Imagine yourself in the atrium of a renovated industrial building. Suddenly, two female figures appear on the pitched glass roof, where they make elegant gestures against the sky. Descending via elevator to the ground floor, they continue their improvisations, and engage with the audience via delicate interactions. Finally, they jump through the large street-level windows, where they extend their dance into the urban space. The performance, by the duo Ho Ho-Do, was the first of three remarkable acts presented by Off-Site-Dance Project, a Japanese group that aims to transform the ‘edges’ of urban spaces into ‘a theatre of creative time and space’.
Off-Site-Dance Project were without doubt a highlight of TBA, the annual time-based arts festival in Portland, organized by the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA). TBA is dedicated to emerging and experimental performing arts; its titular acronym can be shorthand for both ‘time-based arts’ and ‘to be announced’, the latter meaning loosely pointed to the informal atmosphere of this ten-day event. This ninth edition, directed for the third time by Cathy Edwards, presented 79 different companies, bands and visual art projects. Founded in 2003, TBA has developed into one of the best festivals in its field on the West Coast, and is recognized across the US.
This year, reconstruction was a particularly popular theme. The Method Gun (2008), for example, imagined the training methods of the actor-training guru Stella Burden, who abruptly left her company after an intense nine years rehearsing their unconventional adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire (1947). Using archival material, the actors of the Texas-based group Rude Mechs interpreted the Burden company’s attempt to come to terms with their loss. Far from being straightforward biography, the show was a thoughtful reflection on theatre, emotional growth and the psychology of master–disciple relationships. Another performer who used reconstruction was Andrew Dinwiddie, who revived a stirring sermon on premarital sex, rock’n’roll, homosexuality and other ‘sins’, taken from an original recording of the evangelist Jimmy Swaggart. In contrast to Rude Mechs, Dinwiddie did nothing on the level of interpretation – the show should apparently speak for itself.
Kyle Abraham presented The Radio Show (2009) and a new solo work-in-progress, Life! The Realest MC (2011). The latter deals with a young black gay man’s experiences of gender and race in an urban environment. The French choreographer Rachid Ouramdane presented another fascinating multimedia performance on the complex constructions of cultural identity in contemporary society, inventing his own language of bodily expressions in dialogue with video footage, which were juxtaposed on movable monitors on stage. The festival encouraged cross-cultural dialogue by a balanced programme of national and international participants, and also gave space to local artists.
The visual arts component to this year’s TBA was entitled ‘The Evidence of Bricks’, and was curated again by Kristan Kennedy (in charge since 2006) in the classrooms on the two floors of Washington High School, a building that sits empty for the rest of the year. Recognizing today’s world of violent revolutions and social unrest, Kennedy used the brick as a metaphor for protest and giving space to anger. Cristina Lucas’ Europleasure International LTD. TOUCH AND GO (2010) is a quasi-comical video in which people literally throw stones through the windows of a deserted building once owned by the company of the work’s title. The video Rite of Spring (2010) by Mona Vatamanu & Florin Tudor shows a harmless game played by Romanian boys which involves igniting poplar fluff in the streets. ‘The Evidence of Bricks’ comprised compelling art from local and international artists alike: from the Portland duo Anna Gray & Ryan Wilson Paulsen, who investigate the codes and power of editing processes and archiving methods; through the French collective Claire Fontaine, who presented a map of the US made from matches; to the web group Young–Hae Chang Heavy Industries, who presented their new, animated audio-textual poem on power relations in society – made, like many works here, especially for TBA.
The organizers of TBA understand that an urban festival is not just a cultural but also a social event and they took care of their audience, providing free admission to the exhibition and a Beergarten where people could eat and drink for reasonable prices. Portland’s cultural community attended the performances in great numbers – most of the events were full, and many of them sold-out. In contrast to the anti-cultural climate in Europe, due to stringent arts budget cuts made by right-wing governments, liberal Portland and events such as TBA are able to generate a cultural energy that – however much financed by corporate and private sponsors – keeps artistic content and economic matters a healthy distance apart.