A single-take documentary film co-directed by Sniadecki and Libbie D. Cohn epitomises multiple daily portraits in Chengdu, China. In this film, the masses wander in the People’s Park as routine, which are captured by a digital camera moving slowly through the photographer in a wheelchair. Sniadecki’s works are under the assistance of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) that devotes attention to the combination of aesthetics and ethnography. Specifically, a series of documentaries are neither limited to film practice or ethnography only. Instead, it is an exploration to present both landscape and culture in multifarious areas through flexible media with a concern of sensory aesthetics.
Such a kind of documentaries are somewhat distinct from the origin of Observational film and Direct cinema, given its closer association with perception. The original Direct Cinemas adhere to the notion of non-participation, while the latter ones, i.e., the works of SEL, highlight the sensory interaction with creatures or objects, and even simulate the non-human perception. Thus, they go deeper and further to build up a linkage between anthropology and the perception in the relevant audiovisual works.
It is under the very background that People’s Park was produced, i.e., Sniadecki has got a basic familiarity with China and completed several documentaries as well as short films in different cities of China (Shanghai, Songhua and Chengdu, etc.). Subsequently, he attempted at more experimental methods in Yumen (2013) collaborated with Chinese artist Xu Ruotao, and The Iron Ministry (2014), a resemblance with the Thailand’s creative documentary Railways Sleepers (2016).
To start with the present essay, I would expound what the aesthetics and the social landscape is, and how they coalesce in the apparatus. In the Irina Leimbacher’s film comment, he has discussed the old debate on the paradox between verbal explanation and sensory experience, which can be traced back to the Philosophy of language in the last century. As filmmakers of SEL identify themselves as the advocate of pure experience rather than an ethnographic representation, they return to empiricism to a certain degree. With this consideration, the unspeakable moving images demonstrate the situations in contemporary Chinese urban areas, which is a combination of the micro and macro, the sight of strangeness and the transection of urban anthropology.
People’s Park indeed, similar with many other works of SEL, stimulates a sight through the steady and slow movement of a camera. Different from other works like Leviathan (2012) which simulates the perception of halobios, and Sweetgrass (2009) where the sight is concealed in a group of shepherds, it is difficult to say whose perception lies in People’s Park. The camera is at a height level resembles that of a child. However the sight keeps it uncertainty because the human would not set in such a tardy and smooth sensation, nor could the specific animal lingers in the crowds. Even though the movement pattern of camera is akin to that of Bela Tarr and Aleksandr Sokurov, total differences lie in its ordinariness as well as the absence of myth, fiction and history. Thus, likewise, we should not regard the camera as a sight of an object. It does not function as a storyteller, nor a stiff machine.
The movement represents more vague perspectives, leaving multiple imaginations to sense an uncertain perception. The perception could be from anything: the molecules, liquid or even a spectre, which can spread in such a park full of dwellers. So to speak, such an ambigious viewpoint reconnects experience with science. On the one hand, the unutterable and uncharted substance can be imaged to fit one of the movement patterns; on the other hand, it is also perceivable as the objects that could be measured by pure science — camera.
In Agamben’s Infancy And History, the infancy refers to a state leading the Tower of Babel to history, that is under experience of language acquisition but has not been constructed. For this documentary, a low, flat and unknown sight can also be imagined as such an infant; it is a metaphor illustrating an unutterable status, a process of experience and knowledge acquisition. Therefore, the indescribable movement creates a kind of fancy rather than a real life (but indeed in daily life), that opposes to modern real experience characterized by a bereft of imagination. Thus, the randomicity and liquidity are actually the points to correspond with the notion mentioned above. Compared to animals, the infancy between the sensible form and the potential intellect could be more creative not only for observation but also obtaining, extending the pure optical and sound situations to the potential ideology.
Though the perception could derive from anything, what is worth reflecting on is the cultural aspect rather than the material essense. The sensible sight demonstrates its potentiality to sense and then explore the information in surroundings, thus leading to dimensions of culture and society.
The continuous lens record a spectrum of leisure and activities in a park of a contemporary-China modern city, where there is a public space. Modern China is permeated by two main forces—politics and capitals. The former is embodied in J.P. Sniadecki’s Chai Qian (2010); the latter is in the daily life in People’s Park, epitomising the common and ordinary landscape, in which people care more about individuals or micro social groups rather than collectivism. Some of them casually sit on the bench for relaxation, some of them dance in the square with passion, and others then cast their eyes to the dancers. These citizens in the film lead a leisure life in Chengdu, a southwest metropolis far from the political center of China, due to the isolated but developed position of this city. The individuality occurs in the routine, extending the time image even to the extreme. As what Deleuze stated on neo-realism:
And Antonioni's art will continue to evolve in two directions: an astonishing development of the idle periods of everyday banality; then, starting with The Eclipse, a treatment of limit-situations which pushes them to the point of dehumanized landscapes, of emptied spaces that might be seen as having absorbed characters and actions, retaining only a geophysical description, an abstract inventory of them.
As for Fellini, from his earliest films, it is not simply the spectacle which tends to overflow the real, it is the everyday which continually organizes itself into a travelling spectacle, and the sensory-motor linkages which give way to a succession of varieties subject to their own laws of passage.
It is evident that everyday in People’s Park coincides with it and goes far beyond. Primarily, banality is expelled from the moving images, as their routine is dynamic compared to the tedious atmosphere at the post-war period. However, this vigour is merely limited to the specific space, followed by a trajectory of a camera and could not move backwards. Thus the inside and outside have been separated: this is a survey in entertainment, with the hustle and bustle excluded outside.
For another, the travelling spectacle is notable in the People’s Park. The camera held by J.P. Sniadecki served as a privilege, enabling the particular filmmaker in a wheelchair to photograph in a smooth way. Local dwellers are no more reluctant to be captured since they have gotten accustomed to tourists. There are the mutual gazes between dwellers and outsiders, and the gazes of tourists transform everyday into a spectacle through the camera, then giving rise to multiple possibilities of the perception. In a word, such moving images highlight the production between the reality and camera, being boundary-pushing of Fellini’s deliberate confusion of the real and the spectacle.
This sort of spectacle indeed, are at highlight when the Break-dancing appeared. The body untrammelled with shaking also expresses a sense of flight. The camera captures and interacts with dancers, blending the “impromptu” into the society. The dancing in the square itself, randomly without settings, forms the primary “impromptu” that recalls the traits of the 1980s, when Chinese young people were initially imbued with the Western culture. It accounts for their freedom in this scene: the middle-aged amateurs were vigorous 20-years-old youth in the middle of 1980s, the change of likeness still retaining its character, in which we could perceive the tension of limbs as much as in their youth age. Putting the profound artistry aside, their straight-out and casual activities have overstepped the scope of dancing, alluding to a status of how the Chinese urban youth entertained and recreated themselves in the initial stage of Reform and Opening and how the culture has been inherited in the contemporary society. It is the very viewpoint of camera that synchronously interacts with the reality, as the crowds wave to the camera. But we can still envisage it as a peculiar perspective like an infant in the cradle, slowly wandering around the dancing square, then of possibilities of close interaction and the potency of acquiring information surrounding through the sensory experience.
It is worthy noting that the music played in the square provides another pathway to understand the urban anthropology and culture memories. A series of pop but vulgar music is played in the park, functioning as the representative of music favoured by those proletariats in contemporary China’s urban regions. Entirely different from the collectivist period full of official music, the popular ones entirely transform the aspiration into the individual motion, introducing the western skills such as those concerned with the rhythm, the motif and lyrics. However, as popular music proceeds in recent decades, it cannot keep abreast of times and are stagnating in the obsolete style. On the one hand, those youth in the past are suffering ageing, but it is inappropriate to play the reminiscent music due to their passion that still keep in fashion. On the other hand, they are actually estranged from the present-day culture core, which results in a more vulgar style of dancing music. It is on the very style that we could figure out such a group of people who generally enjoy recreations in the park—well-known as “Square-dancing grannies” in China.
Thus, this work produced in Chengdu is also a practice of acoustic mapping and we can perceive the soundscape through a sense of soundwalk. The camera does not merely focus on the pure optical situation, but also highlights the sound. This practice corresponds with the methodology of sound anthropology. The oral language is limited by cognition, but the environmental sound can convey distinct sensations. What matter are the sensations and memories influenced by the melody, rhythm or other elements of sound. For example, the music mentioned above convey the status of the age-groups and reminds them of their vigorous time.
For anthropologists, the emphasis on the daily visual and audio materials subverts the post-colonial perspective to a certain degree. When filmmakers conceal in the field, they get involved into the mutual gazes and the research in specific literature is replaced by more ambiguous and multifold sensations. The relationship and boundary between “self” and “ the other” are blurred, making it possible to explore the flowing and fresh connections. Based on this methodology, the director of SEL thinks highly of it with a comment that “not to analyze, but to actively produce aesthetic experience, and of kinds that reflect and draw on but do not necessarily clarify or leave one with the illusion of ‘understanding’ everyday experience.” Not only does he emphasize the aesthetics in works of SEL, but also a practice in line with the post-colonial criticism.