The words "eternal telethon" evoke a kind of fever dream, a never-ending parade of well-meaning celebrities and philanthropic lions such as Jerry Lewis endlessly pitching and pitching. John Burtle is aware of the associations. But the 24-year-old L.A. artist also believes that the art world hasn't yet realized the full potential of the much-maligned telethon format.
Like, for instance, building a retirement home for artists near the Salton Sea.
For 24 hours beginning Saturday at noon, Burtle is cohosting and coordinating the latest installment of a categorically open-ended charity drive called the Eternal Telethon, broadcast over the Internet in a live stream on the project's website, http://www.eternaltelethon.com.
As with previous Eternal Telethon events, this webcast seeks to raise money for the purchase of cheap land near the Salton Sea and the construction there of the retirement home. The unlikely cause is a far cry from muscular dystrophy or Haitian relief, but Burtle and fellow Eternal Telethon founders Akina Cox, Chad Dilley, Ina Viola Blasius and Niko Solorio are genuinely dedicated to the goal.
Admittedly, progress has been slow. About $1,100 has been collected so far in nine Eternal Telethon events, during which donors could make contributions in any amount on the project's website. And despite the apparent suggestion of the event's iconography — a telephone with its cord twisted into an infinity sign — actual telephones don't figure into the donation process.
Burtle envisions the retirement home not as a place where world-weary creative types can take a break from their craft but as a place where they can get away from everything but art.
"When we say artists' retirement home, some people have thought that we mean a place for people to go when they're retiring from making art, but it's more a place to retire from everything else," Burtle said.
Eternal Telethon was founded in 2009 in response to a perceived need for greater security for members of the Los Angeles artist community in their twilight years.
"Especially for artists that maybe work in more ephemeral performative ways, it's kind of hard to make a living off of a practice like that," Burtle said. "So we're trying to set up a way that doing this type of work comes back and could support you, in some ways almost like life insurance."
Mark Allen, director of Machine Project, the Echo Park-based gallery-cum-workshop that will be hosting the physical production of the telethon, thinks the project represents the L.A. art scene at its best, creating and inventing for one another's benefit.
"It's sort of about a network relationship between artists," Allen said. "And the idea of the retirement home is almost like a metaphor for the way that the community supports itself."
Allen started Machine Project in 2003 — it assumed nonprofit status in 2005 — in hopes that a loose collective of artists such as Burtle would foster a greater sense of community within the L.A. art scene.
This weekend's telethon is proof that his efforts haven't been for naught. More than 50 creatively inclined contributors will supply videos, objects, musical sets and performance pieces to fill the program's 24-hour scheduled runtime.
Coordinating responsibilities are passed between founders from one telethon to the next, and Burtle is calling this one "Eternal Telethon: Infinity + 24" — so named because it will be the first in the series to run an entire 24 hours.
As lead organizer, he can confirm the participation of Balinese gamelan band Gender Wayang, for instance, and that this broadcast will feature a news report-style interview by L.A. performance and video artist Elana Mann with artists from around the globe. He's also counting on L.A.-based performance artist Gordon Winiemko to host an un-motivational speaking session, and performance artist and sculptor Sojung Kwon, who is from Korea, to initiate a conversation between five people speaking five different languages.
A 24-hour telethon, with so many live appearances, requires a lot of planning and coordinating. In the end, it's impossible to ever fully account for the consistently inconsistent X-factor that is live production.
"One way that we think about performance and cultural production here is that it's like running a scientific experiment," Allen said, referring to events hosted by Machine Project. "I'm going to guess there's going to be parts of this that are amazing, and there'll probably be parts which people will find really boring, but it's all about just being open to a flexible idea of success."
For skeptics and killjoys who are quick to suggest more efficient ways to raise funds, Burtle resolutely defends Eternal Telethon's unique approach.