The Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) is an experimental laboratory at Harvard University that promotes innovative combinations of aesthetics and ethnography. It uses analog and digital media to explore the aesthetics and ontology of the natural and unnatural world. Harnessing perspectives drawn from the arts, the social and natural sciences, and the humanities, the SEL encourages attention to the many dimensions of the world, both animate and inanimate, that may only with difficulty, if it all, be rendered with propositional prose. Most works produced in the SEL take as their subject the bodily praxis and affective fabric of human and animal existence.
Directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor, and managed by Ernst Karel, the SEL provides an academic and institutional context for the development of creative work and research that is itself constitutively visual or acoustic — conducted through audiovisual media rather than purely verbal sign systems — and which may thus complement the human sciences’ and humanities’ almost exclusive reliance on the written word and quantification. It opposes the traditions of art that are not deeply infused with the real, those of documentary that are derived from broadcast journalism, and those of visual anthropology that mimic the discursive inclinations of their mother discipline.
The work produced through the SEL in film, video, phonography, and photography has been exhibited at the Centre Pompidou, London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, the Berlin Kunsthalle, Marian Goodman Gallery, MoMA, the Museum of the Moving Image, PS1, Tate Museum, and the Whitechapel Gallery, and selected for AFI, Berlin, Cannes, Locarno, New York, Toronto, and other film festivals.
The SEL supports PhD students in Media Anthropology, as well as those who are pursuing a PhD Secondary Field in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in Critical Media Practice, for which Castaing-Taylor and Peter Galison serve as Directors of Graduate Studies. Many of its students also pursue a PhD Secondary Field in Film and Visual Studies.
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