TBA Festival

‘Notes of a Native Song’ review: beguiled by Baldwin

In admiring yet refusing to canonize James Baldwin, Stew and The Negro Problem's music theater work reveals the writer's legacy of resistance to simple definition

“This ain’t your mama’s Baldwin country,” Stew glowered at the audience at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall at the outset of his September 2017 Time Based Arts Festival performance. Actually, even before the performance technically started, he’d warned us that “this is not a safe space,” and asked those who might be easily offended by art to move close to the aisles so they could flee if necessary.

With a challenge like that, it was a little disappointing to encounter nothing so scary in the singer-songwriter’s James Baldwin-inspired Notes of a Native Song. No doubt the line, and Stew’s (probably tongue in cheek) concern, stemmed from the show’s debut last year in Baldwin’s old home territory of Harlem, in front of people who knew the great mid-20th century American writer.

Stew and The Negro Problem performed ‘Notes of a Native Song’ at TBA ’17.

When his teenage daughter encountered Baldwin’s landmark semi-autobiographical novel Go Tell It on the Mountain in school, Stew re-read it for the first time since he was also a young adolescent — and suddenly realized how deeply Baldwin’s life had affected his own creative path since then. When a coincident opportunity arose to produce a show at a Harlem theater space as part of a Baldwin celebration, Stew and his longtime creative (and one-time personal) partner Heidi Rodewald created Notes on a Native Song, punning on the title of Baldwin’s celebrated essay collection Notes of a Native Son.

As he was careful to promise well in advance, the performance turned out to be more about Stew than Baldwin, more current events than history. And there’s never anything wrong with that, but actually, I left the show wanting to know more about Stew’s own Baldwin inspiration, as well as more about Baldwin himself.

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TBA: shamanism for today

Korean performer Dohee Lee's blend of technology, ritual, and engagement gets TBA:17 off to a stirring start

Dohee Lee’s performance Mu at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s 15th annual TBA festival is only one of the elements of her ongoing, multidisciplinary Puri Arts project. The Korean word, “puri” refers to the relieving and releasing of suppressed or suffering spirits, while “Mu” means shaman. From the start of the show (which opened Friday night and repeats at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 9, in the Winningstad Theatre) it’s clear that these are not allegorical titles. Lee is embodying her own new form of performative shamanism which combines traditional spiritual and theatrical elements with modern technology, contemporary settings, and current events. The large-scale projection that opens the show follows Lee as she literally brings her rituals to the streets of the modern world, walking in full costume through the streets of New York as if she was leading a procession of monks instead of curious spectators filming her on their phones.

She accompanied the large-scale projection on Korean barrel-drums, wearing the same amazing costume seen in the video. She was draped in a coat of hundreds of long paper strips bearing writing mostly in Korean, though some appeared to be in English. She wore a simple but elegant and somewhat official folded paper hat and brandished a small hand gong that carried remarkably well through the theater. The paper strips, which could easily be prayers or spells or remembrances of the dead, fluttered behind her on her long sidewalk processional as she chanted, danced, and performed a series of genuflections. While clearly following a set ritual, she demonstrated a seasoned performer’s ability to adapt to the unscripted interruptions from the world around her.

Dohee Lee’s technological shamanism.

One of the most affecting moments in that video came from an encounter with a police SUV. First appearing in the background for a moment, it later dominated the frame when the scene cut to Lee in an alleyway, kneeling in a doorframe and reciting something to herself. The SUV bristled with authority, aggressively stating its right to be where it stood. Its presence seemed to underscore Lee’s status as interloper, as the trespasser interrupting the everyday with a spiritual duty. At the moment it seemed the cops might get out of the car or squawk their siren, Lee stood up, held out her gong, and without looking back processed out of the alleyway, as if she were leading the SUV. It was the first of many moments where the line became blurry between whether Lee was using ritual as a type of performance, or she was performing an actual ritual.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: barking mad

Biting into September's shows, Brett Campbell's music picks, Miss Ethnic Non-Specific, West African drumming & dance, more

Here we are in the Dog Days of Summer, and we pretty much know what the phrase means: that hot and often muggy stretch of August that seems to last forever, when the sun saps energy and the whole world seems to lag. But where did the saying come from?

Maybe from the rising of the dog star, Sirius – a period, as Wikipedia describes it, that “Greek and Roman astrology connected with heat, drought, sudden thunderstorms, lethargy, fever, mad dogs, and bad luck.” Not to mention this week’s Dog Days interloper, the lunar blotting-out of the sun. The story ambles down from Zeus to Achilles, Hector, Seneca, and Pliny, on into the medical lore of the early modern age and even the Age of Reason: The Clavis Calendria of 1813 declares that in the Dog Days “the Sea boiled, the Wine turned sour, Dogs grew mad, Quinto raged with anger, and all other creatures became languid; causing to man, among other diseases, burning fevers, hysterics, and phrensies.”

It’s their time: “Pierrepont Edward Lacy and His Dog, Gun,” attributed to Milton W. Hopkins, 1835-36, oil on canvas, Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, Rochester, New York

All of which, frankly, has us looking forward to September, which in the cultural world (maybe as a carryover from the traditional school calendar) is the true time of fresh beginnings. Theater seasons begin to kick in. The dance calendar gets busy. The Oregon Symphony gets ready to swing into action again. TBA, the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s annual Time-Based Art festival, overtakes the city Sept. 7-17.

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And suddenly it’s October. Among other things – pumpkin patches, Yom Kippur, the World Series, Halloween – that means we’re two days from First Thursday, Portland’s monthly gallery hop of new shows. This week’s visual art calendar is a doozy, from open studios to Warhol with lots between.

A few of the highlights:

James Lavadour Ruby II, 2016 oil on panel 32" x 48"

James Lavadour, “Ruby II,” 2016, oil on panel, 32″ x 48.” PDX Contemporary.

James Lavadour at PDX Contemporary. It’s always a good day when new work by Lavadour, the veteran landscape expressionist from Pendleton, comes to town. This show, called Ledger of Days, furthers his exploration of the land and its mysteries. “A painting is a structure for the extraordinary and informative events of nature that are otherwise invisible,” he writes. “A painting is a model for infinity.” Lavadour is also one of the moving forces behind Pendleton’s innovative and essential Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts, which celebrates its 25th anniversary next year. Watch for what’s coming up.

The new Russo Lee Gallery: 30 years. What you’ve known for years as Laura Russo Gallery is celebrating three decades with a showing of new work by its distinguished stable of artists – and with a new name. The name is a fusion of the gallery’s long tradition and current reality. After founder Laura Russo died in 2010, her longtime employee Martha Lee bought the business and continues to operate it. This show promises to be a statement of sorts, and will have a catalog available.

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Eisa Jocson dances beyond exotic

Reliving a TBA performance of gender exaggerations, sexy technicianship, and unintended crowd control.

All these poles. Bus stop poles. Parking sign poles. Load-bearing poles upholding boxy overhangs, with people’s bikes locked to them. They stood out to me as I headed to Eisa Jocson’s Death of a Pole Dancer, and I wondered: Why have I never seen someone dance on one of these? Portland being one of the most stripper-rich cities per capita, as well as a DIY/guerilla/performance art mecca, it seems like you’d routinely spot someone casually practicing a few moves, but never. It just doesn’t happen.

Why not? Well, the minute it did, honking and hooting would ensue. “The places you do see it, and the way that people think about it, are…do I want to say ‘symbiotic?'” says a dancer friend.

“Conversant?” I suggest.

She means: the venues in which pole dancing is typically performed limit the way it’s perceived; in turn, the way it’s perceived confines it to certain venues. Typically. But TBA performers* break many rules. As it turns out, Jocson, who must have noticed the same thing we did about poles’ ubiquity and latent performance potential, began “pole tagging” in 2010:

eisa-photomontage-brussels1

And now, with Death of a Pole Dancer, she’s attempting to bring to the discipline further breakthroughs. For instance, it must be a rule that pole dancers don’t show their audience the pole setup process. In a performance space where a pole isn’t perma-installed, you can still put one in. Jocson’s TBA performance in the BodyVox Education Studio highlighted that process.

Dressed stripper-style in a black halter top and ultra-short miniskirt, platform stilettos bound onto her feet with black electrical tape, she hauled a long gear bag into our circle of silent bystanders. The only sounds in the room were the clop of her shoes and the rasp of Velcro as she undid her gear bag, producing the chromey pieces of a dancing pole that might as well have been a giant woodwind or a gun. Methodically, she lined up the pieces on the floor and locked them together, tightening them with a utili-key. The anticipation of what was about to happen was about half of the show, and established the performer as more of a technician than a mere pretty face.

While she was doing that, a note on the seating arrangement: in the small gallery-like room outside BodyVox’s main theater, there was no official seating, which forced some ad-hoc problem-solving and crowd cooperation. The constraints of the room were such that we had to squish, and some of us had to sit. At least two couples deemed themselves too special for this process, standing in front of others seated on the floor, or other standers shorter than themselves. They deflected gentle requests with snappy shutdowns and curt excuses.

“I have bad joints,” said a man who was about 6’5″. I can’t sit down.” The crowd accommodated, clearing a space at the back where he could stand and see without blocking others. He refused to take it; the back row was symbolically beneath him.

I hadn’t seen this type of crowd consternation at TBA since several years ago, when David Eckard’s outdoor performance was upstaged by a very vocal drunk homeless heckler. Two TBA ticketholders had tried to shush that outsider with their best theater manners, and were shocked when it didn’t work. Why didn’t he understand that the other man in the park (Eckard) was implicitly allowed to orate to the crowd, while he was not? Another ticketholder performed an interesting duality, loudly voicing “requests” for the crowd to hear, yet whispering threats of violence (more audibly than he thought) in the offender’s ear.

All this to say: TBA’s crowd management snafus sometimes create their own spontaneous social practice/experimental performance moments, beyond the official shows. When confronted with personal inconvenience, which of society’s character tropes will you take?

Now back to the performance: Jocson took her sweet time installing the pole, polishing its shiny surface with a chamois until it responded with rhythmic shrieks, and enlisting an audience member to help her complete its erection. Then she began to subject the object to tensile testing, yanking on it with first just her arms, then her full body weight, forcing it over and over to bow out and snap back, wedging it tighter into place. Her tugs and exhalations became rhythmic and the pole became firmer. Now she reversed her movement, flinging her body at the pole sternum-first, chest-bump style. She glowered and breathed sharply like a filmic ninja fighter as the lights lowered. “Railing against the rod,” one onlooker described it. Does this description sound steamy? It was. Dangerous, too, as Jocson segued into advanced pole-dancer moves, looping round and round, climbing up and hanging upside-down to finally cue some music–a slowed-down, distorted rendition of Dusty Springfield’s “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself.”

HdKW In Transit 11

She rotated in a circle so all sides could take in her lithe body and tortured expression. She was at least trembling, possibly sobbing as she slipped down the pole, catching herself with her hands and finally collapsing face-down as a bright light swept in diagonally to cast her image as a shadowy, high-contrast noir comicbook graphic.

The lights came up, and again, the crowd had an opportunity to perform its various selves. One of the most obnoxious resisters to sitting down was also the first to shrug and leave the room, stepping around the prostrate Jocson while others were still nervously watching. Some of us thought this might be a test, that if we continued to watch Jocson, we might see more performance—until house manager Paul Susi** peeled us reluctantly away.

Ten or twenty minutes later, we were invited into the much more spacious BodyVox auditorium for Jocson’s second act, Macho Dancer. Jocson, who, oddly enough, got into both pole and macho dancing upon the suggestion of her aunt and studied with the forms’ masters, certainly commits to her performances, to an extent that the TBA previews call “hauntingly accurate.” In camo shorts, knee pads, a tank, and cowboy boots, she burst onto the catwalk to a playlist of ’80s headbangers and husky-voiced radio ballads, as a fog machine enveloped her in vaguely vanilla-scented clouds that caught and suspended the light.

machodancer1_eisajocson_c2a9gianninaottiker

Macho dancing—a phenomenon Jocson deems unique to the Phillippines, but that at least echoes Western male entertainers like the Chippendales and country/rock/metal singers—uses a small, distinct vocabulary of moves that include looming and crouching, grinding hips and flexing thighs, various hair tosses and finger run-throughs, bicep curls and ab flexes, and the saunter and nose-wipe moves so often made by b-boys. In a 45-minute routine, the repetition got—I’m sure depending on who you ask—either redundant or hypnotic. But like most exotic dancers, the variation was provided by an escalating state of undress. Jocson first freed her hair from a ponytail, then stripped her shorts, revealing lace-up skivvies stuffed with a large diagonally-tucked dildo. Eventually she removed her top, too, leaving a dog-tag-length crucifix dangling between her breasts. The full effect of a figure with flowing hair, gender duality, and a sacred amulet, looming above the crowd on a catwalk ensconced in clouds, evoked some ancient deity in a way that transcended any tawdry flesh-peddling. Jocson had made herself less spectacle than specter.

The crowd—either subdued by sitting or dumbstruck by the performance—filed out in an orderly fashion.

 

 

*It’s worth noting here that Portland Center Stage also hosted out-of-element pole dancers this summer as part of the lobby entertainment for long lines waiting to attend the JAW festival.

**Susi, seemingly still in character from his recent turn as The Player in Anon It Moves’ Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, was both dashing and perfunctory as he corralled the large crowd out front and within the BodyVox space.

 

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A. L. Adams is associate editor of Artslandia Magazine and a frequent contributor to The Portland Mercury.

Read more from Adams at Oregon ArtsWatch | Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

 

The book I read was in your eyes

Anne Hamilton at Elizabeth Leach, Anna Gray and Ryan Wilson Paulsen at PDX Contemporary Art

When I first thought to write this essay for ArtsWatch, the artists for the 2014 Whitney Biennial had not yet been announced. I mention this because now I cannot consider the Portland exhibits I wish to write about without contemplating the tenor of the Whitney curators’ choices for the upcoming Biennial. Much of the art chosen is by artists who also write about art, or artists who often use text in their work, or artists who only use text in their work, and to fill out this line of thought, publishers of texts. (See the breakdown here.)

Not that I want to make claims for being prescient or any such thing, but the art that caught my eye in Portland the last two months also had much to do with writing and reading. Never mind that I am often creatively geared this way and that my own predisposition may guide me toward this type of work—I have seen a lot lately. In the last year or so I have written essays about artists who use text as a central focus of their work: Lisa Radon’s sublime ἐπί ἡμέρα (epi hemera) and Sue Tompkins’ typewritten works at Portland Museum of Modern Art and part of this year’s TBA Festival.

Now, Elizabeth Leach has an exhibit by Ann Hamilton that runs for ten weeks through January 11, plus Anna Gray and Ryan Wilson Paulsen were around the corner at PDX Contemporary Art last month. Then there is an ongoing curatorial thrust of Yale Union. While I hesitate to call it a trend, I cannot brush it off as a coincidence. Something is afoot.

Whether text (and I mean this in the broadest possible sense) is finally getting its due as the inspiration for and an element of a fair amount of art we see these days, or that the worlds of the poet, philosopher, curator, critic and artist have irrevocably melded into a Leviathan of practice, it nevertheless has me thinking.

Does building a richer inner life, namely by reading, run the danger of becoming a form of hermeticism, thereby leaving something or someone behind?

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Risking large: Angela Mattox and TBA

At Bright City Lights, PICA's artistic director explains why TBA isn't warm and cuddly

At Monday night’s Bright City Lights, the congenial moderator Randy Gragg interviewed Angela Mattox, the artistic director of Portland Institute for Contemporary Art on the little stage of Jimmy Mak’s jazz club in Portland’s Pearl District. Mattox has been on the job long enough to curate two Time-Based Art Festivals, develop out-of-festival programs (mostly of work in progress by artists performing in an upcoming festival), move to PICA’s new home on Southwest 10th, and help create the Precipice Fund, which turns PICA into a granting organization for small, unincorporated and unofficial artist projects. During their 90 minutes or so onstage, Gragg and Mattox touched on all of these and also a little of Mattox’s bio, because that’s so pertinent to her curating efforts.

Little of this was especially new if you’ve followed PICA, TBA and Mattox’s work very closely, but the summing up was helpful, even if you had. Gragg’s questions were pertinent and characteristically probing, and Mattox’s openness and sense of balance about what she was doing was refreshing.

What I liked best was the clear way Mattox talked about her approach to curating the festival and then after the question-and-answer period, the appreciation of how difficult her job really is. Why is it hard? Because if PICA sees its role as challenging and even subverting the cluster of conventional notions around performance, which it does, it risks offending its audience or missing them altogether, which it has. You don’t have to have a business degree to understand how precarious this particular model must be.

Angela Mattox at a TBA:13 Conversation/Gordon Wilson

Angela Mattox at a TBA:13 conversation/Gordon Wilson

What conventional notions am I talking about? A big one is the role of the audience: lots of PICA performers involve the audience directly in their artmaking and just about all of them address the audience directly, one way or another. If you want to be a silent, comfortable observer in your seat in the dark, many PICA artists won’t satisfy you. Others include the traditional demand for utter transparency and clarity, a simple structure, cultural references that are immediate (lots of PICA performers Mattox has programmed have come from Africa and South America), what constitutes “craft,” and what “good” means.

We use these conventions to measure and talk about performances, subverting them can be irritating. The audience didn’t offer lots of opinions or questions, really, but the judgments they did offer, including Gragg’s, indicated a fairly high degree of irritation about some of TBA:13. On the other hand, no one stood up and testified that any particular artist had moved or enlightened them in any way, which I found astonishing, mostly because I have experienced that reliably at TBA over the years, including TBA:13 (the latest version). If I hadn’t had my press hat on and been so busy taking notes, I might have given testimony along those lines, despite how accustomed I am to sitting comfortably in the dark and judging.

Mattox’s curatorial approach seems based on her wide familiarity with emerging performing practices in various parts of the world, her decision that certain artists she encounters have something profound to tell us, the relationships she establishes with those artists (lasting for years sometimes before manifesting on a stage), and their mutual selection of ideas to develop into performance, often for the first time at TBA.

“We throw words like experimental and risk around all the time and it’s lost all meaning,” Mattox said at one point, before pointing out how truly experimental and risky this process is, especially when it comes to bringing projects from North Africa or Chile here, as Mattox has done. And for me at least, she threw down the gauntlet: “We’re not in this work to hear, ‘this is great.'” Which I thought was about the riskiest thing I’ve ever heard an artistic director in Portland say, when it comes right down to it.

What I think Mattox was saying is simply that she offers no guarantees—that you’ll get it, that you’ll like it, that you’ll be able to sit through it, that your mind won’t wander, that you will have a transcendental moment. Actually, these are subjective responses (Mattox used the word “subjective” a lot), and when you think about it, NO art work can offer guarantees of this sort. What she offers instead is an experience that will be new in one way or another, maybe even profoundly new, upsettingly new, irritatingly new.

In this subjective, subverted world, how does the audience gain traction? Mattox worries about that, though I think it’s as much because she wants to protect the artists as help the audience, though in a way these are overlapping missions. So, TBA offers daily conversations with the artists during the festival, those works-in-progress events before the festival starts, a website full of links to previous work by the artist and commentary about them, its own blog during the festival, and probably other paths to understanding that I don’t know about. Of course it’s ridiculous to show up at a performance by Moroccan choreographer Bouchra Ouizguen without having done ANY research and hope to fully understand what’s going on, what’s at stake, what her cultural resources are, what social, political and economic conditions shape the work. The sort of “art” that requires NO research is the Hollywood blockbuster, which only counts on us understanding the idea of revenge to understand fully. Ouizguen, who appeared at this year’s TBA Festival, operates at the margins of her own society and performance traditions, commenting on them as she reacts to them. We need some knowledge to enter her world with her.

Is that too much to ask? To find out enough about Ouizguen to be able to interpret what she’s doing? To trust Mattox that Ouizguen’s work will offer rewards once we do? That’s a personal question, sure, but also a question for the society. How simple do we want our art experiences? How warm and cuddly? How immediate must our gratification be?

The TBA Festival is uncommon because it trusts its audience to take responsibility for itself, to do what it needs to do, even if it means leaving a show, as Mattox said, but then to come back and try again. On my bleaker days, I think this trust is misplaced. How can the Portland audience, even the odd sliver that TBA attracts, be different from audiences everywhere else, audiences that demand escape, sweet and salty snacks, something that anesthetizes them? But TBA is successful within certain parameters. It draws good crowds during its 11-day run, not gigantic ones but solid. Gradually, it has become an important international festival and nurturing ground for performance that breaks with convention, that comments on our politics, our values, our ideas about what fits into the category “art,” the tiny particularity that resides within the big word “international.” That’s mostly because we support art of this kind, get its value, arrive open-minded even after leaving the last performance perplexed or even vaguely put out.

Ultimately, I do believe in the particularity of Portland and its tradition of support for and positive enjoyment of maverick work of all kinds, which frankly is what makes ArtsWatch so much fun. I think PICA and Angela Mattox must share that faith, along with their faith in the artists they bring.

 
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