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Book review: Film Curatorship (2008)

Film Curatorship

Film Curatorship: Archives, Museums, and the Digital Marketplace (2008)
Eds. Paolo Cherchi Usai, David Francis, Alexander Horwath, and Michael Loebenstein

Imagine for a moment that you wanted to build a film museum that would look back at history and also toward the future. How would you define the evolution of “the film experience,” as distinct from what came before and what new image experiences are to come? If you decided to collect new media, how would you separate them? Would you be more devoted to public moving-image viewing or to the technological-aesthetic complex of filmmaking and film projection? Would you allow digital reproductions or define your museum as a museum that only collects works of the “photochemical era”?

This book takes a broad, philosophically inquisitive approach to the above set of questions, in order to educate the public on what it means to curate, preserve and archive various kinds of film/video materials. It is organized as a series of conversations between four curators. The “collective voice” of Film Curatorship thus seeks to avoid conclusive statements and to emphasize the uniqueness of each contributor. This format highlights the diverse spaces in which film curatorship is understood: whether it be a library, archive, or film museum, the sphere of curating entails special problems and parameters.

Each chapter treats a set of curatorial issues specific to the film-world (“Archival Control”, “Presentation and Performance”, “Film as Artefact”), which the commentators weigh in to varying degrees, sharing their past experiences. Two chapters offer case studies within this framework, one of which is a fascinating interview with archivist-curator Alexander Horwath discussing his responsibilities as film programmer for documenta 12, the 2007 edition of the recurring, temporary exhibition of contemporary art that occurs in Kassel, Germany every five years. The only conventional, non-conversation material is an incomplete glossary of terms, a statement of film-curatorial values, and a brief seminar paper by one of the authors criticizing the implicit “neoliberal” underpinnings of the turn toward digital rhetoric in the archival community.

While the text lacks a formalized argument, the various conversations and fragments do add up to an argumentative narrative that I will summarize here. The role of curator within the broad sphere we call ‘cinema’ is something typically ignored or taken for granted. Like theorists and historians, who tend to be primarily concerned with questions of meaning, the curator of film has to acknowledge and work within the strict boundaries set by the institutions that s/he services, often making the idea of criticality itself a sort of liability. In this volume, for instance, the various film-curatorial voices speak to the hazards of procuring legal rights from copyright owners, frustrated that any criticism could result in an archive losing valuable access to material. Other sections discuss such dilemmas as deciding when to screen a film if it has been poorly preserved.

In this way, the somewhat mystifying concept of “filmic text” gives way to what the authors describe as an “artefactual” approach to film, so as to make explicit the contextual factors that render a work historically and materially unique. Such factors include: 1) historic and contemporary modes of spectatorship, 2) certain practices associated with the medium, and 3) comparing different media and different practices (for example, addressing what is lost, or what is gained when film migrates online).

Film Curatorship has a polemical side (in chapters such as “Content, Platforms, and the User”) that suggests the curatorial community sees itself in a state of crisis. Namely, contemporary audiences –academics included– seem alarmingly uninterested in the way that new modes of presentation affect the filmic image. A film scholar memorably tells one of the book’s authors, “I don’t mind watching old films in digital format.” Such attitudes ignore the limited life of celluloid, that the so-called reproducible art of film is only becoming more scarce and therefore harder to preserve without sustained, institutional support. Austrian Film Museum curator Michael Loebstein seeks to bridge the vital work of curating to film-historical and film-critical ways of thinking, stating: “[W]e must look into the future and say, how are researchers and academia going to describe the popular audiovisual entertainment of 2050, without having a place to go back and look at what cinema was – not only in the 1910s and 20s, but also in the 1970s, 80s, 90s or in the [present] transitional period?” (27).

The curators all seem to agree that the rise of digital culture represents the most urgent and disruptive process to the profession, and much of the conversation centers around how best to negotiate the analog/digital confusions that seem to render film archiving, at worst, into a defensive and retrograde form of nostalgia. Here the book suffers from its dialogical structure; rather than offer a set of prescriptions to resolve the crisis, the archivists and curators can only manage to speculate, and often at cross purposes, how each film-archival institution should engage the digital paradigm and ensure relevancy to the public. Should archives focus on a “moving image experience” that includes video works, moving-image installations with more traditional celluloid films, or should they strive for a narrow conception of the “filmic image experience” for the sake of greater legibility, but perhaps at the expense of broader appeal? No definitive answer is given.

In a section describing curatorial values, contributor David Francis points out that current research on film curation and its history is still in its infancy, focusing on personalities while lacking in systematic treatment. Ultimately, the same criticism could be leveled at the book itself. As one of the few, existent resources on film curatorship, the text is severely lacking in such basic areas as professional terms, the history of the film-curatorial movement(s), or even a well-organized layout to locate relevant topics quickly. It therefore fails to provide a clear definition of the field. Worse, sometimes the small font and excessively “busy” pages of text make it difficult for each author’s individual persona (reduced to their initials, as in an interview format) to shine through all the talk.

Nevertheless, the lack of published material on this subject means that the text is still worth checking out; the reader will just have to dig for concrete examples or do some detective work to piece together the historical context to which the interlocutors are responding. The central premise that the future of film curatorship depends on forging alliances beyond the film-world is persuasive, if somewhat underdeveloped by the end. Nevertheless, I would highly recommend excerpting bits from the first section of the text (“The Vienna Sessions”) as a primer for graduate or upper-level students in Film Archiving and related fields.