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 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