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Big Art Group Turns Conversation Into Art

Big Art Group's presentation of "The People" in Halle, Germany

Caden Manson / Courtesy of Big Art Group

After 10 years of introducing Portlanders to challenging and groundbreaking work through the Time-Based Art Festival (TBA:12), PICA is looking to up the ante this year by getting the community involved.

Every September, the Time-Based Art Festival brings together national and international performers of contemporary and visual art. Right now PICA is gearing up for this fall festival with a summer full of artist residencies, symposiums, lectures and performances designed to build more connections with local audiences and engage the community in the creation of new works.

The celebrated, New York-based performance ensemble Big Art Group kicked off the effort this month with a week-long residency in Portland, where they recorded interviews of Portlanders sharing their thoughts around issues of democracy, war and justice. The interviews are the first phase in the development of The PeoplePortland, a modern, media-rich take on the ancient Greek trilogy of plays The Oresteia and one of the showcase events of this year’s festival.

PICA Artistic Director Angela Mattox, who is curating her first TBA festival this year, says the Big Art Group’s project is emblematic of her vision for the organization. “I’m looking at how we adapt and stay relevant by bringing in pieces that demand audience participation,” she explains. “Projects like The People Portland offer an opportunity for us to reach into new communities and engage them in the conversation about art.”

Big Art Group’s loose retelling of Aeschylus’ tragic story of murder and revenge uses “re-enactments” by the company and a group of volunteer performers. The live performance is blended with pre-taped interviews and the whole thing is projected on the exterior of the building where the performance is taking place.

The company has staged The People four times over the past five years, first in Polverigi, Italy in 2007 and most recently in San Francisco. According to Big Art Group Artistic Director Caden Manson, the piece is designed to grow out of the community where it’s performed and initiate a conversation about the play’s ideas of democracy and justice, along with more modern issues such as how we use and consume media.

Big Art Group's Caden Manson sets up a shot. The group recorded dozens of interviews with Portlanders during their week-long residency in town.

John Kin / OPB

To get what Manson calls a “non-scientific cross section of the community,” PICA recruited six Portlanders as interviewers who were asked to find six people within their own communities to interview. Interviewer Tristan Irving says his only instructions were to find a mix of perspectives, so he recruited people from his neighborhood — his uncle who is a hip-hop artist, a friend who works at Wieden and Kennedy, an Asian neighbor and both of his grandparents. “Politics is not usually something you discuss with your neighbors,” he says, “so it was kind of interesting to find out we had so many different perspectives.”

Although finding a diversity of backgrounds is a goal, Manson says the real objective is to get a diversity of opinions. “We’re very much looking for disagreements. I think democracy is not something people agree on,” he says. “What you get out of these interviews are all these different ideas about these big subjects.”

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To prepare for the performance in September, Manson and his production team will edit the interviews into themes and then adjust and modify the script to reflect or argue against the community voices, creating a modern-day version of a Greek chorus.

“During the live show those video interviews are placed inside the work and vibrate against what we’re doing live, where the people talk about the theme the characters are dealing with,” says Manson.

Big Art Group will return to Portland a few days before the festival for workshops with the local volunteers who will participate in the live performance. Manson says that although the volunteer performers do not follow a script and do not rehearse in the traditional sense, he likes to give them some training on Big Art Group’s video techniques and the experience of being on stage and on film at the same time. All of this preparation will come together in a live, outdoor performance the opening night of the festival.

PICA is also hoping to generate audience engagement and discussion this summer through their first ever “PICA Symposium” to be held in mid-June. Centered on the work of choreographer Keith Hennessy, the symposium will feature a week of salons, rehearsals, lectures and performances held while Hennessy is in town to develop his latest piece Turbulence (a dance about the economy), which will premier at TBA:12.

PICA’s Mattox says she hopes these first few projects will develop into a year-round schedule of events that will provide the community with more access to the creative process and to put art into larger community dialog.

“Art shouldn’t take place in a vacuum,” she says.

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