I’m from a country which has been claimed to be “the best” in cyber warfare according to the latest news. It is connected with the history of propaganda and mastering the skill of fake news since the rise of USSR.
The Atlas Group1 appears as an example in my thesis “Blending fact and fiction”. Later on I discovered one of the few recorder lectures with you on youtube where you said that you are less and less interested to talk about The Atlas Group. You seem to be troubled by the critique for the work and the way you talk about the project. I was impressed by the honest way you talked about it. I presented my master thesis in January 2018. Later, I heard from my teacher that you will be one of the key speakers in the Helsinki Photomedia2 international photography research conference. The theme of the conference was: Reconsidering the “Post-truth Condition”: Epistemologies of the photographic image. Participants of the conference were professionals from media sphere, professors, curators. Most of them from Northern Europe.
I really wanted to see you talk but the tickets were 200 euro3 and I couldn’t make it. After the conference, I had a discussion with my teachers about your speech. They had confusing opinions. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see your talk live. I would’ve liked to hear the stories of which artists and professionals really care about, for example the the crisis of arts education in the usa, or the arabic art market, or artistic integrity. (All these subjects are formed from “rumors” by my colleagues in school.) It seems that you prepared the subjects before according to place4 and audience but not according to the theme of the conference. The form of speech was an artist talk which gives a certain freedom to the speaker5.
If you care about something wouldn’t you fix it if it’s broken? I see different forms of care in The Atlas Group. One of examples is the Notebook Let’s be honest the weather helped6, where you present photographs of the ruins of Beirut repaired with colorful dots. The shape of the collection or an archive is present in your work. This resonates with me because of my first education in the master program on Library and Cultural Activity where I learned that archiving is a form of care; care of documents. Time is nothing compared to work to make a structure. Where the language of data becomes poetic in the background of a dry archival structure.
The common critique towards your work is concerned with blending fact and fiction on your work. In my reading, the role of fact is a framework of the Civil War in Lebanon. This I could decode as a kind of limitation for you. The interpretation comes from my interest in the mechanisms of propaganda and art in USSR. A time in which artists could say almost any critique openly thanks to their own multiple layers of filtration and the use of clever codes. Limits are not the only borders or control, but also a provocation, a call to action. Art in the USSR had an active component, making art useful and making it have a purpose. Samizdat was a movement in the Soviet Union similar to the zine movement in the UK. ‘WHY READ THIS WHEN YOU CAN PRODUCE YOUR OWN!!!’ – The title is taken from zine Cool Notes, no. 3, 19827. If British zines were an active call to reach the public with new ideas, Samizdat was a secret way of distributing information which was banned by the Soviet government. I could find both of these phenomena in your work. If a country doesn’t have an official history, or if that history is too distorted, you create your own version. To cut ’n’ paste8 – choosing a fragment of reality to emphasise its significance – is in the core of photographic medium. Zines and Samizdat were spread as part of underground culture. Your work is displayed in high art institutions. Could it be connected with a trend for activistic approach in contemporary art?
The personal stories of people who contribute to The Archive of Atlas Group could be considered as a secret information about the work, much like the Samizdat. What fascinated me in your work is the story of war being told through individuals stories. Like the story of Operator #17. In my interpretation, this document tells the story of how tired people could become of the war scenery surrounding them. The moment when the officer decides to spend the videotape on something more valuable for him as an individual, resonates to me as a moment of true patriotism. It was a conscious step, by an individual he made with an understanding that he could lose the job.
Operator #179 lost his job after the authorities discovered his act of “art”. The interesting part here is that the authorities let the agent keep the recordings of the sunset. The view of the sun merging with the Mediterranean sea is a strong symbol even for the governmental authority. I read it as a symbol of peace, but I could only guess how important this view was for the citizens of Lebanon.
There are many important lessons that I learnt from your work. And there are so many questions to ask you. But I would not address them over public or via internet publication.
Thank you, dear Walid Raad!
My inspiration to write an open letter comes from: