West Coast Love Affair:
East of Borneo, Magazines and Los Angeles
Screengrab from EastOfBorneo.org; October 9, 2010; courtesy East of Borneo
And then he calls
as she’s gone out the door
What can he think
when his mind is on the blink
Waking up to the sound of Ciudad
Thinking of her
I’ll meet you in LA
I’ll kiss you in LA
Unrest, “West Coast Love Affair,” 1993
The view from Los Angeles takes in a city even bigger than its ideas about itself. The sweep of the Hills and its villas eases into the endless, quasi-suburban tracts on either side into Hollywood or the Valley, past dodgy tranny Mexican bars and dodgier check-cashing depots, arching above the bland but bright corporate spires of the downtown skyline and down into the swathes of warehouses and strip malls just south of that, and beyond—along freeways stretching through it all, our concrete exoskeleton. Connecting a place to its people isn’t always so easy, especially with a place as large and motley as Los Angeles. But this place, and our view of it and from it, forms the spirit that holds this diffuse city together.
For the sundry artists who live here, the massive undulating shapelessness of the landscape has formed cracks and crevasses for them to work in. Drawing upon the imaginary of this place, its gridded streets and housing developments, artists have found the necessary space to realize their visions of what art can be. Despite this thriving community of artists, Los Angeles has a shitty history of maintaining the kinds of institutions that artists (and the people who care about art) richly deserve. We’ve been tossing money into museum edifices and (to a much lesser degree) commercial galleries for long enough that it’s about time we created the strong critical link that finishes the circuit of a complete and autonomous scene.
There’s a laundry list of folded Los Angeles magazines too long and sad to relate (a few of which still owe me a bit of money), which either were small and specialized and short-lived in a poetic way or billowy and bad and not worth remembering (SEMINA being of the first variety, THE Magazine of the second). The august Artforum, America’s art magazine of record, stopped here briefly in the mid sixties on its West Coast tour from San Francisco, but it quickly (and wisely) hightailed to New York where deeper ad revenues could theoretically keep a real art magazine up and operating. Though enduringly marked by its passage through Los Angeles (its trademark layout designed by LA artist-godfather Ed Ruscha), Artforum is most assuredly a New York magazine. Much the same could be said of frieze, whose ascendancy marked the rise of the art world in London, which formed both its spiritual and financial base. Though both publications are now quite international, their relationship to their respective cities dictates both their financial bottom line and, more importantly for our purposes, their editorial visions.
Optimally, a big city with a thriving art scene needs an international art magazine, one that allows for self-reflection whilst representing its point of view to the world. And in return, the world looks to these publications for the sharpest and most thoroughly researched take on that city’s place in the international conversation. At the time of their emergence, Artforum and frieze provided the kind of incisive commentary on art from their respective cities that each desperately needed. Appearing at pivotal moments, they each found a new and necessary language to describe the significant changes occurring around them. And by filling this need, they quickly established a reputation that allowed them to attract and inspire some of the best writing and writers (and advertisers) in art, thus supporting and to a large extent fueling the commercial market’s explosion.
Right now in Los Angeles, the art scene has matured to the point where it could potentially sustain an important art magazine, but none currently exists on the size and scale of either of these grand dames, though not for lack of trying. LA has failed to produce and sustain this kind of magazine for a number of reasons: most importantly, we’ve lacked the commercial commitment of galleries (who, though somewhat few in number, often feel they get more bang for their buck with an ad in Artforum than in a local startup). Also we’ve historically lacked the critical mass of writers with the ability and language to capture the city and its movements. But a magazine of that scale is perhaps not what our city necessarily needs. At a minimum, one would hope for a significant publication that would lend this town something more than international clout. One that could supply a historical consciousness of place, a living archive of primary documents. Los Angeles desperately needs a publication to seriously consider our territory and its history, with the kind of insight, quality and panache found in the leading art magazines elsewhere.
What with our bad history of institutional regress (from letting the Pasadena Museum of Art and the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art fail, almost letting MOCA sink, losing Artforum to New York and that list of shuttered mags mentioned earlier), one doesn’t want to speak too soon, but the new magazine East of Borneo has the potential to complete the circuit. An online venture emerging out of the ashes of the California Institute of the Arts (and editor Thomas Lawson’s) defunct collaboration with Afterall, East of Borneo has something important quietly emerging from its (Web)pages (found at www.eastofborneo.org).
Though most outsiders, and even some natives, usually describe something from Los Angeles with a series of clichés, East of Borneo doesn’t have sand sprinkled across its pages nor does it obsess with surface and surfing, the movie industry or palm trees. Rather, it endeavors to capture some of the strange energy and disparate cast of characters that make up this unique place, the riffraff and refugees, visionaries and weirdos, adrift intellectuals and country-skipping euros ready to remake themselves, would-be power brokers and low-brow entertainment moguls slumming through the halls of high culture, and sundry other characters and artists too strange and individual to sum up so easily in a line (from Raymond Pettibon to Simone Forti). East of Borneo’s first articles include the rather unlikely (but to my mind completely representative) cast of playwright Bertolt Brecht, artist Chris Burden and schlock director Roger Corman. Though East of Borneo does contain a lot of writing directly about Southern California art and culture, with the wobbly legs of infancy, it appears to have achieved something much more elusive than simply coverage: a real LA point of view, neither cloyingly provincial nor tiredly cliché, but poetic, intelligent and imaginative. This is realized in its admixture of art historical awareness, an emphasis on literary quality and a flexible attitude toward a disparate cultural terrain. Intellectual, without any of the hang-ups of academic style, East of Borneo’s many voices range across diverse kinds of culture—expatriate experimental dramaturges, extreme ’70s performance artists, B-movie directors—with ease. (I hate to say that we’re more laid-back in Los Angeles, but it’s true, though sometimes outsiders mistake flexibility with weakness. In a landscape largely invented—and with little connecting LA’s various neighborhoods, architecture and histories besides this self-invention—we must be flexible.)
The title, East of Borneo, comes directly from a 1931 adventure film featuring a jungle island of no place in particular, with animals wildly mismatched and the territory entirely (and rather haphazardly) made-up. This B-film achieved a second life in the hands of artist Joseph Cornell, who obsessed over the lead actress, Rose Hobart (titling his film after her), and made one of the more famous surrealist shorts by cutting up East of Borneo while adding new scenes till he compressed it to a lean nineteen minutes. Salvador Dali, in the audience for its first screening in 1936, is purported to have claimed while knocking over the projector that Cornell stole it from his subconscious. In this spirit, East of Borneo, the magazine, rethinks the center of the world not as the meridian of Greenwich Mean Time or New York City but somewhere else less specific, a place in the Pacific, perhaps even Los Angeles. East of Borneo, the magazine, takes from East of Borneo, the film, the imaginary Hollywood “place of no place,” which is about as workable a short definition of Los Angeles (or the Internet, for that matter) as you’re likely to find.
Screengrabs from EastOfBorneo.org; October 9, 2010; courtesy East of Borneo
Of course, something must be said here about East of Borneo’s innovative format, based as it is online and released without iterative issues. The publication will be regularly updated with content in two forms, a blog roll of short items and a series of long-form commissioned essays. Importantly, embedded within the articles are hypertext footnotes that emerge in a bit of HTML magic as bubbles floating above the page—these additional resources add references, video and sound to the experience. Likewise, this architecture of floating footnotes builds into the magazine’s editorial content a touch of archive fever. Readers/users are invited to contribute to the narrative by uploading relevant texts, images, videos or other web content, aggregating primary source material onto the site. Among art magazines, East of Borneo takes advantage of what the Web can do in terms of cohering its mass of information, research and links into a single platform.
Though print still holds hierarchical sway (a two-tiered class system often exists for writing, that for the Web being considered lower and less serious; Artforum.com has an Editor-in-Chief separate from its print counterpart), there are a number of online platforms for cultural criticism that have become arguably more important than their print equivalents (I’m thinking specifically of the online music magazine Pitchfork Media). But the visual art world, especially in Los Angeles, had yet (until, perhaps, East of Borneo) to come up with an online magazine presence serious and viable enough to compete with print. The minds behind the wildly successful email announcement service e-flux have organized an online journal distributed through their service, theoretically hitting the inboxes of a reported 50–70,000 subscribers, characterized on its website as “art world professionals.” But its format is explicitly that of a journal, an academic cousin to the more freewheeling magazine.
I work as an editor for the online magazine ArtSlant, and though based in many cities, in general its content is closely tied to the various local scenes it covers. However, ArtSlant (and e-flux, for that matter) doesn’t purport to be based from anywhere in particular, thus its point of view is globally diffuse. Neither of these (nor any of the numerous online magazines) have yet attained the same clout and sense of place as the print visual art magazines that exist in other cities. East of Borneo competes not only by virtue of the historical awareness of its so-far astute writing but, much like other historically successful art magazines, it responds to the conditions of its time and place, which include use of the Internet.
East of Borneo hasn’t entirely abandoned the printed page but will exercise the latent love of physical texts through a planned series of books; if magazines are disposable, books seem to continue to hold an important place in the historical record as objects still wanted somewhere on a shelf, even as e-readers like the Kindle and iPad are quickly replacing printed materials. By contrast, the book series seems to provide the necessary long-term physicality to counterweigh the ephemerality (and ethereality) of the Web. While utilizing the much easier and cheaper existing infrastructure for printing and distributing books (as opposed to magazines), East of Borneo will retain some of the immediacy of an art magazine by being online. Since so much of a magazine’s budget goes into printing and distribution (getting on the racks at Barnes & Noble ain’t cheap), much of that money, editors at East of Borneo have told me, will be poured back into paying writers instead of providing glossy pages.
Primarily supported by CalArts, with plans for aggressive fundraising including advertising, East of Borneo’s institutional support model (coupled with its vision) makes it possible (though, like any other new venture, never guaranteed) to sustain a local magazine with international impact. The support of CalArts also underpins the recognition that the infrastructure of art in Los Angeles has long been supported by universities instead of galleries, because of the smallishness of the LA market. Even in the case of writers, many of the practicing art critics in LA came out of the schools, such as Art Center’s since-cancelled graduate program in Art Theory and Criticism (Catherine Taft, Michael Ned Holte and Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer) and, of course, the slumming academics hailing from USC (Aram Moshayedi), UCLA (Sarah-Neel Smith) and UC Irvine (Chris Balaschak). The infrastructure of the city once again informs the framework of its art world.
Los Angeles, with its historical roots and the changes that have shaped the city (outlined with meticulous and well-warranted cynicism by Mike Davis in his landmark 1990 book, City of Quartz), has been as much invented as a city can be, stitched together by migrants and immigrants, as well as all the politicos, moviemakers, land barons and developers who have had a vested interest in its emergence. East of Borneo is less based in Los Angeles (its offices are located at CalArts in Valencia, a commuter community on the outer fringe of the great sprawl) than in the imaginary of Los Angeles, the “place of no place” that Angelenos—particularly, our artists—get to reinvent every day, often by rearranging the scraps of place abandoned here, a scavenging gesture not unlike Cornell’s cutup of the original East of Borneo. Thus the new publication’s ethereality as an online magazine, crisscrossed with hyperlinks, stitching LA’s disparate history together, seems entirely fitting.
Though still very much in the process of coming into being, with all of the quirks that come out of starting a new venture, East of Borneo has the potential to finally provide the quality writing and point of view from Los Angeles that the city has always thought it deserved, while presenting the medium of the Web as something full of primary potential rather than a second-tier platform.
I began this essay quoting an obscure song by indie-rock band Unrest because the title and excerpted lyrics replay Los Angeles not as a place of broken dreams and sunshine noir, nor as a cap-toothed developer’s orange blossom boosterism, but as a place to seal an amorous liaison, a legendary location where otherwise elusive affairs can be consummated. For art writing, and magazines in particular, East of Borneo seals a love affair with Los Angeles, even perhaps my love affair with LA and its art, happily accessible from anywhere, but possible only here.