On ViewMuseum of Modern Art
April 23 – June 26, 2022
Only sounds that tremble through us, the immersive video and sound installation by Palestinian artists Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, is the latest installment in their ongoing project, May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth that launched in December 2020. Based on a decade of research, the work has already taken multiple forms, beginning with an online platform, Postscript: after everything has been extracted—part of the Dia Art Foundation’s Artist Web Project. In March 2022, the artists shared their extensive “index,” a repository of 170 videos collected from the internet, transcribed and translated, that document people singing and dancing across Palestine, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Such material became particularly widespread following the Arab Spring and the protests in Iraq and Palestine in 2015. In contexts of occupation and war, where the landscape is dissected by walls and checkpoints, and movement and physical connections constantly thwarted, sound becomes a means by which to confront oppression and forge solidarities. Throughout its various iterations, May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth insists on mourning and memory as collective practices that transcend boundaries and refuse the geographic and social fragmentation fundamental to colonial violence, through ongoing acts of everyday defiance and resistance.
To experience this project cumulatively is to participate in these processes of mourning and mutation, an ongoing suspended state that is both life and death. Postscript begins with a text, a meditation which began in early 2020—“One February afternoon / we speak about / what it means to be in a constant mourning”—but became all the more urgent as the pandemic ravaged the bodies of Black and brown communities. A fierce, poetic, unraveling reflection which insists that the state of being “undone and unbound” is where we can exist, in negative space. The online platform gives us six sessions, each a curated encounter of layered images, sounds, and text. Two avatars, a familiar feature from the artists’ previous work, accompany us, rendering the experience collective despite the restrictions placed on public gathering by pandemic regulations. Video footage of the Palestinian landscape, of plant life that continues to return, to replenish, despite every attempt at colonial erasure, is captured in the negative, an x-ray of its microscopic details revealed, every cell vibrating in resistance to the violence endured: “I know the land is scorched / still its voice / nearly breaking / hums.”
In part one of May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth, Abbas and Abou-Rahme open up their collection to the audience, inviting us to interact with it in a more immediate way. By staging a series of encounters with selected materials—excerpts from their script in Arabic and English, videos collected from the internet, footage they filmed in Palestine, performances by their collaborators—they allow viewers to shape their experiences, implicating them in the process.
We move through a cluttered screen of overlapping windows, manipulating the combinations, altering the order, running time, and volume. Each encounter is interactive and unpredictable, resisting the restrictive chronological stability of the traditional archive, instead embracing narratives that are fluid and in flux, that privilege the everyday.
Only sounds that tremble through us further immerses in this archive through its mesmerizing installation. Lined with screens, the exhibition space recreates the layered experience of the online platform. United by one soundtrack, the four-channel video plays overlapping but not identical footage, making it impossible to ever have a comprehensive view or to experience all the material at once, leaving viewers both captivated and disorientated. The incompleteness of our vision parallels the incompleteness of the archive itself. As if further resisting the implicit violence of the gaze and the hypervisibility of the exhibition space, our viewing is again fragmented by multiple screens that fracture both image and text. The artists’ choice to render the collected footage in the negative is an insistence on this opacity, protecting the performers’ anonymity by withholding their identities. At every turn they reject the representational, insisting on a lived, embodied experience of this collective wound.
In their collaboration with Palestine-based performers—dancer Rima Baransi and electronic musicians Haykal, Julmud, and Makimakkuk—Abbas and Abou-Rahme further accentuate the call-and-response aspect of these songs, by asking them to respond to the original performances which include wedding and funeral processions, chants at demonstrations, and odes to the sea. This often entails an improvised lingering on a single line or even a word, an extended meditation that abstracts it to a sound or vibration, a hypnotic refrain that reverberates through a land haunted by the memory of its dead. “The land is calling the vanished through song / The dead are returning / And we are returning with them.” Taken out of their visual context, the songs often sound similar to each other, a pained, rageful longing for the land.