First Look: Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme


Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme: The Incidental Insurgents (detail), 2012-ongoing, photographs and mixed mediums, dimensions variable. Courtesy Carroll/Fletcher Gallery, London; Young Arab Theatre Fund, Brussels; and Al Mamal Foundation for Contemporary Art, Jerusalem.


For Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, historical research is an immersive experience. During the multi-year gestation of their current project, The Incidental Insurgents (2012-ongoing), they visited archives around the globe, piecing together a macro-history of banditry that spans political narratives, literature and cinema, and stretches from anarchists in turn-of-the-century Paris to Palestinian insurgents of the 1930s to the romantic poet-outlaws described by novelist Roberto Bolaño. In turn, the duo aims to immerse viewers in their findings. For one iteration of the project, they transformed their studio into a space resembling a private investigator’s office. Tacked to the walls were hundreds of artifacts: historical diary entries, archival images and fragments of poetry in English and Arabic. The dense display, which could be pored over for hours, immediately conveyed the dizzying complexity and scope of the artists’ work. When they present The Incidental Insurgents at Korea’s Gwangju Biennale this fall, the installation will include a multichannel video that interweaves cinematic depictions of outlaws with a new film that follows a couple on the run, traversing the desert in a beat-up old car.

Abbas and Abou-Rahme met as students in the UK, where they performed electronic music together in London’s thriving garage and grime scenes. As their musical collaboration evolved, they began to see the potential of sound as a means to explore history and contemporary culture. A turning point was Contingency (2010), “a sonic map,” as they call it, of the Israeli checkpoint between the city of Ramallah (where both artists grew up) and Jerusalem. The duo recorded the movements of people through the tense environment, picking up the beeps of metal detectors and the squawks of a distant PA system. But these harsh noises are interrupted with moments of laughter and even singing, creating a multifaceted portrait of a space at the center of a recalcitrant conflict.

The artists’ work has since grown steadily in scale and intricacy, though the turmoil in their home country remains a focus. The Zone (2011-ongoing) is a multimedia portrait of Ramallah that takes cues from two well-known films: Walter Ruttmann’s exuberant avant-garde classic Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) and Andrei Tarkovsky’s surrealist sci-fi Stalker (1979). Like The Incidental Insurgents, the work has taken many forms: a video installation, a performance, a print publication and a website. In each, Ramallah appears in a complex light. It is a place where modern buildings abut ancient ruins, where suggestions of violence loom over mundane activities. Yet even in the hands of artists who started out exploring the intensity of sounds, a surprising calm prevails in the embattled city.