Participatory spectatorship


Attentive recognition is a participatory notion of spectatorship, whose political potential shouldn’t be ignored. If a viewer is free to draw upon her own reserves of memory as she participates in the creation of the object on screen, her private and unofficial histories and memories will be granted as much legitimation as the official histories that make up the regime of the cliché – if not more. (Marks 2000: 48)


Laura U. Marks’s notion of participatory spectatorship is an embodied interplay between viewer and image. ‘Sensorium’ in her writing refers to the combination of sensual faculties and intelligence we bring to spectating. In participatory viewing situations, our sensoria combine with what is not seen to activate the potential of embodied viewing.


In Palestinian Wildlife Series meanings are fluid and open to interpretation, rather than fixed or determining. Nevertheless, creating a space in which viewers can co-create meanings cannot be done without some sense of loss on my part as an artist. For example, when I hope audiences will be thinking about land loss in Palestine – charging the images with new meaning – they may be thinking of something entirely different. This strategy also allows for misunderstandings when presenting my work to those unfamiliar with colonial problematics. I have received feedback from people who would have liked to see more ‘politics’ – by which they often mean ‘overt messages’. Yet this work arose in contexts where the ‘political’ is less optional, where overt messages can be as problematic as those in which there is no message at all. These problematics consist of two primary aspects. The first problematic is a commodification of ‘revolution’ or ethnicity for the art market (often initiated by artists themselves), which in my opinion thrives on obvious, unsubtle messages. The second ‘problematic’, quite differently, can be found in times of political censorship in which artists must subvert obvious messages to protect themselves and their work.


This is not to say that viewing Palestinian Wildlife Series is ‘easy’ in any context. The frustration this kind of work can produce in a viewer can cause unengaged spectators to conclude that the work, rather than their means of approaching it, is ‘boring’. Whether it can engage viewers depends on various factors, including specific viewing conditions, which I discuss in the next section.

Criteria of participation

In Palestinian Wildlife Series, where images are decontextualised and set against a political backdrop that is not itself pictured, my project has had to ask: Is fluency with this background required for participatory spectatorship?


My research has led me to the idea that participatory viewing of a work like Palestinian Wildlife Series is often – though not exclusively – contingent upon viewers having a working knowledge of the subject, as well as their relationship to dominant visual media. What can be just as important is a viewer’s sense of generosity and/or empathy, which can inform the patience necessary for enjoyment.


Marks writes, 


Whether these thin images merely annoy or engage the viewer depends on what stakes the viewer has in the image. Similarly, it seems that recollection-images would prompt deeper reflection on the part of viewers who feel acutely the disturbance they create. Someone who is curious, who aches to know about the stories hinted at in these grainy images, scraps of archival footage, and maddeningly silent protagonists will be more likely to search the optical image and attempt to bring it to life. Personal (and collective) history informs the liveliness of the engagement with the optical image. (Marks 2000: 53–54)


She adds that there is also a cultural dimension to this investment.


We bring our own personal and cultural organization of the senses to cinema, and cinema brings a particular organization of the senses to us, the filmmaker’s own sensorium refracted through the cinematic apparatus. One could say that intercultural spectatorship is the meeting of two different sensoria, which may or may not intersect. […] For example, when a work is viewed in a cultural context different from that in which it was produced, viewers may miss some multisensory images: many viewers will miss the implications of references to cooking, dance, and hairstyle […] that are more likely to be clear to an African diasporan viewer. (Marks 2000: 153)

In light of these considerations, I’ve tried to create multiple entry points for spectators. These entry points include animals themselves (with whom we are all in some way connected) and the physical context for presenting the work.


Experimenting with viewing settings to highlight Palestinian Wildlife Series’ participatory and kinesthetic aspects, I ultimately settled on an expanded cinema format. I provided large, soft beanbag seats for people to have a comfortable space upon which to rest and rearrange their bodies throughout the performance – to move with the images, so to speak. In the research performance Videos for Dancers (pictured right), in which early stages of Palestinian Wildlife Series were shown, I was interested in disrupting the verticality of audience bodies and seating positions that emphasise rational thought and bodily composure.


The work is thus a performance for a live audience and not a single-channel film or video installation for a gallery. As a work of expanded cinema, it is best viewed in a performance or cinema space, preferably with a set beginning and end. Where my interest in an exchange between viewers and animal bodies is concerned, the work does not lend itself to the transitory movement of passers-by in conventional white-cube gallery spaces.

Image of audience seating at the moving image performance Videos for Dancers by Rania Khalil, Theatre Academy Helsinki, 2014.


Image courtesy of Theatre Academy Helsinki.

next page: Book immersion