Animal video-choreography


Palestinian Wildlife Series takes it name from the fact that I recorded these images from an African wildlife programme being shown on a television set in Palestine in 2011. This act of appropriation calls into question issues of mediation, displacement, and authenticity in relation to its subject.


In 2011, the same year the revolution began for us in Egypt, I was commissioned to make a performance in Palestine. The small apartment where I was staying in East Jerusalem had recently been broken into by Israeli settlers who tried to claim the apartment for themselves.[1] Weeks after the break in we remained unnerved, our bodies tensely recording each sound in the small courtyard outside. Alone in the apartment one night, I watched a television documentary on African animals. As I’d done in Cairo for the ten months before, I took refuge in the non-human.


Why the non-human? Because in addition to our shared affection toward plants and animals, and drawing on ideas from Rosi Braidotti (2013), posthumanism concerns the failed project of humanism, the Eurocentrism of its proclaimed universality – its hypocrisies and exceptions. In Palestinian Wildlife Series, the animals presented share so much with humans that the work does not function on a metaphorical level so much as on a parallel plane. African animals are under continual threat of extinction and bodily harm, are tracked and monitored, and are relegated to enclosed areas and distant, inhospitable lands. The parallels in this case are so close to that of the Palestinian people that as an artist I do not need to anthropomorphise them – to endow these animals with human distinctions not their own.[2]


My intention for the animal images in Palestinian Wildlife Series was to cut away the human-centred narratives imposed on them by television news media. I slowed and looped sequences, attempting to edit the images according to principles of postmodern dance. My aim was to work with the ‘natural’ movements of animal bodies, without pretence or spectacle. I was less concerned with the shape of the movements on screen, than in mining kinesthetic responses to them, I was interested in slowing the fast cuts of the original clips (often not longer than four seconds), which are so common in media today. This action was also my way of slowing time in my own frenetic context.


Recording these images directly from the television in Jerusalem (as opposed to downloading similar images later) spoke to the immediacy of the moment. I was interested not only to capture specific images but also to highlight the larger affective setting through which I experienced them: an endangered living room, in Palestine, in 2011. My background in live performance informed my interest in the lived moment – the mise en scène of watching television, as it were. The experience of watching these animal images and watching them in the fraught context of Jerusalem were inextricable. Added to this context was the images’ temporality in 2011, where unfolding revolution across the region was juxtaposed with Palestine’s long-term occupation. The silent animal images were infused with these ideas for me; though, of course, they would take on entirely different meanings in Beijing, Vienna, or São Paulo. Thus, rather than represent these images seamlessly, I was interested in alluding to their context in the television – the light of the ceiling reflected on their bodies in the glass.

[1] For a more detailed account of these experiences, see my article, ‘Things You Didn’t Decide: Reflections on a Site Specific Performance in Palestine’ (Khalil 2014).


[2] John Akomfrah’s 2015 filmic installation Vertigo Sea, which links whaling and the transatlantic slave trade, has a pertinent intertitle: ‘Man and Beast are killed in the same way’. Chris Marker, whom I discuss in the section on the right, also directed a 1972 work on whaling that has different human implications. Vive la baleine (Three Cheers for the Whale) was a passionate call to act on behalf of whales at a critical moment of their extinction. 

The very first experiment from Palestinian Wildlife Series.

Giraffe Sunrise, 2011. Video, Rania Khalil.

Running time: 1 minute 08 seconds.

Giraffe Sunrise, left, shares impulses similar to the ‘Bestiaire’ series by French new wave director Chris Marker. While Marker’s Elephant Tango is anthropomorphising in a way this early draft of Giraffe Sunrise tried to avoid, his ‘video haikus’ (as he calls them) remain fascinating historical examples of video art forged from animal movement and bodies.


Chris Marker: An Owl Is an Owl

Chris Marker: Elephant Tango

Chris Marker: Cat Listening to Music



As an artist, intimate and interior spaces appeal to me as a counter to ‘male’ treatments of space, which preference wide angles and ‘eye-of-God’ framing.


Before arriving in Palestine, I’d been developing these ideas through my moving image practice in Cairo. As the revolution sensationally unfolded (both on and off camera) in Tahrir square, I turned to private spaces.[3] One knew that the majority of Egyptian citizens were not demonstrating; many were watching the revolution unfold on television. Depicting this honestly for me involved contextualising spectacular images within the banal locations of their transmission.


Why lo-fi? There is an important history of working with lo-fi technology that relates to my interests in creative applications of postcolonial theory. This history includes Third World cinema and Afrofuturism, which I speak of in the pages to come, as well as Arte Povera and ‘poor theatre’ in the West. My use of lo-fi technology seeks to acknowledge technological conditions experienced by much of the non-Western world and a respect for art forms that use the tools at one’s immediate disposal.


Apart from the epic destructions of Gaza in 2014, 2012, 2008–9, and so on, lack of access to basic resources is a staple of Palestinian life under Israeli occupation. In Gaza, 57 per cent of households are food insecure, while 90 per cent of the water is unfit for human consumption (Chomsky 2015: 156–57). My use of lo-fi media in this case is not intended to debase its subject further; instead, it is a technique through which to draw attention to contrasting conditions.[4] Where high-resolution images present the world as if through perfect eyesight, lo-fi interrupts the smooth and continuous intake of media on a material level. As with flickering images, lo-fi images provide openings for critical modes of viewing to take hold through the frustration they produce in the viewer.[5]


I also came to consider these layers of filmic mediation in relation to the ways in which discourse surrounding Palestine is mediated. As Edward Said points out in The Question of Palestine (first published 1979, revised 1992), discourse surrounding Palestinians is most commonly left to American and Israeli interlocutors, very rarely to Palestinians themselves. Palestinian ‘peace treaties’ are in turn handled by American, Egyptian, and other non-Palestinian governments. Self-representation, like self-determination, eludes Palestinian subjects. How can one represent people systematically disallowed to represent themselves? My response: through images that do not claim to represent them and that consistently remind the viewer that they are not viewing them either.

[3] My short video Scenes from My Houseboat During the Revolution (2011) deals explicitly with this theme. This turn also was motivated by a sense I had of wanting to affectively experience rather than document the protests. Ideas of the interior have been long explored by women artists, a few examples of which include: Carrie Mae Weems’s Kitchen Table Series (1990), in which the photographer uses her kitchen table as a platform through which to explore intimate scenes of familial gathering; Carolee Schneemann’s mixed-media installation War Mop (1983), in which she juxtaposes a mechanised sculpture of a mop beside a television monitor showing images from the Vietnam War; and video artist Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975), in which she comically destabilises women’s roles in the home by identifying obsolete objects in her kitchen.


[4] My research into Afrofuturist scholarship then expanded on these ideas. For example, Alexander G. Weheliye (2002) and J. Griffith Rollefson (2008), writing on African American popular music, locate the now clichéd robotic voice of 70s and 80s soul and R & B, within the lens of the posthuman. Drawing on Weheliye’s writing, Rollefson illuminates the way in which the lo-fi, flat robotic voice mirrors the situation of Black Americans systematically denied the designation of a fully human ‘voice’. In an article entitled ‘“Feenin”: Posthuman Voices in Contemporary Black Popular Music’, Weheliye critically articulates the omission of voices of colour in the field of posthumanism. Taking up this erasure in the work of writer N. Katherine Hayles, Weheliye (2002: 22) reflects: ‘Although it is not Hayles’s project per se to interrogate race in relation to virtuality, the erasure of race severely limits how we conceive of the complex interplay between “humans” and informational technologies.’


[5] It would be remiss of me in this essay not to mention Bertolt Brecht’s ideas on creating modes of critical viewing in audience members, though they did not play a significant (or at least conscious) part of my research or my reflections on this project. For more information see Brecht on Theatre (Willet 1994), specifically the chapter ‘Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting’ (91–99).

Somatic dance


Where the concept of ‘choreography’ enters this discussion, I am indebted to my training in postmodern – particularly somatic – dance. In my early years I was drawn to the practical concepts of experiential anatomy, release techniques, and particularly contact improvisation and authentic movement.[6] Without entering into a long discussion on the latter two forms (on which, see footnote 6), I will say that my work is informed by them, for two main reasons. First, in the way in which my training taught me to separate the emotional aspects of a (human) figure from the movement she or he produces in the studio. In their own ways, these forms are non-anthropomorphising practices: we refrain from projecting our feelings and behaviours onto silent beings.


The second reason relates to a focus on internal enjoyment and kinesthetic discovery, over traditional concepts of entertaining audiences. As for father of postmodern dance Merce Cunningham, who declared ‘Climax is for those who get caught up in New Year’s Eve’ (Cunningham 1968), there is freedom in being able to perform and witness movement without demanding spectacular action.


During the course of this project, I revisited somatic dance, focusing on contact improvisation, to research how it informed my unique modes of creating moving images. Unfortunately, as in my youth, this exploration was compromised by the ways in which the form is practically organised in the West. Reconfronting the racial, heteronormative, and class homogeneity of its (largely white, middle-class practitioners), my experiences with contact improvisation in particular have led me to wonder whether attending to the minutiae of one’s bodily systems/movements is performed at the expense of a broader politics of inclusion. Its formal exclusion of people of colour (practised throughout the West and Israel) is an as yet underdeveloped field of inquiry.


In the scope of my present research, I’ve chosen to focus on different issues, though Palestinian Wildlife Series is informed by my long-term reflection on these problematics. As with the conflict between Israel and Palestine, it involves questions about the absencing of racialised bodies. Simultaneously, the project reflects on the life of animals and wonders which bodies are entitled to intimate observation and care (like that of somatic dance) and whose bodies are in turn denied far more basic forms of protection.

[6] Contact improvisation is a form in which movement is initiated from points of contact between dancers, who improvise movements while attempting to stay in physical contact with one another. Practised between two or more persons, it is both a social dance and a choreographic technique. As a social dance form, it is usually performed without music; mindfulness techniques are often incorporated into its training. As a choreographic technique, it departs from the social, racial, and ethnic organisation that I refer to above. The form grew out of training conducted by Steve Paxton at Oberlin College in 1972 and was developed by Paxton and Nancy Stark Smith, a student in his Oberlin workshops, in the decades to come.


Authentic movement has close links to dance therapy. It was created by dancer Mary Starks Whitehouse in the 1950s and originally called ‘movement in depth’. Whitehouse developed the form out of her studies of psychologist Carl Jung’s dream work and ideas of ‘active imagination’. In its most basic form, authentic movement is enacted by two people, a mover and a witness, who switch in the course of one session to perform both roles. The mover moves spontaneously with closed eyes, while the witness observes non-judgementally, holding a ‘container’ in the space for the mover to safely explore. Both participants, mover and witness, are encouraged to suspend ideas of entertainment. Contact improvisation and authentic movement, in essence, share this goal of shedding superficial or eye-catching movement so that deeper, more spontaneous, and less contrived movement can occur.


I have facilitated authentic movement groups for nearly fifteen years and participated in contact improvisation and authentic movement groups for over twenty years. My observations on the constituencies of contact improvisation stem primarily from experiences in New England and New York City and from conversational research with international participants.

next page: The thin image