This year’s Forum of the Real, organised by the film festival Porto/Post/Doc in partnership with CITAR (Research Center for Science and Technology of the Arts - Catholic University of Portugal), discusses the concept of “sensory cinema” in three panels. I was invited to participate in the second panel (“About Sensory Cinema”), along with film scholars Cornelia Lund and Thomas Weber (University of Hamburg) and Iván Villarmea Alvarez (University of Santiago de Compostela). This session takes place today at 2pm. It will be chaired by film programmer Justine Duay.The talks are to be informal and not purely academic, but I have sketched a direction for my talk and even gave a title to the sketch: “Observing the Unobserved: Thinking Through Sensory Cinema with Walter Benjamin”. Here it is:
For those who have never watched one of its films, the wave of sensory cinema may sound like a documentary film practice that reduces spectatorship to sense-experience. This, of course, implies a kind of ahistorical approach and alienating effect, which contradicts the emancipatory possibilities opened by new technologies. Walter Benjamin’s perceptive reflections on technology, aesthetics, and art allow us to make sense of sensory cinema. On the one hand, he argued that the development of technology in the capitalist mode of production forces a utilisation that alienates humanity from itself, changing its sense perception and showing its own destruction as a spectacle. On the other hand, technology may be used as an aid that grounds human beings in the world, making them conscious of their natural, historical, and social facets. The camera is particularly apt to reveal elements of reality that may register in our senses, but that are not consciously processed. This is the reason why, according to Benjamin, film gives us access to an optical unconscious. The Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University uses film technology in such a way. Its ethnographical dimension puts forward an understanding of art as a way of knowing peoples and cultures, expanding the aesthetics of film and problematising the politics of portrayal. These ideas will be developed through the analysis of Foreign Parts (2010), directed by Verena Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki. The film focuses on the community of outcasts who live in Willets Point and survive by working in auto repair shops and junk-yards. This industrial neighborhood is about to be demolished to make room for a huge urban redevelopment project by the large company Bloomberg. The hallmark of this work is how it details the lives of these people and their visitors by amplifying sensory elements though the use of digital technologies. Since different methods of observation are a key part of ethnographic research, we may say that Foreign Parts observes the socially unobserved, giving it aesthetic qualities that amount to an incisive portrait.