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Cinema as Artifact and Event: Peter Kubelka as Curator, Archivist, and Media Theorist
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Born in Vienna in 1934, Peter Kubelka has left a trail of influence across the cultural landscape of Austrian cinema as well as the transnational avant-garde. He is best known as the experimental filmmaker responsible for Arnulf Rainer (1958–60), a six-minute sensory barrage of flickering light that includes only white frames, black frames, white noise, and silence. Like the majority of his oeuvre (which amounts to roughly one hour in total), Arnulf Rainer is built on the foundational premise that the essential core unit of cinema is not the shot but the frame. His works emphasize this fact in their execution, by utilizing a montage-based filmmaking aesthetic that is Kubelka’s trademark. In addition to producing some of the most significant conceptual achievements of the avant-garde, Kubelka has also helped to transform archival, curatorial, and exhibition practices around the world.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Kubelka helped found two of the most significant institutions dedicated to the exhibition and collection of experimental, independent cinema. In 1964, along with Peter Konlechner, he founded the Austrian Film Museum; in 1970, with filmmakers Jonas Mekas and James Broughton, critic P. Adams Sitney, and writer Ken Kelman, he established Anthology Film Archives in New York City. These film museums proudly maintain two of the most significant collections of experimental and nonindustrial film in the world as well as dedicated spaces for the exhibition, study, and preservation of the moving image. At both of these institutions, Kubelka helped to choose and acquire the films that now form the core of their collections.1 He also designed unprecedented exhibition spaces in both venues—which he named the Invisible Cinema—dedicated to transforming film viewing by minimizing all forms of personal and architectural distraction to achieve a more direct spectatorial encounter with the film material itself. Kubelka’s radical ideas about film exhibition grow naturally from his sharp and nuanced aesthetic principles. It is in this context—as a raconteur, spokesperson, lecturer, and teacher—that many have encountered his piercing intellect and spry wit. As an artist, instructor, and film advocate, he has taught and inspired countless filmmakers, including the contemporary Austrian experimentalists Peter Tcherkassky and Martin Arnold. In addition to his filmic enterprises as both artist and thinker, he has also established a reputation as a culinary showman who uses his cooking demonstrations to expound on philosophy, cinema, aesthetics, and the principles of sensory experience. An aesthetic polyglot, Kubelka is the subject of a new, four-hour documentary, Fragments of Kubelka (2012), by Martina Kudláčeck. It is remarkable to consider that Kubelka, who has made less than an hour’s worth of film, is, in fact, the deserving subject of a documentary of such epic scale.

Like avant-garde filmmakers Hollis Frampton and Stan Brakhage, Kubelka is almost as gifted in the art of rhetoric as in cinema. Kubelka does not usually offer opinions lightly or without forethought, be it in casual conversation or a public lecture. It seems that Kubelka has an answer for almost everything, as if he has thought through every possible permutation of a set of ideas—a fact that his films rigorously demonstrate. But when it comes to the historical legacy of motion picture film, he is particularly focused and persuasive. On January 19, 2012, archivist Kirston Johnson interviewed Kubelka about his curatorial legacy as a founder of the Austrian Film Museum as well as more general film-related topics, including archival practice, exhibition, and the future of moving images in the digital age. The date of this interview has significant symbolic weight because it was the precise day on which Kodak declared bankruptcy, a point introduced by Kubelka toward the end of the interview. In the following text, written by Juan Carlos Kase, Kubelka’s responses are incorporated into a prose-based article, reorganizing an extensive and wide-ranging conversation into a streamlined digest of ideas and historical descriptions of the filmmaker’s interventions as a curator, museum founder, and theorist of cinema. All quotations are from Kubelka. They have been minimally edited for clarity and concision.

Origins of the Austrian Film Museum and Its Collection

Both Anthology Film Archives and the Austrian Film...

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