Art In Conversation
WALID RAAD with Seth Cameron
Walid Raad is an artist and professor at Cooper Union. I first met him while I was a student there in the early 2000s, when he presented an artist talk on his project The Atlas Group (1989 – 2004). The work struck me then, as it encouraged an examination of the forms that lend veracity and/or incomprehensibility to so-called historical events. On the occasion of his MoMA exhibition focused on The Atlas Group and Scratching on things I could disavow: Walkthrough (2007 – present), I spoke with Walid about his thinking across these works.
Seth Cameron (Rail): Shortly after experiencing Scratching on things I could disavow: Walkthrough, I was preparing for a class I teach with James Leary at Bruce High Quality Foundation University (BHQFU) called “Experimental Art History: Value” by reading over Antonin Artaud’s 1947 essay “Van Gogh, the Suicide Provoked by Society.” With your work still fresh in my mind, the following passage caught me:
And what is an authentic lunatic? He is a man who has preferred to become what is socially understood as mad rather than forfeit a certain superior idea of human honour. In its asylums, society has managed to strangle all those it has wished to rid itself of or to defend itself from, because they refused to make themselves accomplices to various flagrant dishonesties. For a lunatic is also a man whom society has not wished to listen to, and whom it is determined to prevent from uttering unbearable truths.”
Walid Raad: This is a rich quote, a very good place to start. I like this idea of the “authentic lunatic.” It also makes me want to know about the “inauthentic lunatic.” What I like about the idea of the “lunatic” is the notion that she or he is under the influence of an external entity, the moon in this case.
In Walkthrough, my sense is that I (the “I” that speaks during the presentations and on the stage set I constructed in MoMA’s atrium) come across differently at different moments. Sometimes I may come across as sober, as a rational political economist; at other times, I seem rational but borderline conspiracy-minded, maybe as some much-too-committed-almost-over-the edge investigative journalist; and at other times, I seem quite troubled, even deluded and/or a lunatic. I find myself in the second half of the presentation confronting various odd situations: the flattening of space as I try to enter a new museum that has opened in Abu Dhabi; the shrinking of my own artworks in Beirut in 2008. I also find that I need to explain these situations psychologically. When my works shrink, I tell myself that “I must be in the midst of a psychotic breakdown.” When the facts do not support this explanation, I tell myself that I am being tricked, that essentially my works have not shrunk, but have been reduced in scale intentionally by my prankster colleagues. It is only after these two reasons fail to explain what I am confronting that I reluctantly state that “what I am going to say, I don’t mean as a metaphor. I don’t mean as an allegory. I mean it literally. Literally. In Beirut, in 2008, all my artworks shrank. I don’t know how. I don’t know why. They just did.” Of course, one could say that I am “seeing things,” and in this case, I would say that I am doing so not in the sense that I am hallucinating, but in the sense that I am objectively “having visions”—or so it seems to me. And I would not necessarily say that such “visions” are of “unbearable truths.” In fact, they seem to me quite bearable: odd, off the wall, and perplexing, but not unbearable. Nor are the “visions” conscious or unconscious responses to “flagrant dishonesties.” I find that I am not so interested these days in engaging “flagrant dishonesties”—or even “covert dishonesties,” for that matter—via an artwork. I prefer to engage such dishonesties via other means.
Rail: Your insistence that your artworks shrank—that this is not metaphorical—seems to align itself with other strategies you employ during Walkthrough. At the outset you make a point of stating you are not a professional actor. You call attention to moments when you are presenting “facts” and when you are presenting “facts in fiction.” At the conclusion of the first act, a presentation of research into the Artist Pension Trust, you disclaim the material as “undeserving of an artwork.” I was struck by this insistence on artlessness, almost in spite of the setting of MoMA.
Raad: I view all the works installed in MoMA as artworks. And, as your question implies, when in MoMA, it would seem that one has very little room to maneuver in this regard. But I would clarify this proposition a bit more. I view some works in Walkthrough as artworks while acknowledging them as artworks, and others as: props while acknowledging them as artworks; stage-sets while acknowledging them as artworks; artworks while disavowing them as artworks. Then the question about an artifact displayed in a museum like MoMA is not whether it is or is not an artwork. My sense is that there are numerous other attitudes that an artist can entertain here, one of which is the one I am outlining: artwork while disavowing it as artwork. This is how I would characterize the diagrammatic wall, the one on which I display the work titled Translator’s Introduction: Pension Arts in Dubai. I would refer to the other works displayed in MoMA’s atrium as props while acknowledging them as artworks, and others as artworks while acknowledging them as artworks.
We can also add to your list the fact that I do not refer to Walkthrough as a performance. Given the increasing presence in the visual art museum of film, video, sound, performance, dance, and here and there—and most likely with increasing frequency in the future—of music, voice, song, food, fragrance, etc. I find myself looking for some clarity on the matter of how what I do qualifies as performance at all. I don’t even refer to a lecture/performance, a term I used in the ’90s but have come to find quite troubling. It seems to me that any lecture or presentation with a hint of self-consciousness, and/or multiple modes of address is automatically today a lecture-slash-performance, or lecture-dash-performance. I am now allergic to the term, but have yet to think this through thoroughly. I also don’t refer to my presentations as an “artist talk,” a description I am actually fond of. I prefer the term “walkthrough.” A “presentation” is also fine. At least for now.
And I am certainly not an actor here, either. I can barely remember my script well enough, let alone control what my hands are doing, whether I am sweating, crying, smirking, grimacing, laughing, screaming, or whispering. For actors or actresses, text, voice, body, gesture are, in part, their materials. These are their tools. They have experimented with enough such gestures to have more or less understood when they are receiving new gestures versus when they are deploying them conventionally or otherwise.
Rail: This troubling feeling you have toward the term “lecture-performance,” it’s easy for it to sound like an academic, philosophical investigation with little relevance to the experience of artists and audiences today. But your sense of anxiety is borne out through Walkthrough specifically in relation to the expansive investments in culture going on in Abu Dhabi: the Louvre, Guggenheim, NYU, etc. Could you talk a bit about the conditions that give rise to this anxiety and where you see or don’t see the possibility of artistic agency given these conditions?
Raad: As an audience member, I usually pay close attention to whether an artist refers to his or her presentation as a lecture, a performance, or a combination thereof, and whether they refer to their displayed work as an artwork, prop, or stage set. This may well be because I teach in an art school, and as such I tend to also encounter artists when they are expected to talk about their and others’ practices. But this also matters to me because it affects how I relate to the forms, colors, and gestures I create. How do I determine whether the shrinking of my works in Section 139: The Atlas Group (1989 – 2004) is an aesthetic fact? What confirms to me whether I am dealing with a metaphor, an allegory, a hallucination, a conventional use of the “shrinking” trope, or an aesthetic fact? Given that my palette of associations is mostly tuned to the visual field, and primarily to the visual arts (as opposed to music, or physics, or biology), I tend to trust, to an extent, whether I am the producer and/or the receiver of certain colors, lines, volumes, forms; and as such, to distinguish between a creative act, a psychotic episode, the mediating effects of a technique or material, the conventional use of a trope, and so on.
With regards to my anxiety about the accelerated building of new infrastructures for the arts, and not just in Abu Dhabi, but throughout the Middle East, I can say the following: I am indeed anxious because I sense that the majority of those involved in this building frenzy (and here, I don’t just mean museums, galleries, foundations, art fairs, biennales, but also discourses, histories, transactions, laws, processes, etc.) were and are not deserving of the events that frame much of this construction. And I mean this in the sense that Jalal Toufic writes of deserving certain events in his Undeserving Lebanon:
One has to try to interpret the world as a whole in such a way as to deserve what occurred to us while trying to change it, especially the unbearable we underwent while we were trying to change other unbearable states of affairs. The latter option is one of the major tasks of thinkers, writers, artists, videomakers, filmmakers, and musicians. Is trying to understand the event that happens to me (socio-economic, historical, political factors, etc.) enough? No. Is not understanding it but it in an intelligent and subtle way enough? No. Is trying to render justice by administering punishment to the culprits, as the great “extremist” Shi‘ite al-Khattâb did to many of the murderers of imâm al-Husayn and his companions, enough? No, justice is never enough. We have to additionally feel that we merit the event that happened to us; from this perspective, justice is an insidious temptation, that of relaxing our attempt to merit the event—even bringing about justice has to be merited so that it is not a mere revengeful gesture. I do not deserve what happened to me simply because it is a karmic consequence of an action I performed earlier. For the most part, the Lebanese do not deserve the civil-war and the war they underwent (1975 – 1990): this is neither in the sense that they would have been mere pawns manipulated by Israel, Syria, and other regional and global powers, nor in the sense that their country would have been the arena for the conflicts and power struggles of others, including the Palestinian refugees on their land, etc.; but in the sense that they are not worthy of what happened to them: for the most part, they do not merit their war-induced ruins; the radical closure that Beirut may have become in 1982; the withdrawal of tradition past the surpassing disaster that Lebanon may have turned into by the latter stages of its civil-war and war; the eerie videotaped testimonies of those soon to do a suicidal operation against the Israeli occupation forces in Lebanon: “I am the martyr Sanâ’ Yûsif Muhaydlî (anâ as-shahîda Sanâ’ Yûsif Muhaydlî).”
Over the past fifteen years, massive new investments in the arts have taken place in the Arab world, at the same time as this world was and is witnessing drastic geo-political and military events. Suffice it to list (and not in any particular order, and only from the past fifteen years): the 2003 Gulf wars; the American occupation of Iraq; the assassination of Rafik Hariri in Lebanon and the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon; the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon; the increasing political tension between Saudi Arabia and its allies, and Iran and its allies, over Iran’s nuclear weapons program; the protracted Lebanese wars; an ever more aggressive Israeli foreign policy and yet more Israeli invasions of Gaza, let alone expanding settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem; the consolidation of Hamas’s rule in the Gaza strip; the bankruptcy (and I don’t mean financial) of the Palestinian Authority; a divided Iraq; the Syrian wars; the internationalization of the Syrian wars as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the European Union (EU), the United States, Russia, Hezbollah, and Iran have covertly and overtly joined the fight; Saudi Arabia’s and its allies’ ongoing military campaigns in Yemen; the uprisings, revolutions, coups, and countercoups in Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain, and Egypt. And as we all know, this is but a brief summary of the catastrophes of the past few years in the Middle East.
Now add to this the looting and/or destruction of cultural artifacts throughout the regions, most notably the looting of 15,000 items from Baghdad’s Iraq Museum following the American invasion of Iraq, to the continued and highly publicized blowing up and theft of major cultural artifacts and sites by ISIL in Syria, Libya, and Iraq.
And now add to this the quite unusual demographic make-up of the Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC). The United Arab Emirates and Qatar, for example, are countries with the highest GDP per capita rates in the world, but they are also countries with the highest net migration and gender imbalance rates in the world, where millions of workers, mostly men from South Asia, are subject to quite restrictive labor and residency laws.
And now add to this the fact that places like Abu Dhabi get 75 mm of rain per year; Doha, 77 mm per year; Saudi Arabia, 59 mm; and Yemen, 163 mm. And where, as the New York Times recently noted, “by the end of this century, areas of the Persian Gulf could be hit by waves of heat and humidity so severe that simply being outside for several hours could threaten human life.”
And add to this Jalal Toufic’s concept of the withdrawal of tradition past a surpassing disaster.
We’d better not add oil and natural gas (major export products of Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, among others) lest this become only a highly combustible mix.
But the fact is that this is indeed a combustible, troublesome, but also a fecund social, political, economic, environmental, ideological, and cultural ground. A ground where, it seems to me, some quite unusual things are happening, or will have happened as I say in Walkthrough with my example of the man trying to enter the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi in 2017, the man who freezes at the entrance because he finds himself facing a wall. My sense is that museum officials, architects, engineers, policemen, doctors, psychiatrists, among others, will certainly not merit such an event.
As to the question of the “possibility of artistic agency given these conditions,” I return to a specific section from the Toufic quote from above:
Is trying to understand the event that happens to me (socio-economic, historical, political, etc.) enough? No. Is not understanding it but it in an intelligent and subtle way enough? No. Is trying to render justice enough? No, justice is never enough. We have to additionally feel that we merit the event that happened to us.
I think this applies to the figure of the artist and/or writer with his or her artworks and books. To understand the event may well be enough for the journalist, historian, or social scientist. Justice may even be enough for the activist, human rights advocate, or construction worker. In many ways, I find myself asking less about what is possible for me as an artist (since I tend to agree with Jalal, that those are not enough for an artist with his or her artworks), but rather what do I consider enough for me as an artist but not in my artworks. This is how I find myself involved with a dedicated group of artists, writers, curators, and others in the Gulf Labor Coalition. In the past five years we have immersed ourselves in the economic, political, historical, cultural, psychological, and ideological dimensions of how men and women travel to the Persian Gulf countries from different parts of India, Bangladesh, and other places, with different hopes, fears, expectations, skills. We’ve tried to understand how these men live, work, play, and make sense and non-sense of their lives, and of their host-country’s lands, weather, laws, citizens, residents. We’ve also tried to understand how architects such as Jean Nouvel, Frank Gehry, Fosters and Partners, Raphael Vinoly think of where their emerging buildings in Abu Dhabi and Doha begin and end. We find ourselves attending conferences with panels titled “Labor Migration to the Gulf in the 21st-Century,” where non-governmental organizations (NGOs), human rights groups, labor advocates, policy wonks, and labor ministry employees from in and outside the region debate numbers, policies, and strategies. We find ourselves from time to time face-to-face with museum officials who say that they “want to do the right thing;” officials with limited knowledge of the lives, labor, and living conditions of those building their museums; administrators who are at the mercy of their own boards and other partners in far-away lands and who seem to know even less about any of the above, and who might say things like “Well, at least these workers from India have jobs in the Gulf that pay significantly higher than anything they get back home.” My sense is that there is little (little is still something) that anyone outside of a small inner-circle of security, political, and economic advisors can do to improve labor standards in places such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, or the Emirates. But there is a wider set of possible actions and conversations that can be undertaken with the American and European cultural institutions that are leasing their brands to the high bidders in the Middle East. Whether these institutions choose or are shamed into leveraging their branding options into more than just cash remains to be seen.
Rail: When you started teaching at Cooper Union, I was a student. I remember a theory running amongst the halls that you and Jalal Toufic were actually the same person. I think this came from a sense of deception that lingered around your ascribing authorship to fictional entities within your project, The Atlas Group. A bit later I was involved with forming the fictional entity Bruce High Quality, but probably given the ridiculousness of the name, his existence has rarely been confused with fact. This was very much on purpose for us. We wanted to test a theory—that a parody of a cultural institution could become one. I bring up the parallel because both within Walkthrough and via the paratextual material of the MoMA exhibition, you now seem to be more upfront about where the facts and fictions reside within your work. Why?
Raad: Others have also thought that Jalal and I are the same person. So, maybe it is best to clear this up once and for all. Jalal Toufic is a writer and artist currently living in Beirut, and was recently appointed the Director of the School of Visual Arts program in the Université de Balamand Academie des Beaux-Arts (ALBA). He is the author of at least fourteen publications, in English. At ALBA, he has already written one of the best mission statements about an art school that I have read in a very long time.
But I can also say that one of the reasons that I started reading Jalal is precisely because I thought he had literally read my mind. He wrote sentences that speak, word for word (or in this case, feeling for feeling), things that I had been feeling about how to photograph Beirut in the 1990s. When someone enters your head and emotions like this, it is tempting to think that they might be your voice as well. Maybe this is something that others can sense about my rapport with Jalal’s books, and concepts. Maybe this is the reason they would think that he is my creation. He is not.
I want to point out that the term “fiction” was alive for me in The Atlas Group (1989 – 2004). It is much less so, if at all, in Scratching on things I could disavow: Walkthrough. I have always been upfront with The Atlas Group (1989 – 2004) about the fact that all of the works presented there are images and stories that I produced and attribute to others. I’ve also talked about the documents as “facts in fiction.” I have referred to them as “hysterical historical symptoms.” I was never interested in seeing “what I can make up” and “get away” with. While I depend on display conventions that are closely aligned with a certain kind of sober evidentiary documentary, maybe even natural history, and a mode of address in the presentation that is very close to the Artist Talk, I also always explicitly say that The Atlas Group (1989 – 2004) is my creation. But I would also hope that we do not reduce this entire question of the document into the fact versus fiction debate; history versus aesthetics; journalism versus art; true versus false; real versus imaginary; sober versus drunk; clear versus opaque. Even in the West, these false choices were debunked centuries ago. And this does not mean that we are now always in the realm of the mediated and fictional. My sense is that numerous concepts and terms were created by artists, writers, scientists, and others to express the range of meanings, feelings, attitudes, and relations that emerge along the “true” to “false” continuum. It also seems to me that I, and many around me, rarely live our lives only on the extreme edge of this continuum.
SETH CAMERON is a painter and writer, and Ex-President of BHQFU.