THE HAMMER MUSEUM, even though admission is now and forever free, is still way out there on the not-so-proletarian west side of Los Angeles, so I was still crawling down Wilshire at 12:30, the beginning of the KCHUNG TV broadcast day, but never fear—not to miss a live minute, I jacked my iPhone into the car stereo and called up kchung.tv.
It was a bit like the old KCHUNG Radio that way. Just voices. Just the sonorous questions of artist, animal rights activist, and KCHUNG host Johnny JungleGuts; just the cadenced, rounded answers of his guest, film critic Dave White. But now everyone’s favorite unregistered AM transmission has been curated into the “Made in LA” 2014 biennial; and now, they’re streaming video.
I listened until I lost signal in the parking deck. By the time I reached the KCHUNG TV stage, poised in a prominent corner of the Hammer’s main lobby, they were on to the next program: a prerecorded cooking show featuring artist Akina Cox laconically making pasta carbonara. “The recipe says finely chopped, which makes sense,” she said, “but I usually don’t do that.” People watched a monitor showing an artist coarsely chop an onion in real time.
Projected at the top of the Hammer’s grand staircase is a video from Emily Mast’s project for the biennial, ENDE—an endless translation of episodes from the artist’s biography into live and prerecorded troupe-based improv. The performers wear yellow and brown tones. There are baguettes. As the video cycles through, the piercing cries of gulls bleed into the KCHUNG TV sound mix.
KCHUNG TV station manager Gabie Strong met me at the top of the ramp. Strong is one of a handful of volunteers who liaise with Hammer admin, the VJs, the curators, the press, and everyone in between. She tells me everything has gone smoothly so far. The museum staff’s main concerns have been keeping the entrance ramp clear, and a prohibition on live animals or other organic matter. There’s been some friction with their lobby neighbors, a more demure rotating installation by Public Fiction, over shared psychic space. But that’s showbiz. Meanwhile the first episode of Mary Hill and Ben Tong’s “The Monthly” lurched on air, with college-radio aplomb. Hill introduced her guests, Aska Matsumiya, Kassia Meador, and Luke Fischbeck, who would “give us, like, a sound bath today,” using mic’d and looped crystal bowls. Meador’s green eye shadow clipped occasionally into the green-screened background, a paused video of a waterfall.
This was searing calm, supposedly—compared with opening night a month previous, which by most accounts was a shitshow. KCHUNGers did their best to be formal and professional, but also push through into a send-up of red-carpet reportage. Mostly they looked nervous, killing time, live.
Then there was the censorship that wasn’t. The footage from the first broadcast day was pulled from the online archive, temporarily, for technical reasons. Sure, for a few frames of a rave scene you can catch the name of the Colombian U’wa people drawn on a cardboard sign, and sure, Occidental Petroleum, the company once run by Dr. Armand Hammer, tried to drill said people’s tribal lands in the late 1990s. Said Evan Walsh, another KCHUNG TV station manager that day, “No comment.” Despite the feisty finger-pointing of some VJs, this microprotest wasn’t censored; it’s archived online, beginning around 2:56:51. “There is no policy of controlling content around Oxy,” said cocurator Connie Butler. “We have, on occasion, asked artists to be sensitive to the unusual circumstance that we share a building with a large oil corporation.”
“Give yourselves a hand for being in California,” boomed Brock Fansler of the Experimental Half Hour, bantering before his segment—a special KCHUNG TV episode of his and Eva Aguila’s long-running Web series. The pair had been contracted to provide AV support and run the mixer. They don’t usually do all this on the fly, though. That day, Fansler hosted two guests in his green-screened talk studio: God, followed by Mitch Brown and his Exotic Animals. (Blues Traveler’s John Popper got caught in traffic.) Aguila voiced God from off camera, using a gray-green piece of 35-mm film-editing machinery hooked up to a BOSS Metal Zone pedal. “Stand by for God’s clip,” said the announcer. On the monitor flashed the nuclear apocalypse dream sequence from Terminator II, crackling with digital artifacting, but the sound didn’t seem to work. Next, a pack of druggy humanoid cats swarmed the set.
KCHUNG TV is a “splinter group,” said Luke Fischbeck, one of KCHUNG’s founding few. It’s a spin-off—and that, far from being a sign of decline, is the mark of success. The station has managed to translate its charming brand of controlled chaos into an aesthetic defined by jarring transitions, cheesy wipes, fades to red, and bad chroma-keying. The man hired to control said chaos is Brandt Wrightsman, a video producer previously unaffiliated with KCHUNG who, armed with clipboard and schedule, keeps things at least moving. “Kat is AWOL,” he told me. “I’m not sure if that’s my fault or her fault at the moment.” But it was the first time anything of the sort had happened. Everyone had been real pro—showing up on time, running errands, manning the cameras, each according to her ability/need. KCHUNG TV is every bit as collaborative, as anarchic, as internally pressurized as its single-channel counterpart. Maybe more so. Because now, people are watching, paying attention—or at least, one would assume—and this raises some questions: Who is taking credit? control? responsibility? Who is KCHUNG? Will KCHUNG survive being marketed as art? Will KCHUNG TV have a long-term effect on KCHUNG?
Said Fischbeck, “Does MTV2 have an effect on MTV?”
“I don’t think KCHUNG thinks about the future,” said Walsh.
“That’s our secret weapon,” said JungleGuts.
While Wrightsman improvised, killing time by airing some music videos, I collected my thoughts at the museum’s café, AMMO HAMMER. Above the marble courtyard, on the mezzanine, I saw a quartet of yellow-clad Emily Mast performers coming back, or heading to, a performance. Or were they performing? They passed the artist-designed couches, the children’s-block set—blending into the Hammer’s generally family-friendly atmosphere—like the biennial itself, all pretty low-key and uncontroversial. And maybe that’s the irony of KCHUNG’s inclusion. Not that it’s a radio station and not an art project, or even an art collective—but that KCHUNG, no matter what crazy shit it pulls, is exactly what the curators want. And perhaps what the rest of the exhibition wishes it was: a glimpse of raw, fleeting creativity; a strange discursive creature from beyond the museum’s walls. But that’s a little bit too much. Let’s just say the other thirty-four artists and collectives come across, as a group, as a little camera shy.
At the same time, how many dozens of VJs passing through the KCHUNG TV studio these months will add “Made in LA 2014” to their CVs? Seated at the next table was a well-dressed woman in an emerald green suit, with a leather bag to match. I flipped back and forth on my iPhone between e-mails and the KCHUNG TV live stream, which now showed Luke Fischbeck’s “Neighbors,” the day’s last show. I watched him seated in front of a monitor, watching his own footage of museum visitors watching biennial videos, work by Danielle Dean and Sarah Rara. If only that woman in green would step in front of the KCHUNG cameras, I thought. Then we’d see how well they all blend in.