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Saturday, September 20, 2003

2003 A.D. - An Interview with Andrew Dickson 

When I first met Andrew, it was a little over a year after I graduated from college in Portland. I could’ve moved away to some other city, but quite honestly, it never occurred to me. There was always something interesting going on in town, like the fashion show that was held in somebody’s backyard or the time the Halo Benders played in that crazy hot basement. Those were the days before the birth of Seaplane and the death of the X-Ray Café.

Andrew’s work contains a lot of kooky characters that, in many ways, I think could have only been given the breath of life here in Portland. From "Hunter Dawson" to "Autographss.com," Andrew introduces characters that live in worlds more fantastical than yours or mine. I sat down with him last weekend after his show to talk about his latest character, Bradlee Simmons, and the various reasons that draw people like Bradlee, Andrew, and me to this city.

CIELO LUTINO: Bradlee is such a lighthearted character that I wonder if the audience takes the piece seriously.

ANDREW DICKSON: In some ways it’s an easy piece to dismiss because Bradlee is hard to take seriously. I hope the audience gets some social commentary out of the piece, though it comes across as entertainment, not preaching.

CL: You and Bradlee aren’t from Oregon, but a lot of your work has focused on this part of the country.

AD: Everything I’ve done recently has been specific to Portland, but I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a regional artist.

CL: Well, how long have you been here?

AD: Eight years.

CL: And that doesn’t make you a Portlander? At what point does a person become a bona fide member of the community? How long does it take?

AD: I hope that’s one of the things that someone who sees the show thinks about because Bradlee already thinks of himself as a Portlander after less than a year here. I’ve been in the freelance film community awhile, and there are a lot of people in that community who are from Oregon, who grew up in Oregon, who went to high school here, I would never presume to call myself a Portlander around those people.

CL: So does it depend on the context? Like, if you went to New York, would you tell people you were from Portland?

AD: No, I’d tell them I’m from DC, and I live in Portland. When I was growing up, I associated the Pacific Northwest with greenery, and there’s still a part of me that has trouble separating lumberjacks from my idea of Oregon.

CL: Okay, I get it. Washington versus Washington, DC. So what brought you here?

AD: Portland has a sort of an unwritten history. It’s still being written. There’s no way I could’ve gone to Seattle, because its first page has already been written. I hope what’s happening now is something to be remembered. I moved here specifically to make a movie, "Good Grief." It was the right mix of landscapes I wanted. It’s just such a great place to do projects. In comparison to other places, there’s not a lot of institutional resources. "Good Grief" was my surrogate grad school.

CL: That’s an interesting idea. What do you mean?

AD: Getting a degree is more optional than it’s seen on the East Coast. There are so many people here who didn’t go to school. College is so much less important here. Getting your GED, where I grew up, was a signal of desperation, whereas here it’s not seen as such a bad thing. Portland is filled with people who had their own solution for their education—so much of what you can learn in grad school, you can learn here. What do you get in grad school—mentors, input, connections? We’re getting that here.

CL: You think something like the TBA festival helps with connections? What do you think of the TBA, by the way?

AD: I think it’s a good thing. If all of these people come, if outside attention transitions emerging artists into established artists, it’s going to raise the stakes. It’ll probably make the scene more competitive.

CL: Yeah, I used to think that was a good thing, but lately I’ve been thinking about how you have some place like New York or San Francisco where making art is so competitive and when someone doesn’t get picked or fails, it just crushes them and they quit. Here, the stakes aren’t as high, and people can just pick up and try again or do something else.

AD: What’s interesting that’s going on in town is much more organic. Like, look at Austin, Texas. It’s got a graduate school and a million people who have access to film equipment. You have enough people to make a feature film, enough for a big crew, while Portland is about experimental films because you only need one or two people to make an experimental film.

CL: Do you think that if there were a grad school here, Portland would have more feature films?

AD: Lack of grad schools isn’t the only factor. There’s a streak of individualism here that I’m struggling to put my finger on. In the future, I can see myself thinking a lot about the "cult of the individual." Like a year ago, I heard from about five different people that they wanted to start a microcinema. A few years ago I would’ve gotten all of their numbers and had them call each other. Now I just wait to see who’ll get it done first.

CL: You mean which one will stick it out? I mean, it seems like Four Wall Cinema just started, and now they’re gone. I already miss them, even though they morphed into something else.

AD: What’s exciting about Portland is it’s easy to fail here because there’s more emphasis on the process than the result. How many people do you know would open a gallery in New York and have it mentioned in the "New York Times" within a year of opening? Just because it’s easier to fail here doesn’t mean that failure happens here more often. Four Wall got great exposure, showed work that probably wouldn’t have otherwise been seen here, and now they’re two new groups.

CL: Right, but I think that a focus on the process can also work against the end result, the end product.

AD: Yeah, there’s a perception that West Coast art is silly. Some article in the "New York Times" today pushed that.

CL: Why do you suppose?

AD: My friend, Jason Plager, was visiting New York and was walking down the street with a friend of his. All of sudden his friend says, "New York, you gotta love it." And, you know, New Yorkers say things like that all the time. They have to, because they gotta convince themselves that there’s a reason that they’re there, that there’s a reason for their poor quality of life. It’s like, you know, you’re not doing penance by living in LA or anywhere else on the West Coast.

CL: But what is it about the art that would be "silly?"

AD: There’s more of a sense of humor in my limited experience with West Coast art—maybe that’s why I’m here. I don’t know. The art world is like a camera pointed at the TV. You know, I was going to be an art major in college, but then I became a film major because of the accessibility of film.

CL: Is that something that informs your work?

AD: When I get up on the stage, my first mission is to engage everyone. My concern is entertainment first, which is also to say engagement. As much as Bradlee is easy to dismiss, I think I’ve failed if he’s easy to dismiss after the performance. When I was Bradlee at Reed College during their arts weekend, I came up and said that Andrew had forgotten a video and that I was going to talk for awhile until he got back. In that context, except for the organizers, everyone thought that I was Bradlee, and some guy started criticizing him, his attitude. A guy in the audience answered back and started defending Bradlee. It’s challenging people. That’s what art does. So these students, who probably never experience gentrification beyond what they read in their sociology textbook, were able to have this heated debate, this tension, like with the "Barry Goldhubris" show. One of the most interesting parts of that performance was when the cell phone rang. I mean, I’m not sure if that was intentional, but he definitely looked thrown off his game. He looked pissed. I’m interested as much in the relationship between the audience and the performer as I am in the content of the performance.

CL: Yeah, you definitely had a relationship with the audience during your show, getting them up on the stage and all.

AD: There are so many creative people in the audience. Why not get them engaged? I want to leave room for the unexpected to happen.

Look for more of the unexpected from Andrew Dickson, who will participate in Core Sample, a showcase of Portland art and artists from October 11-19.

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