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Provider, protagonist, collaborator

Mike Walsh interviews Paolo Cherchi Usai

Paolo Cherchi Usai Paolo Cherchi Usai
In April 2004, the ScreenSound film and sound archive was merged into the Australian Film Commission. The move was not without controversy, especially when the AFC mooted plans for the relocation of some activities away from Canberra, and for changes to the Archive’s public programs. In September 2004, Paolo Cherchi Usai took up the position of the Archive’s new director. The appointment was widely applauded, given Cherchi Usai’s international prominence. He is a founder of Italy’s Pordenone Film Festival, which has become a focal point for the study of silent cinema, and the author of several books on archival history and practice. He was also Senior Curator at George Eastman House in New York.

In November 2004, the AFC Board approved Cherchi Usai’s initial vision statement. It is a bridge-building plan aimed at reconciling the opposing camps which had taken up positions around the archive’s integration into the AFC. The plan highlights 5 points: (1) the development of a curatorial culture; (2) the maintenance of Canberra as the central hub; (3) the establishment of an Indigenous Branch; (4) consideration of the role of digital technology; and (5) an integrated approach to acquisition, preservation and access. The divisive ‘ScreenSound’ name has also been jettisoned in favour of the institution’s original title, The National Film and Sound Archive. Cherchi Usai says that the change “is of symbolic significance and of political significance. 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.”

The place of the Archive within the AFC has been a sensitive issue, and Cherchi Usai is at pains to resolve these tensions. “I am being asked ‘what is the distinctive contribution of the archive actually and potentially to the development of the AFC?’ is not a matter of seeking independence in disguise, it is a matter of making very clear 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.”

He claims that emphasising Canberra as the centre will restore faith in the future of the archive for its staff, as “the historical identity of the archive is here.” He adds: “this 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 is disseminated across the entire Australian territory.”

He plans to emphasise a more heavily curatorial approach in order to “give the archive a stronger sense of intellectual authority in the audio-visual community, especially now that the archive is part of the AFC, which is now declaring the intention to position itself as a national cultural institution. We have the archive as a protagonist, as a leader, in the cultural debate within the AFC.” This will involve the creation of “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.”

He also calls for “a highly diversified range of access and programming activities.” These may range from internet access to the collections, programs designed and implemented by the archive or in collaboration with other divisions of the AFC, to simply fulfilling its institutional mission to make audio-visual artefacts accessible for projects, educational purposes and festivals. So, the spectrum really includes the archive as “the leader and the protagonist, the archive as the collaborator, and the archive as the provider.”

Cherchi Usai speaks of strengthening the exhibition galleries in Canberra, which the AFC’s Directions discussion paper had called into question, “in order to reflect not only the identity of the Australian audio-visual heritage, but also to highlight what the archive does.” He also stresses he found agreement with the AFC 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 that not only remain but also become the symbols of an intellectual leadership of the archive...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.” Planned publications include national filmographies and discographies as well as a registry of audio-visual collections in Australia.

Cherchi Usai adds that he wants the archive to encourage a “pluralistic and diversified” approach to audio-visual research: “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.”

The collection policy of the archive has been criticised in the past for pursuing a nationalist cultural agenda to the point where rare international films and related materials have been sent off-shore. Cherchi Usai wants a more internationalist collection policy, arguing that the ‘national heritage’ is all that Australians have heard and seen: “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.”

Where the AFC had initially considered moving Indigenous collection responsibilities to Sydney, Cherchi Usai has won approval for the establishment of an Indigenous Branch in Canberra, in part because of the proximity of IATSIS (Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies). While recognising that he has much to learn regarding Australian Indigenous culture, he is adamant 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.”

The last of Cherchi Usai’s 5 points is the need to address the role of digital technologies in preserving and making accessible audio-visual material. While he claims the intention “to aggressively develop digital technologies for the sake of access to the collection”, he warns that “digital technology is not meant to be a long-term preservation or conservation medium, as digital technologies of today are inherently ephemeral.” He also cautions 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.”

See full interview

RealTime issue #65 Feb-March 2005 pg. 24

© Mike Walsh; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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