PRINT November 2005



FOR TEN DAYS every September since 2003, the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s Time-Based Art Festival (TBA) turns Oregon’s largest city into a temporary international performance hub, casting local artists alongside better-known global acts in a drama that normally plays out at a round-robin of bigger festivals around the world: Buenos Aires, Melbourne, New York, and beyond. Disused industrial sheds become a nightclub and cafeteria; a crude theater-in-the-round is hewn from a now-defunct press; conventional theaters participate too, hosting shows night after night; tram lines fill with audiences rushing to get from one venue to the next.

The drama was as fresh for most of the Portland artists as it was stale for the handful of mobile acts that periodically fly in and out of these fairs. Australian chanteuse Meow Meow looked simply exhausted, defeated by the provision of an absurdly broad proscenium stage for her disappointing hodge-podge of cabaret bits. Dutch artist Ivana Müller added footage of Portland’s downtown area to the boilerplate video of her faux lecture How Heavy Are My Thoughts? touring since 2003. What city are we in now? Granted, Müller adroitly foregrounded her own dislocation by having the talented Bill Aitchison (who performs the piece) open with an apology for Müller’s “regrettable absence.” She had travelled to Portland, as she does to every peformance, but only appeared “live on remote video” from an offstage room.

Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky) expressly embraced the dislocation afforded by constant travel. In an afternoon lecture that far outshone his indifferent performance of Rebirth of a Nation, 2002, that night, Miller gave a delighted appraisal of the creative milieu global mobility conjures: “I’m in New York when an e-mail comes in from Chuck D. who’s in Switzerland, and he’s just laid down this vocal track. He’s got some wireless hotspot and a free half-hour and he just records this thing and zaps it over. I forward it to Dave Lombardo, the drummer for Slayer, who’s at home in LA, and say ‘Dave, check this out. Chuck D. just laid down vocals and I need some beats.’ So Dave takes it into the studio, lays down a drum track, and by the time he zaps it back to me I’m in Brazil, and we’ve got it.” Miller clicked the mouse on his laptop and the Portland audience heard the Chuck D./Slayer/Spooky track “live”; which is to say, Miller was there in the room with us when its recording played.

The most interesting questions raised by Miller’s method do not concern place or placelessness so much as they do a shift in the conditions that constitute “live-ness.” Why must the DJ’s body be shipped around and made present to convey its meanings? A perhaps archaic commodity—the live performer—continues to structure interactions that increasingly do not require their presence. Müller demonstrated as much with her wry staging, occupying our attention as both protagonist and auteur of her performance without ever physically appearing in front of the audience.

So why travel, then, if the capacities of teletechnology render “live” and “remote” presence interchangeable? The rapidly shifting nature of performance notwithstanding, people still buy tickets to see actual performers. And so we get Aitchison’s apology, or DJ Spooky sealed inside his headphones, embedded behind piles of equipment, so that he seems to have given way to some sort of cyborg that manages to offer neither the wellspring of subjectivity nor—and this is crucial—the interactive intelligence audiences expect to engage.

My own expectations for Rebirth of a Nation (Miller’s reworking of D. W. Griffith’s 1915 Birth of a Nation) were frustrated by Miller’s isolation, and, perhaps more justifiably, by the flatness of a “live remix” that showed so little interest in the meanings of live-ness. Miller was there physically, yes, but he was entirely absent, awash in decontextualized information. The film had been broken into fragments sufficiently stripped of their history to be recast as a kind of neutral ether, mere sounds in a symphony entirely of Miller’s making. In this frictionless environment, it was difficult to see the contours of his choices, and so he vanished into the vastness of his own unlimited agency.

Afloat in the jet stream of this kind of ceaseless production, the artist becomes the ambient source of the entire environment he occupies. In what sense does such a performer ever “appear live”? Asked whether he had considered the particular history of Birth of a Nation in Portland (the film played there hundreds of times during the 1920s, and catalyzed the biggest Ku Klux Klan chapters outside of the Deep South), Miller explained that he does not “indulge in cultural tourism. I’m not composing from local histories. I bring my sensibility wherever I go, and that’s what makes the mix.” Mobility, defined in those terms, is not a means for engaging other places or cultures, but simply a method for the exercise of an almost hermetic sensibility.

A few nights later, in the repurposed industrial shed called the Works, Seattle musician Lori Goldston took an entirely different tack, playing cello to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928). The resultant dialogue—a counterpoint of acquiescence and resistance—was deeply ambivalent, complex where Miller’s treatment had been reductive. Perhaps her affection for the film is what allowed her to become its full collaborator. Goldston has responded live to Dreyer nearly as often as Miller has dealt with Griffith, yet she managed to be truly “live”—present where Miller was, at best, indifferent.

Goldston’s music constituted a kind of physical enactment of listening. She began in silence—absorbing the moment and the film—and then her sound emerged, shifting and responding to what she took in. This dynamic, listening (as well as its companion problem of not being heard), was a constant issue at the Works. In the bigger halls, it rarely appeared to matter. Performances on the main stages, whether pleasing or disappointing, came and went as though the moment of their enactment was neither here nor there, simply a wrinkle in the endlessly unfolding fabric of the artist’s motion through the world.

For whatever reasons—the size of the audience, the requirements of individual performances, a hierarchy of fame—only one “local” performer, Seattle’s Sarah Rudinoff, appeared on a main stage. Rudinoff, whose polished solo cabaret act was developed primarily at a Seattle club called Re-bar, would have been better off at the Works. Nearly everything that transpired at this overcrowded, contentious venue was memorable. Awful failures and sudden, evanescent triumphs alike seemed actually to matter, in part because the performers brought their newer material, and in part because the decorum of the main stages had been shed. Meow Meow, having spent ninety minutes searching for a spark at her headlining show, mounted a collaboration with pianist Thomas Lauderdale that turned the Works into something like New York City’s Pyramid Club circa 1987. More developed pieces, such as Portland filmmakers Matt McCormick and Chris Larson performing lush yet lo-fi rock to McCormick’s looping film of blue sky, gulls lifting and dropping in and out of the frame; or Israeli vocalist Victoria Hanna’s riveting set, a virtuosic pop performance of Judaic texts and rituals, including a song made by eating apples and spitting/singing them back out, catalyzed a kind of attentiveness that made meaning happen. The Works showcased listening, with all of its perils and pleasures.

Another makeshift venue called Corberry Press (an airy, empty printing plant, outfitted with a simple double-circle of chairs) hosted two superb performances, one by English duo Lone Twin, the other by a little-known Seattle performer named Allen Johnson. Lone Twin (Gary Winters and Gregg Whelan) began Sledgehammer Songs: A Bother in Twenty-one Dramas, 2005, their Druidic-Oulipian dance ritual, outside the venue, so that as the audience arrived in the brisk, wet evening, they found Winters calling out steps through a bullhorn to Whelan, who jogged in small circles beside a wretched cart. The audience heard incantations of great pop songs (“the most terrible music in the history of the world”) and was made to throw local river water onto Whelan’s overheated body, creating magical clouds of steam. Inside, the same scene was repeated, roles reversed, within a circle of soil and rocks until, two hours later, in the darker, colder night, steam rose off Winters’s body to mix with the audience’s clouds of breath, singing Cat Stevens’s “Wild World.” It was an ecstatic, transforming moment.

Also at Corberry, Allen Johnson’s solo piece, Another You, translated an idiosyncratic, deeply poetic text into a monologue as richly transporting as a great novel. Johnson managed to command our attention with his self-involved and remote delivery in the intimate setting. It seems difficult to imagine his performance coming off with the same success on the proscenium stage, although it is sure to be asked of him soon.

The miracle at TBA was a main-stage performance by Faustin Linyekula and his Kinshasa-based dance group Les Studios Kabako that utterly possessed the room. Like Lone Twin, Linyekula shared the pre-performance time with the audience, pacing and measuring the stage with the house lights up. A few strewn bags, a roughly taped-off square, a half-dozen yellow-caged safety lights, and electrical cords piled in a tangle beside a mixer marked the stage. When the house lights dimmed and Linyekula, twisting and posing his ropy, angular body, was joined by three dancers and an emcee crouching amid the wires, the five performers began Triptyque sans titre (Untitled Triptych), 2005, a sequence of poses and exchanges that reminded me, strangely, of Arnold Schönberg’s early sextet Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), 1899, with its deeply entangled, inward-turning patterns of elaboration and only partial resolution. Linyekula’s vocabulary is polyglot, drawing from ballet, break dance, butoh, and African folk and pop dances. The mix was brutally loud, a densely overlaid wail of screaming and feedback loops that drove much of the audience from the room. The brutality was entirely justified. It helped that the work came wrapped in the context of the Congo, and one could easily project narratives of its recent history onto the dance, but that context wasn’t necessary to give this delicate, ruinous, and ultimately redemptive work its meaning.

Could TBA, now in its third year, have done more to offer the other traveling acts a chance at such engagement? It wasn’t for lack of trying. The artful blurring of divisions between the various parts of this wonderful ecology—the group dinner at which performers and audience mixed and met; the guest-DJ slots for Spooky, Lone Twin, and whoever else wanted to seize the opportunity; the daytime workshops and chats; the nightly postmortems at the Works, where we drank and danced and saw at least one person taking risks deep into the night—gave every performer myriad chances to find or make meanings. More important, TBA placed audience and performers squarely in the intersection between “live” and “remote.” In a tight space like the Works, these tensions were radically exposed, night after night, to anyone who wanted to show up and listen.

Matthew Stadler is a Portland-based novelist.