TBA Is Happening

Covering the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s annual Time-Based Art (TBA) Festival always feels like a fever dream—a concentrated onslaught of beauty, connection, abjection, and the totally bizarre that defies easy description... but we try anyway. Here’s what it’s been like so far. TBA continues through Sunday. You should absolutely go.

Dohee Lee

Dohee Lee is influenced by indigenous Korean shamanism, a female-led form of spirituality that has survived for thousands of years despite the best efforts of Confucianism, Christian missionaries, and Japanese colonists to stamp it out (it was even outlawed in Korea in the 1970s). Its continued practice is one of both spirituality and resistance.

Lee, a musician who was born and raised in South Korea but now lives in Oakland, takes the idea of “Mu” (roughly, Korean for “shaman”), and builds on it. Using small handgrips, she wirelessly alters her audio, hitting a different level or loop with each flick of a finger. Combined with her drumming, vocals, and movement, it’s riveting. Using the magic of her invisibly wired hands, she builds up a cacophony of sound, until one woman onstage has filled a theater with the voices of thousands.

For the final part of her TBA performance, Lee emerged to the beat of a powerful drum, dressed in a skirt swirling with colors and bells. For the first time, she addressed the audience directly. “The mountain is on fire,” she said, sounding genuinely distressed. “Villages are under water.”

We all knew what she meant. She spoke to us as a performer, but she was also channeling something much bigger. Now backed by about a dozen local artists with drums, she came out into the audience as the beat continued to build, energy filling the Winningstad Theater. “Stand up,” she implored us. “You have to stand up, to not be silent.”

Back onstage, still swirling, still building amid the thumping rhythm, she and her backing drums began to circle, and welcomed the audience to join. Instead of the expected hesitancy that often comes with forced audience participation, people immediately began streaming onto the stage, until it felt like almost half the theater was empty.

We circled to the same pulse, the stage thumping with the steps of dozens of bodies Lee had energized. “This is your community, Portland!” she said, never stopping the beat. KJERSTIN JOHNSON

Genesis Breyer P-Orridge

Without question, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge was the perfect choice to kick off TBA. The artist has spent nearly five decades challenging perceptions of what art is through their work with COUM Transmissions, proto-industrial outfit Throbbing Gristle, and the ever-morphing Psychic TV. In recent years, P-Orridge has been preaching the gospel of pandrogyny, or the removal of all gender classifications through, as they put it, “redefining and rebuilding yourself from the found up.” In a time when transgender people have gained increased mainstream acceptance, it was a very welcome message from one of the community’s loudest advocates.

Much of P-Orridge’s performance had the tone of a motivational speech or a deliciously filthy sermon. The chief message was one of self-actualization, a way to break down the programming we’ve been subjected to as children and young adults and accept that life as we know it is an illusion. P-Orridge drove these ideas home in the mode of Allen Ginsberg, repeating key phrases over and over with slight variations and, at times, breaking into bits of song. If these pieces occasionally veered into bumper-sticker statements like “DNA spelled backwards is 'and’,” they made up for it through simple cheer-inducing calls to “destroy gender” and “wage war on all binary systems.” ROBERT HAM

They, Themself and Schmerm

Before Becca Blackwell’s solo show They, Themself and Schmerm, the audience was asked to raise our hands if we’d been to a TBA performance before, if we’d been to Artists Repertory Theatre, and if we’d seen a Frontier series performance. It was due to these combined efforts that Artists Rep was able to host They, Themself, and Schmerm, trans actor/writer Blackwell’s one-person show about drug abuse, sexual molestation, and their gradual discovery of their trans identity. And it ended up being important later.

They, Themself and Schmerm opened with a short film intro, a direct parody of Corey Haim’s 1989 straight-to-video documentary Me, Myself and I. Blackwell recreated shots of Haim floating in a pool, but instead of floating sensually on an alligator, Blackwell floated sensually on an ice cream sandwich—then boyishly pretended to eat it. It was a mixture of caricature and loving emulation. In their show notes, Blackwell writes that they felt the film spoke to them in an unusually strong way. It isn’t just that Blackwell and Haim are both charming, nor that they share cool, masculine looks. Me, Myself and I resonated with Blackwell because Haim was a survivor of childhood sex abuse, he was an actor, and due to drug abuse, he eventually died. None of those details made it into Haim’s puff-piece documentary. Despite the documentary’s name, very little of who he was truly appears. In They, Themself and Schmerm, Blackwell does the opposite, delving deep into their trauma, between arm curls and conversational wall-leaning. Blackwell’s piece asks if an exploration like this can be funny. Can all this happen in an hour and can the person at the center still be cute and casual?

Blackwell acts with their whole body and turns on a comedic dime, plunging from hilarity to stark reality. The sudden transition from an intense and morally ambiguous story about Blackwell’s mother to an energetic “CAN YOU COUNT, SUCKAS? Can you COUNT?” made me jump. “I say the future is ours, if you can count!” Blackwell shouted, then had to backtrack and briefly provide context for the speech from the 1979 film The Warriors, in which the toughest gang leader attempts to unite all of New York’s gangs so they can outnumber the police. Portland: not as obsessed with The Warriors as Blackwell thought.

It became obvious Blackwell was trying to end on a high note and perhaps unintentionally synced up with the administrative questions we’d received before the show began: We were people from a variety of backgrounds, brought in by a variety of interests, packing a theater to see a show about surviving abuse and the trans experience. By that same measure, all of Blackwell’s experiences made them the person they are today—a person with a playful, insightful solo show. “Can you count?” Blackwell asked. “The future is ours if you can count.” We can add all these small things together to make something strong. It felt a little slapped-on, but not untrue—and sometimes with TBA, you have to do some of the work yourself. I went into They, Themself and Schmerm expecting Blackwell to attempt to summarize their trans experience, but instead, Blackwell opened their story up, until the audience could fit inside with them. SUZETTE SMITH

Critical Mascara: A Post-Realness Drag Extravaganza

Wearing a swoopy blue mermaid wig, performance artist Pepper Pepper kicked off the final year of TBA’s annual drag show, Critical Mascara, by thanking outgoing PICA Artistic Director Angela Mattox for being “the first person to say yes,” adding, “I’m very full and empty at the same time, which is sexual and morose and precious, just like all of you.”

Each performer who took to the runway—from Faun Dae’s appearance in what looked like Carrie Bradshaw’s naked dress from Sex and the City to Daniel Giron’s charismatic gum-chewing—brought such energy and grace that it was impossible to look away. Sugarpill spat up glitter, and we got to see Carina Borealis’ self-stapling galactic drag practice. There were pirouettes and perfume dousings and high kicks in thigh-high boots. Drag clown Carla Rossi opened her set with Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” then stripped off her orangey jumpsuit to reveal black fringe and some very welcome Satanic messages projected on the screen behind her: “Burn it all down,” “Decolonize yourself,” “Liberate POC.”

There were so many beautiful expressions and rejections of gender and so many straight-up amazing outfits, all with an undertone of political defiance—made explicit in one unforgettable performance set to 20 Fingers’ “Short Dick Man” that included projections of short dicks throughout history, including Napoleon, Hitler, Steve Bannon, and Donald Trump. It was cathartic.

“I am grieving... we need more of you in the fucking world,” said Pepper toward the end of the show. “It’s together, not alone, that we are going to withstand the coming storm. You don’t need my permission, but you have it to go create... be with each other.”

The show didn’t end until well after midnight, and when it did, balloons fell from the ceiling and the runway and floor were absolutely covered in glittery strips of confetti. As I left the venue, the crowd felt energized and full of palpable joy, and I thought of Pepper Pepper’s words: “Pierce through the bullshit and find the love, honey.” MEGAN BURBANK

TBA Review: Britt Hatzius’s Blind Cinema is Not For Child-Hating Roald Dahl Villains

Hearing an eight-year-old describe a film is hilarious.
Hearing an eight-year-old describe a film is hilarious. Britt Hatzius

The setup for Britt Hatzius’s Blind Cinema, which ran throughout PICA’s TBA:16, seems to me the sort of thing that would either strongly appeal or appall. The event entails experiencing a film blindfolded while a child sitting behind you describes what’s happening on the screen, whispering their observations into a funnel pressed against your ear. Obviously, if you are a child-hating Roald Dahl villain, this would not be the performance art event for you. And you would be missing out, because hearing an eight-year-old describe a film is hilarious.

At the Hollywood Theatre, where these performances ran, I filed into the front row and dutifully tied the blindfold around my eyes. Losing this dominant sense, it’s easy to tune into the sounds around you, and soon there is a soft rumble as local schoolchildren aged 8-11 file into seats behind the audience members. Then there is the sound of warm pops and crackles of old movie film, and the anticipation of being transported into a movie world takes over.

Only—you’re not about to be transported.

BLIND CINEMA from Brittski on Vimeo.

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TBA Review: Grief and Humor in Mohamed El Khatib's Finir en beauté

French Moroccan author and director Mohamed El Khatib
French Moroccan author and director Mohamed El Khatib Zirlib Collective

Amid all the spectacle and exhibition of TBA, the description of French Moroccan author and director Mohamed El Khatib’s performance stood out to me for its dry simplicity. The promotional material made no mention of stagecraft or costumes or frenetic display. This was a lecture-performance involving family history and a variety of documents. My inner archivist urged me on.

In Finir en beauté, El Khatib uses administrative documents, notes, emails, texts, fiction, and nonfiction, to discuss his mother’s death, and through this story, to examine the way we grieve and how we remember. The story of a parent’s death is as common as it is bewildering, and El Khatib's tale will feel familiar to anyone who has spent time bedside with a loved one who is terminally ill. His mother's death from liver disease is not extraordinary, but El Khatib’s observation and gift for narrative allows him to tease out the subtle particularities of his experience—both the absurdly humorous and heartbreakingly tragic—to deeply moving effect. ("In the particular lies the universal.")

The props and production details were kept minimal: The stage at the Lincoln Hall Boiler Room Theatre at PSU was simply arranged with a television, a black wall onto which translations of El Khatib's talk (conducted in French) were projected, and a small table on which sat a video camera, some prayer beads, notebooks, and papers. El Khatib arrived onstage and began with an understated "Bonsoir." When the audience responded, he joked that if everyone spoke French, he could forego the English captions behind him.

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TBA Reviews: She's In Parties Was Not Much Of A Party After All

Outside of the installations in the space, the live performances often felt like they were getting swallowed up by the huge room.
Outside of the installations in the space, the live performances often felt like they were getting swallowed up by the huge room. Briana Cerezo

The chatter of this year's TBA Fest kept returning to the subject of the 16,000-square-foot space in NE Portland recently gifted to PICA rent-free by an anonymous patron. Outside the building, which housed The Works events as part of this year's festival, PICA Artistic Director Angela Mattox positively glowed with excitement as she talked about the possibilities for art events and installations there.

That certainly bodes well for the future of TBA and PICA. At present, however, the space hasn't come near its full potential yet. Outside of the installations in the space, the live performances often felt like they were getting swallowed up by the huge room that housed them. This was clearer than ever during the closing night event: She's In Parties, a concert organized by musician Shannon Funchess.

With zero fanfare or introduction, a parade of short sets kept beginning and ending. Were it not for the plumes of dry-ice smoke filling the room and the purple and red lights coming from the stage, no one would have really known that there was a show happening. It didn't help that, being the big party to round out the festival, the crowd within the big concrete walls of The Works building was more interested in talking and drinking than dancing. Nor was it favorable to really listen to the music unless you were parked right by the stage. The poor acoustics swallowed up most of the sound otherwise.

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TBA Review: Watching Grown Men Juggle in Alessandro Sciarroni’s UNTITLED_I will be there when you die

Alfredo Anceschi

Let’s be be honest: When one thinks about contemporary performance art, one does not immediately jump to juggling. And yet, in a field that seems to have exhausted the use of microphone as character, and nudity as truth, an earnest piece symbolizing life’s journey through hurled objects isn’t so out there upon further inspection.

UNTITLED_I will be there when you die marks the return of Italian Artist Alessandro Sciarroni as he continues the performance trilogy that he started with FOLK-S Will you still love me tomorrow? (TBA:15), a piece that deconstructed folk dancing to its bare core, to unravel life’s repetitions. Working in a similar vein, Sciarroni takes on the act of juggling, presenting the activity plainly, without spectacle, perhaps as a way of showing life’s successes and failures in each caught or dropped object.

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TBA Review: Pondering Desire With Allie Hankins and Her "Fuck Machines"

Allie Hankins performs a love dance for a member of the audience.
Allie Hankins performs a love dance for a member of the audience. Suzette Smith

My introduction to Allie Hankins as a performer was her 2012 TBA dance Like A Sun That Pours Forth Light But Never Warmth where she quietly covered herself in gold leaf for an extended period of time then leapt unbelievably—half nude and strong—for another era to a rampaging orchestral score of Bolero. It was breathtaking. So it’s also incredible to see Hankins show us another character four years later who is so different from that incredible light, a wry Janeane Garofalo '90s stand-up comic persona—with some slam poet added for good measure—who always seems just a breath away from fellating her microphone.

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TBA Review: Amenta Abioto Nearly Achieves Transcendence

Shes connecting threads of experimental, soul, and gospel music in novel ways and imbuing her work with a deep political savvy and emotional impact.
She's connecting threads of experimental, soul, and gospel music in novel ways and imbuing her work with a deep political savvy and emotional impact. Briana Cerezo

The setting for Amenta Abioto's TBA performance on Wednesday night was immediately striking. A table was set in the center of the main room within PICA's new space on NE Hancock. Draped over the top was a colorful cloth with an array of food and a few pieces of sound equipment. And the whole thing was bathed in the glow of a single light that projected images of the moon and various abstract shapes. As the lights in the room started to go out, the mood promised something equally dramatic and bold.

Abioto didn't get quite to that level, but she certainly came close. For her hour-long-plus set, she did a lot: building songs out of layered vocal loops recorded in the moment, reading a bit of poetry from a small spiral-bound notebook, losing herself in dance around the table, sharing a piece of pie with her sister Intisar, and even having a bit of a banana to regain some strength after one particularly intense song.

Like most of Abioto's live displays, it was formless with her spirit and mood driving the direction of the evening. If that meant taking a moment to burn a bit of sage and walk around the table, that's what was going to happen. That also meant that it was difficult to remain immersed in the presentation. And little things kept happening to remind us how extemporaneous it all was.

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TBA Preview: Repurposed Nostalgia in Mechanics Laid Bare

Suzette Smith

Tonight, TBA presents Mechanics Laid Bare a one-time-only collaboration between Portland non-profit cinema art collective the Cinema Project and local composer Matt Carlson. I got a chance to see their practice and talk about the project a few nights ago in a darkened Old Town loft where they were rehearsing.

Carlson sat near the back with a table full of flickering synth equipment. Heather Lane, Mia Ferm, and Melinda Kowalska of the Cinema Project were moving around a long, low table filled with small projectors. They were of the reel-to-reel variety, the size of old classroom AV equipment. A large rectangle of amber ocean water rippled on the screen, looping and fluttering along with the projector’s own flickering light. Michael McManus (also of Cinema Project) walked back and forth between Carlson, the projectors, and a soundboard he was using to mix newsreels on the film strips in with the space-like sounds Carlson was creating. So that was rad as hell.

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TBA Review: The Effervescent Spirit of AU and the Camas High School Choir

It was the most life-affirming night of music Ive experienced in some time.
It was the most life-affirming night of music I've experienced in some time. Briana Cerezo

Luke Wyland's music, primarily written for his band AU, has always been deeply felt work. Even at their most bombastic and buoyant, with both he and drummer Dana Valatka creating ground-shaking rumbles, the emotions in each song are never far from the surface, and they're impossible to ignore.

That feeling was only trebled on Wednesday night when Wyland presented new material and versions of some of his best AU compositions that featured the singers of the Camas High School Choir as part of his musical palette.

Wyland began working with the ensemble and their director Ethan Chessin during the last school year, guiding them through this material and the minutiae of the music industry. It all culminated in a performance at Yale Union last April that was so well-received and much talked about that it's being repeated at TBA this year.

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TBA Review: Unpacking “Otherness” in Carlos Motta’s Deseos / رغبات

From <i>Deseos</i>
From Deseos

When it comes to TBA—and art in general—I find that one can measure the resonance of an artistic work by the amount of questions it leaves you with. That’s not to say questions that come from confusion or misinterpretation of a piece, but rather thoughts that prompt a viewer to ask questions of themselves, their surroundings, or their institutions. Carlos Motta & Maya Mikdashi’s Deseos / رغبات (Desires) left me with a lot of questions. More on that later.

This short film is the result of a collaboration between Filmmaker Carlos Motta and his co-screenwriter Maya Mikdashi as they unpack and explore the lives of Martina and Nour, two characters (or one could say historical subjects) who lived in the 19th century and personally dealt with conflicts of gender, sexuality, and society’s views of the sexual body. According to Motta and Mikdashi’s research (presented on Motta’s website and also in a dramaturgical packet given to audience members at the screening) Martina was prosecuted by the colonial court of Colombia for being a “hermaphrodite” when she was accused of having an “unnatural body” by her then-lover. In Beirut, Nour faces similar societal and cultural adversity when she is forced to marry the brother of her female lover when they are caught in the act by her own mother.

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TBA Review: Royal Osiris Karaoke Ensemble's Stealthy Mindfulness and Toxic Masculinity

Yes, thats Elliot Rodger in the middle, embodying that reddest of red flags: Adult men who call women girls, and cant say the word without a verbal sneer.
Yes, that's Elliot Rodger in the middle, embodying that reddest of red flags: Adult men who call women "girls," and can't say the word without a verbal sneer. PICA via Flickr

In 2014, Elliot Rodger killed six people and injured 14 near the University of California at Santa Barbara before killing himself. It was later proven to be an attempt on Rodger's part to punish women for rejecting him and other men for having relationships with women. Since then, Rodger's become something of a symbol for toxic masculinity—unchecked feelings of entitlement to women's bodies and attention that leads to everything from street harassment to murder—and that was enough to give me pause about attending the west coast premiere of Royal Osiris Karaoke Ensemble's The Art of Luv (Part I): Elliot at TBA:16. It's a performance that puts Rodger's manifesto of hatred towards women—or, as he puts it, "girls"—front and center.

But context is everything, and what could have been horrifying becomes a much more nuanced meditation on desire, gender, capitalism, and the way a fractured, dysfunctional idea of romantic love is commodified in our culture. Oh, and it's quite literally a meditation: Audience members were welcomed into Reed's Black Box Theatre by an attendant wearing a white robe and handing warm, lavender-scented towels out of a small white cooler. Inside, the theater was full of ritualistic detail: small tea lights lining a stage surrounded by cushions, a projection setup, and more white-clad figures wearing golden laurel crowns and playing instruments. The stage was altar-like, but where you'd expect to see a statue of a stone Buddha or blue-veiled Virgin Mary, there were two VHS tapes of Titanic.

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TBA Review: Disco Nostalgia and Wildwood Fantasies in Meg Wolfe's New Faithful Disco

A queer-love power trio.
"A queer-love power trio." PICA via Flickr

Pulsing with disco nostalgia and wildwood fantasies, Meg Wolfe’s PICA co-commissioned TBA:16 piece New Faithful Disco made its Portland debut at the Winningstad Theatre this weekend. The modern dance performance was a single, uninterrupted work with curiously contrasting motifs and a compelling musical framework—who doesn’t love a little funk?

Three dancers—taisha paggett, Marbles Radio, and Wolfe—awaken and crawl out from under a pile of large homemade quilts toward bright light. Their movements are trance-like in unison. Soon they have rolled up their blankets and hit the disco dance floor. Throughout the performance, they shift in and out of sync with one another. Their motion is expended in a variety of forms: executing chores like folding and putting away their quilts, a grammar of cool disco dance moves and gestures, or else more free-form expressions, from rapturous to writhing. Similarly, the music cycles from nature recordings to cacophonous sounds like slipping or rewound audiotape, resolving finally into an irresistible funky beat, only to dissolve again.

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TBA Review: When Watching One Part of Morgan Thorson’s Still Life, Another Part Passes You By

Dirty walls, dancers moving in unison, check marks happening on the back wall.
Dirty walls, dancers moving in unison, check marks happening on the back wall. Suzette Smith

Since Friday, Morgan Thorson’s Still Life has been playing at the Portland Art Museum, on the second floor of the Modern and Contemporary Art Building for five hours at a time. Thorson has 10-plus dancers working with her, running through an ensemble piece that acts out “the death of choreography” by erasing elements of a piece as the performers cycle through it.

I arrived on a Sunday, near the middle. Museum chairs lined the room’s edges and seven dancers stood illuminated in lavender light. Music playing sounded curiously like the underlying hook of Lil Wayne’s Lollipop. The three sets of dancers ran repetitive movements with partners, including but not limited to: brisk walking, slamming into the wall, erratic gyrations that (depending on the dancer) approached twerking, slowly raising an appendage, treating a partner’s appendage like a ball of light at a rave, synchronized scuttling and so forth. A strip of chalkboard ran around the room and the dancers intermittently leaned over the audience to make unexplained tallies. By this point there were scores of tally marks. The walls were covered in dirt bruises from the dancers’ hands and feet.

I sat quickly, without much thought, and noticed Lu Yim to my left. Yim is involved with the Portland dance collective Physical Education. Since Yim didn’t look at me and was wearing knee pads, I decided they were probably in the performance. The dance seemed to occupy not only the area of the room but beyond it and the space of the chairs, where the audience sat uneasily. One set of the dancers slapped the floor and a teen jumped, startled. These dancers were dangerous.

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TBA Review: Narcissister’s Sublime, Ab Fab-Approved Spectacle

Narcissister sheds identities like Russian dolls.
Narcissister sheds identities like Russian dolls. Briana Cerezo

In a 2012 episode of the British sitcom, Absolutely Fabulous, Edina, hoping to impress an American actor, suggests that she and her aging scenester friend Patsy take him to clubs to see Narcissister: “She’s a kind of crazy disco performance artist; she pulls things out of her pussy on a rotating platform singing ‘I’m Every Woman.’” Cue laugh-track. I love Ab Fab—and while you can see a clip of this exchange on Narcissister’s website—don’t be mislead by its reductive description.

Narcissister’s Narcissistic Advance, which showed at TBA:16 over the weekend, is performance art that draws heavily on burlesque, but includes performance techniques from modern dance to video art to puppetry. Be it live-action or short film, each segment features Narcissister, the persona created by Brooklyn performance artist Isabelle, who wears a plastic wig-form mask and a merkin throughout. Narcissister’s creator is an Alvin Ailey-trained dancer, and the artist’s study of movement is evident throughout the performance in the well-organized use of performance space, and a sophistication that belies the clumsiness of the mask, the many props, and the fact that the whole array must be handled with plastic fingers and acrylic nails.

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At This Year’s Time-Based Art Festival, the Stakes Will Be Higher

Duty Free
Duty Free Dylan Mira

“The stakes are a lot higher in a space that we want to be able to welcome people into,” says Erin Boberg Doughton, performing arts program director for the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA). Ahead of PICA’s annual Time-Based Art Festival (TBA), which kicks off September 8, Boberg Doughton and PICA’s visual art curator, Kristan Kennedy, are weighing in about what to expect from the interdisciplinary performance festival. One major change: After 13 years of a more itinerant approach—repurposing under-utilized spaces for temporary performances—TBA has a new, permanent space in PICA’s new home at 15 NE Hancock, which will serve as one of the festival hubs.

As usual, PICA’s offerings are packed with a dizzying array of conceptual work—some of it socially engaged, some funny, some heartbreaking, some just totally weird—including a large-scale collaboration with the Portland Art Museum, “a live video essay” from filmmaker Dylan Mira, new pieces from local performance geniuses like Allie Hankins and Keyon Gaskin, and Andrew Dickson and Claudia Meza’s “Don’t Get Me Started,” an evening of “well-crafted rants” from comedians and artists curated in response to all of the depressing news items that probably made you want to cancel 2016.

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