Unseen Forces: Joshua Bonnetta in Sound and Image

By Michael Sicinski 

The first thing you should know about El Mar la mar is that it is not a production of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab. The new film, which premiered in Berlin’s Forum and won the Caligari Prize, was made by SEL regular J.P. Sniadecki and Canadian-born, Ithaca, NY-based experimentalist Joshua Bonnetta. Yet it’s an independent collaboration, and while this may seem like unnecessary hair-splitting, it does make a difference, not only for taxonomic purposes but also in the final product. While there are significant differences between the filmmakers associated with the SEL, there is a tendency to perceive them as products of a “house style,” much in the same way that critics have discerned similarities between Borderline Films productions (Afterschool, 2006; Martha Marcy May Marlene, 2011; James White, 2015)—a general orientation that supersedes the prerogative of any given auteur.

This is not exactly fair. No one would confuse the Brakhagian immersion of Leviathan (2010) with the Mark LaPore-influenced observation of Manakamana (2013), or the deceptively casual travelogue of The Iron Ministry (2014) with the pinhole-camera experimentalism of Ah Humanity! (2015). Nevertheless, the perception is not entirely unfounded. The SEL’s tendency toward collaboration shifts the emphasis away from individual creators and places it on the projects themselves. In this regard, SEL films seem to ask us to consider both what kind of subjects are deemed suitable for audiovisual interrogation, and how the films and audioworks collectively evince a distinctive anthropological ethos. The individual works may be highly divergent, but frequent collaboration can and does serve as a check on individual ego, making sure that the SEL’s overriding philosophy serves as the foundation of the work.

El Mar la mar is not exactly opposed to that philosophy, which in its simplest iteration has to do with the phenomenological immersion in a particular lifeworld and the adoption of representational strategies appropriate to it, whether it be long hours at sea on a fishing boat (Leviathan), sheepherding in Montana (Sweetgrass, 2009), a New York auto salvage business on the brink of eviction (Foreign Parts, 2010), or what have you. However, for quite some time, the art of Joshua Bonnetta has come at such concerns from a decidedly different angle. A conceptual artist whose primary output is in both cinema and sound, Bonnetta explores the intersection of what we might call formalism and historical materialism.

But as his major works have demonstrated, neither of these categories is exactly adequate as a heuristic, such that even to isolate them, as two discrete entities that could intersect as such, is most likely misleading. And examining his art will show that the processes and procedures of documentary—attained to some extent through his collaboration with Sniadecki—represent another in a long line of technologies that Bonnetta has interrogated.

Like many experimental filmmakers, Bonnetta started out producing medium-specific works that examine the conditions of their own production. These include cameraless films such as November Light and First Snow (both 2004), in which Bonnetta exposed raw film stock to direct light sources, resulting in a stained-glass effect; Cathode Aurora (2002), an early video piece inspired by Nam June Paik, in which video feedback effects generate the illusion of the Aurora Borealis; and the trio of Patchwork (2005), Parting (2009), and Long Shadows (2009), films that explore the worried surface of the decayed filmstrip, the latter two bearing a slight family resemblance to Phil Solomon.

Although these works are significantly different in approach, they all share Bonnetta’s concern with film and video as unique objects with specific physical parameters. In the longer works with which Bonnetta established himself as both a filmmaker and a sound artist, he is looking beyond the strict framework of his chosen media, starting more fully to interrogate the ways that sound and image technologies interface with the world that produced them. The first of these longer projects, American Colour (2011), is a materialist elegy to Kodachrome, shot on the discontinued film stock from the last batch that Kodak produced. A film that is designed to showcase the specific qualities of the film stock, American Colour is also a kind of cultural history, premised on Kodachrome’s place in America’s 20th century. For Bonnetta, this film was the bearer of “American colo(u)r,” providing the chemical substrate for our photographic and cinematic imaginary. (Mad Men addresses the place of Kodachrome in our collective nostalgia when Don Draper invents the word “carousel” for the round slide tray, likening it to a time machine.)

Bonnetta’s film is more than a last hurrah for a film stock on the way out, however. As the film begins, Bonnetta gives us three saturated colour fields: blue, red, and green. The fields last one second apiece (24 frames), and, as they cycle, three additional colours enter the rotation: yellow, cyan, and magenta. This movement from one colour to the next is metronomic, recalling other purely chromatic films, such as Paul Sharits’ Ray Gun Virus (1966) and, more recently, Madison Brookshire’s Color Series (2010). However, unlike those films, the hues in American Colour never blend, fully retaining their identity. Gradually, Bonnetta’s pulsing sound composition fades in, keeping nearly metronomic time with the changing colour frames.

As the film continues, eventually these colours are interrupted by photographic shots of the landscape. At the 2:45 mark, we see the first image, a set of power lines crisscrossing an azure sky. This turns out to be prescient, since throughout the film Bonnetta will be concerned with connectivity, moving us through a specific space but using the native tones of Kodachrome as the junctions between locales, a sort of structuralist rendition of Kuleshov’s “creative geography.”

Lakes, trees, churches, picket fences, bridges, factories, walls in disrepair…With an eye for Americana stationed somewhere between James Benning and William Eggleston, Bonnetta provides stationary shots of the landscape between Parsons, Kansas, and Rochester, New York. Why this trip? As explained in the audio LP liner notes by Irene Bindi, a location in Kansas, Dwayne’s Photo, was the last lab to process Kodachrome; the film stock was invented in Rochester, the hometown of the Eastman Kodak Company. So Bonnetta is moving in reverse, tracing the dying film stock back from the grave to the cradle. And along the way he is documenting picturesque but otherwise insignificant facets of the American heartland.

These inserted scenes, which call to mind the shots that Hollis Frampton uses to replace the alphabetic words in Zorns Lemma (1970), are uniformly drab and often dark, even though each of them features some hue that bears a concrete relationship to the colour field that follows it. Even though Bonnetta’s shots are sturdy, well-composed, and often evocative, they intentionally push the low-light end of Kodachrome’s spectrum, turning Kodak’s discontinuation of the film into a metaphorical nightfall.

Along the way, Bonnetta conducted field recordings of short-wave radio, which he then used as the basis for the American Colour tape composition. It is a low rumbling derived from processed recordings of a violin, something that is virtually impossible to discern in the final piece. Bonnetta designed the audio work as an homage to the two inventors of Kodachrome, Leopold Mannes and Leopold Godowsky, Jr. In addition to being trained scientists, both men were professional violinists. They invented Kodachrome in 1935, a mere 14 years after Kodak’s founder George Eastman established the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester.

Bonnetta uses short-wave radio as a kind of analogue to the optical wavelengths of the colours themselves. Both sound and image represent a set of forces that fill in the space between the individual locales documented in American Colour. As such, they exist as part of an alternate mapping of the area under consideration, one attuned to the particles and waves that comprise perception, rather than the surface phenomena with which cinema typically concerns itself.

This is a common denominator in Bonnetta’s work. For instance, his Remanence series (2013) engages with the properties of analogue video but does so in a manner that goes beyond, or inside, the coding that produces sounds and images across the tape head. In the four short works, Bonnetta produces structured patterns of video feedback using a demagnetized VHS of Jonas Mekas’ Lost Lost Lost (1976). With the TV raster and the videotape essentially talking back to each other, and Bonnetta mixing the results of this internal dialogue, we experience a rare materiality within a medium that tends, by design, to lock its physical properties away from the user. With Remanence, Bonnetta is again drawing on Paik, but also sharing certain formal affinities with videowork by Lynn Marie Kirby and Kyle Canterbury, resulting in a lithe geometrical study in white and smoky grey.

The concretization of the ineffable is also a primary concept in Bonnetta’s other major work of the decade. Strange Lines and Distances (2012), like American Colour, is a combination film and soundwork, in this case exploring the specific history of radio. Guglielmo Marconi sent his first experimental radio signal from Poldhu Cove, Cornwall, to a hospital in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Bonnetta shot 16mm film in both locations, resulting in a two-screen comparative study. As the film progresses, we see how Bonnetta discerns similarities in foliage, architecture, and various “vertical features” (to borrow Peter Greenaway’s nomenclature): trees, electrical poles, radio towers, even icicles. Often the comparisons are based on colour, sometimes similar and other times at complementary ends of the colour wheel. Shorelines, rock formations, even the hazy quality of the ambient light—Bonnetta finds correspondences on both sides of the Atlantic, posing them as visual questions.

And what exactly bridges these two spaces? As Jeffrey Sconce explains in his extensive liner notes to the Strange Lines LP, Marconi believed that the voices carried within radio signals would fade over time but never actually dissipate. Instead, they would lodge in the “ether,” the supernatural conception of the earth’s atmosphere where present-day light and sound commingles with the synchronic ghost-life of the past. This concept animates Bonnetta’s Strange Lines aural composition, in which a baseline of hum and grind is occasionally pierced by voices and sounds from other times and places. Whereas specific rays of colour and sound served as Deleuzian lines of flight in American Colour, the ether in Strange Lines is a solid, fully present entity, where telepathy and telegraphy intersect as variant electrical impulses.

In his most recent work, Bonnetta has shifted away somewhat from the abstract, conceptual notions that animated American Colour and Strange Lines. He is still quite interested in the way that large spatial fields (with or without an optical component) exert a historical pressure in excess of their physical existence on the ground, but the particular valence of those fields is shifting. Instead of discrete spaces being formed or united by particle physics or ethereal esoterica, it is politics and history that establishes the parameters of the land itself.

Bonnetta’s two-part sound piece Lago (2015), which exists both as an installation and an LP, is a sonic field study of the Salton Sea in California. The Salton Sea is a place with a fraught past. The “sea” (a large lake, actually) is a stagnant body of water created by the terminus of the Colorado River. Notable for its extreme salinity, the lake has long been a site for agricultural runoff, adding to the environmental disruption that nature itself has produced. Surrounded by the Colorado Desert, the Salton Sea and the towns that border it are some of the poorest in California.

Lago begins with a resident describing a fire that destroyed his trailer, resulting in the loss of all his possessions, two of his most beloved pets, and the near-death of his mother-in-law. He describes a lack of basic municipal support, implying that those who live around the Salton Sea are essentially on their own. From there, Bonnetta’s field recordings become denser and more abstract, taking in the heavy winds off the lake, the faint sound of wildlife, and the sounds of human activity around the lake. We hear construction sounds—hammering, the clanging of metal fences—Tejano radio, and the airy hum of nighttime beside the highway. Whereas this audio is presented in relatively straightforward fashion in Part One, “Everything that was Ever Something,” Bonnetta manipulates these noises more extensively in the slightly longer second part, “What Lies In It.” Faint squawks of birds and an unusually loud frog dominate the latter half of Part Two, as if making a final stand for an animal kingdom relegated to the salty margins of this zone of ecological confusion.

This brings us to El Mar la mar. On its face, Bonnetta’s latest film might seem like a significant departure. Not only is it a collaboration; it is also an examination of a very particular sociopolitical situation. Examining the Sonoran Desert between Mexico and Arizona is by no means a neutral bit of landscape study. Bonnetta’s films and soundworks consider particular spaces not only as pathways for human travel, but also as synchronic zones, filled with the unseen “ghosts” of historical residue. Whereas in earlier work this has been a largely formal question, it has always been a materialist one as well. So when Bonnetta teams up with Sniadecki to explore the border, he does so by displaying its accumulated meaning, the way that the hope, desperation, racism, and violence of the Mexico/US border is reaffirmed, its historical and spiritual presence thickened, with each failed crossing.

The first part of El Mar la mar, “Rio,” is abstract yet direct. In wavering, unstable focus, the frame is filled with green trees and rusty fence posts. The posts are tall and thin, installed at strict intervals, and the camera depicts them moving quickly from right to left, photographed from a speeding car. This produces a flicker effect, as if we’re seeing the landscape through an old optical toy such as a phenakistoscope. From here, Bonnetta and Sniadecki take us into the desert, and from unstable light and motion into the slow grind of crossing the border.

Much of the central section of El Mar la mar, “Costas,” consists of still shots of various objects lost along the way from Mexico to the US. The desert is shown to be a symbolic graveyard, a kind of museum in which otherwise random items memorialize the journeys taken or irretrievable lives. We see lost water bottles, jackets, blue jeans, eyeglasses, cellphones, a peso note, and, towards the end of Part Two, lost IDs. Each of these objects corresponds to a person, and each is a synecdoche of loss.

We follow a person as he or she navigates by homemade torch through the dark. Almost all we see is a hand, a rolled-up piece of what looks like burning leather, and an undulating flame. Later, we follow a man from behind as he negotiates that same desert in equally pitch-black conditions. But as he bobs in and out of the filmmakers’ night-vision, we notice his camouflage outfit and, finally, his rifle. Within the first 15 minutes, the filmmakers have laid out the fundamental conflict of the situation.

Within the context of this battle, Bonnetta and Sniadecki show us scenes that would otherwise be benign. We are given the chance to observe the landscape of the Southwest, with its sunsets, low hills and mesas, and unique desert flora. Making the most of low-light exposures and the thick grain of 16mm film, the directors articulate the Sonoran Desert as a vast expanse generative of flat, painterly spaces. These scenes, together with long takes of trains, skies, and the movement of water, again suggest the influence of Benning. Like him, Bonnetta and Sniadecki are working to make the social and political dimensions of the American landscape visible through broader context.

In fact, the film’s final section, “Tormenta,” strikes me as the moment when the film makes its most direct contact with the vernacular of the avant-garde. We see four shots of the empty landscape, this time in black and white. The film grain is dense and swirling: a storm is brewing here in the desert. One could take this storm as a metaphor, I suppose. But based on Bonnetta’s aesthetic commitments, his treatment of human spaces as historical-materialist contact zones, replete with static charges and molecular pulsions, I read this conclusion differently. After all, the Sonoran Desert is just a piece of land. And it absolutely isn’t. For Bonnetta and Sniadecki, “the border” is a force field of anger, fear, and ideology, littered with the memories of the fallen. One need not believe in ghosts to recognize that the border is enveloped with the stifling atmosphere of death. In the swirling grain, perhaps we can look between the particles of air and sky, earth and rain, to find still-resonant traces of lives that might be lived otherwise.