Testing Trust: TBA:17 in Portland

Luke George and Daniel Kok: Bunny, September 15, 2017, at the Brunish Theatre. Courtesy Time-Based Art Festival, Portland Institute for Contemporary Art. Photo Chelsea Petrakis. 



Now in its fifteenth year, the Time-Based Art Festival, organized by the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA), enlisted local, national, and international artists to present work around the city from September 7 to 17. “Time-based art” has vague, practically nonexistent parameters, as demonstrated by this year’s lineup of over fifty performances, workshops, talks, and installations at eleven venues. For their provocative work Bunny (2015), Melbourne-based artists Luke George and Daniel Kok tied audience members with rope using macramé, sailors’ knots, and bondage techniques, testing the boundaries of intimacy and consent. Brooklyn-based artist Will Rawls’s solo performance i make me [sic] was a two-night, six-hour lecture-dance that combined movement with informal, meandering slideshows.

As a home base for the festival, Portland has a unique cultural character. Renowned for its progressivism and quaint urbanity, the City of Roses is also the whitest large city in the United States, and Oregon has the highest Klan membership per capita of any state—a legacy of a white supremacy that included a ban on black people living in its borders when it formed. Interested in how local artists of color might engage this context, I attended Takahiro Yamamoto’s Direct Path to Detour, Single Focus (2017) at PICA’s headquarters downtown. Enclosed in a circle by the audience, Yamamoto switched between dancing and storytelling. His personal anecdotes began with clarity, but slid into non sequiturs as he expounded on TV shows like “Will and Grace” and celebrities like Jennifer Lopez and David Lee Roth. His collaborator sidony o’neal handled the sound design, intermittently interjecting noise that layered static and faint music, like a radio stuck between channels. Yamamoto said in an interview that Direct Path to Detour was conceived as a way to off-load the pressure that he feels as a Japanese immigrant to explain his identity.

The artistic strategy of incomprehension recurred when I saw Dead Thoroughbred, a performance by o’neal and keyon gaskin, in PICA’s annex in Northeast Portland, a permanent home for the institution since 2016. Once the audience had filed in the lights snapped off abruptly. The wall-length door retracted cinematically, revealing o’neal standing on gaskin’s shoulders, both cloaked in a floor-length trench coat made from a moisture-wicking material often used for athletic wear. Cutting the silence with the sharp clack of high-heeled shoes, the towering shape sauntered through the room, and o’neal slowly dismounted. I awaited dramatic release in the form of light or sound, but the performance stretched the tension like elastic, plunging its spectators into a world of sparse sensorial cues. In the darkness, the performers disappeared and reappeared next to the audience, utter whispers, and fumble with a bucket of ice. Using a laptop and a MIDI keyboard, o’neal tinkered with modular arpeggiations and harsh drones, while gaskin, lit dimly by the burning ember of a cigarette, played snippets of hip-hop on an iPod. There was no crescendo or climax to the performance. It ended even less emphatically than it began.

Caribbean theorist Édouard Glissant proposed a “right to opacity.” “If we examine the process of ‘understanding’ people and ideas from the perspective of Western thought,” he wrote,” we discover that its basis is this requirement for transparency.” Sitting in a space of deprivation and uncertainty, sharing it with the performers but not also knowing where they were or what they were doing, felt like an embodiment of Glissant’s theory. People of color conscious of how their behaviors are read in predominantly white spaces often bear the burden of representation, of offering legible narratives. But Dead Thoroughbred, like Direct Path to Detour, doesn’t cater to the audience and instead withhold information as a way of asking for trust and endurance.

Corbeaux (Ravens), 2014, by Moroccan choreographer Bouchra Ouizguen similarly demanded persistence, resolve, and perseverance from the audience. Inside the PICA annex, Corbeaux began with a group women entering one by one. Uniformed in simple black clothing and white headscarves, they suddenly began moving, as synchronized as gears in machinery. Each performer repeated a staccato jerk of the head along with a specific cry, some tonal, others guttural. Their steady, piercing shrieks engulfed the room. Each noise added to the unease that swelled in the space, and the only thing to do was watch the performers’ sharp gestures that bordered on self-inflicted harm. The audience became bystanders to a possible crisis, because to watch the ferocity was to be complicit in any damage they did to their bodies.

After thirty minutes, the performers stopped, a few at a time with no discernable order, and the cries could be heard more clearly in isolation. These sounds were joined by improvised bodily noises like ragged wheezes and grunts, tinged with pain. Just after these faded into silence, the performers all exploded in jubilant dance and song, a party of whirring hips and joyful chants. Their ecstasy was cathartic, a pinprick to the ballooning tension that relieved the pressure on the audience.

When o’neal and gaskin completed Dead Thoroughbred and exited the space, the lights flashed on, searingly bright for dilated pupils. An electronic noise rang like a merciless alarm bell and I blinked, squinted, and looked around at my equally distressed audience members facing each other under the harsh lights. The performers were gone and instead we were exposed, left to consider why we came and what we expected to see. In performance, there is a built-in hierarchy of power between artists on stage and the watching audience. When artists strategically create performances that are uncomfortable or hard to parse, they transfer the vulnerability onto the audience, testing their capacity to withstand what they don’t comprehend. In this predominantly white city, for performers of color to deliberately make obfuscated work is instructive of an alternate mode of relation that asks for acceptance without understanding.