Ruanne Abou-Rahme and Basel Abbas on Collapse
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Ruanne Abou-Rahme and Basel Abbas on Collapse
Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, Collapse. Image courtesy of the artists

B.Abbas and R.Abou-Rahme, Collapse (video still), single channel DV (2009), image courtesy of the artists

Palestinian artists Ruanne Abou-Rahme and Basel Abbas spoke to APEngine about their sound and video installation, Collapse, which was exhibited at The Delfina Foundation, London, earlier this year as a work-in-progress.

Can you explain what Collapse is for someone who hasn’t seen the piece?

Collapse is a sound and video installation, which uses as its starting point an assemblage of black and white film archive material to disrupt the frontier between reality and fiction, past and present. The compiled footage, including sequences from The Open Door (1964), The Battleship Potemkin (1925), and Edward Said as a young child in Jerusalem pre 1948 (In Search of Palestine), brings together imaginary and actual moments of resistance and loss, an act of excavation that illuminates the deep disjuncture that has shaped not only Palestinian lived experience and memory but shared histories of struggle.

The selected moments from the material appear as fragments embodying a sense of the ephemeral, acting in their reconstructed state as remnants from forgotten narratives and traces of a counter memory. A feeling of continual suspension and relapse, progress and deadly repetition is played out exploring the overlap between personal trajectories and multiple historical narratives.  In this re-examination of archive and fictional material, a reinterpretation of both the past and present is manifest; what appears to be absent or lost is made once more physically present and potent.

What inspired Collapse?

Collapse was largely inspired by our experience of recently moving back to Palestine, what we faced was a desolate socio-political landscape marked by multiple absences. A literal and poetic displacement resonates throughout the piece; this is in part a meditation on a contemporary Palestinian landscape ruptured by a breakdown of political community, memory and narrative. The moments of recurrent potentialities and failures of resistance are markedly repeated in a way that critically reconstructs fragments from the past to reveal the immobility and sense of absence in the present.  So it very much came out from the current conditions of living in Palestine and the difficulties of making sense of the relationship between our history and the moment we are living.    In the end, of course. we wanted the piece to build a narrative that connects to other historical moments and resonates outside the confines of Palestine. So we drew inspiration from the various footage that we were sourcing and re-interpreted those narratives as well.

Why Collapse as the title?

Well actually it’s a working title – we’re in the process of changing it! But we choose it because it seemed to articulate both the form of how we are working – which was collapsing different footage together, from fiction to real event – and correlating different spaces and times and the conceptual framework of the piece.

How did you start working together?

Well, we met at a young age in Palestine, and years later ran into each other while studying in London.  When we met we discovered that our work was really overlapping, we were both trying to find new modes of articulating the Palestinian condition and connecting it to wider experiences. We found that we were both experimenting with a combination of field recordings, scripted material and archive footage ranging from old films to news reels. It seemed perfect as one of us was working in sound and the other in image and video. Our first collaboration was through Ramallah Underground and our work together just naturally developed from there.

In both our use of video and sound, we work outside narrative structure and yet weave fragmented narratives, layering different narratives to create new labyrinths of connections and memory.  Primarily we are attempting to find a new language and practice to articulate the, at times, irreducible contradictions and ruptures of Palestinian lived history, which find a deep resonance across the Arab world.

Where did you source the archival footage and audio from?

There are a range of sources; the video is made up of old black and white films, as well as real events and specific landscapes from current day Palestine which we shot.  For the video we selected films that depicted moments of resistance and loss, we selected three Arab films, or films set in the Arab world The Open Door, Hassan and Naima, and The Battle of Algiers, we also selected two scenes from The Battleship Potemkin. For the documentary material we found great footage of Edward Said playing happily outside his old home in Jerusalem prior to the ensuing Nakba of 1948 and a young boy morosely leaving Jerusalem with his belongings in 1967, these two scenes juxtaposed wonderfully together. There is a scene of a women floating under water, this is from an infomercial made in the US in the 1930’s we believe.  That was a fantastic image because of its ambiguity, there was both something quite utopian and serene about the moment and rather sad at the same time, is the women drowning or simply floating?

For the sound we followed the same practice, we used the sound from the films and interlaced them with archives from different historical moments in Palestinian history such as the PLO training in Lebanon in the 70’s, demonstrations in the second Intifada and street recordings we collected over the past months.  The idea was to continually play with the line between fiction and non-fiction and to collapse different spaces and times into each other, so the piece sounds from the aftermath of Sabra and Shatila massacres are set against radio broadcasts from the Battle of Algiers.

How much of the film is made up of found footage and how much of the action is from real events?

If we consider the sound and video then there pretty much half and half, we were continually working to overlap both these spaces of fiction and reality whether through the video or the sound.

It’s always a boundary that we are playing with, a kind of distinction that is meant to be lost while experiencing the work.  There is this compulsion that fiction is simply fiction, and facts are reality, what we try to explore is the truth in fiction, and a reality that is more overwhelming than fiction. Our use of pre-existing material, ranging from infomercials, news reels, home videos and fictional films is an attempt to both subvert and re-narrate the material, giving it a second life or form of meaning

How did the residency at The Delfina Foundation come about and what did it entail?

The residency at the Delfina was initially for Ramallah Underground, this came about through a chance encounter between Basel and the director of the space.  While we were there we had been working on Collapse individually and shared it with them, they loved it and decided to exhibit it.

The installation that you exhibited at Delfina is a work-in-progress, how has the work moved on since the show?

The work has a series of nine images that are now finally done, the images embody a disruptive stillness, abandoned houses left to the erosions of time, rooftops filled with smoke where the traces of a city, of life beyond, are barely visible. Into this landscape, imagery fragments from the footage we used in the video are inserted and re-interpreted; consequently both visual moments are imbued with new meaning and signification. The figures appear fleeting, part of a re-enactment, a memory, a lucid dream, frozen in their motion bringing about a tense interplay between motion and stillness. For the sound and video, we have not made drastic changes; we have shortened the piece and tightened some of the transitions

Can you tell me about your piece at the Venice Biennale?

The sound installation entitled Ramallah Syndrome, a collaboration between us and Allesandro Petti and Sandi Hillal, is an attempt to both critically reflect on and articulate the socio-political and spatial suspension that defines Ramallah as a latter-day enclave. The sound-scape operates along the fault lines of this dialectical disjuncture, traversing between the lived desires of normalcy and the increasing encampment and fragmentation of Palestinian cities and towns.  Exploring the absurdities and possibilities of normalcy as resistance, escapism as defiance, consumption as agency.  The installation recreates the socio-spatial coordinates of this particular experience through the experimental use of various audio material, creating an unsettling soundscape between an appearance of normalcy and its complete suspension. It uses a series of informal conversations, field recordings, processed sounds and music to raise critical questions about the deep implications of this ‘syndrome’.

What else are you working on at the moment?

We are working on multiple projects, but one in particular is an installation entitled In Search of X, which is again a combination of image, sound and video.  In Search of X takes as its starting point real stories of multiple missing and forgotten Palestine political activists to develop a narrative in the fault lines between fact and fiction, neither archive nor fiction, a space where what was and what could have been is investigated.  Here X is both a specific set of characters and an allegorical figure for a community in absence, a city in absence, the result is a search for something that is still intangible and undetermined, so it is very much about imagining and projecting the future.  For this piece we are mostly shooting the material, partially a recreation of the past and also an imaginary for the future.

Do you have any other exhibitions coming up?

The debut show of Collapse, as a finished piece, will be at Rose Issa’s Projects in London at the beginning of next year, and we have an exhibition of Ramallah Syndrome coming up at the Jerusalem Show, and a few others hopefully in the pipeline.

You can catch Ruanne Abou-Rahme and Basel Abbas’s Ramallah Syndrome sound installation at the Venice Biennale until 22 November 2009, and check out APEngine’s showcase of Collapse here.

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