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Provider, protagonist, collaborator: An interview with Paulo Cherchi Usai

Mike Walsh (full interview)


In April 2004, the Federal government announced that ScreenSound would be merged into the Australian Film Commission (AFC). The move was not without controversy, especially when the AFC announced plans for the relocation of some of the archive’s activities away from Canberra and changes to its public programs. In September 2004 Paolo Cherchi Usai took up the position as director. His appointment is generally seen as a major step forward for the archive, given his leading role in the international archiving community. He was one of the founders of the Pordenone Film Festival, which has become a focal point for the study of silent cinema. He is the author of the books Burning Passions and Digital Images, and was the Senior Curator for many years at George Eastman House in Rochester, New York.

In November, the AFC board approved an initial vision statement prepared by its new director. This was based around the following 5 points: 1) the development of a curatorial culture within the archive; 2) the maintenance of Canberra as the central hub; 3) the establishment of an Indigenous Branch; 4) the institution of a role for digital technology; and 5) a holistic approach to acquisition, preservation and access. As a symbol of this new direction for the archive, the ScreenSound name was abandoned in favour of a return to the original name, The National Film and Sound Archive.

Paolo Cherchi Usai spoke to Mike Walsh shortly after the announcement of the name change.

What is the significance of the name change?

Well it is of symbolic significance and of political significance. It is symbolic because it represents a vindication of the archive’s original mission in Australian audio-visual culture. It has a political meaning because of the words ‘national’ and ‘archive’–a reconfirmation of the primary mission of the institution within the AFC to collect, preserve and make accessible the heritage and to do this as the national entity responsible for this.

What do you see as the major strengths of the archive?

Primarily it is the fact that it is a rare example of a national audio-visual archive with a very strong, active connection with the audio-visual community. Archives are normally perceived as entities floating somewhere in an indistinct area that is accessed by researchers, by TV stations, by filmmakers. Here I see a much greater degree of involvement of individuals in what is happening to the archives, so it is clear that this archive does not exist in a vacuum. There is a very strong, vibrant community of people with diversified interests, with diversified agendas, who look at the archive as a point of reference. To be able to bring my contribution to a situation of this kind is a way for me to engage directly in a debate with this community.

One of the 5 points of your vision statement involves the development of a curatorial approach. What are the means by which you plan to develop this?

I wish to create a team of highly qualified and highly motivated people with specific expertise in their own areas of activity, who will be given the responsibility to determine the cultural, intellectual profile of our strategy. These are people who will decide what needs to be acquired first. They will decide how audio-visual archives will be preserved and what are the parameters for their dissemination. This is to say that they will be given a high degree of authority on the cultural criteria of their activities. In deciding what needs to be done, it also has to be explained why certain acquisitions have to be made. So far the archive, for very plausible reasons which I understand and respect, has taken a process-oriented approach in terms of functions, in terms of work flow. This has been beneficial to the archive. I think it is time to now make a step forward, a step further and give the archive a stronger sense of intellectual authority in the audio-visual community, especially now that the archive is part of the Commission, which is now declaring the intention to position itself as a national cultural institution. We want to make the archive stronger within the AFC and we want to have the archive as a protagonist, as a leader, in the cultural debate within the AFC.

You’ve described the relation between the archive and the AFC as one of collaboration. Do you see it as important for the archive to maintain a separate identity within the AFC?

The AFC is made up of different areas. In all likelihood, these areas will become divisions. Each division of the AFC will contribute to the activity of the AFC and will contribute to the implementation of a strategic plan which is being designed by the AFC with the active involvement of all the divisions, meaning that I am being asked, in the course of this discussion, what is the distinctive contribution of the archive actually and potentially to the development of the AFC. When I say ‘distinctive contribution’, these 2 words are equally important. It’s a contribution because we contribute towards the overall plan. It’s distinctive because it’s something that the archive, and only the archive, can provide. So, it is not a matter of seeking independence in disguise, it is a matter of making very clear what is the cultural identity of the archive per se, as an organisation which has a national mandate, a cultural mandate and is now being asked to be part of a broader cultural agenda.

You emphasised Canberra as the intellectual and strategic centre of the archive. What do you see as the advantages of maintaining a Canberra base as the strong centre of the archive’s activities?

First of all it gives back faith in the future of the archive for the people who work for the archive. The people working for the archive feel empowered; they feel that they are here for a reason. The audio-visual artefacts are here, the historical identity of the archive is here. It is for me also a way to explain that, being a national institution, there are very strong reasons why the archive has to be in Canberra, in the capital of the country. This, as I explained many times to the stakeholders and to the Commissioners, doesn’t mean that the archive has to see Canberra as a sort of fortress where the archival culture is cultivated in isolation from the rest of the country. Quite the contrary, being based in Canberra gives the archive a clear responsibility to become the centre from which audio-visual culture, from an archival perspective, is disseminated across the entire Australian territory–in Sydney, in Melbourne, but also in other capitals, also in major cities, and everywhere in Australia. So Canberra…should not be perceived as the ivory tower where policies and collections are being held. It should be a sort of catalyst for a debate and I think that should really spread all over the Australian territory and actually, internationally as well.

You have put a lot of emphasis on the need for a programming policy. What kinds of programming do you want to give the highest priority?

I’m thinking of a highly diversified range of access and programming activities, ranging from internet access to the collections nationwide and internationally, to programs designed and implemented by the archive, to programs designed and implemented in collaboration with other divisions of the AFC, to programs where the archive simply fulfils its institutional mission to make audio-visual artefacts accessible for educational projects, for other projects, for festivals. So, the spectrum really includes the archives as the leader and the protagonist, the archive as the collaborator, and the Archive as the provider.

What about specific programs involving exhibitions and publications?

As far as exhibitions are concerned, I would like to strengthen the current exhibition galleries in Canberra in order to reflect not only the identity of the Australian audio-visual heritage, but also to highlight what the archive does. Clearly, there is a way to explain to our audience, whether it is specialised or non-specialised, that archive work is quite exciting, it’s quite compelling. It can reflect the interest of primary school audiences and highly specialised scholarly audiences. We should be proud to show what we are doing, because what we are doing is not only important, it is also quite interesting. As for publications; as the archive exists within the AFC, there will be a holistic approach to publications within the AFC. The archive, in my view, should contribute, and I found the agreement of the Commissioners in the development of publications which are meant to create very authoritative points of scholarly reference for the study of the national audio-visual heritage and culture. So I’m talking about the works that not only remain, but they also become the symbols of an intellectual leadership of the archive. The examples I brought up to the Commission are the creation of a national discography and a national filmography, the creation of a national registry of audio-visual collections in Australia. These publications will also be part of the agenda of a new entity within the archive called the Centre for Scholarly and Archival Research, which will be the hub where the internal intellectual energies of the archive and the scholarly and archival community around the archive nationally and internationally will gather in order to promote new approaches to the study of the audio-visual culture. It is very important that we take a very pluralistic and diversified approach to this. The archive has sometimes been accused of privileging certain aspects over others; for example the social history component over other components, and I’m receptive to this kind of comment in that I think the archive should encourage a variety of approaches. The archive should be equally welcoming those who are interested in social history and those who are interested in completely different approaches–even in approaches we may not be personally interested in. There may be areas or approaches I may not particularly care for, but it is our moral responsibility to make sure that those who come here don’t see this as a place where the audio-visual culture can be studied only in a certain way.

What are your plans for the Centre for Scholarly and Archival Research?

It is premature for me to say anything specific. We have just received a study prepared by an outside consultant [Peter Spearitt], who has provided an overall view about what the Centre could be. I would not yet want to discuss this paper. As I have been dealing with research centres for most of my professional life and have created a study centre at George Eastman House, this is something that is very close to my heart. I want to have a very direct involvement in the development of this centre and I am going to listen to as many opinions as possible in order to design a plan which I think will position the Centre as a place where the diversity of approaches I have mentioned can find full expression.

You have mentioned the need to develop an international collection. What criteria will guide your collection development policy here?

The main criterion will be the recognition that there is an audio-visual canon. As you know, as an organiser of the Pordenone Festival, I have been questioning the canon all my life, but in order to question the canon, one has to know what the canon is. The archive should be prepared to discuss the canon by making it available. The second criterion is the fact that to perform its mandate including access and programming, I would like to make sure that the archive has at least some archival resources necessary to integrate international film culture into its programming activity. Third, national heritage is to me what Australians have heard and seen. If I found in Australia a collection comparable to the Desmond Collection in the Netherlands, I would consider this as part of the Australian audio-visual heritage. It would be international but I would fiercely protect its Australian identity and promote the archive within the AFC as the custodian and interpreter of this component of the audio-visual heritage. In practical terms, this also means that if we found a collection of international films that no other national archive has, it would be absurd to give this collection away. This collection would be an intellectual asset for the archive.

Another point in your plan involved an emphasis on Indigenous material. What complications are there for you in working with other organisations such as IATSIS who also have interests here?

I would not see these as complications so much as opportunities. We recognise that IATSIS plays a leading role in the development of an Indigenous audio-visual culture and that is part of the reason why I wanted to have an Indigenous collection department based in Canberra. I recognise that what we call Indigenous culture is a highly diversified, and to some extent, fragmented entity. It is not this monolithic entity which is implied by this term ‘Indigenous culture’. We might better refer to Indigenous cultures in the plural…I am aware that the existence of a separate Indigenous Collection Department is a matter of debate. I know that in creating an Indigenous Collection Department I do not wish to create a ghetto for Indigenous culture and I would very much like to foster communication with Indigenous culture as a priority for the organisation. Recruitment will be an important challenge in that we want to empower Indigenous curators in the development of Indigenous culture at the archive.

Finally, I’m finding that the most exciting part of this is that I have a lot to learn. I am a newcomer. All I have read about Indigenous culture comes from books and not from direct experience. Fortunately, I am not totally unfamiliar with the issues of ethnic cultures, linguistic cultures. In Europe there has been a whole theory of regionalisation of archives based on the interests of linguistic and ethnic minorities. There are archives where specific linguistic and ethnic minorities are represented. In North America, African-American and Native American audio-visual heritage, in Canada, the Inuit’s audio-visual heritage has been part of the archival state. A different approach has been taken. So I’m keen to compare these past experiences with what is clearly going to be a new experience for me, an experience requiring a great deal of consultation with stakeholders and with specialists in the field.

Part of your vision statement involved developing a role of digitisation. What role do you see for digital technologies in the work of the Archive?

Digital is perhaps the magic word of today’s culture. I do recognise that digital technology can make, and should make, a big difference in the dissemination of audio-visual culture internationally. Digital technology offers unprecedented opportunities to make archival holdings available to all Australians in a way that would not have been even imaginable 15 years ago. It is therefore our intention to aggressively develop digital technologies for the sake of access to the collection, without forgetting 2 important principles. The first is that digital is not meant to be a long-term preservation or conservation medium, as digital technologies of today are inherently ephemeral. The second principle is that access in digital form should not distract the archive from its mission to make accessible the audio-visual heritage in its original form. Australians should have the right to choose whether they want to see a 35mm film in the glory of its original format, or in the practical, democratic, but different medium of digital technology.

RealTime issue #65 Feb-March 2005 pg.

© Mike Walsh; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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