2012 TBA Festival Journal
This year, the TBA (Time Based Art) Festival in Portland, Oregon turned ten. It was also the first Festival curated by PICA’s new artistic director Angela Mattox (formerly of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco). So in both ways it was a major event. And it did live up to expectations. The festival was beautifully curated: wonderfully international, with a robust representation from many areas of the world, and a great range of ensembles, small-scale work, cross-disciplinary and single-discipline, mediatized and non-mediatized, participatory and non-participatory, site-specific and proscenium, crowd-pleasers and more challenging propositions. Plus a whole visual arts component which I am not writing about here, and a congenial public gathering place serving food and drink. This is a little run-down of some of the performances I saw, and what I thought of them.
The Mexicans: After seeing the Mexican theatre company Lagartijas Tiradas al Sol’s “stage documentary” El Rumor del Incendio on Sunday, my mind was on the show’s content, not its form, which is a rare shift of focus at TBA. Lagartijas’s hard-hitting play tells, in great detail, a history that is surely unknown to many Mexicans today, let alone to us Northerners: that of Mexico’s armed left-wing guerrilla movements in the 1960s and 1970s, who used guerrilla tactics and took up arms to pursue Communist ideals in the spirit of Mao Tse Tung and, closer to home, the recent Cuban revolution. That history is rife with extreme tactics—primarily kidnappings, ransom and political prisoner release requests, and frequent violence. I know a little bit about this subject area, and I think that El Rumor did a wonderful thing: it bore witness to a purposefully occluded and obfuscated history, something that art, activism, journalism, and scholarship should all do, and have a moral obligation to do. I applaud these young Mexican artists for bringing that witness to international audiences in a range of contexts, including many of the world’s foremost performing arts festivals (Kunstenfestivaldesarts, Brussels; Festival Transamérique, Montreal; Zürcher Theater Spektakel, Zurich, etc).
Formally, the show was less consequential. The three young performers used an ample repertoire of techniques, objects, and devices. They drew on very well researched, high quality archival and documentary media material, and added a personal touch by tracing the biography of a specific woman activist with a close connection to the storytellers. But the play’s structure was relentlessly linear (“this happened, then this happened, then this happened”), which made the seemingly endless lists of unfamiliar names, dates, kidnapping episodes, and famous Mexican acronyms feeling cyclical and repetitive, and not in a useful way. And that unyielding, very serious forward motion left potentially dynamic or humorous moments unacknowledged—for example, their reenactment of a guerrilla fight in the Mexican sierra using Playmobil figurines was presented without irony or playfulness.
While it covered vital material, this show could have used a bit more aesthetic breathing room, for the performers and for us in the audience. But, as Lagartijas themselves comment on their web site, this show “has nothing to do with entertainment, it is a space for thought.” I was grateful for the opportunity to share that space for thought with them.
Object Theatre: The two object theatre pieces presented consecutively at The Works on Sunday night were so dissimilar from one another that they offered an intriguing juxtaposition—mainly between the qualities of complete control and utter mayhem.
Laura Heit, a puppetry, toy theatre and experimental animation artist who is now based in Portland, brought her signature hand-crafted performance genre—theatre made inside, outside, and around actual matchboxes, with the matches themselves as each puppet’s primary building block and a camera and projector making her little world visible to the audience—to our fair city for the first time. Each “show” was a little delicacy: one or two minutes long, a single concept, an ironic twist. Some provoked thought, others titillation, others sadness, others laughter.
Miniature Dramas started with “Peep Show,” in which a matchbox opened to reveal a woman, one matchstick controlling her head and bare torso, another enabling her tutu-clad hips to sway back and forth, with Laura providing her voice: “Oh La La. Oh La La.” It ended with “27 Pictures of Me Naked,” in which the artist was rendered in thin line drawings performing quotidian activities in the nude, ending with her drinking a beer at the TBA Festival. In between was a ghost story (with a secret ghost message revealed by a burning matchstick held behind a paper window), a story about a forest on fire (featuring real fire, thanks to the unique properties of her medium; and many other gems. Heit’s oeuvre actually goes far beyond matchboxes, and we can’t wait to experience more of it.
After Heit packed up her tiny theatres and we bid her adieu, David Commander blasted onto the scene with a three-foot model airplane, lots of noise, machines to manipulate sounds and images, and a sense of humor that was sometimes infectious and other times mystifying. Commander populated his airplane with a variety of action figures and unkempt Barbie and Ken dolls, and we watched through a camera and projection as the poor things came closer and closer to meeting their untimely end through a terrible crash. As these plastic people—notably a John Travolta-like character who was dreading his upcoming appearance at a high school reunion—hurtled toward oblivion, they watched lowest-grade airplane television shows brought to life via additional cameras fixed on separate platforms. Most memorably, a QVC-like “Sky Mall” program demonstrated a non-surgical anti-aging procedure in which machines suctioned and massaged a woman’s face. The mysterious white skin suction robots ravaging a mannequin head in a noisy, busy rhythm, rocking her wild artificial hair back and forth, back and forth, vin the service of selling a useless product to a group of people on the verge of total disaster. This moment—grotesque, silly, crazy, opaque, and hilarious, all at the same time—was emblematic of this very peculiar, but not entirely unlikeable, piece.
Speaking of Mayhem: I have known about Keith Hennessy for many years, but TURBULENCE: a dance about the economy was the first of his works I have seen. TURBULENCE reminded me that Hennessy specializes in long-form improvisations, undergirded by a radical political philosophy with its roots in anarchism, queer identity, and punk rock.
My favorite aspect of TURBULENCE was watching Hennessy guide it. He served as an editor with a very light touch—permitting ample nudity, penis-waving, butt-slapping, and even urination onstage, but asking a performer to “discontinue” a speech she was making on the microphone in which she asked the audience to pay for a friend’s massage after the show on the grounds that he was sore and underpaid. Hennessy served as an observer, describing what other performers were doing and focusing audience attention on particular actions, thus guiding the energy of the piece through a range of energy levels. He served as an instigator, assembling at one point what he called “one of the iconic images of this piece” (the one from all the promotional materials) in which twelve audience volunteers made two human pyramids, their heads covered in sparkly gold fabric, while the lights dimmed and two young underwear-clad performers sang a tune and strummed a banjo. And he served as a philosopher, taking the microphone midway through the piece and expounding verbally about the financial mechanisms of debt, corporate profiteering, state violence, and the politics of TBA security guards at the Festival bar.
True to form, the “art” of TURBULENCE lay in the group feeling for the ebb and flow of energy, and this group conducted that energy in compelling ways a lot of the time, so that there were many tender and lovely moments combining, almost by accident, diverse elements of bodies, light, sound, shapes, objects, aerial apparatuses, and speech. The “about the economy” part was abstractly rendered at best, but getting past that wasn’t too hard, and I did find myself embraced by the collective energy being conjured in the room.
Temps and Full-Timers: Toshiki Okada’s theatre company chelfitsch has gotten much attention on Culturebot, and the triptych presented here at TBA (Hot Pepper, Air Conditioner, and The Farewell Speech) is the same one that was part of Under the Radar 2012, about which you can read in our interview with Okada.
I produced a reading of Okada’s play Enjoy at Book Arts just before TBA opened as a kind of complement to chelfitsch’s Portland debut, and for that project I delved into the socioeconomic context that both Enjoy and this tryptich share: The shift of the Japanese economy from “Fordism” to a “flexible,” neoliberal labor market. Here is an excerpt from the dramaturgical note I wrote for Enjoy, which both gave a sense of the magnitude of the problem in Japan and invited a Portland audience to identify with Okada’s characters:
“[This is] Toshiki Okada’s clever, poignant rendering of the dead-end lives of Japanese 20 and 30somethings stuck in a condition of perpetual under-employment (part-time, temp, or both). Called “freeters” in Japan, after a mix of the English word “free-lance” and the German word “arbeiter,” these young people are victims of the post-bubble Japanese economic downturn—and their numbers are increasing, expected to reach 10 million by 2014…. Okada uses his trademark hyper-colloquial language to chronicle his characters’ loves, losses, and workplace kerfluffles, finding in these everyday trials and tribulations emotions that range from hope to despair, from pleasure to fear. …[their] anxieties…are not unique to life in a megalopolis, and, most importantly, not uniquely Japanese. Portlanders who feel like you have spent a little too long in that part-time service job you took right out of college: listen, here is your poet.”
It was amazing for me to steep myself in Okada’s text alone (via the brilliant translator Aya Ogawa) and then experience chelfitsch’s wedding of that text to total theatricality, including retro primary color lighting, music of various genres, and quirky, stylized choreography. In both cases, but much more so with the addition of these stage elements in the tryptich, I realized that underneath the circular, repetitive, colloquial, and seemingly meaningless utterances of the completely ordinary people Okada features as his protagonists, there is so much drama, so much emotion, so much meaning, and for us—so much we can learn about how lives are lived every day in this neoliberal context.
The stories of Hot Pepper, Air Conditioner, and The Farewell Speech are simple. In Hot Pepper (named after a free restaurant listings magazine that is ubiquitous in Japan, a trio of office temps try to organize a goodbye party for their colleague, a fellow temp who has been laid off. The fact that they will probably be laid off soon too is not lost on them, and what begins as a suggestion that they find a restaurant for the party in the latest issue of Hot Pepper becomes an opportunity for each temp to fantasize about what their own goodbye party will be like (this reminds me of a poignant moment in Enjoy when a manga café worker, on his 30th birthday, decides to make a video will for himself in light of the fact that his life is essentially over, and he has no future). In Air Conditioner, a female full-time employee in the same office tells her male colleague that she is so miserable working directly in front of the freezing, blowing air conditioner that she wants to quit her job, to which he unempathically recommends that she call the police. In The Farewell Speech, the temps and the full-timers from the same office gather to hear “a few words” spoken by the laid-off worker mentioned above, on the occasion of her departure. The speech quickly veers into a mix of fantasy and memory, made up mostly of extreme minutiae: the death of a cicada on the woman’s front step, and the eating of the cicada by a feral cat, is one of the captivating anecdotes embedded in her speech. Which is also seasoned with anxiety, a la “I have nothing planned next”.
In Okada’s world, these minutiae and these trivialities seem to constitute an articulation of stasis and fear by people who are teetering on a precipice. What happens after I lose my job, and there are no other jobs? As other Culturebot writers have said, Okada really is a vital voice.
Gob Squad: Kitchen: And…Gob Squad’s Kitchen finally made it to Portland. No need for a plot summary here—there have been enough of them (Culturebot, NY Times). We were glad to be able to experience them, and Gob Squad’s houses were packed, often by repeat attendees. So come back, Gob Squad! Portland loves you!