On Location: Inside Art Documentary Production

Live Jitters, Mendocino Film Festival, and Real Art

Howdy y’all.  First a little news from Art21 production HQ.  After a successful shoot in London (expect an Exclusive on Season 5 artist Yinka Shonibare’s just-unveiled Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle work, installed on Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth, soon), we’re completely battle stations for a shoot that’s totally new for us and a little scary for me – a talk with Art21 artists Laurie Simmons and Oliver Herring, moderated by Robert MacNeil (of MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour fame) that will be streamed LIVE at 8PM on Wednesday June 23, 2010.  That’s right, LIVE.  A first for any Art21 production.  And that’s the scary part.  Three cameras and roll-in video, a big old switcher and soundboard, lotsa cables, a ten-person crew, and yours truly will be directing.  Please pass along any suggestions for calming my nerves and please check out the cool mini-site that Art21 web guru Jonathan Munar has built for the event, The Present Perfect with Art21.  There’s some new Oliver- and Laurie-related videos and a great opportunity for users to submit their own Oliver Herring-inspired dance video; select submissions may be screened and streamed at the event!

Mendocino, CA. Photo: Nick Ravich

In other news, I just got back from a really, really nice time representing Art21 at the 2010 Mendocino Film Festival in crushingly beautiful Mendocino, CA.  Contrary to usual festival practice, the programmers at Mendocino, lead by Pat Ferrero, paired individual Season 5 segments – as opposed to full hour episodes — with other related-documentary and narrative pieces.  Our Jeff Koons segment screened with The Great Contemporary Art Bubble (2009); Kimsooja with the 2010 Peabody Award-winning doc on contemporary origami Between the Folds; Julie Mehretu with the extremely charming 2009 Oscar documentary short winning Rabbit a la Berlin.  Probably the most entertaining, certainly the most clashing pairing was the Koons.  The Great Contemporary Art Bubble is an unashamed piece of arts muckraking in the Michael Moore vein:  a funny, snarky, easily-offended, at times breathtakingly unfair introduction and tour of the contemporary art market, led by British critic Ben Lewis.  It very effectively picks off certain high-profile contemporary art sales – visually presenting them as deck of cards, a not so subtle gambling metaphor – to construct a narrative of the aughts art market’s rise.  And Jeff Koons is of course name-checked.


The other treat of the festival was a surprise Sunday AM screening of renowned cinematographer and director Haskell Wexler’s now legendary documentary/fiction hybrid Medium Cool (1969).  Haskell was being honored with an Excellence in Documentary Filmmaking award.  I’ve been meaning to see the film for a long time, waiting for an opportunity with a live audience, and finally got it.  My first reaction:  it’s incredibly beautifully, skillfully shot (I suppose that’s to be expected from cinematographer who shot In the Heat of the Night and the original The Thomas Crown Affair.)  My second reaction:  how high was he when he made this?  Honestly, it’s such a crazy, unexpected mix of straight up scripted-canned narrative, traditional documentary footage, and then a lot of intriguing stuff that falls in between.  Big city cameraman falling for Appalachian single mother, 1968 Democratic national convention demonstrations, and a romantic night at the roller derby all co-exist in the same movie.  Third reaction:  I wish it was 1969 again, and Paramount Pictures was insecure enough about its own sense of what popular audiences wanted that they’d nationally release something that’s so wild and explicitly about the film medium itself.  For a little time capsule experience, check out Vincent Canby’s original New York Times review.  And to see how Paramount tried to sell it, see the below trailer:


Now there’s a couple of upcoming screenings – one “real,” one virtual, both very accessible – that I need to point you to.

First up is what I know I (and you) have been not so secretly craving for some time.  And that’s Bravo’s and Executive Producer Sarah Jessica Parker’s Work of Art:  The Next Great Artist, the first (and I’m guessing probably last) competition-based reality show featuring contemporary artists.  As a gauge of audience anticipation, check out the some of the very amusing “OMG it’s coming and I don’t have cable yet” comments in this Art Fag City post from April.

And then there were fourteen. Cast and judges of Bravo's "Work of Art: The Next Great Artist." Courtesy Bravo.

Fighting some deeply contradictory impulses to both dish and critique (I’m both a closeted fan of Bravo’s brand of reality programming and someone who works for a production that grapples with the thorny issues around presenting contemporary art to a mass audience), I just can’t resist this unique, awkward, totally ephemeral melding of fine arts and pop culture entertainment.  The premiere character-introducing episode just aired last Wednesday, June 9, so I’m going to resist reviewing and/or cheerleading for now but expect future blogs posts to dig deep.  But you can check out artist Ross Bleckner’s blog post on The Daily Beast; it’s typical of the predictably negative post-premiere reactions.  His best paragraph:

The critic Jerry Saltz makes the only intelligent comment of the show when he says, “Art is a way of showing to the outside what’s on the inside.” And the camera seems to like him. His body language and facial expressions best expressed the feelings I had while watching the show: a mixture of pain and curiosity, a sort of “I want it/I don’t want it/I am here/get me the hell out of here/I’ll go through with this/I can’t believe I am doing this/oh well—they asked me/I’ll have a good laugh because it’s all in good fun,” a panoply of feelings and thoughts that ended somewhere around here: “I’ll take the 15 minutes because tomorrow it will be off the air.

Now to the polar opposite.  A very impressively resourced and designed arts video-centric website went online recently, MADE HERE:  Performing Artist on Work and Life in New York City, that’s actually has something to do with reality and contemporary artists.  Here’s how their site describes their project:

MADE HERE is a documentary series and website focusing on the challenging and eclectic lives of New York City performing artists. Over two seasons, the series explores ten essential issues confronting the artists that make this city the creative capital of the world. A collage of intimate interviews, performances and behind-the-scenes footage, MADE HERE mirrors the rich diversity of the artists and communities they serve.

What I like about the site, from my self-obsessed Art21 p.o.v., is how they’ve really decided to focus on just those things we don’t typically don’t talk about in our broadcast shows – the difficult, practical, everyday existence of artists outside their studios.  MADE HERE is really creating a kind of how-to-live-as-a-New York artist video manual.  This video is a particularly fun one on day jobs.  Elizabeth Streb is an expert donut-maker — who knew?

Lastly, I know Jon Stewart likes to close his show with a moment of Zen.  So in the spirit of Haskell Wexler and 1969 and never having to stay on topic, here’s my moment, courtesy of a friend’s hot tub and the totally cool macro function of that new pink-plated pocket video camera – affectionately dubbed “Chanel” – that I mentioned in my last post.