Unlike the grand, oper­at­ic style of movies that many doc­u­men­tary film­mak­ers try to create these days by using a vari­ety of styl­is­tic meth­ods, a new devel­op­ment has emerged in eth­nol­o­gy and relat­ed media prac­tices in the last few years. This strict­ly induc­tive method vir­tu­al­ly places the researcher/filmmaker as well as the audi­ence at the center of action by using a vari­ety of tech­niques that take them on an adven­ture involv­ing all the senses.

Sen­so­ry ethnog­ra­phy argues that the senses cannot be engaged sep­a­rate­ly, which is why inno­v­a­tive, mul­ti­me­dia meth­ods, much like those used in artis­tic prac­tices, are applied to take us beyond what can be heard and seen – and even beyond writ­ten dis­course. Sen­so­ry ethnog­ra­phy blurs the bor­ders between dif­fer­ent dis­ci­plines and the “hier­ar­chies of atten­tion,” includ­ing the dom­i­nance of visu­al­i­ty and the anthro­pocen­tric per­spec­tive. Film­mak­ers explore new meth­ods of sci­en­tif­ic prac­tice and ways to share their work with the public, while also striv­ing to inte­grate par­tic­i­pants and audi­ences. The idea of par­tic­i­pant obser­va­tion is expand­ed, engag­ing film­mak­ers in the action, while assum­ing that “inter­views” are not only verbal, but that knowl­edge is also pro­duced and processed by the entire body.

This is how the the­o­reti­cian Sarah Pink (Doing Sen­so­ry Ethnog­ra­phy, 2009) char­ac­ter­izes the new ethno­graph­ic trend, whose best-known rep­re­sen­ta­tives of audio-visual works con­tin­ue to be from the Sen­so­ry Ethnog­ra­phy Lab (SEL), which was found­ed in 2006 by Ilisa Bar­bash and Lucien Cas­taing-Taylor at Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty in Boston. The SEL orig­i­nal­ly emerged out of a long-term project that result­ed in the 35mm film SWEETGRASS in 2009, which gained much atten­tion and went down in film his­to­ry as a modern day “sheep” West­ern. A number of well-received films fol­lowed, the latest being MANAKAMANA (2012, Stephanie Spray & Pacho Velez), LEVIATHAN (2013, L. Cas­taing-Taylor & Véréna Par­avel), and THE IRON MINISTRY (2014, J. P. Sni­adec­ki). This inno­v­a­tive lab was also found­ed as a col­lab­o­ra­tion between Harvard’s depart­ments of Anthro­pol­o­gy and Visual and Envi­ron­men­tal Studies.

The SEL, which is cur­rent­ly under the direc­tor­ship of Lucien Cas­taing-Taylor, is annexed to the Film Study Center, which was found­ed in 1957 by Robert Gard­ner, who served as its direc­tor for 40 years. Because Gardner’s films have always been very influ­en­tial, it is there­fore fit­ting that we will be show­ing his FOREST OF BLISS in our anniver­sary series, allow­ing his film to be seen in the con­text of the SEL’s most recent projects. In gen­er­al, avant-garde films have had a strong impact on the SEL, inspir­ing its film­mak­ers to push the enve­lope of the documentary.

In addi­tion to film, a vari­ety of pre­sen­ta­tion­al forms have been inte­gral for many projects such as SWEETGRASS, includ­ing pho­to­graph­ic exhi­bi­tions and instal­la­tions (such as Sheeple). It is there­fore no acci­dent that the works pro­duced by the SEL are fre­quent­ly shown in gal­leries and muse­ums. Sound is also impor­tant, and the SEL studio man­ag­er Ernst Karel, who has also released his own audio record­ings (includ­ing Swiss Moun­tain Trans­port Sys­tems, 2013), con­tin­ues to play an essen­tial role in cre­at­ing the sound­tracks for most of the lab’s film pro­duc­tions. That we notice a strong pres­ence of sound at the begin­ning of every SEL film has become one of the lab’s signatures.

The dif­fer­ent SEL films share some struc­tur­al meth­ods and are often the prod­ucts of coop­er­a­tion, but the film­mak­ers focus on their indi­vid­ual themes and projects. In his latest film LEVIATHAN, Cas­taing-Taylor returns to the famil­iar theme of the rela­tion­ship between humans and ani­mals. Stephanie Spray’s ear­li­er film KALE AND KALE reflects her ongo­ing engage­ment with a region of Nepal and her research of family rela­tions and cul­tur­al forms from an inti­mate point of view. Like Cas­taing-Taylor and Spray, J.P. Sni­adec­ki, who will be our guest at the Freiburg­er Film Forum, also has a degree in anthro­pol­o­gy and has spent many years living and work­ing in China. It seems like an excep­tion so far that his ear­li­er FOREIGN PARTS, a col­lab­o­ra­tion with Véréna Par­avel, is set in New York; most of his films are shot in China. PEOPLE‘S PARK (2012), which has gained him much renown, lets view­ers feel as if they are float­ing through a busy amuse­ment park through a sug­ges­tive con­tin­u­ous track­ing shot, draw­ing us into a for­eign cul­ture while also forc­ing us to reflect on our­selves in a ges­ture of observ­ing and being observed.

Lucien Taylor. “Intro­duc­tion.” In David Mac­Dougall, Tran­scul­tur­al Cinema. Prince­ton: Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1998.
Scott Mac­Don­ald. Amer­i­can Ethno­graph­ic Film and Per­son­al Doc­u­men­tary. The Cam­bridge Turn. Berke­ley: Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia Press, 2013.
Adam Nayman. “Sense and Sen­si­bil­i­ty. Harvard’s Sen­so­ry Ethnog­ra­phy Lab.” POV Mag­a­zine 91 (Fall 2013).
Simon Rothöh­ler. “Zum Sen­so­ry Ethnog­ra­phy Lab der Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty.” Merkur 8 (August 2013).