This expansive project at MoMA looks at videos of song and dance as resistance

Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme's new video installation at MoMA, New York, was an extension of their digital archive that looks at war torn countries, and everyday resistance.

by Sukanya DebPublished on : Jul 15, 2022

Within the online archive that is a part of the overarching project May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth, there are a few notes accompanying the footages, one of which refers to the idea of witnessing, and how in the Arabic, it is related to martyrdom. The act of witnessing itself becomes a pejorative, pointing a finger back in the direction of the witness. The witness is the one implicated through their personhood and capacity for testimonial, as the ‘witnessing’ is only tied to the observer, the first-person narrative, the primary source. However, what does a collective witnessing entail? What can collective consciousness provoke? What are we witnesses or bystanders to on a daily basis?

May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth by Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme was commissioned by and presented at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, as a multichannel sound and video installation, with programmes and live performances accompanying the exhibition. The multichannel installation was an entry-point into the sprawling project that continues to have an online presence, besides having other components planned in order to extend the project. The project takes the form of an archive of music, song and dance from communal spaces within Iraq, Palestine, Syria and Yemen, having collected the footage and produced additional material to accompany the body of work. The artist duo started with countries that have an ongoing history of war and displacement, collecting footage of mourning, longing, celebration and joyousness as acts of resistance, as they found themselves witness to these videos.

Still from the digital archive | May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth | Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme | STIRworld
Still from the digital archive Image: Courtesy of Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme

The exhibition speaks to communities around the world that have been persecuted and have lost their land to political and military invasions, entire populations that have been deemed ‘illegal’ as if personhood were conditional. 

Speaking to the nature of the overall project with STIR, Abbas says, “The project really thinks about resistant practices in Syria, Palestine, Iraq and Yemen, through performance, song and dance. The project has had many different phases, but the first started with footage that we collected online. These were not professionals but ordinary people in their everyday lives singing or dancing. We then worked with electronic musicians in Palestine, and worked on fragments, creating new performances from that. The videos are basically performances filmed in different parts of Palestine, and other landscapes under threat of settlers. The whole piece tries to think about how song and performance hold onto community, how does the body feature, and how does the land also come in as a character and retain sounds.”

A still from video installation | May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth | Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme | STIRworld
A still from the video installation Image: Courtesy of Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme

The songs that have been found, extracted, selected and translated by the artists tend to take various registers, including that of mourning, celebration, loss, love, longing and so on. There are different “levels of voice and text” as Abou-Rahme explains over the conversation. Aside from the digital archive, the video installations and performances, the artist duo is also working towards a series of essays inviting other writers to contribute towards the book, besides a music album. The project becomes a constellation of parts that come together for viewing, extending into an inter-media consideration.

Capture of video installation | May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth | Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme | STIRworld
Capture of video installation Image: Courtesy of Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme

Abou-Rahme speaks further on the nature of the material, “A large part of our projects is also about making space and honouring people’s practices. So, the online work is really drawing from people’s practices, and in a way saying that this is material that should be taken seriously, talked about, discussed, and spent time with. This is not always the case in people’s imaginaries, because these are not professional performers or what would be seen as the most poetic texts. And yet we feel very differently about them. We try to think about how voice in the form of song and gesture in the form of dance and so on becomes a really important site of testimony and a very significant site of resistance to colonial erasure.”

Video installation still | May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth | Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme | STIRworld
Video installation still Image: Courtesy of Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme

While celebration is an example of the register of resistance, it also becomes important to note the kind of movement between emotions that range from grief and loss to communal harmony. Over a conversation with STIR, Abou-Rahme speaks about the different shapes that resistance takes, with the example of Palestinian weddings being a site of gathering and communal solidarity. Due to gatherings not being permitted, the wedding becomes a way of resisting the hostile state, and the wedding song becomes the codified site of communication, where resistance is found through the shared space.

Speaking to the spatial understanding of the project, Abou-Rahme says, “We always thought of the online space in relation to physical space, as an extension of it, as a potential to activate things. Not instead of - but in relation to. A lot of our work insists on holding onto physical space as well, and what happens when they move from virtual to physical, the morphing that happens, as well as the call and response in that space. But we are also very careful not to give everything to that space. Because it’s not for the sake of that space. The cause was always there.”

Installation view of May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth, 2020 - ongoing, Video installation, Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme | May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth| STIRworld
Installation view of May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth, 2020 - ongoing, video installation Image: Courtesy of Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme
Installation view of Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme’s May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth, on view in the Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis Studio at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, from April 23- June 26, 2022 Video: Courtesy of Oresti Tsonopoulos with Alex Munro, © 2022 The Museum of Modern Art

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