Time in Portland

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By Robert Tyree

For 10 days each of the last 10 Septembers, the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s Time-Based Arts Festival has run rampant in a city often peripheral to considerations of contemporary performance.

TBA’s two nonstop 90-hour weeks draw a lot of committed people to get haggard and timely together; a break in Portland’s avowedly low-key tendencies. For me, what’s overwhelming is not the intensity of working the festival, but the scale and scope of ideas and power dynamics―mingling or not―roiling our fair city’s fresh air. By Oregon standards, the breadth of artistic vision walking the streets is obscene.

I asked Miguel Gutierrez if TBA made Portland into a kind of Aspen. He said no. But I keep fighting the impression that this festival is more important for visitors than it is for the city’s 600,000 residents.

Over the last 10 years, PICA has built TBA into a key stomping ground for big player curators, booking agents and arts administrators. This past week, there have been a lot of empty offices in cultural capitals from San Francisco to New York City and beyond. In fair exchange, Angela Mattox’s office has been empty for dozens of job-related sojourns since she accepted PICA’s newly reinvented position of permanent artistic director roughly a year ago―a return to founder Kristy Edmunds’ pre-2001 model, before the institute began inviting guest artistic directors to curate festivals in three-year appointments. (Mark Russell and Cathy Edwards guided PICA through six years of time-based art while living on the East Coast)

Why the return? PICA now seems determined to buck a problematic reputation for being out of touch with the communities it purports to serve. Opening TBA:12 with a newly commissioned work that both employed and portrayed the diversity of Portland’s populace felt like a key gesture beyond the art core, an inclusive if abrasive invitation by way of hot mics and pushy sequencing. Big Art Group’s The People-Portland was a monumental and unavoidable piece, spurring the flurries of dialogue that can make or break the expanded engagement sought by a confidently reorienting PICA.

Big Art Group’s “The People — Portland.” Photo: Joseph Webb

I moved to Portland from Seattle via France and South Africa. Trying to go abroad and “figure it all out” made me need to return and center my life around dance. Portland’s low cost of living and creative hum seemed a good place to get my feet wet. My first months here, I stumbled onto TBA:08―the final year of Russell’s programming and the midpoint in the former model of rotating curation. The festival has since exposed me to people, ideas and work that have been essential to my development as an artist―and more broadly as a person in the world. I’m a TBA believer, but I’ve always lived here with a very particular intention.

I moved to Portland with no dance resumé. Four years later, I’m calling myself a choreographer  on my passport renewal. I do contemporary dance, developing work all year in a city that, for 11 months out of that year, often feels outside of and irrelevant to international conversations about contemporary performance. 

In April, PICA opened the doors of its new offices on an attractive block downtown, next door to the Ace Hotel, that iconic tourist funnel. The elevator is ungodly slow, but the top floor is only three stories up. Curated by Kristan Kennedy, roughly a third of TBA:12′s visual art program is installed in the versatile new headquarters. The fresh public space has rebuilt some of the enthusiasm lost around 2004 when PICA made a definitive reduction in its visual arts program to consolidate resources around TBA’s performance program, “burning a majority of bridges with the visual arts community.” The new office space is hugely more inviting and airy than the intimidating corner that the advertising colossus (and colossal PICA supporter) Wieden+Kennedy had been comping the institution since 2000.

I first met Cathy Edwards in that power den. I was smitten with how deftly she handled questions during a TBA:09 preview of Meg Stuart, an artist new to me. This curator from New York City―wow―she spoke so pro. I had never encountered that level of dialogue around dance, certainly not so elegantly conveyed. It made an impact more than an impression.

I found out that Angela Mattox was to be the new artistic director of PICA while in Vienna for  ImPulzTanz and danceWEB last year. I didn’t know if this was news or not in the context of Europe’s ultra grand contemporary dance festival. I made a vacant mention of the PICA announcement to Trajal Harrell [or did he bring it up to me?] Yes, he had heard. And yes it was a big move for PICA. A lot of people far, far away from Portland got the memo of PICA’s big moves.

This is the first year I’ve ever known PICA to have an artistic director who has both curated for and lived in Portland year round―someone who I can invite to my performances (huge) or chat with while bringing a friend to an exhibit. I’ve always considered the resident PICA staff personable, but from the get go Mattox has worked the approachability game like a champ, major league and multi-ring. The appealing offices/exhibition space/resource room coupled with Mattox’s readiness to talk and listen make real PICA’s overhauled approach to its presence in Portland.

They even used their space for a rave (derivative dance party) to celebrate PICA’s 17th birthday.

And yet …as I bike the bridges and haunt the beer garden these long festival days, I keep wondering how sympathetic our city is to Mattox’s conviction in the festival program: “I believe it is imperative that Portland engage in an international artistic and cultural conversation.” Again, in an interview on a rad community radio station: ”It’s the thing that I’m most passionate about. I really feel like it’s imperative for arts organizations like PICA to really take a stand on that and to bring in amazing global work, to make sure that Portland really is in dialogue―artistically, culturally, politically―with what’s going on around the world.”

I got a little drunk meeting with Mattox on the eve of the festival. She is one of the most unassumingly sharp, articulate and convivial people I’ve ever spoken with―so I drank beer to keep focused? We talked for a couple hours―which seems like a crazy amount of time to sacrifice just before her festival debut. It must have been a conversation we were both deeply invested in building―either that, or Mattox is even better at working the crowd than I’ve given her credit for. Excusing myself for a moment, I handed her my notebook to see if any unspoken ideas stood out. In a note to myself I had written: “Easy to isolate and covet things abroad. What are those things?” I thought of this in terms of envy for what other cities’ art festivals have been able to pull off, and my example was the festival lounge at ImPulzTanz, where music, dancing and drinks go until dawn night after night (Oregon has tyrannically conservative state liquor control laws). Since Mattox has been to countless festivals during her career, I was curious to hear of other instances comparable to my Viennese disco, which one could isolate and covet. But when I got back to our table, she had written a concern I wasn’t thinking of when I had written down that question: “exoticization of the global.”

Reading local press and talking to festival goers, I sometimes worry that Portland audiences might not be willing to grapple with the substantial difference at the heart of intercultural engagement. I hate to use a term like ethnocentrism, but I hate a lot of things even more.  Portland’s art core may be too happy with happy hours and its famed coolness to actually live the necessity of what the city declares itself to be: committed to advancing equity among diverse communities (see: Portland Plan). Too much criticism―both formally published and informally distributed in conversation or online―flirts with xenophobia in thinly-veiled vernacular. It’s a common unconscious complacency. And it’s the kind of invisible disavowal that at the same time threatens and makes indispensable international contemporary arts programming.

TBA:12 is drawn from nuanced heritages in Mexico, Japan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, Croatia, France and New York, not to mention among art forms in and of themselves. The program’s daily noontime chats with visiting artists, as well as academic contextualizing of Latin American theater, have proposed bridges of insight. Still, during these first days of September, too many have denied even modest deference to visiting artists’ cultural contexts.Too many have assumed the values we carry into our seats from familiar streets are complete and that all performance ought abide by them.

One example that’s particularly revealing concerns Miriam, a performance by NYC-based, Zimbabwe-born Nora Chipaumire. This piece had its world premiere here at TBA:12. Chipaumire and co-performer Okwui Okpokwasili offered two nights of challenging, dark, brave and exquisite performance. At her noontime chat, I made a little star in my notes: “Africa is a place that creates ideas and pushes trends.” We so often unknowingly evaluate and compare work to that of western Europe’s industrial performance complex, but this work does not need to be compared to dominate models of major performance. Chipaumire insists, “It is what it is and it is worthy.” I asked how her sense of embodiment felt inside the work―as it was designed for the round but presented here in a proscenium staging. Her response: She must conquer the proscenium, overwrite its colonial history and drag the audience’s perspective up onto the stage with her, around a defiant spatial composition and light design that acknowledges “dark is a color.” That gave me goosebumps.

Nora Chipaumire’s “Miriam.” Photo: Jonah Levine

It’s been disheartening then to hear Miriam again and again referred to as “too dimly lit” or “too dark.” How is a deeply considered choice by a devoted artist disdained as a choice you could make better?! How can you not understand that kind of judgment to be grossly condescending?! It’s been infuriating to read statements like the following passing as authoritative criticism in local press:

“But too often ― at TBA but also in plenty of other places ― artists ponder an issue really hard and wind up creating obscure but inspired connections among ideas and emotions in their heads, yet lack the craft or inclination to elucidate (non-didactically) those connections to audiences who don’t share the references.”

Engagement with time-based art is a civic practice that reflects civic character.

To say an artist’s work fails because that work lacks a style of craft or inclinations that abide by your expectations conveys a deep erasure of difference incompatible with the intercultural competencies demanded of good people living together in the 21st century. I protest criticism that derives rhetorical authority from slamming the door on multiplicity. More philosophically, I reject language that negates performance’s potential to harbor elements that may be hidden to perception, yet are nonetheless appreciable if we remain open to the subtleties of sensation. That front line of sensation needs our advocacy. It is where connection germinates, and it is unethical to oppress its productive potentiality by impositions of “common sense.”

I’ll thank Ron Berry, of Austin’s Fusebox festival, for letting me echo his statement during the Why Festivals? panel : “I feel in Austin, the public conversation is often an inadequate and uninteresting one. And I think there needs to be some real rethinking about how we engage as a community around the work and how we talk about it in a way that’s more meaningful. Some of this is just economics. In the newspapers, it’s often just a review and the real estate for that review has gotten shorter and shorter, and it’s typically a plot synopsis and then whether you liked it or not. And I don’t really care if this person liked it or not. It’s an uninteresting conversation. It’s a model built around consumption and not a model of engagement. And that’s a really important distinction.”

The public I so want to believe in―the one which would support Mattox’s imperative that PICA pursue local impact from a global perspective―practices being a corpus of audience-citizens tolerant of ambiguity and humble in the face of perspectives diagonal to their own. In this audience, we accept the virtue in nonrecognition and, alternately, lean toward a heroic unsettling of one’s position of discernment, discovering rather than disappearing difference. (Thank you Keith Hennessy for guiding me to “disappearing difference.”)

This past week, Guttierez likened performances with ambiguous elements to “endangered owls.” That’s an angle that’s gotta play well in eco-friendly Portland, and one we’ll encounter soon again as PICA places And lose the name of action into a cornerstone slot of TBA:13.

In June, a PICA symposium set a promising precedent of affordable (the $5 meal included drinks!), multi-modal context building. Bodies, Identities, and Alternative Economies framed (and helped developed) Keith Hennessy/Ciro Zero’s Turbulence: a dance about the economy months before the TBA:12 world premiere on September 11th. Apparently, such non-September programming is a sign of things to come, although Mattox assures us that it may take an entirely different form from June’s intensive weekend.

From people I love and/or respect, I’ve heard audiences at TBA described as “curious” and “enthusiastic”―with an exceptional range of ages sharing the seats, sharing space and time together―and, I hope, sharing considerations. Given their achievements in so many other progressive pursuits, Portlanders can surely hold themselves to higher standards of intentional discourse to counter the culture of callous impatience that threatens diversity in its myriad dialogues. Engagement with time-based art is a beginning. Navigating social futures through active practices—reaching for higher ground—let’s say that’s its never-ending end.

Robert Tyree is a dance artist, writer and educator based in Portland, Oregon. Since 2006, he has pursued a concept of intensive dance, dance in late-night contexts—or deterritorialization in discos with Lacan and Deleuze (Žižek and Massumi). Tyree is co-executor of FRONT, a Portland-based newspaper for contemporary dance. He is currently developing a collaboration of intercrafted poetry and choreography with Romanian writer Andra Rotaru. Much love and many invitations to comment. www.roberttyree.net

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