Walker Art Center

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Celluloid, Magnetic Tape, and Pixels
Walker film curators discuss a changing medium

By Paul Schmelzer

When the Walker founded its film department 33 years ago, curatorial decision-making revolved around expanding its new Edmond R. Ruben Film and Video Study Collection and programming a series of screenings that balanced contemporary movies with experimental films. Today, the job of Walker curators is decidedly more complex. A rich collection of experimental works is inherently tied to the classic technologies of film, while new works are increasingly digital, offering myriad possibilities and challenges of new systems of distribution, methods of curating, and options for screening. Film curator Sheryl Mousley and assistant curator Dean Otto recently discussed their work with Walker editor Paul Schmelzer.

Paul Schmelzer:

When we think of visual arts curating, we think of everything from researching and selecting artists or works to designing a gallery, building walls, hanging art. What’s the analogy in your area for that—selection, placement, contextualization?

Sheryl Mousley:

We do the same thing. We just have different terminology. We research an idea, create a conceptual framework, and find the films. Our walls are really the screen. We decide when a work will be shown and which films will be shown together. Just as they do in visual art, we look at historical work from our collection, consider experimental films to balance out more traditional storytelling, put things into a conceptual framework.

Dean Otto:

I think we go about our research in many different ways, too. Part of it is reading—both academic and business-related, publications such as Variety, Screen, and Indiewire. It’s all the list-servs you subscribe to, from AMIA [the Association of Moving Image Archivists] to Frameworks for experimental film and video. It’s festival travel; meeting with your colleagues at festivals or panels. You have a fairly tight timeline within this field to stay fresh or get the best work, so you really need to stay on top of that research to keep it relevant.

SM:

One thing that exemplifies the Walker’s curatorial style is that we’re out there looking; we’re not passively waiting for things to be sent to us.

PS:

What kind of work are you looking for?

SM:

Fresh, experimental, invigorating—films that explore our contemporary setting.

DO:

I think it’s also work that constantly challenges perceptions. That’s one of the reasons I’m here. You feel that you’re always learning, always growing.

PS:

Why do you do what you do? What do you consider an ideal film?

SM:

In college I started in political science, then went into sociology, then into art history, and then ended up in film. I made that transition because that was where my interests led me. And now I can go back and link them all together. Film is part political activity, part social activity, can be art historical, and is visually engaging. I think the light first went on when I saw films as a kid. Now we want to see films for ourselves as well as show them. We want to find a context for showing them and make them come alive for people; we want to have some kind of conversation so that shared experience continues.

DO:

Going back to your earlier question, the ideal type of film is the kind where, as I’m watching it, I’m already thinking of how I’m going to contextualize it or program it or who I could get to lead a post-screening discussion. I’m immediately moved into programming mode, because we can do so much more than just put it up on a screen. That’s the thing that makes it really exciting to be here at the Walker.

PS:

It’s a ripple effect: the screening is the stone, but all these conversations emanate from it. What is it about film that grabbed you personally, Dean?

DO:

I first fell in love with the pageantry—seeing films in the old movie palaces. You know, the curtain rises and you watch the previews and everything else. For me, growing up in a middle-class industrial town, this was special because film could take you to different places. I gained a new understanding of film through reading J. Hoberman’s Midnight Movies and Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet, especially in coming out and being able to see myself or my community on film—to get that whole kind of new social relevance that film could have.

PS:

In our programming during the last year, there’s been more “political” content: Darwin’s Nightmare, Marshall Plan films, Good Night, and Good Luck., Paradise Now, the Chinese and Thai film series. Is that because there’s a sense of urgency by filmmakers to address these political times, or is it more about your choices as curators?

SM:

It’s both, I think. There is an urgency, probably more now than five years ago. There are people who are specifically pushing to make films more political. But right now there’s just a need; as an audience, we need some kind of psychological and emotional support for the fact that things are changing and that there’s some base of support in the chaos. We both feel that part of our mission is to explore today, and the concerns of today are very political. But we can use history to explore contemporary issues, too. One thing that was interesting about the Marshall Plan films is that they were dealing with the aftermath of World War II and how to reconstruct. We’re all thinking about how this will happen in the aftermath of the war we’re in now or how could we have used humanitarian means to avoid this in the first place. And does a younger generation even know what the Marshall Plan was based on? So there are a lot of areas for this kind of connection through film. We can get back to civic engagement and having a conversation—
it’s not just about putting the film on screen, but a place where you can discuss contemporary ideas.

DO:

Some of that was fostered by the conversations we were having during the planning and construction of the Walker expansion about the “town square” as a metaphor for the kind of interactions we wanted to spark here.

SM:

We really wanted to make that concept work. I love it, because you can imagine a small town that literally has a movie theater in that square. Or you can see it as a little square that you can tip it up to be a screen where you can observe what happens and have a view of life. It was very easy for us to translate the idea into what we’re doing.

PS:

It seems that the socially engaged nature of some films also has to do with technology.

DO:

Because of digital-editing tools, it’s easier for people to both make it and share it. And that’s changed the immediacy of the films. I love YouTube, for example, for giving access to more work. Despite the greater access to material, there’s also more junk to weed through. Of course, it’s only a tool. Just because somebody invented the pen doesn’t mean everybody is writing Moby Dick.

SM:

When you think about what access meant a few years ago, it was that people needed access to equipment, otherwise technology was held in the hands of the studios or TV stations. Now, just about everybody has access to equipment and some kind of distribution, so it has leveled the field again. In documentary, image is still the witness, and image is still perceived as truth, and now people have this power. I also think it gives a personal voice to narratives. I’ve never liked genre films. Even independent films have shaped their own genre of the “independent film,” which is no longer as interesting because they tell similar stories over and over.

PS:

OK. So, the world’s changing and technology’s changing. Looking forward, how is the Walker film/video department going to change in ways you might foresee?

SM:

One thing I don’t want is for film to go the way of the independent bookstore. We’re losing independent theaters already. The future, really, is in new methods of presenting work. My dream is to keep working with the Lecture Room and turn it into a laboratory to present films in ways that are not as formal as the Cinema. I’d love to see it become like a moving-image radio. The formal nature of showing films—where you bring a film print from somewhere in the world and it’s put on a projector and shown to 300 people in the dark—is evolving. While I hope that stays for a long time because I love that experience (and that’s why we’re doing this), I think there’s such a potential for change that we don’t want to lock ourselves into only that experience.

Film curator Sheryl Mousley and assistant curator Dean Otto

Photo: Cameron Wittig