The desire to source cultural journalism as free-range as the food some aspire to ingest might compel Southern California viewers to forage. After all, this more intrepid content is rarely on offer as part of traditional broadcast or “public” television programming, which is usually stifling in its predictability of tone. Serendipitously, in October of 2010, KCET officially announced it was ending its forty-year relationship as PBS’ flagship West Coast station. After years of discussing the challenges it had been facing with the public media behemoth, KCET chose independence.
Even Al Jerome, CEO and President of KCET, noted in an interview with Santa Barbara’s Independent, the “vast majority of PBS’s ‘icon programs’ are produced by three East Coast stations,” the average prime-time series has been on for 32 years and it has been more than eight years since PBS implemented its last major new series.
Honing its bold mandate to now produce “community media,” the newly independent KCET decided to invest in the local community, which also just happens to be the creative capital of the nation. Under the steady inspired guidance of Director of Production + Program Development Juan Devis, KCET’s new arts journalism initiative Artbound stealthily infuses authenticity into the corporate media dictated cultural landscape. A currency missing from our consumer driven environments, authenticity is necessary for genuine reflection upon the human condition. The space to reflect on where we are, ponder how we may have arrived here and co-navigate novel paths to living and learning as communities.
Since launching in May of this year, Artbound has culled insights, observations and analysis from 20 writers, cultural advisors and critics, all of whom are deeply embedded in Southern California’s multifaceted and diverse cultural landscape. These contributors, many of whom are artists with complex practices themselves, have already produced more than 150 online columns for the initiative. Artbound actively engages audience participation by encouraging readers to vote on the long-form multimedia articles, which are then vetted every week by the show’s editorial team. Stories receiving the most votes are produced into weekly short videos that can be viewed online. The inaugural Artbound television show, which debuted August 16th on KCET, featured the best of these compelling hyper-local videos and marks the first time viewers actually curate the content they watch on public television. Each month until November, a new hour long Artbound will air on KCET. Fabrik engaged Juan Devis about the fascinating directions being explored by the visionary team producing Artbound.
FABRIK: How did the idea for KCET Public Media’s Artbound evolve and come into fruition?
JUAN DEVIS (JD): The concept for the series was formulated after our split from PBS and our mission to engage with our local community in a more relevant and participatory way.
Before our split, KCET had already began experimenting with the online space, incubating ideas and creating web-only series that addressed issues of community engagement, mapping and participation, such as it is the case with Departures, while defining our role and the purpose of cultural journalism in Southern California.
Once the split occurred, one of KCET’s main strategic initiatives was to create programming focusing on the arts and culture of our region, and provide new production and distribution models that embraced the changing landscape of public media. Artbound: Southern California Cultural Journalism was designed to address these two issues head on.
FABRIK: With the independence KCET has garnered since leaving the PBS fold, there seems to be a renewed commitment to serving the public in a bolder and far more transparent manner as evidenced by Artbound’s emphasis on participatory media. How is this experiment working so far?
JD: We live in a networked, participatory culture where the consumption of art and culture is not only multi-linear — see it – record it, social media it —but where the recommendation of a peer often carries more weight than the word of the critic. This is forcing many of us to expand not just the ways in which we think about culture, but the traditional vehicles we use to communicate them.
In our new media saturated environment, the critical issue for the arts is not just one of analysis but also distribution; that is why we’ve created a platform where audiences can become a participant in the re-telling or creation of a story.
FABRIK: You have identified Artbound as “transmedia.” Please can you talk more about this term and how you came to designate the series as such? How important and/or necessary is engaging the public and audience to public media’s mandate?
JD: With over thirty columnists and cultural critics in 11 counties of Southern California, Artbound scans the region, providing seeds of engagement through articles, videos, projects and partners, who are narrating the cultural stories of the area.
By selecting articles that will be turned into short-format documentaries and TV episodes, Artbound audiences become programmers, curators and critics, helping us determine what is current and viable.
FABRIK: The comprehensiveness with which Artbound explores the cultural landscape of Southern California is astounding. Can you share a bit about the process by which the show enlists contributors and subjects to fill out the 9 disciplines being reported upon?
JD: Good criticism reveals layers of hidden meaning, allowing audiences to uncover the relationship a particular work of art has to place and community. A critic who doesn’t understand local connections, or can’t translate them legibly for their audience, is unable to explain how culture and the production of art is embedded in the daily life.
Variables such as the economy, access, transportation, and landscape—to name a few—have had an enormous impact on the development of the cultural life of Southern California. Journalists and writers who do not understand the implications of these variables often report as outsiders, practicing what I call: drive-by journalism.
With Artbound, we wanted to change this dynamic and provide a space for writers and cultural critics to report from within their communities and bring a focus back to local feature reporting.
Beyond writing a review and sharing an informed opinion, we asked our contributors to become “context providers” who create stories that are not an end to themselves but instead act as seeds for engagement in their own local communities and networks.
In Artbound, each article is rated and “reviewed” by the audience, the most popular weekly article goes head to head against the editor’s choice – the story that garners the most votes gets turned into a short format documentary that later migrates into Television.
Contributors are encouraged to mobilize their local communities to vote and support for the artists and stories of their region – allowing us to engage in a hyper-local level with the residents of the area. In a sense, Artbound contributors are engaging with the idea of access as central to their role as public intellectuals.
FABRIK: What do you feel prepared you in particular to spearhead a cutting edge experimental arts oriented program format such as the one you have been able to develop for Artbound?
JD: I grew up in Colombia surrounded by a family of artists, social workers and cowboy style DIY entrepreneurs; this gave me the tools to find connections between the public sector, the art world, and the pioneer spirit of my grandparents’ generation.
I have brought these three sensibilities to my work in film, television and new media, not only in terms of the content that I choose to produce, but the way in which it is presented.
The resourceful mindset of the Colombian, paired with the tools that I’ve been provided in the Unites States, have allowed me to propose a new economy or mode of production and engagement.
Although I appreciate traditional documentary and narrative work, I believe the process in which these works comes into being is often more interesting and relevant for an audience.
Instead of relying on a time based narrative – be it a film or a doc – to provide a point of view, why not maximize the hard work and money that goes into developing a story, by framing each step as an indispensable part of a larger narrative?
FABRIK: How has working with and producing ‘public media’ with KCET changed the way you experience Los Angeles?
JD: I discovered Los Angeles through public media and learned how to produce public media because of Los Angeles; they’ve had a yin and yang effect on each other; they are interchangeable.
After a bad hangover climbing LA’s entertainment ladder, I learned to find a place here in Los Angeles thanks to the tools that the practice of public media offered me. I have tried to get lost in the city and let its people and history lead me to a path back home. This personal journey of inquiry and curiosity is at the center of what I have been doing at KCET.
FABRIK: What aspects of this city continue to surprise you?
JD: Los Angeles is not an easy place to live – you can easily get lost here and never find your way back. I think we are still trying to understand what Los Angeles is, define it, contain it – but somehow it continues to slip out of our hands.
When you walk out on the street in New York or Bogota, the city is right in front of you – all of it – the good, the bad and the ugly. Here in Los Angeles, you open the door and find yourself…. with yourself. That is what makes Los Angeles so fascinating – at least for me. It is a very introspective megalopolis with a series of multi-ethnic villages that never seem to stop.
I think that that sense of solitude and at times isolation has created the perfect environment for some of the most extraordinary community expressions and art practices to emerge in the last 50 years.
FABRIK: Who are some local artists you have discovered in the process of working on this series and what in particular about their work affects or interests you? What within the Southern California arts landscape do you hope to influence with the show Artbound?
JD: The fascinating part of all this process is that we have been able to discover great artists thanks to the breath and variety of contributors that we have and to the amazing work that our Managing Editor Drew Tewksbury has done to help shape and guide some of these stories.
Because of their geographic location and editorial perspective, each contributor has opened the door to a variety of artists, disciplines and perspectives that together contribute to create a larger story about Southern California’s cultural DNA.
One of the first columns of the series was penned by writer and artist Robbie Herbst, who wrote about the work of Michael Parker, a public practice sculptor who created a steam room in the shape of an disco-ball-egg (The Steam Egg) and the steam seasons that accompanied it creating a sort of living sculpture. We convinced Parker to hold a steam session for one of our video segments and he invited a group of friends along with a herbj and dj. In the morning we went foraging with the herbj in the hills of Highland Park and later that night, communed with artists and poets during a steam session in the middle of downtown Los Angeles.
Lilledeshan Bose, a contributor from the OC, wrote a fascinating article about a community ran exhibition — ART WITH AN AGENDA — honoring the murder of Kelley Thomas in the city of Fullerton. People from all ages and walks of life contributed to the exhibit with over 80 pieces condemning or examining the events of the murder. After meeting with the organizer Steve Baxter and listening to him explain the ethos of the exhibit, Bruce Dickson (video unit producer/director) agreed that the best way to approach this story was to hold a “town-hall” meeting about the role and purpose of art in the face of collective anger and loss. It was an emotional and relevant moment for us that signaled the role we could play in covering the arts and culture of Southern California.
Both of these stories encapsulate the editorial goals of Artbound; our public media practice is to explore the role that art has in our community and the ways in which people participate with it, both formally and informally.
Images: Courtesy ArtBound and KCET