Below the Radar Transcript

Episode 82: Unfolding Artistic Practices — with Laura Marks

Speakers: Paige Smith, Am Johal, Laura Marks


Paige Smith  0:00  
Hi, I'm Paige Smith and you're listening to Below the Radar, a knowledge democracy podcast. Below the Radar is created by SFU's Vancity Office of Community Engagement and is recorded on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. This week we are joined by Laura Marks, a media arts and philosophy scholar and professor in SFU School of Contemporary Arts. Today, our host Am Johal and myself speak to Laura about her research interests from experimentalism and aesthetics in Arab cinema, to the unfolding of artistic practices, to the environmental impacts of streaming video and making 4k unfashionable with The Small File Media Festival. I hope you enjoy.


Am Johal  0:53  
Welcome to Below the Radar. We're excited to have Laura Marks professor in the School for Contemporary Arts at SFU. Welcome, Laura. 

Laura Marks  1:01
Great to be here. 

Am Johal  1:02  
And I'm also here with Paige Smith, a graduate of SCA from the film program. Welcome Paige. 

Paige Smith  1:08  

Am Johal  1:11  
So Laura, I've got tons of questions to ask you. But I was gonna start with one of your recent books Hanan Al-Cinema: Affections for the Moving Image that came out with MIT in 2015. Wondering if you can talk a little bit about that book? 

Laura Marks  1:26  
Yeah, that was the product of many years, working on experimentalism in Arab cinema. Starting from the mid 90s probably. And I I started to notice that there was something really unusual and interesting going on in moviemaking,you know  independent movie making in the Arab world that, you know, I think because of a combination of a great number of political crises, and access to the means of production, a lot of people were making incredibly interesting and urgent work. So I just kept watching all of these movies for many years, and you know, going back to Beirut and Cairo and Damascus and other places to learn about it and the result is Hanan Al-Cinema.

Am Johal  2:24  
And what did you find in your research in the book? What were some of the ways you tried to think that through?

Laura Marks  2:33  
Well, I decided not to, although I just mentioned to the kind of overarching argument, which is that you know, because there is a state of crisis, it's, um, it gives rise to creativity if people have, you know, access to, to equipment. But something I noticed more specifically, is, there's really kind of, in a lot of the most interesting work, there was kind of a lack of ideology, or like, you know like, in a way, the politics of representation kind of faded away from some of the most interesting work because people were just like, done with, you know trying to represent OSI trying to, you know, put a good face on things. And you know, all that stuff just kind of stripped away, they're able to work on really, at a more fundamental level. And that sounds kind of abstract. But for example, like the Lebanese filmmakers, Joanna Hershey, toma and Khalil Joe rage, they made this movie two years after the war between Israel and Hizbollah, basically that ruined all the Lebanese infrastructure just kind of destroyed the country. They invited Katrin de nerve to come to Lebanon, and travel to the south with the artist and actor Rabea Maroua. To see the devastation for herself. They thought if we bring like the spirit of cinema, to Lebanon, you know, it'll be as though the world sees what's going on here. And they called the film just of why, I want to see things like that. 

Am Johal  4:29  
I'm thinking I had a chance to take a class once with Ilya Solomon, the Palestinian filmmaker, and in the way that you talk about it, there's a loaded politics in the air, but there's a levity and a touch in the aesthetic approach to the work and how to handle that material. That seems really quite interesting in his work, but also in the filmmakers that you're talking about. Are there others that you're particularly interested in in terms of the work coming out now? 

Laura Marks  4:57  
Yeah, a great many. Oh, I'll mention a couple others. Sherif El-Azma is an Egyptian experimental filmmaker and he really thinks of himself as a filmmaker like and is interested in, like 16 millimeter and eight millimeter. He's also interested in psycho geography. And he's done some psycho-geographies of Cairo, and very experimental work that really deals with disruption on a psychic level, like as a result of things like political violence, surveillance, you know, desperation, but like how it shows up somatically so Sherif's work is amazing. One of my favorite, really, one of my favorite filmmakers in the world is Mohamed Soueid, who's a Lebanese documentary filmmaker. He started out as a media journalist during the Lebanese civil wars, and that's how he got his training in video, but he makes these kinds of fabulative documentaries, which are very, very cinematic because he's a real cinephile.

Laura Marks  6:18  
So one that I like very much is it's called My Heart Beats Only For Her and it traces this kind of unknown history of connections between Fatah, the Palestinian group, and the Vietcong. But he and how like Palestinian, Lebanese fighters in the 70s, actually went to Vietnam to train as guerrillas. So he's got this amazing history, but it's filtered through an invented story of this cinephile, whose father was one of these fighters. And there's a lot of references to Lily my lane. Who's that filmmaker? The German filmmaker, The Marriage of... Fassbinder. 

Paige Smith  7:15  

Laura Marks  7:18  
So like, it's a deeply, deeply cinephilic but it's also this crazy, true history of like, you know, global connection among, you know, guerrilla fighters. So Mohamed Soueid's work is great. I mean, I could tell you about a lot more. 

Paige Smith  7:35
I wanted to ask you, you mentioned just briefly now the term like fabulation. And I think that's such a fascinating concept. Maybe you can talk a little bit more about what you find interesting about that. 

Laura Marks  7:46  
Yeah, I find a lot of documentary filmmakers do end up fabulating. And it's really a strategy, I think, that should only be used when all other means are exhausted. So like when you've tried as hard as you can to discover the truth of something or to make you to make something happen politically, for example, fabulations this term, the term from Deleuze and get free of turning fiction into reality, kind of performing something into existence. 

Paige Smith  8:33  
I love it. 

Laura Marks  8:34  
Mm hmm. So yeah, you see that in... In a couple... Actually. Yeah. The first film I mentioned, you know they actually by bringing Katrina, the nerve to see the ruins of southern Lebanon, that kind of fabulate, a new position for Lebanon on the world stage, at least in cinema.

Paige Smith  8:57  
Yeah, I love the technique. I find it so fascinating. The first film I saw that did that was The Watermelon Women it's a great use of it. 

Laura Marks  9:06  
Cheryl Dunye. Yeah. 

Paige Smith  9:07  
Exactly. Yeah. I love it.

Am Johal  9:10  
On your book Enfoldment and Infinity: An Islamic Genealogy of New Media Art back in 2010 with MIT. I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about that project and how it came to be? Clearly you'd already been writing and thinking about this a lot. 

Laura Marks  9:24  
Yeah, yeah, it actually came to me in the mid to late 90s, back when your new media art meaning like digital media art was a very new thing. And I noticed that the vocabulary for talking about it was very poor, and very kind of futurist. And I thought oh, this is a very kind of lame situation for art. Let's, let's let's look around the world to some, you know, art historical parallels for what is going on in this new medium, and I thought for like a minute or two like Indigenous art, hmm. And as soon as I thought Islamic art is like, of course, new bingo, because it's an art form.

Laura Marks  10:13  
You know, of course it has a huge amount of variations, but that often avoids figuration in religious art, and then instead uses a kind of code to generate images that are performative, which is just what digital media do, like, sometimes we do get a figurative skin on the surface of the image. But that's like an effect of this performance of the code. So I had this realization, and I thought, Oh, my God, I have to learn the histories of Islamic art, and Islamic philosophy. And I should study Arabic. So that took me about 15 years.

[all laugh]

Laura Marks  10:59  
But it was a super geeky thing to do. And I had, you know, very little sympathy or support for the project. But it ended up being very rich. And the more I studied, you historical periods in Islamic art, and in different places, and the kind of, you know, philosophies or ideologies and sciences of those periods, I discovered quite different variations, like, you know, what's going on in the MST caliphate in around the year 1000. In terms of theories of the point or the middle, minimal part is one thing, what's going on, like in the Safavid Empire in Iran, in the 16th century, having to do with like, Sufism, and the imaginal is another. I could say a lot more about this. 

[Paige and Laura laugh]

Am Johal  12:01  
How's the reception of the book being both in terms of, in the West, but also within Islamic communities in the Arab world as well. 

Laura Marks  12:14
It's been a very interesting reception, you know, I intended the book as a kind of gift to makers and scholars of new media art. It's like, Hey, everybody, good news. You know, we have root in, in, like, in Islamic art and philosophy. [laughs] But, you know, to my slight surprise, most people were not that interested. I mean, I was just like, I just put a great big bracket around, you know, Islamophobia, and ignorance and you know, cultural narcissism, because it just, it just bores, bores me to hell. So I just pretend. And it's not that I pretend that doesn't exist, but I just like, act like people will be a little bit more open. Now, so anyway, so that was a very slow burn. Although a lot of those a lot of new media people have come around, and actually also contemporary artists who have no connection to the Muslim world, but who really liked my theory and method of unfolding unfolding aesthetic. So that was okay. Among historians of Islamic art, a very conservative field, a lot of them thought what I was doing was just incredibly like speculative and weird. So a lot of them, you know, will not touch me with a 10 foot pole. But a few of them actually kind of like what I do. The nicest surprise was that you're actually not not my first intended audience. But artists and practitioners with Muslim backgrounds, they were the ones who were contacting me a lot. A lot of people were writing to me or getting in touch and saying, Thank you for bringing together these two things in my life that I've always held separate. You know, digital media, and my Muslim heritage. And one of them was as a de mid an Iranian, new media artist who was doing her PhD in New Zealand, and asked me to be on her committee. And we ended up founding our secret society. [Paige laughs] Which Paige actually knows something about. The Substantial Motion Research Network. 

Paige Smith  14:48  
Yeah, it's a great network and I got to participate in one of the workshops the network put on that you led Laura, maybe you can talk more about what the goal of the network is and how it's global, it's a global network. 

Laura Marks  15:02  
Yeah, so The Substantial Motion Research Network gets its name from a concept of Ṣadr al-Dīn Shīrāzī, the 17th century Persian philosopher that everything is constantly transforming from within, according to a poll from without. He says it's God. So as a day and I, you know, changed it a little bit to be like, "the world". But this is the motion of substance. So substance is an illusion, everything is under constant transformation. So as they had the idea, let's, let's call our group that because each of us, you know, our practice, and our ideas will be transforming according to the feedback we get from each other, which is really true.

Laura Marks  15:53  
And so a lot of the people in the group, some are artists, some are scholars, a lot are interested in non western media genealogies, like what I set out in Unfoldment and Infinity. So a lot of people are specifically interested in Islamic genealogies of what appeared to be, you know, contemporary media. But because we have this, you know, this kind of method in place that I devised, people can use this method for other genealogies like a South Asian media genealogy, or an East Asian media genealogy, or North African or Indigenous, or Eastern European. So actually, there's a lot of people in the group are working on these genealogies from, you know, different cultural perspectives. Other people are more interested in the, the method, which is basically it's, I think of it as like a, a Shiite method of drawing the hidden out into revelation or whatever. So like unfolding stuff. So people are interested in unfolding what is unfolded, often in their art practice. So yeah, in the workshop that you did Paige, which Duan and I lead at Vivo, the idea was, I think we called it De-Westernizing Your Media Practice. 

Paige Smith  17:35  
Yeah, that's what it was called. 

Laura Marks  17:36
Mhmm. And the idea was, you know, people have these projects in mind. And you know, most people, most like media artists, or scholars have like go to theories and methods that because of our education, they're mostly based in Western thought and Western art. So we introduced some techniques to kind of  open your mind and do a little bit of brainstorming. 

Paige Smith  18:02  
Yeah, I found it very useful as an artist, I really, it really helped me develop the project that I'm working on. And, and yeah, it was really useful, because everyone in the group had a different experience and background. So everyone was able to contribute. And yeah, I mean, it worked very well for me. So I think it's kind of like a methodology or a mode of practice that you can apply to lots of different types of things. But like, specifically, as an artist, you can apply it so well, I think so. Yeah. I love the method. 

Laura Marks  18:35  
Can you tell us about one of the one of the things that you ended up pursuing? 

Paige Smith  18:40
Yeah, well..

Laura Marks  18:41
Your cow movie. 

Paige Smith  18:42  
Yeah. So I'm making a movie about cows. And I came to the... 

Laura Marks  18:46  
Feral cows.

Paige Smith  18:46  
Yeah, feral cows. 

Am Johal  18:48 
Really feral cows.

Paige Smith  18:51  
Yeah, everyone knows about it. I went to the workshop, hoping to learn the methodology and apply it with Indigenous because the cows live on the land of Indigenous people from British Columbia. So I was looking to maybe use some different methodologies from their practices in history. And one thing that I was really inspired by was the idea that, you know, we can, we can be inspired and draw from a variety of cultures around the world. So we talked about it because everyone in the group had different experiences. So we talked about people, like one of the group members was Persian. So he talked about his experience, and then the person you were co facilitating with, she had an extensive study in Chinese culture. So one thing that she talked about that I really loved was this concept that the world started in the womb of a cow. And that directly inspired how the film's gonna begin and yeah, so yeah, I learned so much. 

Laura Marks  19:51  
Great, great and why not bring a Taoist concept to your documentary about feral cows off the West Coast. 

Paige Smith  20:02  

Am Johal  20:02  
Yeah. Laura, I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about what you're currently pursuing in terms of research, given all of your different interests? I'm sure you're starting to read on a new project, or what are you up to now? 

Laura Marks  20:16  
Yeah, well, I'm, I'm actually finishing a book on unfolding aesthetics that pursues... I'm intending this book to be a book of practical philosophy that everybody's going to want to use. And my joke subtitle is, from your body to the cosmos in the six easy steps. [laughs] So it's gonna be like a self help book for building cosmic connections. And it's going to have a lot of art in it. And it's going to be absolutely packed with interesting stuff. But basically, it's the fruit of the most interesting finding I made when researching on Enfoldment and Infinity is, well, it was a hunch that a huge amount of European thought is actually built on Shiite thought, the Shiite intellectual tradition, I think this is one of the like, the biggest, deepest secrets of so called Western culture. So this book is drawing up that connection. So part of the book is going to be like, you know, very hermetic in that way of doing this thing that seems really unpopular, and weird, but at the same time, I want the book to be very popular and accessible. So I'm working on that. I think it's the writing, the writing styles got to be part of it. And there's an additional part, or like, my very newest research direction, which connects to this idea of, from your body to the cosmos. And in turn, to my work on embodiment, which is kind of my very longest standing work. That is media environmentalism. And specifically, I don't know if you know about this Paige. Am I think does.

Am Johal  22:25
I know that you are attending a lot of protests and involved in meetings and things like that.

Laura Marks  22:29  
Yeah, oh, no, the specific thing that I want to draw people's attention to is the carbon footprint of streaming media. 

Paige Smith  22:40  
Oh, I do know about this. 

Laura Marks  22:42  
Yes! Yeah. It's like, it's like the big, it's the elephant in the room. And especially for us who are makers and scholars of media, it is a total scandal. So my work now is mostly in really practical ways to draw attention to this problem and posit some solutions. I have started working with a colleague in the engineering department to sort of translate some of the engineering literature researching this problem to kind of plain language.

Laura Marks  23:20  
But basically, if things keep going the way they are now, which is this massive acceleration of use of bandwidth, and this increase in demand in giant quotation marks for like high, high resolution streaming media. And if the means that IT, the engineers are proposing to make the stuff more energy efficient, does not suffice, then in 2030, something like 20.5% of greenhouse gases will be the direct result of streaming media.

Paige Smith  24:06  

Laura Marks  24:07
Yeah. Yeah, it's like it is really serious. So I'm actually doing a lot of, I'm starting to do a lot of activism within my professional group, cinema and media scholars. But I'm also with some colleagues at SFU, including including the wonderful Dave Biddle starting the Small File Media Festival. [Paige laughs]

Am Johal  24:34  
Drumroll please. The Small Media Festival.

Laura Marks  24:38
Small file, darling.

Am Johal  24:39  
Small file. Yeah, I got it wrong.

Laura Marks  24:43  
Isn't that going to be great? 

Am Johal  24:45

Paige Smith  24:45  
What does that entail? What does that mean exactly?

Laura Marks  24:48  
It is going to mean that every every work, so it's going to be a streamable festival, because like of course we're trying to promote people to not stream and instead either just like, tell your friend about the viral video, or like rent a DVD or get it at a library or go to the movies, things like that. But if you must stream, I want to make it really attractive and sexy and modern, to stream small files. I want like 4k and 8k to be so 2019. I want to make it like unfashionable, because I really think that it's only it's only through like desire, that people do things like this. You know a few people will do it, because like, "oh, I don't want to be a bad person". But mostly a lot of people do it because it's attractive. So I wanted to make it attractive to watch. It doesn't have to be low resolution work, but it could be compressed. It could be like ASCII videos. It could be, you know, certain ways to get the file size down to less than a certain number of megabytes per minute. 

Am Johal  26:05  
This is really interesting. We had, in the seat you're sitting in right now, we had a chance to interview Amitav Ghosh who wrote the book, The Great Derangement, and he talks about the production of art and culture where the climate crisis is a kind of blind spot as a topic. And he's speaking specifically about the novel, but I know there are these other conversations going on around the travel associated with our world, or even of academic life, going to conferences at UBC, it's a big piece, but it seems to be, you know, not just in terms of the content, but the whole kind of structures around the aesthetic world are being called into question like they are in other worlds as well. 

Laura Marks  26:44  
Yeah, Mm hmm. Yeah. Well, and streaming media is something that everybody in the world who has, you know, a smartphone or access to a computer is streaming. In fact, you often it's some people in, you know, unwealthy parts of the world who rely on it even more, but it's just like an enormously taken for granted thing, everywhere. 

Am Johal  27:11
You might be streaming this podcast right now in fact. 

Laura Marks  27:14 
Well, it's audio. So that's not so bad.

Paige Smith  27:17  
Yeah, audio will be so small, that's the thing. And that's such an interesting idea for a festival, too, because when we think about the medium of film, and media, art and video making and moving images, basically like, you know, we think of the materiality, often of the celluloid itself, but we don't think of digital filmmaking in a material sort of impact way, because there has been like a history of people thinking about, okay, what are the environmental consequences of celluloid? And the chemicals and all of that, but now that it's not a very common art form, in the sense of actually filming on that, but I don't know that's so interesting to me like I, I want to attend, I want to watch them.

Laura Marks  27:55  
Maybe you can make a small file cow movie. 

Paige Smith  28:01  
Yeah, exactly. I will think about it. [Laura and Paige laugh]

Am Johal  28:04  
So Laura, you're going to be involved in a conference, a gathering next year with the substantial motion network. I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about that? Because by the time our listeners hear this, it'll still be far off in the future but great to give a little teaser now. 

Laura Marks  28:21  
Happy to. Yes. So I was talking about The Substantial Motion Research Network earlier. And we're this incredibly lively and very, very international network. If you go to the front page is a world map with dots for all of us. And yes, speaking of the carbon footprint of streaming media, we do have a video conference once a month for two hours where our members talk about their work in progress and we're all packed into those little Hollywood Squares of the streaming video conference interface. 

Am Johal  29:03  
Do you do Zoom or Bluejeans? 

Laura Marks  29:06  
Zoom. Actually, we did some work to try to find a streaming media outlet that was energy conscious. But none of them, none of them had thought about it. So we're just going to pay a carbon offset. But anyways, we have these beautiful meetings, where people get fantastic feedback on their work in progress. And we started doing that in spring 2018. So the idea is after we've had three years for everybody to work on their stuff, we're going to meet all together in person for the first time here in Vancouver. 

Paige Smith  29:45  
Oh cool.

Laura Marks  29:45  
Yeah, for both a symposium and an exhibition, open to the public. Yeah, and I think we're going to call it a Light footprint in The Cosmo's. [laughs]

Am Johal  30:01  
Well, thank you so much for joining us on Below the Radar, Laura. 

Laura Marks 30:04  

It was my pleasure. Thanks for your great question. 

Paige Smith  30:06  
Yes, thank you.


Paige Smith  30:10  
Thanks for joining us on another episode of Below the Radar with our colleague Laura Marks. Dig into more of Laura's fascinating work by following the links in the show notes. As well, you can follow our show on Twitter at BTR underscore pod to keep up with our latest episodes. Thanks for listening and see you next time on Below the Radar.


Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
October 20, 2020

Stay Up to Date

Get the latest on upcoming events by subscribing to our newsletter below.