Plein-Air, Process, and the Political: Q&A with Juan Devis and Hillary Mushkin

KCET’s multimedia project Artbound works at many different levels and with many different audiences to report on the cultural affairs of Southern California.  First, it is a series of online articles written by artists, journalists, curators, and art-world experts from the Southern California region who focus on a variety of topics and disciplines.

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Hillary Mushkin | Incendiary Traces 1, 2013, inspired by 1991 footage of Baghdad.  Courtesy of Artbound.

Next, it is an interactive social media hub, wherein readers can interact with, share, and publicize their favorite articles.  Based on its reach and shares, the most popular article is paired against an editor’s choice, so the two go out to readers for a vote.  Of those two, the winning article is turned into a short documentary that is then published online and in the Artbound TV series. – Ellen C. Caldwell, Los Angeles Contributor

One of my favorite featured projects that has made it to the documentary phase is called Incendiary Traces.  Created by artist Hillary Mushkin, Incendiary Traces uses California landscape to reinvent, rediscover, and re-envision seemingly far away and foreign turmoil on our own soil.  She invites fellow artists and cultural historians to join her for plein-air “draw-in” events, during which artists draw, paint, and photograph various landscape sites in connection to or in protest of international conflicts. I got to catch up with Artbound producer Juan Devis and artist Hillary Mushkin to discuss both projects….

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Hillary Mushkin | Incendiary Traces 2, 2013, inspired by 1991 footage of Baghdad.  Courtesy of Artbound.

Ellen Caldwell: Could you please tell me a little bit about “Artbound” – how you came up with the idea for it and how it took form?

Juan Devis: “Artbound” was created with a few questions in mind. How can we cover the arts and culture of Southern California in a comprehensive way, engaging local art communities, its writers, and journalists? How can we allow audiences to participate or curate what they want to see? And finally, how can we bridge the broadcast and online nature of the series to create a fully integrated experience for our audience.

We answered all these questions by creating a framework that allows community participation, while at the same time retaining some editorial control over the content that is finally produced.

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Hillary Mushkin | Incendiary Traces 3, 2013, inspired by 1991 footage of Baghdad.  Courtesy of Artbound.

EC: Hillary Mushkin’s project “Incendiary Traces” consists of “draw-in” events, taking place all over various Southern California locales.  Could you discuss this project and her process specifically?

JD: “Artbound” has grown, not only in terms of audience, quantity and quality of articles, but also in the way we engage with artists in the creation of new work. We believe that process is an integral part of artistic creation but audiences seldom get a chance to see how this process unfolds.

That is the case with the work of artist Hillary Mushkin. Hillary and I had talked about possibly collaborating with a new project she was working on almost a year ago – Incendiary Traces. Hillary’s idea was to create a series of plein-air “draw-in” events that would invite artists from different disciplines to map, trace or as she refers to “allegorically consider” the Southern California landscape. These draw-ins take place in contested militarized geographies across the state, from San Clemente Island to the border between US and Mexico, and artists convene to record, draw or map these landscapes in different ways. Hillary’s collective “draw-in” practices are a sort of silent protest against the way in which we view and understand international conflicts.

“Artbound” worked very closely with Hillary to map the journey of each “draw-in” and create editorial entry points via articles, videos, and more - that contextualized the work that she did for over six months. In essence, Incendiary Traces became a living, time-based art project, narrated through “Artbound” and created by the artist.

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Photo by: Jena Lee, 2013, for Incendiary Traces’ 29 Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center “Draw-in.” Courtesy of Artbound.
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Drawing by: Andy Wilcox, 2013, for Incendiary Traces’ 29 Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center “Draw-in.” Courtesy of Artbound.

EC: Hillary, you have said that these images created at the “draw-ins” use “our real and symbolic affiliations with the subtropics as a starting point to bring home connections between Southern California and political ‘hot spots’ in the Middle East, North Africa, Latin America and beyond.”  Could you discuss and explain this concept a bit further?

Hillary Mushkin: Landscapes—the spaces we live in—are framed pictorially. Landscape images produce compelling myths and wield political power. In international relations they can highlight or fabricate virtues and erase the appearance of violence. In this way, are landscape images a kind of psy-ops—a weapon? Can picturing landscapes also be a political intervention?

Traditional landscape paintings depict few, or no, people. In 1991, CNN broadcast blurry green night scope footage of the U.S. bombing of Baghdad that married the aesthetics of traditional landscape painting with the theater of contemporary remote war. The glowing lights of anti-aircraft fire in the night sky dominate the frame. Below, the city is dark, its inhabitants imperceptible. Landscape aesthetics are a kind of psychological weapon here, applied to blur and soften violence.

In the months leading up to the 2003 U.S. “Shock and Awe” bombing of Baghdad, I scrutinized CNN’s 1991 landscapes in anticipation of seeing a new version with the impending attack. Looking at the dark city, I noticed for the first time palm trees and low-lying stucco buildings that looked unsettlingly like my neighborhood in Los Angeles. It seemed that this landscape is that landscape. This home is that home. This could be here.

So, could our otherwise celebrated palm tree-dotted landscape be reverse engineered to bring home connections between Los Angeles and countries with whom we have political conflict? This project seeks to use the act of (re)picturing as a tool for connecting to remote sites of conflict—to bring the there here.

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Hillary Mushkin | Incendiary Traces 1, 2013, inspired by 1991 footage of Baghdad.  Courtesy of Artbound.

EC: That’s great, and you’ve generated some really wonderful stories and art from this idea. Tell me about some of the connections that have been made between Southern California and these hot spots.  What do they look like?

HM: The images shown here respond to this question. Starting from the 1991 footage of Baghdad, I used two pictorial strategies to make connections. First, with my own camera I tried to reproduce the scene shown in the CNN footage. I drove around my Los Angeles neighborhood seeking shots of low-lying stucco buildings, palm trees, and bushy built horizons in the same composition as the video stills.  Though close, my photos of Baghdad in L.A. are less than perfect. So I traced CNN’s images of Baghdad and my L.A. images. Tracing, my hand covers the territory of both places, bringing them home through this intimate process.

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Hillary Mushkin | Incendiary Traces 1, 2013, inspired by 1991 footage of Baghdad.  Courtesy of Artbound.

EC: Juan, what does “Artbound” hope to do with the archive that is created over time, from these events?

JD: “Artbound” does not only like to report or comment on the cultural stories that affect our region – we want to be part of it. By engaging artists in the development and production of original work, we can plant seeds for/of engagement in our audience and redefine what cultural journalism is all about. Projects like Incendiary Traces are incubators for a new form of journalism – one that considers process as an editorial entry point to reckon with the world around us.

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Polaroid by: Claudia Martinez Mansell, 2013, for Incendiary Traces’ 29 Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center “Draw-in.” Courtesy of Artbound.
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Drawing by: Andy Wilcox, 2013, for Incendiary Traces’ 29 Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center “Draw-in.” Courtesy of Artbound.


After earning critical praise for its inaugural efforts in 2012, Artbound returns to KCET for a second season on April 4th at 9 p.m. 

Hillary Mushkin is a visual artist exploring contemporary and historical intersections of art, visual culture, social and political consciousness. She works in studio and post-studio forms including drawing, media, and interactive formats. Mushkin frequently collaborates with others from fields including poetry, architecture, and digital media.  Juan Devis is an award-winning producer, filmmaker and artist, whose work crosses multiple platforms––video, film, interactive media and gaming. Regardless of the medium his work is often produced collaboratively allowing for a greater exchange of ideas in the production of media and art.

Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based art historian, editor, and writer.


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