Film Preservationist Mark Toscano on Artistic Interpretation and Digital Accessibility

Portrait of Mark Toscano.

Portrait of Mark Toscano.

What does your role as a film preservationist entail?

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Over the last seventeen years, I’ve preserved or restored artist and experimental films, animations, documentaries, and independent features. My job includes technical, curatorial, and research processes, aesthetic evaluation, working with filmmakers or their estates, curating programs, and sometimes collaborating with galleries and distributors. On individual projects, I generally do research, inspection, evaluation, and preparation of original film elements such as negatives, prints, reversal originals, intermediates, magnetic soundtracks, and optical tracks. I also work with outside laboratories to shepherd each film through its preservation process, whether photochemical or digital.

What were you working on before the Covid-19 shutdown?

I juggle numerous projects and work with the collections of more than 150 filmmakers. When the pandemic hit, I had just started restoring Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Naked Spaces: Living Is Round [1985]. We had planned for her to visit Los Angeles to do color correction and an oral history, but the lab temporarily shut down its film printing, so her visit had to be postponed. I also manage the preservation and conservation of Tacita Dean’s films, and I’ll have a backlog of her work when I return to the Academy. From my apartment, I’ve been able to continue the digital restoration of shorts by the psychedelic animator Vince Collins, who started making films in San Francisco in the early ’70s. I’ve been digitizing films by Betye Saar as well—two very short animations and about 48 minutes of documentary footage from a 1973 gallery show in Berkeley. And I’m always working on films by Barbara Hammer. I worked with Barbara for several years before she died, and we talked a lot about her ideas, intentions, and process. As an archivist, I now feel more comfortable interpreting her preferences. I also like to consult her partner, Florrie. Barbara was very interested in evolving with the time, and I try to keep in mind what she would have wanted.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing you in your job right now?

I’m limited in the type of work I can do remotely. For certain tasks, I would ordinarily go to a laboratory and, say, oversee color correction or audio restoration. Late last summer, I was feeling depressed and anxious about not being able to do key parts of my job, like working on an inspection bench with film elements. I rented a studio so that I could do that kind of thing again.

In the fall of 2019, I started a program at Echo Park Film Center called “Remains to Be Seen,” where I screened archival or restored 16-millimeter experimental films from a backlog of prints that I need to watch for work. Each program was a surprise—I announced the film right before its projection, and then I would hand out program notes at the end. Last April, I translated this idea to the informal livestream “Remains to Be Streamed,” which I host most Tuesday nights on Instagram. Projecting films on a wall and streaming them on a smartphone are not ideal for viewing, but the works come across surprisingly well. It has become a really nice weekly ritual that provides a sense of community engagement, which I’ve missed this past year.

What have you learned during this time of isolation?

I’ve become a lot more engaged with the digital accessibility of films. Before the pandemic, I was more committed to the preservation and restoration of films in their original medium. My thought was that we might have limited time to print works on film, while we could always have them digitized later. But the lack of in-person screenings and the increased reliance on digital platforms has underscored the value of digitizing films. Now I’m looking forward to balancing the photochemical and the digital in order to facilitate wider access to the work.

Source: artnews.com

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