Sending the Arts to camp, and into bed
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  January 17, 2006

The twain rarely meet, it seems, when it comes to First Fridays versus opening nights in the Portland theaters. We have our gallery scene, our theater scene, and our music scene, but for the most part, the city’s various arts scenesters tend to stay comfortably within their own disciplines. But why languish in this separate-but-equal sensibility, when we might have rapprochement, integration, even brazen conjugality? The idea is elementary, but I’m still wanton for it: Theater and the other lively Portland arts must be persuaded into more frequent, more unlikely, and more intimate conspiracies.

That said, there certainly are some local precedents for such collaborative unions. One of 2005’s highlights, in terms of the gravitational pull it exercised on a broad range of local artists, was A Company of Girls’ fine A Wrinkle in Time. Joining the intrepid young actresses of this sci-fi/humanist story were the experimental musicians of Tarpigh, with an original score, as well as a collaborative video projection directed by artist-of-many-stripes Susan Bickford. Portland has also hosted the artistically integrative energies of NY-based troupe TENT, which for the second year in a row set up camp in the St. Lawrence and transformed its nooks and crannies, from the bathrooms to the Sanctuary to the places under the stairs.

One angle to bringing Portland’s diverse media together is what I’ll call the Camp model, which is essentially TENT’s approach: Throw a bunch of varied creative types together and have them collectively come up with one big creation while living in close quarters — in a locked room, for example, or out on an island. It’s on Cow Island, in fact, that Susan Bickford says she’s dying to do just what I’m talking about: Sequester a band of artists for a month and let them have at creation. Bickford hopes to follow the text-based model of her 2001 interdisciplinary event, Meeting the Beast, which brought 25 performers and artists into the St. Lawrence for a week to read and then perform their explorations of the philosophical text Totality and Infinity.

Since mass communal consensus isn’t for everyone, I’d also like to suggest a second model, this one rather more like coitus than camp. Under this model, we’d get focused collaborations between just two or three individuals — an actor, and some breed of installation or sound artist; one person to deliver text and another for context — and exhibit the results in one space as a group show. These installations could first stand alone, to be explored by the audience, before each actor enters, inhabits the piece, and offers a verbal story to accompany the other sensorial ones at work. To keep such a show cohesive, artists would work within a common theme — reflections on Intelligent Design, for example; or the eerie imagery and ethos of Richard Brautigan; or the particularities of a material like wood or vinyl; or exercises in interactivity, involving the audience with games, interactive installations, and confrontational theater that breaks the fourth wall. As I see it, the natural host for such an exhibit/festival would be SPACE, elaborating upon the inclusive spirit of its group installation show "Light in the Dark," themed around light, or its recent "Reclaiming the Space" public art extravaganza.

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