Conversation with Sally Berger, film and media curator

Sally Berger is a film and media curator, lecturer, and writer. She is a Fellow at the Center for Media, Culture and History, New York University. Previously, she served as Assistant Curator at The Museum of Modern Art, Department of Film, and Director/co-founder of Documentary Fortnight, an international festival of nonfiction film and media. This spring at Haverford, she will be teaching the course “Moving Image Media and Art Exhibition” in VCAM. HCAH post-bac fellow Kelly Jung sat down with Berger to learn more about her new course and her work as a film curator.

KJ: Can you tell us a bit about the course “Moving Image Media and Art Exhibition” that you will be teaching this spring? 

SB: The course looks at pivotal initiatives, artists, curators and programs that have shaped moving image film and media exhibition from the 1940s to the present. It begins by looking at the experimental films, theories and presentation methodologies of Maya Deren who was the first artist to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship for creative work in motion pictures in 1946. From there we look at Amos and Marcia Vogel’s influential cinema society Cinema 16 that featured programs of experimental, educational and documentary films in New York City from 1947 – 1963.

Other groundbreaking initiatives that will be covered include The Flaherty Seminar, The Sundance Film Festival, Howard Wise’s gallery exhibition, TV as a Creative Medium, considered the first show to focus on artist’s video, and exhibitions at the Venice Biennale, Documenta, The Whitney Museum, alternative spaces and elsewhere.

In the class, we examine the art and theories of Harun Farocki and Hito Steyerl whose works have spanned experimental film, video and media installation, and other contemporary artists working in media, performance, and public engagement.

KJ: Where did your interest in film start? How did you end up becoming a film curator?

SB: I became interested in film and art living in New York City in the 1980s. I loved going to art house cinemas, visiting galleries in Soho, and seeing works in the downtown theater scene. When I attended college at Fordham College at the Lincoln Center campus, I studied video art, media theory and documentary under Deirdre Boyle who was a wonderful mentor. Among other things, she introduced me to Barbara London, head of the Video Program at The Museum of Modern Art. I started working in the Video Program part of MoMA’s Department of Film in my final year of college, and later went on for an M.A. in Cinema Studies at New York University. I was able to combine my interests in experimental and documentary film and video art working at The Museum of Modern Art.


KJ: How is curating film different (if it is) than curating art of more traditional mediums such as painting or photography? 

SB: The course specifically looks at film and video as art mediums and their history of presentation and exhibition in order to explore the things that make them unique as well as the considerations that bring them into contact with more traditional mediums. Time-based media is expressed in a variety of formats and venues, from single-channel to multi-channel, monitor or projection based, theatre or gallery installation, mobile devices and interactive platforms, documented or live performance, and much more. At their core, film and media are time based and reproducible, these characteristics and their many forms create challenges to a curator, as well as the artists, that we will explore in the course.

KJ: What was one exhibit that you were a part of that was most memorable? Why?

SB: As a curator I am very proud of all of the exhibitions on which I worked, including: Bill Morrison: Compositions and Re-Compositions (2014/15), the retrospectives of Naomi Kawase (2016), Lourdes Portillo (2012), Roddy Bogawa (2013), and Sally Potter (2010); First Nations/First Features (2005, a collaboration with the Smithsonian and NYU); video installations by Patty Chang and David Kelley (2014) and Magdalena Campos-Pons (1998) and the Documentary Fortnight (2001 – 2016) annual film festival. It is an incredible honor, learning experience and pleasure to work with a range of artists, filmmakers, curators and museum staff in the creation of an exhibition or festival. In April I was in public conversation with Werner Herzog for an inaugural art lecture series at Pratt institute.  It was a meaningful experience to be in dialogue with Herzog on stage about his films: his vast range of experience, forthrightness, and love for spontaneity – we made some decisions about what films to talk about on the spot – made it more fun as well as challenging.


KJ: What makes a good film for you? What do you look for as a curator?

SB: A good film for me is one that challenges my expectations and makes me pause and think. As a curator I look for work that is engaging, timely and universal.


KJ: What was your favorite film of 2017?

SB: That’s an impossible question for me to answer: There are so many good films this year in different genres, many of which are still on my “to see” list! Early in 2017 I saw Raoul Peck’s I am Not Your Negro and found it to be creatively inspiring and enlightening – it remains one of my favorite films from this year.