"I have 140 characters and a twit pic at my disposal," says a tall, gangly landlord named Petey Cruzer. He has just seen his tenant Benny with the wrong girl, and this is how he will slide his way into the dinner party Benny is throwing later with the right girl, Benny's girlfriend, Mercedes. This party, which will turn into an "intervention" into protagonist Jimmy Yukon's impulsive, love-addled life and then into a supernatural nightmare, is at the center of Feast of Burden, a film in 12 episodes. Filmmaker Eugene Kotlyarenko, who plays Jimmy, wrote and directed Feast of Burden, and Mieke Marple, who co-runs the open-only-after-dark Night Gallery with artist Davida Nemeroff, produced it. It screened at the Grand Avenue branch of MOCA on Oct. 18, and invitations said the event would be "a red-carpet-on-ecstasy affair," so guests should "dress accordingly."
The carpet, what MOCA's Emma Reeves called "a slightly theatrical bit of red," spanned the 10 feet or so from the main entrance to the southernmost outside wall. Before the show, a photographer wearing a baseball cap and backpack snapped photos of people who'd wandered onto it. Then, after the show, some cast members still in eveningwear dashed up to Grand Avenue to lay out swag — screen-printed Feast of Burden T-shirts priced at $20.
But the screening, with all its tongue-in-cheek fanfare, was more teaser than premiere. "Anything that happens at the museum, that's supplementary," says Marple of Feast, which will be released two episodes a week on MOCAtv, the museum's month-old YouTube channel, after the first six episodes debut, on Nov. 19. "Its real home is online."
At least in the world of museums, this sounds backward. Web presences tend to be supplements or promos, meant to lure people to where the art really is. MOCA's plan is to have a web presence that's a thing in itself, as relevant to people outside L.A. as to people here, appealing to a generation that practically lives online yet is still smart enough to pull in older, culture-savvy audiences.
Marple, Kotlyarenko and crew had already shot Feast of Burden when they met with Emma Reeves in May 2012, the same month Reeves moved from New York to L.A. to become MOCAtv's creative director. Reeves liked its energy, liked the script and liked the idea of working with Marple. She had heard about Night Gallery before moving here and visited it when she did. It was "fast and furious" and "making big noises in a little way," she says.
MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch liked the script, too, so MOCAtv agreed to fund postproduction, and Marple and Kotlyarenko agreed to license Feast exclusively to MOCA for the next 18 months, and nonexclusively after that. "It's a test of what it's like to be aligned with a series," Reeves says.
YouTube officially announced its "original channels initiative" in October 2011, promising made-for-YouTube content by a number of celebrity and media partners, who would share the ad revenue — Jay-Z launched a channel called Life and Times, for instance, and, before Lance Armstrong's doping fall from grace, his foundation launched a Livestrong fitness channel. Deitch (who has a strong interest in combining art with other media) and MOCA execs began talking with Google execs more than a year ago, the museum board's executive committee voted on it and, in January, MOCA became the first art museum to have an original YouTube channel.
MOCA, as both Deitch and Reeves have said, hopes YouTube will grow them a "global, digital" audience. YouTube hopes MOCAtv will help meet a demand for education content, says Caitlin Hendrickson, manager of YouTube's education partnerships. "Over the last year, subscribers to educational channels on YouTube doubled."
Other art museums have YouTube channels to which some of these education-hungry users likely subscribe. MoMA's often features interviews related to current shows. The Tate London's channel recently featured Karen Elson comparing her experience as a model to being a Pre-Raphaelite muse. In 2010, the Guggenheim Museum partnered with YouTube on YouTube Play to find "what's next" in digital art. Anyone could submit videos via YouTube, a jury that included the band Animal Collective and designer Stefan Sagmeister voted and 25 chosen ones were exhibited at the Guggenheims in New York, Bilbao, Venice and Berlin. You can still watch them all at youtube.com/playbiennial.
But like the rest, the Guggenheim mainly used YouTube to pull the attention of young and digitally-savvy viewers back to the museum. This has been the goal behind a number of museum initiatives and social media campaigns that straddle the boundary between exhibit and visitor relations. MOCA's recently ended Engagement Party program, which invited artist to stage one-night-only participatory events, had this goal, and the Hammer's Public Engagement program is similar. MOCAtv is doing what none of these programs has explicitly done — acknowledging that more people engage culture on the Internet than will ever step into any gallery, and making content just for them.
By the time Reeves arrived in Los Angeles, MOCAtv already had a general structure. There would be four verticals, some more conventional than others: MOCA U, featuring things like photographer Taryn Simon talking about her new MOCA show; the Artist's Studio, where artists discuss their work while making it; the Artist Video Projects, featuring often historical video art like Ilene Segalove's droll lowdown on puberty; and Art+Music, where musicians and artists collaborate. The psychedelic, space-themed collaboration between the band Death Grips and artist Galen Pehrson now has 74,000 views, and a Björk video launches Nov. 13, after a daylong preview at the Grand Avenue MOCA location on Nov. 12.
"You have to mix it up, and you have to have a balance," says Reeves, who, along with John Toba, develops all the content and tries to figure out what new programming might work. So far, the pair has introduced a fifth vertical, Curated By, where artists and creative personalities discuss YouTube videos they like while hyperlinked versions of those vids play in insets. They also brought in Feast of Burden, which belongs to no vertical, but, if it succeeds, would be their most important feat.
Feast of Burden happened quickly. Marple met filmmaker Kotlyarenko at a party last fall and he invited her to a December screening of 0s and 1s, the film he had worked on for just more than three years. In it, a guy loses his laptop and has to interrogate everyone he'd seen the night before. Each text message and email he sends and receives during the process appear on the screen, and the film has both a DIY rawness and almost-byzantine technical detail. "It was so experimental with its aesthetics, and playful," Marple says. "It wasn't perfect, but it didn't look like anything I'd seen in art or film."
She told him she'd like to produce his next project but thought it should be a web series. "Since I'd never done this, I thought it would be pretty foolhardy to make a movie," says Marple, who planned to bankroll the venture with her own savings under the name of the startup production company she's titled The Dungeon.
"Web series suck," Kotlyarenko says, recalling his initial skepticism. "They're mostly sketch comedy. They've explored such skim options. But then I thought, why are you being so pretentious? All the greatest books have been serialized" — books by Dickens, Dostoyevsky — "we just had to make the greatest web series ever."
That tension and catharsis you get from a good film had to happen in each episode, and the film had to happen in each episode, and the whole narrative had to have an organic flow.
Eventually, he decided on a premise that would require just one main set: a dinner party that guests are unable to leave. When he remembered this had been done, by Luis Buuel in the 1962 film The Exterminating Angel he last saw as a 12-year-old, he opted to do something of a remake, relying only on vague memories. He used David Lynch's eccentric crime drama, Twin Peaks, as a model, too, though he hadn't seen it.
Shot in Marple's Silver Lake apartment and cast mostly with non-actors with magnetic personalities Kotlyarenko had met around L.A., Feast of Burden is part surreal and part comically, cosmically creepy. It's also supersaturated, with dinner courses that have the colors of cartoon candy. Episodes last for less than three minutes, and each pivots on its own fantastic drama. A girl has to knock out a topless, homeless man with breasts to get to the party, or one guest confronts another, who has a web cam hidden in her neck brace.
"Sometimes art gets a little lost in its limitlessness," Marple says. "But entertainment limits structure."
If you know you have to grab the attention of an online audience, you have to fall back on narrative tropes pop culture has made familiar (just, hopefully, not the sort of instant-gratification gags — one-liners, cute kittens — that take off on YouTube).
"We'll promote it and we have a social media plan around it," Reeves says of Feast. "But you can't say 'this is going to be a hit.' "
But if it is even a modest one, it will help MOCAtv open a door for filmmakers and artists who have limited resources but smart, experimental ideas for the web.
As Marple says, "Not everyone wants to make viral content."
MOCAtv is at YouTube.com/MOCAtv.