A practical guide to PICA’s annual contemporary arts festival
The 13th Annual T:BA Festival launches its ten-day mission on Thursday. I have lived through eight of these, seeing well over a hundred different works. It was the first assignment of this magazine, and it was the first I ever made for myself, in 2008, on KBOO FM Radio. It has a way of kicking your ass — making you think bigger. This is why I am compelled and qualified to give you the scoop on how to navigate ten days of dance, theater, music, parties, counter-culture, and visual arts across every quadrant in Portland.
I won’t tell you what you should see — maybe you already know. What I can tell you is how to see everything in the program. Performances can be hit-or-miss — sometimes what you thought would hit, falls short, or you miss what makes it hit. I say, see it all and judge the work later, in the context of everything else. If you can’t do that, I have alternate strategies for you to get as much as you can from it.
PICA has streamlined everything. From one Artistic Director to the next, I have seen experimentation with different sub-programs and schedules. For nine years, they’ve rotated a new artistic director every three years. Angela Mattox was the fourth, and she’s here indefinitely. I think she has helped reduce and simplify the program down to four elements: Performance, Visual Arts, Institute, and The Works.
The meat is definitely Performance, the potatoes can be Visual Arts, and the stuffing might be Institute. The Works is more like dessert, or the after dinner cocktail. It’s a nightly party where all the above can be had, where artists, press, and patrons coalesce. Really, it is where the spirit of the festival comes alive for nine days, going to bed on the tenth.
Exactly as it sounds, Institute is more academic, providing patrons with a place to listen and talk, and to take educational workshops with featured artists. It is the most important program for artists in training. Talks are free; workshops will cost you.
Read up on the program, you can find resources below. I always look forward to PICA’s traditional guidebook, which can be found all over town, with your eyes peeled.
The west side has always been the playground of PICA, going back to when downtown was scrappy, when all the artists lived in cheap lofts and studios before it was “The Pearl.” Although everything has changed since, the best venues in town remain on the west side, so this is where most of the action is.
If you’re driving, it’s difficult. I live downtown, and I can walk or bike to everything, while going home for meals and inebriants between events. But most of us don’t, and for many of my years attending T:BA, I didn’t enjoy this central locale. The key is to park on the outskirts or bus it downtown, then hoof it on foot. If you have a bike, enjoy these last summer nights riding from one venue to the next. Radio Cab and Car2Go are also good alternatives to driving your own car.
Close-in east side always plays some kind of pivotal role. The Works, the most pivotal environment at T:BA, will pop up at SE 8th & Salmon, in a place called The Redd. Some of you may wish you had a room to spend the night there — especially if you go down with the ship every night — because first thing in the morning will be 10 am workshops at Studio 2, just a couple of blocks north, almost every day.
North/Northeast Portland rarely comes to play, but this time, you might need to make some special trips, if the visual arts program is important to you. This brings me to…
I wonder what is becoming of 2500 Sandy Boulevard right now, as visual arts curator Kristan Kennedy transforms a building into something called Pictures of the Moon with Teeth, embodying the consciousness of T:BA, kicking off the whole festival. The event costs nothing and will stay open until October 11th.
A special trip to Kenton’s contemporary arts venue, Disjecta, for Nothing to You, completes the visual arts program, where you will find what sounds like a sizable installation. On Saturday, September 12th, there is a one-time only, free short performance to express the work completely.
Most of these performances are strictly at said time, so show up at least fifteen minutes early, to ensure seating. Last year everything was at visible capacity or sold out. First time I ever saw that. If you’re an advance ticket holder, then you are guaranteed your seat. Pass holders on the other hand do not get VIP treatment and can be denied access — so show up early.
Eat at the food carts — that last bastion downtown where meals cost under $6. I recommend the Egyptian, Thai, and Mexican carts around 9th and Alder. This particular block at dinner time is a connectivity point between the Institute talks at PICA headquarters and all of the performance program.
10AM – 5ish: Institute and Visual Arts
5ish – 930PM: Performance
930PM – Midnight: The Works
That is basically how it goes. All day, you can catch up on the peripheral events, like talks and exhibits. Most performances are scheduled at 6:30 pm and 8:30 pm. This predictability enables you to catch everything, if you plot your schedule right. One exception: Luke Gutsgell/Suniti Dernovsek at Bodyvox on Saturday at 4:30pm.
Put your schedule together by venue. If you’re at PSU already, the next easiest place to get to is Winningstad Theatre. If you’re at Bodyvox, then PNCA makes more sense. Maybe it’s the vice versa. While doing so, see the run time of each show. This determines how much time you have to move to another venue. Sometimes you’re in a timing pinch, but the curators do a good job with stitching together a schedule that flows. Try to pick up on their intentions and scheduling becomes easy.
Paying for it
On the surface, it may seem like an expensive festival, and it can be. Those with money can afford the booze, the restaurant tabs, the hotel, and all-access T:BA passes — a budget that goes beyond my monthly income. But this is a festival that appeals to the avant-garde, whom are the starving artist community. PICA has made numerous options available.
Volunteering is chief among them. PICA volunteers get a work-it-to-earn-it deal, which is fair, because reliable volunteers are hard to come by. It might be too late to volunteer, but if you do, you’re guaranteed to see great shows and feel close to the whole community of the festival. You’re invited to a party where the executives and curators step down from their diplomatic horse and just eat pizza with you. Press is not invited to this, but I once dated a volunteer. I saw the pressures of everything melt away with pizza and booze and reminiscing.
Passes are actually quite affordable. I have seen many festivals charge well over $1,000 when you’re actually paying for a bunch of crap you neither want to see nor could even if you tried. There’s no hidden costs at T:BA, like mandatory parking and $5 bottles of water. Once you’ve bought a few tickets, you’ve already spent more than the cost of a pass. So I recommend a pass if you find at least 4 out of 25 events worth going to.
If you can’t afford to buy a single ticket, there is still a ton of stuff for free. Opening night, you can see all the visual exhibits and a free concert by Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks. That one is All Ages. Everyday after that, there is something else free. A couple of things charge on a sliding scale. Seek it out.
What to Expect from Thru Magazine
Thru writers will be attending eleven performances in total, as per this year’s press access protocol at PICA. This covers more than half of the performance program, and it gives us enough exposure to sense the guts of the festival. However, it doesn’t allow for the immersion strategy I’ve employed, and enjoyed, in past years, absorbing nearly 100% of the festival with full access to every show and workshop, without needing to plan beforehand.
We’ll heed this guide and take in the free events, including the conversations at the Institute. We want to leave a narrative behind, an account that somehow fits into the post-modern puzzle we’re about to assemble from numerous artistic pieces. Come back and kickstart a discussion in the comments box. We can share accounts and experiences right here.
I am excited that Kathleen Dolan and Jen Scholten will be “live blogging.” Their newness to T:BA will reflect the excitement and innocence I once had about the wonderous collection of mind-altering arts and performance that PICA is world famous for presenting. Once their intitial review goes up, they will update their posts regularly.