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WHITE WHALE REVIEW
Alana Kumbier
Alana Kumbier a research and instruction librarian at Wellesley College. She is also a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Comparative Studies at Ohio State University, and earned her M.A. in Comparative Studies in 2000, and her M.L.I.S. from the School of Library and Information Science at Kent State University in 2003. She has been published in Bust Magazine, Bitch, HipMama, and Technodyke.

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IMAGINING HISTORY: THE

ATLAS GROUP ARCHIVE

Alana Kumbier

In an essay on post-war Lebanese photography, Jalal Toufic renders the impact of the Lebanese Civil War in a set of figures: “In Lebanon, 100,000 people were killed in ten years of civil war compounded by war. Peacetime death rate per 1,000 pop.: 8. Lebanese population: 2,852,000. Number of natural deaths per year: 22,816. Excess period: the number of years it would take for 100,000 peacetime deaths to occur in Lebanon: 4.383” (73). These numbers quantify the war’s devastation, but describing and understanding the impact of the war years requires more than access to death tolls. To produce historical knowledge, individuals and groups must remember what happened – and decide how to represent these memories, or tell their stories. Artifacts and documents from specific historical moments support, complicate, or contradict narrative accounts; they are the material with which histories are articulated and consolidated. It would seem, then, that the project of articulating a history (or

even histories) of the Lebanese civil war would be a straightforward project: that if one collected enough documentation and gathered enough testimony, one could create a better, truer representation of the experience. But this is not the case. According to critic Britta Schmitz and historian Sune Haugbølle, the project is particularly difficult because there is no public discussion of the war, and the history isn’t a strictly national one, as any “historical representation is inevitably intermeshed with current Syrian, Israeli, Saudi, or American interests – not to mention the complexities of the preceding thousands of years in Lebanon” (42). History textbooks end with Lebanese independence in 1943, and don’t address controversial issues or themes. Schmitz’s account notes that a recent attempt to produce a revised textbook failed because “no agreement could be reached on how to handle the civil war” (42).

In the absence of a shared historical account (however flawed or partial), how is the war remembered? How is (shared) historic knowledge produced without public discourse? And how does a nation recollect and make sense of 15 years of civil war which, as a traumatic experience, may


resist individual and collective efforts at remembering?

The Atlas Group, an entity created by artist Walid Raad, has built an archive that responds to these challenges. The aim of the Atlas Group is to research and document the “contemporary history of Lebanon,” with a specific emphasis on events constituting “the Lebanese Civil Wars”1. The resulting archival collection is comprised of documents both fabricated and found, and includes notebooks, films, videotapes, and photographs. The Archive materializes in a variety of contexts: on the Atlas Group website, in publications of facsimiles of the files, in galleries where artifacts from the Archive are put on display, and in lecture-performances (in which Raad shows and tells stories about documents from the Archive). Documents in the Atlas Group Archive are organized into three types of file: Type A files, which contain documents that the Atlas Group produced and that it attributes to “named imaginary individuals or organizations;” Type FD files, which contain documents that the Atlas Group produced and that it “attributes to anonymous

individuals or organizations;” and Type AGP files, which contain documents that the Atlas Group produced and that it attributes to the Atlas Group (theatlasgroup.org).

The Atlas Group’s documents tell stories and give feelings and experiences material form. Objective truth, accurate representation, and “what really happened” aren’t the point of the Group’s work. Instead, the Atlas Group is “trying to find those stories that people tend to believe, [that] acquire their attention in a fundamental way, even if they have nothing to do with what really happened” (Raad, quoted in Wilson-Goldie). The Atlas Group Archive is both an object and an agent, encouraging its viewers to develop new strategies for encountering the archive, and for understanding documents as cases – of “inarticulate experiences, of symptoms and screen memories, of spiraling affects, of more than one story at a time, of the traffic in domains of experience that are anything but transparent and referential” (Gordon 1997 25). The Group aims to foment public remembering and to facilitate moments of recognition around an unsettled past, an extended period of extreme


“physical and psychic violence” (Raad 2001).

This way of knowing about the past – feeling, remembering, and recognizing both the conscious and unconscious dimensions of life during and after the civil wars – demands a particular archive, one that requires its creators and viewers to renegotiate the terms through which they engage both this particular archive and its traditional counterparts. The Atlas Group asks us to pay attention to how we produce (traditional) historic narratives, and suggests we try to access and comprehend the past through different means. The Archive emerges from a series of complex negotiations: between experiential, affective, and factual knowledge; between individual and public memory; figuring out where (and how) to look for evidence of feelings and events that resist representation.

Given all of the ways in which The Atlas Group Archive is exceptional, we might ask why this documentary project takes the form of the archive – instead of simply existing as an art and performance project. What does the archive offer Raad and The Atlas Group, and what do they offer

the archive? We understand archives as repositories of real, material evidence; as places without politics, supporting the articulation of objective truths and unified historical accounts. They house and organize records of historical, legal, or other kind of evidentiary significance. These collections of records support distinctions between the past and present, the real and the imaginary. We expect archival records to function like snapshots, capturing and representing a past moment, validating the claim that this happened then, and reminding us who was there. The Atlas Group draws our attention to this set of archival and photographic logics – past/present, representative/opaque, and real/imaginary – as it disrupts them. Through its fabricated documents, donated by imaginary individuals, and contextualized with invented origin stories, the Archive challenges us to develop new ways to comprehend the past.

What does it mean to say that archives and photographs share a set of logics? And how do these logics matter when we consider the Atlas Group Archives? It helps to think about how photographs


work. In his seminal study of photography, Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes sought to identify and reveal the essential characteristics of the photograph, and to explain how photographs function and why they are effective in specific ways. Barthes attributes the photograph’s particular effects to the referential and temporal qualities of the photographic image. Photographs testify to and certify the existence of a real thing, the subject of the photograph. Though photographs may be framed, selected, and developed in ways that influence what we see, these manipulations don’t alter the camera’s ability to document an object, person, or scene that existed at the moment the photograph was taken:

 

I call ‘photographic referent’ not the optionally real thing to which an image or sign refers but the necessarily real thing which has been placed before the lens, without which there would be no photograph. […] In photography, I can never deny that the thing has been there. There is a superimposition here: of reality and of the past. And since this

constraint exists only for Photography, wemust consider it, by reduction, as the very essence, the noeme of Photography. What I intentionalize in a photograph (we are not yet speaking of film) is neither Art nor Communication, it is Reference, which is the founding order of Photography. (76)

 

Barthes terms this noeme of photography “that-has-been”; the fact that a photograph shows us something that has existed, that this thing has been seen is a truth we “[experience] with indifference, as a feature which goes without saying” (77). The referential nature of the photograph also contributes to its evidentiary function. Describing his experience viewing Avedon’s photographic portrait of William Casby, an African American man who had been enslaved (or, as Barthes describes it, was “born a slave”), Barthes writes that:

 

The noeme here is intense; for the man I see here has been a slave: he certifies that slavery has existed, not so far from us; and he certifies


this not by historical testimony but by a new, somehow experiential order of proof […]. I remember keeping for a long time a photograph I had cut out of a magazine […] which showed a slave market: the slavemaster, in a hat, standing; the slaves, in loincloths, sitting. I repeat: a photograph, not a drawing or engraving; for my horror and my fascination as a child came from this: that there was a certainty that such a thing had existed: not a question of exactitude, but of reality: the historian was no longer the mediator, slavery was given without mediation, the fact was established without method. (79-80)

 

In Barthes’ reading of Avedon’s photograph, the photograph is at once representative and evidential: in two dimensions, it re-presents the subject of the photograph (the referent) as he appeared in front of Avedon’s camera; the portrait and magazine photographs prove that this person, and the systems of enslavement into which he was born, existed. Barthes suggests that when we look at

a photograph, we become certain because we are confronted with evidence of a past that we cannot deny.

When we encounter archival photographs, we look at them with the expectation that they will provide proof of an historic reality (an event, object, or experience). We expect to gain factual knowledge through looking, and this expectation informs how we make sense of images that claim to document the past. Following this logic, when we view photographs in the Atlas Group Archive, we expect to know more about the history of the Lebanese civil wars, to become certain about what happened (because we’re seeing evidence of something that has been). Documents in the Archive take familiar documentary forms: photographs, field notes, and videos. They look like evidence, like the material effects of witnessing, observing, and recording, but they don’t act like traditional archival records. They depict objects and scenes, but don’t enable the kind of certainty Barthes experienced looking at his photographs, which show people who were enslaved, and the places where trading occurred. The scenes depicted


documents don’t bear such a clear relation to the Lebanese civil wars (i.e., they don’t show the direct effects of invasions, massacres, or bombings). Often, they direct our gaze elsewhere: toward the sun setting over a boardwalk, signs advertising doctors’ offices, or photographs of horse races. The documents are products of an observational practice (someone had to look in order to take or find the photographs); they show us things that have existed. But because they aren’t directly referential or representative (of the wars), and their evidential value is questionable (they are, after all, the products of imaginary individuals collected by an imaginary foundation), they resist assimilation into a chronology, and cannot be used to fill lacunae in an existing account of the wars. They require a different kind of regard and yield an alternative mode of comprehension.

Framing images and histories

Documents in the archive draw our attention to the ways in which photographs depicting historical events are (always, already) temporally distinct from the events themselves. Notebook Volume 72: Missing Lebanese Wars (Vol. 72), by Dr. Fakhouri

is one such document. According to the description that accompanies the Fakhouri File, “[until] his death in 1993, Dr. Fakhouri was the most renowned historian of Lebanon. At the time of his death and to everyone’s surprise, the historian bequeathed hundreds of documents to The Atlas Group for preservation and display2” (Raad 2004). Notebook Volume 72 is part of Dr. Fakhouri’s generous donation to the Archive, which included “226 notebooks, 24 photographs, and 2 films” (2004). At present, three notebooks, two films, and one set of photographs have been made available to the public (via the Atlas Group website, exhibitions, and Raad’s lectures).

Vol. 72 documents the betting habits of a group of historians who would go to the races together every week. The Atlas Group provides this description of their outings:

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 it 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. (Raad 2004)

 

The photographs in the notebook illustrate the degree to which the photographer -- and his camera – missed capturing the exact moment the horse crossed the finish line. As such, they are records of the anticipation of the event, or the moment after it is passed. The racetrack photographs are highly mediated, both before and after their inclusion in Dr. Fakhouri’s notebooks. Because the historians encouraged the production of a single image, the Lebanese public only saw an approximate

representation of the horse winning the race. The historians’ betting practice recognizes that the human-operated camera cannot exactly document and represent the thing they are witnessing (history-in-the-making). The photographs in Vol. 72 remind us of a chain of temporal disjunctions between the moment of the event and its representation: between the horse crossing the line and the photographer snapping the shot (and then exposing the film), between the picture being taken and developed from a negative, between printing in the darkroom and publication in the paper, between their publication and incorporation in Dr. Fakhouri’s record, and (finally, for those of us looking at the Archive) between their inclusion in the notebook and its exhibition. The track photographs can capture a moment when the winning horse was on the track, and in this way, can offer certainty that this horse and this rider were on that track on that day (and won). But looking at the pages of the notebook, which include much more than photographs, it’s clear that the images of the horse crossing the finish line don’t tell us enough about what happened on a given day at the races – and definitely don’t convey the more interesting


aspects of that experience.

During his trips to the track, Dr. Fakhouri would note the distance and time of the race, the time of the winning horse, the historians’ bets, and the “time discrepancy predicted by the winning historian” (2004). These notes are accompanied by photographs, clipped from the newspaper, on which the historians placed their bets, as well as paragraphs (written in English) describing the winning historian (e.g., “Avuncular rather than domineering, he was adept at the well-timed humorous aside to cut tension,” or “What mattered to her most was to avoid anything that might be reminiscent of empathy.”) (2004). Dr. Fakhouri’s descriptions imbue each historian with a distinctive personality, history, or perspective, and remind us that individual authors, with their specific perspectives, are responsible for writing the history of the Lebanese wars. These (imaginary) Lebanese war historians have interests and ideologies that inform the way they observe and interpret a given historic moment. The historian who “will not respect you if you speak literally,” preferring parables to other forms of speech, will tell a story

 

 

differently than the one who “always pointed the finger at assorted rogues, morons, neo-colonialists and an imagined conspiracy of Jewish currency traders who he says are bent on keeping his country poor and servile” (2004). And because they’re betting on separate races, the historians are not all watching the set of events that comprise the Sunday races with the same level of interest and attention; they have stakes in some races more than others.

Together, the elements on each notebook page– the photographs, notes, and descriptions – suggest that even a clearly-defined event, which can be witnessed and clearly defined in time and space (i.e., the moment a horse crosses a finish line) becomes complicated in the hands of historians.

Hysterical symptoms

Dr. Fakhouri’s other notebooks, Notebook Volume 38: Already Been in a Lake of Fire (Vol. 38) and Notebook Volume 57: No, Illness Is Neither Here Nor There3” (Vol. 57), aren’t as rich in narrative or observational detail as Vol. 72. In both notebooks, people and place are excised from the photograph and the page; each notebook contains


images cut out of original photographs. On pages in Vol. 38, the cut-out photographs of cars are accompanied by notes on the [date time – what’s in the notes]. The photographs in Vol. 57 depict signs advertising doctors’ offices. Photographs are grouped and pasted onto the pages of Vol. 57 by medical specialty – the pages are devoid of additional data or commentary.

Where Vol. 72 provides viewers with contextualizing numbers and descriptions, and moves us back and forth through time (from the day the bets were placed, to the day the image was published in the paper, and then pasted into the notebook), it’s unclear when the images in the other notebooks were taken, and over what period of time Dr. Fakhouri collected them. The photographs of cars in Vol. 38 are annotated with dates, locations (the places the bombings occurred), and death tolls. One could argue that the photos add a layer of data to what’s already known about the bombings. But of what use is this data? The Atlas Group leaves significant aspects of Dr. Fakhouri’s research and documentation practice – like motivation, rationale, or intent – open to imagination and

interpretation. What would these pictures offer a historian trying to write about the wars?

Instead of providing us with information that could (significantly) determine the meaning of the notebooks, the Group presents them as products of one historian’s practices of looking and comprehending. By framing the notebooks in this way, the Atlas Group asks us to attend to the practices articulated through the books (e.g., looking, documenting), and to understand these archival objects as the material traces of Dr. Fakhouri observing and documenting daily life in Beirut, during the wars. This focus on practice and action resonates with the Group’s overarching approach to the wars. Raad describes his “working hypothesis” in the following terms: “’The Lebanese Civil War’ is not a self-evident episode, an inert fact of nature. This war, or rather the wars, are not constituted by unified and coherent objects situated in the world. On the contrary, ‘The Lebanese Civil War’ is constituted by and through various actions, situations, people, and accounts” ([ctrl]space, 2001, para. 2). Where traditional historical events “[tend] to concentrate on what


really happened, as if it’s out there in the world, and [tend] to be the history of conscious events,” Raad posits that “[most] people’s experience of these events…is predominantly unconscious and concentrates on facts, objects, experiences, and feelings that leave traces and should be collected” (Wilson-Goldie). Dr. Fakhouri’s notebooks are such traces; they suggest how a person might experience and make sense of the war, both during the years of its occurrence and after, through recordings of facts, minutiae, and photographs of everyday objects. Objects depicted in the notebooks aren’t compelling or spectacular; they are things likely overlooked (in both senses of the word: things seen often, repeatedly, as part of everyday life, and/or ignored because of their commonality or ubiquity). But the question remains: why these objects and not others?

When describing documents in the Atlas Group Archive4, Raad turns to Freud’s understanding of trauma and its effects to explain why the Archive’s documents don’t necessarily “represent” the Civil Wars. He refers to documents in the archive as hysterical symptoms that “present imaginary

 

events constructed out of innocent and everyday material. Like hysterical symptoms, the events depicted in these documents are not attached ‘to actual memories of events, but to cultural phantasies erected on the basis of memories’ (Raad 2001). As such, the function of the documents – and the Archive itself – isn’t to “[uncover] the truth of memories […] as a meaning to be decoded,” but to investigate “the meaning of the processes of remembering, and of what brings one to remember something incompletely and thus to remember something as forgotten” (Cowie 197). Documents in the Archive do not (cannot) locate or represent the traumatic event (the origin of the trauma). Instead, they constitute a post-traumatic representational practice, one focused on how subjects come to know or register the events that comprise the “Lebanese civil wars”. Unlike Barthes’ photographs, or traditional archival records, they don’t foster certainty. Instead, they create means to represent “not only the reality of the violent event but also the reality of the way that its violence has not yet been fully known” (Caruth qtd. in Cowie 191).

 


Documents in the Atlas Group Archive are evocative objects, agents of personal and collective “remembering. The Archive is an entity and a practice of historical articulation, in which comprehension happens through documentation, instead of from documents. It offers us a means to explore “what can be imagined, what can be said, taken for granted, what can appear as rational or not, as thinkable and sayable about the civil wars” (Raad 2001).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © Alana Kumbier. White Whale Review, issue 1.1


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