21 — 26.05.2023
Basel Abbas & Ruanne Abou‑Rahme Ramallah-New York
May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth: Only sounds that tremble through us
With the project May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth, artists Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme have been, for the past ten years, collecting online recordings of people singing and dancing in communal spaces and landscapes in Iraq, Palestine, Syria and Yemen, as an act of protest, land reclamation, or testimony of displacement. From this, the artists created a performative video-installation for the festival – Only sounds that tremble through us – in which these bodies interact with each other, and engage in dialogue with new video performances the artists created with dancers and musicians based in Ramallah. The result is an overwhelming landscape where voices, poetic language, and body movements circulate in the four corners of the Brigittines chapel. A series of barriers in front of the screens prevent the image from being seen in its entirety: the images break up, encounter walls, and disperse like a forced diaspora. They allude to something that cannot be reconstructed, like the shattered words of a poetic phrase. Presented for the first time in a theatre, Only sounds that tremble through us discloses its full performative force. Through song and dance, several fractured communities resist their erasure, and proudly claim the use of poetic language as a form of resistance.
"What Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme have done so masterfully is to translate for us—to enhance the role of the artist as an orator to another” Mousse Magazine
Lingering in the Fragment
Visual and sonic layers that resist colonial erasure
Working in the space between the virtual and the physical, Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme have developed a collaborative practice that is poetic and haunting. The artists employ complex strategies for layering sound, image, and text in an effort to shed light on the experience of the dispossessed. Exposing the ongoing ramifications of colonialism, Abbas and Abou-Rahme explore the ways in which violence travels across bodies, land, and time. At the core of their work is an insistence that repair does not necessarily result in wholeness, as well as an urge for the political potential of the fragment. I sat down with Abbas and Abou-Rahme on the occasion of their exhibition May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth [at the Museum of Modern Art], the product of a ten-year project. […]
Ksenia M. Soboleva – For almost a decade you’ve been working on May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth as an ongoing project with multiple iterations. The installation Only sounds that tremble through us at the Museum of Modern Art, […], is the first physical iteration of the work. How did that transition come about?
Ruanne Abou-Rahme – The project has really changed over the ten years that we’ve been working on it. It started out as a project about the revolutions in Egypt and Tunis. We were collecting online videos from sites of protest; some of them involved song and dance, but the majority didn’t. This sparked our rethinking of what the archive means in the age of internet, which culminated in a textual exchange between us and Tom Holert [art historian, writer, curator and artist – ed] published in the Journal of Visual Culture in 2013. After that, we became drawn to moments of song and dance from Palestine, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, although we weren’t really sure why. But there was always going to be a physical component in addition to the online component. The materials and practices we are drawing from are very much about holding physical space, being momentarily and communally together; the project moves from virtual space and is re-performed in a physical space. That relationship between the virtual and the physical, and the ways in which things move between these spaces, was always an intrinsic part of the project.
And an intrinsic part of your practice at large. I’m curious how you arrived at the title, May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth?
Basel Abbas – The title stems from the “Infrarealist Manifesto” written by Roberto Bolaño in Mexico in 1976. We had a previous work titled Incidental Insurgents for which we sampled literature from various places. One of them was Bolaño’s Savage Detectives, and that’s how we became familiar with much of his work. The title really gets to the heart of the amnesic quality of the internet itself and the amnesic quality of our time. Our initial impulse to collect this material was to press pause and bring these fragmented moments together in the hopes that something else would emerge that goes against this amnesic quality, this speed. The primary reason we downloaded this material was that there was so much that we couldn’t find even the day after first viewing it. I would watch something that I wanted to share with Ruanne, and by the time I looked for it again there would be two thousand new results in a span of two hours.
RA – The title also relates to colonial erasure and colonial compression of time.
Which parallels queer time, and makes me think of José Esteban Muñoz’s articulation that oppressed communities exist in a different time structure. You’ve mentioned before that your work is more informed by writing than visual art, and text is an essential part of your installation. It certainly adds another layer of poetry to the work. Where did you source the text for this project?
RA – It’s mostly things we wrote. I’d say ninety-five percent is from a script written by us and about five percent is from songs.
When did you start working with this strategy of layering sound and image, and could you speak to this process?
BA – We actually first started working together in performance in 2007. I was DJing for a hip-hop group, and we invited Ruanne to do visuals for the set; so we did sound and video live together. That’s how it all began. Our typical process starts with text, either found or written by us. We discuss what it means, think through ideas, and then move over to sound. Sound deeply informs our filming and editing data, and it responds directly to the text. The text functions as a core we return to, that points us in different directions and anchors us in different ways. We also insist on an open-endedness by looking for the unexpected rather than having a closed system in which one thing leads to another. Our desktop becomes an improvised space of research where we add text and sound and video.
You also invited four performers into this project. What was that collaboration like?
RA – It was long, interesting, and challenging. We asked the performers to be in conversation with selections from the archive that we had made for each of them because we know them quite well individually. They are musicians and not used to using their bodies and voices in this way, so they really had to trust us in the process. We created each performance separately, working with the performers on and off for three years, and then brought them together as one. It related to the principle we wanted to address – specifically, what happens when you stay in the thing that’s broken, when you don’t try to make it whole? It connects to this idea of fragment, of staying and lingering in the thing that’s broken, lingering in the fragment and seeing what would happen if you did that. What kind of resistance can emerge from being in the negative, in the space that’s broken? The collaborative process was intense, but all the performers told us it was life-changing.
This project is such a beautiful continuation of your investment in the fragmented experience, nonlinear time, and different forms of witnessing. In what ways do you feel that this moves away, or differs, from what you’ve done before?
RA – Working with voice in this direct way is new for us. We used to have text featured as voice, and now we literally worked with voice.
BA – It’s also the first time we’ve filmed anyone’s face. Usually, we only film characters from the back. Being anonymous as a political act, the idea of becoming “other,” is an important aspect of our work; so we always had our characters turn their back, and you never saw their face. Or we used avatars, which again taps into this idea of performing anonymity.
- Interview realized by Ksenia M. Soboleva, published in BOMB Magazine in August 2022.
- Only sounds that tremble through us was premiered at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
- Dr. Ksenia M. Soboleva is a New York based writer and art historian specializing in queer art and culture. She received her PhD from the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU, and is currently the Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Gender and LGBTQ+ History at the New York Historical Society. Her writings have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, BOMB Magazine, Hyperallergic, art-agenda, and various exhibition catalogues.
Presentation: Kunstenfestivaldesarts, Les Brigittines
A project by: Basel Abbas & Ruanne Abou-Rahme
The work contains new performances created by the artists with performers Rima Baransi, Haykal, Julmud and Makimakkuk
Co-commissioned by The Museum of Modern Art and Dia Art Foundation, New York