Pulling the Rug Out: An Interview with Lin Hixson

The following interview was originally published by Artslant on September 16, 2013.

When I came to Chicago in 2004, Goat Island was a prominent feature in the performance art landscape. Its reputation extended beyond the Midwest, across the ocean to Europe. The group began in 1987 and, until its ninth and last performance in 2009, conscientiously developed a collaborative body of performance work. Co-founder and Director, Lin Hixson, since went on with Goat Island’s other co-founder, Matthew Goulish, to form a subsequent performance group, Every house has a door. For two weekends this October, Every house will premier its third work, Testimonium— a piece developed from the writing of Charles Reznikoff. I sat down with Hixson recently to discuss her life before Chicago, Goat Island and two upcoming Every house projects, Testimonium and — their performance archive project — 9 Beginnings.

Caroline Picard: How did you get your start in Los Angeles?

Lin Hixson: I had a loft, 1804 Industrial Street, where we did lots of performances illegally until we got shut down by the fire department. I got my masters degree at Otis art institute in LA. At that time Mike Kelley was working, Paul McCarthy, Rachel Rosenthal, Chris Burden, Barbara Smith: it was a very active performance scene and I got a job out of graduate school as performance coordinator at a place called Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions — which is still in existence.

CP:  You were making performance also?

LH: It was an amazing scene. I made performance there for ten years. I was in a group called Hangers, a collaborative group made up of eight artists and dancers and people with theater training. Hangers ended after about four or five years and then I started doing very large scale pieces in LA, you know with like 50 people, a motorcycle gang, for example, high school cheerleaders. I was interested in bringing different constituencies together. These pieces were very large scale and site specific, at train stations, loading docks. The work was fairly young and out of control.

CP: I know that collaborating with performers has always been a big deal in your work. How did you develop that strategy of working?

LH: The nature of performance is very collaborative and working in a group, makes it especially so. But my issue, and I think what’s a little different, is that after I had been in performance with Hangers for almost four or five years, I wanted to direct. I was a director in Goat Island and I am a director in Every house.

CP: What made you want to direct?

LH: I think the impulse for directing came from my visual art training in the sense that I wanted to see the whole picture. I didn’t like performing and trying to see the work at the same time. I even went and took classes in directing at Santa Monica College. It was so foreign — completely foreign, but the thing that I took away from what they said is that 90% of directing is casting. I have to say for me too directing, even in Goat Island, is also about looking at and editing the material.

CP: How does the Testimonium unfold?

LH:  There are recitations of Reznikoff’s text, except that we didn’t get permission; we asked for permission from Black Sparrow and they denied it. So Matthew has taken as a rule that after every five words the text has to change. It has to do with copyright law —

CP: But then the text almost becomes like an Oulipo game —

LH: Yeah, there are different modes in the piece. One of them is a recitation of the Reznikoff text by Bryan [Saner]. Bryan and Joan of Arc are really like words and music. Stephen has a computer and it will say something like “To Fall Between Two Chairs” and then he does that. He sets it up as an action or a machine, so it’s very much like an engineered movement —in the sense of Buster Keaton I’d say.

CP: From what I read about your LA chapter you drew a lot from pop culture, though I’ve been more conscious of how you draw on classic, historical texts. Testimonium seems like an interesting example because it’s like a merger, almost. Reznikoff is prominent, but then Joan of Arc is equally present as well.

LH: I think you’re right. I mean one thing about coming to Chicago is Matthew Goulish. He is very key. He is a partner in Every house, and Matthew’s interest in unheard history, or texts that are peripheral has a lot to do with these choices. He is now titled as the dramaturg.

CP: Why Reznikoff?

LH: It was helpful to me to look at some qualities that Reznikoff embraced, like rawness for example. I like the anti-heroic (I’ve always liked the anti-heroic) and the testimonies are really violent. When Matthew and I first started, he chose the text and then I responded, he chose brutal passages from the turn of the century. They are testimonies of people who were in workplace accidents, murders having to do with property — a lot of it has to do with western expansion. Immigration. There is something about the brutality and also the lack, in Reznikoff, of any resolution. That intrigued me. The histories I was taught of America are much more heroic and idealistic.

CP: When did Goat Island stop?

LH: We decided to end Goat Island seven years ago although we did it over two years with a final piece. That was very Goat Island. And that was kind of what we needed to do after all the years together. I felt we needed to stop and take a look and reevaluate. I needed it after 21 years.

Change is good. Many people felt it was impractical on some level, at my age to do that, but it was a good decision. It came out of this idea of not getting too comfortable. It’s totally how I have learned to make work. Leaving LA was definitely an example of, let’s pull the rug out from under you. Goat Island was the same.

CP: When you and Matthew formed Every house did you have to adjust the way you were working together?

LH: Yes. Matthew became the key collaborator. He and I really are the directors and the writers, and then different people come into that process. Each project is different, but Testimonium is the first piece that Matthew is not performing in entirely. And this is something for 9 Beginnings, which is another piece we are working on

CP: When does 9 Beginnings debut?

LH: 9 Beginnings is in January at the Gray Center at the University of Chicago. That’s a whole other big project with archives.

CP: You and Matthew were invited to work with two performance archives, right? One at Randolph Street Gallery in Chicago and the other at the University of Bristol —

LH: We’re working with video documentation. Now the thing about creating 9 Beginnings with the Randolph Street Gallery Archive was that Matthew and I saw most of those performances. And they all took place in one room. It’s so fascinating when you get into archives because each one has a particular sensibility, and logic.

CP: Why did you focus on the beginnings?

LH: I have to say, it was Matthew in retrospect (laughs). I was so thankful and I feel like it was so brilliant, honestly, because the archives are so overwhelming in our situation. When we flew over to the archives in the UK last year, we had one week to research and decide what material to work with, and then two weeks to make the performance.

CP: I love the idea that you were using documentation to embody the memory of past performances. It seems like you would end up with a totally new work.

LH: It definitely is a new piece. The documentation provided us with a score. And doing it in 2012-2013 gave us the opportunity to deal with that history in our time, even  when something was done in 1988. The archive brings up a lot of assumptions and issues with people. It’s a very contested, problematic area. And it’s been so mined by Marina Abromovic and so many people who have been working with archives for a while. So it was interesting for us to come into it at a later stage.

CP: Did you like it? Or was it automatically complicated?

LH: Thank god it was complicated! We were asked to do it probably six years ago and didn’t get funding. And they reapplied and it didn’t get funded. The third time it got funded. In that five or six years a lot has taken place around the archive, so at first I have to say, I thought Ooh! We are going to work with archives? This has been done so much. But of course we know all the territory has been dug up already. Once we developed our own way into the material, I liked the complication. The complexity was key for me and I love wrongness. I like it when it feels wrong. When something feels wrong, I actually feel more comfortable with it.