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The Curator Is King.

Posted January 9th, 2012 by Ben

The arrival of the London Short Film Festival to raise our spirits in this otherwise bleakest of months is thankfully becoming as traditional a part of the cold dark bit of the year as Coke’s Santa Claus and Prince Albert’s pine tree. Once again those of us who admire the simplicity, the hidden complexity and the poetry of short form movie making are presented with an unparalleled selection of the finest new films.

The triumphant return of Phil Ilson and his cohorts has also reminded me a of thought I started to have just before the New Year when Kindle King Andy Conway kicked off a Screenwriter’s bulletin with this link to Mish’s Global list of cultural artefacts marked for extinction. Among the items set to follow both Dodo and Dinosaur are the book, the newspaper and all television. Surprisingly for once no mention of the short film so I guess that leaves the score at Phil Ilson 1, Rupert Murdoch 0. Of course it’s not often that these two titans are mentioned in the same breath but they share a common role and if there’s any truth in Mish’s doomy predictions then it’s one that is going to become increasingly prominent.

The curator is a figure who passed through the 20th Century virtually unnoticed. Even now the title conjures up an Ilsonish figure, a passionate intellectual on a mission to make the world better. However a curator is simply someone who brings together other people’s work and presents it to an audience in a way that draws significance as much from the relationship between the works as from the work itself. Murdoch, through his twin roles as mogul and master of the night, has done his best to curate people’s sense of the world for the past twenty years. Every TV programmer and commissioner is a curator, as is every publisher. Often passing largely unremarked through their careers they nevertheless have played a vital and active role in curating mass media and popular culture through the decades in which it first truly exploded.

We haven’t tended to call these people curators, preferring to class TV stations, newspaper owners and publishing houses as “producers” rather than mere bringers-together. We have measured their importance by what they have created, often taking for granted the way they bring to prominence the work of others. It has been what broadcasters chose to make rather than how urgently and cleverly they push the programme upon that has been seen as their key role. It has been what the newspapers print, not the nature of the space devoted to the story.

However if the next twenty years are indeed to see the demise of newspapers and television as we know them today then it is because the role of curator has been pushed to the forefront of cultural jobs. Already it is possible for anyone who cares to access nearly most of everything that our species have said, sung, drawn and generally done. Already this is too much information.

Faced with the onrush of instant reporting the newspapers, creaking along a full day after events have been tweeted and forgotten, have attempted to turn this overabundance to their advantage. As the news sections decrease so the pages of comment and speculation increase. A newspaper is a bad tool for telling us what’s happening but it hopes to prove to be a good tool for exploring why. The more tv channels proliferate the more they focus in on a specific genre, the more clearly curated they become. What for decades was merely part and parcel of the job of creating and broadcasting is increasingly becoming the raison d’etre of the channel. The rise of Dave means for the first time we have a channel so good at curating the scraps it could pick up that it has been able to secure a loyal audience and so transform into a producer of new work (albeit not especially original work…) No longer able to be the first or freshest voice they instead focus on being the most authoritative, most dedicated, most complete – best curated.

The interesting question is not so much whether 20th Century media will survive long into the 21st, it’s what form their competition will take. It used to be that our views and viewing were formed by what was recommended in the papers and what happened to be on when we slumped down in front of the box. Everything else was loftily bracketed together as “word of mouth”, the largely irrelevant chatter of your friends. Now though your “friends” are probably legion and their chatter is almost constantly updated in the palm of your hand. Increasingly tools like Twitter and Youtube have enabled clever, passionate people to talk directly to an ever growing audience.

However I don’t want to get too hung up or starry eyed about the technology. After all, both those examples run at a loss and exist purely on the sufferance of wealthy backers – in one case Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, in the other “How-Long-Before-They-Give-In-And-Become-Evil” internet giant Google. Whilst it is fun to foretell the collapse of all newspapers and the implosion of TV as we know it, it is less deliciously modern but still probably more likely that either one or both of these democratising technologies will, if not disappear, at least be twisted out of shape by market forces long before the ink dries on the world’s last printed headline.

"Hallo I own all your tweets!"

Whatever happens the fundamental point remains that what we crave most of all is someone we trust who can point us in the direction of stuff that’s good and the more stuff proliferates and the faster and easier our access to it becomes the more important and powerful will be the best curators.

And remember you heard it here first…

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