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Blog: “When I hear the word ‘curator,’ I reach for my pistol”: An Interview with Data Machinery Curator Stefan Majakowski

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The films in the Data Machinery programme “undermine” the “sacred belief” in the visibility of reality. This is interesting given the fact that the films are documentaries, a form so often treated as a direct portal into reality. How do these films trouble this traditional conception of documentaries as pictures of truth?

In that sense they aren’t traditional documentaries. You could say generally in the whole documentary tradition from early on there are two strands: one of which pretends to pervade the truth through visibility, however dubious that may be. And that starts with Flaherty filming in the igloo [for Nanook of the North]. The other strand starts with Vertov and already questions in a polemical way that so-called truth aspect. So the filmmakers I’m presenting don’t just fall out of the sky. They are part of that self-reflective tradition. Certainly Videogramme of a Revolution, with its spectrum of found footage, at the end of the day conveys the fact that just one more bit of found footage is not going to give you anymore truth—that film, at the end of the day, is about filmmaking. Let’s say that the other Farocki film, Images of the World, constructs a complex web of interlinked mechanisms from the history of optical measurement through the general fascination we have for images. And, without highlighting the point too much, the film seems to say that there’s this collusion between man and apparatus that is in itself fetishistic, which has little to do with some ultimate drive towards the truth. It’s more like: well, we get along with machines, so let’s have fun with them. Even though Farocki is well known as an essayist, I think he would admit the ultimate fascination is just a love of machinery. Who says that human beings are searching for the truth? That’s just an incorrect assumption.

All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace is the most far-reaching statement on reality at the moment. You could say within this strand of self-critical documentaries it’s the least self-critical. It’s as if the filmmaker has decided well, times are just too dangerous to go on with any kind of self-referential insider’s slant on filmmaking. It’s time just to tell people how it is. In that sense it’s quite shocking documentary filmmaking, which doesn’t criticize its own oration.

Right, because it is an active critique of humanism, challenging not only its tenets or ideals but also its ability to fully comprehend the role that technology plays in our lives.

Right, and the filmmaker feels like to go on and also question the medium of filmmaking is just a bit much. He has a very highly developed rhetoric to get his point across.

Videograms of a Revolution represents a very specific example of a revolution caught on film, since the Romanian demonstrators actually occupied a television studio in 1989. Do you know anything about the process behind how this final film came out of the 120 hours they broadcasted during that occupation?

It’s not just hours of broadcast, it’s also hours and hours of home movies there. There’s a lot of people just filming from their window or sitting at home watching television…I have a feeling that the point of departure was actually to even travel around Romania and use the film as an educational thing.

How does this sort of project resonate (or not) with the protest and occupation movements of today? The idea of occupying a television studio does not translate to today the same way it did in 1989.

This is typically something that was the obvious step in these old-fashioned Soviet set-ups. It was so obvious that television was the main source of power for controlling people that the first thing you would do is go to the television studio. Television has a questionable influence on people these days. If you were going to occupy a television station, first of all you have commercial television and national television. Do you go to these commercial stations and occupy them—why? If you went to national television, I guess you could—it would be fun. Certainly it would be a great symbolic act. So many of those stations advertise themselves as operating so blatantly in the national interest. So it would be wonderful for protesters to occupy television. For the same reason, the documentary filmmaker always takes the moral highground: “What I do is always justified by the end, by the goal I achieve.” Television also has that attitude of “whatever we do, our moral point of departure is the national interest.”

In Wolff von Amerongen, Did He Commit Bankruptcy Offenses? the urban landscape seems to function in an important way. Without giving too much away, how does Friedl incorporate cities and geography in this experimental take on the historical effects of Germany’s financial system?

We get a sense that civilization, as Walter Benjamin said in his essay “Experience and Poverty,” is a fiction. We get a sense that humanity has dreamt itself up. What’s a better example of that than cosmopolitan life? Early on [in the film] we see a U.S. military airport, then cityscapes from all over Europe; we get a sense that this wonderful thing we call civilization is just a decor behind which the reality is different. It’s a very ironic film in that sense…it isn’t going to tell you more truth than that. It’s just this sense that it’s all very plastic, and he leaves it up to the viewer to place himself in that world.

All of the films in the Data Machinery program might be considered deconstructions of dominant narratives about our relationship with technology. Was this a conscious curatorial move?

I’m very skeptical of mainstream movements in general. With all this enthusiasm about Wikileaks and all this hope regarding the internet, and having witnessed so many mainstream movements that flounder, I think my contribution is if there isn’t the wherewithal within the population to attack the source, which is I feel, corruption and career mentality and lack of collectivity, I don’t believe that the media is really a cornerstone. And I don’t believe that internet as part of the media gives anything more than a very tiny spark, and otherwise it’s very self-fulfilling. So I’m a huge fan of the filmmaker Peter Watkins, whose whole œuvre is devoted to questioning politics and the media. He believes very strongly that TV is evil and TV people are an evil race. I don’t think television is the source of anything except maybe a distraction. But I don’t think television or the internet is going to change anything. For years we’ve been hearing about how the internet is going to usher in new narrative forms, but I haven’t seen them. It’s basically extremely textual, even though people are screaming about how visual we are. I’m skeptical about this mainstream enthusiasm and the films I’ve chosen I think demonstrate a kind of need for action.

How would you describe your programming process? Is it an art, a science, or both?

I don’t consider myself a curator. I make documentaries and teach documentary and I am involved within the documentary tradition within what I feel is critical originality. I think of curation and programming as a kind of off-shoot of managing—whether it’s managing people’s time or filling in program slots—[it] is a disease. I think curation is a term that comes from the art world and the more or less opportunistic way that the audio-visual media has been infiltrated by the art world is detrimental. When I’m asked to show films I show films I’m passionate about. If you asked me to take part in a festival of cooking, I would probably show the same films.

So you probably don’t agree with Frederic Jameson’s statement that the curator is the new artist.

What I do believe in is certainly the more or less old, collectivist idea of erasing borders between those that create and those that receive. I believe really that everybody should try their hand at filmmaking and I believe in the democratization of the arts. But that is different from curation, which somehow mystifies everything. Michel de Certeau talks a lot about the disease of the expert and how the media takes someone who is a specialist and turns them into an expert. So suddenly when I’m interviewed I’m not just one voice, I’m suddenly the spokesman for a whole field—which is so dubious. A curator is just somebody who for a specific moment is doing something, but he’s not the last voice. And in the art world organizations are only interested in getting bigger and more important than one another. So the art world doesn’t present me and say here is one voice among thousands of others, they say: here is our expert. With curation—what’s the illness that’s being cured? When I hear the word “curator,” I reach for my pistol.

Your own art frequently involves mixed-media. Do any of the selections in the Data Machinery program reflect your interest in the intersections of film and music?

I kind of developed my sensibilities at a time when avant-garde music was very important. I am very heavily influenced by a composer like Stockhausen, the broader approach to form and relationship of form to message. And generally I am allergic to creative work which doesn’t show some sort of inventiveness in dealing with form and method. I think somehow we have lost some of the lessons from those magical days of the 60s and 70s when for some reason music and sound came to the forefront. If you think of a composer like John Cage or Alvin Lucier, these are creative minds that bridge various disciplines: space, architecture, literature. And when you look at their work you develop a critical faculty for who deserves a podium. On one hand certainly everybody should develop their own expression and their own creativity. But on the other hand of the profession of creativity has been so devalued that there’s very little bonafide inspiration. And this is due to the business of management because every curator wants to score and every organization wants to have its premieres, etc.