Profile: Walid Raad
This article is part of the Visiting Artist Profile series, which highlights some of the artists, curators, and scholars that intersect with the Bay Area visual arts community through the various lecture programs produced by local institutions. Walid Raad spoke on Friday, October 28, at California College of the Arts (CCA), in San Francisco, as part of the Pier 24 Photography Lecture Series.
From 1989 to 2004, Walid Raad created work under the moniker The Atlas Group and produced a project deeply rooted in the conceptual trope of text paired with photographic documention. In the various narratives describing The Atlas Group, it was alternatively a nonprofit foundation or an artist’s foundation, established in 1967, 1976, 1989, or 1999. The Atlas Group assembled and exhibited an archive of images, stories, and videotapes that obliquely and enigmatically referenced the Lebanese wars, but the imaginary nature of the project allows its edges to constantly blur and shift, both in time and narrative detail. Raad claimed The Atlas Group’s objects and stories cannot be categorized as fiction or nonfiction; they reject this distinction entirely. This stance allows for a simultaneous critique of the subject matter and the conventions through which historical material is presented as unadulterated fact.
One section of the archive, the Fakhouri File, contains material donated to The Atlas Group by Dr. Fadl Fakhouri, “the foremost historian of the Lebanese wars,” and a fictional person.1 Of the full contents of the file—226 notebooks and two short films—only three notebooks are ever publicly displayed, leaving the viewer to wonder if the additional materials actually exist. The Atlas Group admitted to withholding more information than it revealed about the Fakhouri File, mimicking the hoarding of data we expect from official state archives, not an artwork. This obstruction hints at the amount of fabrication inherent in any political narrative. If omission, Raad argues, is as much a part of constructing fiction as wild invention, all archives provide the space for multiple narratives to exist.
Notebook seventy-two of the Fakhouri File, titled Missing Lebanese Wars, is a collection of collaged and annotated newspaper clippings. The pages testify to the peculiar gambling habits of a group of Lebanese historians. By bribing a racetrack photographer to take only one picture of the winning horse, the historians placed bets not on the outcome of the race, but on the photographic proof of the winning moment. Measuring the distance between the horses’s nose and the finish line in the printed image, they would calculate down to a fraction of a second when the photographer snapped the image. They placed their bets on predicting this margin of error. No longer valued as documentary evidence, the photographs of the racehorses instead benefited an underground and presumably bored group of academics.
Positioning the historians as avid gamblers who shamelessly bribe photographers, Raad nodded at the fallibility of any individual’s interpretations of past events, even by those regarded as foremost historians. And by falsifying the entire context for the photograph, Raad questioned the ways in which a single image can be used for varying purposes and to serve divergent ideologies. The facts that these images present are as mutable as the arguments and conclusions that can be pulled from them.
The material The Atlas Group produced so closely resembles images and likelihoods of what we understand to be history that it is easy to imagine these items as authentic. The universe in which The Atlas Group exists is untroubled by questions as to what is fictive and what is factual. Without leaving these issues behind, Raad announced in 2004 that The Atlas Group had disbanded and he shifted his practice to an ongoing query into representations of the Arab world, his focus no longer
narrowed by time frame, his subject matter no longer dictated by past wars.
Instead, in Oh God, He Said Talking to a Tree (2006-08), Raad drew from the 2006 conflict between Lebanon and Israel, a thirty-four-day period of mutual bombardment that left 121 Israeli soldiers dead and 628 wounded; forty-four Israeli civilians dead and several hundred wounded; an estimated 250 to 500 Hezbollah militants dead; and 1,191 Lebanese civilians dead, with 4,409 injured.
Oh God, He Said Talking to a Tree is a set of thirty-one framed prints, all but one featuring a small abstract shape at its center and a discreetly placed date and location in the lower right corner. Close inspection reveals the shapes to be billowing clouds of dust and debris, digital photographs of rocket strikes in Lebanon isolated from their original settings. While most of The Atlas Group’s documents are devoid of overt violence, Oh God freezes the exact moment of destruction.2 In individual prints, the clouds are almost insignificant, dwarfed by the vast expanse of white paper surrounding them, but collectively, they form a visual record of rocket attacks. In this case, like the Fakhouri File, the duration and scope of the information is incomplete—the thirty clouds represent the smallest fraction of rocket attacks on Lebanon. Beirut alone was bombed over one hundred times during the course of the conflict.
The final print in the set is a piece of text, an emphatic first-person description of Raad’s frustrations with the semantic discussions, statistics, and visual representations of the conflict, which he experienced first-hand. Sarcasm and fury are the driving literary devices, but beneath snide rhetorical remarks, it is possible to see the tactics he developed through The Atlas Group expanded upon and amplified. Through repetition, black humor, and the identification of binaries as false choices, Oh God emphasizes the very impossibility of subjecting this collection of photographs to future analysis. Removing the smoke clouds from their surroundings, Raad preemptively unmoors the photographs before they have had time to become what Susan Sontag refers to as “soft abstract pastness, open to any kind of reading.”3 In doing so, he anchors the images to his own caption—performing the work of the historian to his own end, and yet distinctly refusing to choose a side. Just as he refused to separate fiction from nonfiction, Raad’s text makes it known that any distinction made between arguments regarding the 2006 conflict is a fabricated one.
In a 2006 essay, the artist and writer Jalal Toufic asks, “Is the role of art to re-establish the search for truth in the aftermath of wars, with their many falsifications and distortions? Is it on the contrary to insinuate and extend the suspicion to reality itself?”4 Toufic leaves these questions unanswered, and they drive at the heart of the issues surrounding The Atlas Group and Raad’s practices. Raad believes art has an important and necessary role to play in the aftermath of wars: to reveal what has been lost even if it still appears intact. And his tactics for revelation borrow liberally from those of creating fiction. In his October 28 talk at CCA, he stated: “I think certain experiences and events happen in a place called fiction. Some facts for me are emotional, some are historical, some are political, and some are aesthetic.”5 Raad offers glimpses into this place, where countless narratives populate the same image. His work suggests that we might already operate in this world; it all depends on where we place our bets on what is real.
The Visiting Artist Profile series is supported by the San Francisco branch of the Kadist Art Foundation. Kadist participates in the development of society through contemporary art by collecting and producing the work of artists and conducting various programs to promote their role as cultural agents. The foundation also supports the work of curators, academics, and magazines internationally through its residency program and by hosting public events on Wednesdays and a Saturday Reading Room at its space at 3295 20th Street in the Mission.