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6 Apr 2018 / by Richard Sowada

Richard Sowada on the Curatorial Role

Close-up of rows of film hanging close together.

35mm film strips. Photo by Chris Sullivan (CC BY-NC 2.0)

‘How has the curatorial role expanded today?’ Richard Sowada, Director of Revelation Perth International Film Festival, Perth and former Head of Film Programs at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) from 2006 to 2015, contributes his insights below.

There’s a strategic conflict for many public institutions, between being all things to all people and making deeper editorial statements. In 2010, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) mounted the Dennis Hopper and the New Hollywood exhibition (from the Cinémathèque française), when I was working there. To complement the exhibition, our Film Program unit set about to provide a multi-layered programme, which ran the gamut from experimental cinema to feature films, political statements to recent documentary. Our interpretive concept was widely met with the question: ‘Why not simply show all of Hopper’s films?’ I’ve seen this type of response on numerous occasions.

Defining a top-ten list of Hopper films can be done in a keystroke (although finding them is a different matter). For me, taking this obvious rather than interrogative or interpretative approach is a programming, not a curatorial, response. This literal approach is democratic; most people agree on—and in many cases have voted for—the films on a top-ten list. But is the list curated? No. This is the difference between a democratic approach and a singular interpretive vision. Now, which should we provide for our audiences: easy, direct connections, or intellectual comment and perspective? This leeching out of challenging contextual approaches (i.e., specialised knowledge) in institutional environments moves us away from rigour towards digestible appeal.

As for the democracy of curation, I ask: ‘Is a film director or writer democratic with their vision of a film, or are they precise in the reaction they seek to elicit?’

A person standing in front of two artworks mounted on a dark grey gallery wall. Both artworks depict the same image of a man in a cowboy hat, one in a light blue colour and the other in a bright red colour.

Dennis Hopper and the New Hollywood exhibition, mounted at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image from 2009 to 2010, curated by La Cinémathèque française, Paris. Photo: photographer Nolan Bradbury, image courtesy ACMI

Their ability to push the ‘cry now’ button is not based on a notion of, ‘Would you like to cry now?’, but rather, ‘Now is the time I want you all to cry’. It isn’t a question; it’s a statement. By crying, the audience may ask questions about their own emotions (‘Why did that make me cry?’), or even the collective (‘Funny how we all cried’). From there, the democratic discussion with the film-maker or artist behind the work begins.

In reaching that effect, the screen artist has ultimately placed the emotion at a specific point in an undemocratic way and with a singular purpose: ‘Do and react as I will.’

This lack of democracy doesn’t mean the space in which we view the work is any less social than if a more democratic approach had been taken. It’s not about many voices—it’s about one voice working with an elemental honesty that can unify individuals and make usually private emotions public. This ability—to give audiences no choice but to act the way you as director or curator intend—has enormous power.

I feel the role of the curator and the institution is to channel and select these individual voices like a ‘social’ and spiritual medium. This isn’t to devalue a multiple-voices approach, but rather to map their contours, apply them to art, and connect to the emotional core. The curated experience and canon must live at the centre around which individual voices orbit.

Behind all this sits a critical approach, a deep understanding of audience, a precise purpose, and an editorial approach. Because without some curatorial lens to sharpen the image, definition and focus are lost.

This article was originally published on M+ Stories.

Richard Sowada has been an active player in the Australian screen culture sector for nearly two decades. He founded the Revelation Perth International Film Festival in 1997 and was Head of Film Programs at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) from 2006 to 2015.

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