During a recent internship at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art during their Time Based Art festival, Beatrice Whelan has recognised some possibilities for Irish artists, curators and audiences.

When Kristy Edmunds founded PICA (the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art) in 1995, it was after leaving the Portland Art Museum where she was the curator of their Art on the Edge programme. Edmunds saw a potential for presenting experimental art that could not be fulfilled in the confines of the art museum, which was concentrating on acceptable, definable art and commercially viable exhibitions. Ten years on and two years into PICA’s Time Based Art Festival (TBA) , it seems amazing that PICA and even TBA once did not exist. PICA currently has over one thousand members and the TBA festival attracts over 7,500 attendees. Though figures are important, even for a nonprofit like PICA, equally as impressive is the stimulating spirit which pervades through the festival venues during TBA . Also discernable is the feeling of community which filters across PICA all the way from board members and patrons, to staff, sponsors, volunteers and audiences. This network of support and common interest is what best describes PICA, rather than simply an institution of staff and office space.

PICA also differs from other art institutions in that it was not originally founded with the aim of creating an international annual arts festival, such as it now hosts. Originally PICA’s format of art presentation consisted of several series throughout the year, with art presentations, whether visual or performance-based, occurring every few weeks or months, accompanied by residences and other activities. With the conception of the TBA festival, these series are bundled into a ten-day happening, the sum of which in Edmunds’ own words “makes the investment of coming to Portland more viable, while a larger audience size offers a different dynamic where artists can view each other’s work and take part in workshops and noontime chats." [1]

The all-encompassing title and theme of the festival, Time Based Art, includes both recognisable genres and indefinable art pieces, often only united by the fact that they take place within the set time of those ten days. Everything, from theatre, dance, music, film and media combinations, occurs in a variety of locations across Portland city. This offering is further enhanced by lectures, discussions, workshops, and internet blogs.

During TBA, PICA also hosts a nightclub of sorts, created in the shell of a massive 25,000 square-foot warehouse. Machineworks, as it is called, has its own temporary cabaret stage and theatre, and so also acts as one of the many venues for these temporal performances. More than simply a venue, Machineworks itself is also an aesthetic element of the festival, acting as a gathering space for both artists and audiences. [2]

The artists who performed at this year’s festival were local, national and international in origin and reputation. Among them were British duo Lone Twin, American-Greek vocal ‘sensation’ Diamanda Galas and Japanese Butoh master Akira Kasai. Edmunds, now the Artistic Director of TBA (and the Melbourne International Arts Festival 2005 ), says that in considering potential pieces for the festival she is interested in art which offers the possibility of an authentic experience and communicates a universal message. [3]

One of the most authentic experiences of the festival was provided by choreographer Helen Herbertsen and designer Ben Cobham’s Morphia Series. The performance, which traveled to Ireland for the Dublin Fringe Festival in 2003, is extremely intimate, allowing only twelve audience members at a time and so requiring many showings. This piece is thoroughly experiential and sensory. The audience gathers at PICA to be led elsewhere to the performance in an almost somber manner. On entering the building which holds the performance, the audience is cast into complete darkness, unable to sense anything of their surroundings. In pairs we are guided, almost blindly, to our seats in another room, while the remaining audience waits alone in the dark wondering what lies ahead. Then, sitting in a completely darkened room, the audience’s senses become heightened in anticipation. As we question the surrounding space, waiting for our eyes to adjust, the audience cautiously nibbles some polenta topped with passion fruit and a rose petal along with some sweet wine provided while been guided in. When the performance starts in a square frame of light about forty feet from the audience, it seems as if every instant is to be consumed, the clarity provided by the previous minutes of darkness allowing each image to imprint.

As complete darkness hides everything but the frame ahead and two parallel lines running from our seats to the frame, it is as if  we sit in a dark rectangular box, a camera obscura, viewing before us something which is real but not real. The silhouette that appears before us moves slowly at first, her limbs seeming to morph into her body. Though this impression changes throughout the course of the performance, her movements becoming almost frantic, every movement, every moment seems essential. Whispers dissolve into sounds conjuring the Australian wilderness. In memory, the performance is just like a dream; the discrete visual imprints are now vague but the experience is vivid and just like all dreams, the experience cannot really be explained. Like the best pieces of performance, this can only be understood by experiencing it, certainly an authentic and intense experience.

Not all of the performances at TBA were as intense as Morphia Series . Some were upliftingly humorous, some required both audiences and artists to allow themselves to become vulnerable, and some of the performances were not for everyone. The festival did provide an indefinable mix, where many different tastes could be satisfied and many avenues for artistic exploration were openp://www.pica.orged. As a result of the authenticity of each performance, no single one is typical of the festival. PICA is already preparing for next year’s festival, which will no doubt be well worth a visit, and its curators are on the lookout for possibilities. Although Ireland has not yet been represented by an artist at TBA, perhaps this could change in 2005.

Beatrice Whelan is an Arts Administrator currently based in Portland, Oregon. [4]

For more information on PICA go to www.pica.org (and also to recirca.com/backissues/c92/portland.shtml ).

Time Based Art Festival, Portland, Oregon, 10 – 19 September 2004

[1] The TBA festival is based on the idea of European performance festivals, like the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, for example, but PICA was not originally founded with the aim of hosting such a festival. This decision was made seven years into PICA’s life and replaced a format of art presentation which consisted of several series throughout the year. For PICA the festival is the best way for them to show art in the way they want at the moment. During the rest of the year, PICA supports artist residences in the building where they are based, funds ongoing arts projects and hosts events which promote the festival and its artists. Currently PICA is considering returning its visual arts programme while also continuing with the festival. Unlike the Dublin Fringe Festival, the curators of TBA can choose art from outside submissions. The scale of the festival is also significant: while there are a large number of events, some occurring simultaneously at different venues, TBA remains at a manageable scale so with a quick view of the festival guide one can gain a good appreciation of what one might be interested in seeing.

PICA also faces challenges which the organizers of European festivals may not face. There are visa issues to consider which can delay or even prevent artists been able to enter the United States to attend the festival. This, added to the cost of bringing artists from Europe, Australia or elsewhere, can make it a challenge to show work from artists outside the US at the festival. PICA does find ways around the financial issue by sharing the cost of bringing artist over with other Northwest arts organizations. It also makes it more worthwhile for an artist to travel to Portland if they will also perform in Seattle and Pittsburgh, for example.

[2] There is no set mission statement for the festival though the idea of showing new work that is inventive or experimental is very apparent. Many of the works at this years festival seemed to push boundaries and merge genres. The boundary that separates art and life was broken down by some of the works, with artists presenting work that pretended not to be art but part of everyday life in a sort of mockumentary style. There was also work which challenged people’s conceptions of what ‘dance’ or ‘theatre’ is. Often there was no distinction between a piece of performance art and a presentation of one of the performing arts. What does seem interesting is that many of the unconventional performances at the festival did include recognisable hints of conventional art genres which provided avenues of understanding into the work. One such performance took place in the swimming pool of the Hilton Hotel in Portland City. The audience gathered around the pool to watch the performance by Headlong Dance Theatre. As the performance included a dramatization and synchronized movements in the water, it provided a grounding for an otherwise ‘unusual’ performance.||6||

Another strong ethos of the festival was to build a context around the works shown, using workshops and discussions so that the works did not sit alone without dialogue. Since the audience at TBA events often consisted of many other artists, they were often quite open to boundaries being pushed and to what they saw influences their ideas. The fact that artists can see each other’s work and discuss it with each other is also a strong ethos of the festival and is what Kristy Edmunds had in mind. This is closely related to another ethos of the festival, namely that it is strongly focused on the artist rather than satisfying the audience. PICA is not interested in showing art for the purpose of pleasing the audience and achieving the highest attendance figures possible. The focus is on facilitating the artist. Often this can mean showing work which is not commercially viable but PICA has other ways of funding their projects. The United States does not have an Arts Council and government funding for the arts comes mainly from the National Endowment For the Arts which seems to have a strong bias towards conventional art forms. Much of the funding for TBA comes from sponsorship from companies like Nike, Lufthansa and Weiden & Kennedy, and from wealthy individuals who receive VIP benefits for donations. The majority of performances at TBA were also ticketed. The festival is also funded in labour by a large number of volunteers who work at festival venues for passes to performances.

[3] Grouping the works by genre is possible to a certain degree only. Performances ranged from large-scale dance performances by companies such as the John Jasperse Company and 33 Fainting Spells to individual dance performances by artists such as Akira Kasi. There were strong vocal pieces, most notably by Diamanda Galas. PICA also collaborated with the Northwest Film Center to show some film pieces or ‘time-based media projects’ as part of the festival. Other performances took place on the street. For example, British duo Lone Twin walked some of Portland’s bridges and drew water from the Williamite River to use in a performance later that evening on the street outside of PICA. Their walking was advertised so that people could walk with them. In a somewhat similar manner the Red Shoe Delivery Service – see footnote 4 – caught the attention of people on the street.

There were also performances which explored corporate culture and included the artist pretending to be a business person giving a power- point presentation. Then there was the nightly performances at Machineworks which varied from DJs to Cabaret singers.

[4] During the festival Beatrice Whelan was intern to the Assistant Curator of Performing Arts and was assigned to help out on two projects, Lone Twin and Red Shoe . Because many of the artists came from outside Portland or even the US, Whelan helped with an Artist’s Guide to the city and the festival.

(The Red Shoe Delivery Service used hundreds of pairs of red glittery shoes Wizard of Oz style. For the duration of the festival, artist MK Guth directed a team who drove around Portland looking for ‘audience’ members to utilize the service. Individuals swapped their shoes for a pair of red glittery ones of their choosing and were transported by the team to their desired destination within the city.)