BY Saul Anton in Features | 01 JAN 03
Featured in
Issue 72

A Secret History

Walid Raad

BY Saul Anton in Features | 01 JAN 03

Hostage: The Bachelor Tapes (2001) consists of 53 tapes, only two of which are available outside Lebanon - 17 and 31. Shown by Walid Raad at Documenta 11, they present a man wearing a plain white tank top, speaking to the camera. He is sitting low - so low that he has to look up to the lens, as if he were addressing someone standing over him. The locale is nondescript, though wherever it is, it's not the man's home or his office. You imagine, instead, it could be a warehouse on the outskirts of town, or perhaps the basement of some abandoned building designed for purposes other than human habitation. And you wonder, who is this guy talking to you in Arabic?

His name is Souheil Bachar, he says, and he tells you that he was held hostage in Lebanon from 1983 to 1993. For three months of that period he was held with five Americans, the last of whom was released in 1991 and all five of whom, he tells you, eventually published memoirs of their captivity - accounts that, despite the common origin, differed substantially. In a similar gesture to theirs Bachar details the conditions of his captivity: the oppressive darkness and dank air; the slow psychological transformation of each prisoner; the gradual shift in the relation between himself and the Americans, in particular the sexual tension that filled the room.

The role of Bachar is played by a well-known Lebanese actor, easily recognizable to most Lebanese audiences but unknown outside his country. Walid Raad, a 35-year-old artist who teaches, currently, at the Cooper Union in New York and who founded the Atlas Group, an 'imaginary non-profit cultural research foundation' based in Lebanon, asked him to play Bachar because he figured that if Bachar didn't exist, he nevertheless 'would have to have been invented'. Among 'the thousands of documents' of the Atlas Group archive Bachar is only one of many such inventions. There are many others: for example, Fadl Fakhouri, the 'foremost historian of the Lebanese civil wars', who left 226 notebooks and two short films to the group at the time of his death. His films are the result of a curious practice, we are told. From 1975 to 1991 Fakhouri carried two 8mm cameras around, exposing a single frame of film on one of them every time he thought the wars had come to an end, and a single frame of the other every time he encountered a doctor's or a dentist's surgery. Two of his notebooks, selections of which were presented at Documenta 11, are available for consultation: volumes 38 and 72. Volume 38 contains 145 cut-out photographs of cars corresponding to the make, model and colour of every vehicle used as a car bomb during the 16 years of war, while volume 72 contains photographic documents of Lebanese historians - Marxists, Islamists, nationalists and Maronites - who would go to the races and bet on the exact moment a photographer would snap the picture of a horse crossing the finish line. Another videotape, I Think It Would Be Better if I Could Weep, comprises six minutes and 38 seconds of footage of the sunset, taken by a government agent in charge of monitoring and videotaping Beirut's La Corniche, a popular seaside boardwalk known to attract 'political pundits, spies, double agents, fortune tellers, and phrenologues'. The video cost the agent his job but he was allowed, we are told, to keep his videotape.

Walter Benjamin once wrote that 'there is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism'. 1 The archives of the Atlas Group perhaps imply the opposite: there is no document of barbarism that is not at the same time a document of civilization. Benjamin's famous reflection on the relation between art and history has not ceased to trouble art historians. Indeed, it suggests that the relationship has still not been properly worked out, to the extent that it is hard to say which of the two statements - Benjamin's original remark or its inversion - is the more disturbing. Benjamin implies that all cultural artefacts are the spoils of the victor. As such, the task of a historian is to unearth an image of what was destroyed precisely by the creation of the present cultural artefact, the victor's art. One can thus ask: if art history is the victor, what did it destroy? What lies buried beneath it? Paradoxically, however, once this history is unearthed, it becomes part of official history, and thus ceases to be a manifestation of what was destroyed. This is what Benjamin meant when he said that 'the past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again.' 2 The moment it is seized and becomes a historical artefact, it buries the past rather than reflects it. If it didn't, then history would never be the history of the victor, but the 'past as it really was'.

Perhaps tragically, the history of art is not very historical in Benjamin's sense of the word. His thesis demands, it would seem, that we regard the artwork as two-faced; that it is, in effect, less a presentation of the past than its crypt. As an artefact, it veils its history at the very moment when it presents itself as a historical document. Perhaps the simplest example is religious art. To us it's art, but because it's art we're no longer capable of grasping it as a religious experience. We grasp it as an aesthetic experience, as part of the history of a concept we're hard pressed to define. It becomes therefore an archival document and, as such, it simultaneously preserves and hides the past. Literally, it encrypts it. The Atlas Group is an elaborate machine of encryption and decryption, a machine that contains its own critique within itself, an aesthetic that consistently hardens into a crusty thing that seems less an aesthetic representation than an archaeological fragment.

It is this paradoxical movement of presentation and veiling that one can see operating in the work of Walid Raad and the Atlas Group archive project. When Raad founded the group in 1999, he had recently finished his dissertation on captivity narratives from the Lebanese civil wars, and he was well aware of the double nature of such histories - that, as documents of the past, they encrypt that past to the exact extent that they present it. It is this kind of encryption that is played and replayed by the group and by Raad's performances at, among other places, the Whitney Biennial, Documenta 11 and the City University of New York Graduate Center for Middle-East Studies. These take the form of lectures in which Raad presents himself as a scholar who is there to decrypt the documents he has uncovered and produced (he tells audiences right from the beginning that the documents are fictional), and which are presented on the screen. Still, it's nearly impossible to ask the kinds of questions one wants to ask when being presented with such incredible pieces of information. Are those really the engines of cars that were used as car bombs? The amazement one feels when looking at such objects - an amazement we're taught since childhood to experience when we're taken, for example, to look at the skeletons of dinosaurs (also historical fictions, we might add) - is the feeling we moderns are wont to have in the face of 'the past'. 'Wow, so this is the thing itself, the past sitting here in front of me, still here even though it's gone', one hears oneself saying, consciously or not. At that very moment, though, Raad wants to make us see, we lose track of the narrative form that this history really is, to be dazzled by something that is, in the end, unable to speak.

In this way the fictional archives that Raad presents ultimately refer back to the archive itself as artefact and repository of objects that could have been part of the Lebanese wars but which, in the official histories, remain insignificant. Beneath official history, he suggests, lies a mass of bizarre, senseless information - events, acts, gestures - none of which can possibly become meaningful in relation to the wars. It is these 'senseless' things that Raad tries to document. It is they that constitute Lebanon's other history. And because they are senseless, it's thoroughly irrelevant whether or not they 'really happened' or have been invented. What's important, perhaps, is that they are there in front of us, artefacts that demand our attention and to which we respond. Therein lies the impossible relation of art to history. And therein too lies the experience of the archive as the experience of our attempt to grasp history in art.

1. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, Schocken Books, New York, 1968, p. 256.
2. Ibid, p. 255.

Saul Anton writes about contemporary art and culture for many publications. He is former senior editor at BOMB Magazine and the author of Warhol’s Dream (2007) and Lee Friedlander: The Little Screens (2015). He teaches at the Pratt Institute, New York.