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An Interview with Giovanna Fossati, Film Archivist and Curator

posted May 23, 2012

Interview by Caylin Smith, MIAN contributing writer

I recently spoke to film archivist and curator Giovanna Fossati for Moving Image Archive News’ ‘Interviews with Moving Image Archivists’ series. Giovanna is a Head Curator at EYE Film Institute Netherlands and the author of From Grain to Pixel: The Archive Life of Film in Transition. Below she discusses her career path, her responsibilities at EYE, and her advice to students who wish to pursue a career at a film archive or museum.

Could you tell me a bit about your educational background? Were you always interested in archiving and curating, or did this evolve as you completed your degrees?

I obtained my MA degree in film studies from the University of Bologna with a thesis discussing the history, techniques, and restoration practice of color in silent cinema. After a summer at NYU doing a film production class, I decided I wanted to work with film, but not necessarily by making them. That’s when I decided to focus on film archiving. During my last year in Bologna I had the fortune to get financing for spending seven months in Amsterdam at the Nederlands Filmmuseum to do research on color in the silent film collection and work at the organization of the Amsterdam Workshop 1995 on Color in Early Cinema (see ‘Disorderly Order’: Colours in Silent Film, edited by Daan Hertogs and Nico de Klerk, 83-89. Amsterdam: Nederlands Filmmuseum, 1996). My interests at first were primarily technical (film and restoration technology) and theoretical (the interplay between technology and the conceptualization of film, between practice and theory). Curatorial work was also an important aspect of my work from the start, both on the collection side (acquisition, selection, research and restoration) and on the presentation side, both online and on-site.

My position about archiving and curating has evolved over time. I have come to the conclusion that the whole idea of curatorship, in particular, needs to be reconsidered.  I hope I will be able to ‘shake it from the inside’, so to speak. Although I believe there is still a need and a place for the traditional curator, I think that a new kind of broader, participatory form of curatorship is taking shape and ought to be acknowledged much more within (film) museums and archives. I discuss some of these ideas in my recent work (see “Found Footage Filmmaking, Film Archiving and New Participatory Platforms” in Found Footage: Cinema Exposed, edited by Marente Bloemheuvel, Giovanna Fossati and Jaap Guldemond. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2012, and “YouTube as a Mirror Maze” in The YouTube Reader, edited by Pelle Snickars and Patrick Vonderau, 458-464. Stockholm: National Library of Sweden, 2009).

Could you tell me about your previous work experience from before you assumed your current position at EYE Film Institute Netherlands?

Actually, this is my first job! In 1997 I started working in the Film Collection Department of the Nederlands Filmmuseum, which eventually became EYE after merging with three other Dutch film organizations in 2010. In 1999 I became head of the newly formed Restoration Department, and in 2002 I was promoted to Curator. Between 2007 and 2009 I did a PhD at Utrecht University but I kept working part-time at the Nederlands Filmmuseum. When I was back full time I was asked by Sandra den Hamer, who became the director of EYE in 2008, to lead the curatorial staff as Head Curator.

What are your responsibilities at EYE?

I am responsible for developing and monitoring policies with regards to the collection and I have the curatorial responsibility of the activities related to acquisition, selection, preservation, restoration, and on-line access and presentation. I am also in charge of academic and R&D projects and contacts with international academic networks. In practice, now that EYE has become a large organization, I mainly focus on the (long term) policies and I represent the curatorial staff in the Management Team, the Programming Board and advise the Director on collection matters.

I try to keep in touch with the practice by supervising a number of special projects. For instance, I worked last year together with my colleagues of Restoration & Digitization on the restoration of Nicholas Ray’s last film, We Can’t Go Home Again (1973), a restoration project in collaboration with the Nicholas Ray Foundation and the Academy Film Archive. For the opening of the new location of EYE I also worked closely with the Digital Preservation and the Film Collection Departments on the realization of the Basement, a space where hundreds of films from the EYE collection can be accessed through interactive installations.

What advice would you give to students interested in pursuing degrees in either archival or museum studies?

Be open minded about what comes your way in this field. A lot of things are changing, and very rapidly. The practice is changing by the day due to the digitization of the sector, as well as the roles within the archives and the role of the archive itself in our society. In this perspective we are all contributing to this transformation: people working already within the archives as well as the students who are only now looking at work opportunities. It is a great opportunity to bundle the forces and change this field together. Curiosity, positive energy, and passion are the most important qualities in this job where security (both in terms of a ‘traditional career’ and a guaranteed income) are not a given.

You note in From Grain to Pixel that the dialog between theory and practice should be encouraged. Do you have any advice or suggestions as to how this can be achieved?

I think that a constructive dialog is already taking place, for instance, within the existing film archival programs such as the ones at the University of Amsterdam, New York University, UCLA, and George Eastman House. I hear other similar programs are going to be started in the near future (e.g. Frankfurt University and University of Santa Barbara). Also, a younger generation of archivists who graduated from such programs in the last decade has already started to become active within film and media archives. This younger generation has been given new tools to combine theory and practice. In addition, international organizations such as AMIA offer a platform for a dialog between archivists and scholars.

How did EYE Film determine that its opening exhibition would focus on found footage? Did the parties involved in designing the exhibition feel that this subject matter could best illustrate the goals and possibilities of the institution?

The theme ‘found footage’ offered in many ways the ideal opening theme for our first exhibition: the combination of film and visual art, the continuity with the past of the Nederlands Filmmuseum and a subject matter that is growing in the public interest both as a highbrow art form (in galleries, museums, and art houses) and as a lowbrow phenomenon online (via YouTube and other participatory platforms). The flirt between the Nederlands Filmmuseum and the practice of found footage filmmaking dates back to the late 1980s with Eric de Kuyper first and Peter Delpeut later as deputy directors. They introduced an adventurous approach to film archiving by encouraging the restoration and presentation of unidentified film fragments. These compilations known as Bits&Pieces are still made and shown today at EYE and count more than 600 fragments from the silent and early sound periods. In the last 20 years found footage filmmakers have regularly derived inspiration and film material from the EYE collection. Examples are Peter Delpeut, Gustav Deutsch, Ditteke Mensink, and Bill Morrison.

When I was at EYE a few weeks ago, a volunteer remarked that some visitors are confused that there aren’t any physical objects on display (i.e. old cameras, film posters, etc.). Have you heard any similar comments? Do you think that EYE is helping to usher in a new way of considering museums (or, at least the use of media and technology in museums)?

I did not hear as many remarks about the lack of a permanent exhibition of film-related physical objects as I would have expected. Our aim is to have a permanent exhibition of the collection through the digital interactive installations in the Basement (i.e. the Panorama and the Pods) where today some 500 titles from the collection can be viewed. This is just a fraction of the 40,000 titles in the collection; however, the idea is to have in the near future more and more film titles accessible in the Basement as well as digitized stills and posters. As for the temporary exhibitions, under the curatorial direction of Jaap Guldemond, we have chosen against a traditional display of artifacts but rather for changing exhibitions (four a year), which will vary in theme and focus, spanning from visual art installations, such as Found Footage, to more traditional film themes, such as Stanley Kubrick, the next exhibition opening in June 2012.

Lastly, in From Grain to Pixel, you remark, “Nevertheless, thirty years later [after 1980] we are still witnessing a progressive hybridization of technologies where analog and digital coexist in many segments of the production chain. Indeed, both old and new technologies keep changing in ways that are not converging” (2). Could you expand on this passage and provide a brief example of this hybridization or how hybridization in regards to analog and digital may develop in the future?

I think that traditional photochemical film technology is becoming by the day a niche practice: it is already the case for some time with home movie formats and it will eventually become the case for all film formats. I would not be surprised if, in the tradition of Tacita Dean’s work, we will see installations with modern nitrate films showing at the Tate Modern one of these days. And while looking at such installations we will be able to summon a century of film history on one of our carry-on gadgets. The disappearance of film as a living commercial network will (or at least could) help the case for film as heritage. That said, I really don’t know what will happen in the next 10 years and that makes it very exciting and, at the same time a bit disturbing, I admit.

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