Digital Pandemics or: On Preserving the Audience and the Will to Will

By Jurij Meden

It only took a few days of social distancing measures as the consequence of the current global pandemic, before several film producers, distributors and exhibitors, both commercial and cultural institutions, started reinventing themselves as streaming platforms, thus bypassing the usual – and currently banned – idea of a public screening as the primary exhibition site. The swiftness and ease of this transformation was a reminder that in this regard the coronavirus crisis merely accelerated a certain widespread and growing trend of consuming moving images that has been steadily emptying movie theaters all over the world already for two decades. To be more precise: the crisis not only accelerated, but enthroned this trend of domestic viewing as the only legal option.

In this situation, any self-respecting film museum in the world must have recognized that its raison d’être actually goes far beyond film curatorship in terms of actively, selectively collecting, preserving, documenting and exhibiting films; far beyond insisting on carefully curated film programs, and on exhibiting films in their original formats.

In this situation, a self-respecting film museum realized that its core mission was always also preservation of the audience. The audience in this context should not be understood as statistics, as an amorphous mass of consumers lead to believe that each one of them is an individual curator of their allegedly unique online viewing habits and additions. Instead, we are talking about preserving the audience as an actual, material group of people, who have gathered to celebrate the critical idea of an actual, material public space, to participate in an act of resistance, a reenactment of the ritual of museum presentation, to reply to the idea of a public film exhibition with a public exhibition of human curiosity and mutual respect.

Only through preservation of an idea of a film museum as a public space, can a film museum in turn preserve the idea of an audience as an active entity, and consequently preserve the freedom to experience cinema one way or the other.

Jean-Paul Sartre famously defined freedom as nothing but the existence of our will, and added that it is actually not enough to will, but necessary to will to will. It would probably not be too much of a stretch to imagine this Sartrean gap between “will” and “will to will” as a perfect illustration of a gap between a semi-conscious “click to watch next” and a deliberate trip to your local cinematheque. If your local cinematheque – that is, freedom – will still be there after the crisis.