The Pathological Rhythm of the Archive – by Eirini Grigoriadou


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“Pathology, in a word illness, is always accompanied by a disruption of rhythms: arrhythmia that goes as far as morbid and then fatal de-synchronisation”. (1)

Henri Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis: Space,

time and everyday life

In keeping with Henri Lefebvre´s writings on rhythm-analysis, (2) the alteration, malfunction, rupture or functional disorder of a system entails a rhythmical failure that breaks the “harmony” between different regular rhythms, as suggested by the eurhythmia, which is the indicator of the system’s good health. In this case, the rythmanalyst’s task consists in exploring these irregular rhythms whose disruptions produce “a lacuna, a hole in time, to be filled in by an invention, a creation”. (3) Will the rhytmanalayst “have to set up and direct a lab where one compares documents: graphs, frequencies and various curves? More precisely, will he agree to look after clients? patients? (4) asks Lefebvre. The destructive and conflictive condition of the arrhythmia that acts against its vital rhythms, always originated in crisis, war, desynchronized rhythms and changes in tempo, seems to have devastating death drives similar to the pathological state of the archive, which, in Freudian terms, Jacques Derrida calls the “archive fever”. In other words, a “destruction drive”, “death drive” or anarchivic “aggression” that quietly works against itself, in the core of the archive, against its regular rhythm and which in occasions is disguised as “lovely impressions”. (5)

How can one write about the arrhythmia of crisis? Or rephrased, how is it possible to synchronize the normalized rhythms when these are incessantly showing its severe illness in development, its pathology, its inherent instability? When speaking about the contradictory and explosive polyrhythmia of history and subsequently of its arrhythmia manifested in the conflicted history of the Mediterranean towns, where “the ideologies of diversity oppose to the point of violence the structures of identity and unity”, Lefebvre and Catherine Régulier assertively ask “How can one not think of Beirut here?” (6)

To think about Beirut is to think about its destructive rhythms, about the labyrinth of its ruins, about the terrible social disruption and the psychological effects of the trauma generated by the Lebanese Civil Wars (1975-1990/91) and the continuous current conflicts. How can one write the violent history of Lebanon when, in theological terms, it cannot be attached to a series of events with a beginning and an ending or a succession of atrocities and murders, and when it trespasses national geopolitics and is linked to the processes of globalization, chained to stories mediated by mass media used to control memory, and bounded to ideologies and political and economical interests? In this scenario, the truth will always be constructed, volatile. How can one write the history of traumatic events that were lived, but have been experienced in a way that suggests what Derrida calls a “radical effacement”? (7) Therefore, how can one get close to the traumatic experiences of a nation whose memory is vague, dissociated, and severed from its cause? Events ‘so real’ that they exceed the boundaries between truth and falsehood, historical evidence and invention, the real and the imaginary, the local and the global. And what can one do with these ‘dislocated traces’ that the conflict of war has left in the present? Perhaps these issues can be answered by setting up a lab and investigating these “traces” imprinted in the culture and in individuals, by examining the “symptoms” of irregular rhythms, or creating a foundation that could collect, analyze, generate, present and “compare documents: graphs, frequencies and various curves” of such rhythms. The foundation could even receive donations of documents and archives by individuals and institutions that hope to understand these disrupted rhythms through their obsessively compiled records, testimonies and stories. Furthermore, the foundation could occasionally establish collaboration with laboratories in order to carry out a technical analysis of the documents, necessary for its investigation and conservation.

The Lebanese media artist Walid Raad seems to have pursued this goal through his ‘imaginary foundation’ The Atlas Group Archive. “(…) 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”. (8) These still unexamined dimensions of history which the project The Atlas Group Archive (1989-2004) intends to explore are those destructive rhythms that have generated what Raad calls a “black hole”. (9)

The fictional narratives comprised in the foundation’s imaginary universe and told by invented and historical characters – presented as a collective faced with “the possibilities and limits of writing any history of the recent wars in Lebanon” (10) - occupy the same space as the historical accounts. (11) In this common mental space emerges a different kind of knowledge based not on the “history of conscious events” (12), but rather on the symptomatic history of the ‘unconscious’. In this sense, Raad urges his viewers to approach the Atlas Group Archive files, in Freudian psychoanalytic terms, as “hysterical symptoms” based not on any one person´s actual memories but on cultural fantasies erected from the material of collective memories”. (13) Although these symptoms outline the existence of an illness or a disorder, they can find a new ‘normalized’ or even ‘liberating’ condition in Raad’s (an)archive. The theory of trauma exposes this mutation: “(…) the patient never returns to the past. (…) what helps the subject recover is in fact the fantasy (…) a story, a tale, that penetrates right through to the unconscious, not to conscious, mind”. (14)

The Atlas Group Archive has collected these ‘dislocated traces’ of psychic and physical violence or these desynchronized rhythms which have produced “a lacuna, a hole in time, to be filled in by an invention, a creation”. The “phantasies or daydreams” have been described by Freud as the “immediate forerunners of hysterical symptoms” (15) recognizing that fantasy carry the weight of ‘reality’.

An archival art characterized by an anarchival impulse and postproduction that is, as observed by Hal Foster, “concerned less with absolute origins than with obscure traces (…) these artists are often drawn to unfulfilled beginnings or incomplete projects – in art and in history alike – that might offer points of departure again.” (16) The archive constructed by Raad constitutes a ‘postproduction’ of history allowing him new points of departure for reconstructing narratives. Similarly, the shift «towards storytelling» in contemporary art of the 90’s examined by T.J Demos in his essay “Storytelling In/As Contemporary Art”, confronted by geopolitical events related with social trauma, “enacts a paradoxical coupling of narrative and opacity, of making connections between diverse images and questioning definite conclusions”. (17)

Although Raad’s art confronts the traumatic events of the Lebanese Civil Wars, he directs our attention not to the origin of the trauma but rather to the ‘spatial-temporal displacements’, to the specific effects and rhythms of his pathological archive. The conflict of war is told from its blind spots, from its disruptive rhythms juxtaposed to the mechanical, repetitive rhythms and compulsive acts and routines of the characters whose memories resist a direct representation; from the loss, the absence, the perspective of a counter-history or counter-memory: inconclusive stories where the ghosts of the past inhabit in the present thus questioning the idea of a definitive history as the place where an objective knowledge of the past can dwell, as the place of an unquestionable authority, of the ‘official’ history that certifies the authenticity of a historical truth, of an event, of what actually happened.

1 Secrets in the Open Sea.jpg

Walid Raad, Secrets in the Open Sea, 1994/2004. Plate 1; digital prints 111 x 173 cm. Courtesy of Sfeir-Semler Gallery.

In the framework of these ‘alternative’ histories, the boundaries between historical narrative and fictional storytelling, politics and poetics, authenticity and artifice, are blurred through interactions rather than by divisions or oppositions, just as the papers adopted by Raad acting as a poet or rhythmanalyst and archivist. To write the history of Lebanon seems to signify, as observed by Jacques Rancière, that the “real must be fictionalized in order to be thought”. (18)

What is going on with this intense blue of the Mediterranean Sea? What Secrets in the Open Sea (2002) are hidden? The 6 large-format photographic prints of different shades of blue that were found under the rubble of the commercial malls bombarded in Beirut in 1992 conceal miniature latent images in black and white which represent portraits of men and women. According to the Foundation’s web page, this discovery was made when the prints were sent to laboratories in the United States and France for technical analysis. The Atlas Group was able to determine that the portraits corresponded to people whose bodies were found dead in the Mediterranean between 1975 and 1990. The absence of the traumatic event of death – the bodies of these disappeared people – manifests the impossibility of a correspondence between fact and truth. The images that Raad presents us reveal the non-memory of trauma, its “blurred, never-on-time, always-to-the-side” (19) condition. It is precisely this absence, the inaccessibility to what really happened, which activates the ‘presence’ of the spatial-temporal displacements of the trauma explored by Raad and that of the “fictional and secret rhythms” (20) comprised in Raad’s archive.

The documents of the Atlas Group do not reclaim a political truth, nor they pretend to represent the veracity of empirical facts. Instead, they are rooted in the diffuse zone of emotional and psychological truth where facts and the imaginary are indiscernible. “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”. (21)

The possibilities and limits faced by the characters invented by Raad call into question the experience of memory in terms of violence and trauma. The dislocated image of Operator # 17 in his video, I Only Wish I Could Have Weep (2002), constitutes a clear example. We are told that this anonymous character was a Lebanese army intelligence officer who, after the Lebanese Civil Wars, was in charge of surveilling the Corniche every afternoon (a seaside promenade in west Beirut where double agents and spies allegedly met). However, instead of fulfilling his duty, Operator # 17 redirected his camera to document sunsets and people strolling down the Corniche docks as ghostly figures. The compulsive and routine action of the military officer, an action that is repeated outside of time because it is repressed, manifests the impossibility of an act of healing. As expressed by Lefebvre “Pleasure and joy demand a re-commencement. They await it; yet it escapes. Pain returns. It repeats itself, since the repetition of pleasure gives rise to pain(s).” (22)

2 I Only Wish That I Could Weep.jpg

Walid Raad, Miraculous Beginnings, 2000/ No, Illness is Neither Here Nor There, 1999. DVD, colour, mute, 1:43 min. Courtesy of Sfeir-Semler Gallery.

Dr. Fadi Fakhouri is another one of Raad’s imaginary characters. He is supposed to be “the most eminent historian in Lebanon” and after his death in 1993, his documents were donated to the Atlas Group for their preservation, analysis and diffusion. The films Miraculous Beginnings and No, Illness Is Neither Here Nor There (1993), document Dr. Fakhouri’s habit of always carrying two film cameras and recording every time he thought the war was over. Just like Operator # 17, who was incapable of grasping the violence of war and filled with uncertainty before the unknown, Dr. Fakhouri would wander the streets of Beirut and obsessively film the nameplates of doctors, psychiatrists, surgeons or dentists (all disciplines that blossomed during the civil wars) as a longing for peace and the end of the war.

3 Miraculous Beginnings and No, IIIness Is Neither Here nor There.jpg

Walid Raad, Volume 57: No, Illness Is Neither Here Nor There, 2003. Set of 15 plates. Archival inkjet prints, 30 x 40 cm, each. Courtesy of Sfeir-Semler Gallery.

The impossibility of really getting to know the significance of experiencing historical events, particularly when these involve a physical and psychological injury dismantled by the repetitive habits of these characters, echoes what Walter Benjamin pointed out in his essay “On the Concept of History”: “Articulating the past historically does not mean recognizing it “the way it really was.” (23) This impossibility is further exemplified in another of Dr. Fakhouri’s archives entitled Notebook Volume 72: Missing Lebanese Wars (1989). The fictional scenario that Raad constructs around the photographic document is based on the rumor that the major historians of the Lebanese wars were avid gamblers that they met every Sunday at the race track and “bet on photo-finish horse-race photographs as they were published in the Lebanese daily Annahar”. (24)

In spite of the detailed data that Dr. Fakhouri wrote in his notebook – from descriptions about the winning historian, the record time of the winning horse, the distance and duration of the race etc, – not one single photography published in the Lebanese daily Annahar showed the ‘exact moment’, the specific ‘instant’ in which the horse crosses the finish line. The horse was always captured just seconds before or after passing the line. This temporary time difference where truth is disintegrated, references the “documentary uncertainty” (25) of how history is written. Photography fails in its attempt to capture the truth, the exact ‘moment of victory’. Also, the rumor that historians “convinced (some say bribed) the photographer to snap only one picture as the winning horse arrived” proves that their interests and ideologies make it impossible for the facts of history to be narrated based on an absolute truth. The historians responsible for writing the Lebanese Civil Wars acknowledge the limits of their endeavor. As Andre Lepecki assertively noted “history seems never to be exactly where it is supposedly taking place”. (26)

4 Notebook Vol 72 Missing Lebanese Wars PL 132.jpg

Walid Raad, Notebook volume 72: Missing Lebanese Wars, 1996-2002. Plate 132. Set of 21 plates. Archival inkjet prints on archival paper, 33 x 25 cm. Courtesy of Sfeir-Semler Gallery.

Raad’s archival art seems to operate “in a way similar to the mirror in vampire films” by revealing “past a surpassing disaster”, what the writer and artist Jalal Toufic says, “the withdrawal of what we think is still there”. (27) It makes visible the ‘arrhythmia’ of the archive, of its destructive rhythms, of what has been missing, hidden, lost, absent, “withdrawn, no longer available even after “everything” have been apparently ‘synchronized’ in post-war Lebanon. (28)

Eirini Grigoriadou

Eirini Grigoriadou completed her PhD thesis at University of Barcelona, Spain. Her doctoral thesis “The Archive and the Photographic Typologies. From the New Objectivity to the New Generation of Photographers in Germany: 1920-2009”, supervised by the Chair Professor Anna Maria Guasch Ferrer, received the «Extraordinary Doctorate Award». Currently she is Associate Researcher in the project Global Art Archive (GAA) of the Research Group Critic Cartography of Art and Visuality in the Global Era: New methodologies, concepts and analytical approaches under the direction of Anna Maria Guasch Ferrer at the University of Barcelona, Department of Contemporary Art History. Her publications include “Fragmentos de la historia: Walter Benjamin y Aby Warburg” en Roots&Routes. Research on Visual Culture, “Tipologías, archivos y fotografía en el arte alemán de posguerra: Thomas Ruff y la identidad del retrato fotográfico” en Ars Longa, “La fotografía y la escritura documental del archivo institucional” en Escritura e imagen, (in Press).

( 1 )

Henri Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis: Space, time and everyday life (New York: Continuum, 2004), 68.

( 2 )

Lefebvre employs ‘rhythmanalysis’ in his book -originally published as Éléments de rythmanalyse: introduction à la connaissance des rythmes (1992)- as an analytical tool investigating the way rhythms -social, psychological, biological- penetrate in everyday life making us aware of the temporal understanding of space, of the constant interaction between space and time. In his analysis the linear (cultural, rational) and cyclic time (natural, irrational) are always in a permanent interrelation. Rhythmanalysis recognises both repetitions, regularities, stabilities and ruptures, gabs, holes, shadows, discordances, ‘arrhythmias’. The blurring of the contours between the cyclical and linear rhythms, according to Lefebvre, form a polyrhythmia that can take the form of ‘eurhythmia’ (a state of harmony), but also the form of ‘arrhythmia’ (a state of entropy). Something that is equally akin to Lefebvre’s conception of time with the issues of memory and trauma, recollection and repetition. Issues that here are examined in connection with the pathological rhythm of the ‘archive’ where its linear and repetitive rhythms or its ‘official’ and rational rhythms are blurred with the ‘fictional’, irrational and psychological ones of the everyday life, establishing in a state of crisis a counter rhythm, a breakdown.

( 3 )

Ibid., 44.

( 4 )

Ibid., 22.

( 5 )

Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 11.

( 6 )

Henri Lefebvre and Catherine Régulier, “Attempt at the Rhythmanalysis of Mediterranean Cities,” [1986] in Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis, 99.

( 7 )

Derrida, Archive Fever, 11.

( 8 )

Walid Ra'ad, “Documents from The Atlas Group Archive,” in CTRL SPACE: Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother, ed. Thomas Y. Levin, Ursula Frohne and Peter Weibel. (Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 2002), 626.

( 9 )

Santiago B. Olmo, “Walid Raad and The Atlas Group: Collisions between the Documentary Archive, Memory and Fiction,” Artcontext 22 (2009): 57.

( 10 )

Alan Gilbert, “Walid Ra'ad,” Bomb Magazine 81 (Fall 2002):40

( 11 )

Carrie Lambert-Beatty refers to this strategy as “parafiction” where “real and/or imaginary personages and stories intersect with the world as it is being lived”. Carrie Lambert-Beatty, “Make-Believe:Parafiction and Plausibility,” October 129 (Summer 2009):54.

( 12 )

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, “Atlas Group Brings War Documents Home,” The Daily Star (8 May 2004):12.

( 13 )

The Atlas Group (Walid Ra'ad), “Let´s Be Honest, the Rain Helped,” in The Archive. Documents of Contemporary Art, ed. Charles Merewether. (London and Cambridge, MA: Whitechapel and The MIT Press, 2006),180.

( 14 )

Olmo, “Walid Raad and The Atlas Group,” 58-59.

( 15 )

Sigmund Freud, “The Interpretation of Dreams,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud Volume 5, ed. James Strachey. (London: Vintage, 2001), 491.

( 16 )

Hal Foster, “An Archival Impulse,” October 110 (Fall 2004): 5

( 17 )

T.J Demos, “Storytelling In/As Contemporary Art,” in The Storyteller, ed. Claire Gilman and Margaret Sundell. (Zurich: Independent Curators International and JRP Ringier, 2010), 96.

( 18 )

Jacques Rancière, Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible (London and New York: Continuum, 2004) 38. In a similar manner Mark Godfrey affirms that fiction is not employed “in order to evade historical representation but so as to represent historical experience more adequately”. Mark Godfrey, “The Artist as Historian,” October 120 (Spring 2007): 4.

( 19 )

Gilbert, “Walid Ra'ad,” Bomb Magazine 81 (Fall 2002): 42

( 20 )

Lefebvre alludes to “secret rhythms” also as “psychological ones (recollection and memory, the said and the non-said)” and to “fictional rhythms” as the “imaginary” ”. Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis, 18.

( 21 )

Ra'ad, “Documents from The Atlas Group Archive,” 629.

( 22 )

Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis, 12.

( 23)

Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings Volume 4, 1938-1940, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 391.

( 24 )

Gilbert, “Walid Ra'ad,” 40.

( 25 )

See Maria Lind and Hito Steyerl, “Introduction: Reconsidering the Documentary and Contemporary Art”, in The Greenroom: Reconsidering the Documentary and Contemporary Art #1 (New York: Sternberg Press and Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, 2008) 16.

( 26 )

André Lepecki, “After All, This Terror Was Not Without Reason": Unfiled Notes on the Atlas Group Archive,” TDR: The Drama Review, 50 (Fall 2006): 92.

( 27 )

Jalal Toufic, The Withdrawal of Tradition Past a Surpassing Disaster, (Forthcoming Books, 2009), 57.

28 Ibid., 20.