Wondering what AFC is going to be covering next? Well, it certainly isn’t the Walid Raad Lecture last Saturday night at the Kitchen because I was turned away at the door with about twenty five others. It’s nice that the event was free, but it really doesn’t make a lot of sense, when you think that only last month Walid Raad spoke to a robust audience at the New School’s Tishman Auditorium, which seats 450, versus the 125 room capacity at the Kitchen. To take this into consideration would have saved two Kitchen employees from having to offer Raad’s next performance two months from now as some sort of consolation prize, and refusing five out of town special exception requests. Demonstrating that the name AFC has the weight of a Matthew Barney anorexic at the Kitchen, no doors were opened on my account either.
Since I had seen this particular lecture on a separate occasion, I figured all was not lost, and followed the rest of the Raad rejects upstairs to the exhibition space. The artist made an appearance upstairs two and half hours later, at which point, I was able only to ask him if he could answer a few questions, before he replied “I’ll have to email you in two weeks after I return” and was then immediately pulled in another direction by some stupid fan.
Now, I really don’t like to issue effusive praise, since there is almost no one who deserves that kind of attention, but you have to give credit where credit is due, and The Dead Weight of a Quarrel Hangs: Documents from The Atlas Group Archive is literally a work of genius. It’s not just that the documents presented exhibit a level of lyricism and intellect rarely achieved in the discipline, but that The Atlas Group itself aspires to be more than it already is.
So what is The Atlas Group? This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer without giving away the project, but a good beginning was provided by Raad in a talk I attended in 2001. He explained that it is a foundation established in 1976 by artist Mahia Traboulsi dedicated to the preservation of rare and unusual artifacts from the Lebanese civil war. Since there were no archives to speak of in the beginning stages of the project Traboulsi fabricated relics, and lectured about the group, until it gradually received enough notoriety that people began send the foundation their own materials for study and conservation. In 2001 Raad claimed replica’s of the original archived were never sent out for exhibition, for fear that they would be damaged, (though obviously this is meant to be a clue that they don’t exist in the first place). [SPOILER WARNING AHEAD] In light of this information, it seems rather obvious that Mahia Traboulsi is in fact, Walid Raad, and the organization is probably about as old as the date of his earliest acquisition (an presupposition that turns out to be incorrect; The Atlas Group was first conceived in 2000, though his earliest work in the show dates 1996).
Assuming you aren’t privy to the bit on Mahia Traboulsi, the piece Secrets in the Open Sea, is the most likely to clue you in to the hoax. It also happens to be the show opener.
According to the cataloguing information, the selected works above are part of a suite of twenty-nine prints found in the rubble of Beirut’s war torn commercial districts. When The Atlas Group sent them to a lab for technical analysis, small black and white group photos were found within each of the blue prints. The foundation was able to identify each of these people, who by incredible coincidence had all died in the Mediterranean Sea between 1975 and 1991.
The confluence of events in this piece is remarkable, so much so that the scenario is a little too far fetched to be plausible. Since Beirut borders the Mediterranean Sea it is not out of the realm of possibility that these people all died there during the civil war but it doesn’t make any sense that the presumably monochrome images were saved, much less that they actually bore an image. Clearly one of the objectives of this work is to put what appears to be fact into question, and since this piece does this less successfully than any of the other wall works in the show, to my mind, it is one of the weakest. Of course, even if this piece is less believable than others, Raad’s ability to develop accounts that catalogue time in unexpected ways inevitably results in engaging work.
Further demonstrating this, on an adjacent wall, is Notebook Volume 72: Missing Lebanese Wars, 1975-1991. In this series of prints, (an example of which can be seen below) major Lebanese civil war historians attend races not to bet not on the horses, but rather on how many fractions of a second before or after the horse crossed the finish line that the photographer would shoot the picture. The Dr. Fadl Fakhouri kept track of the results in a notebook, providing biographies of winning historians as well as all other relevant statistical information.
It stands to reason that the interests of those documenting the civil war would extend outside the discipline, so one tends not to question the legitimacy of these prints. In fact, it demonstrates that personal interest influences what is recorded and perhaps ones inclination to question it. Exposure time is not the most obvious thing in the world to bet on at a horse race, and I would be willing to wager that unless you are Mary-Anne Martin* and are therefore equiped with the best bullshit detector in the art world, it wouldn’t occur to you or most other art world people to question that the artist is of greater interest than some sporting event. Of course ultimately, the bet is not about the captured image, but rather where it will exist on a timeline. It’s the sort of thing that should borify the hell out of the piece, but because the work is so idiosyncratic and specific to a constructed narrative, it is anything but.
The point that imagined histories, are often indistinguishable from the real and will effect our understanding of historical events can not be understated in this work. Perhaps also as a means of demonstrating an inclination towards avoidance, the prints address the violence of a the civil war in a much less direct way than Notebook Volume 38: Already Been in a Lake of Fire, 1975-1991, a series of notebook pages of magazine clippings of the exact make, model and color of every car linked to a car bomb during the war, and Video Hostage: The Bachar Tapes(#17 and #31)_English Version, 1993-2002 a translated video account about “The Western Hostage Crisis”.
While the car bombing pages are a document of a Doctor’s fetishistic practice that makes use of public records of little consequence, The Bachar tapes (roughly) open by noting a parallel American behavior of describing the weather before they discuss captivity. Souheil Bachar, the only Arab to be held in captivity with Western hostages, and subject of the tape, suggests that this convention might be a result of feeling that what happened to them was natural and unpredictable. Bachar seems to at least in part, buy into this explanation, as shown later on in the tapes when he goes on to talk about the sexual tensions that grew between the men, his desire left unquestioned. Further enriching the story, Raad tells an audience that all American men who have written accounts of their own captivity, dedicate their books to their wives and their renewed faith in God. This, apparently is not a falsified fact, but I simply don’t have the resources to check that much out.
The video is by far in my mind the strongest piece in the show if only for the sheer volume of narrative information provided. With Raad, it seems the more information he can give us, the richer the work becomes. There is very little line between fact and fiction in this work, and the biggest clue that this piece is a “mocumentary” comes from the fact that the man who plays Bachar is movie star in Lebanon – something most of us would have no way of knowing. Given what is currently on display at The Kitchen, my behavior this week has been to read up on virtually anything the man has ever done. Assuming Raad responds to intense pestering, you will get to read about what he will be up to on AFC.
*Mary-Anne Martin has a reputation for being able to spot a fake and/or a hoax in mere seconds.