UNLESS YOU SPEND your days immersed in contemporary art, the names on this year's Time-Based Art Festival (TBA) lineup are probably unfamiliar, the event descriptions highfalutin gibberish. Performers come from as far away as France and Australia, and from as close as down the street—it's an 11-day invasion of art-aliens, flaunting their MFAs and talking about "process" a lot. But they're benevolent aliens, working at the stratospheric fringes of performance and visual art, and TBA provides a once-a-year chance to explore our world as they see it.
Under the sure helm of Artistic Director Angela Mattox, this year's TBA lineup is one of the strongest in recent memory, anchored by a few high-profile, broadly accessible shows. (TBA's events take place in venues all over town; a festival pass grants access to the entire lineup, but individual show tickets are also available.)
There's a deeply researched account of pole-dancing traditions in the Philippines, and a performance where the audience wears sheets over their heads, like oversized Halloween ghosts. An intimate dance piece is performed for one audience member at a time, while a late-night drag show is guaranteed to transform the fest into a seething, drunken bacchanal. An Inuit throat singer uses a traditional form to critique representations of her culture. A group of senior citizens talk frankly about their sex lives. The lineup is grounded in both tradition and lived experience, with plenty of entry points for the art-curious, a handful of returning artists for festival loyalists, and a few total wild cards for those who like their art on the outer limits.
"Opening weekend puts forward a strong launch with really fierce females," explains Mattox. "There are some amazing women thinking around culture, tradition, and gender." I hadn't noticed it until Mattox mentioned it, but it's true: TBA's first weekend is all about the ladies.
Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq is, first and foremost, capable of making some of the craziest sounds you've ever heard (seriously, YouTube it). Her work is grounded in tradition yet resolutely contemporary—she's collaborated with the likes of Björk and the Kronos Quartet. With Tanya Tagaq in Concert with Nanook of the North, she sets out to reclaim and recontextualize the 1922 silent "documentary," which is famously full of both indelible images of the Arctic and racist, heavily manipulated clichés.
Also on opening weekend, Eisa Jocson's Death of the Pole Dancer/Macho Dancer is the result of Jocson's deep immersion in the world of erotic dancing in the Philippines—including the culture of "macho dance," in which young male dancers provide hyper-eroticized entertainment. Over the course of Jocson's two-part evening, she'll represent both female and male dancers, offering a lens into a world most Portlanders have probably never even considered.
And finally, sound artist Samita Sinha will present the world premiere of Cipher, a full-length piece co-commissioned by Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA) that combines electronic compositions and voice with North Indian classical music.
In 2007, Toronto's Mammalian Diving Reflex brought a project to TBA called Haircuts by Children. It quite literally featured haircuts by children: Volunteer "audience members" entrusted their locks to a pint-sized stylist. It was a terrific piece—nothing illuminates your own biases about what children are capable of like sitting still while one of them hacks at your hair. (At one point, the adorable girl cutting my hair quietly whispered, "Oops.")
Haircuts was par for the course for Mammalian founder Darren O'Donnell, an arts-guru type who's revered in contemporary-art circles for wildly innovative, surprising, socially engaged work. ("He tackles really important social issues but brings so much joy to the work," says Mattox.)
At TBA 2014, lucky Portland gets their own version of All the Sex I've Ever Had, a show O'Donnell's done all over the world. In each city where the show is produced, O'Donnell identifies a group of seniors—65 and up—and spends weeks interviewing them about their sexual experiences: first time, last time, best time, worst time. Ultimately, participants tell their stories onstage.
Finding enough people willing to publicly open up about their sex lives proved challenging. "We had an outreach team of people on it," says Mattox. "Flyers, Craigslist, dating sites, going through community centers." The resulting group, Mattox says, is diverse in terms of sexual orientation, gender, and backgrounds. The Portland show will be filmed for part of an upcoming documentary about the project—if past installations are anything to go by, the show will be frank, funny, and revealing.
Philosophically minded and disarmingly presented, Germinal is one of the fest's most high-profile pieces. (It has nothing to do with the Émile Zola novel of the same name, BTW.) Four performers enter a perfectly empty stage—and begin, slowly, to build a world: They discover language, conceptual thought, and the ability to categorize and name the things around them. Over the course of 75 minutes, the framework of human existence is built from the ground up. Germinal has run at contemporary-art festivals all over the world, but this is its first time in the US. "My colleagues around the country are really jealous," admits Mattox.
In 2013, longtime TBA feature Ten Tiny Dances quietly dropped from the festival lineup, leaving a gaping hole in the opening weekend's prime Saturday late-night spot. Last year saw the bloody, glitter-clotted birth of a new baby tradition: Critical Mascara: A Post Realness Drag Ball strutted in to anchor the crucial time slot. With categories like "Glamor Gore" and "Diva Practice," hosted by Portland performance artist Kaj-Anne Pepper (AKA Pepper Pepper), it's a drag show turned on its ear—sexy, monstrous, and mind-bogglingly creative. Here's hoping it once again turns the Works into a sweaty bacchanal that expands our notion of contemporary performance to include dresses made of Beanie Babies, cartoon monster faces, and hair, hair, hair.
Miranda July's Doing What?
Miranda July made an app.
Dubbed Somebody, it's a service that allows users to send messages to their friends—the catch being that the message doesn't go directly to its intended recipient, but to another app user in the vicinity, who must deliver the message out loud to the person.
The Onion took a gentle swing at July a few years ago, in an article titled: "Miranda July Called Before Congress to Explain Exactly What Her Whole Thing Is." Somebody brings us no closer to understanding exactly what her whole thing is, but it's certainly characterized by traditionally July-esque elements: It's playful, connection focused, a little bit silly, and guaranteed to send twee-haters climbing the walls with irritation.
TBA 2014 is a "hub" for Somebody; attendees are encouraged to download the (free) app and try it out in a horde of like-minded art people.
Every year, PICA chooses a new venue to house TBA's late-night programming. Dubbed "the Works," these venues also house visual art programming and installations. Essentially, PICA makes a pop-up contemporary art center from scratch, every year. Their designers transform the locations into high-art playgrounds: from videos projected large on the side of Washington High School to the installation of two stages and an art gallery into a warehouse in Northwest that was destined to become a grocery store.
TBA's nomadic model made sense in 2004, when Portland was full of empty warehouses just waiting for an art party to liven up the neighborhood. But PICA, like other local arts organizations, has struggled in recent years to find affordable venue space, and there will almost certainly come a year when the pop-up art shop just isn't feasible anymore. (Let's not dwell on the irony that the very organizations that helped make Portland a desirable city are now finding it difficult to survive.) PICA pulled it off this year, however: Southeast Portland's recently vacated storefront Fashion Tech (2010 SE 8th) will house large-scale interactive visual installations, a beer garden, and a club stage.
PICA's transformation of an interior design store into an arts venue is just the most obvious and literal way the festival creates a space for unexpected experiences, eye-opening interactions, and the possibility of looking at familiar things in new ways. As always, it's impossible to predict which shows are going to permanently rearrange your DNA and which ones are going to leave you cold—but there's only one way to find out.
Sometimes you just need someone to hold your hand. Here's a day-by-day breakdown of what to see and when. (Many of these performances run for multiple nights;
see pica.org/tba14 for tickets and details.)
Thurs Sept 11
THEESatisfaction, The Works at Fashion Tech, 2010 SE 8th, 10:30 pm, free
Every year, TBA kicks off with a giant free party, and this year the beloved Seattle duo are headlining.
Fri Sept 12
Tanya Tagaq in Concert with Nanook of the North, PSU's Lincoln Hall, 1620 SW Park, 8:30 pm, $24-30
See "Females" section of article.
Sat Sept 13
Eisa Jocson, Death of the Pole Dancer/Macho Dancer, BodyVox, 1201 NW 17th, 8:30 pm, $16-20
See "Females" section of article.
Critical Mascara: A Post-Realness Drag Ball, The Works at Fashion Tech, 10:30 pm, $8-10
See "Drag" section of article.
Sun Sept 14
Tim Hecker, PSU's Lincoln Hall, 8:30 pm, $12-25
The cult Canadian sound artist has never played Portland before; his debut performance is sure to sell out.
Mon Sept 15
Cynthia Hopkins, A Living Documentary, Winningstad Theater, 1111 SW Broadway, 6:30 pm, $20-25
A one-woman "living documentary" from the longtime performance artist and musician exploring the economic realities of being an artist.
Tues Sept 16
Tahni Holt, Duet Love, Imago Theatre, 17 SE 8th, 6:30 pm, $16-20
The respected Portland choreographer investigates gender and romance through a series of duets.
Wed Sept 17
Mammalian Diving Reflex, All the Sex I've Ever Had, PSU's Shattuck Hall, 1914 SW Park, 7 pm, $20-25
See "Geriatric Sex" section of article.
Thurs Sept 18
Luke George and Collaborators, Not About Face, Conduit Dance, 918 SW Yamhill, 8:30 pm, $16-20
Every year, at least half of the shows at TBA promise to challenge the relationship between audience and artist, but Australian performer Luke George is the only one who does it by making the audience dress up like ghosts.
Fri Sept 19
Halory Goerger & Antoine Defoort, Germinal, PSU's Lincoln Hall, 8:30 pm, $20-25
See "World-Building" section of article.
Sat Sept 20
Chanticleer Tru, Evelyn, The Works at Fashion Tech, 10:30 pm, $8-10
One half of the team that hosted last year's amazing drag ball, this year Chanticleer Tru gets a disco-inflected party-show of his very own.
Sun Sept 21
Chelfitsch, Ground and Floor, Imago Theatre, 4:30 pm, $20-25
The Japanese company that made their TBA debut in 2012 returns with a dystopian show inspired by post-tsunami Japan.