File this under totally inevitable: a group of students in Portland State University’s Social Practice program have undertaken a project, called People’s Portlandia, that enlists Portland residents to make their own Portlandia-inspired skits. You see, in Portland, DIY culture is so deeply engrained that a television show spoofing our fair city is only the jumping-off point for folks to take comedy into their own hands (you’ve seen “The Dream of the Suburbs,” right?). After all, as we learned right here through our tales of The Most Portland Thing Ever, the comedy is endless, and it writes itself. Why stop with just Portlandia?
Of course, it’s more serious than that. It’s also testament to what makes Portland so great: people don’t passively accept culture. Instead, they actively engage with it, participating, building their own scenes and sometimes forcefully turning the conversation back on itself. Social Practice art, of which this is an example, is defined by its willing engagement in communities and its emphasis on democratizing the back-and-forth between those who make art and those who consume it. People’s Portlandia may not be as funny as Portlandia, but its spirit of enterprising self-awareness is exactly what makes the show—and living in Portland—so totally exciting. And hilarious.
The story of People’s Portlandia is intimately intertwined with Fred and Carrie, too. We caught up with the project’s creator, Nolan Calisch, to get the full story.
Portlandia: Tell me a little bit about your background & the inception of this project.
Nolan Calisch: I run an organic CSA farm outside of Portland, but I am also an artist with a background in film and photography. My first exposure to Portlandia was when they came to the farm to film the first episode of season one. Colin is actually one of our trusty laying hens. People’s Portlandia grew out of conversations with my friends. When the season first came out, I felt like a couldn’t go a day without hearing someone say “wow, that should be a Portlandia skit.” So, it was a really a “what if” scenario. I thought, what if set up a simple framework so all these people in Portland could actually create all these funny ideas and experiences they were having in their daily lives.
Portlandia: Off the bat, it seems as though People’s Portlandia is about “taking back” Portland. Do you feel like Portlandia misrepresents Portland?
Nolan Calisch: A lot of people have framed it this way, but for me, this was never really its intention. I respect Fred and Carrie’s creativity and I think of People’s Portlandia as an opportunity to expand and elaborate on what they started, which I think ultimately its a celebration of this wonderfully weird and idiosyncratic city.
Portlandia: You’re coming at this from a social practice standpoint. Can you explain how you see this project within the larger context of social practice work?
Nolan Calisch: Sure. A lot of social practice work takes place outside the art world and often this work is public and collaborative in nature. I guess People’s Portlandia has these characteristics. Personally, one reason I am interested in social practice is because its about expanding the possibilities of an art practice, its about saying art doesn’t have to be an elite or professional or solitary act, it can be a spirit, a way of being in the world. I see People’s Portlandia as encouraging this spirit.
Portlandia: Are there Portlandia sketches you feel hit the nail on the head?
Nolan Calisch: To be honest I have only seen a handful of episodes because I don’t own a TV. I have to say, from what I’ve seen, I enjoy the yuppie couple and I really think the costuming on the show is great.
Portlandia: What has the response to the project been like?
Nolan Calisch: The response has been good. Hundreds of people have told me very incredible skit ideas. Its just been a matter of convincing them to take the next step to make a video.
Portlandia: Have you communicated with anyone who works directly on the show?
Nolan Calisch: I met Fred and Carrie on the farm several years ago. We only spoke briefly and I remember the whole time they were very self conscious about their hair since they were both wearing wigs. They kept telling us, “you know this is not my real hair, we don’t usually look like this.” It was endearing.
Readers, season two of Portlandia is coming to an end. Don’t let the dream fade! It’s not too late to submit your own videos for the first People’s Portlandia screening, on March 29th at the Hollywood Theater. Submissions are due March 15th, and it’s totally free to enter.