PRINT April 2022


Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, Collapse, 2009, digital video, black-and-white, sound, 8 minutes 20 seconds.

OVER THE PAST DECADE, the Palestinian artists Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme have rifled through the fractured histories of Palestine and the larger Arab world, working across sound, video installation, publishing, performance, and, most recently, Web-based projects in a practice that engages dialectically with historical and present experiences of dispossession and resistance. Mobilizing their archival impulse to forge connections across time and space to activate imaginations held captive by colonialism, the artists fix their attention on quotidian forms of rebellion in the face of perpetual violence. Flashing across their rigorous, multivalent practice are moments of rapturous incident and buried struggle, eruptions of a revolutionary spirit that returns in different guises and at different eras. In this way, Abbas and Abou-Rahme articulate an aesthetic and ethical commitment to a Palestinian sovereignty that is at once collective and inextricable from international liberation struggles.

Born into the diaspora created in the aftermath of the 1948 Nakba and the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Abbas and Abou-Rahme spent much of their youth in Jerusalem, steeped in the revolutionary ardor that spread through Palestine and the Arab world in the 1960s and ’70s; in the post–Oslo Accord ’90s, that spirit would eventually morph into the Palestinian Authority’s neoliberal state-building project—without succeeding in establishing a Palestinian state. Abbas and Abou-Rahme left Palestine separately to study in the UK during the second intifada, the uprising against Israel that lasted from 2000 to 2005; the pair returned to Palestine around 2007 and began to collaborate on artistic projects.

Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, Collapse, 2009, digital video, black-and-white, sound, 8 minutes 20 seconds.

The artists’ early collaborative works combined found footage and their own documentary images in a dense montage, resulting in a surfeit of sometimes contradictory meanings that militated against the media’s tendency to mark Palestinians as either victims or terrorists. In Collapse, 2009, clips from Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers (1966) appear alongside footage of Edward Said in front of his family home in Jerusalem and the artists’ own shots of the desert landscape, layered with fragments of self-produced sound drawn largely from their involvement in the underground rap and electronica scene in Ramallah. The resulting black-and-white film, an encapsulation of the artists’ experience of returning to Palestine, disorients the viewer as it slides between east and west, past and present, ecstatic pop culture and political propaganda, an illustration of the Eisensteinian credo to establish, through montage, “the same, real, primarily physical work on their material—the audience.”

With The Zone, 2011, the artists again deployed the found-footage approach they debuted in Collapse, but here they developed it further, situating the video amid an architectural environment. The installation deals with the built space of Ramallah, a city that remains lodged at the disjuncture between the utopian aspirations of the PLO and neoliberal real-estate development. Within a dark warren of narrow hallways, multiple split screens pitch the West Bank at the intersection of past glory, the brute reality of life under occupation, and the banality of capitalist aspiration. We are witness to a world of tragic incongruities as black-and-white videos of Arab performers culled from the PLO archive roll alongside crumbling, demolished buildings in the urban center; shots of gigantic billboards advertising luxury condominiums unfurl next to pans across peeling PLO posters from the 1980s, one of which declares, we will be reborn anew.

Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme’s The Zone, 2011, four stills from the two-channel HD video component (color, sound, 15 minutes) of a mixed-media installation additionally comprising a built structure, fifteen HD videos (color and black-and-white, sound, 4 to 8 minutes), and fifteen LCD screens.

Juxtaposition and sampling have always been central to Abbas and Abou-Rahme’s work, and their manipulation of found footage is a clear nod to an earlier generation of artists from Palestine and the Arab world, such as Walid Raad, Khalil Rabah, and Larissa Sansour, each of whom trenchantly exposed how the historical erasure of archives under colonialism abetted colonialism’s afterlife. While this earlier generation defined its practices through an interest in parafiction and institutional critique, Basel and Ruanne meticulously theorize the mediated experience of crisis in the elongated present as evidence of colonialism’s continued cannibalization of time. Their impulse to do so emerged from witnessing, at a distance, the uprisings and popular revolt in Egypt and Tunisia between 2010 and 2012. Though the revolutions of the so-called Arab Spring never quite reached Palestine, images of populist resistance circulating on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube transfixed the artists, who at that time were meditating on a question that had subconsciously directed their practice thus far: How can one collapse the distance between past revolutions and those in our present? And, to that end, can drawing such associations militate against political disappointment—the melancholy of defeat?

The Incidental Insurgents, a three-part video installation produced in stages between 2012 and 2015, was their answer. Long attracted to radical figures at the edges of history, the artists here mobilize the turn-of-the-century anarchist Victor Serge, whose Memoires d’un révolutionnaire 1901–1941 (Memoirs of a Revolutionary, 1951) circulated among left-wing groups during the Arab Spring, and the Palestinian bandits Abu Jildeh and Arameet, who targeted British colonialists and wealthy Palestinians alike in the 1930s. The first chapter of The Incidental Insurgents, titled “The Part About the Bandits,” is a road movie–cum–essay film for which the artists wrote a script combining these figures’ exploits with the stories of the roving protagonists of Roberto Bolaño’s 1998 novel, The Savage Detectives. Selections from the Chilean writer’s book and Serge’s text flash on-screen as two anonymous figures, stand-ins for the bandits, drive across a desert, reaching no destination but frequently encountering dead ends and abandoned architecture. Filmed in a West Bank stripped of any identifying features, the film levels the distance between Bolaño’s Mexico (where Serge would eventually end up) and Jildeh’s Palestine, as Arabic and English text dangles the artists’ concerns before us: THE IMPOTENCE OF ACTION AND THE SEARCH FOR THE POETIC ACT . . . THE QUEST FOR SOME IMPOSSIBLE NEW DIGNITY.

Abbas and Abou-Rahme’s mien is neither nostalgic nor romantic; the unassuming bandits of the film, their backs turned to the camera, are not heroes but avatars who, like the artists, are grasping for a grammar to make sense of a pattern of political promise and defeat. Propelled by historical precedent and thwarted by a future whose foreclosure feels imminent, Abbas and Abou-Rahme’s insurgents traverse an endless desert, a stand-in for the unmappable horizon of political possibility. In the film’s subsequent chapters, that horizon feels ever more distant— Jildeh has been caught and murdered; Serge and his Bonnot gang have been walked to the guillotine. And here, the video features textual fragments that become progressively more urgent, their flashing appearance more frenetic, hallucinatory: I RELAPSE INTO MY FEVER/INTO MY DREAM, reads one fragment from part three. This final movement has a recursive quality—fragments of text from previous chapters shimmer across the screen at dizzying speed, and the film ends with the insurgents getting back in the car, ready to follow endless trails yet again—intimating the artists’ refusal to accept the hollowing-out of political possibility in the present.

IF THE HISTORY of Palestine and its people is by definition disjointed, kept alive in the minds of its diaspora, Abbas and Abou-Rahme’s deployment of the fragment in their multisensory installations evokes this sense of fracture at an affective level, transcending easy didacticism and sidestepping the assumption of cohesion where there is none to speak of. Theirs is a kinesthetic approach that wields the architectonics of new media to produce gestalt feeling. Through nondiegetic sound collage, multiple screens and projections, and live performances, the artists mirror the multipronged, multimedia, globe-spanning nature of Palestinian resistance itself: a movement that encompasses live bodies protesting both within Palestine and abroad, in solidarity with the Palestinian cause; the global Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestment movement; recent efforts toward decolonization at art museums and other cultural institutions; growing awareness of and education in Palestinian history through independent media; and the subtle, mundane forms of resistance exercised by ordinary Palestinians who live under apartheid.

Abbas and Abou-Rahme’s mien is neither nostalgic nor romantic.

Launched in 2016, the multimedia project And yet my mask is powerful concatenates several of these ideas. Versions of the project were realized as multimedia installations exhibited in 2016 at Carroll/Fletcher in London and in 2018 at the Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (a book of the same title was published in 2017). At the center of this effort is a Neolithic mask the artists encountered at the Jerusalem Museum, which claimed the mask’s provenance to have been Israel. After downloading an image of the mask from the institution’s website, Abbas and Abou-Rahme used that file to make a 3D print and eventually a film, in which a group of actors don the mask as they make their way through the overgrowth covering the ruins of one of the hundreds of villages razed by Israel during the 1948 Nakba. We watch as these unidentified figures tread through weeds and worn bricks, against a thundering electronic soundtrack, snippets of Adrienne Rich’s 1973 poem “Diving into the Wreck” flashing intermittently on-screen; the searching motions of the characters are reminiscent of the insurgents featured in Abbas and Abou-Rahme’s earlier films.

That this work echoes the artists’ earlier oeuvre is indicative of Abbas and Abou-Rahme’s fixation on the conceptual valences of return, that perpetual dream of Palestinians in the diaspora. Here, however, return is thematized not as a distant hope but as an active practice. With its careful pans across the vegetal landscape that continues to grow among the ruins, And yet my mask is powerful posits the act of lingering, of spending time in the wreck, as a way to move through crisis.

The artists mirror the multipronged, multimedia, globe-spanning nature of Palestinian resistance itself.

Before shooting the film, the artists had made several trips to the site with friends and acquaintances, having heard that Palestinian youth had been using these abandoned buildings as a space for joyful, if illicit, gatherings. Israeli officials had terraformed the former village’s landscape using non-native pines, but the artists quickly realized that indigenous wild thyme, pomegranate trees, and other plants stubbornly held their ground among the newly planted trees, demarcating the structures’ remnants. By connecting their artistic practice to this living palimpsest—an index of a forgotten landscape—the artists situate themselves within a longer tradition of embodied Palestinian resistance wherein the ground is more than just terrain that must be won: It is a living repository of collective identity. 

With their collages of sound, image, and gesture, Abbas and Abou-Rahme hew close to Henri Lefebvre and Catherine Régulier’s project of “rhythmanalysis.” Building on the former’s Critique of Everyday Life, 1977, the rhythmanalysis project suggests that the homogeneous, quantified time of daily living is the synchronization of polyrhythmic activities—the intersections between the cyclical time of the calendar and the lived rhythms, sensations, and affects of individuals that collectively produce presence. The rhythmanalytical conceit feels appropriate to Abbas and Abou-Rahme’s project not only because of the artists’ syncopation of moving image and sound, but because of their foregrounding of the multidimensional forms and temporalities of Palestinian resistance. Under an apartheid regime in which Palestinian activity is constantly surveilled and movements are restricted, subtle acts, such as dragging one’s feet through a checkpoint, constitute a radical reclamation of past, present, and future.

IN THE MONTHS before the pandemic placed everyday life in a state of suspended animation, Abbas and Abou-Rahme had been developing a project on the politics of mourning in the greater Arab world. But as Covid ravaged the already feeble health-care infrastructure of nations weakened by endless war, the duo changed course from their initial plan and in December 2020 launched Postscript: after everything has been extracted, as part of the long-standing commission of Artist Web Projects hosted by New York’s Dia Art Foundation. The browser-embedded work presents an array of material from the artists’ digital archive—snippets of music and sound pieces developed from Palestinian folk songs, Photoshopped images of indigenous herbs and flowers, fragments of video documenting the Palestinian landscape—all layered and clickable, navigable by the user.

Abbas and Abou Rahme’s desktop cinema was but one way the artists harnessed online platforms during the pandemic. Like many, they repeatedly found themselves asked to participate in live-streamed conversations, panels, and lectures. These events at once served as an extension of the artists’ practice and a way in which to draw attention to the Palestinian cause—one that, in turn, could feel inextricable from the activism already happening via the circulation of images and information through online space. 

View of “Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme: If only this mountain between us could be ground to dust,” 2021–22, Art Institute of Chicago. Photo: Aidan Fitzpatrick.

This past summer, Abbas and Abou-Rahme opened “If only this mountain between us could be ground to dust,” a solo exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago organized by Maite Borjabad López-Pastor. Projected across a grouping of variously sized plywood panels were two looping films: Oh shining star testify, 2019, centers on the death of Yusef a-Shawamreh, a fourteen-year-old boy who was shot and killed by Israeli soldiers as he went to pick akub, an edible thistle, near the Separation Barrier at Hebron. His murder, captured by CCTV and circulated online in footage that appears again here, exerts a gravitational pull within the installation, even as additional videos filmed by the artists—a clip of a disembodied hand picking akub, snippets of song and dance—are layered atop it.

The second video, At those terrifying frontiers where the existence and disappearance of people fade into each other, 2019–21, takes as its subject what Palestinian activists have called the Great March of Return, a series of protests demanding the demolition of the border wall separating Gaza from Israel that began in March 2018 and continued weekly for six months. By returning again and again to the wall despite the threat of being surveilled and identified, the protesters put themselves at immense risk of being maimed or killed by Israeli occupiers—as many subsequently were. Recognizing this bravery, Abbas and Abou-Rahme saw a vital demonstration of the continuing potential for liberation. But the artists had to think carefully about how best to represent these demonstrations of courage; to reveal the identities of the protesters would be to put them in danger yet again. To disguise the faces of the protesters, the artists once again fed found images and video from the demonstrations into their 3D software—but this time the program produced glitchy renditions of figures who looked as if they were covered in scars and bruises. (Abbas and Abou-Rahme surmise that the glitches were a result of the software’s being unable to fully render the low-resolution clips of bodies packed together.)

The decision to leave these digital scars intact was no small one; in some ways, the artists’ turn toward mimetic representation was a rejoinder to their earlier work. Here, the digital avatar enables the artists to convey the concomitant violence of the occupation and its representation in media, but this alone didn’t suffice. Though they were unable to be physically present with the protesters, Abbas and Abou-Rahme sought to carry demonstrators’ message and their memory by animating the digital avatars with their own bodies and singing in Arabic from a script they had composed from selections of Said’s After the Last Sky (1999).

Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth, 2022, HD video, color, sound, running time TBA.

Empathy, as we know, has its limits. Yet the breadth of Abbas and Abou-Rahme’s gestures of solidarity, their recognition of shared pain and parallel struggle, is profound. The artists prevent the sedimentation of revolutionary spirit into staid forms and, moreover, unleash it in the most rarefied zones of the art system. This past March, the duo launched the second stage of their Dia Web commission, May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth, to accompany their moma exhibition, organized by curator Martha Joseph, which will be presented in the Kravis Studio this spring. The Web component is an indexed edition of the artists’ extensive archive of found video, the majority of which documents and celebrates gestures of resistance to occupation across song, dance, and the music of unknown performers from Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and Yemen. From these reference materials, the artists developed new performances with the dancer Rima Baransi and the Palestinian electronic musicians Makimakkuk, Haykal, and Julmud. Though these performances were initially intended to be presented live alongside video and sculpture at moma, the ease with which they were translated to an online format is a testament to Abbas and Abou-Rahme’s smart, fluid grasp of media and message. In mood and mission, form and facture, such disparate fragments promise to harmonize in an ecstatic rhythm, capacious enough to transmute the vitality of liberation’s echo. 

Tausif Noor is a critic and graduate student in art history at the University of California, Berkeley.