Final Thoughts on TBA 2015, Plus Art It's Not Too Late to See!

The Portland Institute for Contemporary Art's annual Time-Based Art Festival (TBA) came to a close Saturday night, with '90s-inspired dance party. A few remaining performances landed Sunday, and with that, those of us covering the fest for the Mercury have our lives back. When we met before the festival started, TBA Artistic Director Angela Mattox said this year's lineup would be heavy on inquiries into identity. That turned out to be true, but there was also an unexpected undercurrent of whimsy. Here's what we saw during Portland's biggest performance art fest:

Michelle Ellsworth
  • Briana Cerezo
  • Michelle Ellsworth

Katie Pelletier witnessed Michelle Ellsworth's immersive Preparation for the Obsolescence of the Y Chromosome. An inquiry into what might be missed once men are extinct, it was "part corporate R&D presentation, part dance, part comedy, part cultural anthropology project and evolutionary biology lecture." Elsewhere, she watched two performances from Radhouane El Meddeb: one that found the artist serving couscous to his audience, and in another, exploring the limitations of rigid gender roles through putting several dancers through the wringer.

In Night Tripper, Noah Dunham was kidnapped by a trio of Norwegian artists and taken to the forest for a witchy ritual. It was not as terrifying as that sounds (there's your whimsy).

Philippe Quesne’s La Mélancolie des Dragons
  • Courtesy PICA/Martin Argyroglo
  • Philippe Quesne’s La Mélancolie des Dragons

Meanwhile, Thomas Ross made Philippe Quesne’s La Mélancolie des Dragons sound so delightful I'm just going to leave this quote from his review over here: "The metalheads introduce themselves to the woman, Isabel, there to fix the car... They’re a touring amusement park, and their park is based on a number of things they’re interested in: art, music, nature, children’s books, bubbles. (Exemplary line: 'Isabel! Bubble machine!')"

Also of note: B-boys deconstructing gender in Amy O'Neal's Opposing Forces. The triumphant return of Ten Tiny Dances. Dynasty Handbag's unapologetically tacky, Jerri Blank-adjacent talk-show sendup, Good Morning Evening Feelings. Tyondai Braxton's restless synths. The undercurrent of fear in Keyon Gaskin's Its Not a Thing might be your own. The purposeful confusion of Dana Michel's Yellow Towel.

Opposing Forces
  • Briana Cerezo
  • Opposing Forces

Did you stay home this time around? Don't worry! TBA's visual art component, Pictures of the Moon with Teeth, is still up and open to the public at 2500 NE Sandy. The show "tackles the 'spirit'," writes Jenna Lechner in her review. "The work... shares a common thread of a monochrome color palette, and the concrete industrial venue asserts its smooth, even gray over much of the it." You have until October 11 to go see it.


The Confines of Gender in Radhouane El Meddeb’s Au temps où les arabes dansaient

Radhouane El Meddeb’s Au temps où les arabes dansaient
  • Courtesy PICA
  • Radhouane El Meddeb’s Au temps où les arabes dansaient

Watching French choreographer Radhouane El Meddeb’s Au temps où les arabes dansaient, I couldn’t help compare this ensemble performance to his solo work performed earlier in the festival, Je danse et je vous en donne à bouffer. There are similarities in themes—both explore gender and culture, of course. But I wanted to use the metaphor of the stew El Meddeb cooked in his solo performance to understand what was happening in the long opening progression of Au temps où les arabes dansaient. It seemed like a long, low simmer that might build to something interesting. I hoped.

It begins in dim light. Four men in dress shirts and slacks stand in a line, their backs to the audience. The stage is empty but for a line of prayer rugs along the back. No music. At first nothing seems to be happening, but then slowly we notice the men’s bottoms moving slightly, then swaying back and forth. Their movements increase: It is all in the hips. After some time they turn to face the audience, still swaying, rolling, and gyrating their hips, forcefully and joylessly. This movement looks almost involuntary, and yet like hard work. A haunting, drone-like chordal music begins, then fades out, leaving only the sound of the men’s slacks, their feet against the floor, and their labored breathing. This goes on for a long time. A very long time. Sometimes other things happen. The men advance and retreat, they kneel, as if in prayer. One of the men breaks away from the others. But overall, much is the same. Oppressively so.

At his artist talk, El Meddeb said that he was inspired by the image of men advancing in line down a main boulevard during the Arab Spring. Being in France at the time, he regretted not having the opportunity to protest. But he was also inspired by belly dancing and the movies of the '40s, '50s, '60s, and '70s, which showed an Arab society much more liberated than today’s. His decision to use men to explore a traditionally feminine dance is deliberately provocative. He wanted to underline the hypocrisy in Arab society with regard to gender roles.

As the performance went on, I began to wonder where this homage to mid-century cinema was. I knew something more was coming. Or I hoped so, because I was having a hard time staying with the slow build. I ached for more variation. My hips ached for watching these men roll theirs for so long.

Finally, a man uses his shirt to veil another man who is slowly bellydancing, then covers his face entirely as if hooding a prisoner for execution. And suddenly the plaintive, but more more up-tempo, bel canto song of Syrian chanteuse Asmahan begins, and the men become expressive, smiling, jockeying to be in front of one another as if to catch the attention of this early-20th-century singer. There is a great deal of sexual thrusting and pantomime, even smoking on stage. The screen behind the dancers lights up with black-and-white movie clips from the '40s and '50s, elegant actresses dancing on sumptuous movie sets. The relief at this freer spectacle is palpable in the audience. The men begin to freely belly-dance, along with the women in the films.

The contrast between the first and second sections of the piece is affecting. El Meddeb says he likes to tell stories with his body, and the story he tells here is of the dangers of a closed society, of the effects of lost liberties. The beginning is admittedly slow, rigid, and difficult to bear for so long. And this is his point. The second half does not entirely shrug off this seriousness. But one dancer, a little rounder than the others, not unlike El Meddeb himself, proves to be a beautiful belly dancer, and truly seems to find some essential self-expression in his undulating movements, his feminine postures and flirtatious hand gestures. You want more of this. And that, too, is El Meddeb’s intention.


Between Satire and Sincerity: Michelle Ellsworth's Briefing on the End of Men

Michelle Ellsworth, followed by her Male-Gaze Simulator, in Preparation for the Obsolescence of the Y Chromosome.
  • Briana Cerezo
  • Michelle Ellsworth, followed by her "Male-Gaze Simulator," in Preparation for the Obsolescence of the Y Chromosome.

A sassy New York Times editorial by Maureen Dowd about the evolutionary shrinking of the Y chromosome, coupled with the death of a friend’s father, got Michelle Ellsworth asking, “What will be missed when men are gone?” Struck by the possibilities (she told her audience at the Winningstad on Thursday night), she began the project that is the subject of Preparation for the Obsolescence of the Y Chromosome.

Preparation for the Obsolescence of the Y Chromosome is chock-full of smart, frequently absurdist humor. It shifts modes as rapidly as Ellsworth speaks: It’s part corporate R&D presentation, part dance, part comedy, part cultural anthropology project and evolutionary biology lecture. Ellsworth explains at the outset that her project is comprised of research into what will happen when men are gone, and her attempts to prepare for this absence through the development of apparati (rubber man-hands, bottled man-smells, “The Flinger”), web-tech (her interactive website and videos), and choreography. She guides the audience through these various technologies and devices. She demonstrates her choreographed token gestures to great males, and an Alex Lomax-inspired collection of Man-Dances, some of which she has recreated. (Worried about authenticity and appropriation, she puts her recreations next to men doing their own dances, of course.)

There is so much; she can only show of a fraction of the material on offer—some of it is for sale (really, truly), some is still in the early development stages, and some are just bad ideas, she concedes. But that’s okay. That’s all part of it, she assures us. Her persona is peppy, deeply concerned, and conscientious about the integrity of her work and discussion. She straps on a dog’s shock-collar so that a scientist appointed to the purpose might electrocute her if she spreads any false scientific information. She tells us “I’m feeling self-conscious about this,” as she demonstrates products such as the “Smallerizers,” which are designed to recreate the feeling of being small that some women who she surveyed said they might miss. “It’s just how it came out of the research. I don’t judge,” she says. She repeats this when showing a toilet seat that flips up unpredictably. “Again, I didn’t judge,” she says. She shows us the giant eyeball—“The Male-Gaze Simulator”—jumping and waving in front of it, and explains that while it’s not totally responsive to her movements that’s okay. It’s based on her own experience. Unresponsiveness is true for her.

The character that emerges seems to suffer from chronic self-surveillance, is self-doubting and endearing, and frequently makes references to being lonely. In other words, the piece is not an hour-long joke at the expense of men. What Ellsworth probes is a variety of stereotypes and gender roles. In the closing moments at her performance piece about the end of men, I thought we were seeing genuine grief, and it was difficult to tell whether Ellsworth was still in character or not. It was affecting. With keen artistic sensitivity throughout the piece, Ellsworth strikes the right balance between the satiric and the sincere.


The Absurd Joy of French Metalheads and a Touring Amusement Park in La Mélancolie des Dragons

Philippe Quesne’s La Mélancolie des Dragons
  • Courtesy PICA/Martin Argyroglo
  • Philippe Quesne’s La Mélancolie des Dragons

“Large scale theater work” is how TBA described Philippe Quesne’s newest production, La Mélancolie des Dragons. It’s fair enough, I suppose—it would be hard to call it a “play,” exactly, lacking as it is in traditional conflict and plot. And while it feels elaborate (a car and trailer on stage, multiple 30-foot balloons, smoke machines), I’m still hard pressed to call it “large.”

It certainly starts small: four metalhead dudes in a small hatchback with a trailer in tow, snow on the ground and the surrounding trees, no movement except some headbanging and goofing off in the car. For a few minutes—a long time, really, for a play to begin without dialogue or much movement at all—they play snippets of American and European metal songs, some French ballads, and a bit of classical.

Eventually they sleep, and a mysterious woman arrives on a bicycle. She approaches the car slowly, stepping lightly in the snow. There’s something eerie about it, but when she knocks on the window, the guys wake up, get out of the car, and greet her with kisses on the cheek. She’s just there to fix the car.

That’s the thing about Mélancolie, there are moments of subtle strangeness, but everything is always exactly as it seems. The fake snow on the ground, at first assumed to be set dressing for the play, is actually set dressing in the play. One of the metalheads reveals this by lifting it up and retrieving a power cord from underneath it. (Later they roll it up, create a ski jump out of it, and generally revel in its fakeness.)

The metalheads introduce themselves to the woman, Isabel, there to fix the car. She seems to be familiar with them, or at least their purpose: They’re a touring amusement park, and their park is based on a number of things they’re interested in: art, music, nature, children’s books, bubbles. (Exemplary line: “Isabel! Bubble machine!”)

The metalheads are revealed to be a group of seven when three more pile out of the trailer, in a clown-car type sight gag that works improbably well. In fact, most of the jokes in this play are ineffably simple and hilarious. A large part of the humor comes from the overwhelming simplicity of this crew of amusers.

Some of it, admittedly, comes from their foreignness. The metalheads are probably French, but there’s a language barrier between them and Isabel, so they speak English. When they pause in the middle of a sentence describing their art, one expects them to be capital-T Thinking, to be coming up with the high-minded critical art terminology to describe their work, but no, they’re simply trying to remember the word “inflated.”

The same is true of their amusement park. The “library” is a few books on art, an anthology of European philosophy, some picture books on nature, and a few children’s books. But everyone in the play is fascinated by it. They’re proud of their park, which features water (a small electric fountain in a plastic tub), air (a fan), “the combination of water and air” (that bubble machine), and a handful of other exhibits.

One keeps expecting something magical to happen, but it simply never does. Some of the visual gags border on the absurd (Isabel climbs fully under the hood of the car to diagnose it), but generally everything odd is explained immediately and eagerly by the anachronistic metalheads with the funny accents.

It’s more or less impossible to describe the comedy and joy of seeing Quesne’s play at the end of TBA. After all the challenging work on display, the thought-provoking discussions, and the intensive workshops, it’s a relief to be reminded of the innocence, joy, and community of even the lamest of art. Of course, presented in an elaborate stage production, at a renowned art festival, with little semblance of story, the play belies the challenging, provocative artist behind the work, and reminds us that good art, no matter when or where, will leave us exhilarated and slightly lightheaded.


Back to Nature with Night Tripper

Night Trippers forest ritual.
  • Courtesy PICA/Florian Rainer
  • Night Tripper's forest ritual.

About halfway through last night’s TBA Performance Night Tripper, I was convinced I was caught in a spell. The contemporary dance and music piece developed by Signe Beckwer, Ingri Fiksdal and Ingvild Langgård/Phaedra takes place in a forest setting, in this case a meadow in Northwest Portland’s Forest Park (the audience met in town and were shuttled to a trail head on a bus), where the Night Tripper crew had organized a mixture of installation and performance. The entire atmosphere suggested an intention to engage the audience in the mystery of the natural world. As the audience hiked into the space, colored smoke rose from the forest floor, and clothing such as jackets, pants, and sweatshirts appeared to be coming out of the ground, stuffed with branches, as if the forest had gotten dressed in human apparel. For the lack of a better term, there was the sense that magic was involved.

As the audience was ushered into a circle made up of downed logs and floor mats, we were handed shots of vodka. Note to all future contemporary performance makers: Always start your shows with a shot of something for the audience. They will be delighted. Seriously, the smiles on the faces of people as they were handed small plastic glasses of clear liquid were priceless. Once all were settled, the piece quickly began with two female figures in the middle of the circle, hair drawn over their faces, hands and forearms painted white to match the white shirts they wore. They stood back-to-back, beginning a movement sequence of stepping slowly yet rhythmically around in a circle together. This motion would continue for the remainder of the piece, varying in movement only ever so slightly and fluidly. The two dancers were incredibly in sync; I couldn’t figure out how they would know when changes in movement were cued, but they were always together when slight changes or pauses were made.

Accompanying the two figures was a group of musicians (the band Phaedra) playing their instruments in the outside circle where the audience also sat. Their sound started small, until over the course of several minutes they had built a melodic drone that appeared to be set to the rhythm of the two dancers. Once this happened, sound and motion remained constant, as the performance located and rested within an equilibrium.

What did change, however, was our surroundings. The performance was specifically crafted and timed to line up with the sunset, and as the movement and music grew, the light in the forest slowly drifted away. The piece was pulling us into the present moment, asking us to pay close attention to the gradual change of light as the sun departed. This, coupled with the swelling sound and one-note movements that were becoming harder and harder to see, plus the fact that bats were literally flying over our heads, seeming to react to the sound and bodies, gave it the air of a spell-like ritual (maybe it’s because Halloween is right around the corner).

Night Tripper also contained some surprises. In one of only a few breaks, a full-blown choir appeared behind the audience and sang while, obscured by brush. I wasn’t the only audience member who afterward noted the chills this induced. Another lovely surprise was the invitation after the performance to join the cast and crew at the “forest bar” (literally a bar-like installation on a tree that presented bottles of booze and cups of snacks for consumption) to mingle and wait for the buses to come pick us up. And then suddenly there we were, drinking, snacking, and talking about art in the middle of a dark forest with strangers. Another note to future contemporary performance makers: Always end your piece with a forest bar in the darkness, if you can manage it.

Climbing back aboard the bus to head back into town, I found myself already disappointed to be returning to an urban environment. We had only been gone for a couple hours, but I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t feel transformed in some way by the experience of seeing Night Tripper(which is likely what Beckwer, Fiksdal and Langgård were getting at when creating this piece/concept). At the very least, the performance presents a break from normalcy, a chance to get out of one's comfort zone, to see an everyday event (a sunset) in a new way. Night Tripper speaks to the activity of changing perspective, and what the natural world can suggest to us when we're paying attention.


Subverting Cultural Expectations with Purposeful Confusion in Dana Michel's Yellow Towel

Dana Michel
  • Courtesy PICA/Ian Douglas
  • Dana Michel

The final of image of Dana Michel’s Yellow Towel has been playing on my mind since Saturday night's TBA performance. Before the final lights went down, the audience was drawn to Michel, crouched in the front corner of the stage, a long tan weave-like fabric attached to her head with the other end connected to a whirling blow dryer. In her other hand, Michel held a piece of cardboard, painted black, placed behind her head as if to block the audience’s gaze from what she is doing. And then blackout. No button. No clear-cut ending. No sense of finality.

I was able to speak to Michel briefly after last night’s showing of Yellow Towel and asked her to talk about this last moment. She explained that the fabric was actually a common method that black women use to dry their hair so that it becomes softer (the title Yellow Towel is taken from Michel’s childhood when she would wear one on her head to “emulate blonde girls”). When I asked about the cardboard, if that was part of the hair drying method, she said no. "That was just a piece of black cardboard,” she explained.

I think this last image, and Michel’s explanation of it, has stuck with me because it seems to be representative of what the artist was ultimately getting at with the performance. My take away: Yellow Towel is a play about the shame inducing anxiety brought on by the contemporary and historical expectations hoisted on black women.

This is what I specifically found in the piece. But talking with other audience members after the performance, it was clear there were many other ideas Yellow Towel generated. One audience member commented that he thought the piece was a memory of a day on an urban street corner. Another told me that people have seen Trayvon Martin in the piece. Another thought that it was an attempt to represent the memories of certain family members. Clearly, there was a lot going on in the performance, with many different aspects to think on and wonder about.

A commonality amongst audience members were feelings of frustration and discomfort as the piece progressed. The piece lacked a starting note. With the house lights still on, Michel entered unceremoniously, dressed all in black—black hoodie, black pants—and proceeded to speak inaudibly, moving across the stage embodying (both accurately and poetically) what I assumed to be a homeless addict. Michel would begin an uncomfortable ritual of sorts, spreading a white substance across her face. She lounged on a white cushion (the set was essentially all made up by white pieces), sloppily drinking milk and pouring it down her chin. All the while, Michel sputtered words and unfinished sentences. Twenty minutes into the piece, the house lights were still on (they remained so), the space was still silent aside from Michel’s mumblings, and it was clear that viewers were getting restless.

The piece progressed from there as Michel shifted and changed costumes, becoming at one point what I thought to be herself from childhood, eating and spitting out food items such as bananas and white crackers. Then perhaps progressing further on into life (a teenager maybe?), Michel played out a phone conversation with an aunt or grandmother who was teaching her how to make a baked crisp. Then, Michel revealed a blonde wig that she attempted to brush with an afro-pick before attaching it to her own hair.

Music was eventually incorporated in the performance as well as a couple light cues, but these seemed out of place compared to the overall starkness of the piece so far. My audience companion noted after the show that he was puzzled by the sound choices. "It was all so much, but also not enough," he said.

This might be a fitting critique of Yellow Towel on a whole. For some audience members, the show was “so much”—perhaps too much. I noted five walk-outs during the piece. I can’t recall the last time I saw audience members walk out on a performance in Portland. And yet in the end, Michel received a standing ovation from many of the remaining audience members. The show was meant to be challenging, to show you too much, to get under and into your skin, so that you might have a reaction. Some would say that this is the exact point of performance art.

But was the piece also not enough? I found that I wanted more communication between performer and audience—something to help us steer our way towards the artist’s statement. That said, I naturally look for sign posts and narrative when watching any kind of performance, and I don’t know if this is what Dana Michel was getting at with the feelings of confusion prompted by her piece. I left believing that Michel was after that reaction in Yellow Towel. The question that still remains for me, however, is if that intentionality is something that most audience members picked up on.


Dynasty Handbag's Delusions and Grandeur

Dynasty Handbag is here to entertain.
  • Courtesy of Paula Court / PICA
  • Dynasty Handbag is here to entertain.

Dynasty Handbag makes a one-woman show look good—in the tackiest way possible. Her performance, Good Morning Evening Feelings, was delivered to a sold-out house at Disjecta on Thursday. In case you’re wondering, “Dynasty Handbag” is the alter ego of Los Angeles-based artist Jibz Cameron, who has been performing as Dynasty Handbag for more than a decade. The easiest comparison for the Dynasty Handbag character would be with Jerri Blank (Amy Sedaris) from Strangers with Candy: She's over-the-top, campy, whacky, a little deluded, and crude.

“I’m disgusting. So, just know that’s what the show is gonna be like,” she warned as she opened up her set. The show is full of hilarious and notable quotes, and Cameron is a deft improviser. “I hope you didn’t think you were gonna see some ART, 'cause I don’t do that anymore,” she said, adding that it’s all about “entertainment” these days. She went on to make some off-the-cuff jokes about Portland and LA. Talking about LA, she said, “I chose a place (to live) which shouldn’t be a place to live at all. It should be a place to die—a place to go on a quest and die,” and made some jabs at Portland’s beloved local grocery store New Seasons, rolling her eyes at the name, saying, “Ohh, it’s a ‘new season.’ What’s in season? (mumbles) Overpricedness. Ever heard of ‘white nonsense’?”

Dynasty Handbag dresses up as three different guests: a lesbian chef who makes a smoothie out of childhood trauma, a young girl in dance class who grows up to be a Broadway star (who then ages out of show biz, and gets picked up to be on a reality TV show as a B-list celebrity), and also Madonna. All of the costume changes happen onstage, right in front of you, most of them over the top of her nude-colored leotard.

I'll admit, I was predisposed to love this show: I love campy stuff, and I grew up obsessed with both late night talk shows and daytime shows. (I could easily tell when the Sally Jesse Raphael Show was a rerun. My sister and I used to write television variety show programs when we were kids and stage them in a giant cardboard box for our parents.) But ANYWAY, aside from all of the obvious fun, this show also has an agenda. In a piece published on ARTFORUM, Cameron talks about the impetus for the show. “I was thinking about talk shows and how the morning ones are designed to help you have a good day, give you some of what’s going on in current events, maybe show you some helpful hints about how to live better," she said. "But that’s not the kind of morning show I need. I need one that will help me combat the terror of being alive more than giving me a new recipe for a buttermilk pancake. I was also thinking a lot about why women get to do the morning and men get to do the evening shows. There are a lot of reasons for this, I’m sure, and none of them really that good.” There have been a lot of conversations and frustrations about women's lacking presence in late night television over the last several years, and finally it seems we’ll get our female hosts in 2016 (via both Samantha Bee on TBS and Chelsea Handler on Netflix).

Dynasty Handbag was brought to TBA by PMoMA (the Portland Museum of Modern Art), where she also has a current exhibit, which consists of clothes and explanatory drawings. If you didn’t get a chance to see her performance earlier in the week, I’d really recommend checking this out (the show is up through October). With that, I'll leave you with Dynasty Handbag herself, covering Kate Bush.


B-Boys Deconstruct Gender in Amy O'Neal's Opposing Forces

BruceClaytonTom.png
  • Courtesy PICA/Bruce Clayton Tom

"Is it okay to cry at movies?" That's the improbable question that echoes over the speakers towards the beginning of Amy O'Neal's Opposing Forces, which opens with five B-boys performing precise choreography on a stage emblazoned with a slick geometric pattern. The performance begins like a party—the show I went to started 15 minutes late, and during the delay, audience members danced on the low surface where most of the action takes place. Once the vamping was over, the real dancing started—some of the highest-energy dancing I've seen, break or otherwise, and that would've been worth seeing were it not part of a larger interrogation of gender performance.

Which is what, with that question, it becomes. Opposing Forces, which will be performed tonight and tomorrow at the Redd, takes breakdancing, an art form that's full of a kind of posturing of masculinity, and deconstructs it through the use of documentary audio from the dancers themselves, breaking up their performances with a conversation about gender that wouldn't be out of place in a women's studies class.

If that seems incongruous, well, it shouldn't. Who knows more about performing masculinity than men who are entrenched in an art form that, at first blush, would seem to privilege a traditional type of manliness? In one recording, dancers are asked to rate their feelings of masculinity or femininity on a scale from zero (completely feminine) to 10 (completely masculine). Most stick safely to the Y-chromosome end of the scale. But things quickly become more complex: In one of the voice-overs, one dancer discusses being a single dad. Another says that he finds the distinction between the masculine and feminine increasingly tenuous when he considers that he was raised by a single mom who worked hard to support three kids by herself. This leads into a solo performance that contains hints of drag.

But then, doesn't all of it? After seeing Opposing Forces, I couldn't get RuPaul's immortal quote out of my head: "We're born naked, and the rest is drag." Whether we're performing the gender we identify with or attempting to embrace what we associate with one we don't—or pointing out the uselessness of the gender binary to begin with—we're performing something.

As O'Neal's assembled B-boys danced through pas de deux and solos, as they obscured their identities under hoods, as their voice-overs became more and more frank in their discussion of B-girls and of hip-hop's "bitches 'n' hos" problem, as one dance involving frantic motions underneath a flashlight suggested something like the scrutiny of embodying any kind of fraught identity, as they marked the pristine floor with sweat, what I was seeing seemed less and less like a performance, and more like an intimate confession, something closer to the truth about what it's like to feel pressured to be a man, when that word is defined narrowly—an experience I obviously don't have access to. "It's not about how it looks," said one dancer's recorded voice towards the end of the performance. "It's about how it feels."


Pictures of the Moon with Teeth Tackles Spirits and Space

TBA is over halfway through, but you still have plenty of time to catch their visual art component of the festival, which runs through October 11. Pictures of the Moon with Teeth tackles the “spirit," playing with scale and expectation. The work that fills 2500 NE Sandy comes from 10 different artists, but shares a common thread of a monochrome color palette, and the concrete industrial venue asserts its smooth, even gray over much of the it.

The pieces are spread throughout a large space (20,000 square feet) and you're left to your own devices as to how to navigate it. The experience feels adventurous, and also a little confusing at times. The first piece to the left of the entrance is by Dawn Kasper. Encountering her piece is like stumbling into a garage after someone’s band practice: There are bells on the floor, records and tapes, a drum set, and incense strewn around. You’re asked by the gallery attendant not to move anything, because it’s how the artist wants things. (Kasper has shown at places like the Whitney Biennial in 2012, where she converted the museum space into her own studio.)

Moving further back, you’ll see Peter Simensky’s video piece, as well as a pile of emergency blankets in the corner. That stack of gold blankets recalls artists like Felix Gonzales Torres (who piled clothes and candy in gallery corners), and who, like Simensky, was an artist thinking about ideas around "dispersion"—how a person participates with art that’s in a gallery, and so on. (During the opening, people walked around and outside the gallery with the blankets on.)

One piece that really grabs you is Tannaz Farsi’s “And Others.” Text from Bertolt Brecht blinks on a board: “Some are in the dark and others are in the light we see them in the light in the dark we do not see them.” The text flashes on and off pristinely, but walking around to the back of the piece, the wires for the LEDs are exposed and filleted, giving away the messy artifice of the sophisticated piece. The quote is a translation from The Threepenny Opera, which is itself a satire of bourgeois society in 1920s Weimar Republic and of capitalism. This is a work that’s about politics and power, that’s about light, that’s about shifting your perceptions. As the piece blinks out these letters, it delays the message to your brain and subverts your expectations.

Tannaz Farsis And Others
  • Matt Houlemard / PICA
  • Tannaz Farsi's "And Others"

In the back of the space is a collaboration from Morgan Ritter, Karl Larsson, Pascal Prosek, and Container Corps. The piece has its own room and the most light in the entire building. Against the wall, there's a copy machine. There’s also a giant coat hanger in the middle of the floor, and a large gray hand perched on its fingers. There’s a tiny reference to Edvard Munch’s "The Scream" painted on a small stick that pokes out of ceramic.

To the right of this room is Bill Jenkins’ piece "Apertures." It plays with tarps and ducts to control and bend light in interesting ways. It takes some time to warm up to a piece like this: You wander around the dark room until your eyes adjust to the darkness, and can see the subtleties of light. Jenkins works with consumer materials by taking them out of context, and making you reconsider them as art and design objects.

Light impressions in Bill Jenkins Apertures piece.
  • Jenna Lechner
  • Light impressions in Bill Jenkins' "Apertures" piece.

In much of the work in Pictures of the Moon, I found entry points into the pieces difficult to find; I wasn't sure how to engage with them, which I think is a result of the overwhelming space of the venue. I wonder if Pictures of the Moon with Teeth would be best experienced during the reception, where there is an energy, and where there are people to share the experience, to fill up the huge space where the art's housed. Visiting the exhibition in the middle of a weekday feels a little ghostly and empty; the building is just so big that it swallows the work. I also wish there was a little more wall text, essentially road signs, to both guide you through the venue and to serve as an entry point for the work. Aside from these things, if you’re willing to really look and take some time with this show, and look at the artists’ work beyond it, there's a lot to get excited about, and artists you’ll want to keep an eye on.


Radhouane El Meddeb Serves Up Dance and Couscous in Je danse et je vous en donne à bouffer

French Tunisian artist Radhouane El Meddeb.
  • Courtesy Radhouane El Meddeb
  • French Tunisian artist Radhouane El Meddeb.

Affectionately called “the couscous piece” by PICA’s Artistic Director Angela Mattox at an artist talk Wednesday, Radhouane El Meddeb prepares and feeds his audience both dance and the traditional North African dish in Je danse et je vous en donne à bouffer, performed Tuesday and Wednesday night at TBA. Couscous, says El Meddeb, is served at every sacred occasion for his family, sad or joyous. The French Tunisian artist’s solo performance is an understated and beautifully executed exploration of gender, culture, and the sacred. And it lingers deliciously in the mind.

Rather than an attempt to fully fuse culinary and dance elements, each seems a meditation on the other. What elements of dance do we find in the choreography of preparing a meal? What elements of cookery are in dance? At the outset of the performance, El Meddeb’s ingredients are laid out on a minimalist stage with four yellow tables for food prep, and a fifth across for sitting. El Meddeb heats the pans, he adds the oil. Sacred music plays over speakers. As the pans begin to heat and the food to sizzle, so does the rhythm of the music. El Meddeb dances—in the traditional sense—in between adding ingredients. At times he runs circles around the stage, waving his arms, wafting the aromas outward so that the audience, seated on all four sides of the stage might breathe in the spicy boiling stew.

The moment you might think some narrative is building in his expressive interludes of dance, he returns to his cooking, and it is just this. Cooking. He stirs. He tosses in some salt. A lot of salt. He turns down the music on an iPod. He adds the spices. His movements, while at times nonchalant, and always expressive, are also practical. He wipes a bowl. He adds the meat.

El Meddeb’s body looks more the part of the gourmand than the dancer. He has said that it was for this that, despite his dream to dance, he didn’t think he would be able to do so professionally. He worried he was too large. But he uses his roundness to his advantage as fully as any hard-bodied athlete would use their musculature. El Meddeb brings a femininity to the stage, deploying the lyrical movements he might have observed made by his mother or sister or other women preparing such a meal as this. He runs his hands through the couscous, he pumps his palms against his heart, he twirls and opens his arms.

After eating a delicious meal, there is often a flavor you can’t get out of your mind: the cinnamon, the clove. For me, after this performance it wasn’t the spiciness of the stew that the audience was invited onstage to eat, but rather El Meddeb’s facial expressions that I couldn’t stop thinking about. At times impish, then weary, or generous, or lost in thought. Heartbroken. Longing. El Meddeb came to dance through theatre, and here you can see the great boon to his art that this background brings. What is dramatized is not just the performance of food preparation, but also the way the context of the preparation might or might not intrude. This meal was served at his sister’s wedding. At his father’s funeral.

My favorite expression was his amusement as he teased the audience with tastes of spices, with plates and forks and spoons and napkins. Now offering one, now showering a row with many. At his artist’s talk he was asked whether this had to do with the deployment of power. No, he said. I share. I enjoy myself. “Je partage. Je m’amuse.”


With Beyoncé and Blue Paint, Ten Tiny Dances' Triumphant Return to TBA

Monday night at the Works, dancer/choreographer Mike Barber's Ten Tiny Dances proved once again to be a crowd favorite. The performance series has been around since 2002 (with its first appearance at TBA in 2003—the very first year of TBA itself—and appearing at most TBA Festivals since then). I feel like this performance really took it to a new level, with people integrating video and installation in exciting and expansive ways.

If you’re unfamiliar with it: Ten Tiny Dances consists of 10 dances (duh) created for a four-by-four foot stage. The structure of the show, five-eight-minute performances with quick breaks in between, is a welcome punctuation for a 10-day arts festival like TBA (which, over time, can be mentally taxing, like running a conceptual art marathon). Ten Tiny Dances' Barber consistently does a great job of booking variety. There are serious performances and more goofy performances; there are group performers and individual performers, and some generally unforgettable stuff.

Last night, the show started with Beyoncé (always a good place to start). "Run the World (Girls)" played over the loudspeaker, while three people covered like ghosts in a gold sequined fabric took to the stage, hoisting a young girl into the air. The young performer then proceeded to do laybacks and mesmerize the audience with hypnotic hand gestures. This performance was thanks to Keith Hennessy (who has been to TBA a few years now, and has performed at Ten Tiny Dances previously).

Keith Hennessys piece for Ten Tiny Dances
  • Sophia Wright Emigh / PICA
  • Keith Hennessy's piece for Ten Tiny Dances

Girls! We run this mother
  • Sophia Wright Emigh
  • "Girls! We run this mother"

Another standout from Monday night, working in a different, more verbal and wacky style, came from Michelle Ellsworth, whose “Clytigation: A Primer” was comprised of “dance, video, text, web design, and performance installation.” Ellsworth took to the stage with a nervous energy, and explained her connection to the ancient Greek story of Clytemnestra, and her attempts to avoid modern-day surveillance, which involves avoiding the internet and creating her own version of the internet, and impersonating her friends and carrying on conversations with herself as her friends. There was a lot of fast-talking and gesturing wildly with her hands. There was also an interactive installation component, which included a blue box where you could ride a stationery bike. Ellsworth performs through Thursday, as part of her Preparation for the Obsolescence of the Y Chromosome project.

Michelle Ellsworth explains her version of the Internet.
  • Sophia Wright Emigh / PICA
  • Michelle Ellsworth explains her version of the Internet.

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Confronting the Audience in Keyon Gaskin's Its Not a Thing at BodyVox

Keyon Gaskin performs <i>Its Not a Thing</i>.
  • Alex Riedlinger via TBA
  • Keyon Gaskin performs Its Not a Thing.

Keyon Gaskin’s long-running piece, It's Not a Thing, appearing as part of TBA Friday and Saturday at BodyVox, began subverting performance tropes as soon as it started. After the crowd took seats in BodyVox’s studio, Gaskin shut off the lights and began setting up, stepping and breathing heavily, absent-mindedly introducing the work by undercutting it entirely with a list of reasons he didn’t want to do it. “I have some problems with performance,” he said. There were things he didn’t like, “or that I have contention with” about contemporary performance art, including: drag, race as performance, performing to music, curtain speeches, and performing for mostly white audiences.

I probably don’t have to tell you that we were a mostly white audience. It might not be what Gaskin wanted, or what he purported to want, but ultimately the audience is what It’s Not a Thing is about. When the lights come up, they come up as one bright spotlight on the audience. It’s uncomfortably bright, but that’s okay, because Gaskin’s next act is to move the audience to the floor.

There, scattered across the floor, the audience is asked to rub their hands together. It makes a sound, you already know it makes a sound, but it’s just a warmup. Next he has the audience wring their hands and wrists. It’s surprising how quickly that action began to seem obsessive and violent—evoking the salivating expectation before a fresh kill and the rubbed-raw feeling of handcuffed wrists. Meanwhile, Gaskin roamed the room, weaving between people, his breath shortening, a panic growing, until he was choking out near-sobs, and he ran. When he returned, he asked for help. He really seemed to need it.

From a short number sung in drag to a long, aggressive bout of twerking to Lil Wayne’s “She Will,” to a bottomless tap number, no matter what aspect of contemporary performance art Gaskin takes aim at, the real subject is the relationship with the audience. It’s not audience participation, it’s a ramped-up feeling of spectatorship. An artist among an audience is necessarily a lone other in a mostly homogenous crowd, but here the artist also presents as young, queer (or at least in drag), and black, while the crowd is a mostly white bunch of ravenous spectators.

Gaskin holds together a deliriously bizarre persona, swinging wildly from demanding action on the part of the audience to desperately pleading for it, from posturing bravado to shaking vulnerability, and from slapstick to self-harm. The overwhelming feeling is that the artist feels, at best, disinterest for the audience—we don’t matter, and frankly he’d rather we weren’t an audience at all—and at worst, disdain. But really what’s under all that is fear, and Gaskin excels at both embodying that fear and revealing it in the audience. Once, when an audience member stubbornly refused to leave the seating, Gaskin said, “I need you to move. I’m not doing this for me. I’m doing it for you. I’m not asking you, you are.” And as we nervously, hungrily, lustily, obsessively wring our hands, the fear Gaskin makes us feel has little to do with what he’s going to do to us. We’re afraid of what we’re doing to him.


Reckoning with Tyondai Braxton's Restless Synths

Tyondai_Braxton_E5100788.jpg
  • By Nomo michael hoefner via Wikimedia Commons

As Tyondai Braxton stood onstage at PSU’s Lincoln Hall Sunday night, conjuring long strings of squeaks, blurbles, and rough-hewn beats out of a box of Eurorack synths, a nonstop stream of dry ice smoke billowed and drifted behind him. It was as if the 36-year-old composer and musician were perched on the edge of an angry volcano, using the electronic wizardry at his disposal to appease whatever gods were threatening to make it erupt.

It was a delicate operation. Braxton carefully nudged aside the yellow and red cables connecting his noisemakers to gently twist knobs, tap out a rhythm, or unleash a swell of bass-heavy volume on the 300 or so folks scattered around the auditorium-style seating. At times he would nod his head in time with the syncopation, but his arms and hands moved with a flowy deliberation. He seemed to know exactly what was coming next, even when the music sounded as formless and ungraspable as the clouds that slowly undulated toward the ceiling.

Though in the TBA description, the evening was said to feature pieces from Braxton’s most recent album HIVE1, the work he created Sunday night felt even less structured. On the LP, a track like “Amlochey” trundles forward, propelled by a twitching electro beat, and “Scout1” takes off from the drum ‘n’ bass ascendent work of Autechre. What rhythms he found during his live performance were let loose for a brief moment before he quickly made them fade into the distance. It felt more akin to early electronic music pioneers like Morton Subotnick and the duo of Jean-Jacques Perrey and Gershon Kingsley, bringing alive the playful possibilities of their experiments in tape loops, modulation, and wave generation.

The effect was a feeling of restlessness among the audience. At least that’s how it seemed from where I was sitting. Both myself and the gent sitting to my right couldn’t seem to sit still. The music left him holding his head in his hands and trying to relax the tense muscles in his upper body. I felt it most in my lower extremities. I crossed and uncrossed my legs, stretched them over the empty seat in front of me, and curled my toes incessantly. Not my usual behavior at a live performance, but what else could I do? The hard panned squiggles and lightning strikes of pings and reports shot right to my central nervous system.

Braxton has said that his work with synths that culminated in HIVE1 was, in part, his commentary on how technology speaks to and interacts with other technology. And I think his intention is to speak to how these sounds are speaking to listeners as well. Like most modern electronic composition of this kind, it’s meant to stimulate other parts of the brain, possibly resulting in the audience twitching and tensing as I did. Most importantly, it keeps your attention directed at it, you can’t get lost in undulating waves of bills or steady beats. You are meant to reckon with the discordance and the beauty within each spark and pop coming out of the speakers. For this reporter, outside of my slight bodily distress, the feeling was one of strange bliss and a desire to nudge Braxton aside and see what kind of racket I could make.


TBA 2015 is Here! Stephen Malkmus Invades the Works, Keyon Gaskin Performs Tonight

Keyon Gaskin performs tonight. You should go see him.
  • Keyon Gaskin/PICA
  • Keyon Gaskin performs tonight. You should go see him.

PICA's Time-Based Art Festival launched last night, with nighttime programming the Works bringing Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks to the Redd in inner Southeast for a free show, and the opening reception for TBA's visual art component, Pictures of the moon with teeth, at 2500 NE Sandy. Tonight, the fest's in full force, with Holcombe Waller's probably-going-to-be-legendary Requiem Mass: LGBT/Working Title, a piece combining choral music, religious ritual, and conceptual art into a memorial for members of the LGBT community persecuted in the name of religion. Keyon Gaskin will also perform Its not a thing at BodyVox Dance Center.

TBA brings back major art-school flashbacks for me, from its attendees' choices in fashion to PICA's nontraditional choices in spaces. Last year's Fashion Tech got crowded and sweaty fast, but it was also set up so that you could wander around, taking in Jennifer West's Flashlight Filmstrip Projections and other installations further away from the Works' mainstage action. This year's space, the Redd, at SE Salmon and 9th, made for an odd, slightly too-crowded venue for Thursday night's Stephen Malkmus show. The space is all industrial concrete that's the perfect blank canvas for the Works, but the stage is at the end of a narrow section that fills up quickly. At Thursday night's show, it was difficult to see much of anything if you weren't at the very front. It's possible that there's no good way to ensure decent visibility when you utter the words "FREE STEPHEN MALKMUS SHOW WAREHOUSE PORTLAND," and perhaps crowds will be a bit thinner for future Works shows. But last night's show was too packed for me to do much more than wait until Malkmus played "Cinnamon and Lesbians," then hit the outdoor beering and smoking zone to take in the normcore outfits on display, which, all told, isn't a bad way to spend an evening.

Tonight, a punk feminist sensibility comes to the Works in the form of General Sisters and the Feminist Art Gallery. Watch this space for more updates from Mercury writers embedded among TBA's reliably chaotic wonder.


Final Days of TBA: Frisky Seniors, Disco, and Art You Still Have Time to See

PICA's Time-Based Art Festival is over, and with it our 10:30 commitments to the Works, waiting in line to see sold out shows (some featuring old folks talking about sex), eavesdropping on art conversations, and hanging out in a warehouse that once held window blinds. Here's what we saw over the past couple days as TBA drew to a close:

Thomas Ross watched "a panel of Portland’s friskiest seniors...describe, year by year, their sexual history" at Mammalian Diving Reflex's All the Sex I've Ever Had. He did not name names.

Jenna Lechner attended Evelyn, Chanticleer Tru's dance party to end all dance parties, where she saw a man dressed as a plush disco ball, party roller skates, and videos of Jem and the Holograms. Elsewhere, she sat through two hours of "butts and mayhem," and witnessed GERMINAL, a performance that should not have been possible, but was, delightfully.

Matt Stangel looked for America in Liz Harris (aka Grouper) and Paul Clipson's neon signs, nameless roads, and broken windows.

I watched Jack Ferver perform an exorcism, and experienced the IRL equivalent of this at Oneohtrix Point Never's Friday night performance at the Works—except with a projection of what looked like a video game landscape full of disembodied humanoid objects instead of poignant emojis:

Did you miss TBA? You didn't really! Well, okay, you did. But you're also in luck! Many of the pieces from "As round as an apple, as deep as a cup"—visual art curated specifically for TBA—will stay up through the end of this month, some into October—and admission is free. Free art, everyone!

Tracy + the Plastics.

That means you still have time to see work by seven TBA artists, including Wynne Greenwood, whose installation, Stacy, is a lo-tech precursor to the Tumblr teen girl aesthetic, with sculpted heads made out of found materials (one is a soccer ball), looped sounds of bratty, sing-songy teenage girl voices, and multiple projections of Greenwood's 90s punk feminist band, Tracy + the Plastics, in which she played every member.