TBA: Opening night at The Works

NY's Big Art Group gets all Greeky in PDX

By NIM WUNNAN

Suspiciously cooperative weather favored the crowd that filled the parking lot at Washington High last night to bask in the big sound and big lights of Big Art Group as the New York crew sparked The Works to life with its work “The People — Portland.” The group’s massive multi-channel projection lit up the entire north face of the school with two-story-tall loops of interview subjects staring blankly out at the clear, late-summer sky. BAG’s gigantic patience mixed well with the opening-night buzz, giving the building a kindly sort of condescension as it waited to come to life on a scale that was both beyond the puny concerns of the audience yet dependent on their attention.

The work centers on a loose retelling of “The Oresteia” and is driven by the (mostly) disembodied voice of a a simultaneously needy and commanding director, so this gods-and-mortals feeling works quite well. Throughout the chop-shop cuts between the live performance feed and the pre-recorded material (a fundamental part of the group’s “unmistakable brand of transgressive, Internet-age aesthetics”) “The People” preserves this very Greek-myth feeling. It’s a sort of Olympian dynamic of ideas greater than the individual which are still tied to their personal, carnal desires.

Scene from Big Art Group’s The People–Portland

Most of the piece is filmed and performed in different rooms of the school in real time, with pre-recorded interviews and animations rising in prominence as the piece progresses. Searching the windows for flickers of evidence of the loud drama that’s being projected on such a massive scale is a disorienting treat, pinging your attention between the godly and the mortal, the processed and the raw. The finale resolves this chewy conflict of form with an appropriately-rough-edged grandeur.

The piece develops a rich world through hasty props and hidden extras that the off-kilter director can conjure and dispel on a whim some of the time, while at other points the building, the props, and the story overwhelm him and the piece with their own, sinister independence, giving the story a satisfying depth of chaos. However, it’s not clear how much control the group really wanted to relinquish, as there were consistent audio glitches that didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the commotion, and at one point the projectors cut out arbitrarily enough to cause a couple of murmurs. Likewise, while the many themes collided in a mêlée that was interesting and well-balanced overall, the many threads of authoritative control, form breaking, classical literature, and social justice definitely left some loose ends in the tangle. The piece has enough energy and ambition to steamroll over these bumps, and I’m sure the technical execution will only improve over the course of the show.

It was a strong start to the night, which the Works needs, considering how little visual work was on display compared to previous years. Unless the installations double in number, Big Arts Group is your best bet at seeing the Works used to its full potential this year.

The People — Portland continues tonight and Saturday night at 8:30 at the Works.

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