Sensory Ethnography Lab

5 09 2007

The Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) at Harvard is a unique collaboration between the Department of Anthropology and the Department of Visual & Environmental Studies (VES). Harnessing perspectives drawn from the human sciences, the arts, and the humanities, the aim of SEL is to support innovative combinations of aesthetics and ethnography, with original non-fiction media practices that explore the bodily praxis and affective fabric of human existence. As such, it encourages attention to the many dimensions of social experience and subjectivity that may only with difficulty be rendered with words alone. SEL provides an academic and institutional context for the development of work which is itself constitutively visual or acoustic — that is conducted through audiovisual media rather than purely verbal sign systems — and which may thus complement the human sciences’ and humanities’ traditionally exclusive reliance on the written word. The instruction offered through SEL is thus distinct from other graduate visual anthropology programs in the United States in that it is practice-based, and promotes experimentation with culturally-inflected, non-fiction image-making.

SEL offers intensive training in ethnographic media and hypermedia production. At its core is an intensive year-long course in “Sensory Ethnography.” Over a calendar year, students receive instruction in ethnographic media practices, producing a variety of original digital video, still photographic, hypermedia, and sound works. Advanced graduate students are also provided with training and equipment to produce substantial media ethnographies in conjunction with their written doctoral dissertations. Harvard graduate students specializing in media anthropology may elect to declare a Secondary Field in Film & Visual Studies. This requires taking four graduate-level media courses, of which one may be either Sensory Ethnography I (Anth 2835) or Sensory Ethnography II (Anth 2836).

In addition to courses offered through SEL, Harvard graduate students engaged in practice-based media research profit from related institutions and programs at the University. A significant number of Social Anthropology faculty study the multifarious roles played by the media in processes of identity and cultural formation and the constitution of social experience in the world today, including Professors Steve Caton, Michael Herzfeld, Arthur Kleinman, Mary Steedly, and Ajantha Subramanian. And the Department of Visual & Environmental Studies (VES) and Harvard Film Studies offer an array of courses in both art practice and theory, including the studio arts, photography, film-and video-making, film studies, environmental studies, and critical theory, including the theory of space. In addition, the Film Study Center, founded in 1957 for the purpose of supporting work that records and interprets the world in images and sounds, sustains endeavors, from the ethnographic to the experimental, that explore and expand the expressive potential of audiovisual media. To this end, it provides annual fellowships to graduate students and faculty, as well as to outstanding visiting imagemakers who are invited to Harvard both to share their work with, and to conduct master classes for, student media-makers working at the University. The Harvard Film Archive both functions as a cinemateque, screening ethnographic, avant-garde, independent, and international cinema, frequently with filmmakers in attendance, and also is home to a remarkable collection of rare and valuable film prints. Additionally, the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, the only building in North America designed by the architect Le Corbusier, features the work of contemporary artists, and hosts a variety of exhibitions and talks by visiting artists, faculty, and students.


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