Portland's expressive marathon

The 11-day Time Based Art Festival was exhausting as usual but, event for event, not as consistently inspiring as last year's.
The 11-day Time Based Art Festival was exhausting as usual but, event for event, not as consistently inspiring as last year's.

During the 11 days and nights of the annual Time Based Art Festival in Portland, finding precious time for things like sleeping, eating, seeing friends and family, or paying bills becomes near-impossible. That's how the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA) likes it. They stuffed so many performances, installations, lectures, workshops, and unclassifiable art happenings into TBA:07 that you were running on pure art adrenaline from noon to well pat midnight every day. After 100-plus hours of this, it's hard not to crash.

While recovering from TBA:07, one thing immediately stands out: This time around I'm feeling less like I'm coming down from a thrilling high than sort of recovering from a low-grade fever.

PICA is bound to trumpet TBA:07 as a resounding success, pointing to ticket sales, audience and PICA member attendance, and impact on the local economy. That is all well and good. But what matters most is what was being served artistically at the festival. And this year's offerings were a bewildering mixed bag.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should report that I worked on one and performed in another TBA performance: as vocal coach for Hand2Mouth Theatre's Oregonian-panned "Repeat After Me" and singing in H2M's audience favorite dance to Elton John's "Tiny Dancer," in Mike Barber's always popular "Ten Tiny Dances" at TBA's "The Works."

During the course of the festival, I also attended 10 mainstage performances, four nights at "The Works," a handful of visual arts installations, one "happening," and none, unfortunately, of the lectures or workshops.

Standout performances immediately emerge. Taylor Mac's outrageously funny and unexpectedly humane one-man "subversive's jukebox musical" was, for me, the emotional heart of TBA:07. High camp without cloying, honesty with plenty of humor, Mac's performance showed again what that unwieldy bravura piano duo Kiki and Herb did at TBA 06 – that 21st century drag performance can, at its brutal best, offer surprisingly deep reserves of pathos (when not veering deliciously into bathos).

There were other highlights, like a provocative and strong showing from Portland dance collective tEEth (Angelle Hebert and Phillip Kraft), whose new work, "Normal and Happy," flashed hyper-apocalyptic images across a stage populated with 22nd-century humans - it was messy (literally so, at its ecto-plasm end), confused, and inspired. tEEth is a company worth hearing more from.

There was of course the highly touted appearance of sensational dancer-choreographer turned impresario Mikhail Baryshnikov, whose coolly fluid minimalist movement in Donna Uchizono's "Leap to Tall," the weaker of two works on her imaginative program, nonetheless sent the audience into a frenzied ovation. Witnessing this living legend of American dance surely counts as one of the highlights not only of PICA's TBA but as one of the most sublime experiences a dance fan is likely to encounter in his/her lifetime.

One of TBA:07 programmatic themes of guest Artistic Director Mark Russell was "the American voice." This played out in fits and starts. Marc Bamuthi Joseph's "The Living Word Project: the breaks," a work in progress, offered a taste of why Joseph is one of our country's most crucial hip-hop artists; Portland's Holcombe Waller, in another work in progress, performed - and well - a selection of his deeply impressive folk-pop-art songs; and actors popped up on Portland street corners to offer readings from classic American novels (Catch-22 and The Grapes of Wrath among them). Hand2Mouth Theatre's "Repeat After Me," a nightmare revuesical of American songs from the past 40 or so years, provoked strong reaction, both negative and positive.

There were other shows which were greatly talked about at TBA:07: Nature Theater of Oklahoma's irreverent "No Dice" and Elevator Repair Service's singular "Gatz," both of which I was unable to attend. Claude Wampler's "PERFORMANCE (career ender)," which I did attend, was a masturbatory jumble attempting to blur the line between audience and performer. It was unclear how many of the dozen or so who walked out of the Sept. 13 performance - which started an hour late - were PICA-recruited (on behalf of the artist) "audience plants" and how many were simply disgusted TBA attendees. But the work did get audiences talking, which is one of TBA's goals.

There was a huge misfire from PICA in the form of Rinde Eckert's ambitious and beautifully constructed "On the Great Migration of Birds," a planned massed choral work which opened the festival on Sept. 6. Problem is, PICA didn't pony up the money for any professional singers, nor did it exert the pull it hoped for volunteers on the project. The composer had planned on a nearly hour-long work for 400 to 500 singers in Pioneer Courthouse Square - imagine the beauty involved! The result was a terribly sad, zero-energy performance by about 90 singers struggling to be heard. That likely didn't go over well with Eckert, it received mixed reviews from the assembled audience, and it certainly doesn't look good for PICA.

One other wildly wrong decision from PICA this year was in moving their singular late-night art party, "The Works," to a spiffy space in Northeast Portland, The Wonder Ballroom. Devoid of the gritty, DIY character and open spaces which made Southeast Portland's Audio Cinema an ideal venue last year, this year's "Works" felt forcibly formal and oddly cold. High-spirited efforts by high-energy live music groups as wide ranging as Lifesavas, The Gay Deceivers, and BARR (aka Brendan Fowler) simply fell flat at The Wonder. (At one point in his Sept. 12 performance, Fowler wondered out loud: "What's up with this crowd? No that's cool, you can ignore me."

TBA:07 was New York City-based Russell's second of three times out with the festival - he's contracted for one more year with the fest, in 2008. With so fewer truly eye-opening artists on view in TBA:07, and with the debacle that was "The Works," Russell's shine from the TBA 06 success has dulled a bit. Once his contract is up, it will be interesting to see what PICA does with the position: Recruit a permanent artistic director for the organization? Rotate the "guest" position every few years? With PICA - and this is one of its strengths – one never really knows.


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