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East of Borneo: Where Wikipedia goes for SoCal art essays

East of Borneo: Where Wikipedia goes for SoCal art essays
The website East of Borneo has devoted itself to chronicling Southern California's cultural history, such as French filmmaker Agnes Varda's extended forays in Los Angeles. Seen here: A still from the film "Mur Murs," which was partially shot in downtown. (Cine-tamaris / LACMA)

When the series of Pacific Standard Time exhibitions opened around Southern California in 2010, it was an opportunity to take stock of the region's cultural production in the decades following World War II. The Getty Foundation-funded project brought to light work by abstract ceramists, trippy Light and Spacers, heady conceptualists and feminist sculptors. In the process, the exhibitions generated a bounty of information about the history of art in our region.

But as generally happens with art exhibitions, much of that information ended up residing in books: the printed catalogs attached to shows that are often expensive, unwieldy and go out of print after short runs.

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Enter the website East of Borneo.

Also launched in 2010, the site, which is partially funded and supported by the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), aimed to capture some of that knowledge and put it on a platform that would be as easily accessible in L.A. as it would be in Cleveland or Calcutta.

The site is now celebrating its fourth anniversary and is still run and edited by cofounders Stacey Allan and CalArts professor Tom Lawson.

"We didn't want all of this great material to be forgotten in books," says Allan. "We wanted to make it free. And we wanted it to be online. The idea is that some kid in the Midwest can log on and be exposed to what's happened here in Los Angeles."

The site has done stories on everything from a totally '70s nondenominational art ministry in Venice called the Temple of Man to stories about Senga Nengudi's early Los Angeles installations. Just last month, the site published an examination of the films of French New Wave director Agnes Varda, and the ways in which the presence of L.A. is manifested in her work (a terrific follow-up to her recent exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.)

This accumulation of historic pieces have made East of Borneo an important repository of artistic information about Los Angeles.

"We've published some of the most substantial writing on some L.A. figures," says Allan. "Often, our pieces are used as references for Wikipedia pages. Early on, someone linked out to our article about [the Chicano performance group] Asco and it really reinforced how important it was to have something that wasn't behind a paywall."

East of Borneo's efforts to get Southern California's history in the proverbial books have extended beyond the reach of their own site. The online magazine has staged regular Wikipedia edit-a-thons to help raise the region's cultural profile in what has become the world's most important online encyclopedia.

Now the site is is in the final hours of a crowd-sourced Kickstarter fundraiser to help make improvements. Currently, CalArts supports the site by funding Allan's position and supplying a $15,000 editorial budget. But that is a slim figure for a website with big ideas.

The goal on Kickstarter was $25,000, and East of Borneo has already surpassed that. Allan says she will use the funds make technical improvements to the site. This includes a redesign to improve user experience and a system that allows contributors to more easily submit historic images and anecdotes. Any amount raised beyond the goal will go toward improving the content.

"I'm hoping to make a bigger investment in the editorial side," says Allan. "I want to have paid writers and fact-checking and good editing — all of the things that people are critical of in Web publishing. We want to have our priorities straight. We could publish every day, but we don't. We want to go more in-depth. We want the writing to be smart."

But the most important question is: Where did the site get its unusual name?

Allen says it was submitted by her cofounder, Lawson. The title was inspired by a 1930s film of the same name, about a woman who journeys into the jungle in search of her missing husband. The film, interestingly enough, inspired a work of art by artist Joseph Cornell that now resides in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

East of Borneo also offers a sly wink to L.A.'s West Coast location.

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"We kicked around a lot of names," says Allan. "We wanted something that had a West Coast sense but that wasn't cliche. And we wanted to get away from the idea of peripheries and centers — not just looking to New York and Europe, but looking elsewhere. East of Borneo gets at that, but also at our geographic location. L.A. is east of Borneo. It's east, even through we're talking about the West."

And find me on Twitter @cmonstah.

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