The following interview took place online in Brooklyn, New York on June 5, 2020. It has been slightly edited for length and clarity.

Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, At Those Terrifying Frontiers Where the Existence and Disappearance of People Fade into Each Other, 2020. Video, sound, and live performance. Courtesy of the artists.
Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, At Those Terrifying Frontiers Where the Existence and Disappearance of People Fade into Each Other, 2020. Video, sound, and live performance. Courtesy of the artists.

Amal Issa (AI):
My first question to you has to do with the problem of breathing, that is currently in the foreground of everyone’s mind, whether because of George Floyd or because of the pandemic, or for ecological reasons—conditions which we are increasingly experiencing as interrelated. We can say we have reached a point where we are aware that we can no longer take breathing for granted, the very act of breathing has come under threat, in a very literal sense, not just metaphorically. Yet breathing is an involuntary act, we may be able to control it or train it, but ultimately we have to breathe, even against our will. Of course, this new paradigm is not new to everyone, and affects some populations more than others. In his recent text “The Universal Right to Breathe,” Achille Mbembe[1] described breathing as something that “cannot be confiscated and thereby eludes all sovereignty, symbolizing the sovereign principle par excellence.” In your work you have also spoken about “the need for an unusual and unprecedented knowledge, to breathe where you should not be able to breathe.”[2] And elsewhere, you have described the repetition of the same images from Palestine—images of violence or otherwise—as having “almost taken the breath out of them.”[3] There was already a foreshadowing in your work of this very rich figure, or image, of breathing that has now burst into the imagination.

Basel Abbas (BA):
Something that jumps to my mind right away, when we talk about breathing where you should not be able to breathe, is being where you should not be. There is a sort of dual sense to this. On the one hand, it’s a testament to being censored, to being an illegal body who shouldn’t be there. At the same time, within the phrase, there’s its flipside. By breathing, you’re also countering the claim that this space is not for you, that you shouldn’t be here. You’re already sort of negating it in the words—you’re already saying that you do not agree with it.

Ruanne Abou-Rahme (RAR):
I think our whole idea about breath and breathing goes back a long way, and basically refers to the impossibility of the Palestinian condition, in the sense that you are aware, from a very young age, that your very presence is questioned, that you should not even exist. So, it’s not just that you’re in danger at any given moment when you are in Palestine. Yes, you are in danger. But also there is this constant narrative, a material, infrastructural one—through the system of occupation, of colonization, of apartheid—that is basically all about negating you entirely. And I think that this negation is what we’re trying to get to, where the breath is not just a physical breath, but also an existential question, especially if you are a people that shouldn’t exist, or one that doesn’t exist… As a Palestinian, as a child, I remember more than once, when I was asked where I am from and I’d say, I’m from Palestine, I’d be told that there was no such thing as Palestine or Palestinians.

So, I mean, of course, there are physical dimensions; as we all know, you could be shot, you could be maimed, you could get choked from the teargas... But there’s also a much deeper question, which is a question of being actually.

Because you’re in this constant state of precarity, you have this constant sense that you don’t actually exist. So this idea of breathing where you should not be able to breathe is also a question of continuing to be, continuing to claim yourself, to claim space and to claim narrative, to claim your story and your testimony. So, we started thinking a lot about how to exist, then, in these impossible conditions. What are the tools that we can use to not just survive, but also generate different possibilities? That’s why the idea of the mask became very important for us—and also Adrienne Rich’s poem.[4] In the poem, she’s underwater and losing consciousness, and it’s her scuba-diving mask that gives her life and gives her power—precisely, power to be in a space where she shouldn’t be, and to breathe when she shouldn’t be able to breathe anymore.

It’s a question of how to continue, how to mutate, in order to survive in conditions where you should have already died, whether physically or through all kinds of forms of slow violences. That’s why Edward Said’s text[5] was so interesting for us, because he talks about it. He doesn’t say mutation, he says something like, “how easily we change, and are changed.” For Basel and I, the question was: How can you think of these conditions not just as negative outcomes, but as the very tools from which you create, and become unbound from colonial capture, conditions, and time? So you embrace the idea of being inside something that’s broken, and move away from the idea of a politics of wanting to fix that thing—or of wanting for it to be recognized as something that is happening to you. It’s a question of how to be in the thing that’s lacking, how to be in the negative and in the loss, and create different possibilities of being and breathing.

BA:
It’s also about refusing to perform a kind of Palestinian-ness. It connects to what you mentioned about taking the breath out of images, where you repeat an image so much that a certain kind of potency is lost, the breath is taken from it. It’s about you controlling when you want to appear and when you don’t. So you try to puncture the colonial narrative, but also the racist narrative, by refusing to perform what is expected of you. You try to put the breath back into something by removing the rules, removing the boundaries by which it’s meant, or expected, to be presented—the rules by which you’re allowed to speak about it.

AI:
The pandemic has also seen an almost overnight acceleration of online and digitized platforms for everything. Some of them are maybe practical and provisional, and certainly many things have become accessible that weren’t accessible before, especially in art and education, at least for the time being. But it is also terrifying because it seems like there might be no turning back, that the transition is already complete in some areas, with all the concerns it brings about, from new forms of inequality to surveillance to exhaustion and extraction, and so on… Within this context, one can imagine a scenario in which one’s digital self precedes, or supersedes, one’s physical body. Meanwhile, the body is not in a state of suspended animation or hibernation. On the contrary, more than ever it is vulnerable, not only because of the virus but because it is very much trapped in what Mbembe calls a “catabolic vision of the world,” a vision of overflowing waste and decay. You have described a similar vision of an apocalyptic imaginary and violence “that seems to clog up even the pores in our bodies.” The body, the physical, the visceral—these are very important in your work. So is virtuality, and the figure of the avatar. You also refer to sites of destruction as a “living fabric.”

RAR:
Our work, for a long time, has been thinking exactly about these sorts of intersections—the movement and contamination between the physical, lived fabric and being and materiality on the one hand, and the virtual space on the other hand. When we speak about the virtual space, it’s not necessarily a digital or online space, it’s conceptually tied to our idea of virtual time. It’s not the clear future time that we can see projected, and which looks like crap most of the time, but another potential time that we hold on to. When we worked on And Yet My Mask is Powerful,[6] we thought a lot about the experience of going back to a destroyed village. You find yourself in this sort of virtual time. You suddenly drop out from the conditions of the present. The site and the power of the site open up to you the possibility of a time that is not colonial time. And you feel it. You feel it in a very kind of visceral, material sense when you’re there. But it’s clearly not a future time, because you can’t in this future timeline imagine an end to the colonization of Palestine. However, you feel it on this sort of virtual level that it is possible—even though it’s the material site that gives you that feeling.

BA:
It’s the physical space. The plants growing there, their resistance—the latent power in the physical space itself—makes you step out of time. You’re not in the past, you’re not in the future, you’re not in the present.

AI:
So we have a virtual time or realm that is produced by very physical conditions, the encounter of a body and a space.

BA:
Nasser Abourahme (Ruanne’s brother) wrote about this in an unpublished text, and the Palestinian writer Esmail Nashef wrote about this too[7]—namely, about young Palestinians taking trips to destroyed villages. So you had these Palestinians who lived in towns near their destroyed villages, and they had been going back to visit these sites and activate them. It wasn’t about taking a nostalgic trip as we are generally used to, they were rather camping out there, holding events, rebuilding the churches and mosques, holding their weddings there—that kind of activation. And so our project was not really about documenting the sites, it was about trying to capture that visceral sort of experience of dropping out of time. I mean, we went so many times without filming, just going. And you hardly ever see a destroyed village in the footage, just bodies interacting with the space—because it was more about the space itself, about being in the space, rather than its story...

RAR:
That’s also why we do a lot of embodied filming—we do all our filming ourselves, it’s handheld, it’s very much about physically being in the space. And I think in a lot of our projects, what we’re trying to get is how those moments open up a virtual time. They’re real moments because when we’re working with people it’s not a fictional context, there’s no script. We’re working with people around the ideas of the project, with people who are moved by the same things we’re thinking about. And then very often we take these trips together, or in the case of this new project we’re working on, we create performances together. There’s nothing scripted or fictionalized about it because it’s about an embodied experience that can activate something that was otherwise inactive. So that’s, like, one aspect of it. Of course, another aspect is the idea of avatars, which we think about in many different ways but, fundamentally, in a kind of performative way—the idea of becoming other. How does the avatar allow you to become other, and to take up different positions? It’s this idea of reappearing as another figure or returning in another form. The avatar can take various forms of mutations and returns—as other, not as yourself, not in the here and now…

BA:
Because most of the time you should not be here anyway…

RAR
But it’s also about letting go of a certain subjectivity. That’s why the masks were so fascinating to us. From our research, it seemed these masks were used in performative rituals, which were essentially about becoming other. Beyond just the idea of being anonymous, they were interesting on this level of mutation. In a way, we have been thinking about avatars since the Incidental Insurgents,[8] the figure of the bandit who keeps changing and becomes all these different people. The concept of the avatar opens up a kind of multiplicity of being. And then in At those terrifying frontiers…,[9] we used what people would literally recognize as avatars. We were thinking about the impossibility of us reaching Gaza, of being in Gaza and being part of the March of Return, and how we could almost embody the people who were on this field, and perform with them. I mean, from these examples you can already see how even the idea of the avatars for us is also a material idea, not just this online or virtual form. It’s contaminated.

BA:
It can never replace the physical, but it’s a mutation of it.

RAR:
Anyway, the avatars were based on actual people who were protesting in the March of Return. But then, of course, there are all these strange things that the app does that we allow it to do, so we’re also interested in what happens to things when they move into the online virtual space. How are they changed by it, and also how things move back from the virtual, into the physical space—that’s also very important. So, for us it’s really about all these intersections. I mean, the digital sphere is full of all kinds of erasures and violences too, but we also see these as sites of potential, albeit without the physical, material forms of being and living and claiming space. The claiming of space and being together are really critical and essential for all our work because, you understand, in Palestine that is always fundamentally under threat. So I think there’s a lot of danger in the idea that you can just replace the physical being and togetherness and displace that onto an online platform—it’s extremely problematic. This even goes back to our observations about what happened in Egypt, specifically about the archives… We’ve been thinking about these things for a very long time.

BA:
Back in 2013, in the Journal of Visual Culture, we had a conversation with Tom Holert, where we talk about that moment in 2013 and the archival explosion of all this material from Egypt.[10] In another one of Nasser’s articles[11], he talks about how we used to joke that the Arab revolutions were not going to reach Palestine because they will be stopped at the checkpoint. Even though we were experiencing it virtually, and even though as Palestinians we’re technically part of the Arab world, we’re physically separated from it. At the end of the day this material coming out of Egypt was all about rupturing the image of the state. So you had real moments of insurgency or protest, but these moments were also being enacted to be documented then spread online, you had people leaving the square and people saying, “Just put everything online before you leave so everyone can see the new Egypt without Mubarak.”

AI:
I remember during the Lebanese protests in 2005, there was precisely this sense of being conscious of the image, of participating in making a scene or image. While in the protests of October 2019, perhaps because the economic and environmental misery had reached such a catabolic state, there was even a rage among some of the protestors against this idea of the image of protest…

BA:
You reminded me of something. The day after Mubarak was toppled, there was this uncontrollable energy in Palestine, we went out in the street and there was no police, they were scared—I had never experienced this in my life, I thought, something is really changing. By the next day, it was clearly just a moment—they were back. Of course, now when you look back at it, it’s maybe different. But the point is, that day we went to the main centre where the protests were being held, and there were people in, like, vests and stuff cleaning the street. We went to them and we were like, Guys, what are you cleaning? The protests had not even begun. But they were reenacting the Tahrir square thing, of cleaning after protests. It just exposes how, without the thing itself, without the physical thing on the ground, you have nothing, you only go through the motions.

RAR:
Thank god for the protests happening here in the US now because it was getting really scary. I feel like the protests broke something. We were worried about what this pandemic was going to mean for protest, how people were going to be so conditioned that they don’t even assemble anymore, and that’s a very scary thing, people not assembling means that there isn't any possibility for political action.

AI:
They are being where they shouldn’t be, in a way.

RAR:
This is a very important moment, in a sense. What Mbembe in his article is worrying about… It’s not just museums, it’s also schools and distance learning, hospitals and distant tele-health. My own experience of having to see a doctor remotely during this lockdown—it was a nightmare just to get a proper diagnosis. Worrying about online presence brings in the wrong set of questions, and moving everything online is just the capitalistic way of handling a moment of crisis. Institutions instead should be thinking about supporting their communities in their very real needs.

AI:
It occurs to me that in your videos, I don’t think we ever hear anyone speaking. And, correct me if I’m wrong, but we don’t see anyone’s face either. We see them from behind or from the side but never facing us, except with this last performance with the avatars…

RAR:
Yes, actually the avatars performance was the first time we used voice…

BA:
Yes, we never filmed anyone’s face. It was that idea of letting go of a certain subjectivity we mentioned before. But now with our upcoming project, for the first time we will have actual people’s faces, and voices.

AI:
You describe your work as probing “a contemporary landscape marked by perpetual crisis and an endless present.” Elsewhere, you associate futurity with fugitivity and fragility. You often speak about the incompleteness of the colonial project—I come across this a lot in reading about your work—and of eternal return, as becoming unbound from colonial time. You already spoke a lot about time but maybe you can speak about this incompleteness.

RAR:
I think for us in Palestine, incompleteness is predicated on our continued presence. The Israeli colonial project, or any colonial project, is always threatened by the presence of the people it is colonizing. As long as these remain, visibly remain, the project is not complete. Because what the project actually requires, especially if you’re thinking about a settler colony, is total genocide. But then even with total genocide, I don’t know if it could ever be complete…

BA:
The shadow, the echo, the ghost of what remains, the violence will continue to haunt.

RAR:
For example, there were over 450 villages that were depopulated or destroyed in 1948, but the Israelis haven’t completely destroyed all of these villages because they needed some of them, they needed them for their historical narrative—some of the villages are on Roman ruins, and so on. So they have this very bizarre relationship with these sites. Some of them have been totally flattened and some remain, and are incorporated into these national parks. They do tours of these villages, talk about the war… But it’s more than that: If they were to destroy or erase these villages, a whole portion of their historical material culture would be destroyed along with them. So they can’t.

BA:
It’s kind of like this thing that haunts them: They need to keep it to maintain their narrative, but it also points to the incompleteness of their narrative. It is destroyed but they need to preserve it, because otherwise there will be a large chunk of history missing in this land—how can you have all this land without a history? Then you have these young Palestinians coming back to these sites and renovating churches and mosques, a sort of never-ending haunting.

AI:
But the Israeli narrative is not like that of the American one, for example, which is based on pretending settlers came to a virgin, uninhabited land and called it the New World. But in Israel we instead have a narrative of returning…

BA:
Exactly, they’re the settlers and the natives at the same time. They’re everything.

AI:
But then histories overlap at some point, so if you erase Palestinian history completely you will also have gaps that get in the way of constructing a continuous history or genealogy that stretches thousands of years back.

RAR:
That's the idea of the incompleteness of the colonial project, which I feel is very important to remember. Many times, our projects are looking at these conditions as incomplete, and thinking about how we can puncture them. That’s why we talk about being unbound, in the way of thinking through things, thinking alongside things, instead of constantly being in the prism of colonial conditions. What’s interesting for us is how people resist being subjugated, or bound by these things, and that’s where fugitivity and fragility come in. Said talks about this briefly, which was interesting to find in his text since we had been reading Fred Moten.[12] But he talks about it in relation to Palestine, and how the only way to become unbound is to become a fugitive. So when you saw the March of Return, people were going into the field knowing that they would become a moving target. That moment of becoming fugitive and becoming a moving target was also the moment they were becoming unbound from the colonial mechanism. You feel that very strongly when you are in Palestine. You feel that the moment you confront the thing that’s threatening you and putting you in danger. The moment that you come up against it, which makes you totally fugitive, is also the moment that you’re sort of emancipated from it.

BA:
Absolutely, you march toward your death and your liberation at the same time. That’s why whenever I go back to Palestine, the moment I cross the bridge is indescribable. Even though I live there, every time I go back I feel like there’s always a threat of not being let back in. So as soon as I’m in, this first hour is like I’ve entered a magical realm, and all of a sudden, even the garbage looks beautiful! You have this romantic thing of Palestine—but really, it’s because you just went through fucking hell to cross the border, and you weren’t really sure you would make it.

RAR:
Also, the Palestinian condition is already a condition of fugitivity. Said describes this fugitive condition as this feeling that you are somehow in this but you don’t exist, and potentially you could disappear. We’re thinking about it in relation to Palestine, but we’re also thinking about it in relation to many, many other places, and in relation to being a refugee. As a refugee, nowadays you’re a fugitive, you’re basically targeted and killed and incarcerated and harassed at borders, and if you arrive to the country of your destination you might even then remain illegal. Nowadays, if you’re actually in any condition of precarity, you are in a fugitive condition. I mean, in a way, that’s what Moten was talking about. So, obviously, we’re also trying to think about that: How can you take up a position that connects to this idea of becoming unbound, this fugitive and emancipatory moment? It’s all momentary, or temporary, right?

BA:
It’s temporary but it’s what you hold onto, and it’s very powerful. That’s the potential of the virtual, in these momentary moments that lead to emancipatory conditions… Because it’s also desperation. But it’s what you have—you take the negative and you build with what you have within the lack, like it’s the same module.


[1]Achille Mbembe, “The Universal Right to Breathe,” April 13, 2020. Translated from the French by Carolyn Shread.
[2]Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, At Those Terrifying Frontiers Where the Existence and Disappearance of People Fade into Each Other, performed live at e-flux, New York in June 2020; excerpt published in e-flux journal #106, February, 2020; also exists as a sound and video work.
[3]“Ruanne Abou-Rahme and Basel Abbas in conversation with Fawz Kabra”, Ocula, January 18, 2018.
[4]Adrienne Rich,* Diving Into the Wreck*, Norton, 1973.
[5]Edward Said, After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives, Pantheon Books, 1986.
[6] Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, And Yet My Mask is Powerful, sound and video work in two parts, 2016-2018; and book published by Printed Matter, 2018.
[7]Esmail Nashef, Nashif, E. (n.d.). Ruins: On art and real return
[8] Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, The Incidental Insurgents, 2012-2015, multimedia, multi-part project.
[9]See footnote no. 2.
[10] Basel Abbas, Ruanne Abou-Rahme, and Tom Holert, ”The Archival Multitude,” Journal of Visual Culture, December 10, 2013.
[11] Nasser Aburahme and. May Jayyusi, “The Will to Revolt and the Spectre of the Real: Reflections on the Arab Moment,” City Journal, Vol. 15, No. 6, December 2011.
[12]Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, Autonomedia, 2013.


Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme work together across a range of sound, image, text, installation, and performance practices. Their practice is engaged in the intersections between performativity, political imaginaries, the body, and virtuality.

Amal Issa (b. 1979, Lebanon) organizes the public program at e-flux, New York since 2015. Before that, she was at Ashkal Alwan in Beirut where she co-founded and directed the arts study program Home Workspace Program (HWP); and in 2016 was co-editor of tamawuj.org, Sharjah Biennial 13’s online publishing platform.


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