TBA12: Perforations and Brainstorm/Sahel Sounds: Information density

The audience crowded into a narrow space Monday night at southeast Portland’s abandoned Washington High School, again transformed into the hub of this year’s Time-Based Arts Festival.  A black-clad woman armed with an ample spool of white string wrapped the end around one of many hooks framing the entrance, then stretched the string to another hook on the other side of the narrow entry. For the next 20 minutes, Croatian artist Petra Kovacic, systematically wove a web of string that gradually changed colors thanks to lighting beamed across it from a projector. As her web gradually expanded to fill the entire entrance, recorded music morphed from polite ambient background electronica through denser house music, growing progressively denser and harsher.

By the time the spider woman had completed her work, a creation that at first seemed beautiful — and still was — had become a trap, imprisoning us all inside. Fortunately, scissors appeared and the audience was liberated, directed down the hall to the next phase of Perforations, billed as “an evening of site-specific performance art from some of Croatia’s and Serbia’s most inventive artists.”

Part Two of Perforations consisted of making the audience contemplate the auditorium’s black stage curtain for 27 minutes, while the artists were apparently setting up the stage for Part Three. It’s not clear why the stage wasn’t prepared already. Maybe it was the time-based equivalent of a Rauschenberg white painting, but in black. After some impatient grumbling and sardonic clapping from the crowd, the curtain finally rose to reveal Kovacic kneeling before a huge screen that displayed a shimmery gold surface, and, eventually, 25 white rectangles. Over the next half hour, she slowly undulated over them, and it soon became evident that we were seeing a projection shot from below the rectangles (documents of some kind, perhaps), which were arrayed upon a glass surface on the stage. Her shadow produced vaguely Rorschach-like patterns, and the effect was enhanced by some transparent globes (which refracted the light in a pretty cool way), passing over the documents.

In Perforations’ third (or fourth, depending on how you regard the curtain gazing interval) phase, multimedia artist Biljana Kosmogina, wearing a snug white dress, cheerfully vamped on to the stage, accompanied by a black-clad security/Secret Service type who lurked nearby, arms crossed, staring down the audience through black sunglasses.

PICA staffers distributed posters propounding the Progressive Pussy Party, which like the mock political speech that followed, was replete with slogans: “Pussy is the world! Support pussy! Pussy with no borders! On your side — pussy! Pussy rules!”
Behind her, the giant screen presented a parade of giant, explicit photographic images, of er, the object of her party’s devotion, in some of their varied and mostly shaven glory. (At least one looks like it comes from a Marina Abramovic project I saw at TBA a few years ago.)
The tableau vulvant continued while Kosmogina strode the stage, microphone in hand, spouting the vague, anodyne political rhetoric that pollutes American political campaigns and evidently Balkan state propaganda as well. Canned clapping erupted at various applause lines, and she exhorted the audience to cheer and wave our pro-pussy posters like at a political rally. The rhetoric became more specific, promoting various women’s causes worldwide: the right to drive in Saudi Arabia, to wear trousers in Jordan, to swim naked in Iran, to control reproductive decisions, avoid genital mutilation, hold office, etc. And of course there was an obligatory shout-out to Pussy Riot.

The satire of empty political language quickly became obvious, but Kosmogina continued well beyond that point, through several loops of the background pudendal panorama. Eventually, in a comically sultry, accented voice reminiscent of Natasha in the Rocky & Bulwinkle cartoons, she began moaning and cooing the names of American politicians — “Barack Ohhhhbaaaama! Mitt Rrrromney! Richard Niiiiixon! Al Gooooore (twice)! Sarah Palin!” et al., accompanied by a background recording of women enthusiastically enjoying a prolonged and vociferous journey to climax.

After half an hour so, the rally was over and we proceeded upstairs to the experimental, noise-based sounds of two members of the Croatian band East Rodeo, which made intermittently effective use of drones, amplified wooden board (struck with a knife), incomprehensible vocals, occasional speed metal riffs, and some rather intriguing sonic textures. It, too, carried on for a long time.

Maybe it’s my contemporary American monkey mind, but in my experience, these sorts of durational performances work best not in a confined stage setting but rather in installations that allow audiences to walk around and choose how long they want to endure the experience. I’ve even seen productions in which all of the stages of something like Perforations were going on simultaneously in different parts of the space. I suppose that sort of arrangement risks loss of focus (although observers are free to stay as long as they like with each performer), and maybe the artists are trying to make a point by forcing us to endure them at length, but for me, despite moments of real beauty and insight, the points were made, re-made, and fully absorbed long before the performances ended.

It’s not that I object to extended performances; I count stage director Robert Wilson (notorious for his marathon “operas”) in my artistic pantheon, and earlier this year blissfully immersed myself in most of a single three-hour string quartet (by Morton Feldman, no stranger to protracted works) and an opera (at an Imax theater), Philip Glass’s mesmerizing Satyagraha, in which it takes four hours for barely anything to happen at all, the stage images evolving glacially into an immensely powerful experience. I was also utterly enraptured by all 75 minutes of the most glorious TBA performance I’ve seen so far this year, and one of the best ever: Kota Yamazaki/Fluid Hug-Hug’s radiant dance work, “(glowing).” But those works gave us a lot more content, and beauty, to ponder and enjoy, in addition to appreciating their animating concepts.

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If too little content over too much time plagued Perforations, the following TBA performance, Brainstorm/Sahel Sounds, provided an ideal antidote. So much was going on at once that it risked mental overload, yet the form proved enlightening, entertaining and utterly appropriate to the content.

The Washington High stage boasted a triptych screen, whose contents were apparently controlled by a guy sitting on stage typing away on two laptops, who I presume (he wasn’t identified) to have been Mr. Sahel Sounds himself, the blogger and “amateur ethnomusicologist” Christopher Kirkley. The center screen showed closeups of what looked to be generation-old music videos, apparently from various African regions, to which the artists had substituted new recordings. The left screen periodically projected contextual material: Wikipedia entries, YouTube videos, maps, and more. The right screen displayed a continually updated Twitter feed that everyone was invited to join, which meant the audience alternately saw program notes (e.g. what song was playing at the moment, how the band found it, background info on the cultural origins of the music, translations of song titles, and so on) along with tweets from the audience (“cold in here — wish I’d brought my hoodie,” jokes, comments and more). Toward the end of the night, the main account apparently was blocked for overtweeting.

All that info provided context for the main events: fiery performances by the young Portland trio Brainstorm (which has picked up best new band awards from Willamette Week and Portland Mercury) and two members of the Somali band Iftin (whose younger versions were also seen on some of the YouTube vids), at least one of whom lives in Portland now, and a Skyped in performance from an internet cafe 7000 miles away in Niger by Mdou Moctar. The pulsating music was uniformly terrific, the audience could choose which other info to consume and whether to dance (some did), and the whole layered set up reflected the effect of technology and globalization on music — implicitly commenting on 21st century global music culture while presenting it. And despite the late hour, unlike the tedious stretches of a couple other TBA performances, this one seemed over way too soon. Although this combo has appeared at Portland club Holocene recently, the festival deserves kudos for providing such an inviting spotlight for these ambitious local and global artists.

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