In 2022, Università della Svizzera italiana in collaboration with the Locarno Film Festival launched a joint chair on the future of cinema and the audiovisual arts, supported by Swisscom. One year after Kevin B. Lee, Locarno Film Festival Professor for the Future of Cinema and Audiovisual Arts, we take stock with him of what has been achieved and future plans.
Professor Lee, is the balance of this first year positive?
Through the Chair, the USI and the Locarno Film Festival, with the support of Swisscom, have combined their respective strengths to establish a strong position for research, teaching and the development of new possibilities for cinema in Ticino, Switzerland and beyond. Much has been achieved on all sides, but if we look only at the USI’s side, there’s much to celebrate. The Chair has successfully launched its offerings both on the Lugano campus and at the Academy of Architecture in Mendrisio. We have succeeded in offering a cinema curriculum that attracts students from different fields of study and strengthens the link between the two campuses.
Which themes have you tackled in particular?
My main area of research is the video essay, which I see as a powerful tool for students and scholars. In the 21st century, audiovisual is increasingly replacing writing as the primary mode of communicating ideas and experiences, and the video essay is a key model for this development. I used this tool to study cinema in the past, but at USI, I work with students in communication, marketing, media management, Italian studies, and architecture. The result has given me a remarkably refreshing view of how this tool can be applied to a wider range of disciplines and goals.
In addition, I am researching several topics related to the future of cinema and audiovisuals, such as the role of artificial intelligence and algorithms and how different types of audiovisual media and entertainment compete within the economies and ecologies of human attention. And my exposure to the beauty of the Ticino landscape has made me more sensitive to the ecological challenges of our time. This led me to teach my first video essay class on eco-cinema, which was a great success. I am using the results of the class to connect with eco-sustainability programs in the region and to show how the video essay can contribute to this cause.
What do you regard as the most important achievement of the past year?
Many wonderful memories come to mind from the past year. From the days of the 75th Locarno Film Festival. Several video essays by USI students were presented in the program. We organized a 24-hour talk on the future of attention that was seen around the world and brought new energy to the festival. And we hosted a masterclass and film screening at the blue Cinema in Zurich as part of the festival’s strategy to complement its world-class August event with a year-round connected community that can benefit from a range of onand offline initiatives. More recently, a master’s student who took my video essay seminar told me that it was one of the most useful courses for her current internship in a Swiss government office, where video-making has proven to be a crucial job skill. This feedback was very validating and shows how audiovisual communication will only become more important in the years to come.
What are the goals for 2023?
I will continue to help strengthen the festival community with other events throughout the year; most recently, I gave masterclasses at L’immagine e la parola in Locarno and the MEET Digital Culture Center in Milan. We will continue to build an international network of researchers, eventually leading to a summit for the future of cinema to be held annually in Locarno. In the meantime, I’m delighted that the USI Faculty of Communication, Culture and Society has approved a new Thematic Area for Cinema and Audiovisual Futures, allowing graduate students to specialize in film studies starting in the fall. Also, in the fall, the e-Lab will launch a training program for professors and researchers at the USI to produce video essays for their research and teaching. It will be offered in conjunction with the Progetto Culturale, whose current theme is "Immagini in questione," which describes the purpose of video essays quite well. I am also pursuing a multi-year Swiss national research project that will examine video essays, their impact on various aspects of society and culture, and the forms of audiovisual language that emerge in different contexts of circulation. Before this project begins, I hope to complete my first feature film about how extremist media is evolving with new developments on the Internet and digital technologies such as AI.
You have taught in the United States and Germany. Are there differences compared to Switzerland?
I am still getting to know how the students here live and think, although it takes time because I feel a greater distance between students and faculty than in my previous teaching experiences. This is the first time I have been addressed as "professor". When I was an undergraduate in the U.S. in the 1990s, I did the same with my professors, but in graduate school, I called them by their names, "Fred" or "Mary," and so on. Even when I taught at an art academy in Germany, my students called me "Du" instead of "Sie". I sense that global culture as a whole is becoming less hierarchical, that digital technology is making it easier for younger and underprivileged people to be seen and heard, and that knowledge is becoming more multidirectional and collectively produced. Personally, I’m more comfortable with this social arrangement in that it can produce more empathy and understanding.
Your chair is part of a synergy between USI and the Locarno Film Festival. How is this collaboration structured, and what are the main results?
To my knowledge, there has never been a professorship associated with a film festival, so the first year was quite a process of exploring possible roles and responsibilities between the two institutions. Swisscom’s support has been crucial in providing the resources and freedom to pursue the most relevant projects and to address topical questions of our time, such as how we can innovatively adapt to the ever-changing audiovisual landscape. Their commitment is driven by a shared ambition to gain useful insights from the Locarno Film Festival Professorship on how cinema can remain relevant in the present and future context.
Ultimately, the most important work I can do is produce original research within the university that can inform the festival’s development. Through my teaching, I engage the next generation of film audiences to understand their values and motivations and how the festival can serve them. And what I publish and produce, whether it’s video essays, articles or podcasts, can be posted on the Locarno Film Festival website and distributed as content that contributes to its standing as a global destination for quality film experiences and insights. Ultimately, it’s about building a cinematic intelligence that can inspire a more fulfilling future through the audiovisual.
A year of perspectives on the future of cinema