TBA flipside: Sometimes it works and sometimes…

Brainstorm/Saheel Sounds grooved; Perforations dragged

Brainstorm/Saheel Sounds at TBA/Nim Wunnan

By Nim Wunnan

So much was happening on stage and online for the Brainstorm/Saheel Sounds show at TBA that I’m not even going to try to encapsulate it.

Some observed facts:

Three screens projected Saharan-Africa music videos, live Skype performances from Mdou Moctar in Tahoua, Niger, a twitter stream about the history of the performers, the music, and their relationship with Brainstorm mixed with audience comments and questions, and live browsing session that I can only describe as “performative research” — google searches, wikipedia articles, and quick skims other sites browsed and presented in response to the other videos, the performances, and the questions and comments on the twitter stream. #globalmobilepop will give you a slice of the fun, participatory info-chaos.

The Internet was the host. Brainstorm took the stage without verbal introduction, giving their set the sense that it was an especially rich-media embed in an otherwise dense website. That sounds weird, which it was to a degree, but it worked.

Mdou Moctar plays in the style of modern Tuareg electric guitar. It sounds like a ray-gun and a buzz saw mixed with a strong shot of badass.

Most of his music is distributed via peer-to-per sharing on cell phones. Much of it is recorded in the same way.

Brainstorm performed homophonically tranliterated versions of Moctar’s songs — replacing his lyrics with the closest heard English words, a serendipitous transatlantic game of telephone. They also did pretty well at marrying local music with the Tuareg guitar sound.

Portland’s premier Somali band, Iftin Sounds, followed Brainstorm. They were plagued by technical difficulties, but if it bothered them they didn’t show it. They finished the night with a live the Saharan rhythms and lyrics and style that the audience had been watching on screen all night.

With so much of the night happening online or on screen, they too seemed a bit like a demonstration rather than a performance to me. I think about half the audience also read them that way, because there should have been far more dancers otherwise. This is in no way a criticism — the show was a deeply satisfying confusion of research, music, cultural exchange with a truly peculiar and original stage presence. Which is what TBA is for.

Full of Holes

TBA takes chances, and so do festival-goers when picking their shows. Perforations seemed like a very safe bet — “Produced annually in Croatia, the Perforacije (Perforations) Festival is the largest independent artistic initiative encompassing Central and Eastern European work in performance art, theater, and dance.”

Everyone I spoke to before and after the show had good reason to be excited about this cross-section of Balkan performance art, hoping to see work palpably different and edgier than our local offerings. That excitement instead bloomed into the heavy disappointment that filled the beer garden and the halls of the Works before the show was even over.

Petra Kovacic of Perforatons/Nim Wunnan

The first performance suffered greatly from poor logistics. Fewer people fit on the stage to observe than the audience — or, it seems, the PICA volunteers — expected. So most of the line was turned away, and those that did get in the show complained of seeing mostly shoulders and backs of heads for a performance that didn’t quite come together. The second act was certainly the most solid, and would have done well in a tighter program. As it was, it couldn’t escape the overall feeling that everything was either too long or too loose. There were certainly some tasty sights and motions as Petra Kovacic danced with her own sharply-reflected shadow on a field of mirrors projecting brilliant shapes onto the film screen.

Biljana Kosmogina came on stage next to stump for “a new kind of political candidate,” namely the concept of “pussy.” With clear references to Voina and Pussy Riot and some asides to the pre-Enlightenment atrocities that politicians have spouted about women and their bodies recently, she had plenty of material to work with. Her explicitly-topical slideshow had the chance to be properly shocking or transgressive or something, but that too was blunted by slipshod presentation and the sort of forced enthusiasm and marathon-pacing that is usually associated with ’90’s Saturday Night Live skits or Adam Sandler movies. (To be fair, any visitor who watches “Portlandia” can’t be blamed for thinking that we like gimmicks that go on far too long here.) With the material and attitude she was working with, she needed to own the audience, not ignore it.

The final set was a noise-music duo called East Rodeo, which played to a thinned-out and impatient audience, though they didn’t seem too bothered that other people were in the room with them. They did what non-noise-musicians imagine that noise muscians do, and eventually most of the audience which had seen domestic noise musicans do nearly the same thing a dozen times found their way out to the beer garden to discuss what went wrong.

The performers and curators should be commended and respected for bringing their work to Portland. But unless they tighten this show drastically, there are other acts that have traveled just as far and worked just as hard that were better worth the time.

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