A brief history of performance art and expanded cinema
As we are seeing, various strategies exist in the production of moving images to challenge traditional viewing modes (wherein spectators are asked to suspend their disbelief, and thus their criticality). In ‘expanded cinema’, also known as ‘live cinema’, the mechanisms of film and filmmaking are brought to the fore of the viewing experience for this purpose (Youngblood 1970). This form included the now commonplace action of putting film projectors in plain sight for the audience; actions ‘exposing’ otherwise hidden viewing conditions were also performed in highly embodied ways.
Performance art and expanded cinema pioneers Valie Export and Carolee Schneemann used their live, often naked bodies to intervene in their generation’s female constructs. Schneemann’s 1965 film Fuses contains detailed scenes of her making love with her boyfriend. In this work, the artist performs a double intervention: first, by taking control of her own (sexual) image and, second, through altering her filmstrips. By scratching, painting, and burning the film by hand, Schneemann rendered titillating images ‘thin’. Valie Export’s 1969 Action Pants: Genital Panic involved a performance intervention in a cinema itself: entering an art cinema with the crotch of her jeans cut out, Export strolled through the theatre with her pubis eye-level to the seated audience. For Export, a living woman is distinct from an image of a woman encountered on screen. She says: ‘In the 1960s, our attempts to cultivate a direct and uncontrolled language in art were based upon the idea that the dominant language was a form of manipulation. The plan was to circumvent these forms of social control and to develop other forms of language outside of the system dominated by men. This was the strength of the female body: to be able to express directly and without mediation’ (Fore 2015).
While very different from the sorts of embodied interventions I explore in Palestinian Wildlife Series, I cite these works for the ways in which they move fluidly between film and performance, resisting cinematic conventions with a physical focus.
As touched on earlier, Palestinian Wildlife Series is a filmic document of a lived moment. Generations after the pioneers discussed above, it became important for me to conceal my own body in this film, as well as the bodies of my unpictured subjects. To allow ourselves (as people of colour) to be represented through the non-human world speaks both to the structural racism which deems our shared lives less than valuable and to the environmental crises of our time. In the 1960s, self-reflexive and interventionist film-making mirrored revolutionary social moments of the day, from the decolonising movements of Africa to US civil rights, feminism, and resistance to the Vietnam War. For non-European media-makers today, as for early feminist works, ‘ambivalence toward representational technologies’ is a gesture not only of defiance but also of urgent resistance to the very mechanisms that systematically define and oppress us as human beings.