“One must need fiction… Fiction is a place for the emergence of certain facts.”
Thus, Walid Raad concluded his talk, “How Can Fiction Replace Reality?” at the Isabel Bader Theatre. Raad is a Lebanese artist living in New York. He’s currently a professor of art at the Cooper Union School of Art. In his talk, he discussed two of his three main projects: “The Atlas Group” and “Scratching on Things I Could Disavow: A History of Art in the Arab World.” His other project, which he considers the most difficult, is “Sweet Talk: Commissions (Beirut),” which is a production of photographs in the city towards the end of the civil war.
“The Atlas Group” is an attempt at a historical recollection of the war in Lebanon. Initially, it started as a think-tank and then became an archive. It’s a foundation to think about how to write the history of the wars in Lebanon and the history of the past 30 to 40 years. Raad produced fictionalized photographs, videotapes, notebooks, and lectures. The archive also includes real and imaginary documents and stories, which means his project oscillates between a false binary of reality and fiction. Raad was neither interested in writing a chronology of massacres nor the psychobiography of the participants in the war. To him, these elements seemed reductive. Instead, he wanted to explore the ways in which memory and trauma could dictate the writing of history.
Raad’s work and his lecture are both dominated by humour, which I believe is his coping mechanism in the face of trauma. Being Lebanese myself, I am positive that humour is the only way we have survived all the wars as a community.
After leaving Beirut at 15 and returning at 22, Raad encountered objects, smells, and spaces that triggered his memories of the war. At the time, he was interviewing prisoners in South Lebanon who were tortured and imprisoned by the Israeli army. The way they told their narratives struck him, for they were factual, objective narrations that always sounded the same: “I was born in… I joined on… I was captured that day, etc.”
These stories intrigued Raad. The way language structured these experiences particularly mattered to him. He wanted to be able to tell a history that was not didactic and pedagogical, which drove him to a creative reconstruction in his archive. These pedagogical narratives posed the essential questions that he tried to explore in his art: How does one experience the passage of the present when this present involves extreme forms of physical or psychological trauma? Why are some memories available to conscious recollection and others only available through encountering objects, scents, spaces, and people?
According to Raad, you could see traces of war everywhere in Lebanon, but the narrative of the war was unaccounted for. He wanted to tell that narrative, but he had to think of an alternative way of recounting history without being pedantic. According to Raad, “The story one tells oneself and that captures one’s attention and belief may have nothing to do with what happened in the past, but that’s the story that seems to matter in the present and for the future.”
Factual events do not matter as much as our memory of them, which is where fiction enters his work. The lines between reality and fiction are blurred because history exists in our personal recollection. History must be fictionalized to resist conventions of historiography.
How do we distinguish truth from fiction? Is it even possible? In a land torn by civil war, where reality is characterized by destruction, fiction is Raad’s method of producing a historical narrative.
Raad’s other project, “Scratching on Things I Could Disavow: A History of Art in the Arab World,” moves away from the war and examines the recent emergence of art in the Arab world, specifically the new “Happiness Island” (Saadiyat Island) being built in Abu Dhabi that will house the Guggenheim Museum and the Louvre. His project explores the ways in which economic and military conflicts affect art.
During the lecture, Raad mentioned trauma various times, as well as survival, but it struck me that the word “healing” was never mentioned. This made me question whether we actually heal from trauma. Raad’s artwork, as well as the accounts of the wars in my community, makes me believe that we will always carry this trauma with us; the important part is to survive, because healing seems so far-fetched in the face of intense, collective trauma. Fiction and humour are our means of survival.