Risking large: Angela Mattox and TBA

At Bright City Lights, PICA's artistic director explains why TBA isn't warm and cuddly

At Monday night’s Bright City Lights, the congenial moderator Randy Gragg interviewed Angela Mattox, the artistic director of Portland Institute for Contemporary Art on the little stage of Jimmy Mak’s jazz club in Portland’s Pearl District. Mattox has been on the job long enough to curate two Time-Based Art Festivals, develop out-of-festival programs (mostly of work in progress by artists performing in an upcoming festival), move to PICA’s new home on Southwest 10th, and help create the Precipice Fund, which turns PICA into a granting organization for small, unincorporated and unofficial artist projects. During their 90 minutes or so onstage, Gragg and Mattox touched on all of these and also a little of Mattox’s bio, because that’s so pertinent to her curating efforts.

Little of this was especially new if you’ve followed PICA, TBA and Mattox’s work very closely, but the summing up was helpful, even if you had. Gragg’s questions were pertinent and characteristically probing, and Mattox’s openness and sense of balance about what she was doing was refreshing.

What I liked best was the clear way Mattox talked about her approach to curating the festival and then after the question-and-answer period, the appreciation of how difficult her job really is. Why is it hard? Because if PICA sees its role as challenging and even subverting the cluster of conventional notions around performance, which it does, it risks offending its audience or missing them altogether, which it has. You don’t have to have a business degree to understand how precarious this particular model must be.

Angela Mattox at a TBA:13 Conversation/Gordon Wilson

Angela Mattox at a TBA:13 conversation/Gordon Wilson

What conventional notions am I talking about? A big one is the role of the audience: lots of PICA performers involve the audience directly in their artmaking and just about all of them address the audience directly, one way or another. If you want to be a silent, comfortable observer in your seat in the dark, many PICA artists won’t satisfy you. Others include the traditional demand for utter transparency and clarity, a simple structure, cultural references that are immediate (lots of PICA performers Mattox has programmed have come from Africa and South America), what constitutes “craft,” and what “good” means.

We use these conventions to measure and talk about performances, subverting them can be irritating. The audience didn’t offer lots of opinions or questions, really, but the judgments they did offer, including Gragg’s, indicated a fairly high degree of irritation about some of TBA:13. On the other hand, no one stood up and testified that any particular artist had moved or enlightened them in any way, which I found astonishing, mostly because I have experienced that reliably at TBA over the years, including TBA:13 (the latest version). If I hadn’t had my press hat on and been so busy taking notes, I might have given testimony along those lines, despite how accustomed I am to sitting comfortably in the dark and judging.

Mattox’s curatorial approach seems based on her wide familiarity with emerging performing practices in various parts of the world, her decision that certain artists she encounters have something profound to tell us, the relationships she establishes with those artists (lasting for years sometimes before manifesting on a stage), and their mutual selection of ideas to develop into performance, often for the first time at TBA.

“We throw words like experimental and risk around all the time and it’s lost all meaning,” Mattox said at one point, before pointing out how truly experimental and risky this process is, especially when it comes to bringing projects from North Africa or Chile here, as Mattox has done. And for me at least, she threw down the gauntlet: “We’re not in this work to hear, ‘this is great.'” Which I thought was about the riskiest thing I’ve ever heard an artistic director in Portland say, when it comes right down to it.

What I think Mattox was saying is simply that she offers no guarantees—that you’ll get it, that you’ll like it, that you’ll be able to sit through it, that your mind won’t wander, that you will have a transcendental moment. Actually, these are subjective responses (Mattox used the word “subjective” a lot), and when you think about it, NO art work can offer guarantees of this sort. What she offers instead is an experience that will be new in one way or another, maybe even profoundly new, upsettingly new, irritatingly new.

In this subjective, subverted world, how does the audience gain traction? Mattox worries about that, though I think it’s as much because she wants to protect the artists as help the audience, though in a way these are overlapping missions. So, TBA offers daily conversations with the artists during the festival, those works-in-progress events before the festival starts, a website full of links to previous work by the artist and commentary about them, its own blog during the festival, and probably other paths to understanding that I don’t know about. Of course it’s ridiculous to show up at a performance by Moroccan choreographer Bouchra Ouizguen without having done ANY research and hope to fully understand what’s going on, what’s at stake, what her cultural resources are, what social, political and economic conditions shape the work. The sort of “art” that requires NO research is the Hollywood blockbuster, which only counts on us understanding the idea of revenge to understand fully. Ouizguen, who appeared at this year’s TBA Festival, operates at the margins of her own society and performance traditions, commenting on them as she reacts to them. We need some knowledge to enter her world with her.

Is that too much to ask? To find out enough about Ouizguen to be able to interpret what she’s doing? To trust Mattox that Ouizguen’s work will offer rewards once we do? That’s a personal question, sure, but also a question for the society. How simple do we want our art experiences? How warm and cuddly? How immediate must our gratification be?

The TBA Festival is uncommon because it trusts its audience to take responsibility for itself, to do what it needs to do, even if it means leaving a show, as Mattox said, but then to come back and try again. On my bleaker days, I think this trust is misplaced. How can the Portland audience, even the odd sliver that TBA attracts, be different from audiences everywhere else, audiences that demand escape, sweet and salty snacks, something that anesthetizes them? But TBA is successful within certain parameters. It draws good crowds during its 11-day run, not gigantic ones but solid. Gradually, it has become an important international festival and nurturing ground for performance that breaks with convention, that comments on our politics, our values, our ideas about what fits into the category “art,” the tiny particularity that resides within the big word “international.” That’s mostly because we support art of this kind, get its value, arrive open-minded even after leaving the last performance perplexed or even vaguely put out.

Ultimately, I do believe in the particularity of Portland and its tradition of support for and positive enjoyment of maverick work of all kinds, which frankly is what makes ArtsWatch so much fun. I think PICA and Angela Mattox must share that faith, along with their faith in the artists they bring.

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