The art of curating a film program

30 May 2018
John Edmond
Dr John Edmond

Film curator and scholar Dr John Edmond has been the curator behind a number of UQ Art Museum film programs in recent years. Having recently completed his PhD on vehicle landscapes, John is now the artistic director and film programmer for the Queensland Film Festival. He continues to undertake independent research and criticism and has authored a forthcoming monograph on Ken Russell’s Altered States, and co-edited two volumes on the works of Valérie Massadian, and Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani.

In among all of that, John has not only curated a three-part film program responding to ‘Robert Smithson: Time Crystals’ for UQ Art Museum, but he’s also generously given us an insight into how he approached the task.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about the program’s three themes and why you chose them?
 Hah, I chose them in an overly literal manner. The name of the exhibition is Robert Smithson: Time Crystals, and the three programs relate to Time (Against Entropy), Crystals (Crystal Constructs) and Robert Smithson directly (Focus Points, comprising Robert Smithson-related documentaries).

Dr Amelia Barikin and Professor Chris McAuliffe have produced a remarkable, research-driven exhibition – a project whose theoretical positions I’m sympathetic to – and so the themes flowed from there. I always try to think of counter-programming, and I did sketch out such loose themes as ‘Smithson plus Westerns plus late ’60s counter-culture return to the land’ and ‘alternative approaches to land art’ – think of the films of Ana Mendieta and their integration of the body into the landscape. But, ultimately, I felt I was getting distracted by the word ‘land’ and ignoring the underlying impulses that drove Smithson.

Q: Robert Smithson was passionate about a lot of subjects and ideas. What was the starting point to begin thinking about how you might construct the program?
Smithson’s own critical writing was important to me when I first began thinking through film as contemporary art, in addition to film as film. For example, locating Minimalism in relationship to the aesthetics of science and science fiction films was a sensuous link that I could instantly grasp. It also carried me through his own thinking around site and non-site, and how they can point to one another. It was, rightly or wrongly, helpful for beginning to think of film as a container, rather than, say, a frame or an observer. So Smithson has always informed my programming, and this interest was sharpened by the exhibition and returning to his writings.

Q: Can you speak a little about the creative and logistical process you went through to come up with the ideas and source the films?
 I never start a program from scratch. I watch films as a continuous process, identifying key films and forming a cluster of relationships between them. At a certain point I commit to a particular chain of films and carve them out. For instance, Against Entropy was cut from a spinney of science fiction shorts, which in one direction headed off to gardening thanks to Jorge Jácome’s queer ambient short Flores (not included), and mining through Pia Borg’s Silica. This provides the core foundation for targeted research, both theoretical, and scouring catalogues for other films that match this particular chain, or it can open it up to new angles.

Q: Is there any film that you feel is a standout? 
A: It’s possibly impolite to pick a favoured child, so I’ll single out The New Monuments, which we commissioned from Conor Bateman. When designing the program, one of the big problems I faced was what to do about the ’50s and ’60s science fiction films that influenced Smithson and his peers. There were too many to screen in this type of program, and the things that interested him, the surface of the props, were swallowed up by the narrative. So we commissioned The New Monuments as a solution to this problem. In my inchoate imagination, it was a run-through of excerpts of these monuments, linked by apt camera pans, closing of doors, etcetera. And this would have been fine if utilitarian. But Bateman brought precision and development to this collage, not only identifying perfect links, but also using the modular, formulaic nature of these films to recreate, in miniature, the arc of humanity’s typical engagement with these impenetrable surfaces.

Q: What advice can you offer curators looking to work in programming films?
A: Everything interesting we do is on the surface. There’s no hidden skill to booking films, it’s just a transaction, so focus on the breadth of your knowledge. Rigorously read, watch, listen and visit available artefacts, and use this knowledge to form and understand associations. Show your hand.

The final two parts of the ‘Robert Smithson: Time Crystals’ film program, curated by Dr John Edmond, will be screening at UQ Art Museum during June. Free event. RSVP below to secure your seat.

Part 2: Crystal Constructs on Tuesday 12 June, 6.30 pm RSVP

Part 3: Focus Points on Tuesday 26 June, 6.30 pm RSVP