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Ten Seasons of Evolution and Revolution on 'Artbound'

"The Circle of Land and Sky" by Phillip K Smith III | Still from Desert X AB s9
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In 2012, the word was spreading through L.A. culture circles about a brand-new series coming out of KCET called “Artbound.” They were looking for contributors and story ideas to populate, as they explained it, a “transmedia” cross-platform cultural program that would invert the art-based content distribution system and expand the geographic range of SoCal art journalism. It was to be the first original program from KCET following its split from the PBS mothership, and while it required some explaining and grassroots evangelism back then, it wasn’t long before “Artbound” started winning hearts, minds, audiences and awards. Through nine game-changing seasons, the program has reinvented itself and its place in the local and national art conversation several times over — including now, as it drops Season 10 across all the channels in the newly reunited KCET/PBS SoCal merger.

Original imagery for "Artbound" circa 2012.

From the beginning, the DNA of “Artbound” has been about democratization, not only in terms of access to more contemporary arts-based programs but about diversifying that content itself in meaningful ways. Everyone working with Executive Producer Juan Devis (now the Chief Creative Officer of KCET/PBS SoCal), really saw “Artbound” as a truly new platform for Southern California cultural journalists, artists, filmmakers — anyone who had a story to tell.

In some sense, it was about bringing what might be considered highbrow art down to earth to meet audiences at their own level and bring more people into the conversation. But it was also very much about elevating the level of care and attention paid to what already exists in communities all over the region. It’s able to bridge high and low by defining art more broadly, taking in a wide variety of disciplines and art practices across dance, design, performance art, video, music, architecture, fashion, food, literature and activism. And rather than just look at Los Angeles city proper, “Artbound” went across 11 counties and showed the world the stories from the Inland Empire to Santa Barbara, the Mojave to the border with Mexico; and within Los Angeles even, it was imperative to get out of Silver Lake and Venice and into Watts, Inglewood, East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights, Chinatown, Coachella and Tijuana.

My own first story was about Palm Springs and the cult of architectural restoration. This was in many ways the most interesting part of the idea — the geographical expansion, the locating of stories far outside the hipster core of the city of L.A. itself, and thus deep into other perspectives on art and history. Devis is especially proud of that aspect of “Artbound,” its geographical purview. “Those first couple of years were really beautiful,” he says. “We went to 11 counties and surrounding regions of L.A. County to Imperial County, Inyo, Joshua Tree, Tijuana, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara,” he says, as well as Ojai, Rosemead, Irvine — everywhere. “That geographical diversity went way beyond what might be trending in L.A.”

Palm Springs Villager.
Palm Springs Villager cover | Courtesy of Hacienda Hot Springs Inn

Contributors like Osceola Refetoff and Christopher Langley — better known as the duo of High & Dry — could not agree more. The focus of their Works Progress Administration-inspired writer/director collaboration is the culture mythology and historical land use and resource infrastructure of the California desert. “Our range of inquiry stretches across the Mojave to as far north as Bishop and east past Thermal, and was a perfect fit with [the show’s] commitment to covering stories from across Southern California,” says Refetoff. He’s the photographer half. “Our first dispatch for the program was ‘William 'Burro' Schmidt and His Tunnel to Nowhere about an eccentric gold prospector who endured 32 years of stubborn human perseverance, creating a fascinating legacy in a desolate place called Last Chance Canyon.”

They’ve been on “Artbound” since High & Dry's inception, publishing over 30 "desert dispatches" since 2014, but perhaps it’s been 2018’s “Land Artifacts: A Didactic of Ruins" that represents the pinnacle of what the show has meant to them. “The project incorporates not only words and infrared photographs,” Refetoff says, “but also a KCET-produced video segment featured in conjunction with our exhibition of the same name at the Museum of Art and History in Lancaster. It really brought the whole thing full circle.” But we can’t leave out their story “A Glimpse of Another America" exploring economic challenges in the town of Mojave, California, which earned 2018 Los Angeles Press Club honors for Activism Journalism, Best Photo Series, and Photojournalist of the Year.

Kim Stringfellow also began a profound and enduring relationship with “Artbound” via a project she had independently begun, taking a deep dive on something across a far horizon, before a multi-year, ongoing collaboration took root and blossomed. “’Artbound’ is the cultural conversation for Los Angeles. Period,” she says. Her first story was an excerpt from her book “Jackrabbit Homestead,” which had been published in 2009. “Juan thought that it would be a great story for ‘Artbound’ so we used the preface,” she says. “The second piece I wrote was actually an interview with my painter friend Jesse Wiedel. He lives up in Arcata but has painted a lot of crazy desert imagery — stuff I find similarly interesting to photograph at the Salton Sea and other largely overlooked places. He paints strange visions of Christ-like meth addicts ascending out of abandoned trailers and local Joshua Tree personalities like Shari Elf, known as Joshua Tree’s Art Queen.”

Later, Stringfellow came to be known for her “field dispatches” on topics from the Mojave Desert. “The Mojave Project,” which is a multi-year series, already includes over 30 pieces on a variety of topics and themes. The goal is to complete 48 to 50 dispatches, so she figures she has about a year and a half to go. “I’m obsessed with the Devils Hole stories,” she recalls. “This was actually a difficult one for me to research and write because there is so much science to grasp plus all of the interconnective storylines.” Stringfellow is particularly proud of this two-part series, “Divining Devils Hole and “Devils Hole Simulacra,” but also recalls how remarkable it was to interview Marta Becket of the Amargosa Opera House. “I had seen her dance at the opera house during the mid-1990s there, so I really wanted her to be included in Mojave Project,” Stringfellow says. “I was tickled that she agreed to be interviewed. She passed not long after, so I feel honored to have spent quality time with her.”

Oliver Wang’s first story for “Artbound” was about the Fung brothers who moved down to the San Gabriel Valley from the Seattle area in the early 2010s and became instant apostles of a “626/SGV” youth identity bound mostly to the area’s bounty of Asian cuisine. “As someone who grew up in the SGV in the 1980s — back then, we were the 818 — it’s been fascinating to see a younger generation embrace being from the region in a way that I don’t ever recall existing,” says Wang. “I’ve certainly written quite a bit about music and musicians, but what I’ve appreciated about ‘Artbound’ have been the opportunities to delve into other topics including velvet painting museums, kung fu movie posters and historic roller-rinks.

“There are so many pieces that I’m proud of,” Wang continues. “Among my earliest ones, I really loved being able to write about the oddity of the CityWalk mall in Universal Studios which, in true Hollywood/Disneyland fashion, is a shopping center designed around a faux city block. It’s very much an artifact of 1990s L.A. In terms of more recent pieces, I loved writing about the honey man of El Sereno, who is this nonagenarian I would always see selling honey outside his house on Huntington Drive. I finally roped in my friend and colleague José Anguiano to interview him and learn about what it’s like to be a third generation apiarist who’s been raising bees in El Sereno for the past seventy years!”

Speaking of which, Wang has been researching the social history of Japanese American car culture in Southern California and tapes a podcast, Heat Rocks, where he and co-host Morgan Rhodes interview people about their favorite albums. “These are the kind of Los Angeles stories that I never tire of,” he says. “We are such a rich area for arts and culture, with so many overlapping communities and histories and I appreciate how ‘Artbound’ doesn’t try to flatten all that complexity into simplistic themes or tropes. The series is comprised of all these snapshots that, added together, form this chaotic but beautiful mosaic.”

Drew Tewksbury, the original Managing Editor of the program, who together with Devis set about assembling a team and building the idea, remembers it the same way, recalling, “As I was searching for stories and writers, I thought about Studs Terkel's "Working" series, Béla Bartók's recordings of Hungarian folk music, or Jonathan Gold's deep coverage of L.A.'s communities through the lens of food. I thought, ‘Could we do the same with arts journalism?’”

The eclecticism of those early seasons is hard to overstate. Transmedia was the buzzword, and the concept was to use the internet to drive content and involve the audience, to gather rather than simply broadcast. People had blogs and increasingly vlogs, but the two worlds had not yet merged as they have now. Changes in film production technology at the time also began to get cheaper and more agile. At the time, KCET already had Departures, a multi-disciplinary look into Southern California explored through both text, video and community engagement, so you could also see some precursors of what was already happening at KCET, but the station had yet to arrive at its crossroads.

This came on the heels of the station’s announcement that it would be leaving the PBS system, sparking a period of soul searching as to what would be the best way in which an independent television station could best serve the Los Angeles audience. Devis looked at that landscape and saw that there was a gap that KCET could fill, by producing original content — and more specifically, by taking advantage of new technologies in both production and distribution — it could shine a light on art and culture in Southern California in a whole new way.

Tewksbury elaborates how he and the team considered “Artbound” to be “a journal of curiosity, where every article was based on a few main questions: Will this spark a sense of wonder about the world? Will it create empathy or a new way to understand our region? Are we giving voice to those who feel voiceless? As the person recruiting statewide writers, assigning and editing all of our hundreds of articles over those four years, the experience forever changed the way I saw California: A boring South L.A. intersection was where performance artists once staged reenactments of the L.A. Riots; an anonymous downtown building housed a disco-ball steam sauna; a non-descript Inyo County off-ramp led to a 5,000-year-old forest. Once you start looking for it, you begin to see art everywhere.”

James Daichendt’s elevation of urban craft and street art at “Artbound” was centered around what the author calls, “the importance of murals, street art and public work that strives to make a difference socially and politically.” For example, he says, “one my favorites was a feature on Vernon Courtlandt Johnson, the artist behind the iconic designs for Powell Peralta Skateboards. My piece on El Mac was another memorable one, but this last piece was my favorite title: Art Basel: It’s Wonderfully Terrible.”

Larger than life, the work of Miles "Mac" MacGregor uses the streets as a way to continue the tradition of portraiture. Learn more about him on this video.

Rubén Martinez’s stories were also integral to the character of the show, such as the multi-layered, multi-ethnic history of L.A.'s Olvera Street seen through song and dance, which was featured in the show’s ninth season. Martinez was also able to publish a few chapters of his book “Desert America” on the site. And Lilledeshan Bose had a breakout story on the Hijabistas, Muslim women who put fashion into the hijab, which was featured during the first season.

In those early years, commissioned articles would first be published online. The most popular articles would then be paired off with another article chosen by the team at “Artbound” and would undergo a public voting process. The winning article would be turned into a short documentary. Five of these shorts would then be grouped into a televised episode, in each case capped off by an in-studio musical performance — a feature so popular it spun off into its own show, Studio A. By the end of the first season, they had made 15 short documentaries in about eight months, a grueling pace.

“Our content was raw, unpolished and unfiltered,” says Tewksbury. “And it was real. It soon became clear that this was as punk as public media would ever get. Sandwiched between British detective dramas and reruns of Huell Howser, we'd showcase Muslim fashion designers, experimental opera, artists who make watercolor portraits of military installations.”

Not only did writers covering off-the-beaten-path-communities find a platform for their stories with “Artbound,” so did young filmmakers looking to up the ante on their work, such as Stephen Pagano, Joris Debeij, and Christine Yuan. A lot of what “Artbound” produced in that time was made with filmmakers who had perhaps only directed one or two things previously. Consequently, their work with “Artbound” became a cornerstone of what they would build their production companies on. By the end of the second season, “Artbound” had realized six hour-long documentaries and 38 short documentaries.

During Seasons 3 to 5, “Artbound” really began its first excursions into deeper-dive storytelling. Projects like AgH20 and 100 Mules project with Lauren Bon were irresistible because of just how ambitious and unique her vision was. Bon’s project was to commemorate the entire stretch of the L.A. Aqueduct in its 100th anniversary and everything that says about Los Angeles, from ethnographic history to environment and urban development. The second such experiment was “Invisible Cities,” a futuristic opera set in Union Station, done in collaboration with The Industry. It won KCET one of several Emmys. Eventually, more and more hour-long documentaries appear throughout the seasons, and by Season 8, all episodes became single subject or curated topic documentaries. The show’s success also paved the way for some innovative partnerships with arts institutions such as MOCA, as well as with Otis College and the Southwest Museum.

Bruce Dickson, an award-winning filmmaker in his own right, was responsible for a large number of these stories being translated into televised short-form documentaries, starting with Bose’s Hijabistas story. “My company and I co-produced the visual/short-form documentary component of the series with KCET, and I directed all of the videos for the first few years,” says Dickson. “I wish I could have done more, with so much great material to choose from!”

There was the time he went and shot semi-automatic weapons into bespoke fashion with designer Victor Wilde. But besides the show’s pilot episode piece on the The Date Farmers, “I truly think my favorite ‘Artbound’ is our Gary Baseman story. “The Door is Always Open, for me (and maybe Juan [Devis] too) personifies what we were trying to do with this series he had created,” says Dickson. “Art is always personal and inherently political. This is what I think Juan and I were trying capture in the short form documentaries. The importance of artists, art and their impact on society.”

Dickson’s “Wexler on Wexler” had the late architect Donald Wexler’s final television interview, and the “Borderlands” series won an Emmy for its powerful collection of stories about life along the U.S.-Mexico border. And finally Dickson says that “100 Mules” is probably his “most accomplished work of the ‘Artbound’ series. I think Lauren Bon will be someone who people will be talking about in 100 years, not only here in L.A. but globally, and how her work helped shape a better, more sustainable future.”   

Devis is also thinking about the long haul and legacy of the show, and explains how “Artbound” has also become a library of programming that, thanks to KCET’s merger with PBS SoCal and re-entry to a national PBS network, will mean the whole series is available and currently playing on many PBS channels nationwide. “Stories of the west are everyone’s obsession right now,” says Devis, “but you don’t see them nationally too much. That’s changing in large part because of ‘Artbound,’” he says, and “Artbound” in turn is changing with the times.

“The whole media environment has been in flux,” Devis notes. “Once we figure it out, it changes again!” Though they’ve won innumerable Emmys since their first for “Invisible Cities, and have gone on to garner many more awards from the Los Angeles Press Club, Webbys, and so on. The continuum of original videos, the approach to episode assembly and the different needs for short media and deeper dives is always being honed. “In Season 10 there’s an episode on four Japanese American designers — including Ruth Asawa and Isamu Noguchi, who were also held at the internment camps. How can you tell that story in eight minutes?” Devis says.” Ten seasons ago, streaming was not what it is today, with Netflix and everything else. Online video no longer has to mean it’s short. Documentary and serialized, episodic TV has been reinvigorated across the media landscape.”

The filmmakers from Dignicraft have been part of a team producing stories for “Artbound” since pretty much the start. Their first story for the show was the short film “Pasajes” about the role of artists to re-imagine and transform the downtown area of Tijuana after a wave of violence desolated the city. “Pasajes” later formed part of the episode “Borderlands” which won a 2016 Los Angeles Area Emmy Award.

Explore arts along the U.S.-Mexico border in this Emmy-award winning episode of "Artbound." Watch now.

Ana Paola Rodríguez, José Luis Figueroa, Araceli Blancarte, David Figueroa, Blanca O. España and Omar Foglio have been working as the collective Dignicraft for almost 20 years. “As Dignicraft,” says Foglio, “our focus at ‘Artbound’ has been to bring our experience and sensibility to issues that need to be addressed and that we are passionate about, generally revolving around the connections between migration, tradition and artistic practice, the relationship between high art and crafts; and the role of the Chicano, Mexican American and indigenous communities in shaping Los Angeles.”

Every story has been, says Foglio, “a great, one-of-a-kind experience. For instance, “Fotoperiodista: Documenting Tijuana's Refugee Crisis” gave us the opportunity to respond to the humanitarian crisis of 2016 sparked by the thousands of Haitians that got stranded in Tijuana while seeking refuge in the United States, and then organizing a big screening event, panel discussion and Haitian food dinner in the Centro Cultural Tijuana that turned out to be the first public welcoming event for the new community of Haitians that decided to make this border city their new home. Another example was the time we did ‘Artesanos / Artisans,’ tapping into what seems to be a network of brilliant craftspeople to highlight the artisans from South Central, the City of Commerce or Lynwood, who are helping make Los Angeles the creative capital of the world but remain as if they were living in the shadows, regardless of their fine work being sold for thousands of dollars in areas like Santa Monica, Brentwood or Pasadena. So our favorite ‘Artbound’ story is usually the one we are currently working on.”

For the 10th season, Dignicraft worked on the episode dedicated to the Day of the Dead celebration, for which they traveled to Mexico with Master Altar Maker Ofelia Esparza and Rosanna Esparza Ahrens. They also spent time with the Flores-Marcial family from the Zapotec community of Los Angeles, to learn how they maintain this tradition while being far from their place of origin, and explored the role of Self Help Graphics & Art since the early 1970s to introduce this celebration to East L.A. and greater Los Angeles.

And that vibrant episode on Día de los Muertos is just one of the five hour-long episodes that make Season 10 so special. A look at the Japanese American artists whose works came to define midcentury modernism in America, through the lens of their time in the internment camps; a biography of design and business matriarch Edith Heath of Heath Ceramics and the birth of true California style; a moving, heartbreakingly gorgeous history of Gospel music and Los Angeles’s role in its growth, as well as the activism that grew from it; and finally a portrait of iconic, mercurial, and sometimes controversial contemporary art dealer Jeffrey Deitch via an in-depth fly-on-the-wall documentary, which is unexpectedly candid, witty and eye-opening.

 “I’m so proud of this season!” says Devis. “It truly is why ‘Artbound’ was invented.”

Start watchin the tenth season of "Artbound" S10 E1: Masters of Modern Design: The Art of the Japanese. Watch now.

Top Image: "The Circle of Land and Sky" by Phillip K Smith III | Still from "Artbound" Desert X.

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