Art as a Bridge between Jonestown and Modern Life

I first heard of Jonestown and Peoples Temple when I was a kid but it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I started to get deeper into it.

I’ve always been fascinated by what is usually labelled as “Cult,” basically a religious group led by a charismatic guru who is able to influence thousands of people with his ideas. Nevertheless I do believe Peoples Temple represents a very complex object of study that couldn’t hardly be summarized as a mere cult built around the figure of Jim Jones.

The more I studied Peoples Temple, the more I discovered several shades of the same color that slowly turned my shared general interest in the subject into a need to do something of my own, which turned out to be a still on-going mixed media artwork. Like many works of art – like many human endeavors, including Peoples Temple itself – it’s difficult to write “The end” on it.

I didn’t know what I was expecting from the pictures. I thought perhaps something weird would came up to the surface sooner or later, but I was wrong.

My first decision was an easy one: I would not consider any of the photographs of Jonestown’s aftermath. What remained – at least, what I found – were smiling people, community workers, different cultures coexisting within the same community. Basic vernacular photography.

Still those pictures were not enough to understand, so I started going through the letters and tape transcriptions of the community members. During this process of analysis, I’ve noticed a big discrepancy between the texts contents and the subjects of the images. Drawing from the work Mnemosyne Atlas by Aby Warburg, I built up a panel where different kind of resources (images + texts) are juxtaposed to show two sides of the same coin at the same time. It also represents a visual example of what lies behind the curtain of the appearance showing a multifaceted reality.

At the moment I’m figuring out the best way to link our contemporary situation with Jonestown in order to build a strong visual work able to show how particular patterns are redundant throughout history.

What happens today doesn’t differ so much compared to 40 years ago. Probably there will always be a charismatic demagogue able to direct people’s thoughts in a particular way, exploiting different leverages to reach a goal, even if it isn’t clear to everyone who follows the leader.

What keeps changing are the methodologies related to control, influence and direct people’s support through targeted advertising and manipulation of social media. This is not far from what happened a few months ago with Cambridge Analytica which inappropriately collected personal user information where more than 87 million Facebook profiles were mined for data, allegedly used to direct specific political campaigns advertisements supported by the company, such as Trump’s election and the Brexit vote.

(Lorenzo Bacci may be reached at