It’s tough being an archivist these days. The digital revolution has shaken the profession to its very foundations. All those hallowed archival values like originality, uniqueness, provenance, and protection of the material object, have become irrelevant, as the digital turns all material culture into infinitely reproducible data. Gone are the specialised areas of knowledge concerning conservation of physical materials, whether textiles, tapes or tri-acetate; gone are theories of medium and message being ontologically indivisible; forget Rudolf Arnheim and Siegfried Kracauer, digitality mashes it all up to 1 and 0.

We all suffer from too much modernity, but recently film archivists have had to face a paradigm shift in their field of such momentous consequence that shell shock has set in. While it was a truism that the technology of film in 35mm had survived for 115 years, it is now evident that the medium is marked, destined in the medium-term for complete obsolescence. Meanwhile, a debate has raged whether YouTube is an archive; YouTube on steroids may make the profession of film archivist superfluous.

Which is ironic, since film archives were themselves a product of modernity. The Museum of Modern Art founded its film department in the late 1920s, influenced by high modernist art. The British Film Institute, the Cinémathèque Française, and the Reichsfilmarchiv – the other founding members of the Fédération Internationale des Archives du Film in 1939 – were equally products of modernity and simultaneously breeding grounds for modernist film movements, like the French New Wave and the British Free Cinema Movement. But with the net as a giant archive and iPhones as an option for the consumption of moving images, film archives, cinémathèques, and film museums have seemingly become irrelevant.

The members of our profession are apparently at a loss at what to do. Indeed, the image of drowning came to me repeatedly, as I was reading Paolo Cherchi Usai, David Francis, Alexander Horwath and Michael Loebenstein’s Film Curatorship: Archives, Museums, and the Digital Marketplace. They have had the courage to face questions about the field to which there are few and no easy answers. And they have made it neither easy for themselves nor for the reader by choosing a form of discourse that emphasises process as much as product. With all its repetitions, double-backing, and let-it-all-hang-out discussion, this is an important work, perhaps the most important contemporary analysis of the multiple identities that constitute moving image archiving, the authors neither speaking with one voice, nor denying their individual curatorial personas. But the work’s no-exit scenario also makes Film Curatorship a deeply conservative work, railing against modernity in the tradition of cultural critiques from Oswald Spengler to Arnold Toynbee. If one has grown up during the analog era, one cannot but help deeply sympathising with the collective’s dilemma and agreeing with much of their analysis, if not their definition, of film curatorship. Yet there are viable strategies for survival, without falling into the kind of cultural pessimism at work here.

Rather than writing polished texts, the editors (or co-authors) have structured their book as a series of conversations between individual members of the group, transcribed verbatim in ten chapters. Defining film curatorship in the age of digitality, the participants acknowledge that there are no parameters or preordained structures to their discussion, so the reader struggles with the authors, touching on virtually every problem, conundrum and opportunity confronting the field of film archiving: What is it we are actually preserving? Film or the experience in a cinema? Can analog archives be saved? Do we collect everything or curate collections selectively? What if the film artefact attains museum status? How do film archives utilise digital media? Few conclusions are reached, but personalities begin to emerge.

Each of the authors represents a different film archivist generation and each brings his own point of view to the project. David Francis (b. 1935), the former Chief of the Motion Picture Division at the Library of Congress and British Film Institute, takes the most traditional view, seeing archivists as gatekeepers of analog archives, the experts teaching the unwashed masses the value of cinema. Paolo Cherchi Usai (b. 1957), previously director of the National Film and Sound Archive in Australia and now at the Haghefilm Foundation in Amsterdam, analyses succinctly the big picture, but fears the inevitable, the complete obsolescence of film archives. Alexander Horwath (b. 1964), the Director of the Austrian Filmmuseum in Vienna, represents the film programmer, privileging art cinema and vowing to carry on, when only an educated and social elite will venture into the cinema. Michael Loebenstein (b. 1974), an academic well-versed in archives, is the only real supporter of digitality in the group, although he too wrings his hands about analog’s fall from grace. Interspersed are essays, position papers, and email exchanges, all of which contribute to the overall montage. Kristin Thompson contributes a single blog, the lone female voice in a field that actually has real gender parity.

There are multiple issues. Everyone agrees that copyright completely restricts the ability of archives to preserve and disseminate treasures in their vaults. Major studios and individual copyright holders alike are happy to exploit new archive restorations for profit, but seldom want to pay for the expensive work of restoration. Furthermore, as Cherchi Usai notes, moving image archives may be precluded from collecting digital moving images, because the studios may refuse to relinquish codes that can be infinitely cloned. Such a policy would take us back to the era when the studio heads thought all non-profit film archivists were pirates, eager to steal copyrights. Other tensions have existed between film archivists and academics, the latter failing to understand why they can’t have a DVD of any film in the archive. Film curators treasure nitrate, but can the general audience tell the difference or even care?

The issue of medium specificity comes up repeatedly over the following chapters, the authors arguing that film is film and not digital content. Horwath in “The Market vs. the Museum” sees the matter in economic terms: “As an ideological tool of Cultural Darwinism, the current use of the term Digital in a certain cultural context mirrors the use of Market Forces as a tool of Social Darwinism.” (p. 81) Because, as Horwath puts it, “it’s not just about preserving, it is about keeping culture alive.” (p. 49) Like the others, he believes that the era of “passivity” in the archive has given way to a proactive approach which insists on medium specificity, limiting access to original objects, controlling public venues, and developing historical context through a number of media, whether live performance, publications, DVD extras, or websites. Like other cultural conservatives, the authors see the decline in cinephilia as a general cultural malaise.

Medium specificity is also invoked in their insistence on preserving not just moving images as artefacts, but what is termed the “working system of cinema”, namely physical film, projector, screen. In order to achieve that goal, Horwath and Francis demand that film archives treat their collections as unique museum objects with intrinsic artistic value. At the same time, they don’t want to create an auction environment (as happened in the art photography market), because then archives wouldn’t be able to afford the prices. There is a note of desperation in this strategy, given the fact that 90% of today’s teenagers probably prefer their iPhone for “film” consumption.

There are also frank discussions of how public film archives must fund themselves, dependent on the good graces of donors, fundraisers, and film foundations that put a premium on publicity in their funding choices, then take all the credit for preservation. The authors take a stand against making films available “as digital content” in order to finance archival operations. But in many government-funded film archives the pressure to throw open collections via the digital has become a virtual fait accompli. And no one knows what to do about movie consumption on iPhones. One at least questionable thesis postulates that after some 50 years, a “transition period”, the public will again want to return to analog film projection, because the beauty of the chemical image will be recognised.

Cherchi Usai’s “Charter of Curatorial Values” reaffirms many cherished film archival precepts, including: “No reproduction, transfer, or migration of the original work for preservation or access purposes will be allowed on other formats or media before a work is accessible in its original format or medium, insofar as the original format or medium exists and is available.” (p. 150) A very noble goal that is probably unachievable in the real world of archives, because the digital train has in fact left the station.

After 230 pages of sometimes contentious discussion, the authors arrive at a seemingly uncontroversial definition of film curatorship (at least to an outsider), which makes up the whole of Chapter 10: “The art of interpreting the aesthetics, history, and technology of cinema through the selective collection, preservation, and documentation of films and their exhibition in archival presentations.” (p. 231) But within the field, such a notion flies in the face of what has been thought to be the traditional role of archives, namely to collect everything, without making judgements of value or excluding material; archivists preserve and then make accessible to scholars and the public, who in turn utilise material for research and contextualise it in new works.

Rather than being disinterested “keepers of the frame”, the authors advocate active curatorship and decision-making about the objects being collected, preserved, and exhibited. In fact, cinémathèques, film museums, and even film archives have long curated film programs and exhibitions. But the issue seems to be selection. Given that no institution can collect everything, due to budget and organisational issues, it’s no surprise that regardless of its stated policy, archives actually do make curatorial decisions about what is to be saved and what isn’t. But theory dictates that the archivist should remain agnostic in relation to the artefacts. Strangely, no one discusses the fact that in the digital realm, selection is not necessary, because theoretically you can collect everything without prejudice. Finally, then, film curatorship is a calculated attack on the present internet strategy of creating open digital archives where the user makes all decisions about value.

Indeed, curatorship becomes a code word for control. Since archivists have totally lost control over the technology of moving images, these authors argue for at least controlling artefacts: “the curator has the authority to make accessible the original artifact under strictly controlled conditions in qualified spaces” (p. 19). Over and over, these curators emphasise that the public is unable to make informed decisions about the value of images and that it is up to curators to contextualise them in film historical terms. Since digitality obliterates history by removing all markers of the past, digital content can never equal film, unless, as Loebenstein states, one produces critical historical editions of films that make a film’s evolution visible. This culturally conservative view finds its correlative in the cultural pessimism expressed by Cherchi Usai in “Five Scenarios” for the future of film archives; the scenarios run the gamut from holding fast to 35mm analog projection to a total internet archive, completely independent of archivists. None of the scenarios is deemed acceptable. Even scenario four, which calls for “some traditional projection, some digital projection, some wider dissemination of the collection via the internet” (p. 193), is rejected, because of the extreme expense, and because audiences cannot but help comparing “film vs. digital” experiences and inevitably choose the digital.

Given the long term storage potential of film, the 18-month turnover of digital file formats, and the sheer volume of film material still to be digitised, my own view is that film archives will be around for quite a while, probably preserving and projecting analog and digital film, but also disseminating film material via the internet or other digital carrier. Even the death of film will not necessarily mean the end of film culture, as theorised here. Regardless of your point of view, though, Film Curatorship raises important questions and is a serious and well-conceived read for anyone interested in film culture and its evolution.

Film Curatorship: Archives, Museums, and the Digital Marketplace, edited by Paolo Cherchi Usai, David Francis, Alexander Horwath and Michael Loebenstein, FilmmuseumSynemaPublikationen vol. 9, Vienna, 2008.

About The Author

Dr Jan-Christopher Horak is Director of the UCLA Film and Television Archive and founder of Making Images Move: Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists. The author of several books, he is presently working on a book on designer and filmmaker Saul Bass.