THE ARTISTS, MUSICIANS, CURATORS, AND WRITERS that work in and support time-based art are a small, necessarily close-knit tribe. Performance is, after all, easily the least lucrative of genres, a fact that has consistently made it the repository for work that is less monetarily driven and less safe, but which has also sometimes made it feel insular and uninterested in courting an audience outside its fold. This is why the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s Time-Based Art Festival, one of only a handful of such festivals in the US, feels so consistently fresh, both in its programming and in its outreach. The festival, now in its fourteenth edition, encompasses exhibitions, lectures, films, and workshops alongside performances by internationally acclaimed artists. I saw a number of exceptional pieces at this year’s TBA, most accompanied by my mom, whose presence lent the trip additional resonance. When you strip away the jargony shorthand and inside jokes that usually pass for discussion of art among the same-generation peers that see each other at every opening, the conversation can take unexpected, often illuminating, turns. On this journey two works, both dance, lingered with us.
Besides its uniquely pecuniary status, another condition of time-based art is its insistence that the viewer submit to the maker’s conception of the work’s duration. One is implicitly obligated to remain present for the piece’s entirety or until the video loop catches up to the point where you walked in. In this regard Minneapolis-based choreographer Morgan Thorson’s Still Life, 2016, performed in a small side gallery of the Portland Museum of Art, was unusually generous, even to the point of masochism, allowing the viewer to come and go as she pleased while the dancers themselves remained “on” for the work’s five-hour run. During this time both its cyclical choreography and its performers gradually broke down—a gambit that recalled Ragnar Kjartansson’s six-hour A Lot of Sorrow, 2013–14, in which the slowly unraveling band The National performed a single song on repeat.
Still Life is a danced meditation on temporality and geological time. Thorson developed the work over the course of a residency at the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography at Florida State University, during which she spoke to scholars and professionals from various fields including religious studies, forensic anthropology, and contemporary hospice care. Twelve dancers from Thorson’s company, suited up with track shoes and kneepads for the long slog, filled the gallery with spurts of frenetic activity countered by moments of undulating calm, often with a single clique embodying a spastic mode while another group swayed slowly around them. Their movements were partly inspired by the choreographer’s research into physical decay and the subtle, time-lapse-visible movement of decomposition.
As dancers hugged the gallery floor, the viewer could readily imagine the gradual swelling of bloated bodies and their subsequent flattening as seeping and atrophying flesh merges with ground. At other times they seemed to follow unspoken improvisatory commands, with a single dancer setting off a chain reaction as if demonstrating evolution in fast-forward. The marathon, with its ambient sound-track, was divided into cycles signaled by oval pools of light that periodically raked over the audience members seated against the walls. Each projection marked the start of a new and diminished stage, and after each spot had run its course, an element (a dancer, an aural tone) was removed. As the performance wore on and its components dwindled, the remaining dancers began to visibly exhaust their reserves, until, by work’s end, they were spent.
While Thorson took the long view, examining biological systems over single lifespans and geological epochs, Los Angeles–based choreographer Meg Wolfe staked her claim in the recent past, positioning the discothèque as a site of liberation. Wolfe’s New Faithful Disco, 2016, was a joyful counterpoint to Thorson’s piece, revisiting a seminal space of celebration for gay men and other minorities, extending its berth to be even more inclusive of the wide spectrum of queer identities. Wolfe’s forty-minute fantasy disco routine came replete with high-drama props including massive lamé blankets and, at one point, and inexplicably, antler-like headgear.
New Faithful Disco’s trio (which included Wolfe herself alongside 2014 Whitney Biennial artist taisha paggett and the phenomenal Marbles Jumble Radio) rose from spotlit denim patchwork quilts, pulsing to abstracted beats that had been mixed by composer Maria de Los Angeles “Cuca” Esteves using samples and distortions of disco standards like Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell” and Shalamar’s “Make That Move.” By the work’s end, the homespun quilts had been flipped to reveal gold brocade undersides on which the dancers writhed in a dogpile of undifferentiated bliss. Yet Wolfe also hinted at the limits of revisionary politics. “The hardest part is knowing I’ll survive,” warbles Emmylou Harris in another sample (“Boulder to Birmingham,” 1975), in a melancholic precursor to Gloria Gaynor’s 1978 disco anthem. “I have come to listen for the sound / of the trucks as they move down / out on ninety-five / and pretend that it’s the ocean / coming down to wash me clean.” Taken another way, New Faithful Disco is less an attempt to rewrite history than a celebration of survival and possibility, in which the highway may just reveal itself to be the ocean after all.
The fourteenth Time-Based Art Festival ran September 8 through 18 in Portland, Oregon.