This huge project at MoMA sees song and dance videos as resistance

In the online archive which is part of the global project May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth, there are some notes accompanying the images, one of which refers to the idea of ​​witnessing, and how in Arabic it is related to martyrdom. The act of testifying itself becomes pejorative, pointing a finger in the direction of the witness. The witness is the one who is implicated by his personality and his capacity to testify, because the “testimony” is only linked to the observer, the story in the first person, the primary source. But what does a collective testimony imply? What can collective consciousness cause? What are we witnesses or spectators of on a daily basis?

May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth by Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme was commissioned and presented to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, as a multi-channel sound and video installation, with programs and live performances accompanying the exhibition. The multi-channel facility was an entry point into the sprawling project which continues to have an online presence, in addition to having other components planned in order to expand the project. The project takes the form of an archive of music, song and dance from community spaces in Iraq, Palestine, Syria and Yemen, after collecting the images and producing additional material to accompany the whole work. The artist duo began with countries that have a continuous history of war and displacement, collecting images of mourning, nostalgia, celebration and joy as acts of resistance, as they found themselves witnessing these videos.




Still from the digital archive Image: Courtesy of Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme


The exhibition speaks to communities around the world who have been persecuted and lost their lands as a result of political and military invasions, entire populations who have been deemed “illegal”, as if personality were conditional.

Speaking about the nature of the overall project with STIR, Abbas says, “The project really thinks about resistance practices in Syria, Palestine, Iraq and Yemen, through performance, song and dance. The project has gone through many different phases, but the first started with footage we collected online. They weren’t professionals but ordinary people in their daily lives singing or dancing. We then worked with electronic musicians in Palestine, and worked on fragments, creating new performances from that. The videos are essentially performances filmed in different parts of Palestine and other landscapes threatened by settlers. The whole piece tries to think about how the song and the performance clings to the community, how the body presents itself, and how the earth also comes in as a character and holds the sounds.



Excerpt from a video installation |  May Amnesia Never Kiss Us on the Mouth |  Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme |  STIRworld
An excerpt 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 on various registers, including that of mourning, celebration, loss, love, desire, etc. There are different “levels of voice and text,” as Abou-Rahme explains during the conversation. Besides digital archives, video installations and performances, the artist duo is also working on a series of essays inviting other writers to contribute to the book, in addition to a music album. The project becomes a constellation of parts that come together to be viewed, extending into an inter-media consideration.



Capture of the video installation |  May Amnesia Never Kiss Us on the Mouth |  Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme |  STIRworld
Capture of the video installation Image: Courtesy of Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme


Abou-Rahme talks further about the nature of the material: “A big part of our projects is also about creating space and honoring people’s practices. So the line work really draws from people’s practices, and in a way says it’s material that should be taken seriously and discussed and discussed and spent time with. This is not always the case in people’s imaginations, because they are not professional interpreters or what would pass for 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, etc., becomes a really important site of testimony and a very significant site of resistance to colonial erasure.



Video installation again |  May Amnesia Never Kiss Us on the Mouth |  Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme |  STIRworld
Installation video again 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 type of movement between emotions that range from grief and loss to communal harmony. In a conversation with STIR, Abou-Rahme talks about the different forms that resistance takes, with the example of Palestinian weddings as a place of gathering and community solidarity. Since gatherings are not allowed, marriage becomes a means of resisting the hostile state, and the wedding song becomes the codified place of communication, where resistance is found through shared space.

Speaking about the spatial understanding of the project, Abou-Rahme says: “We always thought of the online space in relation to the physical space, as an extension of it, as a potential for activating things. Not instead of – but in relation to. A lot of our work also emphasizes the maintenance of physical space, and what happens when they go from virtual to physical, the morphing that happens, and the call and response in that space. But we are also very careful not to give everything to this space. Because it’s not for the good of this space. The cause was still there.



Installation view of May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth, 2020 - in progress, 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 – in progress, video installation Image: Courtesy of Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme





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


John C. Dent