Ways of Organizing: Cinematic Public Space
Film curating is most immediately about the selection of works. However, in most cases it begins with a question of place. Let me share some thoughts based on experiences related to curating and creating film events within a span of twelve years in Lithuania and abroad. I began my practice as the organizer of a film club in Lithuania at a moment when cinemas were being closed down and appreciated solely for their real estate value. Due to a process of privatization, cinemas that were publicly owned during the Soviet years transitioned to private owners who would never(!) think to maintain their cinema venue function. With a group of committed friends, we took on the task of rescuing the oldest cinema in Lithuania called the Romuva from becoming a casino. This was a strong political gesture that created a platform for shared politics against reckless privatization that since the moment of its inception through legal apparatus, was balancing on the verge of shadow economies. The questions of film venues and sustainability of film curatorial/exhibition activities are precarious in all senses and Lithuania is not unique as a place where these issues are not resolved, where the question of “what” (to be programmed) comes in the same line with questions of “where” (to be shown) and questions of “how” are never a given.
The fight for the cinema, which included negotiating the legal, public, political, educational, private, political parties-in-cross fires, and film industry interests, lasted for more than five years. One of the biggest challenges in saving the cinema was the lack of cultural policies in relation to non-blockbuster film circulation, exhibition, and film education. Hence, we used the opportunity to articulate the need for cultural policies in relation to cinema spaces against Hollywood studio film production and dissemination. We started what I call a vertical fight through all the multiple public sectors and this created the need to articulate to local politicians the film and moving image realm as a complex formation of cultural production, one that can function through embeddedness in concrete location and hence being fully dependent on material conditions of its production, circulation, exhibition.
The fight to save the Romuva project is complex because it condensed a fight against a much larger set of transformations. It represents an instance during a particular period in history of Lithuania that might be possible to grasp through documentation of “Protest-Lab” (2005-ongoing) of Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas. “Protest-Lab” was dedicated to rescuing the Lietuva Cinema in Vilnius and functioned as a performative platform for protest against the corrupt schemes of privatization. While they are not directly linked, the Romuva and Lietuva Cinema cases address the question of public space. Both movements were significant on their own right and achieved different goals. But only one of them resulted in actually rescuing the cinema.
At the Romuva, we decided upon the strategy of relating the larger public interest to an interest in cinematic culture. Hence, in 2007 we found ourselves in a situation where we set the following goals for ourselves: 1) rent the cinema space for the first Kaunas International Film Festival (Kaunas IFF), which would reopen the closed cinema to audiences; 2) organize a film program for the cinema that would (re)introduce non- blockbuster cinema to audiences; 3) halfway through the festival announce the goal of saving the cinema. We had to mobilize (produce) the interest in cinema in the situations where film culture was left exclusively to multiplexes and blockbusters, and at the same time represent this public interest to the local and national politicians. Parallel to these tasks, we had to articulate the need for cultural policies that would provide a framework for this kind of activity.
Paradoxically, after working in the area for more than ten years, I’ve began to witness what I call rapid institutionalization in the field. I see this through a certain solidification of Lithuanian cultural policies that are placing more and more focus on a strangely entangled, rigid, neoliberal understanding of the success of film production and exhibition, and encouraging imagery of national identity. Lately, success is more often being defined by commercial terms and this is counterproductive in situations where the size of the market, by default, is not competitive. Unfortunately these tendencies are neither unique nor characteristic of Lithuania. For this reason, I’m advocating for the sphere of the audiovisual to be engaged with care in terms of access to infrastructure and research. The infrastructure of democratic cinema and the possibilities of generating critical research are both essential to maintaining an open cinematic public space that can participate in locally relevant knowledge production.
I’m not so optimistic as to believe that only showing films can change the world. However, I’m convinced that the act of showing films inherently opens up analytic possibilities, new understandings regarding the conditions of production, and a critical engagement with the ideas presented. I’m hopeful that through these complex processes film events will produce meaningful knowledge for their communities as knowledge production on the micro level is a necessity around the world.
I see curatorial practice as a political act, and inevitably tightly bound to the locations of the venues and the communities living around them. Curatorial activities are shaped by material conditions, and efforts should therefore be focused on understanding the specific patterns of both film production and circulation, in addition to constantly questioning the institutional and geopolitical discursive limitations brought into existence through those shapes of circulatory networks.
My own film curatorial practice can be characterized by attempting to transgress institutional limitations. In Lithuania, I have been the first to screen works in film festivals and cinematic settings that until then had been strictly confined to gallery spaces. For example, I included a retrospective of Deimantas Narkevičius’ work retrospective at the Kaunas IFF in 2010, I drew attention to the geopolitics of film distribution in Lithuania with StepIn Locarno in 2012, I was invited to start a cinema space at the Contemporary Art Centre in Vilnius in 2012, and this year, together with partners August Orts and the Nordland Film and Art School, Kaunas IFF is starting a project called “On & For Production and Distribution” dedicated to artist-driven films. What we call artists’ films today is particularly interesting for me because it signals a different approach to research and an openness to diverse potentialities in development, production, and dissemination.
I find that the constant shifting between the institutional—cinema vs. art—and the contextual—national vs. international—is essential for attempting to grasp the ever-in-motion plethora of factors that shape the political sphere of the audio-visual. I’m convinced that film curating should respond to the urgencies of the present. In my curatorial practice I’m working towards constantly questioning and attempting to cross discursive, geopolitical, and institutional boundaries. This research provides potential solutions for showing works produced with different means in diverse program settings.
I like to think of film as a broad category where the distinctions between fiction, documentary, and artist films are malleable. No doubt, these categories hold historic significance and therefore play a large role in structuring the film industry and film scholarship. However, I find the convergences of documentary, fiction, and artist film particularly fascinating so long as the end result directly or indirectly articulates a political motivation toward diminishing power asymmetries in the world. That merging, not only on the level of exhibition but also that of production, brings interesting propositions to the field. I see moments of geopolitical and institutional shifts, especially when they coincide with one another, as openings for rethinking politics.
Title Image Credit: Kaunas IFF screening in Romuva.