[UPDATE: Two in-person, outdoor events from this festival that the Mercury recommended have been postponed, due to hazardous wildfire air. Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr.’s Grandmother(s)’s Kitchen Presents: Bring Your Own Blanket Free Community Picnic, scheduled for Sunday, September 13th, and Mobile Projection Unit's Against the Current, scheduled for Monday, September 14th, will both be rescheduled. We'll update with new dates when they are posted.]
If you didn’t know that Portland’s annual Time Based Arts Festival (TBA) is STILL ON, STILL HAPPENING, and STARTING THIS WEEKEND, don’t stress. The organization that puts it on—the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA)—didn’t know if it would be possible either, until this past June.
“We certainly didn’t know at the beginning of the pandemic,” Artistic Director and Curator of Public Engagement Roya Amirsoleymani said, via phone interview. “We didn’t know how [COVID-19] would impact the economy or the completely questionable status of nonprofits and arts organizations nationally. We didn't know what the future public health restrictions would be.”
But thanks to Beyond Now, a virtual fundraiser that PICA held in May, the nonprofit arts organization raised enough funds to throw this year's festival. They have what Amirsoleymani estimates to be "a quarter or even a fifth" of their usual budget and they paced the performances out over three weeks instead of one and a half. But it's happening.
TBA: 20 will be mostly online, but will include a number of events presented outdoors or in large enough spaces that audiences can safely distance. So if you’re a fan of challenging, prescient performance art or just interested in checking out a comic re-telling of a Shakespearean play cast with kitchen utensils, here are a few things to look for at this year’s festival.
One artist whose work expanded naturally into the online medium is Philidephia-based artist Jaamil Olawale Kosoko whose approach to contemporary dance intersects with his studies in Black critical theory, specifically Black queer theory. Kosoko's American Chameleon: The Living Installments will occur partly via PICA's stream, and also partly via the gaming platform Discord. Kosoko is unusual among this year's performers because he's one of the few artists PICA wanted to include from the very beginning who was able to adapt his work to fit the festival's new form.
He embraced the potential to view American Chameleon through multiple approaches and worked intentionally to center his installments around Monday, September 21st—the International Day of Peace. On that day, another group of TBA artists Mobile Projection Unit will assist him by projecting American Chameleon into a grand outdoor location. Like all the TBA:20 in-person events, the location won't be revealed until the day before.
Mobile Projection Unit (MPU) may already be familiar to those who've attended protests or community events where MPU co-founders Sarah Turner and Fernanda D’Agostino displayed their video artworks onto highway underpasses or on the side of buildings. Another point of reference could be D’Agostino's jaw-dropping contribution to this map is not a territory, which swathed the museum’s foyer in massive, interwoven projections of dancers in flaming forests.
For their Monday September 14th performance, Against the Current, the MPU invites spectators to walk along the Willamette River and take in three video and sound installations that "map the wide-ranging moods of water as it flows and cascades."
In addition to providing projection assistance to Kosoko, MPU will also project a compilation of short video works—dubbed "samples of recent American history"—which were curated by Jibade-Khalil Huffman and titled IN LIEU OF AN OCEAN (SEND FLOWERS) on a large scale in an outdoor setting, next Monday September 28th. This noted helpfulness and desire to collaborate with other artists is something Amirsoleymani describes as part of MPU's artistic process.
"[MPU] supports other artists in taking advantage of the technologies they employ to make the whole sonic and visual experience of these place-based projects come to life. Nothing surprised me about their recent involvement with the uprisings and community events because they really understand that connection between activism and art. Many artists in Portland also identify as activists and vice versa. Or they see no difference, no distinction, especially now."
IN LIEU OF AN OCEAN (SEND FLOWERS) sits like a centerpiece within the greater banquet of TBA:20 and like Kosoo's American Chameleon, it too can be viewed a number of different ways. If you don't want to wait until the 28th, the installation can be viewed Thurs-Sun in PICA's 3,000-square-foot warehouse between the hours of 12-6 pm.
Another promising outdoor event is local artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr.'s Grandmother(s)’s Kitchen Presents: Bring Your Own Blanket Free Community Picnic and Discussion. It's as simple to explain as: A socially-distanced community picnic outdoors, complete with measuring sticks. Yet the action of attendees coming together carries a sincere potential to be profound. And Stevenson's collaboration with two Black-owned food vendors—Kee’s Loaded Kitchen and Plant Based Papi—sounds delicious.
It's worth noting that all the installations at this year's TBA:20 are free, with the exception of The Who Cares Clock (an essay you can request through the mail by sending in two forever stamps or $1.10 in postage) and the West Coast premiere of Charles Mudede's latest feature film Thin Skin (sliding-scale $5-15). Mudede directed and co-wrote Thin Skin with Ahamefule J. Oluo and Lindy West, basing it on Oluo's life and his award-winning stand-up memoir musical Now I'm Fine. (Conflict of interest note: Mudede is a longtime staff writer and critic for The Stranger, the Mercury's sister paper, and West is a former Stranger writer.)
Being that they are a nonprofit, PICA suggests donations from audience members attending this year's fest, but they're passing on half that pot to social justice and racial equity organizations like Don’t Shoot PDX, Pueblo Unido, and the MRG Foundation’s Since Time Immemorial Fund. At multiple points throughout our conversation Amirsoleymani described PICA as a conduit through which money flows to artists. "Fundamentally. Paying artists. It's what we do," she said. Even as Beyond Now was a fundraiser for PICA, they paid their artists. Now, this festival presents yet another opportunity for PICA to distribute funds to struggling artists on a local, national, and international scale. But that's not the only reason you should go to TBA:20. You should go because TBA is awesome.
I'm not exaggerating when I say that I tell time by TBA, I can count the years. Every year I have some transformative experience in the care of PICA's extraordinary curation. So holding the festival this year feels especially important because TBA is a place where we mark time and right now is a time none of us will likely ever forget.
PICA's TBA:20 runs through Wed Sept 30. To view the complete schedule, visit pica.org/tba.