Casting light on gray areas

The new director of the Austrian Film Museum in conversation

Michael Loebenstein / photo: Christian Wind

Alexander Horwath helmed the Austrian Film Museum for the past 15 years. Now its future rests in the hands of Michael Loebenstein, who will succeed him as the new director of “one of Europe’s most agile cinémathèques” (“Der Spiegel”).

What are your most important starting points when it comes to the future direction and orientation of the Austrian Film Museum?
Michael Loebenstein: The most important thing in my opinion is to concentrate on the concept of a museum. What distinguishes a film museum from what an arthouse cinema does, for example, but also from archives and libraries? The thing I want to paradigmatically highlight is the extent to which a film museum can be a place for thinking and producing very specific ways of accessing the archive. The way people communicate with audiovisual media now, our means of recording history and our lives, is generating an ever-increasing flood of data. Museums can be places where you ask very specific questions about the historicity and aesthetics of art and recording media – more like places of reduction than of expansion and excess.

These days, film is considered an independent, high-quality art form as a matter of course. To what extent could something else be elevated to “art” status here in the institutional context? Or do you see an obligation to preserve and maintain a certain legacy?
Michael Loebenstein: Preserving and mediating a certain legacy are definitely very important parts of what we do. So when it comes to film that is considered cinematic art, the main task is to create the best possible exhibition conditions, but also to offer the public a certain canon of important works. As far as art- status elevation is concerned, the big-name auteurs, predominantly male, are pretty much taken care of. There isn’t much left to do there. One area that still holds a lot of potential for interesting discoveries is the grey area where film meets other genres. I am speaking here of the strong tradition of avant-garde film, which I do not consider a finished thing of the past, but a genre that continues to evolve in lively dialogue with other art forms: How, for example, do recent digital, sculptural or installation-based works deal with moving images? How do these media change our understanding of spaces and bodies? What gender structures are being performed? How does it work, quite literally, this “writing with light,” or dealing with sound? This, in my opinion, is where you can really get into an interesting dialogue with other fields.

Efforts to expand the canon have come a long way as far as the history of film as a medium or dispositif of cinema is concerned. Do you see even more room for growth here, or is expansion a thing of the past?
Michael Loebenstein: The Film Museum has already done a great deal as far as the establishment and gradual enlargement of a certain canon is concerned. Because of this, I’ve channeled my passion to a somewhat different area of focus – to think of film more as a production context or cultural recording method. I am especially interested in “minor” and ephemeral forms, or questions surrounding the “usefulness” of images – film that serves a certain social formation. That said, I would also like to explore specific genres and production contexts such as Eastern and South-Eastern European cinema, for example. Another area that deserves more attention is post-colonial cinema, such as film in Latin America or in South-East Asia and the Pacific.

Are there any other significant “voids” or omissions that have not been adequately considered in past decades and should be filled now?
Michael Loebenstein: I would say it is less a matter of “voids” than of leaving out certain lines of inquiry within the established canon. The role of female or feminist filmmakers, for example, is something I consider by no means marginal. I would also like to broach the topic of queer filmmaking again, either in general or historically. Female avant-garde filmmaking has been scarce in the Film Museum’s portfolio until now as well. A current feminist look at the history of avant-garde film would be extremely exciting in this respect.

Film itself takes countless forms these days, even if the cinema format has remained much the same. Can or should this formal diversity be reflected in the Museum’s institutional context? Or should it focus on what has long been considered the “essential nature” of film?
Michael Loebenstein: The essential nature of film definitely has its place, but it also has to be questioned again and again. Another thing I’m envisioning for the Film Museum is to cast light on the new transition and transformation zones entering cinema and film right now. The museum cannot be reduced to a pure exhibition venue; instead, it should function more like a scientific laboratory, in a dynamic framework of cooperation with other institutions.

Text by Christian Höller:

Christian Höller is editor and co-publisher of the journal “springerin – Hefte für Gegenwartskunst.”

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