Arts Review Festival

What We See Through the Looking Glass

Days 6-8 at T:BA:14

Time-Based Dementia appears to be what I am going through at this point. Existential crankiness because you need a nap is not necessarily unpleasant. It is simply another affect of post-modern performance. Writing now, I am sitting inside PICA and Angela Mattox is explaining to someone how she keeps herself on energetic equilibrium. The important thing of course is silence alone, acheived best at home. I can relate. I live downtown now and I can take my time in between shows and recollect myself. Yet it also has the effect of greater immersion. It is almost too easy to remain embedded in this festival.


Cynthia Hopkins earns the medal of honor for inspiration and honesty in her performance, A Living Documentary. She tells the story of her early mid-life in a solo comedy monologue with an array of characters and costume changes, each representing an aspect of herself and other notable people along her journey.

Hopkins starts the whole thing in character. With a sort of comedic butoh bit, she is dressed to resemble an old man. Almost imperceptibly, slowly he walks to a chair, stage center and sits there, leaning in to the chair as if some deflated balloon. This goes on for ten minutes as people fill up the room. And when the lights come down, he animates, and he is hilarious. Laughter rolls over the crowd with the opening song silliness—it is how each emphasized word is ironic or at least anti-romantic—setting the standard for a strange musical.

It becomes clear around the climax that all stories point to Cynthia. The old playwright and his mansplanations, the cheese-ball motivational speaker and her self-empowering speech, the dweeby self-hating girl, the songwriter, and the mysterious girl on the tape each take part in the structure of a message that Hopkins really wants you to understand. She is not afraid to kick you in the balls with the message either. That message: do what you want in your heart and ask for what you deserve. Oh, and also the economic structure is repressive by design, so resist it.

She has a compelling story to tell about her life, launching and dissolving a non-profit theater company. It is a premise I can truly relate to. It was during T:BA:13 that I decided to dissolve the non-profit arts production company that I had founded in 2009. It wasn’t what I wanted to do. Plain and simple. And literally at this moment I am downloading the final archive of my administrative data and documents from Google. My organization is now bit-rotting, whilst I maintain an archive for the legally defined period of seven years. I am grateful to her. We all need a reminder to look deeply in to ourselves, to realign our dreams and believe in them.

This musical is performed with a backing track housed in one of those flat memo cassette recorders from the eighties. Just a microphone on one little speaker. She does perform live acoustic guitar and voice—something she does well. Cynthia Hopkins is a very talented visionary artist, probably on the brink of madness, but specifically the kind of madness that I love.

On a similar track of hilarity, the comedy show curated by local artist, comedian, and past Horizon @End Times podcast guest, Jason Traeger was tremendous. I had not enjoyed a comedy show like that in a long time. The show featured three stand-up comics and three alternative comics.

Jason Traeger
Jason Traeger

Those alternative comics—who do stand-up regularly—included visual bits. The first, Tim Ledwith, did something amazing: he shared his teenage attempted-suicide note that vividly describes a vision of the afterlife; a colorful world where a sloth spins the wheel of samsara and sends you to the next incarnation. It was funny, pure and simple. The next, Christian Ricketts offered a ventriloquist act in which the dummy talks but we can’t hear him. Few can pull off such a concept bit like Ricketts, that is why I have always been a fan of his. The closing act was Philip Schallberger. He presented a powerpoint on the subject of robots, posing as a Swiss scientist, I believe. I don’t remember details. It was funny. Phil has always been a risk-taker and something of a surrealist. Playfully, he explores the comedic landscape to discover new material.

Three stand-ups divided up these more theatrical performances. But they are some of the weirdest comics Portland has produced. Ron Funches for example, all natural gold. I noticed that his routine of one liners, delivered softly and in short precise statements, gave way to a more improvised storytelling approach since I last saw him perform. I did not recognize one joke. He delivered with that same persona, that same deliberate speaking voice, but from a narrative. Amy Miller is a fast-rising comic because she is made for the job, simply very funny, and she has that whole self-image issue thing going, like we all do of course. Steve Wilbur is kind of enigmatic, I think audiences work almost as hard figuring him out as they do following his actually subtle, long-form jokes.

To be honest, I am a failed comic. I tried stand-up for two years. The only night that I killed at Helium, Ron Funches was hosting the open mic. I was an unusual voice and sought to challenge the status quo of joke-telling, but I was better at pushing buttons and inadverently became a divisive voice. When I bowed out, it was not a positive moment, but I never lost respect for the craft of comedy.

What I saw at the WORKS is everything I had hoped for: the full potential of Portland comedy. I remember when Jason Traeger started to show up regularly at open mics. I fairly abruptly stopped going. While he was becoming better every week, taking shit from status quo comics, I was losing my shit. Now, he can hold an audience well enough to work Helium, while rising the form to the level of fine art. To see that dream and his potential realized gave me a priceless level of satisfaction.


Due to a sense of exhaustion, I slowed down and attended only a couple of events on Wednesday, both of which after 10pm at The WORKS. Flashlight Filmstrip Projections activated as a performance with Jennifer West, and Larry/Laura Arrington’s Squart!

The first thought as I sat on the steps in the rear corner of the warehouse where West’s array of filmstrip placards hang on thin, translucent wire, and five people dressed in pure white with flashlights in hand maintained a huddle while audience members scattered across the walls, was “this looks religious.” When four each took to a cardinal point and shook their lights according to a droning electronic pulse, shining the filmstrip projections against an older woman dressed in flowing layers, I knew it was religious.

Jennifer West’s religion is film. I went to her Institute talk at PICA and listened to her reverie for film. She labeled herself a hyper-geek in that area. Her persona could be a Kristin Wiig satire on contemporary artists. And I love Kristin Wiig.

The group moved and changed their patterns from shaking to zooming and all manner of things, altering their positions but ultimately ending up in the same place. The woman in the center dances a lot of the same steps in repetition, as if caught in a cycle. The effect of this woman as a projected surface became a film deity. My attention was often scattered around the room. Sadly, the live electronic music artist I saw performing the sound track has not been credited, but his contribution to this was essential and actually quite compelling. It made the performance.

I stuck around for Squart! It is fair to admit that I was in a tenuous mood. The whole show carries on with a lot of the post-post-modern fanfare of chaos and ecstacism. All in good humor. It is part of the overall resistance of boxed-out modernism and ancient belief systems of shame and reverence to social order and man-made law that Larry Arrington, from what I have witnessed from her in three different events at T:BA, tends to operate from. The whole thing is an American Idol spoof to boot.

My mood dampered the fun and my exhaustion lost patience after two hours, so I left early. Paula Helen actually performed in it, so she can give a more detailed account in a forthcoming blog post.


Yesterday it was Thursday and the slide toward the end of T:BA gets increasingly sharp. Yet, with boots on the ground for seven days straight, it feels uphill. But I am a volunteer soldier, delivering the story to you out of a sense of duty.

Luke George and Collaborators

I made the Institute talk at PICA with Liz Harris and Paul Clipson, the duo behind T:BA’s final main stage event, Hypnosis Display. Usually I have seen the work before the talk, so I will save my insights from this talk for the context of the film review.

I finally made it to Luke George & Collaboraters’ Not About Face for its final run. While it was worth the experience, it was also kind of maddening. I wasn’t sure I trusted what was happening, the imagery and the process we were being led in to. Many contemporary artists are dabbling with esoteric energy work and straight up witchcraft. Now, some of my best friends are witches… but I need to know the intention ahead of time before participating.

There was a lot of screaming. I understand that; it is to stir up and hopefully exorcise negativity. There was a lot of physical contact and energetic communion. I was hesitant and found myself reserving the right to observe. Besides, it was fucking hot under the ghost sheets that we all had to wear for the purpose of the performance. When all the sheets finally came off and we could all see each other, that was pretty cool. People looked so much more colorful and I felt closer to everyone.

I tried to go see MSHR’s performance at the Fashion Tech, but didn’t arrive until 5 after 10. I locked up the bike, passed through entry and couldn’t find them anywhere. Did the performance really last two minutes? I mentioned it to a friend and they said, “oh that’s tomorrow” but not according to the program. So whatever. We’ll see. But at least I got to watch Jesse Sugarman’s We Build Excitement. Like every visual arts at T:BA, I do not plan to review it until I see it twice.

That night at the WORKS featured an electronic music show, this time by Arca. I had not heard of this chap before, but Alejandro Ghersi is very well known. The music I heard was definitely compelling enough to bring me closer to the stage and listen.

Angular beats, interrupted by silence on occasion, oscillating between slow and ambient to booty-shaking so frequently, it was not easy to get in to a groove, but that clearly was the point. I stuck to it, even though I was exhausted. I didn’t have my dancing shoes on either, just sneakers that grip the floor. Looping imagery on screen, syncronized according to BPM, matched shifts in momentum. Just before I left, images of twerking accompanied a higher BPM and more driving beats. I knew the dance floor was about to find a high arch. And the journey might have been worth it, but catching up on sleep took precedent. And that is what I did by midnight.

T:BA’s closing weekend starts today. Paula Helen and I are on the beat. I will deliver one more summary of performances and then a final wrap-up article including a review of all the visual arts.

Sean Ongley

By Sean Ongley

Co-Founder of THRU Media. A background in non-profit, music, and radio preceded my ambitions here. Now, I aspire to produce new media and publish independent journalism at this site and beyond.

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