Artists in the Archive: Creative and Curatorial Engagements with Documents of Art and Performance 1st Edition. Paul Clarke, Simon Jones, Nick Kaye, Johanna Linsley, editors (London and New York: Routledge, 2018).
  3. For a detailed description and images of UNION, see hancock & kelly’s web site www.hancockandkelly.com.

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