To me MOVE was a celebration of the joy and power of movement. Our programme explored how the ability to move liberates us, whether that means movement in its rawest form (dance) or the movement of people across times, space and borders (travel). Our programme attempted to convey many different interpretations of what it means to move, and to capture some of that raw kineticism both on screen (through the film programmes) and off (through the performers). In doing so, I hope it encouraged the audience to appreciate their own ability to move, and perhaps even inspired them to think about how important it is that people maintain their freedom to move.
Orgesticulanism presented them with a protagonist who had lost his ability to move, while Paulina’s speech around Ecce Homo raised the issue of what happens when we restrict the movement of ideas. The prominence of European films in our programming drew a direct link between the movement of such ideas and the movement of people – the underlying message was that this entire programme was only made possible because of freedom of movement. Our final movie mashup served to provide a transition from the ideas, once again into raw movement, providing a bridge from screen to spectator, and encouraging our audiences to get on to the feet and move themselves.
The Logic of the programme/ The value of argument
I have fretted before, in previous logs, about the logic of the Move programme. One of my big worries throughout the process of curation was that our ideas were too various and random, the consequence of having “too many” different minds and tastes at work. This was my main concern – that on the night the audience would be overwhelmed by the quantity of ideas on display, they would be bamboozled and bewildered. When trying to describe the event to my friends these worries seemed to be realised. I couldn’t clearly articulate to people what the programme was about. We seemed not to have a clear argument or idea. Every member of the group has a different perspective on what the programme was trying to say.
At the time, this excess of ideas worried me, but since I have been reconsidering this “problem”. Was it a problem that everybody in this large group of curators had their own idea about what we were saying? Is it a problem that I still feel unable to simply articulate what we were saying? Does it matter that when we read our postcards of feedback, that every audience member seemed to come away with a different idea?
This week I have been reading, Laura U. Marks interesting article “The Ethical Presenter: Or How To Have Good Arguments” which covers this exact question. What is the role of the curator? In this article she describes three different approaches:
- Respect the work – let it breathe
- Respect the audience – give them space to discuss
- Use an argument to respect both work and audience
Initially, when we started to put together our programme I was firmly in the “make an argument” category. I believed that we had to frame our films around an argument if our programme was going to work. I feared creating something that felt woolly, directionless or random. I wanted to use a framing argument to give the event a clear structure.
However, we soon hit upon the big problem with starting with an argument – finding the films to support this. The risk with this was two-fold: firstly, there might not be the films out there to support our argument; secondly we might be dismissing really interesting films because they did not fit with our thesis. We also hit upon another barrier, which was clarifying our argument. As we veered between venues explicitly political approaches were taken off (then put back on) the table, meaning that there was never a moment where we could sit and fully hash out a coherent argument and conclude “this is what we are trying to say”. We also hit upon the political limitations of the archive. One of the archives roles is to preserve national identity, and thus our sweeping arguments about nationhood and migration were somewhat curtailed by the lack of representation of multiple nations in our chosen archives. We were limited by the material we could access.
Ultimately these difficulties lead us to stumble into a different methodology, which coincidentally, turned out to be precisely the sort of approach that Marks describes in her “dinner-party model”
Prepare your series of courses with subtle attention to sequencing (including appetizers, hearty dishes, palate cleansers, bitter greens, and dessert); this is the curating. Invite your guests with some care to provide conversation partners for the works; this is the audience. Then let the party happen, don’t try to control it, and trust that something interesting and satisfying will happen in the course of the evening. The dinner-party model is performative in that it depends on the unfolding of unforeseen events. (Marks, 2004, 38-39)
We didn’t lose the thread of our argument entirely in the curation process, but we did see the argument shift and morph as we put the programme together, responding to the limitations we hit upon in terms of access. We tried to provide framing devices that gave hints of this arguments, suggestions of direction – the programme notes, our marketing materials, the MCs – but we didn’t impose a clear argument from above.
Ultimately we left it to the audience to find their own meaning in the programme, with prods yes, but also with relative autonomy. Elements of the argument that I felt had been lost –Europe for instance – re-emerged and new angles also arose – such as movement as an act of protest. The result was a fascinating array of response, with some common themes but also many different interpretations of what was being said by these different perspectives on the very broad theme of movement. By avoiding over determination we were allowing the films to speak for themselves and to each other and the results were fruitful.
The Collective Experience – as a curator
Something that was interesting that emerged from our work was how experiences of collective viewing could not only provide an experiential effect (i.e. collective viewing is different from independent viewing, a shared experience) but that collective viewing also seemed to allow the generation meaning for the individuals watching.
The first example of the transformative effect of collective viewing that springs to mind is the moment when first watched our suggested films together at the Moving Image Archive in order to choose our programme. Up until that point, we had been attempting to make group-programming decisions based on independent viewing at home. It had been a struggle to make final decisions using this method. I think this struggle stemmed from several factors.
Firstly, we were not all able to find the time to watch all the films suggested, which meant we were not all watching (and suggesting) from the same point of reference. There was also the issue that at this stage because the programming decisions were supposed to be made as a group (we were all programmers) no one wanted to step forward and assert strong views in case this was interpreted as “taking over”. Taste is so personal, I do not think anyone wanted to step forward and declare their taste definitive by advocating firmly for one film over another. These problems were confounded by the fact that this crucial decision making period fell during the Christmas holiday and as a result were all working remotely (with some members of the group entirely uncontactable).
It was easier then to make decisions when we were together in person in a group then, but this wasn’t the only reason why this afternoon at MIA proved so constructive. There was also something that seemed to happen when we watched these films in the “correct” context, on a big screen in a dark room, with music, as opposed to on our laptops at home. Context had an effect, increasing our concentration, making the work more immersive, allowing to see details in the films missed on tiny screens and to connect the films, by playing music to accompany them, to the performative element of the event itself.
So there were clearly environmental factors at play here. We could achieve a level of attention in a screening room that we could not achieve outside of it. While the MIA screening room hardly reaches the extremes of design of, for instance, Peter Kubelka’s Invisible Cinema, it does provide more favourable conditions for watching than most of us could achieve independently in our homes. The size of the screen, the darkness, the sound proofing, the removal of distractions: all these conditions contributed to greater levels of attention to the films and therefore a greater capacity to notice what these films might offer. We were also, in the screening room, much closer to simulating the real experience of our audience on the night than we were at home, and this allowed us to better realise which films could hold attention when well presented, and which might lose our audience.
However, I do not that think that this decision making process was only made easier because we were watching films in a more cinematic setting. I do not think the decisions we made would have been made as easily if we had all chosen to watch these films using these exhibition circumstances but alone and at different times in separate screening rooms. There seemed to be something that happened, a moment of connection (and of meaning making) occurring between us as a collected audience and the screen itself.
Did this decision making process become easier because of the mutual encouragement found in that moment of collective viewing? If we look at this using Julian Hanich’s discussion of quiet attention as joint action, we could conclude that the reason why the selection process began to make sense in that MIA screening room in a way it didn’t outside was to do with the group’s shared collective focus. We had a strong “we-intention” – the desire to watch these films together in order to make a selection, which in turn was reflected in our viewing as a “joint action”, we were quietly and attentively watching with a clear shared objective, therefore the act of watching in this instance was an active joint action. Could we then say that the joint-action of collective viewing enabled the selection process because together the parts became greater than the whole? Our collected attention at the particular moment in time was more powerful than our individual attention alone at home? Were we able to find clarity and meaning because together our collective viewing allowed a sort of jigsaw puzzle construction that lead to the clarification of our joint intention?
Following Han Bernard Schmid, it could be construed that we began with the a clear “practical collective intentionality” (we wanted to choose films) but that this practical intentionality was only enabled because in the process of watching together we were also able to achieve two other we-intentions – “cognitive collective intentionality” (sharing an opinion or conviction) and “affective collective intentionality” (sharing an emotion or mood). Although we did not necessarily embark upon the joint action of collective viewing with the conscious desire to achieve all three of these states of collective intentionality, during the process of watching together as curators I think it could be argued that we touched upon all three of these types of “we-intention” and that it was by embarking upon these three levels of engagement that we were able to make clear decisions about the work to include.
The programming made sense when watched collectively in a way it didn’t when watched individually. Coherence was being created during the process of collective viewing.
The Collective Experience – as an audience
This emergence of a kind of hive mind understanding could also be seen in our audience. Reading the feedback postcards, it appears that the audience didn’t find it too hard to find meaning in the programme. The experience of watching these films together collected in a programme seemed to most of the audience who attended to have made a satisfying amount of sense. They certainly found meaning and message, talking about Trump, about movement as agency and the European melting pot. The Europe angle was particularly interesting as I felt the group had pretty much left that strand behind as the programme had developed, although I see with hindsight that our film choices made a very clear statement about the value of Europe and cultural exchange, especially via Ecce Homo.
By watching these films at the archive in this manner we were also affectively simulating the environment of that we would be creating for our audience during our event. We couldn’t predict what our audience would intend to do or how they would behave, but we could conclude that if we designed programme that sparked moments of cognitive and affective collective intentionality, that could spark collective emotional and/or intellectual responses, then perhaps we could convert these collective actions into a practical collective intentionality, perhaps some kind of shared political engagement. Farfetched and over ambitious perhaps, but are we touching upon a model of curatorship that unapologetically aims to produced practical shared responses from its audiences?
Actively Aiming for Silent Intersubjectivity
Could we take this idea of joint intention and action to an extreme? Could we aim, as curators to convert intellectual and emotional movement into political movement? Could we achieve through this event moments of what Pagis describes as “silent intersubjectivity:”
A more general and inclusive form of intersubjectivity, a form that is not obsessed with content, with exact comparisons of one mind to another. Silent intersubjectivity can actually prevent such processes of ‘othering’ by allowing for difference under a general rubric of sameness. It offers a wide canopy that connects people based on embodied involvement in the same event (Pagis quoted in Hanich, 2014, p 353)
Maybe I am extending this all too far, maybe it’s pompous to bestow the curator (and films themselves) with such power. But I’m struck by a couple of things I’ve read this week. Firstly, Marks’ passing mention of Picasso’s painting Guernica being covered up at the UN when Colin Powel came to present his apparently rational argument for the Iraq war. Art still has active political power, this anecdote remind us, we are all scared of art, and perhaps we should be. Secondly I read a wonderful story this week about a student in London who crowdfunded to send a group of under privileged black school girls on a trip to see Hidden Figures: http://www.huckmagazine.com/art-and-culture/film-2/june-eric-udorie-takes-400-black-girls-hidden-figures/
I’m struck that now more than ever we need to embrace cinema as a powerful political tool Could we use cinema as a uniting tool? Should this be the aim of the curator in the divided world? Should we in fact be taking ethical curation a step beyond Marks model – films which raise arguments – and instead be aiming for something (perhaps laughably) utopian – films which unite audiences? Seeds of ideas here, but something I feel that is worth exploring further.