One of the aims of the South Waterfront Artist-in-Residence (AiR) program, one assumes, is simply to introduce Portlanders to their newest neighborhood. It's a savvy move on the part of the developers who helped fund the project, and a challenge for the artists participating: The still-developing South Waterfront is uncharted territory for many of us. None of my friends could quite tell me how to get there, and despite a Google map I got lost trying to find the place, headed too far down Naito and had to backtrack, got stuck in an unfamiliar inner Southwest morass of one-way streets until the familiar purple roof of the Old Spaghetti Factory appeared to orient me—it's the only feature of the pre-tram, pre-OHSU waterfront that still looks anything like what it did when I was a kid.
AiR Director Linda K. Johnson nods when I explain why I'm late, telling me that it takes most people two visits before this brand-new neighborhood registers on their mental map of the city. And this, she says, is one of the issues AiR aims to explore: "How do people remap their map of the city to include a place that didn't used to be there?"
Promenade is the latest installment in Johnson's South Waterfront residency series, which brings artists—and, theoretically, audiences—to the newly created neighborhood. Past participating artists have included Tim DuRoche and Tahni Holt; this time around, Johnson is working with sculptor and installation artist Bill Will on Promenade. And... what is it, exactly? "A performance, a gathering, I'm not sure what to call it. It's 'other,'" Johnson says.
Will has created an installation in what is currently known as South Waterfront Neighborhood Park, an undeveloped rectangle of green amid the construction of the still-in-flux neighborhood. Plans to rename and redesign the park are afoot, but for now it's a blank slate, one Will has filled with jutting spires of PVC pipe, topped with long streams of Mylar pulled from VHS tapes donated by Clinton Street Video. The installation serves as a sort of playing field for Johnson's gathering, which she later describes as "part circus, part parade. It's a place for people to come hang out for an hour and a half."
Choreographed and improvised movement will be provided by eight dancers, while vendors will sell lavender lemonade, goat milk ice cream, and pretzels made especially for the project by Fressen Bakery (a Farmers Market standby). Showgoers will be encouraged to move around, follow the action if they like, or just sit and picnic—basically, to explore the project in any way they see fit. Cyclists toting amplifiers will provide mobile sound, and of course, one goal of the project is to use as much donated and recycled material as possible. It's all very "Portland," and whether you read that as praise or criticism is entirely up to you.
On the afternoon I visited, the ensemble rehearsed under a fierce sun. To begin the event, eight dancers enter the space in pairs from the four quadrants of the city, clutching suitcases. Each pair cordons off a section of the installation, defining their performance space with a boundary of knee-height Mylar. All of the performers have read Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, a collection of short descriptions of cities, and each dancer has selected a favorite piece; they take turns reading and dancing, improvising movement as their partner reads aloud. Like much performance art, it sounds ridiculous on paper. In the flesh—amid the sounds of construction and traffic and passersby both curious and disinterested—it's a striking, quiet, almost wistful meditation on urban life bound by the Mylar, which looks from a distance like heat rising off pavement or the flickering of a film projector. "Think of all the movies that are playing in this park right now...." Johnson says.
The project, Johnson explains, is intentionally linked to the natural world as well as the in-flux development of high rises and condos: The show is scheduled to start "one hour before sunset," and to end as the moon rises above the surrounding buildings.
I asked Johnson about place-based art, which seems an increasing preoccupation of the performing arts scene. (This fall's TBA lineup reflects this interest, and includes work by Johnson.) After noting that one advantage of place-based art is its cost efficiency ("venues are expensive"), Johnson says, "I think that's where artists are working right now. They're trying to agitate through their use of space—artists want to work where the people are, rather than making people come to them."