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Walid Raad’s Spectral Archive, Part One: Historiography as Process

The January issue of e-flux journal features the first part of Alan Gilbert’s two-part essay on the work of Walid Raad, focusing on how Raad uses fictional historical figures to interrogate the ways history is written. Check out an excerpt below or the full piece here.

For Raad, history can never be captured at the moment it occurs—or after. The historians themselves can only estimate the discrepancy between the event and its documentation. Yet their conjecture only compounds the disparity between history and its recording, as no historian manages to guess exactly the distance between horse and finish line; rather, the winner of the bet is the one who comes closest. In other words, Notebook Volume 72: Missing Lebanese Wars deals with how history is written as opposed to actual historical events. Rather than writing an unwritten history, Raad’s art aims to write the writing of history.

According to theorist of the photographic image John Tagg, “Photographs are never ‘evidence’ of history; they are themselves the historical.” Notebook Volume 72: Missing Lebanese Wars offers a strong critique of historical teleologies and grand narratives. After all, each of the ideologies represented by Raad’s imaginary historians envisions history as fulfilled one day. Raad also renders as fundamentally absurd the trajectory of the civil wars, consequently sapping the myth of Beirut as the realization of Parisian modernity in the Middle East (a self-fashioning story quickly revived after the wars). Fakhouri stands outside all of this as a more skeptical voice. He’s also deceased, his documents having been discovered and bequeathed to The Atlas Group after the fact. Or perhaps it’s more precise to say: after the fact of the fact. The various misdirections in Raad’s work expose the fictional elements in reconstructions of the past (especially personal ones) while undermining the presumed authority—Raad’s own first and foremost—to write a definitive historical account. In his performances as well, Raad assumes in order to vacate—or at least call into question—the notion of official spokesperson.

Image: The Atlas Group, Miraculous beginnings, 1993/2002 and No, illness is neither here nor there, 1993/2002. 1’50” Two-channel video.

Tagg’s old sugar plum was and remains a superfluous self-evidence and, even when it was newly formulated from a little Foucault and a little something else, it was never quite up to the more radical critiques of grand narratives that one could find in History and Theory journal, Hayden White, early Ginzburg or, for that matter, Tolstoy’s blind forces of history. I had once a certain respect for the Atlas Group work as a more or less charming re-figuring of the idea of an archive as if fictional, but then what shocked me about the MOMA show was the utterly conventional and narcissistic posturing and gesturing of the over-funded radical as obscurantist magician of the aesthetic gesture. It was a clumsy piece of media studies in which one had already to know the answer to see the question, the evidence to see the evidence, the form to see that the form was redundant to the evidence, if any of that were present. Self-reflexive as opacity … bad oxymoron in the end. This thesis, here, is terribly behind the times of how we could now think.