Documents from The Atlas Group Archive
by Walid Ra'ad
In 2000, I established The Atlas Group as an imaginary foundation. In the mission statement, I described the group as follows: The Atlas Group is an imaginary non-profit research foundation established in 1976 in Beirut, to research and document the contemporary history of Lebanon. The foundation’s primary project over the past few years is titled The Dead Weight of a Quarrel Hangs. With this project, the foundation’s aim is to locate, preserve, study and assist in the production of audio, visual, literary and other artifacts that shed light on some of the unexamined dimensions of the Lebanese civil wars of 1975 to 1991. In this endeavor, The Atlas Group has found/produced notebooks, films, videotapes, photographs, and other documents. The Atlas Group exhibits its artifacts and funded works in community centers, festivals, galleries, museums, theaters, and schools. The Atlas Group also disseminates information about itself and presents its works via a presentation titled The Loudest Muttering Is Over: Case Studies from The Atlas Group Archive.
The particular conjuncture I examine with The Atlas Group projects is the Lebanese civil war, not as an already given chronology of events, dates, personalities, massacres, and invasions, but rather as an abstraction constituted by various discourses. I also concentrate on the discourses of video, photography, documentary, nationalism and war. I proceed in this examination from the hypothesis that “The Lebanese Civil War” is not a self-evident episode, an inert fact of nature. This war, or rather the wars, are not constituted by unified and coherent objects situated in the world. On the contrary, “The Lebanese Civil War” is constituted by and through various actions, situations, people, and accounts. Not attempting to situate the war in this or that event, person, space or time, I ask and attempt to answer the following question: How does one write a history of “The Lebanese Civil War?”
The Atlas Group projects includes a number of imaginary photographic and videographic documents such as, Missing Lebanese Wars, Secrets in the Open Sea and Miraculous Beginnings. I consider these documents to be hysterical symptoms that present imaginary events constructed out of innocent and everyday material. Like hysterical symptoms, the events depicted in these documents are not attached “to actual memories of events, but to cultural phantasies erected on the basis of memories.”
The documents in this imaginary archive do not so much document “what happened”, but what can be imagined, what can be said, taken for granted, what can appear as rational or not, as thinkable and sayable about the civil wars. They focus on some of the un-examined effects of the wars as they are manifest in photographic and videographic reproductions. Some of the questions I want to ask with this project are the following: How do we represent traumatic events of collective historical dimensions when the very notion of experience is itself in question? How do we approach the facts of the war, not in their crude facticity, but “through the complicated mediations by which facts acquire their immediacy?” How does one witness the passing of an extremely violent present? What particular conceptions of experience, of modes of assimilating the data of the world can we presuppose when we speak of the physical and psychic violence of the civil war? What conception of time, evidence, testimony, history, and writing do we invoke?