Nature and access

In ‘Environmentalism’s Racist History’ Jedediah Purdy (2015) looks at the eugenic roots of the US conservation movement. Madison Grant, a father of American environmentalism and founder of the Bronx Zoo, was also the author of the book The Passing of the Great Race; or, The Racial Basis of European History, a work praised by Adolf Hitler and an inspiration for Norwegian far-right terrorist Anders Behring Breivik. Purdy’s article links the early American preservation movement with similar legislation to control and limit the human gene pool, directed at African Americans and the last of the living Native American population. (Grant’s book was also a noted influence on the passing of the 1924 US Immigration Act which limited immigrants from southern and eastern Europe and completely banned immigrants from the Middle East and Asia.)


In my research for Palestinian Wildlife Series, I wanted to revisit notions of nature and nationalism to disrupt narratives that appropriate environmentalist rhetoric while subjugating the indigenous human beings of various landscapes. In the United States, for example, the term ‘inner city youth’ – whose access to nature is systematically denied or compromised – is synonymous with black youth (Cobb 2015). In addition to these youths, I considered indigenous workers at tropical yoga retreats, or Palestinian workers tending their former lands on Israeli kibbutzim (Bardenstein 1999; Said 1992). These circumstances drove me to ponder questions of ecology and ethnicity, often considered in isolation.[15]


Perhaps naively, I had an interest in connecting spectators to nature though moving images.[16]. Like Sun Ra, I had an interest in shifting vibrations. I wanted to make a work that was silent and slow, alternative, participatory, non-linear. I took my lead from works such as Stan Brakhage’s Dog Star Man for my own context in Cairo. My interest was in challenging the fever-pitched pace of the media and our own disembodiment in the face of it. I looked to create conditions for kinesthetic exchange between viewer and image, and through this to hint at our dissolving relationships to large mammals, their bodies and their habitats, themselves disappearing.

[15] While questions of ecology and ethnicity are often considered in isolation, my inquiry is in no way original. In addition to widespread indigenous ecological activism, there is a growing academic interest in postcolonial ecocriticism. For further reading I recommend: DeLoughrey, Gosson, and Handley’s Caribbean Literature and the Environment: Between Nature and Culture (2005), DeLoughrey and Handley’s Postcolonial Ecologies: Literatures of the Environment (2011), Huggan and Tiffin’s Postcolonial Ecocriticism: Literature, Animals, Environment (2015), Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (2011), and Venkateswar and Hughes’s The Politics of Indigeneity: Dialogues and Reflections of Indigenous Activism (2011). While very much related to the ideas I began to explore through Palestinian Wildlife Series, I encountered many of these texts after formally concluding this project/exposition.

[16] Swiss video artist Pipilotti Rist discusses the idea of reconciling nature and technology through art: ‘We have so much electrical zzzzzzzz, a machine, a ventilator, the elevator […] if you use that, electronic pictures and show a poetic content, philosophical questions, you reconcile your organic body with that permanent electronic noise’ (Rist 2013).

Section of a video-lecture on plant life and Palestine presented at the ELIA share conference biennale, Glasgow, Scotland, November 2014. 



Video and voiceover, Rania Khalil, 2014. Running time: 1 minute 34 seconds.

Conclusion: assessing the research


Palestinian Wildlife Series reflects on intersections between posthuman and postcolonial thought and their implications for my experimental moving image practice. In this exposition I have explored the places in which materialist and kinesthetic film practices intersect, looking at possibilities for rethinking racial and viewing hierarchies.


At the conclusion of this artistic research, it is clear that the writing and discussions, lectures, and presentations that I have made comprise the project’s totality. I would not have arrived at its embodied outcome without the theory that went into its making. My readings allowed me to locate Palestinian Wildlife Series within a stream of intercultural works similar to it, challenging the dominant media and our places within it. My innocent impulse toward ‘animal video-choreography’ thus formed the basis for an interrogation.


Through these experiments, I developed a unique methodology of video production, drawing on tenets of somatic movement and performance-making. My works are not ‘dance on camera’, but rather aim toward methods of seeing and experiencing movement in moving images. From animals to plants and colours, I edited images according to their movement qualities, charging these movements against political and ecological realities.


What also became clearer during this research was the specific context for these videos to be shown in. I drew on my background in performance to consider the relationship of moving image to live audiences. My research thus found a home in the somewhat marginal and out-of-date form of expanded cinema (now enjoying renewed exposure).


What is less clear is how to reconcile my interests in expanded cinema with the ubiquitous laptop, the small screens of which have changed the way we view moving images. Here too (in this exposition), I wish I could share the coming images of Palestinian Wildlife Series in large scale, yet have had to surrender to the journal’s format to share this final work. In this way, expanded cinematic work is not unlike that of live performance – it does not translate well to video. My chosen format for these images has been video projection on surfaces (not monitors) due to the ways in which our eyes adjust and because it allows greater potential for kinesthetic exchange. 

In my experience presenting this work across several continents, the postcolonial aspect of this research distinguished it from experimental works that it might otherwise resemble. Where Palestinian Wildlife Series has drawn inspiration from somatic dance forms, the project feels alienated by unspoken (and in many cases pro-Israeli) politics and racial homogeneity. On the other hand, performative aspects of the project that resemble happenings and the Fluxus movement render it unfamiliar and at times illegible in Egypt. This has also held true in Western contexts in which more traditional ideas on dance and theatre are held. The disciplinary boundaries between academic, text-based, and experiential artistic research further situate the work within its own unique margins. 


Palestinian Wildlife Series is only a drop in a sea of actions by people interested in defending Palestine. It is difficult to imagine the daily life of millions of Palestinians living under occupation (Khalil 2014), or the hundreds of thousands in refugee camps. My research into posthuman (anti-humanist, non-human, more than human) theory occurred alongside a parallel question: For how long will the West continue to define itself through notions of democracy, humanity, and justice as it functionally supports seventy years of violence, expulsion, and military occupation in Palestine?


An expanded cinema performance


Driven by a sense of corporeality shared among human and nonhuman beings, Palestinian Wildlife Series is a meditative video performance in which audiences are given the opportunity for prolonged exposure to their own thoughts and sensations. The intertitles of the final twenty-two-minute version speak subtly and metaphorically to the problematics detailed above. Due to the limits of this PC format, and my conviction about the importance of performative environments for screening this work, I am presenting a nine-minute excerpt of Palestinian Wildlife Series here. I ask viewers to focus on details of the images in addition to their thematic content: visual details in the fur, ears, or eyes of the animals, the periphery (all corners) of the screen, subtle movements of bodies and landscape. In some performances, I present a performative lecture on various aspects of the content that I have discussed here, followed by the moving images of Palestinian Wildlife Series (right).

This artistic research was made possible with the generous support of the Kone Foundation.

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