Real Time: Sensory Ethnography Lab

This piece about the Sensory Ethnography Lab appeared in frieze:

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Véréna Paravel & Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Leviathan, 2012, film still. Courtesy the directors and Cinema Guild.

During a conversation held at my local cinema in Brixton, London, following the preview screening of their documentary film Leviathan (2012), directors Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor mused about the possibility of a mobile, free-floating or invisible laboratory, unfettered by any institutional affiliations. A utopian proposition waiting for an architect to take up the challenge, this ‘invisible lab’ would be an off-shoot of the Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) – a graduate centre with production facilities for making audio-visual work drawing on anthropological methods – which Castaing-Taylor set up in 2006 at Harvard University.

The SEL itself might as well be mobile and/or invisible. When I initially approached Castaing-Taylor to see whether he would let me visit it, I was told there is nothing much to be seen: it’s just some cameras and other equipment lying around, and the filmmakers and anthropologists associated with the Lab are, as he put it, ‘scattered around the world rather than sitting tight at Harvard’. The steady flow of award-winning documentary features and shorts produced at the Lab in the last eight years – by its director, teaching staff and doctoral students alike – has indeed been filmed anywhere from Montana, New York, China and Nepal to Switzerland, Cuba and Lebanon, on land, at sea and up in the air, depending on the research interests and chosen fieldwork locations of individual SEL affiliates.

Equipment and a range of filmmaking techniques are a big part of SEL’s success story. The kind of experimentation fostered at this laboratory of sights and sounds often hinges on the technical possibilities and limitations of the chosen filming or recording device. Filmed in a single, fluid tracking shot, J.P. Sniadecki and Libbie Dina Cohn’s 75-minute feature People’s Park (2012) would have been unthinkable before the advent of the digital, since a standard 1,000-feet film reel yields only ten minutes of footage at most. (It took the filmmakers 23 takes, shot over the course of a single day in a busy park in Chengdu, China, to arrive at the final cut.) The latest film from SEL to win a double prize at the Locarno Film Festival, Manakamana (2013), by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez, consists of 11 long takes, each lasting about ten minutes, the length of a 16mm reel, which happens to tally with the duration of a single journey by cable-car to and from the eponymous temple in Nepal.

The film rests upon this formal conceit: each successive cable-car ride, bearing a colourful array of modern-day pilgrims, is shot from within using a fixed camera; the temporary black-out that occurs upon the arrival of each car at the station furnishes an eerie, dreamlike transition between the different takes. A staple of SEL filmmaking, long-take shots are also used to frame Aryo Danusiri’s hour-long high-definition video On Broadway (2010). It portrays an anonymous Manhattan basement space converted by means of a vast blue tarpaulin sheet (that we see and hear being slowly unfolded and then folded up again) into a makeshift mosque and a place of worship, before being reverted to its former state. The six parts of this documentary, which styles itself as a ‘song’ of transformations, are punctuated by words akin to musical tempo markings that act as an additional framing device.

Though unusual in their blend of ethnography and aesthetics, SEL films are part of a wider trend in nonfiction filmmaking that New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center (fslc) dubbed ‘art of the real’ in its recent ‘call for documentary to be re-considered as art’. A selection of SEL films was showcased in the fslc’s ‘Art of the Real’ series last month, in the run up to the theatrical release of Manakamana, alongside such classics of ethnographic filmmaking as Jean Rouch’s Jaguar (1954) and Robert Gardner’s Forest of Bliss (1986), as well as more recent documentaries that have inspired SEL filmmakers, like those of Jana Ševčíková. Cinema is far from the only art form SEL filmmakers turn to for inspiration and alternative, non-narrative ways of framing a documentary. ‘We try to nourish ourselves with beautiful things,’ says Paravel, ‘in order to be exigent about everything: the form, the thinking behind it.’ These spiritual nourishments range from poetry to painting, from literature to music. People’s Park owes less to long-take films by, say, James Benning than to Chinese scroll paintings, in particular the five-metre-long Along the River During the Quinming Festival, a panoramic painting from the Song dynasty (1085–1145).

Leviathan itself, although routinely likened by film critics to George Franju’s documentary short Le Sang des bêtes (Blood of the Beasts, 1949), is steeped in biblical, pictorial and literary allusions. In particular, it draws on Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851), which the filmmakers read to each other on board a commercial trawler during six trips that all started out from New Bedford, Massachussetts – where Captain Ahab’s whaleship Pequod also begins its voyage in Moby-Dick. Filmed at night, using multiple GoPro cameras that yielded surreal images bordering on abstraction, Leviathan’s mesmerizing close-ups of the slimy, vibrantly coloured catch recall Dutch still life paintings. (Incidentally, Still Life, 2007, and Still Life / Nature Morte, 2013, are the titles of two SEL shorts by Diana Allan and Castaing-Taylor/Paravel, respectively, screened as part of the presentation of the Lab’s work at the 2014 Whitney Biennial.)

The painterly sensibility of Leviathan came to the fore in the two site-specific installation pieces made for the ‘Forum Expanded’ section of the Berlinale in 2013. In Spirits Still, select frames from the film projected onto walls and illuminating the small alcoves of what used to be a crematorium revealed Goya-like figures and monsters worthy of Hieronymus Bosch captured by the camera but invisible at the ordinary speed of projection. The Last Judgment, on the other hand, titled in reference to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco, consisted of a looping 11-minute sequence from the end of the film, played in slow-motion on the vault of the mourning chapel, in which endlessly spiralling seagulls, caught between sky and sea, stand for the damned souls. A monumental HDV and sound installation of the latter will take over the nave, apse and dome of New York’s Cathedral of St John the Divine for six months in 2015.

Yet, visuals are only half the story. Leviathan derives much of its emotive power from its soundscape: the cry of seagulls, the sound of wind and waves crashing, the din of machinery rendering all attempts at communication futile. Many, though by no means all, SEL films steer clear of language, something Castaing-Taylor concedes to be a blind spot. (Spray’s loquacious As Long as There’s Breath, 2009, and other films set in Nepal, being the notable exceptions.) This is even the case when verbal exchanges are part of a film’s fabric. In Paravel’s 2009 short 7 Queens, she strikes up conversations and interacts with locals, some of them recent immigrants, while walking along the overground tracks of the number seven train line in Queens, New York. Their words are often barely intelligible, or else drowned out by the noise of the passing trains, which imparts its own rhythm to the film, just as the periodic black-outs do in Manakamana.

The Shape of Things (2011), Katherine Tygielski’s poignant thesis film shot over the course of the three months that she spent working in a Nepalese kindergarten for deaf children, explores the acquisition of sign language and non-verbal gestures. Among other projects, Paravel and Castaing-Taylor are currently working on a multi-layered essay film about the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster and its aftermath, parts of which were filmed using a smart phone in combination with a scientific telescope. The film is all about language; or, rather, there is a linguistic dimension to it but it’s not expressed verbally. It has to do with sound – some of it vocal, but mainly ambient and musical – recorded during the directors’ fieldwork in Japan or, in the case of the featured archival sounds, sourced from Japanese films, TV programmes and the internet.

Paying greater attention to sound is one of the things SEL graduates learn with the help of the sound artist, recording engineer and ethnomusicologist Ernst Karel, who manages the Lab and teaches a popular course on ‘Sonic Ethnography’. As part of this practice-based course, students attend weekly listening sessions, make recordings on location and go on audio excursions or ‘sound safaris’. If there isn’t much to see at the SEL, there is a lot to be heard courtesy of Karel, whose name invariably comes up in the credits for the sound mix of SEL-produced features, and frequently for sound composition and design. Karel has made a number of audio-only, feature-length documentaries of his own, including Hourly Directional (2012) in a collaboration with the artist Helen Mirra, and Heard Laboratories (2010). An invisible lab, should it ever come to materialize, would have walls made of sound.

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