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Eugene Weekly : Performing/Visual Arts : 9.3.2009

 

A Taste of Tomorrow

Time Based Art ‘09

by Brett Campbell

Summer in Oregon means hitting the great outdoors by day and arts festivals by night. No wonder we get so little sleep. You want  small scale chamber music? Head to Portland for Chamber Music Northwest or Portland International Piano festival. Classic (and increasingly, contemporary) theater? South to Ashland’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Big choral-orchestral classical? Right here for the Oregon Bach Festival. Hippies? Country Fair. But where do you go when you want to see tomorrow’s art instead of yesterday’s? Maybe the most fascinating summer festival in Oregon happens this month, as Portland Institute of Contemporary Art presents its  seventh Time Based Arts Festival, giving Northwesterners a piquant taste of top-ranked, major-grant-garnerning avant garde art that’s generally the province of fringe festivals in places like Edinburgh, Melbourne, Buenos Aires, New York and other big cultural capitals. Over the next couple weeks, anyone interested in the future of film, dance, theater, visual arts and those nebulous performance and installation categories in between should venture northward to check out the vistas. Last year, more than 25,000 people did, many from outside the region and the U.S.

Pan Pan Theatre
Young Jean Lee

Admittedly, when you’re out there on the frontier, sometimes landmarks and boundaries are hard to come by; in the four festivals I’ve attended, TBA has meant WTF almost as often as it has LOL and oh, wow. Yet the occasional obscure or pretentious pieces have been outweighed by many more that make you see the world, or at least the arts, in new and surprising ways. 

This year’s festival brings a new chief, Cathy Edwards, the former artistic director of New York’s Dance Theater Workshop  and now director of programming for the International Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven. She succeeds Mark Russell, the theater-oriented former director of New York’s renowned PS 122 performance space, and his predecessor Kristy Edmunds, the charismatic Northwesterner who founded PICA in 1995. Edwards is abetted by two conscientious, savvy veterans of the Portland art scene: performing arts director Erin Boberg Doughton and visual art director Kristan Kennedy. But while the mix of artists may change with Edwards’ arrival, the essentials — vanguard performances and installations held in concert halls, clubs, industrial spaces, galleries and unlikelier venues — remain.

One of the best parts of TBA is The Works, an improvised late night venue (this year, southeast Portland’s abandoned Washington High School) that’s open each evening after events, and also hosts some performances. The Works creates a little recurring community around art; instead of just going to a show and going home (and who really wants to drive back to Eugene from Portland after an evening show, anyway?), arts lovers can chat about what they saw or are seeing — over beer, drinks, and snacks — with strangers and friends and even artists. (Once I was standing in line to order a snack when a petite woman in a red sweatshirt politely asked me to pass her a napkin. “Here you go,” I said, handing it to Laurie Anderson.) When space and the music permit, dancing occasionally breaks out.

While the emphasis is on performance, PICA was founded as a visual arts organization, and art for the eyes, including video, sculpture and photography, has lately become an increasingly prominent part of the TBA festival. All those programs are free with many on view through October. The festival also boasts films, workshops, lectures and salons that you can’t find anywhere else in Oregon.

It’s really impossible to evaluate most or even some of TBA’s shows in a short preview like this one, in part because so many are new to this region or even this country and in part because the art itself so resists easy description; some of the best TBA events I’ve seen have been those I expected the least from. I can say I’m happy to see the return of past successful TBA acts Young Jean Lee (theater), locust (dance from Seattle), 10 Tiny Dances and Ethan Rose (sound installation). We’ve seen cellist Erik Friedlander here at the Shedd in a jazz context, but his TBA  show Block Ice & Propane will feature rootsier sounds, plus images and spoken stories from his father, the great photographer Lee Friedlander. Internationally renowned choreographer Miguel Guttierez’s world premiere is a coup for the festival, and Irish experimental dance/theater troupe Pan Pan Theatre’s deconstruction of Hansel & Gretel looks intriguing. But really, I could name another dozen or more performers (many of them local or regional) whose work might be just as compelling. Many acts deal with volatile issues of race and gender, while others explore more idiosyncratic visions. The best strategy is to see as diverse a lineup as possible, check the PICA website and catch the buzz on what’s hot at the Works. Chances are, whatever you encounter at TBA will leave you viewing the world from a different perspective.  

Time Based Arts Festival happens at locations throughout Portland Sept. 3-13. For info, 503-242-1419, www.pica.org