Walid Raad’s quasi-fictional yet historically driven The Atlas Group has been a touchpoint for many contemporary discussions around the roles of archives in contemporary art. Raad’s project focuses on the Lebanese Civil War, often from the standpoint of perturbations in collective historical memory. This article argues that despite its ostensible claims to archival documentation, The Atlas Group’s archival status can be considered an extension of its fictional apparatus. The Atlas Group reveals formal structures that resist standard archival patterns of organization and depend rather on various forms of time-based circulation, distribution, and presentation. The Atlas Group can be considered a partly performative enterprise from which various apparatuses of transmission have receded, but haunt, the project. The Atlas Group’s contents often register latent infrastructures of cinematic projection and time-based narration that have been absented from collective experience. This infrastructural withdrawal relates directly to the historical conditions of conflict and war that the project addresses. Here, this phenomenon of withdrawal amid war’s aftermath is discussed in connection with other artistic practices that touch on the Lebanese regional context, such as those of Oraib Toukan and Jalal Toufic. By exploring how The Atlas Group challenges established conceptions of the image, the article also considers how the project intervenes in new debates within media theory. Drawing on scholarship, Raad’s lecture-performances, and the artist’s accounts of The Atlas Group’s historical and artistic context, this article argues that Raad’s project engages a deep contestation of the terms on which imagemaking unfolds in the midst of proliferating digital technologies.
Walid Raad began The Atlas Group Project in 1989, and in the years since the project emerged, it has become an important touchstone for discussions around the role of archives in collective memory, in historiography, and within contemporary art more broadly. Developed over the course of several years (and often bearing nominal dates that belie the actual production timeframe of the project), The Atlas Group was a multimedia project that unfolded over several years and various presentation formats. Its archive comprises various documents pertaining to the Lebanese Civil War including photographs, videos, annotated collages, visual evidence of particular conflicts, personal ephemera, and other paraphernalia. Styled as an archive and research group, the works Raad built into the project’s holdings include three basic types of materials: authored documents (traced to particular figures), found documents (of unknown origins), and documents produced directly under the auspices of The Atlas Group. In addition to the main archive of works, The Atlas Group project includes lecture-performances in which Raad narrates the contents of material in the archive and its historiographic origin. These performances have been carried out over time, both during the nominal timeframe of the project (1989–2004) and in subsequent years. In these lecture-performances, he describes purported collaborators of The Atlas Group—subsequently shown to be fictional, although not necessarily revealed as fabrications during the performances—and the various documentary procedures that enabled the assembly of The Atlas Group archive. These performances are delivered in an authoritative vein, complete with PowerPoint presentations and preprepared questions. As the lectures unfold, it becomes clear that certain details don’t add up. At a most basic level, the figures Raad describes are fictional: even where the events and political tensions they orbit are real, the particularities of their anecdotes and accounts are spurious.
Rather than reading the project through its ostensible archive form, this article takes a different approach to The Atlas Group, attending to how it sets up forms of circulation and distribution for its contents, and the ways in which its images contest the very boundaries of their apparent material forms. Insofar as even a critical notion of an archive tends to imply the composition, or use, of documents that have been taken out of circulation, the general underattention to how The Atlas Group sets up circuits of circulation for its materials is a natural byproduct of archivally driven accounts of Raad’s project. Such accounts also tend to approach the images as analog, rather than as digital or more composite formats. As I argue below, The Atlas Group offers a profound challenge to understandings of the image in the wake of the proliferation of digital imaging.
Digital media and performance crucially structure not only The Atlas Group’s unique take on the archive but also the senses it produces of images themselves. Raad’s project beckons toward novel ontologies of the image, particularly those that more intensely embed the possibility of digital modulations into their concept. Some writing on The Atlas Group has already acknowledged the constitutive nature of either Raad’s lecture-performances1 or the increasingly digital milieux within which Raad made the works at the turn of the century.2 As Stefanie Baumann has noted in the context of Raad’s lecture-performances, “the status of the project, its character and geographical and temporal coordinates change depending on Raad’s ideas about those who apprehend it.”3 Focusing on the digital, Jong-chul Choi approaches the project as a “digital archive” that “defies linearity, accumulation, and the singularity of historical discourses.”4 My article in effect synthesizes these two views to demonstrate how Raad’s work subtends a profound questioning of the terms on which imagemaking has been conceptualized amid the emergence of digital media. Raad’s The Atlas Group indicates not only that digital images are performatively constituted—a point also argued by certain art theorists writing of “digital reproduction”5—but that such “images” contest what we consider archivable visual material, pushing at the bounds of image-forms themselves. Much writing on Raad has already acknowledged The Atlas Group’s intense inquiry into the archive’s limits, yet these accounts (even Choi’s, despite its illuminating reflections on digital archives) often retain a comparatively traditional idea of the image as a discrete and persistent unit in the larger archival organization.6 Raad’s work hints that the digital image and its performative dimensions are actually beyond what archives can accommodate, suggesting that other forms—cinematic or postcinematic projections, the restaging of performative digital scripts drawn from imagistic metadata—get closer to the perturbations in historical time and political space captured by The Atlas Group. In this sense, The Atlas Group’s fictional apparatus maintains its archive-form as an extension of its larger fictions. The remarkable narratives Raad draws out—around memory and collective trauma in Lebanon’s Civil War and its aftermath—have a peculiar materiality that often parallels recent theoretical discourses on digital and postcinematic images.
Fabricated narratives aside, much of the overt evidence of The Atlas Group’s fictionality is bound up with certain radical material transformations of and within the project’s images. In one example (Secrets in the Open Sea, 1994, attributed to “Anonymous”), images that are supposedly pure monochromes (analog photographs) are “analyzed” only to be revealed to embed highly detailed, black-and-white images. In other works, “images” of explosive scenes of conflict appear already cropped to specification, perfectly cut around the unruly outlines of fire. In one of his lecture-performances, Raad suggests that the latter images from the archive appeared precropped in this precise format. Their photographer captured not only the scene they document, but the exact shape and form of the materialized picture. In the lecture-performance that accompanied a presentation at the 2007 unitednationsplaza in Berlin—an experimental school organized by Anton Vidolke—Raad recounts, taking the perspective of these images’ creator:
As I pointed my lens at the high-flying jets overhead, I was immediately tuned to the pilots and to his or her next target. Without knowing how, and without being conscious of this, my lens was automatically redirected to the scene of the soon-to-be devastated site. My shutter clicked as a large cloud of smoke, debris, and bodies had formed. As I looked at these—these resulting images—it was equally unclear to me how the plume of smoke and fire appeared as an already-cut-out-shape, and I mean with mean, clear, sharp cuts. The flattened plumes appeared suspended, and even projected a slight shadow on the paper-white thin background. Indeed, the plume appeared paper-thin, a suspended plane of its own, an already published and reproduced document—as was evident by the caption, the caption that somehow exerted itself right here.7 (emphasis added)
A close analysis of such internal logics of materiality within The Atlas Group indicates Raad playing with image-formats that do not appear to accommodate themselves to traditional archives at all—these include formats from digital imaging, but also filmic formats and performative forms of cinematic projection. Moreover, the material irregularities of The Atlas Group’s works open onto the peculiar forms of historical flicker that are embodied in the larger historical and geopolitical context Raad addresses—i.e., the complex and traumatic nature of the Lebanese Civil War. Accounts such as the above narration indicate the latent activity of disappeared infrastructures of imaging. Both the technical supports of images and of their recording apparatuses have been withdrawn from conscious awareness, but remain culturally and historically operative. The Atlas Group deals with the Civil War’s fallout in terms of how images come to meet us in present time and space—and in registering the aesthetic and sociopolitical perturbation that marked the Lebanese Civil War, Raad’s project intervenes into more fundamental questions around imaging in general.
The Atlas Group is, I suggest, a database for chronotopes of a war-riven Lebanon that are updated, altered, and postproduced in real time and across Raad’s lifetime. The work warrants consideration as a database with a far more digitally reproductive architecture than that of mechanically reproduced images. In reassessing The Atlas Group’s purportedly archival status, we might begin from an acknowledgement that The Atlas Group, even as a fictional entity, was not only a repository but also a research group.8 Tracking its in-house “research apparatus” as it emerged within the group’s collected works reveals a format of artistic compilation that is not necessarily based on the model of an archive, but is instead bound up with elaborate patterns of circulation, performance, and time-based production that are predominantly digital and postcinematic in character. The performance-lectures that animate The Atlas Group works use fiction and theory not merely to activate a deadened archive but to set in motion the historical materials of the Lebanese war. Both fiction and theory—scholarly or academic tropes within the works, as well as Raad’s own lecture-performances of The Atlas Group’s output—perform a circulatory, distributive function for The Atlas Group’s artistic output. The semantic ambiguity and unverifiability of The Atlas Group’s materials set in motion metonymic movements and processes that allow for meaning to take place across various bodies of images, rather than simply through semiotic or iconographic metaphor internal to discrete elements of the works.9 The body of images entitled Secrets in the Open Sea (1994) is one work that demonstrates this, despite its relatively analog appearance. The descriptive text accompanying the work claims that its series of photographs—which, we soon see, were originally gray-tone, monochrome images—were found buried thirty-two meters deep somewhere in Lebanon after the outbreak of war. After being unearthed (so the narrative goes), these images were turned over to a national research group, which in turn mailed them abroad to be “digitally and chemically treated in the laboratories”10 of various Western countries—the United States and France in particular. In each case, a documentary image of a group of similarly dressed and posed men or women was recovered—now visible as a component of Secrets in the Open Sea. As the description goes on to report, the Lebanese research group “identifie[d]”11 all the pictured individuals through an internal analysis. In every case, it turns out the entire group in each respective picture is dead, has emigrated, or is otherwise unavailable in some way. Both the original grayscale monochromes and the developed pictures are referred to as “photographs.”12 Yet Secrets in the Open Sea engages a series of successive deflections that clearly point away from the manifest content of each “photograph”—from the monochromes to the documentary images. Their changes suggest the interventions of a more idiosyncratic digital analysis.
Even after a clear representation is uncovered in Secrets in the Open Sea—the various group photos that come back from the foreign labs—narratives about its pictures are dominated by processes of export and inaccessibility to the viewer. In learning that this or that group of pictured men was killed, or now live at some anonymous city in the US, Secrets in the Open Sea forces one to look beyond the image itself and toward a process of movement and quasi-filmic or performative development embedded within it. There are various performative invocations of research-driven analysis here that push individual images toward circulatory formats and away from straightforward stills: the interpretation and chemical uncovering of a full photograph from a pure monochrome (the recovery of a high-resolution image from the most “low-resolution image possible”—the monochrome being akin to one uniformly colored pixel); the identification of men or women pictured, and their collective tracing to a foreign location. Importantly, the move from the first gray “photograph” to its second documentary version is at least partly a “digital” process, as stated in the work narration. In turn, the material transformations here resemble digital reproduction, which helps to set off this performed, movement-based export. Theorist Boris Groys has identified digital reproduction as fundamentally performative in nature, depending on the repeated transformation of metadata into images within disparate technical contexts. Groys notes, “The digital image is an effect of the visualisation of the invisible image file, of the invisible image data. Accordingly, a digital image cannot be merely exhibited or copied (as [an] analogue, ‘mechanically reproducible’ image can), but always only staged or performed.”13 That is, the technical support of the digital image is functionally different from the material we associate with analog photography or processes of mechanical reproduction. In nodding to the volatility and contingency of such imaging processes, Raad’s collective alias becomes not merely an engagement with and disruption of the author function, nor his parafictional fabrications merely a meditation on the malleability of historical truth—The Atlas Group is more akin to a discursive-aesthetic machine that forces the viewer to look, to study, to engage, to attempt to track down images and to “send them abroad for analysis,” to quote the description of the work Secrets in the Open Sea.14 As images are sent into “analysis,” not only their contents but their perceived form come into question.
In addition to the project’s resonance with digital imaging formats, many of The Atlas Group’s works are evocative of quasi-cinematic formats for projection. Such works are not straightforward films, however—rather, they appear as moving images that have lost their normal apparatus of support. Both their formal qualities and Raad’s descriptions of the works suggest that many of The Atlas Group’s images register the complex and traumatic aftermath of the Lebanese Civil War through image formats that have lost their normal infrastructures. In such works, a withdrawal of the apparatus concentrates and absorbs the particular lived experience of the Lebanese Civil War and its long-term effects. We can approach these works first by acknowledging the influence of a certain idea of the “withdrawal of tradition past a surpassing disaster” proposed by Jalal Toufic,15 a collaborator of and influence on Raad. For Toufic, artistic products are not simply destroyed amid wars (there is not simply literal iconoclasm), but they are—as a perceptible and memorable body of sensory-aesthetic material—absented or disappeared from collective awareness. In this framework, the vitality of images is suppressed by military activity, but at the same time, images persist across time as ghostly and “undead”16 icons withdrawn from the cultural sphere, as if negatively animated by the violence. These withdrawn artistic “traditions” remain to be “resurrected” in or through a foreign space, by inheritors who are able to return to the scene of the artistic disappearance.17 Raad has noted at various points that he considers Toufic’s conception of artistic “withdrawal” to capture what he was documenting within The Atlas Group corpus.18 The pangs and the “hysterical symptoms”19 of this withdrawal had already figured in work Raad made before The Atlas Group project was underway. Reporting on his early video work documenting former detainees of torture centers, Raad recounts that at some point the survivors’ answers in interviews “started becoming formalized,” indicating that “even though the war had been lived, it had not yet been experienced.”20 These early videos address not only the war, but the formalization that inhibits its cultural processing—this formalization, I suggest, is bound up with aesthetic forms of withdrawal that the war’s trauma induced. The traumatic experiences circumvented by survivors’ formalized accounts sedimented into a static and easily describable narrative. Raad would subsequently come to explore this not only at the level of content but within the formal aspects of The Atlas Group.
Subsequently, within the research processes of The Atlas Group, we find that filmic and photographic material is deprived of its technical support, often becoming akin to a cinematic flicker that betrays a breakdown in the work’s apparatus. In the end, it matters less how one categorizes each discrete work (photograph or film?) than that one recognizes how a picture’s ostensible medium leaves traces of a more expansive, yet damaged, substructure of moving images. One example of this is the work Miraculous Beginnings & No, illness is neither here nor there (1993, attributed to Dr. Fadl Fakhouri). As the work’s description reads, the purported author “exposed a frame of film every time he thought the Lebanese wars ended. On the other [camera], he exposed a frame of film every time he came across the sign for a doctor’s or dentist’s office.”21 Crucially, Raad has noted that within this work and others in The Atlas Group project, artistic materials’ “physical support cannot sustain the image,” and thus instead of being presented as distinct images, they are (as in Miraculous Beginnings & No, illness) “projected fleetingly,” suggestive of a film that has been diverted away from its standard technical supports—as Raad detailed in a session of unitednationsplaza.22 The work’s production process—periodic “exposure” of film at random moments—suggests that these discrete frames were part of an ongoing project of recording, where what had seemed to be punctual and ephemeral was in fact an extended capture: closer to a comprehensive film of moving images than to indices of particular moments. Raad’s preoccupation with registering time in the image also contributes to this engagement with latent infrastructures that bear as much affinity with film as with standard photography. Take for example Notebook volume 72: Missing Lebanese wars (1989). This is one of the more widely referenced works in The Atlas Group corpus. It documents a motley group of gamblers, all “major historians of the Lebanese wars.”23 The work is accompanied by the following introductory remarks: “Race after race, the historians stood behind the track photographer…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.”24 Tracing a thread that is commonly followed in archive-driven accounts of The Atlas Group, Sven Spieker interprets this technique: “Raad’s archive focuses on chance and contingency as crucial elements in any archival enterprise.”25 Yet from a film history perspective, one might as readily read such a work through reference to the chronophotography of Eadweard Muybridge, who famously captured the first “moving picture” by compiling movement sequences of horses in motion. Notebook volume 72’s fixation on the microscopic time discrepancy between the captured image and a horse’s winning stride—and the irony that the historians bet not on the identity of the winning horse but specifically on the final timestamp of its photographic capture—seems as much a play on precedents in chronophotography and film as an engagement with the archive. The pertinence of the connection between Muybridge’s proto-film and Notebook volume 72 is magnified by the fact that the fineness of the historians’ guessing precision—which was down to “fractions of a second”26—was historically enabled by the innovative apparatus Muybridge developed to decrease exposure time and capture his horse in motion clearly. Whether or not Raad meant specifically to reference Muybridge in particular, the broader significance of this technical link between The Atlas Group and chronophotography (and other technologies of film) is striking, particularly when compared to Raad’s own statement on this work, provided during a seminar of the unitednationsplaza. Speaking of his development of this work (Notebook volume 72) and his subsequent feelings about the images, Raad remarked:
Here what was fascinating about the photographs is that the horse was never on time…This question of not being on time became a question of not being present to the passage of the present…This temporal shift in the photograph became for me symptomatic of the experience of the war itself. One was never on time, one was always too early or too late…You can never look these events in the face, you always look before or after them, you always look to the side of them.27 (emphasis added)
These various accounts seem to confirm that the ostensible categorization of The Atlas Group as an archive is part of its larger fiction—not in the sense that the project undermines historical truth, but rather that the project’s contents are not able to be fixed as static documentation. In this vein, one might approach The Atlas Group as much as a sort of cinema house as a critical archive, given how it is oriented toward absent spectators of the Lebanese artistic community, ready to project its material into other moments in time. Writing and making work in the fallout of various violent conflicts, many artists and writers in the Lebanese diaspora and neighboring regions have explored the limits of image-forms in relation to the sorts of postwar “withdrawal” tracked by Toufic and Raad. Artists and theorists such as Oraib Toukan, Rabih Mroué, and Toufic (and Raad himself) suggest that images have their own semi-autonomous relations among themselves—a self-reflexivity that tears at the material and conceptual frame of what appear to be discrete pictures. Relatedly, Toukan describes in her work on “cruel images” how images of violence unfolding at a distance appear “selectively mute.”28 Cruel images, Toukan writes, “bypass the faculty of language altogether” and yet they have a way of speaking—they utter; their speech “is found rather than formulated.”29 Toukan suggests that the cruel image of distant violence undergoes a certain process of formal withdrawal. Its meaning does not propagate through copies, whether mechanical or digital: however far afield the image is distributed, it can never capture the lost speech of the pictured bodies. Instead, the cruel image necessarily refers back to a different medium of recording—utterance: sonic and oral testimony. It registers the image’s formal limits. This is not a question of what the cruel image can or cannot capture visually, but rather of the other registers of sensation that withdraw from its pictured violence. The utterance Toukan invokes is metonymic—a linkage across various interconnected properties of the event documented within the image, but which extend beyond imaging itself. What Toukan’s text suggests is not the possibility of restoring a now “mute” original, but rather of mitigating the numbing effects of its medium-specificity.30 The transmedial frame through which I am proposing we read the desire of Toukan’s images to “speak” suggests that images formed in the aftermath of war such as those of The Atlas Group likewise demand a more hybrid architecture than that usually accorded to the image.
It is the aesthetic and political “withdrawal” or separation of materials that constitutes the turn of The Atlas Group away from an analog idea of the image and toward a digital, quasi-cinematic one, in addition to inhibiting its capacity to archive its own documents. Despite the project’s tendency to collect semiotic proofs of various kinds of cultural and sociopolitical withdrawal, the signs embedded throughout The Atlas Group’s materials undergo continuous formal modulations. Even where Raad has claimed The Atlas Group as an archival endeavor, there appears evidence that his own classification systems have changed as he has updated materials in the project31—not only the content of discrete documents but also the overall “database organization” has been mixed up and reset.32 Here it is useful to consider that one of the more influential accounts of the “archival impulse” in contemporary art—Hal Foster’s well-known essay—actually distinguishes between the archive and the database. Drawing the distinction, Foster explains, “archival artists seek to make historical information, often lost or displaced, physically present.”33 Foster distinguishes “archival” art from “database” art in terms of the former’s comparative tactility: “recalcitrantly material…they call out for human interpretation, not machinic reprocessing.”34 As we have seen, postwar images of The Atlas Group are constitutive of various withdrawals that evade human interpretation, just as Raad’s early video works registered survivors’ formalized narratives as mechanisms for avoiding the reexperiencing of trauma. They are quite often imbricated with forms of machinic processing. Here it helps to recall Raad’s recurring reference to The Atlas Group materials as “hysterical symptoms.”35 Together with the dilations, compressions, and overall disturbances of time comprised by The Atlas Group’s attempt to present that which withdraws itself, it also exhibits a symptomatology. Yet this is not the kind of traumatic symptomatology that one might associate with serial repetition in photography, such as in Andy Warhol’s canonical prints of an electric chair.36 The Atlas Group bears a traumatic formation that shows itself in narrative or filmic form, in the unfolding of thought through time and in the storytelling in and around the multiple presents of postwar Lebanon. For an account of these “multiple presents,” one need only hear Raad insist in a recording of a unitednationsplaza session, to listeners’ consternation, that he and his fellow Lebanese artists have the irrepressible sensation that their works were never created, that they have to be made anew:
Today I feel as if all this work has not been done and in fact I need to do it all over again.…[I]t feels as if the work that had been done for fifteen years had in fact not taken place and I need to present all this all over again as if someone else had done it and I had just found it…Many of them [Lebanese artists] have expressed the need to redo many of the works they’ve done over the past fifteen years, as if these works had never been done, as if they had not been doing them.37
Raad noted that this unmooring of the present was exemplary of those
hysterical symptoms of these events [of the war] that were lived but not experienced that were now leaving traces all over Lebanon’s audio-visual culture…[T]his question of not being on time [i.e. the various forms of temporal blur or displacement Raad tracks throughout The Atlas Group] became a question of not being present to the passage to the present.38
In sum, we can see how withdrawn image apparatuses and withdrawn infrastructures of cinema reveal the intense rifts in shared historical time that are The Atlas Group’s theme. The Atlas Group’s cinematic recovery of the above “passage of the present” depends specifically on the projection of its images across time, narratively—not as a simultaneity (not a dialectical image, for instance) but as a reprojection or reperformance of the chronotopes already embedded within each picture. Raad’s The Atlas Group works emphasize images not as self-same objects across various contexts, but in terms of their constant temporal disjunctions between events captured and pictures taken. The Atlas Group’s images construct a blurred time, a construction that unfolds through pictures but that is not solely visual. Coming back to the example of Secrets in the Open Sea (whose images were buried thirty-two meters deep in the ground, then re-analyzed), blurred time is present in it insofar as the works’ monochrome photographs model a kind of perversely low-resolution image—one-pixel artifacts of both computational compression and archaeological retrieval. The work also generates temporal blur through the obscure material transformations implied by the works’ successive uncoverings. The work is supposedly constituted by a thirty-two-meter-deep burial for perfectly degraded images, within which survived perfectly preserved pictures, perfectly restored by various distinct image labs and perfectly identified by the Lebanese research hub: altogether this is an incredible blurring not only of fact, but of source, of distribution, and of circulation in time. In a statement that has come to encompass his works, Raad has described his view that the Lebanese Civil War is “[not] to be a settled chronology of events, dates, personalities, massacres, invasions, but rather we also want to consider it as an abstraction constituted by various discourses, and, more importantly, by various modes of assimilating the data of the world.”39 In addition to suggesting a composite format of display and circulation, these remarks on the Lebanese war as an “abstraction” highlight the work’s formal experimentation.
Even if the traumatic withdrawal of experience in Lebanon produces a perturbation in which cinematic and time-based apparatuses are likewise withdrawn, this does not prevent the projection of images. Projection still takes place, in the form of time-images projected onto the actual environments in which The Atlas Group works are screened in real time (where the “screening” includes Raad’s performance and narration). That is, the quasi-filmic nature of many of Raad’s works—for example, Miraculous Beginnings & No, illness, discussed above—also plays out within Raad’s lecture-performances, where the presentation context primes the viewer to anticipate images as extensions of the presentation’s larger viewing apparatus. The following example demonstrates how this unfolds. During an exchange with some audience members during Q&A of the unitednationsplaza seminar, Raad was confronted on multiple occasions with questions about the veracity of certain research encounters he was presenting matter-of-factly. Dissimulating as to the person’s presumably fictional character, Raad went on a substantial tangent about a certain “Joseph Bitar,” responsible for not only various The Atlas Group documents but (supposedly) numerous accounts of political schemes relating to car bombs and other violent spectacles. At some point, the audience was impelled to confront Raad, to ask whether he was dissembling. When asked if Joseph Bitar is real, Raad replied “if you go to Beirut, you will find someone who looks like this.”40 Raad’s interlocutor during the seminar, Toufic, also quickly became the target of similar questionings, despite being apparently present at the seminar beside Raad. “Are you real?” an audience member asked, to which Raad interjected that Toufic has often been aware that whenever he (Toufic) writes on The Atlas Group, said writing will inevitably be suspected as part of the larger parafictional mechanisms set to work by Raad.41 Indeed, with Toufic’s poetically unmoored biography, it’s hard not to wonder whether Toufic might be yet another alias and/or accomplice for The Atlas Group. This is a process of confusion between virtual (e.g., mentalized) and actual images such as Gilles Deleuze describes as unfolding within the “crystal-image.”42 In a type of virality characteristic of the digital, yet dependent on the collective spectatorship we associate with cinema, proximate human screens for the projection of The Atlas Group material are roped into the narrative, becoming the virtual images through which the crystalline filmic process plays out. A random Lebanese man becomes a visual proxy for Joseph Bitar. Toufic or whomever might be posing as this author suddenly seems indiscernible from an image-proof of Raad’s fictional concepts. Yet again, it is specifically the narrative, temporally unfolding processes of the apparatus of The Atlas Group that enable these identity confusions: namely, (a) Raad’s lecture-performance at unitednationsplaza, slipping between metacommentary and self-awareness, into Joseph Bitar and his myths; (b) the specifically visual character of this slippage (“you will find someone who looks like” Bitar); (c) and the projective nature of these unwitting dissimulations (suddenly Toufic, by virtue of being intellectually and physically proximate to this debacle, seems to be an avatar within the larger work).
In this light, “parafictional” effects that scholars have linked to critical engagement with the archive43 prove to be a side effect of The Atlas Group’s speculative projection of its chronotopes into the sociopolitical, cultural, and historical locales of Lebanon. The Atlas Group’s images are set into motion and screened into various places within Lebanon and globally, diffuse screenings marked by their capacity to generate confusion between reality and artistry. Additionally, the project’s imbrication in historical memory and parafictional misperceptions show that it both forms and speaks toward a collective spectator, as evinced by The Atlas Group’s numerous overtures to the Lebanese public and artistic community for whom the Civil War must be made experienceable in a non-traumatic way—not to mention Raad’s own, assiduous ways of crafting his lectures and presentations for various specific audiences.44 I’d like to insist that Raad’s work exists on terms comparable to practices like those of artist Rosa Barba, in which “the category of film is expanded and abstracted beyond the literal components of the celluloid strip, the projector through which it passes, and the image projected onto a screen or beyond—where the landscape itself forms the screen.”45 Whereas Barba builds out the physical architecture or landscape for such a cinema, Raad’s The Atlas Group appears to collect primarily the visual projections of such an endeavor. We can see this clearly once we put The Atlas Group as an artistic project in full context. It has never been merely a set of documents. It is performed, activated, and played out through time across Raad’s various lectures and seminars. Its early beginnings coincide with Raad’s preoccupation with a specifically time-based, often explicitly filmic or narratological account of the war. Everywhere that The Atlas Group’s works and their projections within a lecture-performance intrude on viewers’ sense of historical process, one is witnessing the effects of an imagistic transmission from which the apparatus has retreated, leaving its effects scattered within the world.
As I have proposed here, Walid Raad’s The Atlas Group addresses a shared sense of a perturbation in the architectonics of imagemaking in post–Civil War Lebanon, and more broadly within artistic practice in the early twenty-first century. In conclusion, one can consider (again, from the unitednationsplaza seminar) Raad’s insistence on his and fellow Lebanese artists’ need to repeat works as though “they had never been done before.”46 When pressed about this by an audience member, who repeatedly insisted to know why he felt this need, Raad simply responded that he felt the need, he had to, he was compelled to—there was no other explanation other than an appeal to drive.47 In this vein, all The Atlas Group works infected by the traumatic non-experience of the events of the Lebanese Civil War seem to be shot through with the desire to show the image to be an event—they manifest a desire to be projected, to be screened, to be updated and recirculated not as documents but as continually modulated materials. As I’ve demonstrated, in many cases, these works mirror a model of digital reproduction—in which the loss of analog material support for the image turns it into a (digital) performed entity, into metadata that renews itself as though the work were being continually “rescreened” as an event. In light of their chronotopes and the circulatory, composite image-formats they create, Raad’s The Atlas Group and related artistic output from artists such as Mroué offer an important update of the influential Benjaminian account of the historically resonant “dialectical image.” For Benjamin, “while the relation of the present to the past is purely temporal, the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical: not temporal in nature but figural. Only dialectical images are genuinely historical.”48 This historicity in the image and its revolutionary capacity is, for Benjamin, specifically linked to its “‘static’ temporality” (where time is superseded by the figure).49 The case appears contrary for Raad et. al. Benjamin’s image in this context strikes one as a specifically Western one. It exists in a world in which stasis has the potential for historical mediation, whereas in The Atlas Group’s world, any such mediating infrastructure is absent. In The Atlas Group’s context, it is impossible to bear witness to the present, which is why the image turns cinematographic—it needs to move through time as part of a larger filmic process in order to recover a sense of historicity. Toukan’s, Mroué’s, and Raad’s images all exist through the forms of various chronotopes—to exist in spite of withdrawal, they require a diachronic unfolding unique to each picture (even if this means starting from scratch in order to play out the narrative in full). Letting what Toukan calls a “cruel image” recover some kind of discursive self-constitution adequate to its own political exigencies is not so much about giving it the capacity to represent, as though this were a literal matter of interpreting symbols or exhuming traumatic events so that they can be seen and their symptoms unraveled. It is rather about recovering a world in which one’s words, actions, and even one’s witnessing have the possibility of narrative coherence—in which self-theorization becomes possible again. This does more than open the possibility for reappropriating the role of the Other in the international arena, or for clarifying who was on what side in a civil war and who is responsible for particular deaths. In exploring the loss and potential recovery of experience, the latent circulatory apparatuses of projects like The Atlas Group recover spectators’ theoretical capacity and powers of thought—enabling the reappearance of what has been, for so long, withdrawn from view.
Stefanie Baumann, “Heterodox Mediations. Notes on Walid Raad’s The Atlas Group,” Journal of Aesthetics & Culture 11, no. 1 (2019), 10.1080/20004214.2019.1633192.
Jong-chul Choi, “Reinventing the archive in the age of digital reproduction: Walid Raad’s the Atlas Group,” Digital Creativity 29, nos. 2–3 (2018), 10.1080/14626268.2018.1447969.
Baumann, “Heterodox Mediations”: 3.
Choi, “Reinventing the archive”: 10.
One notable example is Boris Groys’s writing on digital reproduction. See Boris Groys, “Modernity and Contemporaneity: Mechanical vs. Digital Reproduction,” in The Lives of Images, Vol. 1: Repetition, Reproduction, and Circulation, ed. Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa (New York: Aperture Foundation, 2021), 69–80.
The most obvious exception being Choi’s aforementioned article, which attends to the work’s overtly digital organizational structures. See Choi, “Reinventing the archive.”
Walid Raad, Day One, “Seminar 3: Walid Raad & Jalal Toufic: The Withdrawal of Tradition Past a Surpassing Disaster,” in Anton Vidolke, curator, unitednationsplaza, exhibition project website, 2007, www.unitednationsplaza.org/video/7.
Walid Raad, “The Atlas Group (1989–2004),” theatlasgroup1989.org.
Cf. Mikhail Bakhtin’s work on metaphor and metonymy.
Raad, “The Atlas Group (1989–2004).”
Raad, “The Atlas Group (1989–2004).”
Raad, “The Atlas Group (1989–2004).”
Boris Groys, “Modernity and Contemporaneity: Mechanical vs. Digital Reproduction,” in Wolukau-Wanambwa, The Lives of Images, 75–76.
Raad, “The Atlas Group (1989–2004).” This discursive circulation can be compared to the various thought processes pursued within time-images of modern cinema. See Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, 2nd ed., trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (London: The Athlone Press, 2020).
Jalal Toufic, The Withdrawal of Tradition Past a Surpassing Disaster (Los Angeles: REDCAT/ Forthcoming Books, 2009).
A concept that appears throughout Toufic’s writings.
Toufic, The Withdrawal, 13.
Toufic, The Withdrawal, 13.
Toufic, The Withdrawal, 13.
Walid Raad, Day Two, “Seminar 3: Walid Raad & Jalal Toufic: The Withdrawal of Tradition Past a Surpassing Disaster,” in Anton Vidolke, curator, unitednationsplaza, exhibition project website, 2007, www.unitednationsplaza.org/video/8.
Raad, “Miraculous Beginnings & No, illness is neither here nor there,” www.theatlasgroup1989.org/mbno#:∼:text=Dr%20Fakhouri%20carried%20with%20him,a%20doctor's%20or%20dentist’s%20office.
Raad, Day 2.
Walid Raad, “Notebook volume 72: Missing Lebanese wars,” www.theatlasgroup1989.org/n72.
Raad, “Notebook volume 72.”
Sven Spieker, The Big Archive: Art from Bureaucracy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 155.
Raad, “Notebook volume 72.”
Raad, Day 2 (emphasis added).
Oraib Toukan, “Cruel Images,” e-flux journal 96 (January 2019), www.e-flux.com/journal/96/245037/cruel-images.
Toukan, “Cruel Images.”
Consider the following quote: “[T]he cruel image’s very two-dimensional plane is the weapon.…Pictures of death and destruction are released to inhibit the very human desire to resist.…As such, cruel images…thrust politics into this era of annihilated politics, or at best, they entirely recalibrate what we should expect from it.” Toukan, “Cruel Images.”
See Choi, “Reinventing the archive.”
See Choi, “Reinventing the archive” and Raad, Day 2.
Hal Foster, “An Archival Impulse,” October 110 (Fall 2004): 4.
Foster, “An Archival Impulse”: 4–5.
Raad, Day 2, “Seminar 3.”
See Electric Chair (1964) by Andy Warhol.
Raad, Day 2, “Seminar 3.”
Raad, Day 2, “Seminar 3.”
Walid Raad, “Let’s Be Honest, the Rain Helped: Excerpts from an Interview with The Atlas Group,” in Review of Photographic Memory, ed. Jalal Toufic (Beirut: Arab Image Foundation, 2004), 44.
Raad, Day 2.
Raad, Day 2.
Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (London: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 68.
See Carrie Lambert-Beatty, “Make-Believe: Parafiction and Plausibility,” October 129 (Summer 2009): 51–84.
Recounted in Walid Raad, Day 2, “Seminar 3.”
Rosa Barba, On the Anarchic Organization of Cinematic Spaces: Evoking Spaces beyond Cinema (Berlin: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2021), 7.
“Many of them [Lebanese artists] have expressed the need to redo many of the works they’ve done over the past 15 years, as if these works had never been done, as if they had not been doing them,” Raad, Day 2.
Raad, Day 2.
Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA and London: Belknap Press, 1999), 463.
Peter Osborne and Matthew Charles, “Walter Benjamin,” ed. Edward N. Zalta, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2021), plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2021/entries/benjamin.