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“Instrumentality and Context: Understanding the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab” Toby Lee Visits Con

-Words by Andre Dubois

Last Tuesday, the chills of mid-January were kept at bay as a mid-sized conference room on the 6th floor of the Faubourg quickly reached capacity for the first speaker in a series of talks as part of the Digital Ethnography Workshop—sponsored by the Global Emergent Media Lab and the Concordia Documentary Center. Following JP Sniadecki’s master class last year, Toby Lee (NYU) presented a critical overview of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab and its work, contextualizing and sometimes repudiating the discursive elements that have deviated from the Lab’s foundational structures from which Lee received her training.

Toby Lee and Concordia's Joshua Neves first met as Graduate students in 2006

Toby Lee and Concordia’s Joshua Neves first met as Graduate students in 2006

As a student at Harvard, Lee describes the Lab as a space to freely experiment with others as a collective experience, operating outside the traditional mandates of academia. Aspirational students from across multiple disciplines converged on the Lab’s original incarnation as a two-semester course, where they received equipment training and read theoretical texts in the first semester. In the second semester, the students were encouraged to create projects that experimented with the boundaries of documentary filmmaking and ethnographic media practices, with many choosing to capture field sites and communities with long standing relationships as subjects—a framework that still resides at the heart of the Lab.

Much of Lee’s projects discussed during her presentation are meditations on the temporal relationships between memory, space, and the act of looking. Royal (2007), produced with long-time collaborator Fotini Lazaridou-Hatzigoga, is a portrait of a small town in Nebraska that is often overlooked, where most travellers pass-through on their way to somewhere else. Anepikaira (2009) was a site-specific video installation and public screening in an abandoned cinema in Greece, which was once a children’s movie theatre that was converted into a sex cinema in the 1970s, and had been closed in the late 1990s. For one evening, the space screened an experimental non-fiction short that combined contemporary cinema images with archival footage, concluding with a live-feed of the audience itself under the credits. The multi-channel video installation Composite (2013) uses the talents of an NYPD composite sketch artist to draw individuals as described by a person closest to them. Lee’s most recent project, Single Stream (2014), is an exploration of one of the largest recycling facilities in the US, visually and sonically abstracting the sorting process.

Following the wave of success that ensued after the prominence of Leviathan (2012), films coming out of the Sensory Ethnography Lab have been given a new level of prestige while being closely associated with a certain body of work. For Lee, this success has greatly impacted the construction, reception, and distribution of films associated with the Lab. These films have become influential in a variety of ways as they move between fields and disciplines while being programmed at multiple festivals and alternative spaces. While there is admittedly nothing wrong with capitalizing off of the Lab’s name and its dominant aesthetics, Lee apprehensively walks a proverbial ethnographic tightrope while highlighting some of the potential pitfalls to the Lab’s success. Dominant aesthetics, while pleasurable, may inadvertently limit how a subject is approached, risking productions to move towards narrative coherence based on popular documentary standards rather than resist semantic closure in an ethical way. Like it or not, the Sensory Ethnography Lab now takes part within an economy of prestige when it was once resistant to the demands of profit and its own department, granting an exclusivity to a space of privilege rather than a space of radical play, which Lee champions as an integral part of any education.

Ultimately, Lee posits that these responses are issues of instrumentality, of how this media is being used and received in certain contexts. Understanding that the work produced within the Lab could leave its confines, filmmakers should be prepared to respond to the contexts in which they are asked to perform. This concentration on performativity is one of Lee’s fascinations in regards to upcoming works and how they are able to move outside of a logic of expectation and representation that reactivates space as an intervention that is capable of changing the chemistry of the world, providing new anthropological insights into social practices through a polyvalent performance that is reminiscent of the Lab as a communal space of play.

For more information on Toby Lee and her projects, visit her website.

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