Walid Ra’ad

I was introduced to the work of Walid Ra’ad and the Atlas Group by an artist friend of mine this summer, and want to look at it in more depth.

Ra’ad is based in Beirut and New York, and his work is published and/or exhibited under numerous alter egos – Dr. Fadl Fakhouri, Souheil Bachar, Operator #17, and the Atlas Group, among others. Since he changes what he says at different times and in different places according to the audience and their knowledge, he questions notions of truth, authenticity, authorship and history.

The majority of his work is centred on the Lebanese wars from 1975-1991, and he employs a range of media including photography, video and text to explore collective history through documentary representations of traumatic events. Although his works are all imaginary (and he explicitly makes this clear), audiences often mistake the works for truthful documents, which

…confirms to me the weighty associations with authority and authenticity of certain modes of address (the lecture, the conference) and display (the white walls of a museum or gallery, vinyl text, the picture frame), modes that I choose to lean on and play with at the same time.” (J Stallabrass (ed) Documentary, MIT Press 2013, p 194).

He uses the different media in different ways – photographs pasted in notebooks are then rephotographed and incorporated into multimedia presentations or videos that are then shown during performative pieces. Wow this guy is not only doing something original and focused, he is also blurring the borders between media and quite correctly using them all to create an integrated web of a breadth and depth that makes the work not only more persuasive, but also more permeating.

We are concerned with facts, but we do not view facts as self-evident objects that are already present in the world. One of the questions we find ourselves asking is, How do we approach facts not in their crude facticity but through the complicated mediations by which they acquire their immediacy? The Atlas Group produces and collects objects and stories that should not be examined through the conventional and reductive binary of fiction and nonfiction.” (ibid, p195)

This comes back to what I was exploring in the last module about fact and fiction not necessarily being mutually exclusive, an idea brought up by Robert Coles in his book Doing Documentary Work. As such, Ra’ad’s documents do not try to reduce history to a simple presentation of events as factual or made up since they are not based on a single individual’s interpretation, but as he says, they are hysterical documents – an agglomeration of fantasies erected from the material of collective memories“.

Ra’ad refers to the ‘Lebanese Civil War’ as an abstraction; this has partly to do with the great number of conflicting parties involved (various Lebanese political parties and their militias (Lebanese Forces, Mourabitoun, Amal, Hezbollah, Communist Party, and Progressive Socialist Party, among others), armies (Lebanese, American, French and Israeli, among others) and additional Arab militias, armies and parties (Palestinian, Syrian, Iranian, Libyan, Iraqi, and Saudi, among others) – quoted from an interview with Ra’ad published in Bomb magazine), as well as the different perspectives resulting from the multitudinous events, situations, modes of experience and discourse throughout the 15 years of conflict.

Due to the complicated history of the war/wars, the focus of the project has shifted from the conflict to a more general history of Lebanon in the past 50 years, with a particular emphasis on the history of the country since 1975.

A couple of the more thought-provoking works are “Notebook, volume 38: Already been in a Lake of Fire“, and 1991 “Notebook Volume 72, Missing Lebanese Wars”, 1996–2002.

The first is a series of pages from the notebooks of the fictitious Dr. Fadl Fakhouri, who has listed all the cars used as bombs from 1975 to 1991 –

Each page of the notebook contains a collage of an image of a car with the same make, model and color as the exploded car with a text in Arabic that gives the details of the place, time and date of the explosion, the number of people in the accident, the perimeter of destruction, the weight and the type of explosive. The images of the cars made visible are only equivalents since the cars that actually exploded are totally destroyed. Doctor Fakhouri made reconstitutions while the information collected in the media itself is subject to interpretation. The composition of these images in space is another distancing from the real fact.” (from the website kadist.org)

Although the event (we assume) actually occurred, the image of the vehicle is not the actual vehicle that was used, and the information that is recorded is at best third hand. What deductions can be drawn from the information we are given. What is the whole picture, if indeed there is one?

The second project is more interesting from a photographic point of view, since it directly involves the photographic moment and the photographer’s margin of error.

Lebanese historians were also gamblers during the war. They met every Sunday at the race courses. Race after race, the historians were positioned behind the press photographers who were there to take a picture of the winning horse passing the finishing line. The historians betted on how many fractions of seconds before or after passing the line the photograph would be taken. That is to say that no photo showed the horse on the finishing line. Each page of the notebook contains an image of the horse passing the finish line cut out of the Annahar newspaper on the following day. It features the annotations of doctor Fakhouri on the length and duration of the race, on the winning horse and his timing, his average speed, the initials of the different historians and their bets, the time between the snapshot and the passage of the finishing line, a very brief description of the winning historian (here the linguist).” (from the same website)

Since the historians knew that the photographer could never press the shutter at the exact moment the horse passed the finishing line, they bet instead on his margin of error – how many split seconds before or after the event the processed image would in fact show.

The point is that there was never any shot taken of the precise moment the horse actually passed the finishing line; as such, the press can be accused of disseminating false information. “The evidence about an event is not necessarily linked to the production of an objective document. There can be no certain objectivity with photographic material.”

The work also harks back to photographic history, recalling the work of Muybridge that ‘scientifically proved’ galloping horses have all four legs off the ground at the same time.

The contemporary citizen is being challenged more and more to try and understand the facts behind actions or events, especially when the evidence they are provided with seems to be unconvincingly self-evident. The recent downing of a Russian bomber by a Turkish fighter is testament to this when we compare the two apparently ‘true’ satellite or radar depictions of the flight path:

The notebook forced us to consider whether some of the events of the past three decades in Lebanon were actually experienced by those who lived them.” Were they lived, or were they imagined, just like the contents of the notebooks?

I like the way Ra’ad claims the territory of documentary without actually subscribing to the myth of documentary truth or objectivity; he conversely tries to show the fallacy of the objective view, and recreates ‘pseudo-objectivity’ through the commingling of subjective accounts. This is after all a recognized practice in some of the world’s major courts of law!

It is also fitting that Ra’ad uses historians, since history is after all a gathering of subjective accounts to produce what is purported to be an ‘objective’ version of events. This is some of the most intelligent and thought provoking work out there for me.

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