- The Brightest Thing in the World: 3 Lectures from the Institute of Failure by Matthew Goulish
A prolific writer, performer, and teacher, Matthew Goulish has for decades made works that resemble nothing so much as the chase for a butterfly in a field. The Lepidoptera’s thrilling path can prove both exhausting and joyful when you focus on the unexpected dips, leaps, and twirls your body makes while mimicking the insect’s flight. Catching the thing is beside the point. Or at least it is an entirely different point, as once you’ve got the butterfly you examine it from a foreign stillness, and then everything looks different.
Goulish selected the lectures published in this volume from a series of performances and talks given under the aegis of the Institute of Failure, a performance initiative shared with Tim Etchells of Forced Entertainment. Chosen for their adaptability to the page and their continued [End Page 184] resonance, the lectures address a wide variety of subjects while remaining fixed on questions of death, memory, and failure. More than addressing failure itself, however, Goulish stages his failure to meet conventional expectations. The lectures propose the same difficult bargain that his company, Goat Island, made through their work: If you let this performance fail, you will find something worth more than its success. Goulish writes, “ To understand a system, study its failure” (66). So how do these lectures fail?
This depends as always on how we understand them to operate. After all, how meaningful can we deem a failure if no attempt to succeed at a particular task was made to begin with? For example, if these lectures fail to provide a coherent argument about any one of their many topics, can we label this a failure when Goulish never meant to lead us along straight and narrow trajectories? If the lectures fail to provide us with comfort in the face of death or with a means to combat the loss of memory that threatens to obliterate all meaning from our lives, can we hold Goulish responsible when he never promised this kind of guidance?
In the opening lecture, “Audience Failure Index,” Goulish concocts four kinds of audience failures—“1. Transgressive; 2. Apotropaic; 3. Trespassive; 4. Ecstatic sublime” (29)—and uses them to think about everything from Harry Whittington’s failure to avoid being shot in the face by Vice President Dick Cheney to a stopped watch to the failure of the New Orleans levees. With the first three kinds of failure, audiences fail to meet expectations established by the works they are attending. And yet the ecstatic sublime—which results from the inability to draw a firm line between spectatorship and life—might actually suggest “the ultimate audience success” (30). Goulish then turns to Gertrude Stein to articulate a certain kind of introspection that neglects any boundaries meant to secure the place of performers or attendants. The failure of these normalized limits might mark the advent of an encounter with the kinds of art Stein and Goulish endorse.
Butterflies serve as one of the keyholes through which Goulish looks at death and memory in his second entry, “The Butterfly Catastrophe.” In the shortest of the three lectures Goulish shares a brain spill presumably prompted by a massive “die-off” of monarch butterflies over central Mexico in 2002. This talk begins with the origin story of the Fibonacci sequence, then veers to recent studies on memory loss, the Tulsa Race Riot, E.C. Zeeman’s catastrophe theory, and finally to those monarchs. Throughout, Goulish chases an idea he seems loathe to actually catch, namely the sensation of forgetting death. For while we may know what it feels like to strain to remember, Goulish reflects on how the moments of actual forgetting are by definition those that escape us. This may be why we work tirelessly, like the fourth grade teacher from Minnesota who subsidized a full burial for 3,362 butterflies, to memorialize those whose lives pass from our own.