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Friday, September 7, 2012

Spectacle Vs. Substance: Big Art Group

Posted by Noah Dunham on Fri, Sep 7, 2012 at 10:23 AM

So, full disclosure guys, I was pretty stoked to go see opening night of Big Art Group's The People: Portland tonight. After interviewing both of the New York City based collective's co-founders, Caden Manson and Jemma Nelson, I was fairly convinced that I was going to dig what they had to offer...

Recorded interviews of Portlanders answering questions about concepts like democracy, justice, terrorism projected on the walls of Washington High School? Ok sounds neat.

A live footage and live theater mash-up woven into the plot and themes of the Oresteia? Awesome, I love those plays.

A piece of art blending local thoughts with larger universal human ideas? Well that just sounds like that whole "think global, live local" motto jammed packed into one night of performance. Sign me up.

So yes, I suppose you could say I had high hopes for the spectacle Big Art Group had set forth to bring to Portland's TBA audience. Were my hopes met with coinciding results? To put it bluntly, they were not. But before I get all negative, let me first list some things that I thought succeeded in Big Art Group's The People: Portland:

-I found the group's use of technology (aside from several glitches last night) to be quite thrilling. Albeit this wasn't a surprise. Big Art Group is well known for their technical innovation. Seeing the real live performance occurring inside Washington High's classrooms (where most of the piece's action took place) projected in real time outside on the school's walls was certainly an engaging feat, if not awe inspiring. As the piece continued however, this function became increasingly hard to follow.

-I was also pulled in by the immediate discussion the piece brought to the table. That being, the use of the camera's view to unwrap a story and how that might be interpreted by a director/producer's voice. The play is introduced as both part reality TV show and a low budget cable access television program being run by a very vocal director who moderates the whole performance. At his whim characters are switched in and out mid-scene. Takes are re-done when the actor is either "boring" or "the shot isn't music-video enough". The fast paced narrative evokes an eerie undercurrent of manipulation and often harkens to the hyperbolic nature the 24 hour news cycle. Although very hard to follow at times, I found this aspect of the piece to be captivating.

-The greatest success though had to be in the form of the recorded interviews of Portland residents that Big Art Group captured when visiting Portland in the Spring. These candid takes of non-performers giving their thoughts on concepts such as war, justice, and democracy were compelling, and frankly were what I walked away thinking the most about.

I didn't walk away thinking much about what Big Art Group was trying to say. And this could have been because they were attempting to say too much. There was the premise: a TV producer attempting to make thrilling television. There was the spectacle: image upon image overlapping and being manipulated on the bricks of Washington High School. There was the play: the Oresteia being given a contemporary treatment (an over the top one I might add). And then there were these candid and very intelligent video clips of real people trying to express their thoughts on difficult topics. I'm pretty much exhausted just trying to remember all of those moving parts, not to mention making sense of them.

This is not to say that I don't appreciate the ambition. This was clearly quite an undertaking. But there were times in the audience, watching all of this unfold on the makeshift screens, that I was craving some simplicity—something to look at or listen to that would point me in the right direction. I suppose some would chalk this void of focus up to nuance or abstraction, but frankly, if you are going to build something in scale as large as Big Art Group's The People: Portland, something galvanizing has to emerge that appeals to even the most befuddled of audience members. I was disappointed that nothing did.

So them be my two cents. Thoughts? Surely some others saw this last night. Comment, comment, comment ye brave and anonymous commenters.

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