It's said that when a car bomb explodes, the engine is often thrown from the vehicle and can land in the strangest places. On roofs, on balconies, in alleys, and sometimes, tragically, on innocent bystanders. In Lebanon during the Civil War (1975 - 1991) car bombings were frequent, and while covering the war, photojournalists began to engage in competitions to be the first to find the ejected engines. They would photograph the engine with the leading police investigator standing to one side: stiff investigator, broken pavement, smashed balcony, smoking engine, would all show up in the next day's newspaper. This morbid sport, played in the front pages of the dailies, went on for years, and surprisingly no one seemed to find it all that strange.
At least this is how Walid Ra'ad explained it to me as I interviewed him in a cafe on Manhattan's Upper East Side two weeks before his March 27th performance as part of the 2002 Whitney Biennial. The story came up towards the end of our interview, which had already covered a lot of territory: the Iran-Contra affair, historical trauma, September 11th, hostage psychology, concepts of audience, the fictional and the factual -- but more on that later. I was busy sorting out this engine story, and deciding whether or not to believe it. Almost on cue, Walid continued:
"It's actually true. There are all these photographs published in Lebanese newspapers of the front end with the investigator next to it. I introduced the photographs during a presentation -- I've been collecting them. Up to this point I'm telling the story, and then I introduced the photo, and one person who had seen the performance a number of times said that it was a very important moment. There was something very unnerving about it, you can't tell, you're thrown back into asking: What is this material constructed out of?"
A performance by Walid Ra'ad might proceed like this: A dark room, a screen and a lit desk, set up as if for a Sunday afternoon tea-time lecture. Walid, behind the desk, gives a short introduction to the Atlas Group, usually described as "a non-profit cultural research foundation based in Lebanon". Walid is of course a member, but you may not be so clear on who else is part of this phenomenally prolific foundation. Then begins the slide presentation of the Atlas Group's archive: things might start off with a Lebanese historian's private drawings of every car blown up during the Civil war. Taped interviews with a Lebanese man held with the Americans by Islamic militants during the hostage crisis might follow.
The incredibly bizarre material in the Atlas Group's archive begins to seem like the product of obsessed historians, archivists with too much free time, and photographers with an eye for the beautifully banal. As you listen, incredulity settles in. Downright disbelief quickly follows, leading perhaps to absolute cosmic doubt. Charmed fascination, irritation, smug reservation, nervous giggles, or deep, glossy-eyed meditation could quickly follow. In any event, you are experiencing one of the key moments of Walid's performances.
This is how things proceeded until recently. Slowly, over the past couple of years, the game of deception became unpalatable to Ra'ad -- it seemed at times unfair, a bit facile, and was distracting the audience from what he really wished to speak about. Occasionally, giggling insiders believed that they had a pact with the author against everyone who wasn't in on the charade.
I asked him about Souheil Bachar, the man mentioned above, whom the Atlas Group describes as having been kept in captivity in Lebanon with the American hostages during the hostage crisis of the 1980s. Bachar produced 53 videotaped interviews about his captivity, and, according to the Atlas Group, "Tapes #17 and #31 are the only two tapes Bachar makes available outside of Lebanon." Walid insists that the man was real. Sort of. Or, at least in the published memoirs, every American hostage mentions such a man.
"The people I talked to even doubted that this guy ever existed," he explained, "which became the occasion to imagine his testimony. It is clear that it is not about him, but he became the object on which the Americans hostages displaced and projected their own anxieties about captivity, about forced cohabitation, and about fears of rape from the captors. It was less about him than about them. So I chose to invent him as opposed to finding him."
"So, this man seemed to be more of a rumor of a person," I responded. "Originally, though, you presented him as the real thing?"
"Yes. But the main character is played by a well-known Lebanese actor, so he's less likely to be confused in Lebanon. But outside, he is usually confused as a real hostage. Sometimes it doesn't really bother me that it is thought to be real. And then at other times, I'm a bit troubled by the confusion."
The confusion is what will either attract you to Walid's work, or force you to hold it at a suspicious distance. The moment is not exactly Brechtian, but it is alienating -- it can be slightly exhilarating, and rarely disappoints. But why exactly use this approach? Why not just speak about the material without all the fictionalizing, false names, and multiple personalities? Walid nodded his head and responded:
"For example, in the case of the hostage: you can do a cultural critique of the books written by the hostages and present it as such, and in a public forum you will always be accused that this is just your reading of it. You'll be marginalized because you're supposedly reading too much into it.
If it were a hostage doing the same thing, those same challenges can't be made on the same terms. You can't tell them that they are reading too much into it. That subject-position has a right to speak. So, in a way, it was trying to find what subject-positions can speak. Attributing these documents to them, as if they were real, and letting them speak authoritatively."
I quickly pointed out that deception may in fact do the opposite: it undermines the speaker's authority, especially concerning the researches of academic historians and the confessions of supposed former hostages. This perhaps is why Walid has begun to present the works as a fiction from the get-go -- a fiction can still be convincing, even if from the beginning one knows it is false. The approach lets the material begin to breathe a little more easily. People don't feel tricked, and sensitive egos don't leave the museum bruised. It's an interesting direction, but I still didn't believe the smoking engine story for a minute.
We began our discussion by focusing on the subject matter itself, and more specifically on how the work is received by Lebanese audiences. Walid originally presented the work in 1999, when it was still in its infancy, at the Ayloul Festival, a contemporary art festival in Beirut. He then presented it again during a year-long residency at the American University of Beirut and at the Université Saint Esprit de Kaslik. At the American University, the discussion got mired in questions about how the work was presented, and never even got to the Lebanese Civil War. At Université Saint Esprit de Kaslik however, Walid explained that "we got into a discussion of the hostage crisis. We spoke about a critique of the discourse on hostages that dominates the popular press, and which privileges the Western hostages at the expense of the thousands of Lebanese hostages that have been held by the Israeli prisons."
Walid Ra'ad is very concerned about what his audiences think, what they might know, what they might say and do. The issue of what can and can not be discussed in relation to Lebanon and his immediate context comes up again and again during the discussion. He spends a tremendous amount of time thinking of his audiences, and how exactly one can understand, research, delineate, and picture them. It's a tricky game, Walid explains, one that always needs readjustment. He continued:
"Clearly it comes at a risk -- a risk that I think anybody would make, and the risk is that those assumptions are as much about your own projections as about the space you are encountering. And that you would place a burden on the audience in which their heterogeneity does not recognize itself in the image you are projecting on them. But I think that is something you have to learn from. You kind of do it, and someone says: You know, that didn't work, I'm not that person. Then you realize that that place is either richer or poorer than you imagined."
"And what about Lebanon in particular? How do you approach American audiences that most likely only have the vaguest knowledge of the Civil War?" I asked.
"There is very little knowledge outside of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. So the specificity of Lebanon as a historical, geographical space is automatically lost. Then you either have to take on the role of saying to people: No, I'm talking about something else. Or you're going to make statements that go unchallenged. Or you're going to stay clear of that discussion, because it is really not fruitful."
But Ra'ad is not interested in staying clear of that subject for much longer. His current presentations at the Whitney seek common ground between his audience and his subjects. Perhaps the differential is overstated, but considering how few people are aware of the murderous effects of sanctions against Iraq, or lack any political understanding of the causes for the Intifada, I had to agree that the distance between Lebanese history and his American audience at the Whitney needed some serious shortening.
"You acknowledge, at the same time," Walid went on, "that although I may not be able to enter into a discussion of Lebanese history, there are kindred relations that we may be able to engage in and that may teach me something. You come with your specificity, I come with my specificity, and we kind of see conceptual threads that may help us link together.
Instead of postponing this discussion, instead of saying, 'I really can't talk with you about the history of the Civil War in Lebanon,' why not say, 'What can I talk about in terms of a geopolitical narrative that I want to present?' As opposed to saying, well, I'm going to come here and remind you that I can't talk about it. Or I'm going to make this clear distinction between the geopolitical dimension of the Civil War in Lebanon and the history of contemporary art.
For example, here, I'm making most of the Q&A section revolve around the Iran-Contra affair. The pointed questions that will come from the audience are: What is your understanding of Iran-Contra? In a way you can channel the Q&A so that one can talk about a political dimension. That can resonate in this locale. What can you discuss? And I think it has not been discussed enough. The homoerotic dimension of captivity has not been discussed at all. US policy in the Middle East has not been discussed enough.
Every question will be pointing in that direction and that direction only. This permits me to talk about the attitudes of the Reagan and Bush administrations towards the Middle East, Hezbollah, Iran. It reminds them that Iran-Contra was two illegal Reagan administration policies. Many of the participants in those administrations are currently back in office under the new Bush administration."
Yes, they are, and little is being said about it. During our discussion, Ra'ad sounds as if he wants to approach the subject with caution, not due to the politics, but because he always seems careful not to be too pedagogical, too didactic. His work is in a state of hyper-awareness. It's almost bleary-eyed with not wanting to be too much of this or that. It always wants to include another point of view, another approach. He is always telling you how the last performance didn't quite work and how he will present the work again.
As we talked, other qualities began to emerge from the Atlas Group's collections. For example, meticulousness: 43 interviews, sunsets photographed every day, one hundred-something drawings representing every car bombed in Beirut. Obfuscation: "No one knows if he really existed or what his name was." Irrationality: "Nobody knows why he was interested in it." Tangency: "There is always a mention of how blue the sky was that day."
Walid mentions the last point to me in relation to September 11th, another subject he would like to bring up during his Whitney performances. It marks how he thinks of history in general: obliquely, and through the marginalia and coincidences that its traumas produce. He continues about the weather in New York that day.
"It's an image that stuck in my mind and in a lot of people's minds. Can a history of September 11th simply be a geopolitical history, or a human history, or an economic history? What do you do with those images that come to dominate it especially? The weather is so natural and unpredictable, thus: How could this happen to us? Such a blue day, such a beautiful day that it prefigures a fall. What kind of blue? Why did the weather become an apt metaphor to introduce this discussion?"
Walid pauses for a moment and his eyes brighten.
"Those are the images that must be collected."