Social art practitioner, documentarian and Assistant Professor John Jota Leaños stumbled upon animation while seeking a way to convey profound social questions in an accessible, bold and often ironic format. Leaños leverages animation along with other mediums to examine today’s issues while peering into the past. Weaving the vibrant and diverse aesthetics of Latino and indigenous cultures, he has gained international acclaim. His animated documentaries have been shown at Sundance, Toronto and Cannes while audiences in Chicago have been wowed by his mariachi opera and passersby in San Francisco have come face to face with his public art projects.
In the distinguished Film + Digital Media department at the University of California Santa Cruz, he explores Documentary Animation, Digital Media Theory, Chicano Popular Culture, Community Art and more with his students. A recent recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, we were delighted to spotlight Leaños' work at UCSC in our latest feature Q&A. We were particularly eager to speak to him about his unique integration of animation in the realm of social documentary… read on and enjoy! (This interview was done via phone and has been edited minimally for length & clarity).
ACR: John, delighted to speak with you today! You leverage many tools including animation to explore issues as a social art practitioner. When did you decide that this was the path you would take, and how did you learn to work with many mediums to blend technologies in the way you do?
John Jota Leaños: It’s all based in my interdisciplinary foundation as a college student when I studied the humanities. Eventually, I picked up a camera and became interested in how images could be manipulated and mixed in different formats. My practice today draws from a variety of disciplines: digital murals, opera, theatre, street performance, photography, digital art and animation. For me, it makes a lot of sense to look at the world as having a plethora of tools that we can use to speak about issues that are important.
Another vital part is my consciousness as a Chicano. It’s an awareness of history. Mexican-Americans have been a marginalized community; a legacy struggle has led up to the benefits that we have today- to become educated and to have a voice. I think both of those factors influence my work today.
ACR: What drew you to teach in UC Santa Cruz’s Film + Digital Media department?
JJL: It’s a complicated question! I was happily teaching graduate courses at California College of the Arts when I was asked to apply to UCSC’s Social Documentation program in the Community Studies department which had a politicized, conscious group of students. It was a pedagogical impetus right there for me; I’ve always seen documentary as a tempting way to use archival research, oral histories, ethnographies, and reference them in my artwork. The Community Studies program was closed during the UC budget crisis, so the Social Documentation program moved to the Film department which is where we are now in our third year.
ACR: I imagine that departmental move impacted things a bit- from the courses you teach to the students you have?
JJL: Definitely impacted things- not for worse, just for different. The move impacted the range of courses I’ve taught, certainly. Being in film now allows me to explore courses in documentary animation. In fact, I’m starting a new Documentary Animation course for graduate students that I’m really looking forward to.
ACR: When did you start integrating animation into your art, and why do you believe that it lends itself so well to the social documentary form?
JJL: I became an animator not through a calling necessarily but rather an approach to seeing how animation can be used as a buffer to speak to political ideas. It came out of a political controversy that happened while I was working at Arizona State University surrounding a poster I created that featured Pat Tillman (*author’s note: Leanos’ 2004 poster gained national attention). I received death threats and was investigated… the artwork was polarizing. I began re-thinking my tactical approach; how could I best deliver critical political messages within a context in which ideological surveillance was so thick and heavy at the time.
Out of that hyper-political environment, animation appeared. It offered me a way to look at the dark sides of war- we were involved in 2 at the time- and speak to it. I created the Los ABC’s: a Wartime Primer as a way to serve as a buffer. It’s catchy… the cartoon characters are pretty innocuous and cute but the message itself is heavy.
There’s an innate detachment in animation from reality; it’s just drawn characters. But you can come to a point where animation has a connection to the real and there are ways to represent reality and make it resonate with the viewer. That’s where documentary animation is right now, finding its way through the trails of representations to get at the notion of the real, the social and transformative.
ACR: How do you approach animation with your students at UCSC?
JJL: There are a lot of students in general who want to work at Pixar and their goal is to become animators in the industry. But animation is very much a global industry- most of the cartoons and motion graphics are outsourced in Indonesia and India and elsewhere, so there is an exportation going on. Within that context, one of my goals is to create and educate a group of people who can build sustainable animation houses here, locally. That’s not out of a sense of protectionism, mind you, but it’s to nurture a local talent and develop an activity from here.
The classes that I teach are directed at informing students, creating sustainable animation practices locally and educating them here. The production house I have is called Burning Wagon Productions; we hire people from economically and historically under-represented areas as well as people of color to work on these animation projects. They may not have the same training but for me, what we’re building is more important.
ACR: As you’ve mentioned and as your art attests to, there is risk involved in developing one’s creative voice and contributing something new to the social conversation. Is it possible to foster this attribute in your students?
JJL: I do believe that one’s orientation in looking at the world in a way to forge a new path, foster a diverse way of expressing oneself and breaking colonial patterns, that kind of pedagogical training is a conglomeration that comes from education, upbringing and willingness. It really is a matter of the person’s orientation and their openness to new approaches. I find that a majority of students are searching for a route to create their art- a lot of them are doing interesting and experimental work. I think there is an impetus to do that. However, there is also a tendency to conform to the standards of what is expected… unspoken rules.
ACR: What goes through your head when an audience sits down to watch your latest film?
JJL: Wow, that’s a hard one to answer. When you’re sitting in the audience you never know what people around you are thinking. We can get a general reaction which might be laughter or applause, but the impact of media on each person is so diverse.
As responsible media-makers, we think about this question of audience constantly. Who is our target audience? How will they perceive certain representations? How can we challenge conventional representations, belief systems and understandings of the subject matter? In imagining our audience, we engage in an impossible theoretical necessity. It is impossible because we can never fully determine how any given audience or individual will perceive, identify with, be offended by or understand a work of art, film or animation; it is theoretical because in imagining our audience we frame our ideas of audience based on experience, our limited perceptions and theoretical hypotheses. And, finally, constant consideration of our audience is a necessity because it gives the work a social lens from which to construct representations. This is especially true for social documentary animation.
ACR: Last but not least, what can we expect of your soon-to-be-released film, Frontera!?
JJL: Frontera! is 99% done and we’re sending it out to festivals. It documents the 1680 Pueblo Revolt in New Mexico- a moment in American history where the 99% expel, banish and remove the occupiers. It’s been deemed the ‘First American Revolution’ but it has also been a forgotten history in the master narrative of America. It’s really a living narrative for those in New Mexico to this day and is significant as both a borderland and American story: it has resonance in many ways about coming together, common goals, sustainability, the wisdom of ancestors, and how history can still live on.
It’s about 19 minutes broken up into chapters; mixed media with frame-to-frame animation and painted backgrounds. Some of it is hand drawn and other parts are digitally drawn. There’s a little bit of 3D rendering but not much. The industry standard always says to pick a style and stick with it- don’t deviate from it. I take the opposite approach and throw divergent styles together in a conscious way which is what you’ll see in Frontera!.
ACR: We’ll look forward to it! It’s been a pleasure speaking with you today, John. Many thanks!
JJL: Thank you, Bonnie!
Check out more interviews at Animation Career Review's Interview Series.