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Issue 156

In Focus: Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme

A portrait of the West Bank that fuses fact and fiction

BY Katya García-Antón in Features | 16 JUN 13

Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme are part of an emerging generation of artists, generally with a background in music, who are mining the immersive possibilities of sound, image and environment. They draw, on the one hand, from the remix techniques of the drum ‘n’ bass scene that emerged in the mid-1990s in the UK (where they studied), applying them to sound, text and image; and, on the other hand, from research that explores sound’s relationship to science fiction, aesthetics and popular culture. Indeed, Abbas and Abou-Rahme’s practice looks at vectors (often sonic in nature) for illegible or unimagined perspectives that can’t be pinpointed on contemporary mappings of the world.

In Contingency (2010), the duo explored the sonic particularities of the Qalandia checkpoint, the portal between Jerusalem and Ramallah in the West Bank (the artists’ hometown), and one of the most visually documented structures of recent years. The darkened installation plunges the visitor into a field of sound which pulses in tandem with dialogues on ticker-machines that criss-cross the space high above – material recorded by the artists on location with handheld devices. The deep rumbling of the security machines, the staccato clicking of the turnstiles and the metallic voices issuing instructions across the loudspeakers, orchestrate a stark reminder of the ability of sound to affirm disciplinary power. However, Contingency goes beyond the sonic documentation of a piece of military apparatus, capturing paradoxical instances of self-discipline as well as unexpected moments of individual resistance and comic absurdity. At the heart of this denatured and fragmented aural and textual landscape lies a dizzying sense of the fantastical, and a critical reading into the murky presence of fictive dystopias within the everyday trappings of occupation.

The Incidental Insurgents: The Part about the Bandits, 2012, video still. Courtesy: the artists.

Comprising 15 video screens, an installation, an online platform and a publication, The Zone (2011–ongoing), which further develops this sense of cognitive estrangement, exploring what the artists describe as the dynamics ‘that have brought about the construction of a regime out of the remains of an aborted Palestinian struggle [and how] this new regime displaced the old collective “dreams” and gave birth to new political discourses and desires largely centred on consumption’.

The Zone is a portrait of Ramallah, a city whose meteoric transformation into the Palestinian Liberation Organzation’s (PLO) new seat of power – following the 1993 Oslo Accord – is perceived by many as a mirage within the kaleidoscopic complexities of the region. The work brings into discordant assembly newly filmed material, archival imagery and a plethora of sonic recordings from the plo’s archives to the present and posits Ramallah as a place of dream-like immersion, whose combined effect is one of possession. Glistening views of an El Dorado-like urban sprawl, booming with high-rise constructions and suburban housing, appear surreal in view of the deadly quiet air-space above them and the multitude of ruins around them – making Ramallah a serious contender as ‘quietest place in the world’, to echo Andrei Tarkovsky’s description of the Zone in his 1979 masterpiece Stalker.

In Abbas and Abou-Rahme’s work, the abundance of billboards promising a bountiful and modern consumer future both mimic and subvert the aesthetics of the decrepit militant posters of old, still visible on forgotten street corners. If, as Fredric Jameson has often argued, the Utopian fantasies of science fiction ‘defamiliarize and restructure our experience of our own present’, not showing us the future as such but ‘a symptom and reflex of historical change’, then The Zone, with its own dystopian allure, plays as Ramallah’s unshakeable and mournful companion to an inextricable crisis.

The Zone, 2011, from the series 'Desire and Disaster', digital c-type print. Courtesy: the artists

Whilst in previous works the artists explored the impact of political structures on individual and social bodies, their latest project The Incidental Insurgents (2012–ongoing) initiates a series of introspective questions regarding their practice. Its first installment, The Incidental Insurgents: The Part about the Bandits, casts the artist’s studio as the scene of a detective investigation and is installed next to a video filmed on the (often dead-end) roads around the West Bank. The studio is swamped with an extensive and carefully configured mass of notes, photos, looping films, books, maps, posters, sketches and vinyl records, the latter still spinning, having reached the end of the track, the clicking sound perhaps indicating that the artists may have just left to hunt for another clue. Their search is for three seemingly disparate figures lost within the fictive and real revolutionary haze of 20th-century history, a vantage point from which they attempt to look forward into their own future perspectives. The heroic figures in question comprise the early anarchist Victor Serge and his followers in 1910s Paris (Serge went on to become a kind of biographer of European anarchism in the early decades of the century); Abu Jilda and Arameet, whose gang led a rebellion in the 1930s against the British in Palestine and who were hailed by many as the Robin Hoods of the Middle East, whilst portrayed by the colonial occupiers as common thieves; and, finally, the artist as bandit, taking as a starting point Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Savage Detectives (1998). In the latter, set in 1970s Mexico, the author firmly eschews ivory towers and plants the writer within ‘the territory of risk (of life)’.

The Incidental Insurgents: The Part about the Bandits consists of an intricate network of histories, geographies and portrayals. Rather than narrating a story, however, the materials serve as props from which Abbas and Abou-Rahme set out to elucidate how – like the bandits before them – they find themselves ‘inhabiting a moment of full radical potential and disillusionment, in continual search for a language for the moment’. In many ways, the project responds to the sense of geo-political urgency around them. However, it also deliberately chooses playfulness as a form of creative freedom and as a tool to discover a language and an aesthetic for the political in their practice. A vector which is not locked into the bleak nobility of fatalism or the burden of national representation but which believes, in the artists’ own words, in the political’s need to ‘produce daily life’. With its heady mix of adventure and detective flair, the work of Abbas and Abou-Rahme liquidates the easy categorization of engaged artistic practice related to the Middle East. Their footsteps carry the distant echo of Michel Foucault’s words: ‘Do not think you have to be sad in order to be militant.’ 

Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme live and work in Ramallah. Their work was included in the 53rd Venice Biennale, Italy (2009); Home Works 5, Beirut, Lebanon (2010); the 2010 Liverpool Biennial, UK; ‘The Zone’, New Art Exchange, Nottingham, UK (2011); and, in 2012, the 4th Guanzhou Triennial, China. In June, ‘The Incidental Insurgents’ will feature in ‘Points of Departure’, ICA, London, UK; and a lecture performance will be presented in Tanzquartier, Vienna, Austria. They are currently inaugural fellows of the Akademie der Kunst der Welt in Cologne, Germany.