Leslie Scalapino. photo: Tom White


When Portland composer Sarah Dougher was commissioned by Leslie Scalapino’s family to set three of the late poet’s poem/plays, “Fin de Siècle 1-3,” to song, Dougher began by writing them out by hand.

narration of their construction is
fragile – being

                                           they were hearing my reading and
                                           a woman with child – going into
                                           labor it was going to be born


“I started to physicalize it,” Dougher says. “And as I did that I absorbed Leslie’s instructions as to how these poems are to be spoken, her pauses as extension of the sound. I took what was unfamiliar in syntax and [ambiguous] meaning and tried to turn it into musical forms that sound familiar, a suite of connected songs.” The result is a work for five voices and acoustic instruments with images by photographer Themba Lewis that debuts at PICA’s TBA:11 Festival  Wednesday evening, September 14 at 8:30 PM at Washington High School.

The poems are not begging to be set to music. They’re jagged things with interruptions, abrupt left turns, brick walls, and cliffs. But with their own rhythms, rolling and looping with a momentum that drives and eddies, they address labor, class, war, and smaller violences.

(she runs loping in
a loop several times
slowly forward and then
returning to her place

                                                           not quite right
                                      (she turns
                                                           not quite right
                                      in a circle)
                                                           not quite right

The commission developed through a connection at the alma mater Dougher shares with Scalapino, Reed College. Scalapino (Reed ’66) not only endowed three full scholarships at Reed, but left her art collection to the college. So Stephanie Snyder, who is the curator of the Cooley Gallery at Reed, arranged a memorial service for Scalapino for which she asked Dougher to create music. This led to Tom White, Scalapino’s husband, to commission “Fin de Siècle,” a portion of which as a work in progress was performed at the memorial in February.


inside is movement so
walking who’s person
by goes
car—by goes cycle
weather scorching
the—in—painting men
         words, see 


Dougher’s works for choir have now included setting to music poems of Robert Duncan and William Stafford as well as Scalapino. Which is not at all an obvious path when you consider she’s put out albums on the Kill Rock Stars, K Records, and Mr. Lady labels. Of course the Ph.D. in comparative literature might have presaged projects like these.

Dougher’s first commission of this kind was to set Orestes to music. The Classical Greek Theater of Oregon was doing Euripedes’ version with a focus on the struggle of the teenagers, and they wanted the music to rock. “I didn’t know how to write music,” Dougher says, “so I taught the songs to these eight women by ear, by singing the parts to them.” That summer, she was asked by PICA to manage the recruitment of a horde of guitarists for John King’s “Extreme Guitar Orchestra” which opened the 2006 TBA Festival in Pioneer Square. The next year, she was again asked to recruit volunteer performers for a large group performance for TBA. This was Rinde Eckert’s “On the Great Migration of Excellent Birds,” and the group of performers she brought together and rehearsed would come to be called the Flash Choir. This performance required the choir members not only to sing, but to engage in coordinated and/or improvised movement so it self-selected for a certain kind of adventurous performer.

Once that performance was over, many members of the Flash Choir wanted to continue to work together. With musical director Pat Janowski, Dougher continued to work with the choir, writing a number of works for it, including the aforementioned Duncan and Stafford works, and more recently coordinating the choir as other artists like Ethan Rose have written work for the choir to perform.

Dougher has taken Scalapino’s instructions as to how the works are to be spoken with the line breaks indicating pauses.  “The content suggested the voicing, suggested the mood,” Dougher says. But ultimately she admits she writes for her own voice, and so the instrumentation as well as the choir is close to the human voice with violin, cello, trumpet, trombone, piano, and percussion.

Dougher has received an Oregon Arts Commission grant to contribute to the recording of the work. Following its TBA debut, “Fin de Siecle” travels to Mills College and Bard in New York, where Scalapino taught in the summer program.

a ship sailing, pulling
away from dock—its wake
and a man part of the mess crew
in it—working—it on the mass of water
           put back through
           not going to seem


The Rude Mechs in "Method Gun"/Courtesy of G. Wilson and TBA

I approached the Rude Mechs show The Method Gun with some skepticism. I generally detest art about art, with its usual insider references (or so I thought) and the premise sounded  oh-so-meta: a theater piece about a theater company’s staging of a theater production. Happily, the Austin-based company merely used the subject matter as a vehicle to do what the best theater always does: tells us about who we are and why we do what we do. In giving us a deliciously deceptive story about art, they’re telling us about ourselves, artists and non artists alike.

It’s really a story about an absence — though not the big lacuna alleged in the story, which concerns a famous (though fictional) theater director named Stella Burden, who devised a way of making theater more real called “The Approach,” and if this sounds suspiciously like a famous nonfictional Stella (Adler) and “The Method” she created, it’s hardly an accident. (As for the surname, I wonder if it references the Los Angeles artist Chris Burden, who wanted to make art with so much impact that he staged a performance in which a collaborator actually shot him. He survived and is happily making art to this day; I visited his Los Angeles studio a few years ago, where he was making a big installation involving old lightposts.)

Stella B’s conceit is to stage a version of A Streetcar Named Desire — without Stanley, Stella, Mitch or Blanche. Like them, Burden never appears in The Method Gun. The show is about the actors she left behind, somewhat like Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is about the bit players in Hamlet. “She gave us ourselves, and now we don’t even have that,” one wails.



During a talk at his gallery Fourteen30, I once asked Jesse Sugarmann if failure was something he was exploring in his work. In other words, were his car works in particular, experiments with equal opportunities of success and failure, or even experiments with no determined outcome, for example setting a car up on blocks rev the engine and see what will happen. He responded that failure wasn’t something he was interested in per se, that he worked to make certain outcomes happen.

He say, “one more job oughta get it
One last shot ‘fore we quit it”
One for the road

TBA:11/Jesse Sugarmann “Lido (the pride is back)” from Lisa Radon on Vimeo.


That came to mind yesterday at the 4 PM performance of Sugarmann’s “Lido (The pride is back)” at Washington High School for PICA’s TBA:11 Festival. And this has a lot to do with managing the audience’s expectations because lifting three Chrysler minivans off the ground is pretty spectacular, but when PICA had used the word “flip” to describe the performance, one expects flipping or falling over maybe, but probably not leaning which was the end result. He’s doing the performance twice more today, Sunday, September 11, so flipping may happen at either 4 PM or 7 PM. I can’t help thinking, though, that the promise of a flip and the resulting lean might have been Sugarmann’s intention all along, a metaphor for American car industry’s repeated big promises and not-quite-there delivery not only on product but all of the attendant issues that the US has been dealing with since manufacturing was moved overseas, workers lost family-wage jobs, and cities like Flint and Detroit fell apart. Sugarmann’s expressly referencing Lee Iacocca in this piece. I never knew that Lido was Iacocca’s nickname, but don’t ever say you didn’t learn anything from art. Iacocca’s big personality had a definite “Watch this!” edge to it which makes either a flip or a fail-to-flip outcome pretty apt.

I should say that the whining soundtrack of the electric blowers may be my favorite part of the piece.

I recently wrote this for art ltd. about Sugarmann’s recent Works and Days solo exhibition at Fourteen30 which explains a bit more about the celebration and critique of American car culture that his work addresses in what I think are such smart and subtle ways.

I’m not even going to be annoyed with Sugarmann for getting that Boz Scaggs song stuck in my head (which I apparently…according to oldielyrics.com…I have been singing incorrectly since I first heard it).

It could be the theme song for the last 30 or so years of the American car industry:

Lido missed the boat
That day he left the shack
But that was all he missed
He ain’t comin’ back.

PICA’s TBA:11 Festival opened last night at Washington High School with the openings for the visual art exhibitions.

I haven’t been able to get that Pink Floyd song out of my head for weeks, thanks to PICA Visual Arts curator Kristan Kennedy. The metaphor of brick as building material and proletarian street weapon of choice/convenience fairly brilliantly sums up the armature on which Kennedy’s exhibition, Evidence of Bricks, hangs. So on my first run-through (almost literally) of the exhibitions last night, brick and clay loomed large for me (because one sees what one is looking for), as did fire as the element of un-building.

Walking into Kate Gilmore’s installation, it was funny to see the viewers all facing the video of Gilmore and her ladies barehandedly tearing apart the giant clay cube bit by bit when the actual site where the performance had happened was right behind them. The yellow platform and cube were stained flesh-colored (a color that felt very significant in this context) from flying handfuls of clay while all around on the floor was the mass of fragments of slowly drying clay. There were ladies’ shoes that had became stuck and were abandoned. The video actually makes the scene less violent than it feels.

Nearby, the violent promise of Claire Fontaine’s installation of a zillion green-tipped matches embedded on end in the wall in the shape of the United States remained potential. In Anna Gray and Ryan Wilson Paulsen’s space, fire had done its damage — an ever-present threat to the fragile, paper-based archive. More on these projects soon.

Opening night is fun, a social way of seeing art, lots of talking about and around the work, lots of tangents. But I’m looking forward to going back and spending time…class is in session.


Michael Reinsch. Gallery Walk. photo: Nathaniel Thayer Moss

Michael Reinsch. Gallery Walk. photo: Nathaniel Thayer Moss. PICA TBA:11

An image comes to mind of a white, ideal space that, more than any single picture, may be the archetypal image of twentieth century art; it clarifies itself through a process of historical inevitability usually attached to the art it contains….

A gallery is constructed along laws as rigorous as those for building a medieval church. The outside world must not come in, so windows are usually sealed off. Walls are painted white. The ceiling becomes the source of light. The wooden floor is polished so that you click along clinically, or carpeted so that you pad soundlessly, resting the feet while the eyes have at the wall.

Brian O’Doherty, “Inside the White Cube”

Why wait for PICA’s Time-Based Art (TBA) Festival 2011 to start before beginning to write about it? The official kick-off may not be until Thursday evening, but things are already Happening! For example, and this was a project that I eagerly anticipated by one of Portland’s own, Michael Reinsch has turned the gallery inside out with his mobile performance/installation “Gallery Walk,” which debuted on First Thursday and continues episodically through the festival. Reinsch performs as a mobile gallery, or a man in a “gallery” costume, walking the streets in a four-sided white box of a costume with cubbies to hold artwork.

The ideal gallery subtracts from the artwork all cues that interfere with the fact that it is “art.” The work is isolated from everything that would detract from its own evaluation of itself. This gives the space a presence possessed by other spaces where conventions are preserved through the repetition of a closed system of values.

Brian O’Doherty, “Inside the White Cube”

There is a rotating series of exhibitions on deck, but that’s a little beside the point. Reinsch follows Brian O’Doherty’s famous series of essays “Inside the White Cube” (quoted above) in critiquing the conventions of the white cube gallery. Reflecting its time, with artists (O’Doherty made art under the pseudonym Patrick Ireland) questioning everything about the production, economics, and exhibition of art while simultaneously seeking to critically broach art-life boundaries, “Inside the White Cube” may have generated a lot of conversation, but the conventions that were being addressed at the time haven’t changed a whit. But 35 years or so after O’Doherty’s essays on the subject were first published in Artforum, Reinsch adds a twist to, or I should say frosting on the cake of, O’Doherty’s critique by adding a soundtrack: as he walks around as the gallery, he’s proclaiming a mash-up of snippets of artist statements, gallery PR, didactics, and whatnot. There’s some artspeak in the monologue, which is what I imagine he’s aiming at, but there are also just funny words around the making, exhibition, and selling of art that by repeating deadpan, he hoists on their own petard(s).

It’s a strong project. It makes me want to read O’Doherty’s book in which the essays are collected again, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space. But the real value is getting the sidewalk viewers thinking about questions like what makes art art (does it need the privileged space of the white cube to be considered as art?), and what creates both monetary and cultural value in art (does putting it in the white cube rather than your garage or alt space increase its perceived value?). These questions were particularly interesting where I happened to see Reinsch: near PNCA, where inside the walls, students are being prepared for lives in art that ideally will take them to exhibiting in white-walled galleries and museums, while outside the walls, artists were displaying their wares art ‘n craft fair-style, selling to the pedestrian traffic on the sidewalk. And of course across town, PICA visual art curator Kristan Kennedy and crew have spent the summer white-boxing Washington High School to host TBA’s visual arts exhibitions. And then there are the questions that a certain viewer will appreciate, including: Are we over institutional critique yet? How about the whole art-life divide thing?

I will say that the first “Gallery Walk” exhibition should probably have been its last. Curated by arguably Portland’s top contemporary visual art curator, Reed College’s Cooley Gallery curator Stephanie Snyder, the exhibition turned the project back in on itself by populating the shelves and cubbies with a mess of what looked like kid’s party detritus, streamers and whatnot, which are the kinds of props that Reinsch has used in other performances. So here was the artist-as-gallery exhibiting an exhibit that reflected on his own process or post-performance mess. Again, it would have been a fantastic détournement AFTER the gallery had exhibited work in a more straightforward manner by other artists. Alas.

Look forward to another exhibition curated by PNCA Feldman Gallery curator Mack McFarland, and exhibitions of work by Katie Dunbar, Wilder Schmalta, Ralph Pugay, Mattew Gruber, Nicole Erko Amagai-Smith, and Craig Wheat. Find Reinsch and “Gallery Walk” Monday, September 12, Wednesday, September 14, and Thursday, September 29 from 6-9 PM setting out from Washington High School.

Michael Reinsch. Gallery Walk Time-Based Art Festival, PICA Photo by Tony Box Courtesy of Portland Institute for Contemporary Art.

Michael Reinsch. Gallery Walk. Time-Based Art Festival, PICA. photo: Tony Box Courtesy of Portland Institute for Contemporary Art.

Claire Fontaine, France (burnt/unburnt). Photo courtesy of the artist and Air de Paris.


 …her practice can be described as an ongoing interrogation of political impotence and the crisis of singularity that seem to define contemporary art today. But if the artist itself is the subjective equivalent of a urinal or a Brillo box – as displaced, deprived of her use value and exchangeable as the products she makes – there is always the possibility of what she calls the “human strike.” Claire Fontaine uses the freshness of her youth to become a singularity and an existential terrorist in search of emancipation. It grows among the ruins of the function author, experimenting with collective protocols of production, diversion, and the establishment of various mechanisms for sharing intellectual property and private property.

– Translation of Claire Fontaine artist statement/bio via Google Translate (the lazy French-reader’s friend)


This is one of the things I am most excited about at PICA’s TBA:11 festival. Kristan Kennedy’s curated French collective  Claire Fontaine  into the visual arts exhibition at Washington High. I’m familiar with CF’s writings-as-art works, but for TBA I understand matches are involved. Lots of matches. And if they want to set things on fire, I say, let’s do this. Here is an excerpt from Claire Fontaine’s “Dear R” suggests why fire makes sense:

I read somewhere the story of a philosopher who had ended his days in an asylum because he had understood that his books were a series of letters written to communist proletarians who would never read them. The intellectuals were the only ones reading his works and they were simply commenting on them.
He surely must have felt inside a silence similar to this one, like an all powerful objection to what we can say about our present.
His body must have filled up with people that never speak. People that have nothing to say about their lives at the limit of the alphabet, on the margins of the law, that no language shelters, and about which there is nothing to explain.

And then you strike the match. This frustration, this trap in which the philosopher finds himself, is a smart analogue for the predicament of the contemporary artist seeking political engagement, n’est-ce pas?

And you don’t have to wait for the festival to start. Claire Fontaine will lead a pre-Festival salon discussion on their current installation and their broader practice this Friday, August 26 at 6 PM at Washington High.

From PICA:

Their art enacts an ideological bait-and-switch, referring to familiar artworks and constructs to expose the underlying impotence of our current society. Alongside their sculpture-based and installation work, Claire Fontaine have a robust theoretical writing practice, and have penned manifestos, philosophical treatises, and historical examinations of revolutionary legacies.

For TBA:11, the artists will map the United States of America in over 100,000 matches embedded in a classroom wall. Join us for a behind-the-scenes artist talk and see the piece in-progress—by Festival time, it may or may not have been burned. Then, follow us to Hal’s Tavern for beers and a wide-ranging conversation about art, capitalism, modern identities, and the future of societal revolution.

Claire Fontaine ON SIGHT Salon
Friday, August 26th, 6:00pm
Washington High School, SE Stark between 12th & 14th (map)
FREE, RSVP to rsvp@pica.org

Under the Morrison Bridge from Ed Purver on Vimeo.

This is just a one-minute, twenty second tease of one of the more epic projects at PICA‘s TBA:11 Festival. The Hidden Life of Bridges turns the Hawthorne and Morrison bridges into a giant art installation for three nights of the festival. Brooklyn-based video artist Ed Purver and Portland sound artist Tim DuRoche are collaborating on a project that incorporates live sound generated from mics on  the Hawthorne bridge, recorded interviews with the workers who maintain and run the bridges, and video of the inner workings of the bridges. As you’ll see in the video, it promises to be as poetic and surprisingly beautiful as well as spectacular.

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