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The Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) is an experimental laboratory that promotes innovative combinations of aesthetics and ethnography. It uses analog and digital media, installation, and performance, 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, 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 words. The SEL is directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor.

The work produced through SEL in film, video, photography, phonography, and installation has been presented in universities and academic conferences across the world. It has also been exhibited at the Venice Biennale, documenta, the Whitney Biennial, MoMA, British Museum, Tate Modern, Centre Pompidou, the Berlin Kunsthalle, London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, Shanghai Biennale, Aichi Triennale, PS1, MASS MoCA, MAMM Medellin, and the Whitechapel Gallery. Films and videos produced in SEL have been selected for Berlin, Locarno, New York, Toronto, Venice, and other film festivals.


Featured Projects

De Humani Corporis Fabrica Image

De Humani Corporis Fabrica
Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor
2022, audio-video, 120 minutes

Five centuries ago, Andreas Vesalius opened the human body up to a scientific gaze, marking the inception of modern anatomy.  This film seeks to open up the human body to cinema.  Our flesh appears as a landscape of unknown forms, which, like all landscapes, subsists only thanks to the attention — by turns benevolent and maleficent — of others.  Hospitals emerge not only as spaces of suffering and care, but as laboratories that link all the world's bodies.  The film is a hymn to life, and to death.

Dry Ground Burning

Dry Ground Burning
Joana Pimenta and Adirley Quéiros
2022, audio-video, 153 minutes

When the flare lights up the night sky, that is how they know the gasoline is ready for sale, the men on the motorbikes who collect the canisters from the fearless Chitara, her sister Léa and their all-female gang, the sample fuel still burning out on the ground. From the watchtower of their makeshift oil refinery, you can see the lights of Brasília in the distance, although Sol Nascente, one of the continent's biggest favelas, is a world unto itself, a real setting still ineluctably cinematic. The arid landscape and merciless shootings conjure up the atmosphere of a Western or even a heist movie, although the fortified police car that patrols the streets seems straight out of science fiction. When the women bump and grind on the bus, dance at a block party or chant slogans on their political party's election truck, it is difficult not to think of a musical too, albeit one with a healthy dollop of queerness. Yet one genre hits harder than all the rest, and the power of documentary should never be underestimated. Lived-in locations, unstaged protests against Bolsonaro, non-professional actors playing versions of themselves: when you peel away the fiction, there is nothing like real life.  Berlinale 2022.

Huahua's Dazzling World and its Myriad Temptations [Huahua shijie]

Huahua's Dazzling World and its Myriad Temptations [Huahua shijie]
Daphne Xu
2022, audio-video, 82 minutes

Huahua, an eccentric and exuberant woman from Xiongan New Area, livestreams herself dancing, singing, and chatting with fans on Kuaishou for a living. Cell phone screens, beauty filters, and digital soundscapes reveal a world that Huahua creates with her own image.  Cinéma du Réel 2022. 

The A Team Image

The A-Team
Nnenna Onuoha
2021, audio-video, 17 minutes

Over the phone, thirteen former classmates reminisce about their Ghanaian high school's exchange trip to Jackson, Mississippi, USA a decade earlier. But the more they remember, the stranger it becomes. Comprised of a mix of black and blurry images, the visuals mimic the group's memory blocks and uncertainties, as well as those moments that they struggle to confront from the present day.

[How] Will We Live [Together]?
Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor
2021, audio-video, 248 minutes

Leading thinkers try their hardest to answer this unanswerable question.  Interviewees include Kwame Anthony Appiah, Emanuele Coccia, Vinciane Despret, Amitav Ghosh, Stephen Greenblatt, Olivia Judson, Bruno Latour, Mariana Mazzucato, Joia Mukherjee, Mary Robinson, Dani Rodrick, Saskia Sassen, and Richard Sennett. Venice Architecture Biennale 2021.

Expedition Content

Expedition Content
Ernst Karel and Veronika Kusumaryati
2020, DCP, 78 minutes

An immersive marvel of sonic ethnography, Expedition Content draws on audio recordings made by recent college graduate and Standard Oil heir Michael Rockefeller as part of the so-called Harvard-Peabody Expedition to Netherlands New Guinea in 1961 to study the indigenous Hubula (also known as Dani) people. In their nearly imageless film, Karel and Kusumaryati document the strange encounter between the expedition and the Hubula people. The work explores and upends the power dynamics between anthropologist and subject, between image and sound, and turns the whole ethnographic project on its head. New York Times Critic's Pick. Berlinale 2020.


Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor
2017, audio-video, 90 minutes

Caniba reflects on the discomfiting significance of cannibalistic desire in human existence through the prism of one Japanese man, Issei Sagawa, and his mysterious relationship with his brother, Jun Sagawa. As a 32-year-old student at the Sorbonne in Paris, Issei Sagawa was arrested on June 13, 1981 when spotted emptying two bloody suitcases containing the remains of his Dutch classmate, Renée Hartevelt. Two days earlier, Mr. Sagawa had killed Hartevelt and began eating her. Declared legally insa ne, he returned to Japan. He has been a free man ever since. Ostracized from society, he has made his living off his crime by writing novels, drawing manga, appearing in innumerable documentaries and sexploitation films in which he reenacts his crime, and even becoming a food critic. Now old and infirm, he reflects back on "the incident," as he calls, it, and his desire to end his days in the mouth of a fellow cannibal. Venice Biennale 2017.


Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor
2017, 2-channel film and video installation: 16 mm film transferred from 8 mm film and digital video. Film: color and black-and-white, silent, 42 minutes. Video: color, sound, 27 minutes

A portrait of Issei Sagawa and his brother Jun Sagawa reading Issei's manga in which he depicts his killing of René Hartevelt, counterposed to family film footage of their childhood in Japan. documenta 14.


Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor
2017, audio-video, 73 minutes

A wild orgy, a mass drowning, a dwarf city for rent, a surgical operation that goes tragically awry, a baroque mansion for sale that doubles up as a torture chamber, a de-pressurized Experiment Hall that causes ladies' fingernail polish to fly off their nails… such were the nocturnal dramas of the world's most garrulous sleep-talker. An American lyricist who yearned for a career on Broadway, Dion McGregor dreamed out loud while his New York roommate recorded him over seven years in the 1960s. In somniloquies, McGregor's nightly musings are coupled with images of sleeping nudes. A roving camera that moves indiscernibly from one contour and orifice to another, one body to another, one gender to another, one ethnicity to another, one animal to another. documenta 14.

La Libertad

La Libertad
Laura Huertas-Milán
2017, audio-video, 30 minutes

Matriarchs have assembled around a backstrap loom, a pre-Hispanic technique preserved by indigenous women of Mesoamerica. Unfolding like a weaving of figures and the gestures making up this labor, the film circulates between a domestic space, an archaeological museum, and a weavers’ cooperative.  La Libertad dives into a matriarchal universe and knits a rich portrait of female independence. Through the exploration of an ancestral craft, Laura Huertas Millán’s film quietly challenges our idea of freedom.

Sol Negro

Sol Negro
Laura Huertas-Milán
2016, audio-video, 43 minutes

Like the black sun of an eclipse, Antonia is a lyrical singer of exuberant and dark beauty. Recovering from a suicide attempt in a rehabilitation institution, all her family ties are irreparably broken. But her sister remains deeply affected by what happened. May they reunite once again?  The work of Colombian-French artist Laura Huertas Millán moves gently across disciplines, defying categorization. One of her self-termed “ethnographic fictions,” Black Sun is a mysterious and immersive inquiry into despair, family bonds, and the power of female resilience.




Jeff Silva and Vic Rawlings
2016, DCP, 96 minutes

An immersive meditation on the passage of time and the persistent resonance of place, Linefork follows the daily rituals of an elderly couple living in Kentucky's Appalachian Mountains. Now well into his eighties, Lee Sexton is the last living link to the distant past of a regional American music. A retired coal miner with black lung, Lee and his wife, Opal, continue to farm the land where he was born. Together they face encroaching health concerns and stark economic realities. Recorded over three years, Linefork is an observational film documenting their marriage, their community, their resilience, and the raw yet delicate music of an unheralded banjo legend, linked to the past yet immediately present.


Philip Cartelli and Mariangela Ciccarello
2015, DCP, color and black & white, 5.1, 14 minutes

A multi-layered narrative of a past event--the sudden appearance and disappearance of a volcanic island off the southern coast of Sicily in 1831--intersects with contemporary Mediterranean itineraries and possibilities.


Ah humanity!
Ernst Karel, Véréna Paravel, Lucien Castaing-Taylor
2015, audio-video installation, 4.1, 23 minutes

Ah humanity! reflects on the fragility and folly of humanity in the age of the Anthropocene. Taking the 3/11/11 disaster of Fukushima as its point of departure, it evokes an apocalyptic vision of modernity, and our predilection for historical amnesia and futuristic flights of fancy. The images were shot on a telephone through a handheld telescope, at once close to and far from its subject, while the audio composition combines empty excerpts from Japanese genbaku and related film soundtracks, audio recordings from seismic laboratories, and location sound.



Into the Hinterlands
Julia Yezbick
2015, DCP, 39 minutes

The Hinterlands, a Detroit-based performance ensemble, practice a form of ecstatic training which they see as a provocation towards the unknown — a space both physical and imaginary whose mystery is its source of generation and from which their creativity emerges. Their practice is one of ecstatic play, of finding the edge of one's balance, and the limits of one's body. 




J.P. Sniadecki
2014, HD video, color, 5.1 surround sound, 83 minutes

Filmed over three years on what will soon be the world's largest railway network, THE IRON MINISTRY traces the vast interiors of a country on the move: flesh and metal, clangs and squeals, light and dark, and language and gesture. 




The Figures Carved Into the Knife by the Sap of the Banana Trees
Joana Pimenta
2014, DCP, 16 minutes

The rapid turning of a light draws a circle. In the space bound by its line unravels an archive of postcards sent between the island of Madeira and the former Portuguese colony of Mozambique. The figures carved into the Knife by the Sap of the Banana Trees circulates between a fictional colonial memory, and science-fiction.


single Stream


Single Stream
Pawel Wojtasik, Toby Kim Lee, and Ernst Karel
2014, DCP CinemaScope and 5.1 audio, 23 min.

Blurring the line between observation and abstraction, SINGLE STREAM plunges the viewer into the steady flow of the plant and the waste it treats, examining the material consequences of our society's culture of excess. The title refers to the method of recycling in which all types of recyclables are initially gathered together, and sorted later at a specialized facility. Inside a cavernous building, a vast machine complex runs like clock-work, sorting a steady stream of glass, metal, paper and plastic carried on conveyor belts criss-crossing the space, dotted with workers in neon vests. This complex ballet of man, machine and movement produces sounds and images that are overwhelming, but also beautiful, and revelatory.




Stephanie Spray, and Pacho Velez
2013, 35mm and DCP, 95 min

Pilgrims make an ancient journey in a state-of-the-art cable car. Their rides unfold in real-time, highlighting interactions with one another, the landscape, and this strange new mode of conveyance. Through these encounters, the film opens a surprising window onto contemporary Nepali lives, propelled along by the country's idiosyncratic modernization.




Xu Ruotao, J.P. Sniadecki, and Huang Xiang
2013, 65 mins.

YUMEN combines ghost stories and "ruin porn" to form a celluloid psycho-collage of wandering souls seeking connection with one another and a lost collective history among the frozen remnants of the abandoned oil town of Yumen in China's northwest Gansu province.

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Bedding Down
Lucien Castaing-Taylor
2012, audio-video, 35mm and HD digital video, 6 mins.

A crepuscular pastoral.




Coom Biddy
Lucien Castaing-Taylor
2012, audio-video, 35mm and HD digital video, 8 mins.

Shear, v. To cut, divide, shear, shave.




Véréna Paravel
Lucien Castaing-Taylor
2012, 35mm and DCP, 87 mins. In the very waters where Melville's Pequod gave chase to Moby Dick, Leviathan captures the collaborative clash of man, nature, and machine. Shot on a dozen cameras — tossed and tethered, passed from fisherman to filmmaker — it is a cosmic portrait of one of mankind's oldest endeavors. 




People's Park 
J.P. Sniadecki, Libbie Dina Cohn
2012, DCP, 75 mins. A single-shot documentary that immerses viewers in an unbroken journey through a famous urban park in Chengdu, Sichuan Province. The film explores the dozens of moods, rhythms and pockets of performance coexisting in tight proximity within the park's prismatic social space, capturing waltzing couples, mighty sycamores, karaoke singers, and buzzing cicadas. A sensory meditation on cinematic time and space, People's Park offers a gaze at public interaction, leisure and self-expression in China.

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Still Life Image

Still Life
Diana Keown Allan
2007, video, 25 min.

Still Life examines the role that a series of personal photos that survived the 1948 displacement play in the life of Said, an elderly Palestinian from Acre now living in exile in Lebanon. The importance of preserving these intimate remnants of a history now largely invisible within a larger global frame of reference cannot be underestimated as Palestine as a historical signifier is in danger of losing it's signified. Palestine as it was before 1948 has ceased to exist; Acre is no longer a Palestinian port and the other histories of this city now circulate as highly personal, scattered memories. The photographs, around which this piece is structured, are not simply souvenirs or representations, but for their owner function as imprints of Palestine that still carry material traces of places and people from the past within them. For Said, they have become objects of affective transference, evoking memories that remain crucial to his present sense of self––sacred objects that record another history of relation and belonging. Still Life is the first segment of a video triptych that explores the different ways in which memory is being mediated among Palestinians in Lebanon.

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