The TBA festival: Why it matters

Photo by the PICA Press Corps

A couple of days away from the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s Time-Based Art festival started me thinking.  Why is TBA important — to me and to the city, and by “city” I mean, as usual, the entire cultural watershed? Why do I attend and why should we care about a little, curated festival of fringe-y performance art, with a little multi-media and visual arts thrown in?

[Editor’s note: This is reprinted from the blog Arts Dispatch, where it appeared one year ago.]

Maybe this is it: TBA presents the greatest concentration of artists struggling openly with the problem of freedom that we have in Portland during the calendar year. And freedom is difficult to handle, for artists and for everyone else, for that matter. We are confused by it, turn our backs on it, resent it, trumpet its virtues without accepting its responsibilities, assume it for ourselves and deny it to others. It is thoroughly perplexing. So TBA provides us with a little living laboratory, a tiny sliver of tissue, that we can slide under the microscope for a good, long look.

Artists are born and start making art in prison.

The criss-crossing bars on one axis are the cultural practices, including language, that help them shape their experience; and on the other axis, the specific history, philosophy and pedagogy of art-making that shape their own art. They may resist this imprisonment, though, and attempt to free themselves in order that they might achieve a “purer” experience of the world itself and a freer art, more expressive of that experience and their work on it.

The best way to escape seems to be a more and more complete understanding of the nature of the bars themselves, an identification and occupation of the space between the bars. At TBA we see artists at various stages of this process — of understanding, of finding support in empty spaces, of reinvention.

Sometimes, maybe most times, artists who escape promptly construct another prison for themselves, a set of practices and “understandings” that form new axes or restraint.

This all occurred to me as I made my way through Theodor W. Adorno’s 1961 essay, Vers une musique informelle, which is a manifesto for a new kind of music, a utopian music, with maximum freedom and transparency. I don’t pretend to understand it — I would need far more knowledge about 20th century avant-garde music, Gestalt psychology, Kant and a variety of other subjects to follow the details of his central argument. But one section of it started me on this thought-train.

Why do artists build new prisons once they find “open ground”? Adorno suggests that it is fear of chaos, of disorder. “They [artists] internalize the social compulsion oppressing them in their supposed kingdom of freed, the realm of artistic production, and on top of that they confuse it with the innate vocation of art. The inherent, transparent laws that spring from freedom and the capitulation to an invoked order are mutually incompatible.”

And later, “… the fear of chaos is excessive, in music as in social psychology.”  And then just to hammer it home: “Order simply has to be imposed on freedom, the latter must be reined in — so the argument goes — whereas the situation is rather that freedom should organize itself in such a way that it need bow to no alien yardstick which mutilates everything that strives to shape itself in freedom.”

Adorno goes on to explain what informal music could be, usually be explaining what it isn’t — subjective, mechanical or anti-art (expressionist, classical or Dada). He critiques serialism and the 12-note system. And though he has some kind words for John Cage, the mechanics of chance and its appeal to transcendence get a good scouring, too.  But that isn’t my point here: As I have admitted, I’m in no position to talk in detail about the arguments of the essay, the subtle points he makes about logic and causality, for example.

I am interested in freedom, though, and the idea that we don’t seem to have a reasonable set of practices that help us make the most of it. As I said, it confuses us, and if we barely trust it in ourselves, we’re doubly suspicious of it in others. And that’s understandable: Our democracy, deformed and tattered as it is, hasn’t shown itself able develop a clear idea of what it means to be free, nor to help us to negotiate fairly those places where our freedoms overlap and come into conflict, where the consequences of our actions spin into a public realm.

Free, we start building prisons for ourselves — we want strong leaders, we want to avoid voting, we want to return to conventional wisdom or power politics or survival of the fittest or the religious nation.

Free, our artists stake out their territory, defend it against all comers, seek to align themselves with power in the society.

Or so it has often been. In the instability of our present time, though, I find some signs of hope, a commitment to freedom. And I find that at TBA, in general and in the particular artists I’ve seen perform this year — Mike Daisey, Maria Hassabi, Conor Lovett.

Daisey dealt with social justice issues seated at a desk, using the needle of wit and the broad strokes of slapstick (yes, even though he was seated, somehow). Hassabi transformed what we might perceive as weakness and even silliness in women’s social attitudes and gestures (the actress, model, painted subject) into something powerful and engaging. Lovett channeled the deep skepticism of Samuel Beckett and at the same time Beckett’s relentless pursuit of something true about the world, about us, about himself.

They attempted to see the world as clearly as they could; they sought a practice that allowed them to convey this material (an Adorno word) in a fresh way, unencrusted by the conventions of monologue or dance or theater. Their performances found their own logic, coherence, consistency. We never knew what to expect next. We believed them. We found inspiration in their freedom.

The practice of freedom should be a general practice, not confined to specialists who dare to climb to the summit, like mountaineers or religious seekers. It is intimately tied to democracy, for what I hope are obvious reasons. But as John Dewey, the great philosopher of democracy, suggests, our arguments for democracy are faint, negative. “The interests of the community are better cared for when there is permitted a large measure of personal judgment and choice in the formation of intellectual conclusions,” he writes in The Public and Its Problems. And yet:

“We agree to leave one another alone (within limits) more from recognition of evil consequences which have resulted from the opposite course rather than from any profound belief in its positive social beneficence. As long as the latter consequence is not widely perceived, the so-called natural right to private judgment will remain a somewhat precarious rationalization of the moderate amount of toleration which has come into being.”

We seem to have wandered far afield of our first image here, the artist in prison. What I don’t like about  the image is that it’s about an individual, when we know that the practice of art is profoundly social. That’s what makes the prison break so difficult.  But if we believe in the free exercise of private judgment, if our skepticism is directed at conventional forms and wisdom and rules of thumb, then the prison bars start to dissolve, and not just for artists.  And this, I hypothesize, would lead to vast social consequences, not simply individual liberation.

TBA reminds me what the process looks like, even when I’m not keen on specific performances — maybe MOST when I’m not keen on specific performances.  It looks messy, disjointed, different, puzzling, difficult. It requires more than simple tolerance: I need to engage, for better or worse.  And what I’m arguing here is that there’s no better training for freedom, for democracy, than that.


Again, this was written a year ago after TBA:10 on my blog Arts Dispatch. TBA:11 — with a different set of artists (except for Mike Daisey) — makes the same point, at least to me.

One Response.

  1. Trisha Mead says:


    I love this thought that artists, once freed from the prisons of their culture and orthodoxy, create new prisons for themselves out of fear of chaos.

    It fits: as humans, we are meaning-making machines. It is fundamental to our neuro-biology. And as consumers of art and culture we are equally focused on finding the patterns, themes and order in the chaos of our visual experiences.

    The art forms that attempted to abolish meaning have been largely dead ends (dad-ism, postmodernism).

    I might argue that meaning from chaos is precisely what we seek to experience art for.

    But another biological fact comes into play when confronted with the messy glory that is TBA- creativity is fundamentally a response to disparate ideas being presented simultaneously in a way that lets our brain “jump the track” to create a new pattern.

    So the glorious dissonance of TBA serves a fundamental purpose for its audience- it forces ever more outrageous disparate connections in the brains of its audience, sparking creativity that can bear fruit at all kinds of strange tangents to the performances themselves.

    Great food for thought Barry. Thanks!

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