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  • Lifeworld of the Junkyard:Toward a Sensory Politics of Place
  • Nicholas Gamso (bio)

Sensory Ethnography is a new documentary movement that connects the workings of cinema to the dynamic ontologies of space, labor, and environment.1 Harvard University's Sensory Ethnography Lab, where the movement has found an institutional home, has produced several feature films, including Sweetgrass (Dirs. lucien castaing-taylor and ilisa barbash, 2009) and Leviathan (Dirs. castaing-taylor and véréna paravel, 2012), which have attained widespread critical attention for their "embodied," "digressive," and "open-ended" approaches.2 These projects reflect a concern voiced by lucien castaing-taylor, director of the lab and leading light of the movement, over what he terms "iconophobia"—a fear of the image and corresponding belief that "[t]extuality itself, and textuality alone" is the basis for critical legitimacy.3 castaing-taylor prefers works that proceed through a sharing of sensory environments, what he calls, citing andré bazin, "technical [as opposed to psychological] realism."4 Such films are minimally structured, utilizing a raw formalism to immerse audiences in the flux of sonic and visual effects, thus aiming to "restore to the viewers some of the autonomy they have in [End Page 429] interpreting reality when they are confronted with it as witnesses in real life."5 By inviting the audience into a chapel of pure experience, works of sensory ethnography seek to exhibit and instantiate the real, unmediated by words.

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Figure 1.

Car parts amassed in Willets Point. Film still from Foreign Parts (2010), dir. Véréna Paravel and J. P. Sniadecki. Image courtesy of the filmmakers.

Yet some words cannot be suppressed. Foreign Parts (2010), directed by Véréna Paravel and J. P. Sniadecki, provides an instance of sensory ethnography that embraces language and performance, understanding these forms of expression to produce material reality and thus to create the groundwork for an urban-environmental politics. The object of the film is Willets Point, Queens, a patchwork of junkyards and car lots with a large and vibrant immigrant work force. The space itself is a marvel: ruined and dismembered commodities amass about the neighborhood, anchoring the everyday itineraries of the people who buy them, sell them, and turn them into scrap (Figure 1). But the film's potential as politics comes from the people themselves, who insist on intervening to assert their own agendas. Junkyard workers flood the film with performances, grievances, fabulations, and other creative usurpations of the medium. A garrulous and multilingual ensemble of New Yorkers, they pull the film into their own lives. In doing so, they extract the genre from the confines of normative institutional space and into the living ecologies of the city. The film thus offers a prismatic [End Page 430] juncture between media and materiality, the image and the unfolding world it comes to resemble. Paravel explains:

In Foreign Parts, we sought above all to bring to the screen the lifeworld of the junkyard—not just of the human subjects but also the ecology of the auto parts, often in some liminal state between life and death or animate and inanimate—rather than to tell viewers exactly what they should think and feel about the place.6

In charting the automated and performed actions of the workers, surveying their esoteric knowledge and well-honed skills, the film depicts the animacy of matter and its relation to the lived condition of emplaced human communities. Filmmaker and subject are interwoven through action and expression into the spaces, materials, infrastructures, and ecologies that surround them, and not out of an ethic of equivalency, which reduces all things to mere matter, but through an improvisational network of dependencies. When fissures do arise—for example between the filmmakers and the objects of their ethnography—they come to light as structuring features of urban space that might be unworked through discreet tactics of interpretation, detournement, and irony, with varying results. In the process of employing such tactics, the participants go so far as to problematize the film's truth claims, caricaturizing its humanitarian tendencies and subverting its modernist preoccupations with vision, essence, and purity.

Foreign Parts, by virtue of its participatory form...


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pp. 429-449
Launched on MUSE
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