Morrissey, Judd, Goat Island, and 332 additional contributors. The Last Performance. 2007-09. Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation. Rpt. in The Electronic Literature Collection, Vol. 2, 2011.

The Last Performance

a media specific analysis

A dance group called Goat Island decided after 20 years of performing to do a last performance, The Lastmaker. They correographed a group dance to imitate the dome of the Hagia Sophia, morphing this shape to comment on the morphing identity of the structure as church, mosque, and museum. They followed this group act with a series of three-minute performances that focused on one dancer at a time, evoking some end or last performance.

Judd Morrissey created The Last Performance in response to Goat Island's Lastmaker. The collection of poems becomes the dance troupe. They move in formation. They are archived in a virtual dome, which is modeled after the Dzamija in Zagreb, Croatia. The Dzamija, like the Hagia Sophia, has morphed, from museum to mosque to museum. Morrissey has developed constraints, or prompts, for the six sections of poems in this collection. These constraints were cogenerated with the themes used by Goat Island, or in response to Goat Island, in its last two years of performing The Lastmaker. However, the constraints are open to interpretation, and readers are encouraged to contribute up to five poems, which Morrissey calls lenses.

The collection, in general, is a textual gallery of associations. The gallery is associated with Goat Island's dance, the Hagia Sophia, and the Dzamija of Croatia. The poems within the gallery are, often loosely, associated with other poems within the gallery. Different poems are associated through shared keywords that are linked. These layers of association make the collection difficult to categorize and a comprehensive analysis difficult to establish. And in spite of the theme of endings, the piece gives the opposite impression: an eternal reiterative web of associated works.

—associative poems, ekphrastic poems, and meta-critical poems
—layers of artistic function: literary content, dance performance, and architectural structure
—"a community vocabulary, a 'dictionary of lastness'" (Morrissey) comprised of keywords linking contributors' poems

—an atypical, arhythmic audio loop from Goat Island's dance The Lastmaker
—online social interaction allowing poems to be contributed by viewers
—(external) hyperlinks to Goat Island and pictures of the Hagia Sophia giving historical and artistic context
—(internal) hypertexts allowing the reader to experience the poetry in different ways

The poem here is, literally, doing a song and dance for us. To the reader who enters The Last Performance unguided and for the first time, the artistic purpose may be easily misinterpreted, and literary aspect entirely missed. Clicking on most of the lexia on the home page leads directly into the poems' performance, a dance of words from poems that Morrissey calls lenses, which are archived in the ponderous collection of the dome. The reader may end up watching what looks remarkably like a screen saver, for several hours if he chooses.

Sooner or later, depending on luck and curiosity, the reader may discover that he can read the poems that are dancing on the screen by selecting the Lens # link in the bottom right hand corner. The poems, often cryptic, are prompted by constraints which are cited on the left hand margin of the stationary lens. These constraints are explained in a document linked in the upper left hand corner of all the stationary lenses. This document, called project blueprint on the home page, also explains the construction of The Last Performance, which helps in understanding the algorithmic dance that all the lenses follow, their relation to one another in the dome, and just how these poems connect to both the Hagia Sophia and the dance called The Lastmaker created by the group Goat Island.

For someone with time to wander about, clicking contentedly on one link or another, the reading experience of this piece may be perfect in that the answers are not readily offered. For someone on a time-table, with a short time to see and understand, the reading experience can be frustrating. Like navigating the Hagia Sophia museum, you might be fortunate enough to run into a tour guide on your way in; or you might find yourself shuffled from one exhibit to the next without a clue until you jump out of line to find some divine assistance. And your rating of the experience depends on what your temperament is and why you're there, business or touring.

Personally, I was not touring, and I felt that the writer could have better accommodated the reader. The project blueprint might have been presented cursory to the performances, better informing the reader's agency within the site. But maybe Morrissey wanted a tourist or expected visitors to have foreknowledge of the work's context.

Poems in The Last Performance provide literary content which is poured like a liquid into an algorithmic mold. Although poems with different constraints may contain completely different words written by different authors to different ends, they are contained in the same dance formations. The dance formations morph into a circle, perhaps symbolizing the dome of the Hagia Sophia; which morphs into a swirling cross, a Christian symbol; which morphs into a star and a sickle, Muslim symbols; which morphs into six circularly distributed clusters, perhaps symbolizing museum galleries; which finally converge in a single lump before the next lens begins. The algorithms determine the same basic shapes for each poem, just like the Hagia Sophia provided the physical face for different groups of people who used that space to different ends. On a physical level, I accept this explanation of Morrissey's design. However, on a level of identity and purpose, I am skeptical.

The contents of the Hagia Sophia, the thoughts and purposes of the people who used the building throughout history, more significantly shaped the identity of the Hagia Sophia as church, mosque, and museum than the Hagia Sophia did to shape the identity of her contents. I do not see the same relationship between the poems and the dance. The dance does not seem to take on new meaning with the changing of the poems. Generally, the words of the poem become lost or obscured in the motion and crowding of texts. The words lose their significance as members of a message and become merely objects forced to dance in formation. As a critical thinker, I am dissatisfied with the performance, which becomes redundant and arbitrary, like a screen saver.

On the other hand, is the performance of the poems supposed to connect directly with the Hagia Sophia? No, it is associated with the Hagia Sophia through its connection with Goat Island's performance The Lastmaker. This dance performance is two-fold. The first part is an architectural dance that suggests the architecture of the Haggia Sophia and its changing identity from church to mosque to museum. The strange soundtrack and the algorithmic dance from The Last Performance come from this first part of The Lastmaker. The second part of The Lastmaker is a series of three-minute acts that feature independent members of the dancing troupe rendering an artist's last performance. The poems written by different individuals under constraints are like this second act in their individuality, and their constraints are associated with Goat Island's Lastmaker, but these associations are not always clear. In fact, Morrissey states that contributors "need not be familiar with the work of the company," inviting all sorts of deviating associations to be made between poems. The constraints are fairly ambiguous, too, probably for the same reason, to keep the poems associated but to avoid redundancy.

To analyze the hundreds of poems in this collection could take years of work, and upon examining some of the poems, I assess that such an analysis would be unwarranted. Any viewer can contribute, according to Morrissey, and while all people have thoughts, not everyone is a poet [cue avid class debate], an observation which may beg the question Is this work poetry? I have my doubts, and I judged that some of those independent poems that I read in this collection were not worthy of scholarly attention. However, I believe that Morrissey's contributions, of which there are several, ought to be considered in order to better understand authorial intent. I am not going to delve into each one independently. Generally, he makes observations about the project and the people that he met in Croatia where the Dzamija was used for modeling the Morrissey's virtual dome. Themes of friendship, enmity, community, and endings run through several of these poems. What Morrissey's work suggests is that he and Goat Island were reacting to the violence and hatred between neighboring peoples, both accounted in the long history of the Hagia Sophia and in the history of the Balkans where much of this project was created. Naturally, Morrissey writes several ekphrastic poems about The Lastmaker, notably Lens #1. Morrissey also makes interesting comments about language and language change. (Lens #529 especially interested me because of its implications in this class.)

How do we categorize The Last Performance according to the terms of Adalaide Morris? In its entirety, The Last Performance falls within all three of Morris's categories for new media poems: "hypertextual poems, poems composed for dynamic and kinematic manipulation and display, and programmable texts" (New Media Poetics 20). However, the kinetic performance seems to be a separate artistic experience from the navigation of the stationary lenses through hypertexts, while the programmability of the text extends to both of these experiences. In the performance, the text is computer-programmed to obey an algorithmic form. In the collection of stationary lenses, the readers are allowed to contribute texts which become part of the program, (although Morrissey maintains control over how the text functions). The layers of artistic form make categorization of this piece difficult, if not impossible, unless one simply calls it multi-media art, which hardly does it justice.