At Those Terrifying Frontiers Where the Existence and Disappearance of People Fade Into Each Other
Hybrid in form, this work from Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme wrestles with the problematics of representing a people displaced and disappeared. An avatar generating software and images of the people who participated in the Great March of Return demonstrations create figures that sing a sad lament. Voiced by the artists themselves yet digitally altered, they are, at once, human and non-human.
In this film, missing data in the figures’ faces are replaced with scars and glitches—an inscription of trauma onto the body. This act of flattening people is central to the real impossibility of representing faces and bodies that have been coded as illegal. Text taken from Edward Said’s book After the Last Sky is repurposed to create a new script which reflects on what it means today to be constructed as an “illegal” person, body, or entity.
The work also makes reference to “languages not fully formed”—how does one find the words to describe the ongoing effects of forced displacement? An attempt is made to represent this through “broken narratives, fragmentary compositions, self-consciously staged testimonials where the narrative voice keeps stumbling over itself, its obligations, its limitations”—an articulation of the contradictions inherent in this kind of documentation.
Themes of disappearance and re-appearance are present throughout. The Great March of Return—which refers to the 18 month demonstrations held every Friday on the Gaza border between March 2018 and December 2019, that demanded the right of Palestinian refugees to land that is now Israel—plays a key role in situating the concerns of diasporic Palestinians in the present tense. To film on the Gaza strip is itself an important act of witnessing; the area has been under near constant siege since 2006; Abbas and Abou-Rahme film border walls. Can liberation be found through attempting to live in a site of displacement and protest? —Myriam Mouflih
Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme (1983, Nicosia, Cyprus and Boston, USA) are an artist duo based between Ramallah and New York. They work together across a range of sound, image, text, installation and performance practices. Across their works they probe a contemporary landscape marked by seemingly perpetual crisis and an endless ‘present’, one that is shaped by a politics of desire and disaster. They have been developing a body of work that questions this suspension of the present and searches for ways in which an altogether different imaginary and language can emerge that is not bound within colonial/capitalist narrative and discourse. They have performed at several institutions including the Live Arts Bard Biennale 19 (New York), Hammer Museum (Los Angeles), the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (Berlin), Images Festival (Copenhagen) and the Serpentine (London). Their work has been exhibited at venues including the Beirut Art Center, Kunstverein (Hamburg), Kettle’s Yard (Cambridge) and at the Sharjah and Istanbul biennials. They won the Abraaj Group Art Prize in 2016 and were shortlisted for the Future Generation Art Prize in 2019.
At Those Terrifying Frontiers Where the Existence and Disappearance of People Fade Into Each Other (2019), Oh Shining Star Testify (2019), And Yet My Mask is Powerful, Part 1 (2016-2018), Only the Beloved Keeps Our Secrets (2016), The Incidental Insurgents: The Part About the Bandits, Part 1, Chapter 1 (2012-2015), The Incidental Insurgents: Unforgiving Years, Part 2 (2012-2015), The Incidental Insurgents. When the Fall of the Dictionary Leaves All Words Lying in the Street, Part 3, Chapter 5 & 6 (2012-2015), The Zone (2011), Lost Objects of Desire (2010), Collapse (2009)
Only the Beloved Keeps Our Secrets
Only the Beloved Keeps Our Secrets invites us to consider the forms of entanglement between the destruction of bodies and the erasure of images, and the conditions under which these same bodies and images might once again reappear. Utilising military surveillance footage, the artists create a multi-layered and shifting work.
Like much of Abbas and Abou-Rahme’s work, the film is concerned with notions of fragmentation, disappearance and reappearance. Grainy footage is taken from an Israeli military surveillance in the foreground, whilst in the background a hand is holding a flower, freshly picked. After a court injunction, images were widely circulated online depicting a day in March 2014, where 14 year-old Yusuf Shawamreh crossed the “separation fence” erected by the Israeli military near Hebron. The teenage boy had been going to pick a flower, short in season and a delicacy in Palestinian cuisine, when he was shot dead by Israeli military forces.
Layers upon layers build on top of each other in a density of images. As the artists note, the function of this is “obscuring what came before in an accumulation of constant testament and constant erasure.” Another layer: red text in English capital letters, in Arabic script flashes up on top.
Using online recordings of song and dance to create a fragmented script, Abbas and Abou-Rahme use images of ambiguous and abandoned landscapes collected over a five year period. Shot mostly in Palestine, the images have the power to act as a testament but to invalidate themselves too. It’s the tension between opposing forces that the artists are able to convey in their work.
When images are widely circulated, a new meaning is given. In this, the act of taking apart, re-assembling and reframing the urgency of bearing witness is felt anew. “It is here between seeing and not seeing, between appearance and disappearance, that what could be retrieved from the wreck can be glimpsed.” —Myriam Mouflih