Mark Russell, Artistic Director of TBA for the last three years, will talk about: What is next? What is next for the field of performance? What is next for TBA? What is next for the U.S.A.? Plus a possible introduction of the next artistic director for PICA’s 2009 Time-Based Art Festival. Join Mark for an informal talk and a conversation near sunset on the final day of the Festival.
Come and say goodbye.
Come and say hello.
Mark Russell is the guest Artistic Director of PICA’s 2008 Time-Based Art Festival. He works and lives in New York City where he produces the Under the Radar Festival at the Public Theater. From 1983-2004 Russell was the Executive/Artistic Director of Performance Space 122. Russell is married to Jennifer P. Goodale and they have a five-year-old son, Nicholas. He will continue to be involved with the Festival on an informal basis in the years to come. Write to him at [email protected]
I will start with a few images, scenes from the last few years, and then talk about what is Next. And then introduce someone who is NEXT.
A farewell speech from TBA:06, TBA:07, TBA:08 Artistic Director Mark Russell
1. Meeting up with Kristy Edmunds in Montreal at the Festival TransAmériques. It was so good to see her. She asks me to consider taking on the TBA festival as a guest artistic director. I am in my first month out of my beloved P.S. 122 on a sort of quest to figure out how to re-imagine what I can do in the world without an old school as a home and platform. I say yes.
2. Meeting with Victoria Frey in my apartment in New York City. I didn’t know it was an interview, but it went very well.
3. Coming out to Portland that August for a PICA Board retreat and a welcoming to the new position. It was at a beautiful farm with great food and people hanging out in the warm summer evening. They gather round and ask me to speak. I have never done this before – especially in front of people used to Kristy. I barely get a few words out. Then we watch the full moon rise above the trees from the porch.
4. That first visit Kristan Kennedy takes the only flattering picture of me, ever. I decide she is a genius, and she keeps proving it.
5. TBA:05 with its amazing opening with Elizabeth Streb, the great video tribute to Kristy. This is a community in a sort of mourning, sometimes angry, sometimes nostalgic, uncertain of how to proceed without their charismatic leader. Everyone is very gracious to me. I do a public interview with Kristy talking about her time at PICA and mine at PS 122. Antony and the Johnsons play THE WORKS that year and the sound gets screwed up. I was embarrassed and disappointed. I make a secret vow to get him back and do it right. There are so many other great performances that year. DJ Spooky and Daniel Bernard Roumain jamming at THE WORKS. Lone Twin creating steam clouds. Wally Cardona at the Newmark. I spent the whole Festival seeing everything, soaking it all up.
6. At the Dada Ball on the last night of the festival, with a few cocktails in me, I ran into a reporter who asked me what I thought of the scene, I enthused that even old men were here and pointed out Howard Shapiro. It turned up in print and Howard turned up outside my office. We have been close friends ever since.
7. At the last Dada ball two local artists cornered me and told me confidentially that they were ready for change in the TBA programming, that I should feel free to take it in another direction. I was still daunted by the aspect of filling Kristy’s shoes but it provided an opening, a way through that helped me immensely. I did not have to be Kristy.
8. The first year running up to my first TBA I felt like I was running for Mayor. So many meetings with funders, individuals, press. I was not used to being “the story” and I was anything but charismatic. Vic was very patient.
When I began planning the ‘06 festival we decided on a couple important changes. We made room for the visual arts to be a part of a festival that was formerly only about performance – Kristan Kennedy stepped up to be the visual art curator, and we began one of the most creative collaborations I have been honored to be a part of. We also opened up the festival to take place in venues across the river and moved it to embrace more of the city.
That first festival was one of the high points of my professional career. I have never had so much fun, felt so deeply, or had so many projects hit their target artistically, audience wise, critically.
So I was hooked. I found myself becoming part of a thriving community that surrounds PICA and supports this festival. I had to learn how to do curtain speeches, which I abhor. But soon found my inner ham coming forward. I got to present one of my heroes, Laurie Anderson, and introduce one of my favorite new groups – the Nature Theater of Oklahoma. It was the 5th anniversary of 9/11 and the festival seemed to vibrate with memories and responses to that event. At one point, I was driving over the bridge to get to a performance and a full rainbow appeared. It seemed like even nature was participating in this festival.
The next year, TBA:07, I decided to try some new things and see how far we could push this festival artistically, thematically, and geographically. It was a sophomore year, 2nd album kinda thing, wonderful in so many instances but not like the glow of that first year. It was a lot to ask of a festival, but it did find its own feel and I am very proud of what we did. The visual arts became a true partner, we introduced many new venues into the mix, and of course a batch of new artists. We even spiked the soup with an appearance by Mikhail Baryshnikov in Donna Uchizono’s work. The Nature Theater came back with an even more ambitious piece and we were able to host one of the few U.S. presentations of ERS’s Gatz. Claude Wampler played with our heads- including mine. I still owe those technicians a beer.
Before we finished putting together the 2nd year, Vic and I had pretty much agreed that I was going to need to figure a way to move here or else hold to our original intent to make this a rotating guest artistic directorship. PICA deserves a leader whose only full festival is TBA, someone who can spend more time with the staff and the board and the funders and does not have to think twice when someone asks, “so what do you do?
My own festival Under the Radar in New York has taken off and asks more and more of my time and focus, not to mention my family wanting more time and a little more focus as well. I was most happy when the whole PICA team came out to help do press corps for UTR08. We became family.
I have talked a lot about this festival already and to my mind we are still in the middle of it, though I know its end is only hours away.
As I think back on the three festivals I was privileged to bring to life here, I see some themes, some connecting strands. I set out to engage more of the community in this festival, to de-mystify it to regular folks. To invite them to the party. I set out to fill the houses with people from around the city, every neighborhood. I set out to bring theater/performance into the fold more than it had been, new theater, devised theater, since that is where I was seeing the most exciting developments in live performance. I set out to give the future aesthetics/hip hop theater work that was flourishing in many neighborhoods around this country a home at PICA. I set out to continue to enhance PICA TBA’s international profile as a place for interesting, challenging, often emerging artists from around the world. I tried to highlight new American performance voices, finding Northwest artists ready for a spotlight. I feel pretty happy that I came close to most of those goals. I am proud of doing my small part in leaving PICA on solid ground, deeply embedded in the life of this city.
This talk was going to be about what is NEXT and I hope you have seen some it in this year’s festival. One of the first things we booked for this year was Tim Crouch’s Englandhosted by the Elizabeth Leach Gallery. Tim’s heartbreaking piece is an example of where I think theater/performance is going: it is site-specific, it has very little tech involved, it reduces the performance moment to the voice, two people in front of a group of people, telling a story in poetic bursts. Character is fluid, gender is fluid, and politics are fluid. It is made for and with the people in the room at that time. Mike Daisey simplifies the formula to a man at a desk telling a story, epic complex stories, with arias of humor and pathos and when he suddenly holds his arm out pointing to the wings – the gesture has the momentous weight of a Robert Wilson scenery change. When Tim Etchells has Jim Fletcher come downstage and calmly run through his list of things that might be true about the world, it is an action, it is trying for purity, is there character? Is there a story? Do you need one? Why? It is an experience that you cannot get outside the theater. Seeing it on film would not suffice; we have to complete the event.
I am interested in performance that implicates its audience in the process, in the moment. We know now that theater is not a great tool/agent for societal change, or even a very efficient delivery system for entertainment for that matter. What can performance do that other forms cannot? What does it mean to gather people in a room today and perform for them? I think the binding thread I see in all the work I am interested in takes into account the construct of theater, that we are in a false situation, but that we are all together here in a moment, and in that moment we can do amazing things together. The performer can sing, dance, tell a story, even assume a character but we are here together now completing the process, discovering something together as one fragile, ephemeral community of strangers. Once we walk out of the theater it disappears into the ether. It may remain in documentary videotapes, or press reviews or blogs or back stage stories but it is essentially gone. Poof.
What also remains of that shared experience is a little bit of poetry, maybe a different perspective on life. You walk away in a different skin than the one you had coming into the theater, and maybe that changes your life but most likely it just shifts it a little and you may not know it but you are a new person. Poof.
I think this poof drives good capitalists nuts. There is very little to own, to make money off of.
I believe it is an enlightened society that finds value in such ephemeral work. It is a brutish society that cannot comprehend or isolates this work in the hipster trash bin. We as a society need something that is between church and sport, a place where our contemporary situation can be examined and celebrated.
A society of poofters.
I am interested in performance that asks questions and does not let you have the easy answers. I am interested in performance that understands and allows for its present context, understands its socio-political role – even if that is entertaining the Lexus class, or drag queens in a gay bar. I am interested in performance that embraces the many cognitive dissonances in our modern life and opens them for us. I am interested in performance that does not talk down to its audience, but lifts it up to a higher level of discourse, not necessarily of words but of feelings, emotions, and unspoken understandings.
I am interested in transgression. Not transgression for its own sake but for the overturning of accepted perceptions or rules, the acknowledgement that we live in a fluid society. I am interested in transgressions that teach me something, that show me something I missed or preferred not to look at.
As Leonard Cohen says, “There is a crack, a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”
I am interested in celebrations. Celebrations of being alive. Celebrations of the absurdity of our contemporary situation, celebrations that have the depth and power of ritual, weddings, funerals, but applied to daily life, to our lives, because we are alive and that should be celebrated every moment that we can.
There is more and more work that is interactive today, site-specific work, one-on-one theater, performances where you participate in some concrete way by choosing a list of scenes or characters, etc. Most of the time it is just a gimmick, but every once in a while these out-of-the-theater events create a portal where you let down your defenses and allow yourself to have a real experience. A crack to let the light in.
There is a lot of interest from the visual art world in the performative experience. We live in performative times. We live in a world where truth is warped and flipped, played back to us in slow-mo and we all know it but participate anyway. It is live TV-Tru Television as the new Discovery channel is called. In these modern countries we are all performing, we are looking for our 15 minutes of Warhol time. Celebrity is our common royalty. So visual artists, usually the first artists to get to the scene of the crime, are interested in things performance. They are playing with the toys and tools of performance, costumes, characters, makeup, lighting, puppets, sets; sometimes oblivious that a whole world of theater and dance people are working on the other side of the city, trying to do the same thing.
Kristan Kennedy and I have found a lot of congruent work this year; her new absurdists are using a lot of performance to influence their work. It’s raw, it’s smart and passionate, it’s transgressive. People keep playing with the sculpture in the Leftbank because it is begging for it. It wants you to perform with it. The artist, Jacob Hartman, is freaked out people are spinning his delicate construction, but there it is asking for a performance.
I am interested in this cross-platform cross-disciplinary work. It is always what is NEXT. At P.S. 122 I just called it performance. Let the audience and critics sort out whether it was dance or theater or performance art. Let the artists make their work responding to our times and if it takes the shape of a live work, something that happens in time – perhaps before breathing people – bring it to an audience, or lead one to them to discover together what the experience is. I think these events that defy categorization are our future.
After college I started in this field as a contact improvisational dancer. It taught me many lessons. It taught me to go with the gravity of an idea to allow a stream of movement that took me to a place where I did not know I would be. It taught me that “failure” was a beautiful thing and that it opened up avenues that often led to “success” and enlightenment. It kept me from being stiff and brittle when ideas appeared that I had not considered or events took a turn I did not expect. It taught me to set up safe playgrounds for artists to let them fail and find their own way, find new ways.
I think of these festivals as dances, contact dances where you don’t know how they will land or end but you try to find their flow. The themes and strands of meaning in the dance become evident as you move with the information your body feeds you. It is a process of discovery, the same way artists discover their own work, communities discover their own festivals, festivals discover their own meaning.
This is a Festival called Time-Based Art. It has happened for 11 days in the waning summer of September 2008 in the city of Portland, in the state of Oregon in the United States of America. That is its time. It has happened at a time when America is trying to decide on how to change, to find a new leader that will bring change, because we are not happy with the way this empire America is going. It is happening at a time when people in Texas are getting whipped by incredible storms, while we enjoy the best weather of the year. It is happening when young men and women are still taking bullets for us in Iraq and Afganistan. It is happening at a time when truth is being bent over backwards in countless ads and sound bites. It is happening when a city like Portland waits breathlessly to see if its fellow countrymen are really that gullible. Will they be swept up in hype and bent truth to make decisions that will drive us deeper into the mud? We wait breathless, hopeful and praying that we can find our way back as a country and then find our way forward.
And while we wait, this festival that is going on asks that you think and feel and embrace chaos, embrace the different, embrace the outrageous, embrace the full extent of your community. It asks us to take a minute to dream of a better place, to open your mind and heart and engage with our artists. We ask you to celebrate waiting, to take time, to prepare for the work ahead. Take time to breathe, as all of our performers breathe deeply before entering the stage. TBA is your moment to breathe in the rich oxygen of art and ideas. TBA is a chance to prepare for the moment. Prepare for change, prepare to be engaged, open, centered, ready to celebrate change. Prepared for whatever is NEXT.
I would like to thank some folks, there are many. I have made some serious friends here in Portland; I have gained a new family. I feel am gaining a new hometown.
Portland, you have a very rare and incredible gift here in PICA. It needs even more support than it gets. The city should be directly supporting this festival. Substantially. There, I said it. It may not fill a lot of hotel rooms with big conventioneers but it brings an international profile and brand to this city that cannot be bought. Its called Caché, not cash, but it usually results in someone getting some.
I have been saying that no other city can do this festival quite the way Portland can. Seattleites are jealous, Austin is trying to copy us, and New York is flummoxed. It is true. Whatever is in the water (or is it the wine) here makes this city the perfect place for TBA. Artists from around the world want to come here and know of the great professional and friendly atmosphere that surrounds this festival – and that is due to the incredible staff of PICA, but also primarily to Portland, the people of Portland. Portland has been my favorite partner in this three-year dance. The people: the engaged, curious passionate people of Portland, they are who I will miss the most.
Tomorrow I will meet with the staff at the site of the Vaux Swifts and we will bring our picnic baskets and wine and sit on the soccer field to wait for those amazing birds to perform their special dance in the sky. This was one of Kristy’s favorite things: she included it in the catalog as an event in TBA:05. It is now one of mine. It is now an annual ritual, a goodbye ritual. We will quietly wait for the sun to go down and the clouds of birds to swoop in and out of the chimney. Whirling into a spinning storm of tiny birds that spirals up and up and then miraculously forms a funnel as they dive as one, suddenly and finally into their chimney hotel, tucked away to sleep for the night. There may be a quiet pause, as if at the end of a symphony, and we will know then that TBA:08 is over. And then I will fly home myself.
Now I would like to introduce the next Artistic Director of PICA’s TBA Festival, Ms. Cathy Edwards.
Of course thank you to Kristy Edmunds for this incredible opportunity and for creating this amazing festival. Many thanks to Victoria Frey for being such a great partner and allowing me to do what I can here. Thanks to Erin Boberg Doughton for her endless patience, her “what part of we are out of money don’t you understand?” reality checks and her great guidance and advocacy for Northwest artists. Kristan Kennedy, my visual art sister. Thank you. It has been amazing watching you grow into a very powerful and visionary curator. For Jörg, no one can say enough about how you keep this organization going with duck tape, spit and glue, and with such direct inventive style. For Jessica Burton, whose beauty and great spirit and absolute sass kept me organized, housed and balanced every visit. For Brian Costello, our man of letters who is one of the best editors and spin-doctors I have ever encountered, yes Brian I got it – it is ORYGUN. Thanks to Philip Iosca, a real pleasure to work with, a great sense of design and a fabulous style. Luisa Guyer, a true friend whom I will miss. Cynthia, Scott, Sarah, Amy, Melanie, Rob, Noelle, Jason, Bob, Jeff, Lindsay – great people so generous with their time and talents. I would also like to thank some of the folks that worked on my earlier festivals but are not working on this one: Jamie Lee, Malina, Patti, David, Brian the 2nd, Kim, Cheryl, Bucky… I am sure I will forget someone.
I have been constantly impressed and humbled by the vigor and commitment of the volunteers at TBA. They make it possible. Thank you.
I also have made friends on the PICA board, one of the best boards I have been involved with – they get it, they help, they give. Time, money, and brains.
I got close to some of these board members and members of the community and the Festival audience. I really appreciated their guidance and support: Michael Tingley, Jack Walsh, Ethan Seltzer, Linda, Stephanie, Suze, Dorie, Sally, Amy, Bruce, Brad, and folks like Joan Shipley, Howard and Manya Shapiro, Paul Weiss, Chris Riley, Amery and John, Jason and Stephanie, and so many more. And all of those people that took vacation time so that they could immerse themselves in this festival. All of those folks who took me aside and told me what they thought, felt, heard, cared for, didn’t care for. Thank you.
Our funders, the City of Portland, Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Meyer Memorial Trust, RAAC. Thanks.
Partners like BOORA Architects, Laika, Luftansa, Nike, Bruce Carey Restaurants, the Heathman Hotel, the Mark Spencer Hotel, Ace Hotel, Wieden+Kennedy, Hoyt Street Properties. I know it has a longer list and you can and should read it in your program, but I hope these partners and supporters know how much their help is appreciated and that they need to continue to give to keep this thing we call TBA flying.
And why do we do this? Who sacrifices the most to make TBA what it is? Who gives the most? It is the artists. I have been blessed to work with so many great, passionate, inventive artists. They dove right in to bringing the best work they could, surprising us, sometimes surprising themselves. They are the soul of TBA. They are reason for TBA. Thank you.
I would not have been able to do this with out the support of my close associates, friends and family, Meiyin Wang, Norman Frisch, and of course, my wife Jennifer Goodale and my son Nicholas.
And of course the people of Portland…