BY Bert Rebhandl in Reviews | 01 JAN 07
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Issue 104

I Feel a Great Desire to Meet the Masses Once Again

BY Bert Rebhandl in Reviews | 01 JAN 07

N379P. N581GA. N85VM. N44982. These mysterious ciphers, so we were informed by Walid Raad in an appropriately eerie lecture/performance at the Hebbel Theater am Ufer in Berlin, are the ‘tail numbers’ of aircrafts reportedly used by the FBI to secretly transport people across international borders without having to present themselves to any officials beyond the innermost circles of American governmental power.

Watching an artist deliver material about clandestine ‘Homeland Security’ activities as if he were an investigative journalist for the New York Times or the Washington Post (newspapers that actually report a lot of the facts he draws on) could easily set the audience at a certain distance. But Raad commenced his one-hour PowerPoint presentation with a personal anecdote, thus successfully engaging his listeners from the outset.

In December 2005, the artist wanted to fly from Rochester in upstate New York to New York City. He was in the company of his family, and nothing about the trip suggested anything extraordinary. Unfortunately, however, Raad was carrying quite a lot of his work, which has always dealt with archival material, in his suitcase. Indeed, it was one of Raad’s most famous images (famous, at least, within the confines of the art world) that appeared the most suspicious to officer Pat Pontecello from the FBI, who showed up to ask a few questions: why, he wondered, would a man from the Middle East be carrying a picture of a bombed car bearing an Arabic inscription?

Neither Pontecello nor Sergeant Matt McGrath, who had first contacted the FBI, had ever heard of The Atlas Group or their work regarding the civil war in Lebanon in the 1980s. They were more interested in finding out whether Raad belonged to Hezbollah, or was supplying the Shiite extremist group with information. Ultimately, however, although art had been partly responsible for the predicament Raad found himself in, it also presented a solution: Pontecello, who ‘also paints and draws occasionally’, as Raad quoted wryly, eventually let the suspect go.

But the suspect didn’t let the experience go, and started to follow the thread of his own story. He was startled by how much of such material ‘lends itself to mapping’. In doing so Raad linked his story to that of several other groups and people around the globe, who for equally dubious reasons had become investigation targets for American law enforcement. The audience listed intently when he spoke at length about Steve Kurtz, a member of the Critical Art Ensemble from Buffalo, New York, who became famous when the FBI discovered his work dealt with biological agents. Kurtz had also been to Berlin, shortly before the untimely death of his wife – an event made all the more tragic because it was the paramedics who were called in to help who alerted the FBI to Kurtz’s activities.

Raad closed the evening with an interesting remark about a certain shift in his practice: talking about one’s work has become a predominant obligation for artists, he claimed, because art – especially by ‘interventionists’ like himself or Kurtz – depends on explication in times of unrest. And Raad’s detailed explanations extended right down to noting each tail number of each aircraft linked to a certain P.O. Box only a few blocks from the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

Bert Rebhandl is a journalist, writer and translator who lives in Berlin. He co-founded and co-edits Cargo magazine.