Yale Union

Portland, protests, the theater of life

ArtsWatch Weekly: The theater of politics comes to town, and the city's center stage. Plus: polka-dot square, Black & classical, a big gift.

FRUSTRATED BECAUSE THERE’S NO THEATER TO SEE FOR THE CORONADURATION? Look around. The show’s running 24/7, and we’re in the middle of it – unlikely stars of the Show of the Moment, praised and panned for our performances, from the pages of The New York Times to the breathless patter of cable-television talking heads to the bombastic Twitter feeds of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Boffo! A bomb! Lurid, violent spectacle! A bracing warning for us all! Shocking demolition of the fourth wall! Strains credibility! Nonstop action! Predictable performances in a shoddy script! Oughtta be in jail!

Everybody’s a critic in the Theater of Real Life. In the past week Portland’s been getting more national and international attention than it’s had since the heyday of Portlandia jokes (no, you put a bird on it!), and it’s hard to tell whether this new show – let’s call it “The Siege of Portland!” – is tragedy, documentary, or farce. However it all plays out, we’re like a city full of Beckett characters, caught in a world far bigger than we can comprehend, stumbling through the confusion toward a conclusion that we can’t predict.

You know the basic plot. It begins, after a preamble that traces a complex but necessary 400-year backstory, with the deaths at police hands of a seemingly endless string of Black Americans: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Michael Brown – the list goes on and on. This is the moral heart of the story, the unshakable truth that cannot be denied. Add a pandemic, an economic calamity, a historic shift of wealth from bottom to top, two months of nightly protests, a profusion of graffiti and torn-down fences (“Shocking!” “Criminal!” “Not to be believed!”), a trip-wired political standoff, a president with diving poll numbers in an election year, a steady supply of tear gas, “non-lethal” bullets, smashed heads, and broken bones – who’s writing this script? The guy who wrote the Book of Job? Then add an invading force of militarized mystery federal police, upping the ante on everything, bullying into a story where they weren’t invited and are not wanted. Tighten the tension with a Wall of Moms, some Leaf Blower Dads, and an explosion of new and angry protesters filling the stage like essential extras in a spectacle about the French Revolution.
 

Besides presenting a united front and sometimes being tear-gassed, flash-banged, roughed up, and arrested, the “Wall of Moms” at the re-energized protests in downtown Portland have shown a flair for the moment, making theatrical counter-statements of their own. Photo: Deborah Dombrowski

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A new home for the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation

Yale Union transfers its building at SE 10th and Morrison to the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation and will dissolve by the end of 2021

by ROBERT HAM

About two years ago, T. Lulani Arquette, president and CEO of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation (NACF), got a call out of the blue from Yoko Ott, a fellow former Hawaiian and a fellow figure working in the field of arts and culture. Ott had recently been hired as the new executive director of Yale Union, the nonprofit contemporary art organization, and she invited Arquette over to their headquarters on SE Morrison. 

“I thought we were just getting together to catch up,” Arquette remembers, “and ‘talk story’ as we say in Hawaii.” 

Instead, Ott had something much bigger in mind: she and Yale Union wanted to transfer ownership of their building, and the land it sits on, to NACF. 

T. Lulani Arquette. Photo courtesy of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation.

“I was stunned into silence,” Arquette says. “I was shocked. Pleasingly shocked. This has been a really amazing experience and very profound for all of us that are involved.” 

The shockwaves have yet to die down since the transfer was announced this past Thursday, especially as their joint news release also included the detail that, at the end of next year, Yale Union would dissolve their nonprofit and cease operations. 

That decision, as well as the building transfer, came as a result of long discussions that Ott had with Yale Union co-founder and board president Flint Jamison after she took over as executive director in 2018 after the abrupt resignation of acting director (and YU’s other founder) Curtis Knapp. 

“Our conversations concerned problems around art institutions as well as society at large,” Jamison said, via email. “We talked about resisting the drive for growth, slowing down the pace of programming, insisting on different modes of earning funds to pay artists, and about the development we saw happening in our inner SE neighborhood. More broadly, we talked about just what role an art institution could play in proposing models for restorative social change. We didn’t want to put out any statements. We wanted to do something.” 

The choice of NACF as the recipient of their goodwill gesture was a deliberate one. All of the land that Portland was built on was once the home of various Native tribes, including the Multnomah, Clackamas, Kathlamet, and Chinook, and the space that Yale Union occupies on 10th and Morrison was prime fishing and hunting ground for those original residents. The building that sits on that space now has further historical resonance as it served as an industrial laundry in the first part of the 20th century and became central to a 1919 labor strike and fight to unionize the workers, almost all of them women. 

“We realized this is such an incredible opportunity when you think of what that place represents,” Arquette says. “The land that the building is on and what it was used for before it was built. It carries a memory.”

Historic Yale Union Building at 800 SE 10th Avenue.

The building will soon become the Center for Native Arts and Cultures and the NACF’s new headquarters. As the press release announcing the transfer put it, it “will be a vibrant gathering place for Indigenous artists and local partnerships. It will provide space to present and exhibit, places to practice culture and make art, and areas for cultural ceremony and celebration.”  

While Arquette says that she and her team can move into the building as soon as they want to, the bigger vision for the space is a long way down the road. NACF already has architectural and design plans for renovations for the interior of the building, including some much-needed seismic upgrades. And they’ve already chosen the construction company to do the work. Now, they just need to raise the money to pay for it all. When I spoke with Arquette last week, she was scheduled to speak with consultants about starting a capital campaign for these renovations. To see their dreams become a reality, she says, they’ll need to raise at least $15 million. 

In the meantime, NACF and Yale Union will collaborate on some future exhibitions and events that will hopefully be open to visitors next year. Already in the works is a solo show from Marianne Nicolson, a Canadian artist and member of the Dzawada’enuxw tribe who blends modern media with presentations of Native art and expressions, that will hopefully open in the spring of 2021. 

A huge source of pride for Arquette and her team at NACF in accepting this transfer and moving forward with their plans is that, by doing so, they’re honoring the legacy of Ott, who died from unknown causes a mere six months after accepting the role of executive director of Yale Union. 

“This has been very profound for all of us involved,” Arquette says. “The tragedy and the joy of this process has been really powerful. Because of the nature of how this all started, we kind of feel like there was an angel sitting on our shoulders guiding us through this process.”

VizArts Monthly: Fill March with art and sunshine

March is abuzz with shows, events, lectures, and more

Flowers are blooming, the sun is shining, and things are happening! There have been some real shakeups in Portland’s art world lately, from reorganization at RACC to the uncertain future of PSU’s Littman and White galleries. But in case you are worried that your busy art-viewing calendar is doomed to dry up in the wake of these changes, have no fear! This month is absolutely overflowing with art shows and events to take in. To paraphrase my new favorite comedian, Julio Torres, I have a lot of shows and not a lot of time, so let’s just get started.

A light silver-pink mylar balloon in the shape of a heart, partially deflated and mounted on a gallery wall.
Work by Sam Noel, image courtesy 1122 Gallery

Sam Noel: but, how does one eat an elephant?
February 27 – March 21
1122 Gallery
1122 SE 88th Ave

Portland artist Sam Noel presents her lush sculptural works in a solo show at 1122 Gallery, her first since graduating from the final MFA cohort of the now closed Oregon College of Art and Craft. Noel’s practice is rooted in textile crafts, but her works include a range of unexpected materials including foam, ribbons, and mylar balloons, through which she examines the experience of inhabiting a fat, female body in contemporary culture. Glitzy pastel surfaces are complicated by slumping forms and haphazard construction, evoking the angst and confusion of adolescence with compassion and humor. 

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VizArts Monthly: Options for going out or for staying in

Art to see in January both in galleries and from your couch

Welcome to January 2020! Let’s ease into it at a relaxed pace, shall we? Most of Portland is still emerging from the haze of the holiday season, and the events calendar is correspondingly mellow. Many downtown galleries are hosting this month’s opening receptions on the first Saturday of the month instead of the traditional First Thursday, likely in order to get a bit of distance from the aftermath of New Year’s Eve. A couple of group shows offer festival-inspired atmosphere and even mystical divination. The month also promises an abundance of work from local emerging artists along with some weird and beautiful shows at Northwest neighborhood galleries; there are plenty of reasons to venture across the bridge or down the hill. Or, if you’re loath to leave your cozy blankets, we have some great online projects for you to check out as well!

Doll-like figurine pictured on a black background with a serene expression and hands in prayer, surrounded by sculptural elements and ornate accessories, all 3D printed in a shiny off-white polymer material.
Work by Pinar Yoldas, image courtesy Upfor Gallery

Absence of Myth: Iyvone Khoo and Pinar Yoldas
January 4 – February 29
Public opening: Saturday, January 4, 5 – 7pm (artists present)
First Thursday reception: February 6, 6 – 8pm
Upfor Gallery
929 NW Flanders St

Possibly the most unusual show opening in Portland at the start of this new decade is Upfor’s Absence of Myth which brings together works made by two artists in a variety of media that question humankind’s responsibility to the Earth as we step forward into the uncertain future. London-based Iyvone Khoo’s psychedelic photography and assemblage-style sculpture make use of marine plastic waste that regularly washes up on beaches across the globe. She combines this manmade flotsam with images of bioluminescent plankton, a not-so-subtle reminder that we share the planet with many others. Turkish-American artist Pinar Yoldas gets speculative with her cute and creepy “designer babies.” The babies are 3D printed figurines that represent possible evolutionary paths for the human species, an ironic commentary on the foolishness of humans’ age-old desire to control nature. Absence of Myth isn’t exactly uplifting, but it’s not entirely pessimistic either — Khoo and Yoldas both combine the sharp observational eye of science with a poetic, open-minded empathy that even could pass for hopefulness. 

Black and white photograph of a young woman with cropped blonde hair and simple, outdoorsy clothes, reclining on a slightly messy bed inside a small log cabin with two paned windows behind her.
Donna Gottschalk, Self-Portrait in Maine, 1976, image courtesy Blue Sky Gallery

Brave, Beautiful Outlaws: Donna Gottschalk
January 2 – February 2
Blue Sky Gallery
122 NW 8th Ave

In the context of today’s kaleidoscope of sexual and gender identities, the word “lesbian” might seem almost conservative by comparison. But openly identifying as a lesbian was once a radical action that was often met with bigotry and even violence. Artist Donna Gottschalk was among the early members of the Gay Liberation Front in New York City in the late 1960s and later helped found lesbian separatist communities on the West Coast, all the while documenting her compatriots in intimate black and white photos. Blue Sky hosts this traveling exhibition commemorating those who, in Gottschalk’s words, “insisted on being, whatever the consequences.” 

Framed graphite drawing of ornate neoclassical building facade featuring fluted columns and arched windows, with a figure seen from behind walking through a door on the far right.
Milano Chow, Exterior with Columns II, image courtesy the artist

Johanna Jackson and Milano Chow
January 4 – February 1
Opening reception: Saturday, January 4, 6-8pm
Adams and Ollman
418 NW 8th Ave

Johanna Jackson works across a wide range of media including (but not limited to) painted ceramics, watercolors on paper and tin, knitted sweaters, hooked rugs, and, once, even a shriveled carved apple. No matter the medium, evidence of her idiosyncratic hand is consistently apparent. Jackson’s work, featured this month at Adams and Ollman in a show titled Some Transitional Objects From My Extended Phenotype, is wobbly and lumpy. The colors are sun bleached and muddied. She shows little regard for the mystique or virtuosity that is so often prized in art but her humble objects possess a powerful presence that makes them feel like self-made creatures or like dreams that have sneaked into our reality. Milano Chow’s work is on view in the gallery’s small adjoining room. It offers complementary surreality achieved through very different means, meticulous trompe l’oeil drawings that depict ornate architectural facades in graphite, ink, and photo transfer in delicate shades of gray. The combination of technical detail and atmospheric ambiguity is captivating, and unlike anything else being shown in Portland right now.


A red envelope with an embossed and stamped seal of a dragon, Chinese characters, and decorative elements.
Golden Night Market, image courtesy Littman Gallery

Golden Night Market
January 6 – 31
Opening Reception and Night Market: January 8, 5 – 7pm
Littman Gallery
1825 SW Broadway

Curator Thién Mùi Easland brings together seven Portland artists to share work inspired by their own personal experience and cultural heritage. The show is loosely organized around the theme of a colorful night market akin to those Easland enjoyed in childhood. The group includes artists like Daniel Sandoval, who paints psychedelic graffiti-influenced dreamscapes and Christian Orellana-Bauer, whose past video works have addressed big issues in contemporary politics and small moments of self-discovery. The show promises “light, color, and culture,” which sounds like a perfect way to brighten up a gray January day.

Image of the "blood moon" (full moon with eclipse), overlaid with "20/20" in red and green gothic font.
20/20, image courtesy Womxn House

20/20
January 16 – February 10
Opening reception: Thursday, January 16, 7 – 9pm
Womxn House
3636 N Mississippi

Womxn House on Mississippi Ave is also hosting a group show offering good vibes and positive community to start this shiny new decade off right. 20/20 will be a “tarot themed vision quest” featuring eleven artists and live tarot readings by Emily Carsten and J’ena SanCartier (make sure to reserve your spot ahead of time via the gallery’s website). Artists like Elizabeth Malaska, Pace Taylor, and Isis Fisher contribute work to this mystical exhibition. Whether or not you believe in divination, it’s always fun to have your fortune told and being surrounded by beautiful art makes it even more appealing.

The Hibernation Options
Winter in Portland is notorious for keeping folks inside — it’s tough to work up the motivation to hop on your bike to an art show across town when it gets dark at 4:00 PM and the entire soggy city is slowly growing a layer of moss. Are you one of the many still in hibernation mode? Don’t worry, you can enjoy local art from the comfort of your own couch! Check out these pajama-friendly options for days when your brain needs stimulation but your body just won’t budge.

Archival black and white newspaper photograph of Yale Union building, a flat-roofed two-story brick building with large arched windows on the ground floor and narrower arched windows on the second story. Headline reads "Yale Laundry will Be Open for All Customers About August 15."
Yale Laundry circa 1908, image courtesy yaleunionlaundrystrike.net

Yale Union Laundry Strike

Long before Yale Union went by “YU” for short and was filled with contemporary conceptual art, it was a busy commercial laundry called Yale Laundry. The laundry, like most textile-related businesses of the day, was not a pleasant place to work — indoor temperatures regularly rose over 100 degrees, soiled linens transmitted infectious disease, and scalding hot presses caused frequent injuries. To add insult to injury, the mostly female workers made the equivalent of just over three dollars per hour for their suffering. A months-long strike began in September 1919, and led to unionization and other industry-wide repercussions throughout the city. To commemorate the centennial of this act of worker solidarity, Yale Union has unveiled a new website with an interactive timeline and lots of historical resources that document the strike and contextualize it within the larger history of the often racialized and gendered textile industry. The Laundry Strike website is easy to navigate and endlessly interesting, and is a great example of an arts institution looking to its own inherited history for socially and politically significant narratives.

Logo reading "The Inside Show" in blue and orange hand-drawn letters.
The Inside Show logo by Gabriel “Chino” Whitford, courtesy CRCI

The Inside Show at CRCI

The first two episodes of Columbia River Creative Initiative’s The Inside Show are available on Youtube, along with clips of some of the individual skits that comprise this offbeat variety show. The Inside Show includes features on microwave cookery, hair braiding demos, party tricks, and a deadpan fashion show, all of which were written and performed by inmates at the Columbia River Correctional Institute, where the series is filmed. The show is funny and charming, and impressively watchable considering the technical and logistical constraints of working inside a minimum security prison. My favorite segment was David “Ohio” Phipps’ painting lesson, in which he teaches two of his fellow artists to render a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle in poster paints. You can find out more about the CRCI program, which operates in conjunction with Portland State University’s Social Practice Department, on their website, or you can just enjoy the show for what it is — a unique comedy series starring a diverse group of people having a goofy good time. 

Hand-drawn logo reading "SPOILER ROOM" in angular all-caps lettering, with two musical note cartoon characters on either side, one happy, one sad.
Image courtesy Spoiler Room

Spoiler Room

Want to party without actually going to a party? Spoiler Room is here for you! This recurring DJ night gets live-taped and edited as it happens, and the results are posted online so you can boogie vicariously through past attendees. The aesthetics are a melange of low-tech nostalgia, with VJs wielding 90s era handheld camcorders and playing terrific hour-long mixes of upbeat techno. Project episodes in your living room for an at-home club experience, or just set up your phone on the kitchen counter while you do the dishes. Either way, you will be basking in the positive energy of dozens of party people, and perhaps you’ll even be inspired to get out of the house and join in.

ArtsWatch Weekly: dark & stormy nights

Frankenstein, Día de Muertos, tribute bands, dinosaurs, warps & wefts, and a Dope Elf: Welcome to the art week.

TODAY IS BOTH HALLOWEEN AND THE BEGINNING OF DÍA DE MUERTOS, two holidays that have distinct backgrounds and meanings but are often linked in the public mind, because they occur each year at about the same time and because they deal, in their own ways, with the souls of the dead. Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, which begins today and continues through Saturday, is a celebration that began in central and southern Mexico and has spread broadly from there. It’s a time for remembering friends and family who have died, and helping them along their spiritual journey.

Carlos Manzano as Bombón in the Día de Muertos-inspired play Amor Añejo, at Milagro Theatre through November 10. Photo © Russell J Young 

Milagro Theatre’s current show, Amor Añejo, gives you a good sense of the spirit of Día de Muertos. Bennett Campbell Ferguson, in his review for ArtsWatch, Into the Beyond, with Pain and Laughter, calls it a “tale of bereavement and rebirth.” “It’s an elegy—and more,” he continues. “The story flows from a single death that leaves everything from pain to joy to absurdity in its wake. Amor Añejo’s fullness of spirit makes it an unmissable play. At once profoundly soulful and gloriously silly, it invites us to touch the life of Hector, a painter who refuses to accept the death of his wife, Rosalita.” Naturally, that’s only the beginning.

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‘The Dope Elf’ considers power

The Gawdafful National Theater visited Yale Union earlier this month for play about white supremacy that kept the audience in motion

By KYLE COHLMIA

“I am the dopest elf!” proclaimed Jacqueline Wright during the final monologue of her performance in The Dope Elf, written and directed by Asher Hartman and performed in three different plays by the Gawdafful National Theater at Yale Union in Portland, September 14–October 20. 

While seemingly humorous, her exclamation of identity wasn’t a joke. It wasn’t stated for the purpose of amusement or banter. It was a strong proclamation asserting power. This interactive live play/social experiment/art project is, after all, about power, specifically white supremacy, which Hartman described in the catalogue as “the underlying cause of all ills, loss, boredom, and perilous transformation.” 

The play itself experiments with elements of power between the performer and audience members. As the observer, you are not passively sitting in front of a stage, watching the actors from afar. Instead, The Dope Elf requires that the audience congregate around the actors, following them, sometimes unknowingly, from scene to scene, placing their bodies in a vulnerable position of proximity, inside the sets themselves.

Jacqueline Wright as The Dope Elf in Asher Hartman’s “The Dope Elf” for Gawdafful National Theater/Photo by Ian Byers-Gamber

Phillip Little, Gawdafful National Theater actor who plays the role of John in The Dope Elf, addresses this power dynamic in the play’s program: “If you occupy land, you occupy history, and that history talks back. Dreams, hauntings, visions are the mediums through which this history is transmitted. Personalities fragmented along spiritual fault lines. Inner landscapes are remade gradually or cataclysmically.”

His quote speaks to the “presumed safety” and privilege audience members usually hold  in traditionally white art spaces. In The Dope Elf our passive role as consumer is challenged and put into question, as we are now physically a part of the collective narrative.

The Dope Elf’s non-linear storyline of elves, trolls, ghosts, magicians, and animals, “questions popular culture’s fascination with mystical power as a substitute for political power,” as “each character grapples with their own unidentifiable psychic pain,” (Dena Beard, Curator, The Dope Elf program notes). With stage aesthetics resembling nostalgic ‘80s TV shows like “Pee Wee’s Playhouse,” the actors walk the audience through overlapping narratives with complex dialogue that switches from recognizable to ambiguous language.

As an audience member of Play 2, the second iteration of the three-part, non-narrative but sequential performance, I was initially intrigued by the stage designs that were laid out across the gallery space. The performance started out in the center of Yale Union with the Dope Elf, an aging trans man/elf, and their troll neighbor Gingy as the central characters. The two converse about their identities, interactions and everyday absurdities, moving separately and together in rolling chairs that became like a dance, a duet of fluidity, where The Dope Elf exerts their power over Gingy, setting the tone for the rest of the play. 

We are then thrown into a scene between two lovers, John and Alfred, who dramatize their contentious but loving relationship. At the end of this interaction, John seemingly dies, and as we progress into the next scene, he slowly and methodically dresses, changing from his white t-shirt and “Lucky Charms” boxers into a man’s business suit while singing an Irish song, a poetic transition from queer lover to staunch businessman.

Once he is in his new costume, he confronts The Dope Elf about purchasing their home so that new businesses can occupy their property. We are then introduced to two new characters, The Magician, a white man who lives in a glass house, and a black man, Dirk, who comes out of the audience and into the performance. Dirk interacts with The Magician and successively Alfred and John, in two separate scenes, ostensibly meant to invoke the concept of white supremacy and dramatize race relations. At the end of the play we are reintroduced to John and Alfred who turn into a violent elf and hellhound, respectively, ending on a macabre note, leaving the fate of each character open-ended and up for interpretation.

While the poetic dialogue and overlapping stories brought me in and out of consciousness, creating a blurred perception of the characters and their relationships to one another, the overall theme of The Dope Elf was clear. This is about power. 

As The Dope Elf exclaims:

“This is about power. I will sacrifice myself to
the impulse for power. As actors do… Oh yes,
I am a magical system. An elf is a magical
system. I am that. I am a system. I rearrange.
people and things. Like that. Oh yes, what
you perceive of me is true. Whatever you
think. Oh, yes, there will be blood.”

The positioning of the audience alone indicates this theme—the awkwardness of where to sit or stand or how to interact with the performers strips away the power of passive consumption. I keep going back to Little’s quote on land occupation—as an audience member, I am not separate from the landscape of psychic pain and the structures of white supremacy. 

I am the you that occupies land. I am the you that occupies a history. And while I may not be the dopest elf, I am the you whose inner landscape is gradually and sometimes cataclysmically being remade.

Kyle Cohlmia was born in Stillwater, OK. She received a B.A. in Art History and Italian with a minor in English from the University of Kansas and an M.A. in Instruction and Curriculum at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Kyle has worked at various art museums and galleries including the Denver Art Museum, Oklahoma Hall of Fame, and most recently, as Curator of Exhibitions for the Melton Gallery at the University of Central Oklahoma. She is a previous fellow of Oklahoma Visual Arts Coalition’s Art Writing and Curatorial Fellowship and has written for various art publications including Art Focus, Art 365, and Art Discourse. Kyle is currently living in Portland, OR, working toward her second M.A. in Critical Studies at Pacific Northwest College of Art. 

TBA report: aggressive whimsey, meditative chaos, kinetic violin

Martha Daghlian reviews performances by Laura Ortman, Takashi Makino, and Asher Hartman and Gawdafful National Theater

PICA’s Time Based Art Festival (TBA) was held at locations around Portland from September 5th through 15th. The festival brings together a diverse roster of artists and performances. Martha Daghlian reviews three notable offerings.

by MARTHA DAGHLIAN

Laura Ortman (with Marcus Fischer and Raven Chacon)
Lincoln Hall
1620 SW Park Ave
September 6 & 7

Brooklyn-based violinist Laura Ortman (White Mountain Apache) brought her intense experimental style to Lincoln Hall in two performances for the 2019 TBA festival. Ortman was accompanied by Portland artist Marcus Fischer and by her frequent collaborator Raven Chacon (Diné) of New Mexico. A prominent figure in experimental and Native music scenes, Ortman has been developing her unique sound for decades but has recently garnered international acclaim for her video “My Soul Remainer” which was included in this year’s Whitney Biennial (In fact, all three performers were featured artists in the Biennial; Ortman and Fischer as solo artists and Chacon as part of the arts collective Postcommodity.)

Laura Ortman. Courtesy of PICA.

Saturday night’s set began with the dim stage backlit by blazing red light and the slowly building buzz and rumble of looped and distorted guitar and synthesizer. Ortman commenced the evening by uttering a few garbled proclamations into a loudspeaker that sounded like the muffled, staticky voices of a radio station just out of range. 

From then on, Ortman danced around the stage tirelessly, accenting her playing with dramatic lunges and sidesteps. She moved almost frantically at times but maintained a sense of deep focus even in her freneticism. She scribbled away at her instrument as though trying to set it on fire by friction and at one point carried this sentiment to an extreme when she scraped an alternate violin against a mic’d-up panel of wood covered in sandpaper. The sound was nearly unbearable. Then, finally, she picked up the board and knocked it on the stage to release a small pile of sawdust. She tapped and thumped her instrument like a bizarre drum and used a wooden whistle to evoke the tones of a train, a bird, or an idle human. Her playing veered from screeching to cinematic to sweetly melodic, driven by her insistent kinetic energy. 

Accompanying Ortman’s forceful performance were Fischer and Chacon’s heavy (and heavily distorted) guitar/synth/tape loop combo, which, though compelling in their own right, at times threatened to completely obscure the headlining artist’s efforts. In contrast to much of Ortman’s recorded music, which allows the listener to hear every affecting nuance and note she plays, the show at Lincoln Hall was dominated by the monolithic dronescape that continued almost unbroken for the full 90 minutes. Ortman’s violin was like a small bird flying through a hurricane, variously engulfed by clouds and shoved to and fro by the wind. Whether this was a conscious decision within the three performers’ collaborative process or the result of the way the venue’s sound was mixed, it was hard to dismiss the possibility that listeners might be missing out on a certain level of sonic detail. The wall-of-noise effect became slightly monotonous after a certain point, making the moments when Ortman took over feel all the more exquisite.


Memento Stella, Takashi Makino
OMSI
1945 SE Water Ave
September 14 & 15

Memento Stella, according to Japanese filmmaker Takashi Makino, means “remember we are stars.” It is also the title of his most recent work which TBA screened at OMSI’s Empirical Theater over the weekend. Makino’s work is decidedly abstract and has evolved from Stan Brakhage-style direct film manipulation in his early career to his current mode of intricately layered digital footage and lens effects that create wildly flickering hypnotic textures on the screen. Memento Stella is his longest film to date with a run time of 60 minutes. For the Sunday evening showing I attended, the artist was present to perform a live soundtrack on synthesizer. The piece was composed by Reinier van Houdt, who also performed at Saturday’s screening. 

Takashi Makino
Takashi Makino. Courtesy of PICA.

The audience was warned at the outset that although we might recognize specific images, the idea was to relax into the visual chaos and let our minds drift free from representation or narrative. The film began with tiny twinkling shards of light on a black background that resembled a more lively version of television static or perhaps stars moving at warp speed or a cloud of agitated dust particles viewed in raking light. We weren’t supposed to worry about making visual associations but I couldn’t help myself. It took some time to fully settle in and stop trying to make sense of what we were seeing (was that water? It had to be water!) but eventually the vast field of vibrating, swirling forms and particles began to feel absorbing and meditative. Tiny patterns and broad motions clashed and harmonized in turn. The experience was akin to the start of a psychedelic trip or the moment you fall asleep, only to be suddenly startled awake. Makino’s live performance of van Houdt’s soundtrack was also ambient, but its composition contained subtle peaks and valleys that prevented the sonic fatigue that can accompany noise music. 

At certain moments the total immersion became nearly overwhelming and a sort of existential dread crept in to the point that I actually felt afraid for a moment. After the show, other audience members reported having similar feelings of anxiety or foreboding and we all agreed that we felt a bit altered. It was as though we had all had a strange dream together. Maybe the experience wasn’t always relaxing, but it was powerful and unique, and isn’t that what art is supposed to be?


The Dope Elf (Asher Hartman and the Gawdafful National Theater)
Yale Union
800 SE 10th Ave
Additional Performances: September 20, 21 & 22; October 11, 12 & 13; October 18, 19 & 20
Doors open 7:30 PM / Showtime 8:00 PM

The Dope Elf, the latest production of Los Angeles artist Asher Hartman’s excellent Gawdafful National Theater Company, kicked off its month-long run at Yale Union during TBA’s second weekend. It stands out as one of the weirder and more exciting works featured in this year’s festival. Hartman and his crew have transformed Yale Union into a fey sort of “trailer park” in which handmade, treehouse-like structures and repurposed garbage/sculpture hybrids are scattered throughout the cavernous gallery. The company are artists-in-residence in the literal sense – they have been living on set since the production began and will continue to do so through the final performance on October 20. The Dope Elf is a three-part show that unfolds over three consecutive evenings each weekend of the run; I saw what was described as a modified version of Play 1 in a media preview performance. (A 24-hour live stream can be found on the gallery’s website.) Before the show started, Hartman addressed the audience. He explained that the players would be moving around the gallery throughout the evening, and that he would lead us to the next location after each scene. This roving action resulted in a rather fluid barrier between performer and viewer that was fun and kept everyone alert as we tried to avoid inadvertently stumbling into the spotlight.

The Dope Elf publicity image
The Dope Elf publicity image. Courtesy of PICA.

The show began when Michael Bonnabel jumped onto a platform surrounded by faux arcade game consoles made from cardboard boxes (including “Street Frighter” and “Donkey Dong”) and tore into an acidic monologue about a pretentious fellow referred to as “the actor.” Slowly it became apparent that the actor in question was Bonnabel himself – or the character he was playing – which was our first indication of the multiple layers of meaning and identity contained within this rowdy performance. 

The next scene found Bonnabel sitting in one half of a two-bedroom shanty, engaged in a petty domestic squabble with John (played by Philip Littell). From there, the energetic cast transformed themselves into trolls, wolves, aunties, actors, depressed trailer-park residents, concerned family members, and death itself. Zut Lors gave a brief but standout performance as Gingy, a trailer-park troll. Lors is a gifted physical comedian whose facial expressions and excellent timing were genuinely funny, which can be hard to come by in contemporary performance art. She reappeared later as one half of a couple (or siblings? roommates?) opposite Joe Seely and was compelling even in that more subdued role, relaxed in her lines and her movements. 

Although there was a superficial gloss of wacky humor throughout (particularly in the instance of Gingy’s deranged stand-up routine), the underlying tone was one of deep metaphysical disturbances. The wretchedness reached a nadir in a scene in which Bonnabel (perhaps playing Michael, the actor) holds another man (played by Paul Outlaw) hostage in his bedroom, commanding him to remove and replace articles of clothing, psychotically singing love songs to him while mimicking sexual acts, and threatening to tape his mouth shut before the scene fades out. From my vantage point, I was able to see Bonnabel discreetly remove a length of rope and a set of kitchen knives from a duffle bag at the start of the scene (not everyone would have seen this, I just happened to be standing directly behind the actor), and as a result I spent the entire scene worried that we were about to witness a gruesome fictional murder. To my relief, the action never devolved into that sort of spectacle, but that doesn’t mean the audience was spared any discomfort. 

And then there was the titular Dope Elf, played with aggressive whimsy by Jacqueline Wright. The Elf described itself as “a system” whose DNA test results read zero and who seemed to veer from victim to monster to average-joe within the space of a few wild run-on sentences. Within Hartman’s creation, the Dope Elf’s particular brand of “magic” represents the systems and disguises of white supremacy that delude and torture the rest of the characters in the play. The Elf’s confounding lack of identity evokes the supposedly neutral status of whiteness both in racial terms and in the rarefied space of contemporary art, where the white cube of the gallery bestows institutional legitimacy upon its contents. 

Jacqueline Wright as the Dope Elf. Courtesy of PICA.

The Elf made several bizarre appearances throughout the performance, but her final monologue was truly memorable. In a tirade of convoluted and vulgar poetic logic, the Dope Elf managed to communicate the theoretical gist of the work – that living within systems of violence and power leaves people with what Yale Union curator Dena Beard describes as “strangled desire, residual fear, and rage.” The split personalities of the show’s actors were suddenly revealed as reflections of unstable identities locked in a struggle for power, whether magical or political. With that, the spell was lifted and the members of the Gawdafful National Theater Company stepped onto the stage and took a bow. 

Martha Daghlian is a Portland-based visual artist and arts writer. She is the creator of the Grapefruit Juice Artist Resource Guide, a Portland arts directory. More information and work can be found at marthadaghlian.com