In a corner office at the Museum of Contemporary Art, a big white board is a tangle of names, dates and ideas scrawled in brightly colored markers. At the center is a chart for the video network MOCAtv, plotting new programs on the artist Urs Fischer and leading architects, on the raw symbolism of punk rock and on something called “CRIME: The Animated Series.”
It represents an ambitious range of art-based programming, only some of it directly tied to a MOCA exhibition.
“The contemporary art world has so many tangents that we are still reaching out to,” says John Toba, MOCAtv’s head of production, looking up at the board.
With 150,000 subscribers to its YouTube channel, MOCAtv has drawn big numbers for programs that cross over to a wide audience. But it remains committed to complementing the museum’s focus, including “things that were avant-garde or hard to take and were going to have a few hundred views,” adds Toba, who leads the channel with creative director Emma Reeves. “That’s an important part of what we do.”
The idea for MOCAtv began with a visit to YouTube’s headquarters in San Bruno, Calif., by museum director Jeffrey Deitch (who last week announced that he is leaving the museum), and was launched in November 2012 with funding from Google and YouTube. It became YouTube’s first original channel dedicated to fine art.
Among the nearly 300 films of video art, documentaries and interviews already online at MOCAtv are forward-looking music videos from Bjork and Io Echo, and short films of street artist Shepard Fairey talking about graphic designer Saul Bass, and curator Susan Bright on the videos of William Wegman and Roger Ballen.
There is a film of Fischer’s installation of “YES,” which involved 1,500 volunteers coming to the Geffen Contemporary to build a room full of clay sculptures.
Director Matthew Shattuck is working on an upcoming documentary series on the work of the late artist and filmmaker Bruce Conner, and there are more commissioned music video collaborations, the continuing series called “The Artist’s Studio” and “Art in the Streets,” plus art education under “MOCA U” and vintage films that document important moments in art history.
The channel is guided by two British expats who arrived at the Los Angeles museum in April 2012. Reeves comes with a background in documentaries, advertising and magazines, including seven years at Dazed and Confused magazine in London. Toba came to the U.S. after making historical documentaries for British television on the bubonic plague and public executions.
“We share a level of levity in our work — plague, death, crime,” jokes artist Alix Lambert, sitting in the MOCAtv office on a recent visit from New York City for the premiere screening of three episodes from “CRIME” in MOCA’s theater.
The series of vivid animated shorts co-created with Sam Chou of Toronto’s Style5 is based on her 2008 book of the same name, which collected interviews with victims, witnesses, cops and perpetrators in a documentary and art context. The films use animation in noir shades of red, black and white to illustrate audio recordings from the interviews.
“Those real voices have a different kind of resonance and animation is a way for those stories to be accessible that they aren’t necessarily otherwise,” says Lambert, whose background is in conceptual art and as a script writer for HBO’s “Deadwood” and “John From Cincinnati.”
The audience for MOCAtv is international, says Reeves; only 50% of the channel’s traffic comes from the U.S.
“We’re attached to an august, 30-year-old institution,” she says. “The reputation of that institution is global. We’re very lucky to have that built-in brand DNA.”
One of the channel’s largest traffic-generating series has been “The Art of Punk,” which examines the visuals and symbolism of punk rock, including the Black Flag logo created by artist Raymond Pettibon. Originally conceived as short films of about five minutes, the initial trio of films by Bo Bushnell and Bryan Ray Turcotte stretched to 22 minutes.
“There is a rawness to ‘The Art of Punk,’” says Reeves. “It’s authentic. It’s about finding the right people for the mission and being really organic about it. If I’m approaching an artist, what does that artist want to do? I want them to collaborate on the film — I don’t want them to feel subjected to anything.”
MOCAtv’s connection to an internationally known art institution opens doors that might be closed to others. Aside from providing collaborators with use of the YouTube studios in Playa Vista, the MOCA name represents an alliance preferable to a more traditional corporate sponsor.
“It’s not like we have the power that the other sites have, but [artists] like the fact that it’s under the aegis of a museum,” says Reeves, who commissioned a music video collaboration with Bjork and director Andrew Thomas Huang called “Mutual Core” as part of MOCA’s “ART + MUSIC” series. It premiered on the channel in November and was nominated this year for a Webby Award.
In recent years, Pettibon, as one example, has shown little interest in speaking at length about his work with Black Flag, now a quarter-century behind him. But he has a long association with MOCA, dating to 1992’s “Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s.” For “The Art of Punk,” he not only explains that history but paints the distinctive four-bar logo for the first time in more than two decades.
“I think he understands that the museum system can support artists like himself without being overly corporatized and commercialized,” says director Turcotte, who also explored the logos of Crass and the Dead Kennedys in separate short films. “So it was much easier for me to say ‘MOCA’ than if anyone else had given me money [to make the film]. That was very helpful.”
With his producing partner, Turcotte was recruited into the project based on his history as a collector of punk artifacts and the author of a book on genre fliers (with a title unprintable here) subtitled “Instant Art of the Punk Rock Movement.” He grew up in the San Francisco punk scene and played in bands before working at Slash Records and starting his own music supervision and branding company, the seven-year-old Beta Petrol.
As a filmmaker, he began humbly with the filming of events and studio sessions on Flip cameras and Go Pros before moving up to Canon digital SLR cameras, used for “The Art of Punk,” conducting an interview with Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers in a bathroom decorated with original Pettibon art, or for an hour with the artist himself in his Venice Beach studio.
MOCAtv has now ordered three more films, including a look at the Screamers, a band acclaimed on the original Los Angeles punk scene of the late 1970s that broke apart before ever recording an album.
MOCAtv will remain on YouTube indefinitely, though the video host’s initial investment in creating the channel is ending. “The experiment for them is over,” Reeves said of YouTube. The museum is exploring new funding possibilities.
Reeves says a new series called “ART + COMEDY” is planned for October, pointing to an Andy Kaufman gallery exhibition earlier this year in New York as evidence of a connection between comedy and the art world.
Thus far, there is no pressure for massive numbers of hits and ratings for its programming from sponsors or museum leadership. “Then you go the way of TV and you end up making the same crap reality show over and over again,” Toba says. “There is no need for the Museum of Contemporary Art to go down that way.”
Instead, MOCAtv works on building its audience through active engagement with various social networking sites and organic excitement about its programming.
“The numbers are so divergent. In some cases, we’re filming things which ultimately in 10, 20, 30 years will be important because the artist is really important and no one is really filming them,” Reeves says. “It’s a celebration of a broader creative mind set. I like to think that everyone does respect the institution and the name MOCA. It’s a bit like keeping a hold on here and seeing how far you can reach.”