Body, Mind, Culture: Woolfalk and Lears’s Ethnography of No Place

Rael Jero Salley | University of Chicago

Squares of colorful paper punctuate the flat, white screen. Suddenly, slender, manicured, dark-skinned hands flash into view, one wielding a set of scissors while the other grabs the squares one by one, frantically cutting each roughly to make the letters of the title: Ethnography of No Place. The cutting and pasting reminds us of children’s art projects, but we face a paradox from the beginning—even as the narrator invites us to encounter No Place, what we find disrupts whatever innocent, childish pleasure we might have hoped from the digitally produced, low-tech video. Ethnography of No Place (color, 30 minutes; 2008) is a mature narrative, one of fantastic travel and seductive desire.

As the video opens (“Prologue”), the narrator invites the viewer to follow her across “the threshold of their world”—a large, colorful structure set up in a field with the Manhattan skyline as backdrop.1 The first chapter is an animated diary of the voyage to No Place (“Diary of a Phantom Ride”). In the subsequent chapters we learn about the inner workings of this imaginary world from the narrator as well as its inhabitants, who speak in Chapters Four (“The Emptiness of Equivalence”) and Five (“Meeting”).

The episode entitled “Self and Landscape” (Chapter Two), the first in which we see video of this place, features a figure that is familiarly anthropomorphic, but lacks facial features. In place of five digits, the hands are mitted; the body is covered head to toe in a metallic, shiny fabric “skin.” Colorful fabric “leaves” and “buds” seem to grow out of the head, neck and torso. The growths literally and figuratively place the figure in an artificially lit interior space, constructed to mimic a fecund landscape, but it is hard to tell whether these colorful “buds” extend from within this body or if the outside reaches in, contaminating the interior of this “self.” The figure slowly dances through the foreground of her staged environment.

This is a laboring “self,” a figure that enacts rituals of exchange between being and landscape, both of which are constructed and fantastic. In the mid-ground, the pillows of buds have grown into a pulsating mass of plaids, checkers and polka dots. The figure approaches this form, nests itself in the mélange, and begins a ritual that is at once sexual and cultural—she imports and exports by incorporating a long, snaking, cylindrical form (called a stamen by the narrator) into her own body—through the top of her head. The dissonance between what we are viewing and our lived reality is conceptually exhausting, but the scene’s recognizable elements make the tale as seductively concrete as it is subversive, exotic and fanciful.


Ethnography of No Place formulates questions about cognition, science, politics, and identity. Moreover, the project questions the gender of representation by using cultural fantasy to rethink the production and acquisition of culture. In common parlance “fantasy” is distinctly opposed to “reality,” whether it leans towards voluntary caprice or involuntary delusion. My interest lies with this intellectual dissonance—if fantasy is opposed to reality, it is the negative of reality, so fantasy becomes “other” to what is our everyday life. But imaginaries and fantasies are built from shared images, stories, metaphors, ideas, symbols and representations.

Psychoanalysis links the psyche to the social, incorporating an idea common to many religious traditions: that civilization depends on the control of instincts. As civilization “progressed” and European empires expanded, the emerging social sciences offered methods for identifying, communicating and managing our so-called “savage” impulses, and worked to “civilize” the “exotic” and “primitive” desires of our “other” selves. Fantasy became the fundamental object of psychoanalysis, while representation became the key to unconscious fantasy— the means through which individuals organize their internal worlds. Representing fantasy is a political practice inasmuch as it is instrumental in gaining intelligence about territories and populations targeted for control.

Ethnographic narratives (like the European travel narratives that preceded them) share this history, in which the production of knowledge and representation are tied to imperial rule. Ethnography indulges an abiding interest in cultural difference through the foundational notion that the ethnographer may successfully interpret observed behavior. This suggests the possibility of understanding the unconscious psychic processes of individuals by studying their use of symbols, myths and rituals. In contemporary discourses of identity, to perceive an individual’s culture is to also define a “self,”and to define a self is to look at distinct arenas of knowledge as an ensemble. In our everyday life, we align the fragments to piece together a smooth worldview, but provoked by unusual images—like the absurdity in Ethnography of No Place—we better notice the workings of this complex set of unseen conceptual tools.


Visual distinctions operate within established (pre-fabricated) hierarchies of race, diaspora, and gender. The arrangements that these hierarchies assume may vary from place to place, but their dominant meanings depart from the same colonial structures of power, which produce the “natural” feeling of fixed social categories. The system works by funneling ambiguities into fixed images in order to construct progress, development, science, knowledge, and “Western culture.”2

Ethnography of No Place offers a different narrative: it inquires about selves in and of landscapes, relationships between ideals and realities; but it also moves toward displacing traditional constructs by re-imagining the framework of the dominant narrative. The piecerethinks traditional stories of culture in several aspects. First, it questions ethnographic writing’s authority and particular claims to truth. Second, it suggests that belief in the possibility of “mere description” is naïve at best—ethnography is one kind of storytelling among others. Third, it insists ethnographic activity must “always already” be set in specific cultural and historical circumstances. Fourth, the project highlights a link between scientific method and broader cultural beliefs and imaginations. Fifth, Ethnography of No Place shows that producing culture is a strategy, a process. Cultural narratives are unstable representations, indefinable ideas, and shaky foundations for “knowledge.” They are also exceptional opportunities to imagine.

This imperative to imagine evokes surrealist practice, which provokes the “irruption of otherness” by attacking the familiar and the expected. In the wake of the First World War, European surrealists defined themselves in radical opposition to the societies around them, and their rejection of established European values drew them towards non-European beliefs. The Surrealists engaged with ethnography as a means of interpreting culture and of creating what James Clifford calls an “ethnographic approach to life,” in which the present, existing norms of their own society could be attacked and re-visioned. In the context of the early 20th century, this mix of ethnographic activity, cultural and historical circumstance, and imagination amounted to a tactic for destroying artificial contradictions created by a modern culture of rationalism and technology. Seeking to resolve antagonisms between reason and desire, conscious and unconscious, mind and body, male and female, the surrealists used “other” cultures as a means of “transgressing, reshuffling and subverting the orders of Western classificatory systems.”3 In Ethnography of No Place, this history is invoked directly in the text of Chapter Four, which cites the text of surrealist manifestos.4 More broadly, the piece as a whole draws upon this tradition while adding a layer of critique by invoking not specific non-European peoples but an imaginary amalgam of reconstructed representations of them.

Where does this leave us regarding the imaginative retelling of gendered morphology and embodied displacement in the video? For viewers, Ethnography of No Place seems transparently escapist—it offers the character of woman as muse, the setting of a foreign “heart of darkness” and a plot of racialized diaspora, tactile sensuality and deep feeling, but insists on the fantastic, even the absurd, to uncover deficiencies in identity. The main character is a desiring machine that is also an empty shell. To understand itself, this character relies on uncanny, childlike play to negotiate cultural oppositions and categories. This displaced, racialized, sexualized self must depend on fading memories and rituals to blend itself into the artificial landscape. In this story, the absence of “natural” settings or fields leaves no place for “mere description.”5 These visual tactics offer the viewer an opportunity to reject narratives that rely on idealized, dichotomous positions and limited frameworks of knowledge. Here is a moment for resisting the determinations of gendered, racialized, and diasporic frameworks—knowledges that echo colonial expansions and universalizing impulses.

Ethnography of No Place is neither descriptive nor prescriptive, but it shows the contingency in “common sense.” Its outlandish premise shows identity to be an epistemological anachronism whose values play through cultural definitions. The piece critiques the paradoxical work of categories, opting instead to re-imagine the very nature of characters, settings, and plots. Arguably, the multi-media project’smost worthwhile contribution lies in its polyvalent reversals. Ethnography of No Place challenges traditional relations of body, mind, and culture through its re-evaluation of the whimsical and fantastic. Consequently, we viewers must somehow rethink body, mind and world—without the tools we already know.

Raél Jero Salley is Faculty in Art History at Columbia College, Chicago and a Ph.D. Candidate in The Committee on the History of Culture at The University of Chicago. Salley's work centers on contemporary art and visual practices, and focuses on artists of the African Diaspora. Also a practicing visual artist, Salley holds a MFA in Painting (The School of the Art Institute of Chicago) and exhibits nationally and internationally ( Salley works in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A and in Paris.


1 The Prologue and Epilogue were filmed in Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City, NY; a performance similar to the one enacted in the Epilogue was open to the public there in August 2007 (personal communication with the artists).

2 See Mignolo, W. and Schiwy, F. “Beyond Dichotomies: Translation/Transculturation and the Colonial Difference” in Beyond Dichotomies: Histories, Identities, Cultures, and the Challenge of Globalization Elisabeth Mudimbe-Boye, ed. (Ithica: State University of New York Press, 2002).

3 Historically, surrealism in Europe originated in the trenches of the First World War, when Europeans were first exposed to the shock of a traumatized human psyche. The surrealist project was predicated on the notion that industrialization and its warlike consequences had alienated humankind from a real experience of the world. See Clifford, J. “On Ethnographic Surrealism” in The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth Century Ethnography, Literature and Art (Harvard University Press: Cambridge and London, 1988).

4 Works cited list provided by the artists to the author.

5 Brewer, J. Ethnography (Buckingham & Philadelphia: Open University Press, 2000), pp. 13; See also Butler’s commentary on Freud, the self and the ego in Butler, J. The Psychic Life of Power (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997); Moore, H. The Subject of Anthropology: Gender, Symbolism and Psychoanalysis (Cambridge: Polity, 2007), pp. 48–49; Benson, P. “Freud and the Visual” Representations 45 (Winter 1994), pp. 101–116.