TBA:17

‘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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Takahiro Yamamoto’s direct path

TBA: In the premiere of the final section of the trilogy "Direct Path to Detour, Single Focus," the focus often goes to the detours

For Friday evening’s premiere in the TBA Festival of the third part of Takahiro Yamamoto’s Direct Path to Detour, Single Focus trilogy, the exhibition space at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s West End location has been separated from the offices by tall curtains, making for a focused, intimate space that seems well-suited to Yamamoto’s one-man show. There’s a ceremonial feeling to the circular stage, which is ringed with purple pillows and remote-controlled LED lights in the shape of tea candles. Yamamoto mills casually among the crowd until the soundtrack, controlled by sidony o’neal, starts up.

The first passage, as Yamamoto takes the stage, cuts between samples, sound effects, and a sudden, brief emergence of the Doogie Howser theme song (more on that later). This soundtrack, like the performance, never really comes together, but that experience of disharmony seems to be at the core of the piece. Considering the name literally, or as a koan-like algorithm, can be useful for getting one’s bearings. In the sense that a choreographed show, meant to be watched, takes a direct path to a state of performance, this piece does what it says by detouring at almost any point where it might solidify.

The project description in the program says:

Direct Path to Detour seeks to evoke various mental and physical states that arise at the intersection of multiple value systems, social pressure, expectation, personal experiences, and body memory.”

Takahiro Yamamoto at TBA. Photo courtesy Robin Cone-Murakami

The first system Yamamoto engages, striding into the center of the stage, is the finicky world of a yoyo. Though he’s in control of it, he regards the toy at times like a strange animal that’s wandered onto the stage with him. He doesn’t perform tricks as much as he just responds to and moves with the yoyo. But already there is some sort of internal tension, and a mismatch of energies, as if his performance is in two places at once. The yoyo, with its own rules of momentum, acts as an indicator of these mismatches. The halting duet ends with Yamamoto muttering at screwing up an exchange with the yoyo, laughing and walking off stage.

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In Ghost Rings, which opened Wednesday evening in the TBA Festival and repeats Thursday, Sept. 14, in Lincoln Performance Hall, Tina Satter, Erin Markey, Jo Lampert, and Chris Giarmo of the Obie-winning Brooklyn troupe Half Straddle take the stage clad in sparkles, lamé, Spandex, and the bright synthetic fabric of ’80s hair bands and pop stars. The lights and rigging are generous and close-in, giving it the feel of a life-size diorama of a rock show.

Artistic director Satter makes two announcements as the music and the show start revving up:

  • First, she’s been making plays about her sister for eight years.
  • Second, Ghost Rings are a candy that she made up a really long time ago, in “2009, do the math.”

We’re left to imagine what they might be until a later reference to light, sugary, purple candy rings brings their image into focus. They’re the namesake of the show, and an artifact of the glittery, mythical world built by Satter and her characters through epic rock ballads and conversations with “internal spirit beings,” but they’re never shown to the audience. We’re told that they exist, and brought into a world where they are obviously real things, and our imaginations are insistently tugged along, like a child leading us by the hand to a fort they’ve built.

The show never waits for us to catch up. The defiantly self-important, improvisational world-spinning of co-imagining children is somehow perfectly fit into the mythos of rock and roll and presented in the format of contemporary performance art. By the time Markey and Lampert announce their characters, Stephanie and Shawna, it’s clear that the dreamy world where they live, which includes places like the Haunted Canoe, is vast and private and full of wonders and perils.

Half Straddle’s “Ghost Rings.” Photo courtesy PICA

At one point, Satter tells us that as children, when she and her sister imagined themselves as adults, they imagined living in neighboring, corner apartments, raising their children together. Their children would be best friends. Husbands were not involved. Like the Ghost Rings, the rest of what she gradually tells us about her sister does’t give us a description of her presence, or their relationship. Rather it just declares things about her, placing her at the center of this world that’s being built on stage, but proving her deep absence as well. Her presence in absentia cuts through the many shifting layers of mythology and private language.

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TBA: Pop goes the foreign film

Interview with curator Gina Altamura: Holocene's Fin de Cinema comes to TBA, matching live music with Tarkovsky's "The Mirror"

At PICA’s TBA Festival on Monday night, Fin de Cinema drew the largest crowd in its eight years of pairing local pop and experimental musicians with influential foreign cinema. Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror projected on three walls of The Works while four sets of Portland-based musicians took turns performing original work as a soundtrack. Palm Dat and Noah Bernstein of Shy Girls started the show, followed by Brown Calculus (Members of Tribe Mars), and then Dylan Stark. Golden Retriever closed the night, their keening, ambient music filling the spacious hall as Tarkovksy’s dreamy meditation on war and memory faded out.

The series has been running at Holocene since 2009, serving a wide selection of films as creative and collaborative prompts for a healthy cross-section of Portland’s avant garde and pop music scene. The film listing includes Holy Mountain, Hausu, Svankmajer’s Alice, Blow-Up, Daisies, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, The Cassandra Cat, Mala Morska Vila (The Little Mermaid), Stalker, The Mirror, Fantastic Planet, The Color of Pomegranates, and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. These were re-scored by artists including Typhoon, Tu Fawning, Brainstorm, Nurses, AU, Why I Must Be Careful, Grouper, Visible Cloaks, WL, Valet, Wampire, Soft Metals, Wooden Indian Burial Ground, and many more. Gina Altamura, who has been booking acts and curating shows for Holocene for nearly a decade, is the creator and curator of the series. I sat down with Ms. Altamura to discuss the genesis and history of this mainstay of the Portland film and music scenes now that it’s made it into the billing at TBA.

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Andrei Tarkovsky’s “The Mirror.”

Oregon ArtsWatch: So when did Fin de Cinema start?

Altamura: It started in ’09 with [Alejandro Jodorowsky’s] Holy Mountain, which is like the quintessential one to choose. That was an epic one. It was in the days of (the group) Why I Must be Careful. Jon Niekrasz actually composed a bunch of poetry for it. So that was our first one. We initially had the audience sitting on stage, with the live performers behind the audience.

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It’s like a Death Dance: An interview with Demian DinéYazhi´

Death Dance honors indigenous and brown punk energy during TBA on Sept. 16

Death gives way to life, to regrowth, and to rebirth, but there is a certain nuance to the dying that has much to tell us about the times, observable in the particular ethos of destructionbe it environmental, social, or political. For Demian DinéYazhi´, a Portland-based indigenous queer artist born to the clans Naasht’ézhí Tábąąhá (Zuni Clan Water’s Edge) and Tódích’íí’nii (Bitter Water), ideas surrounding a death have become the lynchpin of an evening he has curated to honor “the labor and intelligence of indigenous and brown punk energy.” Set to take place Sept. 16 and happening as part of Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s Time-Based Arts Festival, it will be a Death Dance.

Rebecca Jones, lead singer of WEEDRAT

A person of many practices, including poetry, visual art, curation, and organizing through R.I.S.E.: Radical Indigenous Survivance & Empowerment (of which he is founder and director), DinéYazhi´ is no stranger to culling a variety of mediums into one compelling happening. However, the name of the event was originated by another indigenous artist from the region, Sara Siestreem (Hanis Coos and American) in a pivotal conversation with DinéYazhi´ after the 2016 national election. “This is a conversation that I was having numerous times with primarily indigenous and activist-based friends,” DinéYazhi´ explained, noting their pervasive sense of being overwhelmed by the burgeoning of white supremacist momentum in the United States and its perpetuation by the government.

Through these conversations, DinéYazhi´ was seeking clarity. “Of course this makes sense,” he reflected. “These people will be out of power. They stole this country. They will be out of power in a few generations, and this is just one of the last attempts to maintain and assert that power, and really just f*ck people over as a way to hang on to this archaic heteropatriarchal, settler colonial mentality.” DinéYazhi´ was discussing this mode of thinking with Siestreem during a visit to her studio, when Siestreem made the connection: it’s like a death dance, like the morbid movements that salmon do as they are in the process of dying—the final throes.

When invited to curate an evening of performance for TBA, DinéYazhi´ explained, “I was just really interested in continuing this idea of the Death Dance, but while also trying to support indigenous and brown artists, indigenous and brown communities, that continue to be largely underrepresented within the Portland contemporary art scene, the Portland music scene, but also the theoretical and critically engaged communities who are really trying to dissect race politics, you know, death and survival politics. All these communities are, I still feel like, ignoring indigenous and brown bodies.”

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It’s mid-TBA and there is still so much to see and do! If you’re just tuning in, TBA, or Time-Based Art, is the Portland Institute For Contemporary Art’s yearly festival of performances, workshops, artist talks, visual art exhibitions, music performances, and after-hours parties. This year’s 11-day festival, spread out to venues across the city, is inherently interdisciplinary and features local, national and international artists coming from as far away as Singapore, Morocco, and France.

Jamuna Chiarini

Earlier in the festival ArtsWatcher Nim Wunnan caught Korean performer Dohee Lee’s work MU/巫; a piece based in Korean shamanism that combines technology, ritual, and the sounds of drumming and voice that explores myth as the thread that “connects us to our lands, nature, history, belief systems, and to each other.” You can read his in-depth review here.

Closing tonight Is Dead Thoroughbred by Portland artists keyon gaskin and sidony o’neal. If you’re interested in hearing about the process and concept behind this new performance project, join them in conversation at 12:30 p.m. today (Wednesday, Sept. 13) with scholars Sampada Aranke and Kemi Adeyemi at PNCA (Pacific Northwest College of Art). Wunnan also reviewed Dead Thoroughbred and you can read about his experience seeing the performance here.

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TBA: A dark, dead thoroughbred

Earplugs, distortion, and a 9-foot figure in a gown amp up the mood for o'neal and gaskin's packed house: "Is TBA a place for rage?"

The press release for Dead Thoroughbred reads, in entirety:

“DT is peri-conceptual, dis-experimental, and a-nihilist.

DT is a blackened performance that is never not happening.

DT is après-queer and post-ratchet.

DT is anti anti-capital capital.

DT is heavy evasion– worthless.

DT is useless currency devoid of value and wide in circulation.

DT has null intension and null extension.

DT is dead frivolous af.

DT is detrital presence; an exhaustion of lack.

DT is at least sidony o’neal and

keyon gaskin.”

The performance in the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s TBA Festival took place in the black-cinderblock box of the PICA annex space. Seats and a few spots on the floor surrounded a clearing for a stage, divided diagonally to make space for two audio setups – laptops, mics, an Ableton pad, various pedals. A lattice of what appeared to be IV bags filled with either black or clear liquid hung near the door to the main building.

keyon gaskin and sidony o’neal

It was a packed house, and everyone had been emphatically encouraged to use earplugs. The door shut and the audience had a few minutes to shift in their seats, adjust their earplugs, and then all the lights went down with an audible clank from some switch somewhere.

We sat for a beat in darkness cut by the red exit signs, then the enormous roll door that made up most of the outside wall churned to life and began to rise. As it rose, it revealed the defiant stance of gaskin’s legs, shod in a pair of severe, black stilettos, but as it continued up, their silhouette appeared impossibly tall and massive, draped in a black satin gown. When the door finally opened enough to reveal the whole figure, we saw it was topped with oneal’s head. o’neal was sitting on gaskin’s shoulders, and their whole form fit into the incredible, authoritative garment. The gown would fit just as well at a formal gala for a secret society as at the head of some interplanetary council, where 9-foot figures were expected.

They strutted in, and the room tensed with the precariousness of the situation – gaskin somehow navigating the room he could see only through the fabric over their eyes, walking on stilettos, pulling a black satin train that must have been 20 feet long. It was captivating, challenging, and incredibly effective for how simple an illusion it was. Once fully in the room, o’neal stepped down from gaskin’s shoulders, creating a centaur-like form as gaskin stayed under the trailing fabric and they moved in unison.

Eventually they split to opposite corners of the room, and the lights went down after o’neal lit a hurricane lamp and a cigarette. From there the show became harder to describe, which seemed to be by design.

For the rest of the show, which was about half an hour, gaskin and o’neal dueled on their audio setups, with loops of feedback, distortion, ragged tones, samples, and drones. gaskin worked the room with a movement performance seen mostly in shadow, lit his own cigarette, and o’neal spoke lines, whispered to individuals in the crowd, triggered audio samples and effects, and paced the room, at later points pouring bleach onto the floor. The two kept the audience in this diffuse, angry, dark, and challenging space until the lights clanked on with a brutal clarity at the end.

The mood ranged from ponderous to openly hostile, and I think choices were made to leave interpretations open-ended for much of the show. Many choices were also made to make the audience uncomfortable – filling the increasingly warm room with cigarette smoke, the grinding audio, and the direct interactions with the audience. o’neal’s most repeated and audible statement was “Is TBA a place for rage?” The last part, “a place for rage” was sampled live and later triggered by both o’neal and gaskin throughout the performance, underscoring its sentiment. It seemed to dovetail with the audio of a clip of Jim Carrey tearing down the very concept of New York Fashion Week, which played in full, punctuated by the ongoing dissonant soundscape.

o’neal repeated another phrase, or variations of it, but I was unable to catch the whole thing.

“People are disappointing precisely because they …”

I think the last word was “disappoint,” but I’m not certain.

Out on the courtyard afterwards, in the milling crowd, I found myself straining in the same way to catch snippets of the murmurs of the audience.

“Did you have fun” “Fun” “Yeah, that was the word I used.”

“The bleach was what put me over the edge.”

“…the dark thoughts that you would, like, vacuum the house instead to avoid thinking.”

“It’s a sinker.” As in it sinks in.

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gaskin and o’neal will be speaking about this performance at 12:30 pm on Wednesday, September 13.