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Art21 Answers Your Questions

The 5th season of Art21 presented inspiring shows on compassion, fantasy, transformation and systems.  The series explores the ways artists create masterful works that add passion and creativity to the world.  Last week, we collected questions about the inner workings of the show.  Associate curator Wesley Miller and series producer Eve Moros Ortega are busy at work on the next season, but took some time to answer your questions:

How do you choose which artists to feature? Do you come up with the episode themes first, then find artists or round up artists for an entire season and then decide who goes together? Grace

Wes: Choosing the artists is always a difficult but exhilarating part of the process. We're starting work on Season 6 (2011) right now, and our first step is always asking artists whom we've previously featured for recommendations. We also have a stellar advisory council of curators, museum directors, critics, and scholars who recommend artists for us to consider. After that, we spend several months doing research which takes the form of reading catalogs and interviews, attending exhibitions and lectures, and talking to the broader art community to uncover the most "filmic" opportunities for the following year.

Ultimately, choosing an artist is a matter of the right person, at the right moment in his or her career, in the right context in the program—be that the artists he or she is paired with or the thematic umbrella for the episode. We also make a point of stressing the diversity that exists in contemporary art today, which means creating a roster each season that is even-handed in terms of not just kinds of work (painting, sculpture, photography, etc.) but also aesthetic philosophies and demographics (gender, race, age, nationality, etc.). The question I tend to ask myself is "Would my understanding of contemporary art be incomplete if I didn't know about this artist?"—when the answer is "yes," then it's likely he or she is a good candidate for Art21.

Starting a season is always the hardest part and we tend to work incrementally and organically on all fronts. Typically we'll begin by inviting three to four "elder statesman/stateswoman," artists whose works and careers couldn't be more different from one another. Once we have this basic beginning, these initial artists stand in for an episode. We'll start to ask ourselves who we would want to see paired with these artists and why, which leads us to thinking about themes, which in turn leads us to think about artists, and round and round until the roster is finalized. We do also tend to start with one concept or theme, and it's usually a word we've been hearing artists use recently or an idea that's been lurking in the background during the production of the previous season. It's a fairly humble process, and the hardest part is always filling the last few open slots.

Eve: Since we are making television, timing is also key. There are many artists on our "curatorial wall" (literally, a wall in our office painted with magnetic paint on which we have numerous artists names hanging) but sometimes the choice to include a given artist in a given season is inspired in part by a project they may be working on during our filming schedule. Having the opportunity to film Jeff Koons' historic show at Versailles was amazing, as was filming William Kentridge as he worked on various pieces that will inform his upcoming Metropolitan Opera commission "The Nose". Another ineffable quality we often seek is the iconic nature of many of the artists in the series—a helpful quality given the short duration of the segments, and the need to telegraph a lot of information in not much time.

I loved the segment on Cindy Sherman and the pre-history leading up to the seminal "untitled film stills". Is it difficult to get the artists to talk through the pre-cursors and influences that lead up to their most famous works? Eric

I think most artists are fully prepared to talk about early works and the trajectory that led to the works being made today. Many artists today regularly give lectures and are actively engaged in the historicization of their own career and the meaning of their work. But the most deadly thing for a documentary is for a story to feel to the viewer as canned or overly pre-planned. The difficult part for us then is making these genuinely interesting stories sound original and candid, as if they're being told for the first time.

The shows we make are not intended to serve as "video retrospectives" but rather a revealing glimpse into the here-and-now. In the case of Cindy Sherman, discussing and including her early works was a natural thing to do because the artist herself had recently been digging into her own archive and making new works with projects she had started nearly thirty years before. Looking backwards and re-purposing earlier projects is something that many artists are doing today, and we try to harness that artist-driven strategy to tell a broader story about process and precursors whenever it's interesting to do so.

Eve: The question of influences, and early process, actually seems to be something artist often enjoy discussing but as Wesley points out, just because we have that material does not mean we always make it part of the segment. What viewers may not realize is that we typically film 8–10 hours per artist (or more!), which gets winnowed down to a 10–18 minute segment. So another big challenge for us is not getting the artists to reveal things before our cameras, but rather to carve down what is an embarrassment of riches. Sometimes, including a discussion of earlier work and influences really helps the story of the segment, but other times, the focus is really on a current project and we have to leave a lot of great stuff on the virtual cutting room floor (and in the Art21 archive).

Artist Jeff Koons mentioned that he was pretty self-reliant as a kid and alluded to absentee parents. Many other artists claim to come from troubled backgrounds - do you think this is a determining factor in an artist's aesthetic? Or do you think the artistic ability is more nature than nurture? Elijah

Having worked with so many artists in the series thus far, it's clear that there is huge variety of experiences among the artists in terms of their childhoods, how they grew up, etc. If there is one thing that the artists do seem to share, however, it's an incredibly strong drive to do what they do. Being an artist is not an easy path: grappling with ideas, and figuring out how to express those ideas technically, intellectually, and practically, is very challenging. It's almost as if artists are compelled to make their work, and that drive is more important than artistic ability per se. Where that drive comes from—nature or nurture—is hard to say. That said, another recurring point made by the artists is the importance of discovery—those moments when, earlier in their lives, artmaking was revealed as a possible life path, whether by a teacher, a family member, or another artist. We like to think that, by allowing viewers to meet so many of today's practicing artists and creative role models, we are providing that opportunity for others.

Have you ever found an artist who you wanted to feature, but didn't want to participate? Andy

Yes, sadly, this happens from time to time. Often the reasons are practical, such as someone being too busy or is contending with an illness. When this happens, there's the security that we'll have another season in two years and we'll be back to ask them then.

But sometimes the reasons are philosophical, such as artists who don't want to be out in front of their work and have had an entire career without giving a single interview. These are often the most interesting conversations to have with an artist because it speaks to the heart of the way in which contemporary art is becoming more and more part of public discourse (people want to hear from artists), the way mass media continues to transform our lives (the generational leap from documentary to reality television), and the tension between making works that go out into the public versus living a public life. Sometimes these more abstract conversations result in an artist participating in a way that leads to some very unusual collaborations that, in the end, makes better films. Other times it stops at just a fruitful conversation that, eventually, helps us be better and more ethical filmmakers and curators and educators. As someone who doesn't appear on camera asking questions, I can fully respect the decision not to participate.

How do you choose the themes for each season? Do try to find themes that go together or themes that purposefully counteract each other? Janet

The episode themes tend to come out of having conversations with artists. We're looking for themes that are part of the moment, meaning they're in the air right now and thus say something about our current collective condition. It's also important that the themes have a vernacular ring to them, as it's important for the artists—each the primary narrator of his or her segment—to be able to discuss the topic in casual conversation and from multiple angles, and for viewers to feel that this is a word they have access to and perhaps use in everyday conversation as well. It's hard to find the right word, impossible even sometimes, but it's easy to tell when we've got the wrong one and need to change it.

For each season, we do intentionally try to come up with four themes that go together precisely because they counteract each other. Looking back, each season tends to have themes that are 1) serious/contemplative/political, 2) light/frivolous/joyful, 3) dealing with change/community/dependency, and 4) formal/abstract/quixotic. This insures that each episode has a different emotional tone, so that we're not making four episodes that are too repetitive. Since we produce all four episodes simultaneously (rather than consecutively) we often interview and film the artists as if they could be in any of the themes, which results in each episode having minor notes or sub-stories from all the themes that season. So there's a subtle, subliminal blending that happens at the same time that we're aiming to make each distinct on the surface and first viewing. I tend to think it's what makes the episodes enjoyable on second and third viewing, these hidden and layered moments.

Eve: It's also important to remember that the themes are meant to provide a point of entry for a viewer, but not to suggest that the artists in a given hour are "about" that theme. Many artists could certainly "fit" within many of the themes we've used. The real usefulness of the themes is as a light structuring device, an echo or resonance, a beginning of a conversation. But we certainly hope the conversation takes off from that starting point in unexpected ways.

At what point does an artist become more of a manager than an actual artist? Jeff Koons employs over 100 people in his factory to produce copies of everyday objects - I love the pieces, don't get me wrong - but where do you, as the curators of a program about artists, draw the line? Amy

I think history is actually very forgiving of artists who work with teams of assistants. This was, if not the standard during the Renaissance and later periods, then the mark of a truly successful artist (e.g. Michelangelo).

The concept of the lone artist, struggling alone, is a powerfully seductive modern myth that the television series actively dispels. While there are artists who work alone and only alone today, these artists would also not be as well known to us without the diffuse industry of the art world which includes dealers, critics, curators, schools, collectors, archivists, and on and on. We tend not to focus too much on this aspect of the art world in the series, but it's there nonetheless. So while the myth is sometimes true, it's simply not, nor has it ever been, the whole story.

When planning a documentary, we're interesting in capturing the creative process as faithfully as we can, which often today includes teams of assistants, specialists, and workshops for printmaking, fabrication, video production, and the like. Artists working today have large ambitions, more and more show works in vast spaces, and feel that they can create works that contend with or comment on contemporary spectacles in media, architecture, and industry. Contemporary art today often also takes the form of projects where people are both agents and the subject of the work. These relational artworks would simply be impossible without numerous participants. Artists don many hats—manager, director, inventor, engineer—and we try to show the array of possibilities available to artists today.

One thing the Art21 series hasn't done as much as we probably should is feature collectives of artists or artists who refuse to be identified as individuals. As much as we work to dispel the myth of the sole artist through the way we document the creative process, we also participate in the construction of this myth by focusing the series around individuals. More and more, we're incorporating multiple points of view in each artist's segment, and perhaps Season 6 (2011) will feature more groups of artists alongside the distinctive individuals we've tended to feature to date.

In my blog post about producing the series, I pointed out how over the years, a big revelation for me has been the ways in which producing a documentary series about artists can feel like creating the artworks we feature in the series. To produce our series, Art21 (a small nonprofit) works with a large team of outside specialists who bring wonderful expertise to various aspects of the production (camerawork, color correction, computer animation, graphics production, sound editing, sound mixing, etc.). Even among artists who (unlike Jeff Koons) do not have a large team of studio assistants, many artists  still rely on a network of collaborators to realize their work, and the process of artistic collaboration often involves painstaking attention to a huge array of details. A typical viewer may not be aware of the myriad small decisions that are required to create the larger work, and yet, those decisions are cumulatively extremely important. In my view, managing those decisions—whether working alone in their studio, working with a huge team in the studio, or working with collaborators outside of the studio—is not somehow counter to being a "true" artist, but rather is an integral part of the artist's work and creative process.

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The first question in this Q & A

I just wanted to pop in and say that you posted my question first in this Q & A!! I was excited to see it here!!

Thanks for the responses as they are quite in-depth. I was hoping for a good look into the process here at Art:21!! Yep!

Yet, I'd like to add that my name is Kerrie, not Grace...


I saw an Art21 program a few days ago on TVS (communtiy tv station Sydney, Australia) I wanted to folow up on an author highlighted who wrote a book titled "LIMIT". I also wanted to follow up on a new future city being developed ibn Dubai. However, there are no pod-casts available. Does anyone know where I can get more information on that Art21 episode?

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