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The Moving Image 4.1 (2004) 34-47

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The Ethical Presenter

Or How to Have Good Arguments over Dinner

[End Page 34]

For programmers and curators in North America, a question of ethics arises from the superabundance of film and video being produced locally as well as internationally. There is simply too much to see, most of it "good" by one standard or another. The available body of work includes not only the films and videos of professional media makers—e.g., artists, documentarists, activists—but also students, amateurs, anonymous makers, and people long gone whose works remain with us. Any program, series, festival, or series of festivals can show only the merest tip of the iceberg of all this fascinating (by one standard or another) work. How to sort through this material and make it available and accessible to audiences? How to frame the importance of work that might otherwise get lost in the crowd? How to make these decisions in a way that is just to the filmmakers, the audience, and the field itself? [End Page 35]

My thesis is that the ethical presenter, whether for festivals, museums, nonprofit arts organizations, or occasional audiences, is one who frames a program with an argument. This approach may seem uncomfortably academic. After some defining of terms, examples, and returning to the meaning of "argument," I hope to show that it is not as Procrustean a model as it may first appear.

The "Terms of Address" conference posited that programming and curating are different activities. I define "programming" as ongoing exhibition, such as for festivals or regular series in galleries and other venues. Audiences rely on these venues as places where they can see what's new in a particular medium, genre, or identity category, such as video (the New York Video Festival), documentary (Hot Docs in Toronto, the What's Happening series at MoMA), experimental cinema (Media City, Windsor), Asian diaspora cinema (the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film and Video Festival), and queer cinema (many festivals). Individuals and committees at these venues preview work broadly, in principle exhaustively, in the given area and choose what to show. Although individual personalities determine festival programming to some extent (think of Kay Armatage and Cameron Bailey at the Toronto Film Festival), festival programming is supposed to be relatively objective. In short, programming is a reflection on the state of the field and thus has its own ethics of responsibility to artists and audiences.

I define "curating" as organizing thematic programs that are not necessarily linked to a regular venue. One-off events, curated programs are often driven by concepts rather than by the need to survey developments in a particular area of film and video practice. Whether the work of individuals or collectives, curating is driven by a subjective agenda. It is a reflection on the state of the world, in some kind of dialectic between the field of film and video and the curators' ideas. Audiences are attracted by either the theme or the subjectivity of the curator.

The "objectivity" (of the programmer) and "subjectivity" (of the curator) are terms that remain obscure. Each can be clarified, and made available for questioning, through the device of argument.

What about ethics? My title, "The Ethical Presenter," might sound rather puritanical, as though making, programming, and watching cinema is our common moral duty. But ethics, or the exhortation to justice, is nothing without beauty, for beauty is the invitation to the soul. In proposing that ethics is intertwined with aesthetics, I mean to follow some old minds, like the nineteenth-century art critic John Ruskin and the eleventh-century philosopher Ibn Al Haytham (I'll stop short at the neat equation of ethics and aesthetics attributed to the twentieth-century empire builder Vladimir Lenin). This thinking [End Page 36] might sound unsustainably classical to you (what is beauty, for example?). But it is a way briefly to suggest that the ethical relationships among artists, programmers, and audiences involve discourses of beauty, emotion, and love. Politics, broadly understood, is...


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