THE GOOD CURATOR: an interview with Marc Siegel

I met Marc Siegel, a teacher at the Free University in Berlin, at the Berlinale International Film Festival while he was presenting a remarkable programme he curated entitled “Underground/Overseas” as part of the Berlinale’s Forum Expanded section. The programme brought together and traced the links between several strands of underground cinema from the 1960s: principally, the Zanzibar collective in Paris and, in New York, the work of Jack Smith and the films that came out of Andy Warhol’s Factory. Siegel, as a member of the artist’s collective CHEAP, was also involved in turning the Arsenal Kino’s usually desolate foyer into a bar/bookshop/screening-room/hangout entitled the “Gossip Studio”.

My week and a half at the Berlinale was mostly taken up with the Talent Campus and Talent Press, so unfortunately I was only able to catch one film in Siegel’s series, Phillippe Garrel’s astonishing (and astonishingly well attended) 1969 film Le Lit de la Vierge. But I did manage to grab Siegel for a half an hour in the Gossip Studio and ask him a few questions. Coming from Ireland, a much more timid and muted culture when it comes to curation, I was intrigued by the breadth, eclecticism and imaginative juxtaposition involved in Siegel’s series—and equally, the fact that Berlin provided a cultural climate where such an undertaking was not only viable but well-received.


How did you first get involved with the Arsenal Kino?

I’m not exactly sure. I got to know the people here and I think I knew some teachers who had done series here in conjunction with their seminars and so I just talked to them about doing that.

Is that a common thing, for individuals outside of the Arsenal to come in and curate programmes?

Yeah, the Arsenal is very open to that. They do have very limited finances so with most film series that I would programme in conjunction with my classes, I don’t have any money from the university to fund that, and I don’t have any outside money to fund that, so we’re dependent either on the films they have in their own archive, of which there are many—I think about 8,000 titles in the Freunde der Deutschen Kinamethek archive—or films that are in distribution in Germany or in other archives here in Germany that would not be too expensive for them to get. Because they can’t take too many big financial risks.

But when it came to “Underground/Overseas”, I had the concept, I applied for a grant from the City of Berlin, from their cultural funding agency, and talked to the Arsenal in advance and had letters of support from them. And then I brought in all the money for the films, to pay myself, to pay to invite guests here to travel and all that.

I take it your program was initially separate from the festival?

Yeah, my series was conceived independently of the Berlinale. But when I submitted the application, I spoke with Stefanie Schulte Strathaus from the Arsenal about the program. She wrote a letter of support and said it sounds like the kind of thing that the Forum Expanded would be interested in. And it worked out conveniently because I was doing it also in conjunction with a seminar and I needed to have the series sometime during the semester. The funding meant it had to be in 2007 so that meant the only time I could do it was January and February. And in February the Arsenal is busy with the Forum….so yeah, then we came to the decision, “let’s have the high points, the really unique works, in the Forum.” Which was actually kind of difficult because it was a series where every single film was so unique–I mean people maybe say that about every series they do—but in this case it was dealing with experimental work, dealing with work that in just about every case has never shown in Germany before so it was difficult to say which is rarer than the rare. But we did make a kind of selection that the selection committee here at the Forum looked at.

What was the attendance of the series like overall?

Well, there were quite a lot of films or programmes – I think I had just about 25 programmes within a month, so it was a lot of film viewing. Audiences varied from maybe a 100 for the opening night to maybe 30 at the worst. I think probably an average was like 40 people maybe.

You were saying being part of the Berlinale helped with the audience numbers to an extent. I was amazed with the turnout at Garrel’s Le Lit de la Vierge for example.

Well, I think there is a lot of interest in Garrel, in particular these early films because they haven’t shown very often and they have a kind of cult status. I made that clear in my series by highlighting the connection with Nico, who Garrel married, because of the Warhol connection. But we actually had shown a sneak preview of Le Lit de la Vierge earlier—it was advertised as a Garrel evening but people didn’t know which film would show and there we had maybe 60 people, which was not bad—but the cinema I think seats just about 200 or 230. Then it was completely over-sold-out for the festival.

But I didn’t know what to expect and actually, I was really thrilled that there were so many people. For all of the screenings in my series—the Jack Smith, the Warhol, the Garrel and Jackie Raynal’s film, Deux Fois (1968)—they were almost all sold out. And that was so exciting. I didn’t know what to expect because at the Berlin Film Festival, usually people come to see new films. Or if they’re gonna see old films it’s films in the retrospective. But one of the nice things that I find with the Forum Expanded is that it’s open to a variety of different works: different kinds of works, not just experimental work but installation, works of varying lengths—you can have a 30minute film, a 45 minute film or like a 7 hour film; things that won’t normally fit into a festival so easily and then also older works, particularly if there’s a strong thematic link. So it ended up working really quite well and hopefully the attention it’s received will show people here that there is a place for these newly discovered or rediscovered or less known, classic experimental films.

Do you have a sense of what kind of people make up the audience for this kind of series? Is it mostly people directly involved in the arts?

Definitely it’s a lot of those people but I don’t think it’s just those people. I know with my series, there was a large variety of people. A lot of students coming because they’ve heard about Warhol, they don’t get a chance to see these early films very often. For Warhol and Smith you get a big gay crowd also—from people who know that these are really important predecessors to current queer cinema, or just legendary figures who dealt with sexual diversity and gender diversity in their work. Also different generations of people: there are people who are interested in this ‘68 or ’60s scene who came, younger people but also people from that time period who wanted to kind of revisit work that they saw 40 years ago. It was quite a diverse crowd.

Tell us about CHEAP, the artist’s collective that your involved in.

We work together mostly in performance: we’ve done shows in nightclubs, for a long time we did a monthly night in a club, and we work with lots of different people. We’ve worked with Wilhelm Hein, an experimental filmmaker here in Germany, where he would project his films at this club, films from his archives, and his girlfriend Annetta Frick projected slides of her photos. I chose videos and then we all dressed up in crazy ways, played music and had performances.

It seems like there’s a lot of cultural cross-fertilisation that goes on around here.

Yeah…I mean I wish there was more of it. I do think that the CHEAP constellation is somewhat unique, our group of people and the kind of crossover events we’re involved in. I know there’s B_Books here, who have a book table in the Gossip Studio and they’re also another kind of collective. They have their bookstore, which is their base, and they have a press, but they also do a lot of video production and conference organising and stuff. So they do a lot of different things and all the individuals there are involved at the same time in some kind of academic way or art school teaching way as well as art production. But I don’t know how many academics there are who do this sort of crossover thing; I think unfortunately there are too few.

Coming from Ireland, I’m really amazed by the richness of cultural activity going on here, and the degree to which people are engaged with it. I’ve been trying to figure out what it is that makes this possible.

I actually think economics play a big role: the existence of a lot of major granting agencies, federal agencies, local agencies, that support cultural projects from individuals. There’s that; there’s also a really lively press, and a really lively cultural, political and intellectual scene in general. Compared to the States, I think there is a broader acceptance of an intellectual culture here. Like in the US, there is no place for intellectuals who are not institutionally affiliated.

I was also surprised when I came here that people, like yourself, who organise film series are commonly called curators rather than film programmers.

It’s funny, yeah. I’ve heard that used for years, even in the States, in reference to film programmers. It’s something I felt really uncomfortable with….

But you are comparing and contrasting and making parallels, not just doing a retrospective of a period or a person. It’s almost like montage in a sense.

Right, in that sense it’s creative. But it’s also academic. I felt like this series, at the same time as being a creative juxtaposition of works, was also an academic project, and I worried that it would be too academic, because I know that part of what motivated me was a scholarly question of historical connections: I was really interested in trying to trace these connections. Maybe you could say the motivation behind the series was academic but then, the practical realisation of the series was creative because when you sit there in the cinema, all the academic context stuff can easily fall away and what you’re left with is just the films and the questions they provoke: “How do these films fit together in the program? How do they connect with the films you saw maybe last week from this series?” So those are maybe more aesthetic, formal concerns that arise as you go along.

I mean, I was really excited about this series and for me it was the most involved, extensive, maybe daring series that I’ve done. The others have been more traditional arthouse programming: I did something on Hong Kong New Wave, something on Polish New Wave from the 50s, the Taiwanese New Wave… So it was more national cinemas or particular movements or periods in film history, or individuals: I did something on Carmelo Bene, the Italian director. Whereas this was the first time where I really went in there and said, “I’m really gonna yank something out of this national cinema context and I’m going to compare it with this other thing”. I think that’s an important thing to do, particularly with experimental films. And there is more of that kind of programming here at the Arsenal, I’m not unique in that sense.

Do you try to program films based on some idea of their contemporary relevance? Like there’s a reason that these films should be seen at this particular time?

Yeah, definitely. And with everything I do, I try to think about what is its relevance today. I don’t want to just pick a subject because I think it’s historically important—or rather, I feel like something is historically important in as much as it speaks to us today and in that sense, it’s important in programming to try to have some idea of how this work can speak to people now. Because there’s lots of really important films out there and tons of forgotten filmmakers but there’s only a certain amount of money to put this stuff together and time and space on a programme so I think you really need to choose from the past carefully, and make it speak to them.

You were saying that you often link in your curating to what you teach on your course? How did that work in this case?

Well, this last term we’ve been looking at the three focal points for my film series: Jack Smith, Andy Warhol and Zanzibar. The basic structure would be: we read a text, see a film and discuss it—the seminar would be about discussing it. That’s something that I would do in all my seminars. What was weird with this one was just that I had so many films and usually force all my students to see every single film that I program but in this case, since I had, as I said, 25 programs over a month I couldn’t expect my students to come to every single program.

Did you source many films here in Germany?

There was just one short film that I used from Berlin. Everything else came from elsewhere: mostly from Lux in England, from Paris, other places in France or from the United States.

What was the process like of getting hold of some of the more obscure films?

Well, with the Jack Smith stuff, I already knew Jerry Tartaglia who was responsible for having restoring and preserving Smith’s work. So I just contacted him, got in touch with him a long time ago about the possibility of showing the work,and he brought it with him personally for these screenings. For the Warhol stuff, I had already programmed Warhol for another series and I knew that the Warhol stuff was all at the Museum of Modern Art, so I just contacted them.

The difficult thing was tracking down a lot of these French films and since I was looking at not just the Zanzibar films but stuff from a kind of broader French underground scene in the 60s, I had to just start sending out questions, you know, sending a note to the Cinémathèque Française and asking, “Do you have these prints?” They would give me leads, so for example there was this really fascinating filmmaker Etienne O’Leary who was very close to Pierre Clementi, the actor and experimental filmmaker, in Paris. I got sent from the Cinémathèque Française to the Cinémathèque Québécoise, because Etienne O’Leary is originally from Quebec, and apparently his films are there. So after a number of attempts to contact someone in Quebec, we found out that they have his films….but they’re not releasing them because they’re too precious. They suggested I contact Etienne O’Leary’s brother in France, who has a Beta copy of them, and that’s what we screened.

The only thing that we got for free in a sense was one of the films I showed at the beginning, Maria Menken’s film Wrestlers (1964), which is something that the Freunde der Deutschen Kinamethek has in their archive—but everything else I had to pay for, and that’s why a series like this is so unusual. But because I had this grant—I had a grant of 25,000 euro to pay for the whole series, and that includes paying me for coming up with it, for doing introductions, paying for translations of subtitling… We showed some in French and we had someone give a spoken, simultaneous translation, so we had to pay to generate that translation. And then to invite guests to come, to pay them a slight honorare for participating in a panel discussion or giving an introduction, and their travel costs, hotel, and then rental costs, transport… It was a lot. And I hope we’re still within the budget, I haven’t had a chance to really clarify that…

A lot of these films were screened for the first time, right?

Yes, a lot of them were. Luckily, the Zanzibar films are almost all going to be brought out on DVD by Re:Voir in Paris and so people will be able to see those, but for example, I showed a film by Taylor Meade, a Warhol actor who also made films in Paris and who was an influential figure in the Parisian scene: his films aren’t gonna be put on DVD. I can’t imagine them being put on DVD anytime soon. Or Etienne O’Leary’s work. Certain things have come out on DVD but as people know in the experimental film scene, you can’t count on that. Also, with the Warhol films, the Warhol Foundation is also just incredibly greedy and they thrive on the rarity of these works, so they’ve been very cautious about allowing any kind of DVD release of these early Warhol films.

I think it’s great that Re:Voir’s bringing this stuff out on DVD, but I do think it’s a shame if people just know these films through DVD, because, like we saw with Le Lit de la Vierge: it’s now out on DVD and I’m sure it’s a great, high quality DVD, but it’s this gorgeous, spacious black and white 35mm cinemascope film and, it’s a tired statement but it’s just such a different experience to see that film on screen. Of course it’s not going to be screened as often as people will pop a DVD in, so there’s that—but I would just hate for us to lose that experience of watching it on screen. You get a completely different relationship to the film, to the images, to the story, to the mood…

Film blogger Zach Campbell argued a while ago that wider availability isn’t always a good thing, that we need certain “Holy Grails” in cinema, such as Bèla Tarr’s Sátántangó (1994) films that you may only get the chance to see once in a lifetime. Would you agree with that?

Well, I wouldn’t want to enforce that kind of rarity. I mean I love the “special event” quality of seeing something like Sátántangó or these Warhol or Jack Smith films—the fact that they are only available to see in the cinema, that it’s a rare occasion, and you have to go or you miss it. It totally frustrates me that friends of mine—who should know better—will stand outside the Jack Smith programme and say, “Oh well do you have that on DVD? ‘Cause I don’t really have time…” It’s like, “NO, it’s not on DVD, you’re not gonna see it if you don’t go in.” And this assumption that everything’s available I find really frustrating. I think it would be a better world if everything was available both as DVD and as film and people were able to recognise that they’re different experiences—but I don’t think like capitalism would allow that. As for the idea of enforced obscurity…that doesn’t interest me all.

Yet wasn’t Jackie Raynal [pictured above] saying in her introduction to
Le Lit de la Vierge that Garrel and the other Zanzibar filmmakers didn’t have any interest in getting their work shown?

Well, I think their not having an interest in it doesn’t mean that they necessarily didn’t want it shown. I think it says something more about what they thought about filmmaking; that they had an interest in filmmaking but were not career-minded in thinking of the necessity of screening it, of marketing it in any way; that this was filmmaking as a way of living, as a way of life, and not filmmaking as a way of making a career, making money.

But for instance Andy Warhol took all of his ’60s films out of circulation in the early 70s, and they were unavailable except for bootleg prints—and that seemed to be a specific commercial ploy on his part to make them obscure. Which is different from what, as far as I know, the Zanzibar filmmakers did. They were not at all intentionally trying to make their stuff obscure: they were just that excited about the moment of filmmaking, being able to make these films and not really concerned about being businessmen, or women.

November, 2007.

lineemail address