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Lucien Castaing-Taylor on the Sensory Ethnography Lab

Filmmakers and anthropologists Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel were at Eye to talk about their exhibition Cosmic Realism. Excerpts from the interview can be viewed in our Online Magazine – this time focusing on the Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) at Harvard University, founded by Lucien Castaing-Taylor.

By Eva Langerak22 March 2024

Véréna Paravel & Lucien Castaing-Tayor – Cosmic Realism in Eye Filmmuseum © Studio Hans Wilschut

The films of the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University let you experience the world as it really is. Since its establishment in 2006, the Lab has been producing pioneering, experimental documentaries at the intersection of anthropology and art, with the aim of capturing the diversity of cultures and human experiences in sound and image.

Lucien Castaing-Taylor founded the Sensory Ethnography Lab in 2006 after he was invited in 2002 by the anthropologist and filmmaker Robert Gardner to head the Film Study Center at Harvard University. Castaing-Taylor now teaches at the Lab with Véréna Paravel.

(Robert Gardner (1925-2014) is often seen as a pioneer of the ethnographic documentary genre. He made films at the intersection of ethnography, essay film and experimental cinema. With the release of his ground-breaking film Dead Birds in 1963, Gardner established his name as one of the most remarkable filmmakers in the world of independent cinema.)

Not analysing

With a sense of self-mockery, Paravel and Castaing-Taylor call themselves ‘recovering’ anthropologists with a mission. Averse to scientific jargon and ignoring what they view as the limiting do’s and don’ts of the profession, they seek to connect with the audience. Their research does not take place within the strict academic confines of anthropology, but outside. They pick up the camera to register reality as truthfully as possible: by experiencing it physically instead of analysing it. The result? Documentaries that evoke thrilling bodily responses.

“SEL is a laboratory, in the sense that it’s experimental, it’s unfinished; we’re trying out different forms of representation to engage with realities that have no precedent.”

Lucien Castaing-Taylor

The role of the ethnographer

The films produced by the Lab are as radical as they are pioneering – from Golden Globe-winner Leviathan, who shows us the world through the eyes of fish, gulls, the sea and a fishing vessel – to the harrowing yet optimistically inventive life of outcasts around the Willets Point junkyard in Foreign Parts.

Eye programmer Anna Abrahams spoke with Paravel and Castaing-Taylor about the significance of the Lab, the role of the ethnographer and the sharpening of the senses.

Interview: Anna Abrahams | Camera and editor: Max Baggerman | Camera assistant: Colin Oord