Understand the facts in Lebanon

Naomi Klein’s recent best-seller, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007), draws a parallel between the behaviour of individuals under torture or duress and an ideology the sees moments of collective crisis as “window[s] of opportunity” for global capitalist expansion. Klein traces the history of “free market” economic strategies that work like shock therapy on nations and communities dealing with the extreme social upheaval brought on by a crisis, such as was experienced under the South American dictatorships in the 70s, the Falklands War, the collapse of the Soviet Union and, more recently, as a result of the Iraq war and the devastation of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. According to Klein’s thesis, the experience of collective duress allows for a free-market economic strategy to be implemented without resistance from communities that are too disoriented to notice.

The history of civil war in Lebanon is almost cartographic, tracing a network of gains and losses that weave together relationships between international players. Trying to understand this experience becomes even more problematic when it enters the visual realm. Images of the war become informants, witnesses and straight-up propaganda. While the circulation and display of human atrocities is indeed, as Susan Sontag stated, “a quintessential modern experience” clearly the relationship between the visual object and the material reality of the traumatic event involves a complicated process of representation? The trauma precipitated by a real atrocity is by its very nature elusive and unnameable. The impossibility of communicating such an experience lends itself to a language characterized by visual metaphor, turning images into what Lisa Saltzman calls “unavoidable carriers of the unrepresentable,’ therefore making representation a “process of visualization as [apology].” Yet, the spectatorship of trauma, as viewed around the globe, is a part of everyday life. Media representations of catastrophic events are often political, shocking viewers into emotions of anger, sympathy or a hopeless sort of apathy. As we work to comprehend these images, interpretation becomes its own currency. If we hope to consider the political economy of the trauma image, we must ask ourselves, what is the value of empathy?


The work of Lebanese artist Walid Raad (sometimes known as the Atlas Group) negotiates the experience of trauma and the larger subjective understanding of its relationship to contemporary history. Raad’s art practice to date shows how art can unpack the complex relationships at play in the representation of trauma across physical and metaphorical borders. With homes in both New York and Lebanon, Raad’s work has been increasingly seen on the international biennale circuit since 2002.

His much-exhibited project The Atlas Group Archive, ongoing since 1990, consists of a series of fictional documents and files relating to the history of the Lebanese civil war. The documents include films, videotapes, photographs, notebooks and other objects. Accompanied by a lecture performed by Raad in its various editions, the archive is organized into three categories of files, which Raad describes during his lecture, as well as in the online version of the project. “Type A” files are identified as files that the Atlas Group has “produced” and attributed to imaginary individuals or organizations; “Type FD” refers to those files produced by the Atlas Group and attributed to anonymous individuals or organizations, making them “found files;” “Type AGP” is defined as files that are both produced by and attributed to the Atlas Group.

As a collection, or archive, these documents constitute a narrative of the history that lurks within the material realities of contemporary Beirut and the Lebanese civil wars. For example, one file is attributed to a fictional character, Dr. Fadl Fakhouri, now deceased, a man described by the Atlas Group as the “foremost historian of the Lebanese Wars.” According to the archive, Fakhouri bequeathed 226 notebooks and two short films to the Atlas Group, of which only two volumes of the notebooks and the two films “are currently made available for analysis and display.” Like other documents in the archive, one of these notebooks–Volume 72, titled “Missing Lebanese Wars”–presents an eccentric minor narrative, a romantic interpretation of the history surrounding the catastrophe of war.

The Atlas Group provides information on the notebook, stating: “It is a little known fact that the major historians of the Lebanese wars were avid gamblers. It is said that they met every Sunday at the race track–Marxists and Islamists bet on races one through seven, Maronite nationalists and socialists on races eight through fifteen. Race after race, the historians stood behind the track photographer, whose job was to image the winning horse as it crossed the finish line, to record the photo-finish. It is also said that they convinced (some say bribed) the photographer to snap only one picture as the winning horse arrived. Each historian wagered on precisely when–how many fractions of a second before or after the horse crossed the finish line–the photographer would expose his frame. [Each page of the notebook] includes a photograph clipped from the post-race-day issues of the newspaper, Al-Nahar, Dr. Fakhouri’s notations on the race’s distance and duration, the winning time of the winning horse, calculations of averages, the historians’ initials with their respective bets, the time discrepancy predicted by the winning historian …”
Other documents are equally obscure, ostensibly recording a history of the car bombs from 1975-1991 with information on the car models, the radius of the area affected by the blast and the distance the car motor might be thrown as a result of the explosion.

“The Secrets File” contains a series of photographs “found buried 32 meters under the rubble during the 1992 demolition of Beirut’s war-ravaged commercial districts” which are said to have been “analyzed” to recover “small black and white latent images … [of] individuals who had been found dead in the Mediterranean between 1975 and 1990.”

File Operator #17 is a single-channel video montage of the sunset on the seaside walkway in Beirut. Entitled, I only wish that I could weep (2000), the explanation for the footage states that “the seaside walkway was in fact a favourite location for political pundits, spies, double agents, fortune tellers and phrenologues,” forcing Lebanese security agents to keep an eye on “all this activity” by setting up cameras along the strip. The footage on the tape is revealed to be the security tape of one agent, Operator #17, who, according to the explanation, “every afternoon … diverted his camera’s focus away from its designated target and focused it on the sunset. The operator was dismissed in 1996 but he was permitted to keep his sunset video footage,” which he is supposed to have donated to the Atlas Group. Their website notes that in an interview the operator said “that having grown up in East Beirut during the war years, he always yearned to witness the sunset from the Corniche located in West Beirut.”


Of particular interest in The Atlas Group Archive is the way it juxtaposes the comprehension of trauma and the politics of trauma’s representation within the framework of globalization and its currency of images. Raad’s position as an international artist based in both New York and Beirut mediates his engagement with Beirut as a site of trauma. The specificity of Beirut as the site of traumatic investigation is in turn complicated by the elusive nature of the history of its 20-year civil war. Not only has the visual representation of Beirut been distorted in the imagination of the West by the mainstream media, but Lebanon has itself been without an official history since its independence in 1945. In his discussion of post-war Beirut, an account written prior to the 2006 summer’s Israeli-led invasion of Lebanon, Saree Makdisi looks at the problem of writing a history for a city in reconstruction. He states that:

the general reluctance to engage systematically with the war, to embark on a collective historical project to digest and process the memories and images, to salvage a history from all those fragments and moments–and hence to project a future based on the hope of the war’s genuine end–is partly a matter of public policy and partly a matter of a widespread popular will to deny. In contemporary Beirut, time itself bins not quite stopped, but certainly the discordant, uneven, unfinished, rough present looms larger than either an increasingly remote past or the prospect of a brighter future, both of which seem to be fading away, leaving Beirut stranded, cut off from the past and the future.
For Raad, the fictional archive of the Atlas Group is a project of imagining not only the trauma of loss, but also the loss of history itself. While Raad’s archive exists as a platform for the idea of failed investigation, Lebanon’s loss of history is ultimately the axis of his project and his attempt to construct an understanding of the effect of trauma on the time and space of the city. Often referring to scholar Jalal Toufic’s notion of “vampiric time” Raad sees the post-war experience of trauma as having much in common with the vampire faced with his disappearing reflection: he knows he is present, yet cannot comprehend his reflection in any mirror. In a very real way, the experience of car bombs, terror and the crisis of war scrambles notions of public and private, and the past, present and future, obscuring what is seen and what is understood. The memories of destruction and exposure become imprinted like vampiric reflections of the city. In a recent lecture, Raad questioned why he still finds it possible in Beirut to see through the walls of repaired buildings into imagined living spaces, as if their facades were still in ruins.

In contrast to the documentary image, Raad’s engagement with the subject of trauma in Lebanon is an act of negotiation, as well as a way to witness and translate the materiality of the traumatic event into a subjective impression. The viewer, as a witness to the artist’s testimony, becomes a participant in the narrative he produces; navigating the distance of time, experience and geography to create a subjective “structuring” of that trauma. Raad’s negotiations between his own position, the specifics of trauma and his “global audience” then become factors in the mediation of the affective space between global trauma narratives, the memory of experience and the politics of empathic response.

The documents of the Atlas Group Archive are constructed between and around the facts of the Lebanese civil wars and their specific indicators of trauma. They refer to car-bombing with a focus on the models of cars and the cartography of damaged roads. It refers to barricades and surveillance operations by way of a focus on the horizon. At the same time, a group of gambling historians obscures the traumatic history of Lebanon. Raad attempts to name the unnameable with fiction inspired by experience, accepting the mythologies of memory and history and using them to his advantage; in this way, he allows his own testimony to “unfold itself” in a contradiction of facts, misinterpretations and subconscious musings. A lens through which to view Raad’s fantastical testimony is Ernst Van Alphen’s notion of the “failed experience” of traumatic memory, which is not really an experience at all–it is a non-experience brought into existence only by narrative explication.

Raad’s fictionalized narratives are not only a way of representing something that denies representation. Fiction here also works as a subversive strategy in the currency of trauma, which tends to be consumed by viewers whose own experience is at a far remove from knowledge of the event. When looking at the archives, it becomes clear that the artist’s highly romantic minor narratives are seductive and consistently flavoured with nostalgia for the local and everyday. Raad’s constructed histories rarely break this ironic tension between fact and fiction; they are interwoven with small pieces of “truth” and plausible experience.

In the global spectacle of trauma, Raad ensures that the viewer’s empathic response is troubled by doubt. The artist’s representation of contemporary traumatic history is not a direct translation. As with the very nature of trauma, it is difficult to navigate between the “truth” and “fiction.” In this case, Raad leads the viewer strategically through his or her own Lacanian “missed encounter of the Real” Confronted with the “fictions” of his Archive, we are lost, without a history to rely on and unable to reach any solid conclusions about the car bombs, the building blow-outs and the disappearing cars Raad weaves into his narrative.

As viewers, are we seeing an authentic representation of the experience of the Lebanese Civil War? How much is Raad revealing, and how much is hidden, coded, outside of our understanding? This self-reflexive questioning constitutes what Dominick LaCapra has termed “attentive secondary witnessing” According to LaCapra, the “attentive secondary witness” uses this sort of empathic unsettlement to have a kind of virtual experience, while recognizing the difference between secondary witnessing and the direct experience of trauma.

Raad’s use of fiction suggests that he is aware of the pitfalls elucidated by LaCapra, in particular the appropriation of victimhood through empathic response. The lack of emotion in Raad’s constructions supports this interpretation–indeed, one reviewer states that “Rather than taking pleasure in arcana, Raad’s work exudes a mania for minutiae that turns melancholic and openly joyless. His art is like a detective report or a communique from a secret agent: Facts are related, occurrences indexed, detachment and delusion mingle with obsession.” While it contains a sense of curiosity and even humour, his investigation of the traumatic is riddled with contradiction: we know we are seeing a history of civil war yet we are denied the currency of the spectacle of graphic violence. For the viewer to be a witness, the possibility for self-reflection lies in the ability to see contradiction, negation and paradox. According to Sontag’s final treatise on the consumption of images, the viewer is always implicated: “So far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence. “In Raad’s reconstruction of traumatic history, in which images are clipped and collaged, and VHS video is intentionally blurred or shown in fast-forward, we, as viewers become part of an investigation of the experience of trauma that is complex and activated. We are seductively engaged in the process of understanding an experience in which it is not possible to believe, and which is impossible to render.

During his lectures, Raad discusses the prevalence of car bombs not only in the history of Beirut but in contemporary London, Madrid and Baghdad. He cites the thousands of car bombs in Beirut as events that can help us to comprehend a larger collective world crisis, one which must be understood as a fictional abstraction of reality. In future times of crisis and traumatic withdrawal, it will be our fantasies constructed from collective memories–where fiction-facts become the equivalent of historical facts–that will provide us with a real, if nebulous, platform from which to move forward.