TBA12: Think Global, Art Local

This year's Time-Based Arts Festival offered a diverse mixture of international and local artists

E*Rock and Claudia Meza at TBA’s
Sonic City PDX

At the outset of this year’s Time Based Arts Festival, and at introductions to many of its performances, new TBA director Angela Mattox announced her programming philosophy: “to include Portland in an artistic conversation with various regions of the world.” It’s certainly a worthy goal; despite its recent influx of artists from elsewhere, Portland audiences, like those anywhere else, can be parochial and limited in what they consider an acceptable perimeter. Or parameter. But no one goes to TBA, or to other non-museum art, to find the solace of the familiar. We’re looking for challenge, new ideas, different perspectives.

But just because art comes from elsewhere doesn’t make it insightful, much less accessible. And because something is new doesn’t make it good. The problem with new art is that we usually don’t know what’s going to work until we throw it on stage or on a wall, and see what sticks. I’m glad TBA does that. The festival, now celebrating its tenth anniversary, has always welcomed artists from around the globe, but this year’s edition did indeed demonstrate an international character that fulfilled Mattox’s promise, and brought Portland some welcome global artistic perspectives.

Naturally, in a festival so devoted to taking artistic risks, some experiments will fail. It’s too easy to make a fetish of the new, in a way that absolves artists of responsibility to fully develop their vision or try to reach new — and old — audiences. Thus the smattering of half-baked, high-concept ideas that were content to satisfy only an artist’s aesthetic ideas with little apparent consideration for how audiences received it. The best vanguard artists do both: generously reach audiences without compromising artistic integrity. We saw plenty of those at this year’s TBA festival — including several from right here in the Northwest.

Adventure meets Accessibility

Otomo Yoshihide performed at
TBA’s Visions and Echoes.

“Good writing doesn’t make you feel dumb,” my mentor in college told me and his other writing students. “Good writing makes you feel smart.” I tell my own students the same thing.
For me, art is the same way. The best art moves me emotionally while surprising, even provoking me aesthetically or intellectually. I emerge from a successful show sometimes ruminating over what it meant, but never puzzling over why it mattered. I come away with new ways of seeing or thinking about or feeling about or even laughing about my world and my times.

That’s why I spend a good portion of my time not enjoying the comfort food of music and art I already know well, but instead seeking out what’s being made right now, by artists who are sharing that world with me. When they succeed (and even the best fail often), I feel smarter, maybe even wiser. Even if what I come away with is better questions rather than easy answers.

Ironically enough, plenty of today’s fringe art, often presented in the name of representing voices that have been marginalized, betrays a decidedly undemocratic, even elitist attitude. “I love to make the audience work!” the choreographer Nora Chipamuire told the New York Times about her intriguing but willfully obscure “Miriam,” which TBA brought to Portland on its way to New York. “And why shouldn’t they?”

Granted, innovative art does require some commitment from the audience. But a few performances, like “Miriam,” failed not because the audience didn’t work hard enough but because the artists didn’t work hard enough, or smart enough, to communicate their ambitious visions.

This tension between internal inspiration and external reception, between accessibility and adventure, which sharpened in the 20th century, is as old as art itself. Too many artists haven’t cared enough about the audience. Anyone who doesn’t get it just not hip enough or smart enough. And cultural presenters and critics, fearful of becoming the Mr. Joneses that Bob Dylan sang about and missing the next big thing, too often let them get away with it.

What happens next? Audiences hear about the next buzz artist, pay $25 or more to check it out, and come away puzzled and unmoved, though often afraid to really admit it. But too often, they don’t show up the next time. Why should they?

Kota Yamazaki/Fluid Hug Hug’s [glowing]

I cover a field — contemporary music — that was almost ruined by those attitudes, by composers who didn’t care whether audiences listened. It was an understandable response to a conservative arts culture that had too long held back innovators like Charles Ives. But, thanks in part to culture mavens who were afraid of being thought not smart/hip enough to get it, that music came to dominate, for a brief period, and wound up driving away so many listeners (who fled for jazz, innovative pop music and world music, where they could find both adventure and accessibility) that the field today is still hamstrung, dominated by rigidly conservative, timid listeners who will not renew their subscriptions if there’s too much unfamiliar music that’s less than a century and a half old.

Just this month, the Oregon Symphony announced it was shelving one of the great 20th century works, Benjamin Britten’s searing “War Requiem,” in favor of yet another performance of what was once an actually innovative piece, Beethoven’s mighty “Symphony #9,” on the admitted grounds that not nearly as many listeners would turn up for the former as the latter. Similar considerations underlie Portland Opera’s refusal to present ANY contemporary or 20th century music this year.

The problem isn’t with Britten, or today’s music. I hear plenty of it every day that’s as emotionally appealing as Mozart while still being adventurous. The problem (actually one problem, because there are many) is that classical music drove away so many fans because of modernist composers’ refusal to make their innovations accessible that it’s left to the rigid regressives who primarily fund it. If artists and presenters don’t make the effort to reach out to audiences unfamiliar with vanguard work, the same thing could happen to the uncategorizable art we see at festivals like TBA.

Fortunately, plenty of examples exist of artists who, at their best, can be both adventurous and artistically generous, from PICA faves Laurie Anderson and Philip Glass and other popularly and critically successful innovators like Mark Morris and Miles Davis. (Anyone who’d cite Davis’s famous propensity for turning his back on audiences in performance should consider his avowed attempts to reconnect with non-jazz, non-elite listeners throughout his career.) Many of them have appeared on TBA stages and installations. They disprove the false dichotomy between accessibility and adventure. And they don’t blame the audience for their own occasional shortcomings. Here are a few examples from this year’s TBA festival

International Innovators

Employing some of the most precise and graceful dancers I’ve ever spotted on an Oregon stage, Kota Yamazaki and Fluid Hug-Hug’s “(glowing)” presented a wide range of dance styles, from ballet to butoh, and beautifully integrated them (along with occasional music and found sounds) into a gripping ensemble work that refused to give the audience the conventional payoffs of narrative dance forms, or even many of the virtuoso “Wow!” solo moments that inspire cheers. Instead, Yamazaki and his multicontinental cast devoted their considerable chops to continuous, patterned floating motion in which seemingly disparate individuals swept into and out of connections with each other.

The 70-minute work is based on novelist Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s essay “In’ei Raisan (In Praise of Shadows),” which maintains that true beauty can best be found in darkness and shadows. Yet unlike “Miriam,” “(glowing)” uses shadow not to conceal skimpy content but rather to illuminate the darkness via his poly-stylistic ideas and their integration.

Another spectacular TBA12 success was “Le Cargo,” which its creator, Congolese choreographer Faustin Linyekula, commenced with a fib — “I am a storyteller, but I’m not here to tell stories,” he said. “I’m here to dance.” His brilliant hour-long solo show then went on to do both. The unreliable narrator also made his meaning clear: telling stories and dancing may not save his friends or his homeland, but they’re nevertheless essential to give meaning to both.

Clad in a simple grey top and skirt, Linyekula implicitly demonstrated the value of his origins by opening with jerky, African-influenced modern choreography that seemed to portray confusion and uncertainty. Half crouched, swiveling his hips, he staggered like someone trying to balance on a narrow beam while being buffeted by shifting winds. Then, when he returned (via that story he’s not telling) to his home village of Obilo, Linyekula’s moves revealed the source of his original aesthetic: the traditional dance and music of his homeland. Swaying from his shoulders, punching the air like a boxer, then stretching his arms wide, his expressive hands, his agile limbs, fingers and face ultimately signaled the ecstasy of a return home. Music, field recordings of village sounds, and subtle lighting evoked the nightly dance ritual children like the young Faustin were forbidden to see.

Faustin Linyekula’s “Le Cargo”

We did learn obliquely about some peripheral effects of Congo’s long and brutal wars and their effect on daily life, but “Le Cargo” isn’t about conflict so much as how, despite the turmoil that makes life there so difficult, Linyekula still carries with him the cargo of his origins — memories, rituals, traditional music and dance of his childhood. The only tangible thing his dancing can do to counteract the effects of persistent war and crisis, he said in his intro, is to provide money for Linyekula to give to his younger siblings to continue their education, and to take care of his elderly relatives.

But Linyekula’s evocative performance shows that his journey — his story — transcends tangible returns. By so masterfully showing and telling (despite his initial protestations) the story of a friend who died of plague and his own return home, Linyekula demonstrated the persistent power his origins continue to exert on him and those he dances for. He even gave us a slideshow, displayed on a laptop screen at the stage apron, portraying scenes from his village. Toward the end, a recording of Linyekula’s opening monologue played as he danced, and occasionally he harmonized with his recorded voice singing a traditional song, dramatizing how his village’s traditional art continues to inhabit his voice and body while he’s creating new art.

Maybe the most alien — to contemporary Western eyes and ears — TBA show was Sunday’s exploration of contemporary Japanese time-based art, “Voices and Echoes,” which presented poet Gozo Yoshimasu and sound artists Akio Suzuki and Otomo Yoshihide. In contrast to so much at TBA, the prevailing aesthetic was starkness. Suzuki’s spare solo performance signaled this first. He used sound makers such as the Analopos, an instrument he invented that consist of metal cylinders connected by spiral cords, played by rubbing and drumming, and another comprising a set of metal tubes delicately played with what appeared to be chopsticks.

Yoshimasu and Yoshihide followed with an elongated reading/performance in which the poet used a tack hammer to gradually punch little stakes into a thin metal plate stretched out in front of him onstage, occasionally interpolating readings and harsh guitar feedback and other sounds produced by Yoshihide. At the end, Yoshimasu read a short, spellbinding poem he said he’d written about Portland only that morning. Despite moments of monotony, the hour-long performance’s sheer stark intensity won me over.

Laurie Anderson: Low-key and comic

The godmother of performance art, Laurie Anderson, returned to TBA to close the festival with the latest in her informal trilogy of recent storytelling shows. Unlike the multimedia extravaganzas of her United States/Home of the Brave days, the Schnitzer Concert Hall stage featured only a lectern/music stand and violin stand, a small rectangular screen that (except for one segment) projected only changing solid colors), an easy chair, and several dozen small, glowing candleholders — which would shortly become problematic — strewn about on the floor. Like her previous spoken-word productions, Anderson’s “Dirtday!” consisted of loosely connected musings, ramblings, ruminations, japes, witticisms, anecdotes and even multimedia works perpetrated by her late family dog, Lolabelle. All but the last were delivered in her richly musical, sometimes portentous, electronically enhanced voice (including a couple of visits to the lower, voice of authority range of her “male” alter ego, Fenway Bergamot), accompanied by ambient electronic textures and samples and punctuated by a few electronically augmented violin interludes.

Some of Anderson’s wry, sometimes poignant insights about life, art and politics were genuinely moving or enlightening, in that winking, faux wide-eyed style that only Anderson can deliver — with exquisite comic or satirical timing and pauses. It often resembled a standup comedy act for readers of The Nation, and the audience gobbled it up, offering a standing ovation that felt like the grateful benediction deserving a wise elder. And while “Dirtday!” did manage to avoid much of the flab and near-smugness of some of Anderson’s recent work, the mood stayed pretty low key and reflective, even somber, with the only real surprise occurring when those candles apparently triggered a smoke alarm, which Anderson handled with her customary grace. As someone who’s considered her a national treasure for the past three decades, I hope her next project will bring back some of the edgy energy and unexpected twists of the good old days.

Northwest Perspectives

While, as Maddox promised, these internationally renowned performers brought Oregon new perspectives and voices in the global conversation that is 21st century art, TBA also commendably offered a showcase to locals who are also exploring new avenues of expression. And like them, several Northwest artists contributed new work that deserves exposure beyond Oregon.

Linda K. Johnson at Ten Tiny Dances

One somewhat overlooked example happened during Ten Tiny Dances, the always entertaining late night highlight that gives choreographers a short time and a small space in which to exert their creativity. Many 10TD pieces are cheery, maybe a little naughty, often campy. So it took some real artistic courage to do what native Portland choreographer Linda K. Johnson did in “Terms and Conditions”: in the midst of all the fun, she and sound artist Tim DuRoche (using the chilling sounds of shells being loaded into chamber and gunshots) brought us a dark, harrowing dance about the fear of violence that’s as relevant as the latest mass shootings and as powerful as anything I saw at the festival. Filmed in tight closeup and projected on the screen behind the dance space, Johnson’s expressive face and body (which eventually huddled underneath the dance platform) eloquently conveyed the terror that America’s culture of violence worship has engendered.

In a brief lunchtime performance/talk at PICA’s attractively raw new headquarters space, another Portlander, Claire Evans (best known hereabouts for her work in the band YACHT) gave a gently tongue-in-cheek talk and presentation about how digital technology can help couples quantify their relative relationship investment and ultimately create “bandwith offset credits” that would make sure we’re getting our time’s worth in love. Evans’s modest proposal included some sharp insights and clever images that kept the midday audience chuckling.

We’ve already praised the local Brainstorm/Sahel Sounds show at TBA’s late-night Works, and I had equally high hopes for September 12’s Classical Revolution/Parenthetical Girls pairing, which got off to a good start with some easily digestible chamber orchestra music composed by Seattle’s Jherek Bischoff. An energetically mechanical dance to excerpts of fab but overfamiliar recorded classics including Rimsky Korsakov’s “Scheherezade” and Ravel’s “Bolero” by recent Seattle emigrant Portlander Allie Hankins followed, and an initially ethereal, gradually darkening set by the always intriguing Portland bass clarinet and electronics duo Golden Retriever (Jonathan Sielaff and former Parenthetical Girl Matt Carlson), that used skittering electronics and sighing strings to produce an occasionally ominous, momentarily wild, almost tectonic sense of slow motion worthy of Jan Garbarek’s old ECM records.

There followed one of those frustratingly interminable, energy draining extended stage resets more commonly endured in classical music concerts than in pop; why can’t the stage be at least partially prepared for all the acts? Finally, the headlining Parenthetical Girls, Golden Retriever and CRPDX players emerged for a set of orchestral rock, with “valkyries” moving on, off and about the stage, in front of closeups projected on large screens. Charismatic PG frontman Zac Pennington was as riveting as ever, but the songs labored under a melodic sameness that doesn’t seem to have evolved much from his earlier TBA showcases, and technical problems made it impossible to make out the lyrics. Credit TBA and all concerned for a brave and admirable attempt that did provide a welcome, if flawed showcase for some of the city’s more ambitious musical explorers.

But maybe the most impressive local showcase happened in a free show on Saturday in a parking lot under Portland’s Morrison Bridge. One of the city’s most exciting musical explorers, Claudia Meza, had recently dropped off an amp for repair at a “shady” shop nearby and was seduced by the echoes of an Amtrak train and, later, regular drum practice there, which made her wonder what other sonically impressive sites the city harbored. She asked some of her favorite composers for their suggestions, and thus was born the Sonic City PDX project, which you can explore in person with help from Google Maps and online at the website.

Matt Carlson at Sonic City PDX

Saturday’s alfresco concert featured ear-expanding ambient, electronic, noise productions by Sielaff, Carlson, Meza herself, an aggressively powerful singer/clarinetist (with electronic loops) called Holland, the sensational E*Rock and most impressively, one of the most internationally acclaimed Portland musicians too many Portlanders haven’t heard of, Daniel Menche, who deployed his diverse arsenal of found and electronic sounds with superior nuance and depth, sometimes in duets with the trains passing by a half block away.

It’s a treat to see TBA and Meza (a generous curator and impressive creator) giving exposure to this under-heard subset of the city’s music scene. Shows like Sonic City PDX and the others we’ve praised here on ArtsWatch helped make this year’s internationally flavored Time Based Arts Festival a local as well as global success.

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