Saturday, September 11, 2004

TBA 101: Kickin' it off with those in the know 

Aesthetically, this very first event of TBA 2004 was by no means an opening ceremony. No triumphant music, no cut ribbons, no definitive act at all to mark the official moment of beginning. Instead, it was basically PICA Artistic Director and TBA Curator Kristy Edmunds in a crisp suit, joined by a smallish group of TBA die-hards, casually yet elegantly articulating what's so special about this particular instance of TBA. And, despite the lack of emotionally manipulative theme music that admittedly gets me every time, I left the sixth-floor gathering space of Wieden + Kennedy sufficiently filled with civic pride, jazzed about the experiences waiting for me, and ready to take this festival by storm.

"There's a thing about festivals" -- TBA is based on a European festival model. Performing arts in the U.S. are typically presented in a 'season' or 'series' format, and PICA used this format for years before launching TBA. This shift took a full year of structural revamping and preparation. Though the tried and true season format has its benefits, Edmunds spoke of several lack-luster characteristics that inspired the brave shift to the festival. When performances are spread out over several months, the work becomes a statement. In a week-long festival, it can become part of a dialogue. When artists come to town as the second or third event in a series, they are isolated from the rest of the season's offerings. In a festival, they have the chance to see other work, have other artists see their work, and participate in various styles of idea exchange. TBA, as a festival, is thus a "point of nexus and dialogue for artists."

The festival atmosphere is also liberating for audiences. It inspires curiosity, and gives permission for audiences to take risks, to sample performances that may not seem worthwhile in an isolated cost-benefit analysis. People are busy, unemployed, and skeptical. But there's something about the festival energy that makes it easier to commit to artists and their (sometimes wacky) genres.

"There's a thing about here" -- The success of TBA is also positively influenced by geography. Portland is a smart city, a curious city, a city open to encountering new ideas, and a city of people willing to roll up their sleeves. It's also a city committed to art (as exemplified by a generous grant/vote of confidence from Mayor Katz's office). I could gush on, but you all know what I'm talking about. Portland is great.

Edmunds also highlighted Portland as an appropriate international ambassador of sorts. As European festival curators interested in international work are looking to Asia, Latin America, and Africa, and showing less interest in the U.S. Not because they aren't curious about American work, but because the relationship is often not reciprocal. Edmunds said, in her experience the international community is a bit surprised that this reciprocation is coming from Portland, Oregon of all places. But it's a pleasant surprise because Portland isn't accompanied by the often negative or political associations of larger cities like New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago. It has nothing to offer but good will. And suddenly, international curators are bypassing New York and L.A. to come to Oregon to see major international artists, and (because the festival format allows for it) checking out the best of the Northwest in the process. TBA is thus an opportunity to showcase Portland as a positive contribution to the international dialogue. Rock on.

Other things to keep in mind -- Much of the work at TBA is typically based on three years of preparation and process. Therefore, TBA 2003 was comprised largely of work that started pre 9/11, but was refined and ultimately shaped by a post 9/11 perspective. This transition resulted in an overall trend towards exploring expressions of beauty. Inspirations for this year's work came post 9/11, and Edmunds described this line-up as tending towards exploring human anguish and personal capacity to demonstrate and communicate. Edmunds mentioned Akira Kasai, Helen Herbertson, and PICA artist-in-residence Khaela Maricich as artists to see in particular (and if you like spontaneity, you'll most likely find it at MACHINEWORKS).

This noontime chat was a very nourishing way to spend my lunch hour--and I would definitely suggest attending one or more of them to really round out the festival experience. I think they will be a great opportunity to take time for reflecting and responding to the work throughout the week, and to stop and notice the multi-layered connective tissue that will undoubtedly emerge as the festival progresses. Go prepared with intelligent questions, speak up, and engage.

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