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American Idol Meets Arts Journalism, in KCET's Artbound

The "steam egg"
The "steam egg"
Photo by Michael Parker

Ever been inside a disco ball-esque "steam egg" with a bunch of sweaty, half-naked strangers? Talked to Filipino inmates who wrote, directed and starred in their own musical, filmed within prison walls (and that went viral with more 50 million YouTube views)?

Writers for KCET's new arts journalism initiative Artbound have. This project, still in its nascent stages, aims to bring attention to Southern California's cultural and artistic scene across 11 counties, providing in-depth criticism and analysis and by taking a "transmedia" approach, incorporating multiple platforms like video and photography in the telling of a single story.

Artbound launched its website Monday with pieces produced by Southern California cultural critics and columnists on topics ranging from the aforementioned steam egg to nonprofit beer-making. It is receiving funding from the Los Angeles County Arts Commission and the city's Department of Cultural Affairs.

What's perhaps most novel about Artbound is that it asks online readers to comment on and vote for their favorite pieces so that (wait for it) the most popular stories can be turned into short documentaries that then will air on TV as part of a mini-series. This blending of platforms amps up the current hot trend of local, participatory journalism.

According to executive producer Juan Devis, each week Artbound will publish between 17 and 20 articles, and viewers will vote for their favorite piece. Every six weeks or so, KCET will produce four to six short films based on whichever stories generated the most reader interest (measured by social media activity and votes).

Artbound's new online home -- as part of KCET's website -- is sleek and easy to navigate. Visitors can explore by county (the list includes Imperial, Inyo, Kern, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura) or search for their favorite columnists.

On its first day, Devis says the site received 6,000 to 7,000 views, but he adds that Artbound is eschewing billboard and bus-sign marketing, instead taking a homegrown approach to attracting readers, borne of the one-on-one personal encounters that dominate social interaction.

Screenshot from "Prisoner Dancer," a musical created by Filipino prison inmates
Screenshot from "Prisoner Dancer," a musical created by Filipino prison inmates
Artbound

Hyperlocalization is at the core of Artbound."I don't believe in drive-by journalism, where you go and take the story and then you leave and you're done," says Devis. "Columnists are embedded in the communities they write about. They're interviewing their peers and building a story together, rather than having, say, an L.A. journalist visit Kern County and have an underlying urban commentary to the whole piece."

Not long ago, Devis met with a possible funder who asked him if San Diego and Kern (two counties Artbound covers) were "boring" places to write about, to which Devis emphatically responded that the opposite was true. By drawing attention to more rural areas, the project seeks to give a fairer, more realistic portrayal of how artistic ideas germinate, spread and influence. It flattens the playing field, as opposed to positioning Los Angeles -- or even urban spaces in general -- as emblematic of the entire Southern California arts and culture scene. "There's something hugely vast that has informed who we are as people here," Devis says. "The conversation about who we are comes not only from L.A., it comes from the high desert, the beach culture in Santa Barbara. It comes from the more folky, more craft-y, spiritual space of San Luis Obispo."

"Black Water" by Coachella Valley art duo Date Farmers
"Black Water" by Coachella Valley art duo Date Farmers
Courtesy of the Date Farmers

Recently, critics and nonprofit executives have cast doubts on KCET's ability to survive as one of the few independent public television stations after it let go of its PBS affiliation more than a year ago. One of KCET's partners, Eyetronics, was revealed, in a Los Angeles Times article published today, to have some unsettling financial problems.

Does any of that bear on Artbound? "I think that this is the part of the story that the L.A. Times doesn't want to see: the fact that KCET is trying really different ways to create a new kind of content," Devis says. "[The Times] is so concentrated on the broadcast aspect that they're not seeing the other stuff going on at the station, that it's becoming an incubator of new ideas. Artbound is a perfect example of that. The structure is very innovative and public-minded. ... It's also a lot of fun to work on. We get to write feature-length stories, which are almost passe now."

At the same time, he doesn't deny the seriousness of the venture. Steady growth in online views needs to happen in order for KCET to call Artbound successful. Devis says Artbound's success would encourage investment in the next generation of KCET programming.

"There's a lot of pressure we have on our back to make this work, and to show results to our funders and to our audiences," says Devis, his excited voice growing sober for a moment. "We're not just doing this for the fun of it, we want to show that, actually, this is the way to do it."

Cerveza Tupac: Tactical Social Economy (2011) at Revolver Gallery, Lima
Cerveza Tupac: Tactical Social Economy (2011) at Revolver Gallery, Lima
Giuseppe De Bernardi

Artbound managing editor (and frequent L.A. Weekly contributor) Drew Tewksbury offered his top three story picks of the moment (in no particular order):

1. Caroline Ryder (another L.A. Weekly contributor)'s new piece "Meet the New Aquarians," which provides an in-depth look at the obscure "1970s mystical tribe" called the Source Family (or as Tewksbury calls them, a blurring of psychedelic commune, cult and band), as well as a nice collection of photos featuring hirsute, white-robed commune members.

2. Tewksbury's own multilayered piece "Date Farmers: Desert Detritus Becomes Chicano Pop Art" on the Coachella Valley art duo the Date Farmers, which includes a tightly shot, seven-and-a-half-minute mini-documentary.

3. Pilar Tompkins' "Nonprofit Beer? Cerveza as Art Project," which examines the surprising political and aesthetic origins of the home-brew beer Cerveza Tupac.

Follow Lenika Cruz on Twitter at @HappyLenika, and follow @LAWeeklyArts on Twitter and Facebook.


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