So it begins: Taking a Chance on TBA

Great concept there. What else you got?

In 2005, I covered Portland’s fourth annual Time Based Arts Festival for The Wall Street Journal — an experience that helped me decide to move to Portland. After a week and a half of shuttling from one eye-opening art experience to another, and talking to participants and audience members at The Works, TBA’s impromptu after-show chat, chew and performance space, I knew I needed to be part of a place that made forward looking art so much a part of life here.

Seven years and six TBAs (I was out of the country for one of them) later, the tenth anniversary edition of what’s become a Northwest arts institution kicks off this weekend, with a promising new director, Angela Mattox, at the helm. TBA has evolved every year, especially under the previous three year-rotation of head honchos, yet after a decade, the festival has established a recognizable aesthetic so that when you tell someone a show was “very TBA,” they’ll have a pretty good idea what you mean.

Last night’s opening TBA12 performance, “The People” by Big Art Group, was very TBA, embodying what makes so many acts at the festival so intriguing but also so frustrating. You can read ArtsWatch’s review elsewhere on this site. And here’s BAG’s own description:

“The People,”an outdoor spectacle that combines live theater with large scale, real time video projection. The narrative, constructed from interviews with members of the local community who voice their thoughts about democracy, war, terrorism and justice as it relates to their personal histories, loosely recreates the story of Aeschylus’ Oresteia. Live theatrical reenactments are intercut with earlier, taped interviews, projected via large scale video onto the side of a building where the live play and video is viewed by the audience at street level. Perceived as a kind of ‘living television,’ The People repurposes commonly used media strategies such as video clips, interviews and re-enactments, to explore the extraordinary forces reshaping contemporary government. It sculpts these developments into a performative action, that takes as its inspiration the foundational idea of community dialogue and the birth of democracy as theatrically embodied in the Oresteia. By inverting the established relationship between ‘mass-media’ and private exchange, it transforms the ‘town square’ into a public performance in which both performers and audience act out crucial roles in the construction of self-government.

Still awake? If that passage carries the whiff of a grant proposal or academic journal article, well, so did “The People” itself. Like so many postmodern creations, it was pretty meta — theater about theater. And also like so many TBA events, the idea was provocative, even fascinating. A theater group makes a (buzzword alert) site-specific performance that involves local communities (including non-elite ones) and even performers, conducts grass-roots workshops, even includes locals in the actual production. The show addresses the most pressing issues of our time (war and democracy) and also connects those to classical theatrical traditions (the “Oresteia”). Hey, if I’d read that concept in a grant proposal or program offering, I’d probably have voted to fund it or stage it too.

***

Scene from Big Art Group’s “The People—Portland”

The problem, for me anyway, was that “The People”never really went beyond the cool concept. What we wound up with was purposely amateurish (over)acting and props and intentionally obnoxious performances (at ear splittingly high decibel levels), interspersed with interesting but not especially earthshaking comments about war, democracy, justice and so on from our Portland neighbors.

That last part did have some interesting bits, and it’s always nice to touch base with our community’s feelings, but they said just about what you’d expect a decently informed Portlander to say. And the two strains—a few scenes from “The Oresteia,” those pre-recorded interview comments—were less connected than juxtaposed. I didn’t really come away with any new insights about war, democracy, justice or Portland. And I wasn’t moved emotionally or otherwise by the performance itself, which, to be fair, didn’t seem to be about provoking an emotional reaction, but rather about the concept as expressed in the program note/grant proposal above.

It was all, in other words, very TBA.

***

As so often happens at such shows, the creators either didn’t seem interested in or weren’t able to do the hard work of art: taking an idea and, in this case, truly dramatizing it. (In other art forms, they’d make a dance or music about it.) Coming up with a cool concept is a necessary but not sufficient condition for compelling art. There are plenty of good ideas out there, but as with a memorable melody or dance move, it’s what you do with them that really counts.

Instead, “The People” seemed to be all about establishing its concepts. But once you get it, there’s not a lot of reason to stick around for the rest of the show, especially when it offers so little of the other traditional reasons to experience art (dramatic structure, compelling performances, etc.) At least the show was short, around an hour — a welcome hallmark of many TBA events. But once I’d experienced the admittedly arresting idea of seeing glimpses of the action projected on the walls through the windows of Washington High as they were being enacted, and understood the point of the performance, there wasn’t much left to ponder.

Granted, a lot of the art that has most advanced whatever genre it’s in has always confounded expectations and played with form, sometimes even intentionally provoking or irritating the audience. But the best art — including plenty of performances at TBA itself — does that AND offers the kind of craft and deep, hard thinking that takes it beyond a mere concept and uses the concept to fuel a compelling creation. Otherwise, we get grant proposals onstage.

Another scene from “The People—Portland”

The next day, I attended one TBA’s always interesting talkbacks, this one with the BAG creators, who clearly had invested a lot of thought and idealism into the piece, which has been staged around the world. The reason for the intentionally low budget look? “We’re interested in trash—what a society considers garbage,” one explained.

Why use locals as participants and refuse to allow them to attempt to actually act? Actually, that brought a more complex answer, but the point is, “The People” doesn’t suffer from lack of skill or good intentions. It’s pretty much what its makers want it to be. And my problem with some TBA shows, and in general much of the art you see on the international fringe festival circuit that TBA is part of, is that they don’t want it to be much more than a concept. For many arts lovers, that’s plenty. Not for me.

***

But it would be unfair to assume that all TBA shows are like that, and that’s what worries me a bit about the “very TBA” notion. I know several people who’ve been put off for similar reasons, and therefore missed some of the most fascinating and memorable performances—too many to name here—I’ve ever seen, thanks to the festival. I’ve long admired TBA’s breadth and willingness to stretch beyond those high concept approaches, plus its showcases of local and regional artists, which often shows that what Oregon and Northwest artists are making can be every bit as strong as what’s coming out of New York, Brussels, or wherever. TBA shows also give local artists fodder and fresh influences for their own subsequent creations. The workshops and talkbacks give Oregonians valuable insights into the creative processes of some of today’s most visionary artists.

Best of all, TBA creates a community around adventurous art. That’s why for me, The Works is the most valuable part of the festival. I’ve always understood art much better when I talk about it with others who are interested and opinionated, even—maybe especially—when their opinions don’t match mine. Encountering and discussing art together (facilitated by imbibing and ingesting local food and beverages) rather than privately mulling it only in my own head, is a crucial part of the artistic experience.

For all its limitations, TBA has become an essential and valuable part of the Oregon arts scene because it looks forward. Most of our major arts institutions are essentially musty museums, forever recycling the masterpieces or obscurities of the past. That’s a vital role, of course, but without other, bolder institutions to bring us vanguard creations by today’s—and tomorrow’s—creators, we wind up with handsome tombs, not vital gardens.

The late, great science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon once replied to a critic who huffed that 90% of the genre’s offerings were crap thusly: 90% of EVERYTHING is crap. What our museum institutions do is use the perspective of the ages to skim the cream off the top, offering (mostly) the crapless 10%. But without institutions like TBA providing a forum for risk-taking contemporary performance and visual art, future museums won’t have that 10% of 21st century art to skim from.

I do hope that Mattox and TBA’s other leaders will push for more art that does transcend its concepts, and judge applicants more strictly by their execution as well as their ideas. But I’m willing to put up with those that don’t, because I know that at least a few times during the festival, I’ll experience something valuable, even magical, that I would never have found elsewhere, or at least not in Oregon. And when I don’t, I know that plenty of other Oregonians will find those insights and delights that I somehow missed. That’s very TBA, too, and that’s why it’s worth taking some chances there every September.

4 Responses.

  1. Minky says:

    Fascinating commentary on the TBA. Thanks for your perspective.

    First, I must disclose that I did not see the piece. But I happened to have a conversation with one of the BAG people about their installtion. I asked how the people were selected. I was told that PICA selected the participants. I was a bit shocked. I am an artist, but also have a background in primary research, which often calls for the need to defining your population of study or having some sort of parameters in place. I was a bit aghast. I mean a random sample would be ideal, but a curated selection by the host is a bit out of the ordinary. I can only guess that is where things went askew. Good idea, but not well informed. TSK!

  2. Big Fan says:

    Dear Minky,
    Here’s what I know. PICA was given instructions to pick 6 people that they think would make a diverse group. These people would become interviewers. Each of these 6 people were then given the same direction to pick 6 people that they think would make a diverse group. These 36 people became the interviewees. This is by no means meant to be a scientific cross section but an artistic project. As for the above review. It might help if the reviewer new something about Post-dramatic theater and its constructs which are, oh i don’t know, 20 to 40 years old now. maybe read a book. Here a link to one… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postdramatic_theatre

  3. EspoirCulture says:

    I wouldn’t call TBA a “fringe festival.” Many of these groups appear on mainstages in European cities and in New York. I saw Big Art Group in Paris’s most prominent performing arts festival just a few years ago.

  4. Patrick Leonard says:

    It’s also important to acknowledge that TBA is tightly curated by a trio of artistic staff at PICA. Fringes are traditionally more all-encompassing with less over-arching artistic vision. The artists we present at TBA rarely perform on the fringe circuit, but rather stage their works at some of the world’s premier festivals and institutions, such as the Walker Art Center, New York Live Arts, Festival TransAmerique, ImPulsTanz, Festival d’automne, REDCAT, The Public Theatre, and many others. PICA is a part of a network of international, interdisciplinary contemporary art centers, but not aligned with the Fringe scene.

Comments are closed.