Poetic Ethnography

Begin by walking around the space and find a partner, as before, preferably someone with whom you are not too familiar, and who is “different” from you in obvious ways (race, gender, age, body type). Gravitate towards that person and intuitively discover if your desire to partner is reciprocated. If not, don’t take it personally and continue walking around until you find someone else.

Partners should stand facing each other 2 to 3 feet apart. Decide with your partner your initial roles within the experiment. One of you will be the ethnographer and the other the specimen. Specimen and ethnographer are metaphors that describe your role in the exercise – the person in the role of ethnographer does not “perform” a scientist in the theatrical sense. Rather you are both your actual selves in this time and place, exploring each other as “human artifact”. This verbal negotiation should be kept as brief as possible. You will reverse roles on completion of the exercise.

Once the roles have been established, certain basic guidelines should be articulated: ethnographers should try to be compassionate, sensitive, and truly open in their exploration of their specimen. In this process of negotiation of the borders of intimacy, it is important to be adventurous but always respectful. Ethnographers should not examine areas that may be considered taboo (i.e., breasts, genitals). If ethnographers examine areas that might still feel awkward or uncomfortable to the specimen (i.e., the feet, the inside of the mouth, the back of the ears, nostrils, knees, etc.), the specimen can simply give a hand signal for them to stop. The ethnographer will understand that the specimen is not consenting and they shouldn’t “go there.” Although they seem to have a more passive role, the specimen should always be present and aware during the exercise.

Once these guidelines have been carefully explained, the exercise can begin.

Part 1: Multi-sensorial exploration of the human body

Specimens close their eyes for the duration of the exercise. The ethnographers begin to examine their specimen in stages, adding sense by sense, layering each sense onto the next until all of their senses are engaged in the exploration simultaneously. (The instructor leading the exercise will call out each sense, signaling when to add a new sensorial layer to the exploration. Theirs is the only voice that will be heard during the exercise.)

Sight: First only use sight. The ethnographer should try to find out as much as possible by examining the specimen from different perspectives, angles, and distances, strictly using their eyes. The idea is to find out as much cultural and social information as possible about the body of the specimen.

Smell: After 5 minutes you can begin to include smell. The ethnographer should (respectfully) smell the specimen’s hair, face, hands, clothes, perfume, etc.

Hearing: The ethnographer can now add a third sense and begin to “listen to their partner’s body.” You should try to “hear” the breathing, heartbeat, digestion, and other sounds emanating from the body of your partner.

Touch: A few minutes later you can begin to use touch. Try to experience the texture of the other person’s clothes, skin, muscles, bone structure, and hair. Feel the temperature in different zones of their body. Engage your sense of touch, without abandoning the other senses.

Once these four senses are at work, the ethnographers should continue exploring interesting marks and idiosyncratic features (scars, pores, veins, tattoos, jewelry, the brand of their clothes, dyed hair, make-up, perfume, nail polish, etc.), discovering signs and symbols of specificity or difference. Think of your partner’s body as an ever-morphing living metaphor. Think of the body as a map, as landscape, as a machine, a musical instrument, a living sculpture, an open book.

Part 2: Learning how to handle and carefully manipulate

As an organic continuation of the multi-sensorial exploration of a human body, you can now begin to learn how to handle someone else’s body in the following manner.

After incorporating sight, smell, hearing, and touch, we ask you (the ethnographer) to begin comparing your limbs, height, skin color, hair texture, scars, and clothing, the shape of your hands and feet with those of your partner. A few minutes later you can begin to examine the bone and muscular structure of your specimen.

You are now ready to “activate” the other person’s body and see how his/her joints work. And in doing so, your roles will slowly morph from “ethnographer” to “artist” and from “specimen” to “raw material.”

We now encourage you to think of your partner as an anatomical figure and begin to deal with matters of weight and the effect of gravity on your partner’s limbs and  body. Try to carefully feel the weight of the limbs of your partner. Find out their center of gravity and shift that center. Be aware that if you are physically moving the other person, you must be able to support their weight at all times. If you don’t feel confident you can support your partner, you should not radically shift their weight and put them in dangerous positions.

Now you can begin to explore the movement possibilities of your partner’s body, including

  How do their shoulders, head, and pelvis rotate?

  How does the torso move from side to side, twist, and bend?

  What happens when you move their arms in different directions?

Try to carefully bring your partner to the ground. Use your own body as counterweight and support to help them down to the ground. Be careful not to put too much stress on their body or your own. Once they are on the ground, you can explore the movement of their legs, feet, and body in a different way. You can roll your partner, carefully shifting the position of their arms and head so that they are not crushed or twisted as they move.

The raw material always plays an active role, allowing their body to be shifted, and maneuvered into unexpected and interesting positions. They are, in a sense, collaborating with their partner, holding positions as their partner steps back, reflects, and then re-enters the exploration.

When this intimate role-play comes to an end (usually after about 10 to 15 minutes) we ask you (the artist) to find an interesting and powerful image or shape for your raw material that emerges organically out of your exploration. Once you have found it, you can either insert yourself into the image and freeze in a duet, or step away from your partner and walk around observing what others have created.

After viewing the other images, return to your partner and gently bring him/her back to their original neutral standing position with the same care you used when moving them down to the floor. If your partner’s clothing, hair, and jewelry have been altered or removed, also help to return these elements to their original state. As always, treat your partner with the utmost care and respect. The raw material may open their eyes.


Gómez Peña, G., & Sifuentes, R. (2011). Exercises for Rebel Artists: Radical Performance Pedagogy (1st ed.). Routledge. Page 61-63.
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