Laura U. Marks studies the movement of art, meanings and people between spaces and cultures.
Laura U. Marks is fascinated with interstitial spaces as sites for the exchange of embodied knowledge—both in her focus on intercultural art and cinema and in the unorthodox way that she thinks with, rather than about, her subjects.
Her exploration of aesthetic landscapes largely untraveled in academic literature weaves through cinema studies, art history, phenomenology, postcolonial and feminist theory, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, cognitive sciences and quantum physics, arriving at stunningly original conceptions of embodiment, materiality, film experience, and multisensorality. These interdisciplinary forays into the movement of art, meanings and people between cultures offer a transnational mode of scholarship that reflects Canada’s multicultural diversity.
“The fields I work in are vibrating with potential for new discoveries and exciting recombinations,” says Marks. “Delving into the history of Islamic philosophy, for example, I find so many concepts that resonate with ‘Western’ philosophy and speak to our contemporary experience.”
Drawing on the phenomenological approach of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and Henri Bergson, and the fields of anthropology and neuroscience, her work demonstrates how audiences experience cinema as a physical and multisensory embodiment of culture through what she terms “haptic visuality.” She describes how seeing can function like the sense of touch, bringing viewers into contact with film in a way that engages bodily empathy. Her theory of visuality has been credited as one of the major concepts of the embodied turn in cinema and media studies, and has led to a redefinition of aesthetic scholarship that has broadly influenced cognate disciplines.
Marks is the author of four books and numerous articles which weave together a decade of developments in non-mainstream media art to “restore a flow between the haptic and the optical that our culture is currently lacking”. Her writings draw on almost two hundred film and video works to unfold the political, social, cultural, economic, and historical contexts of independent and experimental Arab cinema over 25 years. This is a singular contribution to the academic literature in this area.
Marks’s popular articles and artistic programming have brought international attention to numerous independent filmmakers and artists, many of them Canadian. In focusing on non-commercial works made by immigrants and diaspora, she is an ambassador of Canada’s approach to multiculturalism. “The intercultural focus of my work invites people to feel the common interests between cultures that are usually thought of as separate,” she notes.
Adds Marks, “I am motivated by curiosity, pleasure, and the desire to share. By discovering and sharing fascinating and beautiful works that haven’t received much attention, we can learn so much about how artists and programmers build environments that sustain creativity.”
Hanan al-Cinema: Affections for the Moving Image. MIT Press, 2015.
Enfoldment and Infinity: An Islamic Genealogy of New Media Art. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010.
Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media, University of Minnesota Press, 2002.
The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, Duke University Press, 2000.
Laura U. Marks is the Grant Strate University Professor in the School of Contemporary Arts at Simon Fraser University. A scholar, theorist, and curator of independent and experimental media arts, she is the author of The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses (Duke University Press, 2000),Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media (Minnesota University Press, 2002), and many essays. Several years of research in Islamic art history and philosophy gave rise to Enfoldment and Infinity: An Islamic Genealogy of New Media Art (MIT Press, 2010) and Hanan al-Cinema: Affections for the Moving Image (MIT Press, 2015). She has curated programs of experimental media for venues around the world. Her current research interests are the media arts of the Arab and Muslim world, intercultural perspectives on new media art, and philosophical approaches to materiality and information culture.
Q & A with Laura U. Marks
If you could sum up the value of university research in one word, what would it be?
How is your research making an impact on lives?
A lot of my writing and public programming is designed for non-academic audiences: people who care passionately about film, the arts, and politics. So far my work on the Islamic 'roots' of digital media has appealed most to audiences from Muslim backgrounds, but other audiences are catching on. And I try to make philosophy relevant, giving readers and students useful ways to do philosophy in their everyday lives.
How important is collaboration in advancing research?
Research is inherently collaborative; in my case, with the authors of the books and articles I read and the films and artworks I see. For instance, I am currently collaborating on a documentary film based on one of my books.
What advice would you give your younger self regarding the challenges you've faced as a researcher?
You are more ready than you think.
SFU has much to celebrate on its 50th anniversary. Looking forward to our 100th anniversary in 2065, what do you think SFU will be most notable for?
Maintaining its reputation for critical social consciousness.