Installation view of Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme: May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth, April 23–June 26, 2022. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Digital Image © 2022 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar

The artists Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, who are known for research-driven work in video, performance, installation, and writing, often take the contemporary political situation in Palestine as a point of departure. Having worked together since 2008, they focus on voices, images, and political movements on the fringe—from writer and political revolutionary Victor Serge to Palestinian outlaw Abu-Jildeh—using their research to unearth underrepresented histories. By combining existing and new media, they articulate a digitally mediated experience of crisis in the wake of colonialism.

The immersive multimedia installation May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth: Only sounds that tremble through us is currently on view in MoMA’s Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis Studio. Bringing together found and self-authored footage of people singing and dancing, a new sound composition, and text written by the artists, the work examines how communities bear witness to violence, loss, displacement, and forced migration through performance.

Installation view of Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme: May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth

Installation view of Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme: May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth

An Amnesiac Archive1
Since the early 2010s, Abbas and Abou-Rahme have collected recordings of people singing and dancing in communal spaces in Iraq, Palestine, Syria, and Yemen. The majority of the videos were posted online anonymously during periods of political strife and captured at weddings, funerals, or more impromptu gatherings. Many feature popular songs with lyrics that speak of separation, loss, abandonment, and exile. Rather than depicting violence or destruction, the footage shows regular people—not trained performers—coming together and expressing emotion using their own voices. In one video, a woman in a headscarf stands in a field singing about being separated from her lover. In another, a group of men dance the dabke (a Levantine folk dance) in a refugee camp in Syria. In yet another, a woman on Iraqi national television performs a traditional dance with swords. Collectively, the videos draw connections between narratives of struggle and shared dreams of liberation across different countries and political contexts.

For the artists, collecting the videos was the beginning of a research process that would inform multiple parts of the project May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth, co-commissioned by the Dia Art Foundation and MoMA. Through a Dia Artist Web Project, the videos have been preserved and hosted online, enabling the potentially forgotten moments to create new resonances. Abbas and Abou-Rahme are interested in creating a body of knowledge that generates new artwork, thinking, and possibilities. The archive remains accessible to anyone with an Internet connection, tagged and aggregated but refusing any single narrative. Gathering and saving these videos helps combat what the artists have referred to as “the amnesiac archive” that is the Internet. While this material forms a new collection, it simultaneously challenges what an archive can be, as it will continue to inform future artworks.

Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme: May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth. Video: Oresti Tsonopoulos with Alex Munro

Sounds That Tremble through Us
While we catch glimpses of the archival videos in the Kravis Studio, the majority of the footage on view depicts performances conceived of and filmed by Abbas and Abou-Rahme themselves. Working in Ramallah with electronic musicians Haykal, Julmud, and Makimakkuk, and the dancer Rima Baransi, the artists created new performances that draw on melodies, gestures, and emotions featured in the found footage. By embodying these moments once again, the performers become a living archive of feeling, history, and trauma. As the artists put it, “the body becomes a sampler.”2 Abbas and Abou-Rahme use the body to fragment, reproduce, and repeat. The title May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth comes from a translation of writer Roberto Bolaño’s “Infrarealist Manifesto,” written in Mexico City in 1976. It is an urgent call to remain attentive to history in the face of cultural erasure. Abbas and Abou-Rahme’s response to this call is to reinscribe the past onto the body of the present.

Based between New York and Ramallah, Abbas and Abou-Rahme are part of a diaspora haunted by the inability to conclusively return to a homeland. Palestinian intellectual Edward Said has written of exile, “[S]eeing ‘the entire world as a foreign land’ makes possible originality of vision. Most people are principally aware of one culture, one setting, one home; exiles are aware of at least two, and this plurality of vision gives rise to an awareness of simultaneous dimensions, an awareness that—to borrow a phrase from music—is contrapuntal.”3 In the language of music theory, counterpoint is a compositional technique in which two or more melodic lines or “voices” complement one another but act independently. If this is a metaphor for the experience of being deeply familiar with two cultures, what is the metaphor for the experience of the gap between them?

May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth

May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth

Sound is unruly. Sound is promiscuous. Sound misbehaves.

May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth

May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth

Abbas and Abou-Rahme propose the echo. While counterpoint manifests as two melodic lines unfolding simultaneously, an echo produces delay. It is the repetition of a sound after the original source has ceased transmission. Abbas and Abou-Rahme represent the echo quite literally in their work, in which voices re-sing melodies and different bodies repeat gestures from found footage. The echo is a sonic reverberation across time, a delay that creates a historical relationship in the present. It is the auditory embodiment of dispossession, a metaphor for the aftereffects of a different history or a different land that continues to be felt in the body.

Often in the artists’ installation, sound and image become untethered. Bodies clap, dance, move, step, and gesture out of sync. There is a glitch, a moment that produces a feeling of disjuncture. Echo is the name of a cursed mountain nymph in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Doomed to be unable to say anything on her own, she could only repeat the words of others. But for Abbas and Abou-Rahme, the reflection of another’s voice is a recognition of song’s ability to serve as testimony. I’m reminded of the human microphone, a form of protest popularized in New York City’s Occupy Wall Street protests, in which a group gathered around a single orator repeats what the speaker says, “amplifying” their voice through repetition.4 As Abou-Rahme puts it, “The voice is both theirs and not theirs.”5

An Echo Buried, Buried, but Calling Still
Sound resists containment; it has the ability to permeate walls and borders and travel across vast distances. Sound is contradictory; it is physical but not material. Abbas and Abou-Rahme participate in a legacy of artists invested in audio for its ability to circumvent power. Just as sound can summon a collective voice, it also evades capture: it can be recorded and replicated, but not confined. It expands beyond an allotted space, whether in a museum gallery or out in the world. Sound is unruly. Sound is promiscuous. Sound misbehaves.

The political implications of sound’s behavior resonate with the ethos of May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth. Songs of exile and lament echo through bodies and speakers across time and place. Museumgoers at MoMA are immersed in deep tones, feeling the effects of the thudding bass. Voices extend beyond their immediate location, echoing out.

Sun Ra tells us, “Listen / but do not listen with your ears alone / you must feel with your intuition sense.”6 The prefix infra, as in the “Infrarealist Manifesto” referenced in the work’s title, means “below.” Infrared radiation, for example, oscillates at a lower frequency than red light. This technology detects thermal energy and heat and converts it into an electronic signal that produces an image, allowing for the surveillance or capture of a scene beyond what is visible to the naked eye. The resonance of sound or images from below is invoked in the title of Abbas and Abou-Rahme’s new performance at MoMA: an echo buried, buried, but calling still.

May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth

May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth

Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme: May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth is on view at MoMA through June 26, 2022. The Kravis Studio will host a series of ticketed evening performances by Abbas and Abou-Rahme and invited guests Hiro Kone, SCRAAATCH, and Muqata’a on June 4, 5, and 11, respectively.

  1. All subheadings in this essay come from the artists’ own writings about the exhibition.

  2. Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme. Unpublished artist description for May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth, shared with the author, 2021.

  3. Edward Said, “Reflections on Exile,” Granta 13, 1984, reprinted in Russell Ferguson, Martha Gever, Trinh T. Min-ha, and Cornel West, eds., Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures (New York, and Cambridge, MA: New Museum of Contemporary Art and MIT Press, 1990), 366.

  4. The human microphone was a direct reaction to New York City’s laws requiring a permit for amplified sound in public. As such, this analog form of amplification became a core tool of this and other explicitly non-permitted grassroots movements. Richard Kim, “We Are All Human Microphones Now,” in The Nation, October 3, 2011.

  5. Listening Session: May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth, April 22, 2022, Dia Chelsea.

  6. Sun Ra, “The Universe Sent Me,” in This Planet Is Doomed: The Science Fiction Poetry of Sun Ra (New York: Kicks Books, 2011), 38.