J.P. Sniadecki by Nicolás Pereda

BOMB 145 Fall 2018
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Lisa Malloy & J.P. Sniadecki, still from A Shape of Things to Come, work in progress. Courtesy of the artists.

In the spring of 2013 I spent a lot of time with J.P. Sniadecki. I was living in Boston at the time and he was finishing his PhD. I was intrigued by how visceral and nonintellectual the films of this Harvard anthropologist were. J.P. as a person was also intriguing; you wouldn’t initially think of him as a scholar. In fact, several of J.P.’s fellow Sensory Ethnography Lab people I met that year felt totally out of place at Harvard: they smoked and drank too much and stayed up late all the time, yet they excelled like few people in academia do while having a dismissive, perhaps even antagonistic attitude toward academic life. Naturally, after hanging out with J.P. for a while, I realized that his work was informed by insightful, complex thoughts on cinema and anthropology. His films are a rare and enviable combination of intellectual calculation and deep emotional connection to the environment. His current film, A Shape of Things to Come, which is codirected with Lisa Malloy and still in progress, continues an idiosyncratic method of inquiry, rooted in curiosity for all manner of individual and collective existence.

After seeing recent footage of the film’s protagonist, a desert dweller named Sundog, we had reason to compare some notes on the topic. In 2017 I finished a film/performance/lecture titled The Private Property Trilogy: A Survey of the Life and Films of C.B.. During the lecture I screen landscapes from the San Luis Potosí desert, along with three short films which I attribute to Carlos, a sixty-year-old German recluse who immigrated to Mexico in the early ’90s. Two years ago he dug out the skeleton of a mammoth, which was the catalyst for an amateur archeological investigation in search of the first settlers of the Americas.

—Nicolás Pereda

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Lisa Malloy & J.P. Sniadecki, still from A Shape of Things to Come

J.P. Sniadecki Where should we begin? We’ve both been shooting in the desert. Shall we start there?

Nicolás Pereda Sure. I saw excerpts of the film you’re making. Give us a summary.

JPS I’m codirecting the film with Lisa Malloy. A Shape of Things to Come starts off following the life rhythms of a sixty-year-old man called Sundog, who lives in the Sonoran Desert. He’s living off the land, scavenging and hunting, at a remove from what he calls (borrowing from radical environmentalist Derrick Jensen) the “dominant culture.” That’s how Sundog refers to our lifestyle, to the whole unsustainable modern organization of life, land, energy, economics, and power. He sees a lot of ill being done by what we accept as civilization. The film, in following him, advances a provocative model for another way of life—one that looks back at how things were for a good portion of humanity before the Anthropocene and also forward to how we may have to organize our lives if we’re to continue. Then the film takes a turn toward the fantastical and the psychedelic: Sundog harbors ecoterrorism fantasies, and we’ve been working with him to transpose these to the screen. So the film’s also an alarm, depicting possible revolt from within our own ranks, not just nature’s revenge via melting icebergs, giant fires, and devastating hurricanes. Sundog’s extreme measures could be a prognosis of our future. His resistance to the techno-industrial machine is in a territory between acts of nonviolent disobedience and sabotage as described in Edward Abbey’s 1975 novel The Monkey Wrench Gang and violent acts like those committed by Ted Kaczynski.

NP As you know, I also worked with a sixty-year-old guy living in the Mexican desert, Carlos. He’s different because he’s not radical in the same way; or rather, his radical beliefs are in the realms of knowledge and historiography—for instance, how academics and archaeologists have the timing wrong on the first human settlers in the Americas. Nobody cares about these discrepancies.

Carlos recently came to Mexico City to watch the performance lecture that our collaboration resulted in. For him, coming to the city is like us going to Disneyland—visiting an absurd construction. Why would anybody want to go there? But he also gets a kick out of seeing people enjoy that life. I agree with most of the things he has to say and even with his lifestyle. When I spend a lot of time with him, the first few days are really incredible. But after a while I start getting exasperated by the singularity of the experience, dealing with the set beliefs of one person. I get bored listening to his rants. I don’t know if this is the case with you and Sundog, but I don’t get to talk much when I’m with Carlos. It’s like I’m there only to listen to him. There’s no sharing; he seems uninterested in my views.

JPS He only wants your attention, right?

NP Exactly. Others’ ideas are irrelevant to him, and that can get exhausting. For anthropologists, this might be a normal experience, but I’m not used to it. I generally work with people who, even if they don’t belong to my social world, are open to an exchange. They ask me about my life and I ask them about theirs. Whereas with Carlos, that’s not the dynamic.

JPS Carlos in Mexico and Sundog in Arizona are on the fringes of the dominant culture not only due to their convictions but probably also because of their psyches. Sundog has an amazing exchange and communication with the plant and animal life around him. The borders between his being and theirs seem porous. But with humans, it’s a more circumscribed exchange, and he tends to launch into diatribes against the folly and violence of civilization. I’d like to think there’s something special about Lisa and me, or about you for being there, but it could be just about anyone who’s willing to offer attention. Not surprisingly, some ethnographies purporting to describe entire cultures are actually based on conversations the anthropologist had with just a few people living on the fringes, because often those are the only people who actually have the time or interest to disclose so much about their lives. And then the anthropologist creates a whole analysis based upon a few singular experiences.

But with A Shape of Things to Come, it’s different. It’s not a film merely about Sundog. It’s made with him: we work together, and, of course, there are problems and conflicts, but we try to develop scenes and scenarios collaboratively. Lisa and I might suggest, “Hey, let’s film you harvesting snakeweed in the hills” and we devise a scene together. Or he has this fantasy of using a .30-06 rifle to dismantle the border patrol surveillance towers, which have been erected in recent years and now blot the desert landscape. They monitor the region like a panopticon and undermine the sense of freedom that attracted people like Sundog there in the first place. He’s really into the imbrication of both fantasy and reality, and we work with him to bring that to the screen.

NP It’s amazing that he immerses himself in collaboration with you. In my case, Carlos doesn’t want anything to do with this film. In fact, I had to frame the film as not being about him but about other ideas. He was happy to help me as long as he was not one of the film’s characters, which was funny because he was the basis of the whole project. He doesn’t want to be known, and I don’t use his full name, ever. He lives out in the desert because he wants to be isolated. He’s like, “What if people come visit me because you made a film?”

JPS Sundog is more contradictory. He can be so solicitous of the camera because he loves the attention, and feels that this is his shot at communicating his message to us “sheeple,” which is how he refers to the larger public. But he also wants to be left alone. At the same time, while he cherishes his solitude, he would love some companionship.

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Lisa Malloy & J.P. Sniadecki, still from A Shape of Things to Come

NP In terms of filmmaking and anthropology, do you feel committed to representing an actual person as opposed to creating a fictional character that portrays the guy you want to make a film about? We know that cinema transforms the people who are filmed. How much of that do you do actively?

JPS Do you mean, how much am I constrained by or indebted to accurate depiction?

NP Yeah. Or are you actively creating character traits or situations or scenarios that have little to do with this person’s life?

JPS It’s hard to say. This type of filmmaking includes the motivations, desires, ideologies, agendas, and emotions of everyone involved. Our encounter inevitably shifts reality. The undisturbed reality that existed before the camera arrived is long gone, if it ever existed at all. Though Sundog has flatly rejected some scenes we’ve suggested as “things he wouldn’t do.” For example, he’s part of a primitive skills circle and a network of herbal healers, and he’s concerned with how they might view him. At the same time, he also wants the film to feature his movement through various dimensions via desert portals that bend time and space. So when Lisa and I are like, “Oh, you could mix cactus fruit with Chilta beans because we have scenes of you picking them both, and you could make a magical potion with them that will transform your bathwater into a portal to another dimension,” he’s like, “No, I can’t. If people saw me mixing those things together, they would call it horseshit.” So he’s concerned about what his peers might think, but not about portal travel or firing on a border patrol tower.

NP I made up a lot of stuff about Carlos’s life, like his reason for going to Mexico, the way he arrived there, and the fact that he’s a filmmaker, which he’s not. I made films that I present as his. There’s this whole fiction, including the end of the presentation, in which I say that he’s dead. After seeing the performance, Carlos came up to me: “You know, the museum I built is not a mining museum, but an evolution museum.” He spent a lot of his life building that museum and felt I had misrepresented it, though no one will remember that detail. Whereas saying that he was a filmmaker who came to Mexico after seeing some Buñuel film or saying that he’s dead now—he couldn’t care less about that.

When I saw my initial footage, I felt I could never replicate my experience of being with Carlos anyway. Watching the film was always underwhelming in relation to actually being in his presence. The problem was that his way of talking lacks synthesis. It would fork into so many directions that it was difficult to edit his voice. You had to spend hours with him to understand what he meant. So the film seemed quite hollow, whereas the reality was very rich. I felt that the only way to save the film was to abandon my personal experience and create something with the material that was independent of my memories of being with him. It meant creating fiction.

JPS I imagine the rushes probably contain that magic and overwhelming sense of his presence. But often the experience of making a film overflows the parameters of an edited film. Filmmaker-anthropologist David MacDougall talks about a sense of loss as we’re carving away the material. We talk about cinema and montage as if they are amplifying reality or making it more powerful, more impactful, more meaningful. But sometimes it’s the reverse. That’s why in some situations, like in People’s Park (2012), we decided to jettison conventional editing and embrace the long take—one seventy-five-minute take—because any way of making an intervention into that unbroken journey through the park in Chendgu seemed to undermine the experience of being swept up into something greater than oneself. At times, that collapses your sense of a fixed ego, diffusing it into this collective space, and that’s what we were trying to move toward by not cutting. Conversely, we were also interested in not only the possible exhilaration and ecstasy of a long take through waves of humanity, but also the exhaustion and the unease of gazing and being gazed back upon, the interplay between immersion, reflection, and self-consciousness. I wonder what it would’ve been like had you gone for a four-hour film of just being with Carlos, letting us be lost or overwhelmed for a while and then find our way—just as you found your own.

NP People’s Park exemplifies this impossibility of grabbing or capturing a holistic experience. It doesn’t come through, because it can’t, but you move toward that place. I never work in this way, going somewhere without knowing the shots. I always encounter new things while I film, but I don’t go in thinking that needs to happen. I have a shot list and concrete framing, ideas, and dialogue. Even when I make documentaries, I tell people what to say, where to sit or stand. Everything is preplanned, then things happen and I have to adjust, but it’s adjusting a preconceived project. Whereas with Carlos, I went to see what I could find and found that I didn’t have the patience for the kind of film the material would require. And once I had all this material from his world, which interested me, I realized I didn’t have the capacity to structure it in a way that would resemble my experience. So I turned the project into the kind that I generally do—rewriting everything in post-production, talking live over the images, and thereby creating a whole new piece. I find that process much more rewarding than trying to look at reality through a lens, like film reality.

Watching your own film The Iron Ministry (2014) must be quite different from anybody else’s experience because you traveled in trains in China for long periods of time. Is the film trying to reproduce that?

JPS Sometimes when I watch the film I’m seeing it as a series of edited sequences, images, and sounds, and how it all works on a formal level. Other times, I think back to the personal dimensions and overall conditions of production: Oh, there’s that seventy-hour train ride where I met this and that person; there’s the time I got stranded in the Guangzhou station; and here’s where the conductor almost kicked me off the train. Though it’s not explicit, there is something of a diary contained within The Iron Ministry. I’m not doing voiceover, informing you of who I am, or how I feel about what unfolds before the camera. Yet there’s a sense of subjective experience and ambient affect in each of those train cars, as well as an excess of experience left unrecorded yet somehow present in what is shown, even if you don’t see and hear and feel the whole thing. But when editing I wasn’t trying to make a diary film. I was building a kind of train that only the cinema could create: linking together all these different classes of trains and the people inside them. The autobiographical is still there under the surface.

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Libbie D. Cohn & J.P. Sniadecki, still from People’s Park, 2012, 78 minutes.

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J.P. Sniadecki, still from The Iron Ministry, 2014, 83 minutes. Courtesy of the artist.

NP You got some idiosyncratic shots, like when you film people sleeping on the train. Or when the people in the fancy train cars tell you not to film them because they are officials or wealthy and your reply is “Why not?” It speaks about yourself as well as about the space you are in.

JPS Aren’t you doing the same in your work?

NP Yeah, but when I do it, it’s more calculated. I have a microphone and prepared questions, whereas you’re intervening organically. You’re not behaving exactly as expected. Most people, when told to stop filming by a Chinese official, would just stop. You don’t. Yet it’s not a calculated move, at least not in the moment.

JPS True, if it’s a scene or a shot worth anything, then I likely wasn’t really thinking much when filming. My calculating mind tends to clear out and I respond to what’s there. People often ask, “What were you thinking about when you were shooting this scene?” I can come up with an ex post facto conceptual grounding for the scene, but chances are, there was not any clear driving thought or intention during the filming. For me, the act of filming is more akin to meditation or, following Maya Deren and Jean Rouch, dance and trance. Whatever the analogy, the phenomenological experience is that the ego and its attentions are usually diffused into the space and the beings occupying that space. Just as their egos and attentions move through and pervade the space and, by extension, me.

NP Yeah, that makes sense.

JPS Or to push the metaphor further, when I watch your movies, one of the things I admire is the way your interventions are more like an incision into a reality, into a space. Whereas my approach might have more to do with an energetic exchange.

NP I think you become part of the environment you’re recording, whereas I look at things from the outside. You’re more filming as an insider, even as a white man in China. When I’m filming in my hometown, Mexico City, I’m often still an outsider. It might have to do with our respective training and the way we each became filmmakers. When I went to film school, they divided us into documentary, experimental, and fiction filmmakers. I went to the fiction side, writing screenplays and working with actors. Now, when I make documentaries, they evolve in a similar process to making fiction. I think of cinema not as a way of shaping reality, but of intervening and radically modifying it. It’s fun for me to alter the space and the subjects I film.

JPS I can’t say that there’s no interference on my part, or that I’m an insider anywhere. My intervention is the act of making the film itself, and this, of course, entails keeping complex questions of representation at the forefront.

NP El Mar La Mar (2017) is a strange film because it’s so visceral. At the same time, it’s hard to say what that visceral experience is. Fuck, my English is worse every day.

JPS Don’t worry, you’re leaving this “shithole country” and going to Mexico soon.

NP (laughter) So it’s a strong visceral experience. But how that exists outside the film is hard to pinpoint. You’re not representing what migrants go through; the film transcends that and creates a realm of its own. Its subject matter is “easy” because it’s a contemporary crisis that is ultra-mediated. Migration is a magnet of interest. I mean, I’m Mexican and live in the States, so this is obviously of particular interest to me, but the global migrant issues, and in particular the Mexico-US border, the desert, is very important with Trump. It feels like accessible subject matter, yet your film transforms it into something that’s not that. My favorite scene is the one with the woman who goes into the water and disappears. We don’t know who this person is, where she’s going, or why. We wonder if it’s something that people do or if it’s a kind of magic you’re doing for the film. All these weird things happen; the film is full of crazy sounds and images that seem detached from its subject matter.

JPS Yeah. Josh Bonnetta, codirector of El Mar La Mar, and I did not intend for the film to be yoked to one political issue or an individual experience, maybe not even yoked entirely to the human. We hiked supplies to migrant shelters and along trails with the Tucson Samaritans, and my politics are definitely pro-immigration, but we wanted the project to be of the Sonoran Desert first and foremost. This sublime and treacherous region is the territory that economic refugees from Mexico and Central America are more or less forced to traverse by the Department of Homeland Security’s lethal policy of “prevention through deterrence” (see Jason De Leon’s book The Land of Open Graves). It is a very dangerous landscape to cross to make it to the US. And unfortunately, many of the refugees, thousands and thousands of people, have met tragic fates in the attempt. We weren’t going to erase that ongoing human rights issue from the desert or clear the space of political agendas, but we worked to keep it from overdetermining the film or limiting viewers’ possible entry points. Relatedly, we wanted to undermine the false sense proffered to audiences by some films: that by watching, they could somehow fully comprehend the situation, experience, or stakes. It’s not possible to understand what it’s like to cross the desert unless you’ve been through it. Nonetheless, we wanted to give intimations and entry points.

We took many ideas and cues from people we encountered in our research and production. For example, the night scene with the light through the charred desert underbrush with ocotillos and cactus came from a story of a man who got lost. He showed up at a migrant shelter in Sonora, his skin ripped to shreds. He said the devil stopped him from crossing the desert and kept turning him around, pushing him through a portal that returned him back to where he started. He was found walking through the desert after wandering through that very difficult brush for days. The scene with the woman who slips into the water and disappears in the cave speaks to the intimate relationship people have with the landscape. Her getting swallowed by the land also alludes, albeit obliquely and without the necroviolence, to how the bodies of migrants who perish on the journey are quickly erased by the desert heat, the brutality of the sun. The landscape consumes remains, and this is another reason why the US government funnels people through the Sonoran Desert; it erases evidence of the lethal punishment.

As you said, it’s a highly mediated space—drones and surveillance towers are everywhere and there seem to be no limits to representations in mainstream media and film, including problematic Hollywood movies like Sicario that demonize Mexico and Mexicans. There’s a hyper-visuality at work, both culturally and technologically. Our intervention was to shoot on 16mm, which embraces a different visual field and epistemological humility, allowing for uncertainty, ambiguity, and the unseen yet present. It rejects the impulse toward a mastering and totalizing gaze. The stunted pace and visual humility signal our desire for a different approach—one that highlights how little we know and how little we can actually perceive and comprehend.

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Joshua Bonnetta & J.P. Sniadecki, still from El Mar La Mar, 2017, 94 minutes. Courtesy of the artists.

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Joshua Bonnetta & J.P. Sniadecki, still from El Mar La Mar, 2017, 94 minutes. Courtesy of the artists.

NP You didn’t take the obvious sensorial path for a film. The sounds we hear—crickets, bats, thunder—as well as the images of heat and fire are not necessarily related to the migrant experience. We don’t see and feel how someone drowns in a river. We witness things intrinsic to the environment but not intrinsic to migration. That’s interesting as an anthropological approach, but it’s problematic when it comes to misery. How can people’s downfalls or suffering be represented sensorially? What would be the intention in that? We are willing to witness certain miseries visually and aurally. For some reason, the migrant trek is one of them, but it’s problematic. There are other ordeals that would be forbidden to show that way. You couldn’t go to the producer and say, “Okay, now let’s do the misery of the Holocaust victims and how it feels to be in a gas chamber.” You can make a film about the Holocaust, but not as a sensorial experience.

JPS Why do you think that is? Because of Adorno’s dictum that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”?

NP Well, there’s a lot more literature on the Holocaust and that particular moment in human history. Over time people have learned how to approach it in ways that are respectful and make sense. Whereas representing migration, for many different reasons, is still problematic. The fact that Alejandro González Iñárritu can make that migrant walk as a virtual reality film (Flesh and Sand) seems insane to me. In my opinion, the sensorial has its limits—and maybe I’m wrong. What are your thoughts?

JPS I wonder if it’s rather the aesthetic, or beauty, that’s in question here. One source of pushback for El Mar La Mar is this idea that when you’re dealing with misery or tragedy you need to adopt a roughshod aesthetic with brutal or non-beautiful imagery because that’s somehow more appropriate to the reality. People have asked, “Why are you using beautiful images for such a horrible subject?”

NP But you’re not representing the experience of the migrants as beautiful or aestheticizing the horror of border crossing. What is beautiful is the universe where their ordeal happens. Aestheticizing the migrant experience to me would be hiring the actor Gael García Bernal, making him look good, and then having him talk about how alive he feels as he crosses the border. And making picturesque steady-cam shots of migrants running and border patrol coming after them. In shooting sunsets and lights and bottles in a scenic way, you’re not beautifying but observing the space as it unfolds. There’s a big difference.

JPS Observing or opening a space is a good way to describe one impetus behind the film. In fact, we intended the project to be an installation as well, and it’s being realized at the Institute for Contemporary Art in London this August, and possibly other venues in the US. Would you say that the sensorial gives a misplaced idea of understanding and does a disservice to the actual experience?

NP Exactly. It’s the idea of pretending you can feel what the other person feels. Perhaps I had a misconception of this ethnography thing. It cannot be: Let’s feel what they feel. Rather: Can we understand some level of sensorial information in the provisional Other? But it doesn’t mean that we are going to be in the shoes of another person.

JPS Yeah, empathy is crucial, but so is respect for difference and singularity. I’m unsure of the sensorial as a vessel for direct and total identification between us. But there are modes of understanding and shared feelings beyond these claims, and beyond the strictly human. In A Shape of Things to Come, we’re working on this question right now with a scene of Sundog smoking the dried venom he harvested from a Sonoran Desert Toad, pure 5-MeO-DMT, a potent tryptamine psychedelic, launching him on a mind-shattering trip that disperses ego beyond the confines of self and into the universe, a vision of connectivity, of borderless being. But regardless of the trip and its duration, we ultimately return to the human sensorium. And so the sensorial rendered through image and sound is more about reorienting ourselves to perceive anew the ineluctable connections we have not only to one another, but to the raw and tender flesh of the world, coexisting in an ecology far broader and more powerful than we can imagine.

Nicolás Pereda is a filmmaker who uses documentary and fiction techniques to explore the everyday through fractured and elliptical narratives. His work has been the subject of over thirty retrospectives worldwide. His films have shown at the Reina Sofía in Madrid, the National Museum of Modern Art in Paris, the Guggenheim and MoMA in New York, and at major international film festivals in Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Locarno, and Toronto. 

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Originally published in

BOMB 145, Fall 2018

In the process of putting together each new issue of BOMB, we often come across distinct resonances between interviews—shared themes, creative preoccupations, and even specific phrases crop up time and again within otherwise disparate features. In these pages, artists discuss their expansive notions on collaboration. Their practices tend to split, reapportion, or redefine authorship, privileging process over individual intention and encouraging unique partnerships with spectators, local communities, film subjects, and one another. These willful acts of reaching out and beyond are as vital as ever, and worth emphasizing here.

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