Invisible Wars

["Lost Objects of Desire", Basel Abbas & Ruanne Abou-Rahme, 2010, installation]

“War is no longer declared,

But rather continued. The courageous

Has become the everyday. The hero

Is absent from the battle. The weak

Are moved into the firing zone.

The uniform of the day is patience,

The order of the merit is the wretched star

Of hope over the heart.”

– “Every Day,” Ingeborg Bachmann

That first night in East Jerusalem, those nine or ten years ago, seemed like a slumber bathed in a thick haze. High-heeled ladies clad in fur coats tiptoed on the stone-paved alleys of the Old City at night, threading along the Via Dolorosa in the direction of the majestic colonial building, under the inspecting and almost invisible gaze of the local residents. At the Austrian Hospice, an elegant New Year’s cocktail awaited, in which locals were absent except for the waiters clad in bow ties and a few important dignitaries of the Palestinian Authority blending in with Israeli academics and European officials. Press photographers crowded in the ball room as the Upper Austria Military Band performed—without the slightest irony—for the audience.

The walk might have taken some fifteen minutes from the American Colony Hotel, in the lush garden of which during the afternoon a conversation ensued between two diplomat wives about how crass and vulgar everything was, tasteless and exaggerated, folkloric and savage; “the food is so much better in Kurdistan,” noted one of them, amidst laughter. At midnight, champagne bottles were cracked open on the roof overlooking the rest of the colonial mansions in the proximity: the Lutheran Augusta Victoria on the side of Mt. Olives, the Scots House in Abu Tor and around the corner the Templar House, now converted into a hostel. A young priest from Virginia, clad in his black cassock, remarked how peaceful it all seemed, how Godly, as he sipped another glass. Other guests nodded in agreement.

A faint sound of fireworks could be heard as we drove that night into Beit Hanina with James, then the vice-consul of Britain in East Jerusalem, and made ourselves comfortable in his apartment with gin and bitters, chatting in the large balcony behind thick bullet-proof glass. Not a single noise from near or far as the Oxfam workers, residents of the adjacent buildings, had gone home for the holiday and all what one could see from behind the glass were the sparse and titillating lights of the Palestinian houses. “Yes, George Elliot wrote something about the Jews, yes.” In this time warp of white marble, hours passed frolicking between the best Victorian novels and reminiscences of Catholic theology from school days: “Milbank’s book on the New Testament I will never understand. He’s a bloody Marxist.”   

["Lost Objects of Desire", Basel Abbas & Ruanne Abou-Rahme, 2010, installation]

In the morning, by contrast, the profound cartographic abyss of Palestine opened its gates to swallow the entire visual field; it became inescapable. There was nothing particularly exotic about it as much as it was logically implausible; there were no rows of houses or a skyline. The most arresting aspect of this urban sprawl without continuity or shape is that it operates with the grammar of a city and embedded in the inexorable demands of everyday life, and going about its own business. In between the half finished structures, separated by plots of barren land and demolition debris, inner roads are carved manually, small shops and cafes open daily and large billboards are placed between houses and empty plots and derelict structures, advertising cell phones, clothes, home appliances, and soft drinks.

Destruction is a metaphor that more often than not refers to an episodic transformation that changes structures (and societies) from one state into another, in the same sense that solids are liquefied and liquids are gasified. This, however, fails to account for the realities of colonialism in which a modification of consciousness occurs haphazardly but continuously, through varied mechanisms of power, by means of which the colonized ought to come to regard the state of emergency as an apolitical fait accompli that over time blends in together both the human condition and the everyday. The ongoing reality of colonization can hardly be described as destruction, even though there are physical traces thereof, but rather as a construction in which the real is replaced through value abstraction.

The work of Palestinian artists Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme stands out in the landscape of politically engaged practices, in that the Ramallah-based duo refuses to adopt the reification of the status quo of colonization—via images of violence, poverty, and abeyance—into a grammar of representation, and why not say it, resistance. Social realism, one of the driving forces behind the globalization of art, particularly in cinema, conflated the aesthetics of redemption with both melancholy and ethics; henceforth, politically engaged art in the particular case of Palestine could be no other than documenting and structurally analyzing—even from a narrative point of view—the conditions upon which the Israeli occupation exists as an objective reality.

["The Zone", Basel Abbas & Ruanne Abou-Rahme, 2011, installation]

Nevertheless, it is this same reality which was created by the conditions of occupation that is being represented and both past (as melancholy) and future (as hope, disaster, and liberation) are filtered through its undialectical lens. The symbolic order of the Israeli occupation is imposed (and then later self-imposed) not only on artists, but on the specter of representation across media, television, and narrative, as a binary code in which everyday life becomes a fetish: “Precisely because of the analogical cloak with which we garb the pragmatic structure of everyday life, everyday thinking is often fetishist: it accepts things and institutions as they are, in ready-made form, and brackets off their origins.”1 Abbas and Abou-Rahme want to turn our sense-direction towards the political production of the everyday.

Overlapping dream and ruin, they deploy across a variety of formats (video, performance, sound) the dream-world of commoditization that depoliticizes the real and inverts the order of representation, making the illusory world of allure and image not dependant on the real but on a mimetic relationship between absence of referents and the creation of a temporary site for production of desire in which objects become mobile, “global,” and cut off from the conditions of production.2 Built as an immersive environment, “The Zone” (2011) is a dissonant multi-channel video-installation in which this desire for normalcy emerges as a discourse firmly anchored in the possibility of another world, but yet using the currency of the present in order to simulate a parallel mechanism of power.

This strategy is distinct and develops a critical reading of the real as a series of simulacra, in which the devaluation of the world of objects—and of whatness in general—as allegory is outdone by the world as a commodity, and hence as an unstable cycle of biological insignificance, unable to sustain the public domain.3 Nonetheless, their investigation expands and maps out the contours of Palestine not only as a laboratory of political Modernity in which the immanent relations between knowledge, power, and desire break down into a reified surrealism. They turn to the anatomy of the body politic which underlies this process, parsing the transition between liberation and authority that characterizes the post-colonial process. How is a radical imaginary transformed into a body of power?

["Lost Objects of Desire", Basel Abbas & Ruanne Abou-Rahme, 2010, installation]

In “Lost Objects of Desire” (2010), a 3-channel video-installation, they question the possibility of a Raum for politics and polity through different layers of overlapping linguistic, sonic and visual story-telling. Occupying an entire room in the gallery, conceived not only as an immersive but also as an abysmal site, the different narratives in this jarring large-scale installation are sewn together through the stories of Hassan Shatter, a mythical figure in Palestinian folklore whose stories—once recorded—were passed orally through grandparents and great-grandparents, as a modern form of fairy tale in which characters were always augmented, invented, and inverted, depending on when or by whom was the story told. Constantly shifting orders, symbols, and modalities.

In the absence of stable boundaries and a political space, orality became for Palestinians coeval with homelessness and boundlessness (Modernity is essentially anti-home, the love of the new and exceptional, a new type of globalization which is only imagined and part of the desire discourse because the borders are not open to everyone), as a particularlist cosmopolitism not unlike that of European Jews in the late 19th century. Hassan the smart becomes elsewhere a metaphor for Palestine: In Mahmoud Al Massad’s film “Hassan Shatter” (2001), staged in Utrecht, the director chases a homeless man for weeks, finding him sometimes, losing him at others, depicting what it means to be lost, to forget your identity, to be bereft of destination while the spectacle of life continues unmolested.  

The open-ended fairy tale serves as the vehicle of re-making the self under the duress of uncertainty, but also as a platform to undistinguish between reality and fiction, between object and desire, between subject and body politic. In Abbas and Abou-Rahme’s installation, the unfulfilled stories serve as the background for Palestinian nationalistic songs from the 1970s and a woman’s recounting the violent events at a demonstration in present-day Ramallah. Their narrative however is not one of simultaneity and confusion, but rather the subterraneous procedure of appearing and disappearing in a loop, creating not only a dialectical relation between images and sounds but a synthesis independent of its constituting elements. It becomes a temporal break of intensity turned toward itself.

["Lost Objects of Desire", Basel Abbas & Ruanne Abou-Rahme, 2010, installation]

The Messianic movement in Abbas and Abou-Rahme’s installation is not the rational internalization of institutional critique, but turning their backs on the empty homogeneous time of Capitalism which relies on biological processes and eternal recurrence to assert its dominion over life and the body through a cycle of need and survival, which prevents the world from becoming a network of relationships and stays at the level of mere exchange of objects. In their view, the catastrophe is not the ultimate collapse of the colonial system, but the continuation of things as they are.4 They are searching for a horizon of freedom in which power can break from the helm of authority and provide a space for latency: The re-awakening of an image so primal that it had, until then, remained unimagined.

Or, in the words of Palestinian filmmaker Rashid Masharawi: “Jaffa is always present in my subconscious. It is true that I love Jaffa, but I do not have to mourn it in a blatant and acrimonious way. It won’t help if I shout all the time ‘I’m from Jaffa and this is my house!’ The tedious repetition of my story as a refugee would only diminish its strength and significance. It would also lessen its reliability and would cast doubts on my beliefs and on the justice of my claims."5 Reimagining a radical imaginary is not articulated in the structures of prevalent forms of authority, but overcoming the disenchantment with Modernity of the generation of the 1967 War and presenting the Palestinian struggle as a chapter in global transnational concerns, connecting colonialism and power to the global economy.

Redemption is here not an apocalyptic hysteria but a reconfiguration, a modification of consciousness that permits the submerged to become present as an open space of representation rather than a worship of the idol of the past, passed as ethical impetus. This reconfiguration implies the awareness that the everyday under colonialism is a political production and another chapter in the history of bio-politics, when understood as an absence of boundaries located in temporality, spatiality, and modality: Repetition, geography, and habit are the primary apparatus of repression, by grounding everyday life outside history and thus, beyond the possibilities of Modernity.6 Reclaiming the agon is, for Palestinians, allowing the everyday an authentic access to realness, and therefore, to critical forces.  

["Lost Objects of Desire", Basel Abbas & Ruanne Abou-Rahme, 2010, installation]

“It is awarded

When nothing more happens,

When the bombardment is silenced,

When the enemy has become invisible

And the shadow of eternal armament

Covers the sky.”

Thus continues the second stanza of Ingeborg Bachmann, establishing a relationship between war and the everyday grounded on the invisibility of conflict, shaped by the illusion of liberation engineered into systematic power by authority, reproducing the everyday as the hologram of a colonial reduction. Arendt was keen to make a distinction between a body politic and a politic of the biological body: “Obviously not every form of human intercourse and not every kind of community is characterized by freedom. Where men live together but do not form a body politic–as, for example, in tribal societies or in the privacy of the household–the factors ruling their actions and conduct are not freedom but the necessities of life and concern for its preservation.”7

In their practice, Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme recreate an agonistic moment which is not that of revolutionary violence. While there is a rupture or an interruption in the flow of the present, as a resonant metaphysical symbol, the tense is not built in linearity or simultaneity. It is a series of intense singularities submerged between the local and the spatial, the narrative and the oral, the temporal and the repetitive, foaming to the surface as a negotiation between objects of desire and subjects of power, at the end of which, a symbolic order is restored not as an archive but as an endless expanse of possibility. Yet their writing on the wall, though hopeful, is still clear: “Hell is not something which lies ahead of us, but this life here.”8

["Lost Objects of Desire", Basel Abbas & Ruanne Abou-Rahme, 2010, installation]

 

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If you like this piece, you might also enjoy Sites of Memory.

 

1. Agnes Heller, Everyday Life, Routledge & Kegan, 1984, pp. 52

2. Philip Goodchild, Deleuze and Guattari: An Introduction to the Politics of Desire, SAGE, 1996, pp. 3  

3. Walter Benjamin, “Central Park” in New German Critique, No. 34 (Winter, 1985), pp. 34

4. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, Shocken, 1968, pp. 255-256

5. Nurith Gertz & George Khleifi, Palestinian Cinema: Landscape, Trauma and Memory, Edinburgh University Press, 2008, pp. 101

6. Rita Felski, “The Invention of Everyday Life” in New Formations, No. 39, 1999, pp. 16-23

7. Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future, Penguin Classics, 2006, pp. 147

8. Walter Benjamin, “Central Park”, Ibid, pp. 50

"Lost Objects of Desire" was on show at Galeri Mana, Istanbul, October 5th - November 11th, 2013, in the context of the exhibition "Bodies That Matter", in collaboration with Delfina Foundation, curated by Rebecca Heald. Their video piece "Collapse" (2009) will be on show at Carroll / Fletcher, London, January 17th - February 22nd, in the context of the exhibition "Now Showing: A Group Exhibition of Artists Films". Photography courtesy of the author. 

Arie Amaya-Akkermans is a specialist in contemporary art from the Middle East. Living and working in Beirut.