In a DJ booth above a strip mall pho restaurant in Chinatown, Johnnie JungleGuts and Brent Freaney are reviewing comic books during their weekly show on radio station KChung 1630 AM. It's a Wednesday night in July and the third-floor studio is stifling hot. On the other side of the sliding glass doors, DJs are still mourning an electronic keyboard whose keys recently broke when the window fan toppled onto it.
The keyboard is only the latest piece of equipment that needs to be replaced, upgraded or fixed. With about 100 volunteer DJs regularly using KChung's communal broadcasting equipment, there's an endless need to replace headphones, turntable needles and speakers, not to mention the 9-year-old Mac computer from which the station archives its Internet broadcasts. Basic expenses like rent and utilities are paid for by monthly dues asked of every volunteer DJ.
"I was here for a budget meeting two weeks ago and basically it was two hours long, and they were like, 'If we won this award, we would not be having these worries,' " JungleGuts, 27, says during a break from his half-hour show. The award to which he's referring is the Public Recognition Award at the Hammer Museum's "Made in L.A." biennial, for which KChung was chosen as one of 35 participating artists.
During the inaugural "Made in L.A." exhibition in 2012, the Hammer introduced the controversial $100,000 Mohn Award, which had a jury narrow the field to five finalists, with visitors voting on the winner. Artists criticized it as a popularity contest that provoked competition rather than camaraderie. This year, the museum responded by splitting one award into three. Two are juried: the $100,000 Mohn Award and the $25,000 Career Achievement Award. But the $25,00 Public Recognition Award is decided by visitors' votes — which is why KChung believes it might actually have a shot at winning.
The radio station has always been favored by art museums: One of its first shows was broadcast from LACMA, it has DJ'd at MOCA and it recently completed a Hammer residency. But KChung members see themselves as underdogs.
"Everybody else really wants to win the other awards," says Freaney, JungleGuts' boyfriend and radio co-host. "KChung is like, 'We're probably not going to win those other awards. But this one is a possibility.' " KChung has far more members than any other single artist or collective in Made in L.A. More people could translate to more votes. "If we win, it's like, 'Sorry, get better rules.' "
But in order to win, KChung's members must convince the public to vote for their "Made in L.A." project, KChung TV, an experimental Internet television show broadcast from the lobby of the Hammer Museum every weekend of the exhibition, through Sept. 7.
JungleGuts has single-handedly taken on the cause with an aggressive social media campaign. His Tumblr, Get Money KChung, is loaded with popular GIFs, memes, Instagram photos and Vine videos that have been repurposed to promote KChung. One photo shows Tom Hanks and his family anxiously watching the World Cup with the caption "Is KChung going to win?" Several posts appropriate the language of Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign, while one post just says, "Seriously I want KChung to get that money."
JungleGuts also created a Facebook page for a Masturbate-a-thon, to which 81 people RSVP'd to masturbate on June 26 while thinking about KChung. The event was a nod to comic book author Grant Morrison, who once asked his fans to masturbate in order to increase comic book sales.
JungleGuts' efforts could be considered part of his art practice, which examines advertising through performance and social media. Previously he participated in the Eternal Telethon, an infomercial-style Internet broadcast to raise money for artist retirement homes near the Salton Sea, and hosted an Open Drawing Night in which artists were instructed to create fliers promoting Open Drawing Night.
Michael Ned Holte, who curated the "Made in L.A." exhibition along with Hammer chief curator Connie Butler, says there's no museum policy that prohibits campaigning for the Public Recognition Award. "I think in general it's best to let the work speak for itself, but that's just my opinion," Holte says.
Members of KChung are quick to point out that they have nothing to do with JungleGuts' solo campaign, which has the potential to alienate artists and viewers alike. But KChung is a nonhierarchal co-op, and one of its few policies prohibits censorship of other DJs.
"I think the concern would be that this kind of over-the-top spoof, promotional thing, would deter some people from voting," says Luke Fischbeck, the station's self-appointed treasurer. His job? "Telling people they can't spend any money." He's also a KChung co-founder, along with graphic designer Harsh Patel and artist Solomon Bothwell, who bought the station's one and only transmitter in 2011.
But some artists praise JungleGuts' project precisely because it addresses a taboo subject. "There was so much controversy around the [award] two years ago, and I haven't really heard anyone talk about it [this year]," says Jennifer Moon, KChung's communications and scheduling wizard (her chosen title). "It's almost shameful to want it." In addition to serving on KChung TV's production crew, Moon is participating in the biennial as a solo artist, along with Patel and at least 10 other KChung-connected "Made in L.A." artists.
"People in the art world, and I totally understand, they maybe like to keep their opinions a little more private because of relationships between art and institutions. They don't like to get out there and showboat in the way that I do," says JungleGuts, whose pseudonym refers to the amoebic dysentery he contracted while working for a wildlife conservation agency in South America.
It's uncertain whether JungleGuts' project will translate into votes. But Chrysanthe Oltmann — a comedian who runs the KChung show Fallopian Utopia and the KChung TV show Vajammin at the Hammer — says it serves a greater purpose: encouraging KChung's fans, who are primarily on the east side of town, to visit the museum. "I see it as trying to get your friends out to Westwood," she says. "It doesn't sound that hard, but it is kind of hard."
On that front, the project may be having an effect. According to the Hammer, the number of votes cast so far this year has already far surpassed the last show's total of approximately 3,000 votes in 2012. This year's voting period ends Aug. 17.
In the meantime, KChung members have been fantasizing about how they'd spend the $25,000 if they were to win the Public Recognition Award. Back in the KChung studio, JungleGuts and Freaney's show has ended and a new pair of DJs wanders in looking to get equipment training before the start of their first show. On the couches next to the DJ booth, a few KChung members decide that if they won the award, the first thing they'd buy is more transmitters to extend their low-powered AM radio signal to all of Chinatown, rather than just the square mile it currently covers.
Oltmann dreams of starting a training program and setting up syndicated KChung stations all over the world. There's also talk of starting a KChung music festival, a KChung museum and a KChung artist residency.
"We could get a billboard!" Oltmann shouts.
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"We could have a newsstand!" adds Fischbeck, the treasurer.
"We could get a helicopter!" Oltmann suggests.
But for now, KChung could really use some air conditioning and a decent computer. Maybe some day they'll even fix that broken keyboard.