Archival Precedent: Walid Raad | The Atlas Group

Elizabeth Moran’s investigation into the origin of fact-checked news in the company archives at TIME magazine, Against the Best Possible Sources, concerns the (im)possibility of truth in both method and content. Henry Luce and Briton Hadden founded TIME magazine in 1923, we learn from Moran, as an “exhaustively scrutinized” alternative to the sensationalized, rapid-fire news media of the era. Luce and Hadden held fast to their belief not only that the public deserved verified, fact-based news, but that the facts of an event are, in fact, objective. The writers at TIME did not fact-check their own information, but rather depended on a group of young, well-educated women to follow up with extensive research to confirm “the truth.” So by the time of publication, a minimum of four people have interpreted a story through their own subjective lens: the writer, the fact-checker, the primary source, and the magazine editor.

Seeking more information about the earliest fact-checkers at TIME (the first publication to employ them), Moran turned to the source, the corporate archives of the magazine itself, expecting to find first-person accounts of their groundbreaking quest for verifiable information. Ironically, but perhaps not surprisingly, she found almost nothing directly from the women who laid the foundation for TIME’s journalistic integrity, but rather gleaned their stories through second-hand accounts from their male colleagues. Through considered selection and recombination of these questionable materials, Moran composes a structuring narrative for Against the Best Possible Sources, that in its inherent subjectivity raises questions about an archive’s ability to contain any measure of historical truth.

Moran’s  self-professed “preoccupation with the subjectivity of facts” owes much to artists who have mined archives or mobilized archival structures to uncover lost historical information, but more importantly to investigate how we represent, remember, and evaluate history. These artists’ work projects provide an important context for appreciating Elizabeth Moran’s research-based practice. One of the most important is the Lebanese-born contemporary artist Walid Raad. Born in Chbanieh, Lebanon in 1967, raised until the age of 16 in East Beirut, Raad grew up in a country ravaged by successive civil wars (1975-1991). His work in photography, performance, video, collage, and performance is highly informed by his experience growing up during the wars, and the socioeconomic and military policies that came afterwards. He’s best known for his long-term project, The Atlas Group (1989-2004): a fictional foundation—and archival repository—established to house, preserve, and contextualize a variety of documents and images related to the contemporary history of Lebanon, specifically the civil wars. In 2007,  The Nationalgalerie im Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart – Berlin hosted the first large-scale solo exhibition of the Atlas Group works. Its catalog, The Atlas Group (1989-2004): A Project by Walid Raad, edited by Kassandra Nakas and Britta Schmitz, is included in the supplementary materials to Moran’s exhibition on the first floor of featured items in the Hamon Arts Library.

As the preface to the catalog explains, Raad’s work focuses on questions of subjectivity and personal experience, and how those individual memories might relate to the larger telling or fabrication of history.1 In her curatorial essay, “Not a Search for Truth,” Britta Schmitz underscores Raad’s starting premise that history isn’t constituted by clearly defined artifacts. She quotes Raad, “On the contrary, ‘The Lebanese Civil War’ is constituted by and through various actions, situations, people, and accounts.”2 The lack of an official account of what happened in the civil wars is compounded by the fact that until recently, the Lebanese government has surpassed any remembrance of the war, so its official truth has never entered public discourse, and any retelling of the stories are complicated by contemporary military and socioeconomic conditions in the Middle East.3

Taking a step back, for those who are not familiar with the complexities of the Lebanese civil wars, it is important to establish a baseline understanding of recent Lebanese history, however limited it might be in providing a structure to comprehend it. I admit here, that I am utterly outside of my breadth. My research to better understand the conflict sent me down rabbit holes trying to determine what I could understand to be fact. Events cited in one article as generally established truths, sometimes seemed impossible to back up—which is Raad’s point. In 1975, violence erupted between Maronite Christians and Palestinians as well as between Shiite and Sunni Muslim groups against a backdrop of a country deeply divided along religious and ethnic lines. As the war progressed, the fragile political system in the country (which was rooted in a French colonial agreement) fractured further along religious and ethnic lines, by some estimates into 186 different warring factions.4 How could any sense of a unified historical clarity ever come about from so many conflicting perspectives—when the number of reported casualties of the war varies by tens of thousands. Ostensibly, the wars ended in 1989 with the Ta’if Accord. The agreement established three key points – a modified system of the sectarian division of power that had been so tenuous before the war, the eventual passing of an amnesty law pardoning all political crimes up to that point, and the disarming of all militia groups with the exception of the Hezbollah in 1991.5

Unlike Moran, who worked within a preexisting archive of material, Raad develops his own—leaning on the public’s understanding of an archive as a politically neutral space of unquestionable historic authority. However, the content of the documents contained within the Atlas Group archive reflect the impossibility of recording historic events. Each document—photo albums, videos, recorded events—are identified as donations to the archive by a particular person (real or imaginary), and resemble private materials that one might add to a public historic collection. However, like the foundation that contains them, the documents are imaginary, and don’t provide many objective data points for viewers to piece together the narrative of the Lebanese Civil War. When looking at the extensive body of work contained within the Atlas Group archive, it becomes clear that none of the documents are totally fabricated. Raad appropriates and mediates primary source materials as well as his own photography to fit into his complex web of characters, stories and performances. His works deliberately confuse the real and the imaginary not to trick viewers, but in service of creating meaning. They combine details drawn from many sources, such that they become documents of collective memory rather than from the individual that they’re attributed to. In doing so, the fictional archive acknowledges a multiplicity of voices and the unreliability of memory than any single narration of history would be able to do.

An early project of The Atlas Group, Notebook Volume 72: Missing Lebanese Wars (1989/1998) is often cited as a particularly good example of the way that Raad uses fictionalized archival materials to interrogate the truth-making capacities of any archive. One of many documents attributed to an esteemed, but fictional historian, Dr. Fadl Fakhouri, it describes, in the form of a personal journal entry, an outing with fellow historians at the horse-races. Rather than wagering on which horse would win, these historians—identified as representatives from several religious or sociopolitical groups—put their money on “how many fractions of a second before or after the horse crossed the finish line—the photographer would expose his frame.”6 Here, all legitimate sources of information fail to provide indisputable truth. The photo of the racehorse, was taken from the Beirut-based daily newspaper, An-Nahar, but from many years after the war. These historians, supposed arbiters of history, place bets on the degree to which a photograph proves unable to represent an event or provide concrete, visible proof, and none of them guess the exact number. The winner of the race—or the events of history—become secondary to the efforts to approximate what happened.7 The Atlas Group project, as Nakas and Schmitz discuss in detail, uses appropriation and narrative to present historical truth as something constructed by many, rather than apprehended by a powerful few.

The tenuous peace that followed the Lebanese civil wars, one that divided power between the nation’s eighteen recognized religious sects, and according to the New York Times “effectively institutionalize[d] corruption, with each group able to dole out government jobs, contracts, favors, and social services to its followers,” reached a breaking point on October 17 of this year.8 Massive protests broke out following a proposed tax on voice over internet protocol use, a feature used by various messaging applications like WhatsApp, which is the primary mode of communication for most citizens.9 Though the tax was repealed, the backlash against a leadership bent on exploiting sectarian divides to hold on to power has continued. Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese citizens, from every background and class, are demanding new leadership, and an end to the cronyism and corruption that has ruled the country since the alongside its political legacy. Walid Raad’s Atlas Group works deserve a revisiting in light of these major societal changes.

– Allison Klion, Hawn Gallery Project Manager

1. [Kassandra Nakas, and Britta Schmitz, preface to The Atlas Group (1989-2004): a project by Walid Raad, edited by Kassandra Nakas and Britta Schmitz (Köln: Buchhandlung Walther König, 2005), 39.]

2. [Britta Schmitz, “Not a Search for Truth,” The Atlas Group (1989-2004): a project by Walid Raad, by Kassandra Nakas, Britta Schmitz, and Walid Raad (Köln: Buchhandlung Walther König, 2005) 41.]

3. [Ibid., 42.]

4. [Sandra Mackey, Mirror of the Arab World: Lebanon in Conflict (New York: W. W. Norton, 2008), 119.]

5. [“The Lebanese Civil War and the Taif Agreement,”Hassan Krayem, American University of Beirut Libraries, (accessed December 6, 2019).]

6. [Schmitz, “Not a Search for Truth,” 43.]

7. [Ibid..]

8. [Vivian Yee and Hwaida Saad, “To Make Sense of Lebanon’s Protests, Follow the Garbage,” The New York Times, December 3, 2019. (accessed December 6, 2019). ]

9. [Tala Ramadan, “Lebanon’s revolution on its 39th day: An ongoing momentum,”An Nahar, November 24, 2019. (accessed December 6, 2019). ]

Featured image: “Very Fast (Flying Horse),” by Mark Smith is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

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