On Location: Inside Art Documentary Production

On Location: Filming Art21 Educators in Southern California

In our new column, On Location, Art21 Director of Production Nick Ravich breaks his silence and gives you the scoop on Art21’s production comings and goings including, among other things, straight-from-the-set reports on recent shoots and some (hopefully) enlightening discussions on those areas where television production and contemporary art collide. And if we’re lucky, Nick will expand his column to include some non-Art21 related musings, reviews, interviews, and other ephemera on the world of production and art in general. — Ed.

Good cam pic lo res

If you’re willing to indulge a little Art21 navel-gazing for this very first post, I’d like to inaugurate this column by highlighting something I’ve been hoping to spread the word on for some time – our web exclusive video production. As a lot of you readers are probably aware, in addition to the content we specifically shoot for the broadcast series, Art21 has been actively shooting footage specifically for release on the web. Past exclusive pieces have included our three recent videos on Kerry James Marshall (On Museums, Being an Artist, Black Romantic).  But what a lot of folks might not be aware of is that, as opposed to the broadcast model where we hire outside crew, we’re using in-house personnel and gear to produce these shorts, soup to nuts. And it’s not just production staffers like coordinators Larissa Nikola-Lisa and Ian Forster, but other non-production folks like our Associate Curator, Wesley Miller, and our Education and Public Programming personnel, Jessica Hamlin and Marc Mayer, have all been involved. More importantly, we’re starting to expand the scope of these videos beyond Art21’s roster of broadcast artists.

And now’s a particularly opportune time to mention the widening range of this project because we’ve just come off one of our most ambitious and non-artist centered shoots to date: two full days shooting with the rather amazing art students and teachers at the Besant Hill School in Ojai, CA, and Crossroads School for Arts and Sciences in Santa Monica, CA. Our subjects weren’t Art21 broadcast artists, but teachers and students who actively use Art21 in the classroom. (The teachers are part of our Art21 Educators art education initiative. They had participated in an intensive Art21-organized professional development session in New York last summer; this shoot was part of a follow up classroom visit with the teachers.)

At the Besant Hill School in ludicrously beautiful Ojai, CA, we shot with teacher Lucia Vinograd and her uninhibited Advanced Class. The following pictures can only really do the experience justice. And yes, you’re looking at students who were body painting-dancing, blind water gun painting, and acetylene torching (a la Season 4 artist Judy Pfaff.) Oh, to be young again.


Left: A Besant Hill School (Ojai, CA) student gets ready for a body paint performance. Right: Early Judy Pfaff? No, a Besant Hill School student draws with an acetylene torch. All stills are from Art21's HDV original video footage, shot by Nick Ravich, 2009.

These and other student projects were all precociously creative responses to Lucia’s semester long curricula, “The Uses of Chaos, Chance, and the Unpredictable in Art” — a lesson plan influenced by some of the chance strategies of previous Art21 artists, like Cai Guo-Qiang. Students were asked to set up an art-making situation where some primary creative/mark-making element was out of their control. (I wish I had an art teacher like that in high school. I’d be a much cooler person today.)

At the very urbane Crossroads School for Arts & Sciences in Santa Monica, CA, teacher Pam Posey – an accomplished artist in her own right — took her 9th grade art class down the street to the Santa Monica Museum of Art, to check out the Tell Me Something Good: A Collaboration between Kim Schoenstadt and Rita McBride show. The exhibition of photographs and documents is, in the words of the museum’s website, “inspired by the conceptual art exhibition, Art By Telephone (Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 1969), in which participants phoned in their specifications for their works of art.” A pretty heady premise for 9th graders but one that, as they got comfortable on the exhibit’s floor and were guided by Pam’s expert promptings, they were able to really bite into and discuss.  Are the instructions hindering or helping the artist’s creativity? In the end, are the instructions more interesting than the art? Moreover, this show and discussion dovetailed nicely with Pam’s on-going lesson plan, “What Roles do Rules Play in Art?” – itself nicely reminiscent of some of the rules-based thinking behind the work of Season Five’s Systems artists.


Left: Outside the Santa Monica Museum of Art (Santa Monica, CA). Right: Art teacher Pam Posey leads her Crossroads School students in a discussion at the Museum.

If you’ll excuse the horrible pun, both shoots were a very educational experience for me as well. As someone directly involved in producing broadcast television, who puts a lot of time and energy into creating something that then  slips away into the ether, it’s always been an eternally frustrating and seemingly inevitable experience that I never really know how, or even if, my long labor of love actually affects its audience. Strong ratings, or a positive review, or an encouraging (though not completely comprehending) phone call from your parents is always a nice thing, but in the end it always feels like a poor substitute for a more direct viewer reaction. But in Lucia’s and Pam’s classrooms, shooting with students who are excited and engaged in art in general and directly moved by an Art21 artist in particular, I can actually witness the impact we can have. On a totally selfish professional level, it was very gratifying. And as someone with a stake in the future of the contemporary art enterprise, it was very hopeful.

At the moment, we’re gearing up to edit this big mass of footage (we shot approximately 10 hours) into a number of short web segments.  So loyal viewers, be on the lookout for pieces on these budding artists and their teachers in the coming months.

Art21’s Director of Production, Nick Ravich, is a battle-hardened documentary veteran with ten plus years experience as a producer and production manager in broadcast television and online video, and he particularly enjoys working in arts and cultural programming. Credits include Errol Morris’ Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control, Blackside’s I’ll Make Me a World, WGBH-TV’s Greater Boston Arts and Postcards from Buster, and Seasons Four and Five (and counting) of Art:21—Art in the Twenty-First Century.