It's Saturday night at the Works, party central for PICA's Time-Based Art Festival, and David Abel is livid. He's just seen DJ Spooky perform his live remixing of D.W. Griffith's horrifically racist 1915 film Birth of a Nation. By most everyone's estimation, this act was the festival's most hyped, and now every festivalgoer worth his custom-made Nikes has an opinion about That Subliminal Kid (Spooky's alias for his alias). And they're not shy about airing them.
Late-night debates like this one play an integral part in connecting the dots of any TBAer's festival experience. Everybody wants to know one thing: What does it all mean? More often than not, the answer one gets sounds like a response to a different question: Is it any good?
Like many, Abel is more than happy to add his two cents. "Spooky opens up by telling the audience to kick back and relax like we're in his living room," says Abel, a local performer. "If I wanted to lounge, I would've stayed home. I don't come to TBA to be entertained. I want to learn something."
We're arguing to stay warm. The Works is, for the most part, an outdoor affair-a jungle of scaffolding and orange plastic mesh in the parking lot of a loading dock where bands and performance artists play every night of the 10-day TBA fest. The venue, at Northwest Northrup Street and 18th Avenue, falls just short of a cool industrial vibe. Tonight it's just damn cold, boding well for TBA hoodie sales at the front entrance.
"I think Carl Hancock Rux"-who performs his piece Mycenaean for TBA this Friday through Sunday at the Portland Opera Studio-"has a much more nuanced understanding of the issues surrounding racism," Abel continues. I tell him I'm dying to see Kota Yamazaki, a Japanese dancer with an eclectic style. He says he might have a scheduling conflict. "I'm in one of the shows this coming weekend." When I ask which one, he smiles sheepishly. "The Carl Hancock Rux piece." OK, so maybe he's biased.
But he's not alone in his bafflement with Spooky's work. Nobody I talk to can "connect the dots" between Griffith's Birth and the DJ's beats that Spooky spoke about in his introduction. Still, like the images of maps, blueprints and circuitry Spooky superimposed over Griffith's film, the memory of Spooky's show is an intricate, if inexplicable, layer of the late-night festivities.
If it weren't for the Works, digesting the multicourse meal of high art that is TBA would be next to impossible-a lesson I learned earlier Saturday evening trying to realize my plans of taking in three performances in four hours. After an hour's worth of Seattle-based company locust's excellent fidget-inspired dance at Portland Opera Studio, the audience of which I was a part bolted. Picture middle-aged couples dressed in tasteful black and white trying to mask their rapid gait by holding their arms still: a trick learned in the long halls of grade school made a momentary comeback. It was clear from the direction the traffic took that we were all in a race across the river to snag a parking spot downtown and find a seat at Tiffany Mills Company's Elegy and Godard. For me, traveling frantically between shows, making literal lines between the festival dots, is TBA at its best.
Far from the epicenter of this cultural traffic jam, TBA installation artist Laura Curry amasses Portland's stories. I find her accidentally on Sunday afternoon. She's on her tip-toes at Office, a chic work-supply store at 2204 NE Alberta St., hanging the first of what will become a forest of banners for a display this Friday. The banners are floor-to-ceiling printouts of everything passersby have keyed into a mobile computer kiosk that has been popping up all over town. But don't expect to find a blog-style critique of the fest. "I didn't want to follow the TBA crowd," says Curry. "I wanted to follow the city of Portland." Will her volumes of unedited data illuminate connections among the events-TBA-related or not-of these 10 festival days? Or is Curry just amassing dots?
It's Sunday night, and I'm speeding again. This time, I'm on my way to watch Vaux's swifts at the Chapman School, an annual, natural phenomenon that has happily coincided with TBA's programming. When I get there, dozens of families are spread out on the lawn watching small birds circle the school's tall smokestack. They circle and then dive in a spiral formation, like smoke being sucked backwards down the chimney. Finally, it's too dark to see the final dive, the pointed climax described in the TBA program-a finale, I've been told, that's usually met with applause. Instead, the unfinished spectacle, like the group of onlookers, disappears into the night. Did I leave too soon, anxious to move on to the next event? It's possible. In any case, I'm still connecting the dots, still waiting for the meaning of my festival experience to be announced.
TBA runs through Sunday, Sept. 18. To purchase tickets, call 224-7422 or stop by the TBA box office at 1122 NW Glisan St. Tickets can be purchased online-until noon the day of a performance-at www.pica.org. For previews of this week's not-to-be-missed TBA events, see page 57.