Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme Create a Poetic, Web-based Space for Mourning

Scripting, whether in cinematic or coding language, often brings forth a semi-linear course of action. In film, a script acts as a blueprint for dialogue and shot-by-shot action; as a programming language, scripting essentially automates coding — or, more specifically, a series of commands referred to as “expressions” or “statements” — to execute dynamic online content.

Postscript: After everything is extracted, the latest installment in Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme’s ongoing project, May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth, is a confluence of these shared languages. Presented online via Dia Beacon, it reflects the Palestinian artist duo’s greater concern for the scriptum — their approach to narrativizing sampled materials, whether pre-existing or self-authored — but more specifically, what it means to transpose a multi-channel installation into a single channel website variation. And, for any artist or creator who has had to be “productive” during the pandemic, it’s a moving interpretation of that impetus to bear “witness” despite this constant state of loss.

The project rolls out like a work-in-progress play across six linear scenes, opening with the omniscient rise of an ethereal reverse audioscape and video footage of a pre-dawn drive through the Judean Hills. “After everything is extracted,” begins the first of a series of poetic, notes app-esque texts that form the work’s core narrative about moving through grief and loss during COVID-19. “Who is here/after everything is extinguished.” These fragments — drawn from an archive of everyday recordings capturing individual and communal self-expressions from border zone communities in-crisis in Iraq, Palestine, and Syria — of moving image, sound, and text as an array of “pop-up” windows. In mimicking the scattered disruptions of desktop notifications, Abbas and Abou-Rahme tap into the mode of computer-desktop-as-site-specific-installation similarly employed by artists like Camille Henrot and Martine Syms. But Postscript does so at a remove, recontextualizing these notification pings and pop-ups to enable a compressed, multi-layered narrative to unfold. 

Screenshot documentation of Abbas and Abou-Rahme’s Postscript: After everything is extracted (courtesy artists)

Abbas and Abou-Rahme bring a DJ-like precision to the project’s score, which plays a significant role in engendering intimacy through headphones. (Alongside the Palestian DJ Muqata’a, they’re part of a sound and image performance group called Tashweesh.) Ethereal soundscapes drop down into propulsive subwoofer-esque bass levels or flow into melismatic Palestinian communal chants. In a way, these sonic fragments isolate the samples into single channels that shift and move like gradients. Meanwhile, windows imaging a female-presenting figure captured in a blue and purple watercolor-wash crop up next to a pop-up video loop of fists clenched (her in real life, perhaps), punching repeatedly into the air in self-defense-like movements. 

Throughout the 20-minute long work, two eerie, pixelated avatars appear, their skin grafted, popping up to metaphorically video call “in flight mode.” (This seems to be a play on a phone’s airplane mode setting. How exactly does this call come through then? That’s up to the viewer to decide.) The avatars look real, but scarred, like damaged hyper-real representations. They are reminiscent of those that emerged in the artists’ prior work, which took low-res imagery circulated online of participants from the March of the Return demonstrations near the Gaza border, but processed this imagery through avatar-generating software. Its missing data is rendered as scarring, ultimately mapping out what it means to be an “illegal” or “displaced” digitized representation. 

Despite all of this playing out via a website, the artists manage to transmit a similar sense of immersion to what one often experiences with a multi-channel installation. But there is also an ease of accessibility: the text boxes toggle easily between English and Arabic, and a taskbar-like navigation system permits viewers to experiment with duration and functionality, like enabling a sound tracker or jumping ahead to different scenes. Cycling through a meta-textual hard drive of materials, looking through past samples and work, viewers are able to take this in at their own pace. They can pause and attempt to make sense of what it means to be “in the negative” — a common refrain throughout the work to describe a post-extracted state of being, heightened by a year that stopped, and almost feels erased already — but also to live in what the artists describe as a “constant state of mourning.” 

Screenshot documentation of Postscript (courtesy artists)

Like many art projects that debuted this year, Postscript is a pivot. May amnesia never kiss us is intended as a multi-part online platform and an in-person exhibition at Dia, as well as a performance series that will take place at MoMA (dates still TBA). But when Dia curator Kelly Kivland approached Abbas and Abou-Rahme about releasing a portion of the online platform early, they bristled: “it was impossible to release the project as it was going to be,” Abbas explained to Hyperallergic, during a video conference interview alongside Abour-Rahme. Instead, the artists chose to create a new work, a so-called “afterthought” of their multi-part work that would enable them to maintain the integrity of the original project and be responsive to the pandemic. 

“So many people have died, and yet there feels like there is no moment of any sort of collective mourning or acknowledgement,” agrees Abour-Rahme. The pair, used to frequent travels between New York and Palestine for their work and research, found themselves stuck in New York, and started working in February on the poetic, notes app-esque text that forms Postcript’s core narrative. “It was a very organic process, and really guided by the fact that we needed to stay and linger in this, and not just move past it.”

“What happens when you linger in the thing that is broken, rather than try to heal it?” Abou-Rahme asks rhetorically. “Sometimes things cannot be healed, sometimes the wound stays open, and what do you do with that? How do you generate, not just a mode of survival, but something more?”

That something more, evidently, involves a sort of toggling between the disembodiment and embodiment often demanded by our virtual and real tracks and footprints. Within this broader dimension of bereavement, this takes on an added weight — perhaps even a greater acceptance of the mutations our bodies and forms have taken on to live through it, and survive. 

“It circles back to being in the break, in the lack, and being generative in the break, and generative in the lack,” says Abbas. “And not seeing things as broken.”

Postscript: after everything is extracted, part of the evolving May Amnesia Never Kiss Us On The Mouth project, continues online as part of the Dia Art Foundation’s Artist Web Project series.

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