If you asked me to list the best pieces of art I’ve seen in Portland, there’s a good chance that performances from the Time-Based Arts Festival would dominate the list. Back in 2012 I attended a TBA show called The Quiet Volume. There were no performers, just me and one other audience member, sitting in the public library downtown, each listening to separate iPods. A genderless voice in my headphones talked to me about language and libraries, read parts of novels to me, and directed me to silently interact with my audience partner.
In retrospect, I see that I had become the performer and the audience at the same time. That’s what good performance art does: It blurs the line between the two. We become the subject and the object. The Quiet Volume had done it by reducing the performer to a voice, forcing me to step into the performance space.
I walked out of the library dazed, questioning the very essence of language and overwhelmed by the intimacy I had just shared with a complete stranger.
By contrast, I’ve walked out of the end of way too many plays thinking, “That was fine.”
TBA is 10 days of performance art festival curated each year by the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, showcasing local, national, and international artists. I think many people worry that they won’t “get” performance art or that it’s exceedingly pretentious, which is a shame; whatever your taste, TBA is simply the best performance festival in Portland. While you won’t usually find a traditional theatre, dance, or music performance at TBA, if you like any of those things there will be something on the program for you.
The body was humanity’s first instrument. Through the body we created ritual. Through ritual we created performance. Performance, by nature, must exist in time and in the body. It’s a living thing. As each moment of the art moves from the present to the past, it becomes lost. One job of the critic is to record these moments in time.
While in the past my attendance at TBA was constricted by my finances, with a press pass this year, my only constraint was time. There are multiple shows each day of the festival, and most performers only have one or two shows each. I also have a day job, an apartment to keep clean, and so many hours I can go without sleep. So I had to pick and choose. Criticism is also time-based.
Seeing so many shows in such a short period of time is a strange experience. You go through so many intense ups and downs so quickly. I struggled to remember as much as I could, scribbling down my thoughts in a notebook as I left each venue. Looking at them a week later, some of those notes make no sense anymore, as if I wrote them years ago. But I still think about those shows: how they made me feel transcendent or empathetic or powerful, and managed to do it without the narrative that traditional theatre is built on. Forget notes; these shows, and the feelings they evoked, are in my body.
I should note that TBA is more than just 10 days of performances. During the week there are also series of lectures, conversations with the artists, workshops, and late-night parties. I didn’t get to a lot of those. Here are the performances I did manage to see between Sept. 7 and 17, and what I thought of them.
Dohee Lee, MU /巫
MU was an apt show to begin my TBA experience. Drawing heavily on Korean shamanism, Lee created something between art and ritual, taking the audience on a spiritual and emotional journey.
She emerged on the stage of the Winningstad Theatre in a white robe with dozens of strips of paper hanging from it. A projection of her walking the streets of New York in that same outfit appeared behind her. The stage was empty except for a set of Korean barrel drums that Lee used to build a soundtrack for the movie. I say “build” because Lee made use of wireless microphones on her hands to enhance and loop the sound of the drums, filling the space with more sound than one person could make. Watching Lee on screen move through an urban landscape as she performed her rituals, attracting a gaggle of curious pedestrians, it became clear that she made herself into a living bridge between the past and the present, the ordinary and the divine, the country she lives in and the country she grew up in.
The performance moved through six stages. Through chants, song, dance, and a few costume changes, she created an experience that felt foreign but familiar. In one section the backdrop of the stage projected a burned-down forest, which struck me hard, as just a few miles east of Portland a forest fire was raging out of control. Just days before ash had begun to rain down on the city. Lee wailed, using the wireless microphones to create an ethereal and terrifying soundscape.
As the performance approached its climax Lee, now clad in a flowing robe of colorful strips of fabric, began to address the audience. First in Korean, then in English. A sense of urgency underlined her twirling around the stage. She was working herself up for something, pushing her body to undertake a great feat.
“The mountain is on fire,” she said. “Do you understand what I mean? I need your help.” She moved through the audience, imploring us for help. To help each other. “If you see something bad you have to stand up,” she said. “To not be silent. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” we replied.
“Do you understand?” she said louder.
“Yes!” we yelled back.
She jumped back onstage, banging on a small gong. A group of drummers joined her, snaking behind her in a line. She called out to the audience to join her onstage, and immediately I felt my own resistance. We are trained not to go onstage. Not to interrupt. That space is not for us. Art is passive. I was afraid her plea wasn’t going work, but after a moment people flooded onto the stage, spinning around her and clapping.
“This is your community, Portland!” she yelled out.
For a minute, it did feel like I had transcended the real world.
Pepper Pepper, Critical Mascara
There was something undeniably sexy about Critical Mascara. It’s not that people were wearing sexy clothes (or indeed no clothes at all at times). It’s that the whole thing felt like a celebration of sensuality and the body. Of every kind of body. Set on a huge catwalk inside a PICA warehouse space in Northeast Portland, it was part fashion show, part drag show, part vogue ball. It was all about the bodies on display.
Critical Mascara premiered at TBA five years ago, and it was so popular that it’s come back every year since. No other event or performance has ever repeated, in my recollection. This was actually my first time at Critical Mascara, which was good timing, because for all its popularity, this was to be its last return.
I arrived just as the event started, fresh from a non-TBA play I was reviewing, a little tipsy. (It was opening night for the show I had just seen, and there were free Moscow mules in the lobby afterwards.) Throngs of people were already crowded around the warehouse stage, some dressed in elaborate costumes themselves. As it was the final Critical Mascara, it served as a retrospective of past winners and special guests.
It was hard to take your eyes off the performers; even when I was in line at the bar, I kept craning my neck up to watch a projection of the runway onscreen. At one point a performer covered in silver body paint took a staple gun and stuck several huge silver feathers to their own body. I loved it—not because it was shocking, or because I like seeing people staple themselves (I don’t). I loved it because the performer loved it. Because the audience loved it.
Nothing exists in a vacuum, and Critical Mascara was no exception. During an amazing vogue routine to “Short Dick Man,” a dancer flipped off the images of members of Trump’s cabinet as they flashed on a screen. A majestic drag queen sang a beautiful version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” And local drag clown Carla Rossi opened her number with Donna Summer, then switched to heavy metal as anarchist messages flashed behind her. Pepper urged the audience to seek community and create art, ending the show with a performance of the Gossips’ “Standing in the Way of Control.” Balloons and glitter exploded from the ceiling and the audience lost its mind.
Things feel bad in our world. Things feel bad right now, as I write this. But Critical Mascara was a euphoric evening of queerness and resistance, which for LGBTQ people have always been one and the same. And I didn’t realize how much I needed that in my life.
Bouchra Ouizguen, Corbeaux
It’s incredible what people will watch. This is not to take a swipe at performance art. But I think we underestimate people’s attention span when they open themselves up to experiencing something new. I was back in the warehouse, but it seemed so different with all the lights on. The audience was made to form a small square in the middle of the huge space. Some sat on the floor while others stood. Then a group of women, clad in black with white headscarves, slowly filed into that space in silence. The women, half from Morocco and half from Portland, stood silently in the space, impassive, as they got assembled. Their ages spanned decades. Moments after the last one had positioned herself the entire group began jerking their heads up and shrieking.
Drawing on the ancient Persian figure of the madwoman, Ouizguen’s Corbeaux reached back into the past, using ritual to take the audience outside of time and place. As Dohee Lee did—indeed, as a lot of the performances at TBA do. They reach back to old human traditions, some ancient and some not-so-ancient, and recontextualize them for the present. Everything we have is built on what came before it. Even art.
At first Corbeaux felt jarring and dissonant. But as it went on the cries from the women modulated. Patterns formed, creating a sensation of movement. It felt like there was a message in the chaos—that these women had tapped into something primal. It felt ecstatic. I marveled at their endurance. Eventually they dropped out of the chorus of noise one at a time. Nothing felt dictated by order; everything happened organically. The piece began to feel mournful as the voices diminished to just one. Finally the last woman fell silent and there was a moment of rest before all the women broke into an enthusiastic cheer, spinning in a circle and singing. Reborn.
Becca Blackwell, They, Themselves, and Schmerm
Becca Blackwell snuck up behind the audience at Artists Repertory Theatre and ran down the stairs to the stage with a cartoonish grin on their face. While lifting a dumbbell, they informed the audience that they were molested as a child. Oh no, I thought. One of those shows. But the persona dropped and Blackwell sighed, “That would have been exhausting.” We all laughed, relieved.
A collaboration between PICA and Artists Repertory Theatre, They, Themselves, and Schmerm was part of TBA and part of the Frontier Series at Artists Rep, which brings in genre-bending performers from around the world. Part one-person show, part standup routine, Blackwell recounted their life, from an overly religious childhood to drug and alcohol abuse to their journey to discover what gender, sexuality, and body means to them. The body as subject is obviously of interest to a non-binary trans person like Blackwell. But this is not a show about the “trans experience.” Blackwell makes that explicit: It’s their story alone.
Throughout the show they opened up as if the audience were a room full of old friends they hadn’t seen in awhile. Blackwell definitely has the standup chops. Always joking and teasing with us, always ready with the one-liner and the wry observation, just self-deprecating enough and unafraid to commit to their bits, they brought the audience to riotous laughter several times, even on a serious subject like the anxiety around using the restroom when you’re trans.
Along with all this magnetic confidence, Blackwell exudes a genuine sense of vulnerability—a sense that sometimes they still struggle with the ups and downs of life. This is best personified in Blackwell’s story about seeing their mother in hospice. Blackwell didn’t leave us with a sweeping pronouncement, admitting instead that their life felt like thousands of disparate little pieces, some painful, but pieces that make us who we are. And when we’re strong enough to talk about them, to laugh about them, we show others who might have those same broken pieces that they can too.
Faye Driscoll, Thank You for Coming: Play
Watch enough performance art and eventually you hit a WTF moment. Thank You For Coming: Play was mine. First there was an audience activity: As we entered Imago Theatre we filled out little cards asking us to finish phrases, like mad libs. Then a “play” started. A small white proscenium was erected by a stagehand, and the actors stripped down to their underwear, donned an assortment of haphazard costume pieces, and began exaggeratedly acting out the story of a character named Barbone. Referred to by every pronoun and played by multiple actors, Barbone was hard to keep track of. They were no one and everyone.
It hardly seemed to matter. The production was more interested in theatre and storytelling than in the fate of the elusive Barbone. I found myself thinking a lot about how theatre is made and about the division between “show” and “reality.” As the “play” broke down repeatedly, the actors discussed what was happening onstage, addressing the audience as themselves, and constantly shifted between identities. Even the stagehand and the musician had fluid roles.
And then suddenly the “play” ended. The actors put on street clothes and performed a scene: a discussion of something, which was unclear at first. The dialogue was broken. The subject of the conversation only became clear after the conversation started over multiple times, with different bits of information being revealed. Meanwhile the actors moved through a loop of choreography, offset from the loop of dialogue, an impressive feat in itself. The idea of loneliness and disconnection persisted throughout the section, both in dialogue and the movement.
Finally the stage went dark except for a spotlight. One of the performers took the pile of cards we filled out before the show and used them to create a poem. Unfortunately—and this is often my complaint when I go to poetry readings—it was hard to follow the constant, seemingly random stream of images.
It was clear that a lot of work had gone into Thank You for Coming, but I wasn’t sure to what end. While each of the three sections felt complete in itself, the abrupt transition from one to the next made the show feel disjointed. That’s fine; you can’t go into a performance art festival and not expect to have to work for understanding. You don’t always have to “get” a show. And even if you think you do, you might come away with something completely different from someone else in the audience.
Dorothée Munyaneza, with Holland Andrews and Alain Mahe, Unwanted
Sometimes knowing what a show is about cannot prepare you for the show. I walked back into the Winningstad Theater knowing that Unwanted was about the Rwandan genocide of 1994. I knew it was about the hundreds of thousands of women who were raped in the span of just a few months. Still, I was not prepared.
Dorothée Munyaneza began the show by playing an interview she conducted with a Tutsi woman who lived through the genocide. Speaking in translation over the audio, she stood at the front of the stage, a corrugated plastic sheet with a woman painted on it towering at her right. She described horrors I have trouble wrapping my head around. Behind her, local musician Holland Andrews used looping pedals to create haunting soundscapes with her voice. Munyaneza went on portray the children of these women, who turned into living symbols of the trauma they endured, tormented in their own way by distant mothers and absent, monstrous fathers.
As Andrews looped more and more vocal tracks over each other, the piece built to a crescendo of harmonizing cries and distortion. Munyaneza darted around the stage, slamming a piece of wood into the ground as she screamed, describing sexual abuse and torture. Like other pieces in TBA, Unwanted was about bodies, but in this case it was about bodies being destroyed, and the way bodies carry trauma in them forever. “There was no goodness in them,” she yells of the men who committed the atrocities. A wave of noise washed over us, bringing with it the terror, anger, and trauma that these women experienced.
As the piece wound down, Munyaneza and Andrews changed into new dresses, attempting to shed the past. But a sense of anger could still be felt in their movements and actions. Munyaneza told of a woman who explained that after the genocide she had nothing but a house she built herself. She described herself as miserable, said that she will never be clean but knows that she must live in spite of this. And then, prompted by Munyaneza on the tape, she sang her favorite song. Her voice was collected and confident. (Unwanted is currently running at New York City’s Baryshnikov Arts Center.)
Luke George and Daniel Kok, Bunny
I almost didn’t go to Bunny. I had just come out of Unwanted and was nearing TBA fatigue. But the show was just a few floors up from me, so I told myself I could sleep later and headed upstairs to the Brunish Theatre. As the audience filed in, Luke George was in the process of suspending Daniel Kok from the ceiling with ropes. Gently he tipped him over, suspending him in air, and gave him a gentle spin. George proceeded to bind his legs in rope, then asked an audience member to bind his hands.
“Can we keep him spinning?” George asked the audience, unable to perform the action himself. He didn’t continue until several different audience members had given Kok a nudge to keep him turning in air. Kok didn’t speak throughout the performance, serving as a silent and enigmatic partner.
Though both George and Kok were in their underwear, rope knotted taut across their exposed bodies, it didn’t feel like they were trying to create a sexual encounter with the audience but rather an exploratory space for us. More than any show I saw at TBA, the fourth wall here was completely gone. George’s soft-spoken demeanor, gentle humor, and insistence on audience consent made the atmosphere feel very inviting. Intimate. They had made themselves vulnerable, so we allowed ourselves to be vulnerable too.
At Bunny, several audience members volunteered to be tied up in their seats and even onstage. The rest of us leaned in closely to watch, laughing occasionally—not in ridicule, but in celebration. It was the laughter of discovering something new with a stranger, the moment binding you together. All of us.