How PICA Is Pulling Off Its Time-Based Art Festival amid Overlapping Tragedies

A plague, shrinking budgets, and wildfire smoke aside, TBA 2020 is now streaming on a laptop near you.

By Conner Reed September 16, 2020

Jaamil Olawale Kosoko’s American Chameleon in its first iteration at EMPAC in Troy, New York.

The Time-Based Art Festival is one of Portland’s most bombastic and beloved events: an opportunity to see performers crawl naked through a warehouse while J. Lo’s “On the Floor” gets fed through a distortion pedal, a rare chance to pull back the curtain on our sometimes-insular scene and place local artists in global conversation. It’s equal parts party and marathon, taking over venues that span the city for 10 days of invigorating, uneven, unforgettable work.

This year, it almost didn’t happen. 

“It didn’t cross our minds to cancel the festival, per se,” says Roya Amirsoleymani, one of the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s three artistic directors. But international travel, a hallmark of TBAs past, was rendered almost impossible in March; add in shifting public health mandates and dire economic straits, and the festival’s fate was up in the air for the first time since PICA launched it in 2003.

Typically, it takes Amirsoleymani and her fellow ADs a full year to develop relationships with artists, foster their projects for PICA, and eventually produce them at TBA. Sometimes it takes longer. When one festival wraps in September, plans for the next one start immediately, and logistical strategy kicks into high gear by January. This year, TBA didnt get budget clearance until mid-June.

“We started the entire process after we normally would have had the catalog for the festival mailed out to the world,” Amirsoleymani says. Working with 20 to 25 percent of a typical budget, plus a staff of fewer than 20 (compared to TBAs typical 100-plus paid laborers and several hundred volunteers), PICA pulled together a largely virtual lineup, leaning on Zooms and livestreams and the occasional masked in-person viewing. Instead of its usual 10 days, TBA 2020 will last a full three weeks. “Take Your Time,” reads this year’s tagline, encouraging attendees to engage with the work on their own schedules. 

With the playing field suddenly wide open—no prohibitive travel costs, no work visa drama—PICA could have made this TBA its most international yet. But it intentionally opted not to. “Even though the festival is accessible and available in a way globally and nationally that it’s never been before, what we wanted to prioritize in the economy of the festival was artists who are from this place, right now,” Amirsoleymani says.

One of the most ambitious projects on the slate this year is Jaamil Olawale Kosoko’s American Chameleon, co-presented with Philadelphia’s FringeArts and originally conceived for EMPAC in Troy, New York. Kosoko, a former PICA artist-in-residence, will present his work on a dizzying array of platforms: an auditory component will take place on Discord, a messaging platform popularly used for gaming discussion. Video will stream live on YouTube and PICA TV, a platform PICA launched to present TBA 2020. 

“Contemporary artists have long been innovators in this way,” Amirsoleymani says. “They’ve been thinking about online engagement, digital art. They’re the first ones to talk about meaningful experiences to happen around what might have originally been designed for a live context.”

Not everything has gone over smoothly, even factoring for a pandemic. The sudden statewide blast of toxic wildfire smoke has put all in-person viewings (including a planned outdoor Mobile Projection Unit screening of American Chameleon’s film component) on hold and caused PICA to rethink performances it was prepared to stream live from its space on NE Hancock. Still, Amirsoleymani is optimistic about the culmination of three months of tireless work.

“Putting this festival together is a microcosmic experience of what happens when a community comes together, against a lot of odds, to make something work,” she says. Stay tuned for weekly dispatches from this year’s festival, which runs through the end of the month.

TBA 2020

September 10–30, FREE (pay-what-you-will donations encouraged), picatv.org

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