Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme work collaboratively from their base in Ramallah, Palestine. They have performed together with Ramallah Underground and recently founded the sound and video performance collective Tashweesh. Recent exhibitions and projects include New Sound (NY LYD) Images Festival, 2011 (Copenhagen); the 6th Liverpool Biennale (Future Movement); 23es Instants Video CCF, 2010 (Marseille); Home Works V, Ashkal Alwan, 2010 (Beirut); the 3rd Jerusalem Show, Al Mammal Foundation, 2009 (Jerusalem); The Delfina Foundation, 2009 (London) and the 53rd Venice Biennale, Palestinian Pavilion, 2009 (Venice).
The following conversation was conducted by the London-based curator, Eva Langret. It focuses on `The Zone`, Basel and Ruanne`s new installation (and first solo show in the UK) which will open in Nottingham next week (private view on 20th May).
Eva Langret: The title of this new work, The Zone, conveys the idea of a compound under surveillance, and signals a heightened sense of danger. It also refers to Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 cult film Stalker. In this film, “The Zone” is a desolate, post-apocalyptic no-man’s land under military protection. There is an inner chamber within “The Zone” called “The Room” that grants one`s deepest wish. The title of your exhibition speaks of repression, fear, but also ideals and utopia. What is The Zone for you, and what does it hold?
Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme: The Zone is a site of ruin and dream, which indeed, resonates with Stalker: a utopian impulse framed by a dystopic landscape. The film echoes some of our thoughts on Palestine, in particular in relation to the landscape and the treatment of time. Having said this, The Zone is primarily about the particular moment we are currently living in Palestine, where the colonial situation, somehow, is concealed by what appears to be a post-colonial reality, in the major cities of the West Bank. We have explored the failure of the Palestinian resistance movement in previous works, but for this project, we wanted to focus on what happened after the failure: the transformation of the PLO into an ‘authority’ and eventually a ‘security’ regime. This new regime gave birth to political discourses and desires largely centered on consumption. New residential compounds multiply, whilst advertising billboards project images of consensual progress. Altogether, this purports the idea that it is possible for us to lead happy and fulfilled lives, whilst surrounded by the expanding and increasingly visible violence of the colonial situation. But the violence, in its political and physical incarnations, cannot be ignored. It’s in the new colonial structures, the technologies of control and surveillance (walls, watchtowers, bypass tunnels…) and spatial ‘rearrangements’ that are taking place at the imposed limits of Palestinian centers. This brings us back to the allusion of compound under surveillance and the post-apocalyptic landscapes of Stalker. Somehow, in the darkest moment in Palestinian lived history, a ‘dream-world’ has emerged in the West Bank: a comfortable survival that perpetually denies both the failures and the disaster of our current situation. The Zone reflects this state of being, its surreal, absurd, and quite disturbing. Continually oscillating between dreamworld and catastrophe, desire and disaster, dream and ruin.
E.L.: The work primarily originates in your ongoing query of existing discourses and modes of representing the conflict between Israel and Palestine. You expand on this idea in order to produce an installation that resonates with a universal critique of established modes of knowledge production and circulation in post-modern societies. The Zone is concurrently locally-specific and universal: it might call in to an understanding of the current situation in Palestine, but is also evocative and poignant as a universal comment on the end of politics in consumer societies. Is it more important that the work lives up to your original sociopolitical intentions, or that it evokes something new, an alternative reality for the people who experience it, wherever they are?
B.A. & R.A-R: First, you are absolutely right: while the work originates in the current Palestinian predicament, it is very much a universal comment. Our practice is influenced by different histories and imaginaries, for instance, Walter Benjamin’s writings from the 1930’s, produced as Europe was besieged by fascism, have been critical to this project. For us, for the work to live up to our socio-political intentions, it has to evoke alternative possibilities. When we evoke another reality, it is really a process of uncovering the present moment, which is always concealed, mediated in a political sense. Reality is much more absurd, and far less rational or ‘normal’ than we assume it is. Our intention always is to produce something that is not a reproduction of reality but a revelation.
E.L.: And in doing so, do concerns over authority, subject agency and the politics of images also inform your interest in addressing and representing what is going on in Palestine?
B.A. & R.A-R: Firstly, we should clarify that we reject the idea that our role, as artists, is to ‘correct’ the representation of Palestine and the Palestinian experience for Western audiences. Yes, there is a critical form of empowerment when one begins to produce one’s own images and sound, as opposed to them being produced by third parties. This reclamation is part of the process of making something seen or heard. But our work remains, ultimately, a question of urgency. We always address the question of what needs to be said and how it can be heard. What is heard also depends on what is documented, and so a great deal of our artistic practice has to do with creating a living archive of a particular moment, so that it can be told and retold, heard and reheard.
E.L.: At any given time, The Zone concurrently navigates the dialectics of the dream and the catastrophe, utopia and dystopia, reality and fiction, past and present, near and far. This ambivalence is rooted in the visual and sonic language that you have developed, often juxtaposing found footage, archival material and field recordings. Can you tell me more about this?
B.A. & R.A-R: We try to find a new language to articulate the irreducible contradictions and ruptures in the lived histories of Palestine and the Arab world. Our repertoire is largely made up of fragments that are woven together, operating on a dialectical praxis: there is always a double (or even multiple) image or moment emerging. For us there is no self-contained present moment or space, so our practice makes the connection or thread between different times, spaces and imaginaries visible. We bring these forgotten, abandoned images, sounds, stories back to life by reconstructing them. It’s a perspective that insists on forms of re-connection. In doing so, we are weaving a new memory and way of seeing the present. This way of working came out of the need to formally express the violent geographical and political fragmentation we experience in Palestine. It’s almost as though our work had to appear in fragments to be able to reconnect what had been ruptured or broken. Sound is an equally significant and integral part of our practice. It has become even more important to us lately, largely because of what we saw as image exhaustion in relation to representations of Palestine. Images of the present seem to stagnate, their huge circulation having annihilated their potency. Sound, on the other hand, opened up so many possibilities, and allowed us to ‘make the familiar look strange’. This process of “making the familiar feel strange” is something we are now translating into our visual language. Over the past few years, we have also been exploring ways to create immersive environments for the viewer, whether with sound, image or installation. At the heart of this is our desire to rupture the distance between the ‘object’ of art and the viewer. We hope for an immersion into the work, for an experiential, physical encounter.
E.L.: How would you define your relationship to power and politics, and your role, as artists, in triggering social change? As we write, a wave of protests is agitating North Africa and the Middle East…
B.A. & R.A-R: For us, politics is about intimacy. Politics has been positioned as something external to our daily lives, and this has largely contributed to disempowering people. There is an artificial separation between what is represented as ‘political’ and our everyday life, subjectivity and imaginary. But we are political beings, in that what is simultaneously personal and collective, our entitlement to certain freedoms and rights, is deeply political. Our practice is political. It is organically connected to the socio-political shifts that surround us, but also to the most personal part of our beings. This perspective certainly encourages the subversion of the forms of power one is subjected to and reclaiming one’s agency. Can art trigger social change? The impulses and intentions that frame an artistic practice can be significant in evoking a potential and projecting a future possibility. But Art alone is not enough. The defining moment is precisely when people change the way they see their relationship to power and politics, this is what we are witnessing in Tunisia and Egypt, the reclamation of the public’s political power. These revolutions have poignantly revealed how systems of power and years of oppression can be unexpectedly ruptured and a new reality rapidly forged on the ground.