Oberhausen is an unusual festival. Content is selected and curated, as it is elsewhere, and yet, at Oberhausen, it doesn’t always feel as though the end result is films screening. Sometimes it seems as though they hang.
Among its audience of exhibitors, distributors, programmers, critics, artists, curators, academics, educators, practitioners, students and industry others, there is as much space for semantics to cause division as there is opinion and response. Some divisions can never be completely resolved. As such, it seems almost arbitrary to still be battling over the differences between selection and curation, film and moving image, experimental and artist’s work. What these conversations do offer, though, is a kind of liminal space, and one that speaks directly to the attendees of this short film festival.
In 2007 Oberhausen invited guests to the Kinomuseum, a program that explored the relationship between cinema and museum. In subsequent years this liminal space continued to be a point of focus for the festival. Two years ago Oberhausen was focused on the possibility of cinema as an interactive space. They called this themed program “Flatness” and it explored the notion that cinema spaces may be redundant. Last year they challenged the very concept of what we understand as “film” through their “Memories Can’t Wait: Film Without Film” curated program.
This year, the festival returned to an acknowledgement of the cinema space as the primary location for the exhibition of film. They did this through physically taking the program into the auditorium. The theme was called “The Third Dimension”.
Curator Björn Speidel writes, in his accompanying essay, “I consider the possibilities of stereoscopy in film to be as powerful as those of sound or colour.” (1) If we are to take Speidel at his word then the function of stereoscopy in cinema is largely formal and can be applied or removed from any film, regardless of its content or intent. Why then, in liminal spaces where conversation is expected to surround theoretical function, has this curator, and potentially the festival as the program’s overarching platform, opened its catalogue to a dimension that at its best is discussed as immersive and its worst is relegated to gimmickry?
This is where the semantic battle between selection and curation comes into play. Though there are various strands within the festival, the sections can easily be divided by into two categories: curated and selected. The curated strands include the theme, profiles, podiums, archives and various other film programs. The selected, then, is where the competition films, including the MuVi music video awards and the distributor programs best fit. In the former someone has carefully handpicked and arranged the films with authorial intent: they want to say something and present the work. In the latter, the idea is that the works are taken from submissions or existing collections as a kind of high quality tasting platter. Of course, they are presented according to a structure and have also been “arranged”. The main difference, however, is that those films that have been “selected” rather than “curated” are allowed to simply hang. They are not expected to screen in the same way. They don’t necessarily have to perform a function pertaining to expectation. Furthermore, they do not need to be accompanied by written essays or explanations of authorial intent and are not expected (though they may do so) to say something determinate about or collectively with the other films in that program. They are, for better or worse, presented to the viewer with an “in competition” agenda or as a part of a wider, diverse catalogue of work.
For Speidel, “The Third Image” was not about context or trajectory, “The history of 3D cinema can be found in the museum,” (2) he writes. Nor was it about great storytelling. Céline Tricart’s Lapse of Time (2013) sees a young boy fascinated by a clock tower endlessly resetting his own temporal journey. The film was like a mash up of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011) and either one of the following time horror fantasy films; Triangle (Christopher Smith, 2009) or Los Cronocrimenes (Timecrimes, Nacho Vigalondo, 2007). But the 3D was sharp and created a good sense of depth within the image. Still, the content, its lack of imagination and twee sensibility didn’t offer a clear indication of what, theoretically, the curator hoped to communicate. The film did offer qualitative experience, though, through its temporal and aesthetic virtues.
This act of “locating” the qualitative experience soon became a focal point for festivalgoers focused on the themed program. Sebastian Buerkner’s The Chimera of M (2013) was another work, which, if viewing as a part of a curatorial program could be considered a baffling choice. But, if taken at face value, as a work simply allowed to hang, may have been better received as the deconstruction in search of emotive response that it is. The images themselves are fractured, mirroring the abstraction and unreliable nature of both memory and personal experience. The protagonist tells a story that is as inconsequential as the base narrative in Jean-Luc Godard’s Adieu au langage (Goodbye to Language, 2014). Perhaps what we were supposed to glean was only a simple emotive response. Engaging with the disengagement of recollection and personal storytelling as it applies to shared stories, and the use of 3D, is what The Chimera of M best offers.
Through the archive presentations – a strand that has fast become the crown jewel of the festival – the role of curation took another, far more intriguing turn. For the past two years the archive presentations have focused on two major areas: (i) problems, threats and concerns facing the archive, and (ii) films within the collection that either demonstrate the former or present what can be achieved in spite of it. This year the archive presentations, across the board, were far more focused on the materials within their collections, with issues pertaining to process and survival taking a back seat. Attendance at all four sessions was impressive, showing how quickly and successfully the festival has built this initiative into overall structure and philosophy.
The BFI National Archive kicked things off with a collection of John Maybury’s early films. The three shorts, Court of Miracles (1982), The Technology of Souls (1981) and Solitude (1981), were scanned at 2K and the colour grading took place in a full theatre space to ensure they would present as accurately as possible for theatrical presentation. The focus, then, for the BFI, was clearly to ensure the works would be seen. What this program revealed is that preservation, though a key concern, is only one of many aims for what we are now being very actively encouraged to understand as a living archive.
In the accompanying catalogue essay to the presentation this idea is further cemented. First, the text explicitly states, “Public collections such as the BFI National Archive have a duty to make work accessible.” (3) Second, William Fowler, who penned the text and presented the work, is not credited as an archivist. His official title is Curator of Artists’ Moving Image, BFI National Archive. That’s not to say that he isn’t also a preservationist, he absolutely is. What’s clear, however, from both the screening and the presentation, is that archives, aware that their staff have an intimate relationship with the work, are the people best situated to make it visible.
The second presentation was from the Academy Film Archive. Schooling many about what work the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences actually do outside of the Academy Awards, this presentation was especially exciting. Mark Toscano, whose credit reads “filmmaker, curator and film preservationist”, presented a fantastically vibrant selection of films. Each title was clearly chosen for a combination of reasons; beautifully restored, rarely exhibited and films that he, as curator and film lover, has a genuine passion for. The result was an entertaining, educational and occasionally anecdotal presentation.
Vanessa Renwick’s Toxic Shock (1983), where tampons are used in Molotov cocktails, was an absolute highlight of the program. Its description in the catalogue reads, “A noisy, prickly, bloody, hairy punk rock fuck you shouted from the edge of a social/medical oblivion.” (4) And it’s entirely accurate. The music is high energy and Renwick completely nails the tone when it comes to aggressive, passionate, pop entertainment protest. She also has a wicked sense of humour. At three minutes in length – enough to provoke and entertain without ever overstaying its welcome – Toxic Shock might just be the best film I’ve seen all year.
The next in the series saw seven surprising and fun restorations from the Österreichisches Filmmuseum (Austrian Film Museum). Much like the two presentations before it, the Austrian Film Museum’s major priority was to communicate their desire to make the work visible. There is little value in preserving significant works if no one sees them and the predominant principle that this particular archive was founded under says so explicitly, “The exhibition space of a film museum is the screen.” (5) Though preservation prints are integral to the work of this and other archives, the real issue is making sure that exhibition prints and digital files (mostly DCPs) are created and then made accessible to cinematheques, festivals, cinemas and film groups interested in showing them.
What the Austrian Film Museum also revealed in their showcase was that the same level of high quality practice is used for works that might in some spaces be thought of as low brow, as well as what cine-purists might think of as work “worthy” of restoration. Our historical narrative is, cinematic or otherwise, built upon a multiplicity and diversity of materials, after all. As such, the presentation from Austrian Film Museum deliberately placed a rare make up test for Elizabeth Taylor and a series of six cinema advertisements for d-c-fix, a type of cling wrap (or contact for Australian readers) that is used to cover books and other surfaces, alongside social realist documentary avant-garde works like Hernals (1967), a film that shows everyday life in the Viennese district of the titular Hernals.
This approach to presenting the archive, through a selected program and presentation, makes an important statement about the process of curation. What the Austrian Film Museum has achieved is in fact a deconstruction of the curatorial process. Why, their selection argues, wouldn’t you restore and show tests and advertisements alongside the socially perceived valued work in such a collection. Given the reputation of Oberhausen and the high level of accredited guests in attendance (including other internationally renowned archivists and curators), opting to demonstrate breadth along with the physically significant results, instead of pandering to socially acceptable qualitative rules, is a bold and significant statement.
This view of non-discrimination against form, mode and category is reflected in the festival’s own ethos. What best represents Oberhausen is a lack of hierarchy in presenting short film. Equal importance, weight and screen space is devoted to all manner of moving image that might fit into what we categorise as short film. There are no rules other than duration. And even then, the stipulation is really only such that feature film is excluded. Though the festival has a reputation for showcasing predominantly experimental and avant-garde works, they also don’t shy away from narrative or documentary. This is evident in both the competition sections as well as some of the individual artist profiles.
William Raban’s work, 72-82 (2014), is a film that runs 60 minutes 30 seconds in length. It is, for ease of classification, possible to call it a short feature documentary. But, for argument’s sake, it is also an artist’s short film. While the work itself is spectacular and though there is much to say about Raban’s superbly political and socially minded body of work as a whole, what’s most significant here, under the present examination of curation, is that this particular work was given a stand alone screening. It spoke holistically and singularly at once. It gave a comprehensive introduction to Raban’s profile within the festival and was again part of an individual’s curated program.
Jonathan P. Watts, a London based “writer and editor”, presented all of Raban’s work, in conversation with the artist, under the guise of curator. That’s not to say that the festival could not have introduced and hosted these conversation sessions themselves, of course they could. What it does say, though, is something about the value of individuals who have a working knowledge of and access to the artists’ work. Oberhausen has clearly decided to elevate the people who represent leaders in their fields to select, arrange and explicate what have become categories or strands within the larger festival context. More often than not a resounding success, this approach is yet another way in which Oberhausen sets itself apart from so many other festivals.
Similarly, a third party “video artist and curator”, Nakazawa Aki, put together the Ito Takashi profile. Aki’s selection may even constitute the boldest of all. Across three programs, she revealed three distinct areas within Takashi’s career as a filmmaker. The first showcased his most well known works, including his internationally regarded masterpiece of experimental film, Spacy (1981). What he creates in this, and other early works, is a sense of the uncanny within reality. The images appear to almost endlessly, and seamlessly, fit inside one another so that we, as viewers, repeatedly look, explore or perhaps fall into the same space. The effect is mesmeric and one of the most remarkable cinema experiences this, or any other festival, could offer on a big screen.
The second of his profile sessions was the more intriguing in terms of curatorial choice. Present at all three sessions, and there to introduce his own films, Takashi admitted that he was unhappy with many of the shorts in this program. They were, he said, largely unfinished. Though the audience en masse laughed this off as an artist’s pursuit of perfection, what it really meant was that the final word in curatorial control did not sit with the artist himself. Clearly keen to show Takashi’s breadth as well as repute, Aki had curated with transparency and honesty. Ultimately, this afforded the profile with a greater sense of integrity.
Whether or not some of the programs felt overly constructed, offering up expertise and authorial intent, context and trajectory, skill and obstacle, what each of the curated programs achieved with aplomb was the creation of a liminal space for the viewer. In that space the viewer was asked to take on more than just the works themselves. Interrogating the process and role of curating may not have been the festival’s theme this year. But it was present in every session and I dare say offers up a fascinating departure point for further discussion and interrogation in 2016.
Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen
30 April – 5 May 2015
Festival website: http://www.kurzfilmtage.de
1. Bjorn Speidel, ‘The Third Image”, 61. Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen official catalogue, p. 201.
2. Ibid, p. 207.
3. William Fowler, ‘The BFI National Archive presents early films by John Maybury”, 61. Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen official catalogue, p. 278.
4. Mark Toscano, “Bright objects in the dark”, Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen official catalogue, p. 284.
5. Alexander Horwath and Alejandro Bachmann, “Updating the past for the present under its own terms”, Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen official catalogue, p. 286.