Walid Raad’s I Was Overcome By A Momentary Panic At The Thought That They Might Be Right: Documents From The Nassar Files in The Atlas Group Archive
by Amanda Graham
The stories we tell ourselves to get over things
can have nothing to do with what really happened.
– Walid Raad
It is impossible for any of us to witness all events as they happen. Rarely, can we say, “I was there.” The visual aftermath of events, therefore, becomes our way of knowing what we did not see and what we never experienced. The traces left behind are not the end, but the beginning, of a fascinating, albeit, incomplete story. Then again, no story is ever complete. Walid Raad knows this and so do I.
In 2004 I was a Master’s student at York University in Toronto. That Fall Raad had his exhibition, I Was Overcome By A Momentary Panic At The Thought That They Might Be Right: Documents From The Nassar Files in The Atlas Group Archive, at the on-campus Art Gallery. I stopped in to check it out following an afternoon class. What I remember: Photographs of engines. Lots of them. From cars that might have been blown up in Lebanon. Pock marks left in the earth. People standing around watching. Handwritten notations about time, place, and how far the engines flew. Evident trauma. Evidence of trauma.
While I understood Raad’s work was as much fiction as it was fact I left the gallery with the feeling of turmoil in my belly, and an understanding that Raad’s artistic historicity communicates the reality that war leaves its mark on the landscape. The catastrophe and its subsequent recovery are both at play in the shrapnel.
As I contemplated Raad’s engines on the subway ride home the lights went out. The train lost power and came to a halt between stations. Passengers began to quietly speculate. A few minutes later an emergency crew arrived and a few minutes after that a woman with singed arms and ripped jeans was hoisted into the car where I sat. She was alive and conscious, but it was obvious from her condition that she had jumped into the tracks. The evidence of her act was written all over her body. After we arrived at St. Claire Station the woman was whisked off onto a stretcher and then toward the sound of sirens. A student-type to my right and an older man carrying groceries next to her quietly wondered if she could have fallen, or worse, been pushed. All we could deduce arose from the visual clues she provided: the marks on her skin and clothes. She displayed the evidence of the act we conjectured upon her body. She probably would forever—in the form of scars.
Every time I tell the story of the woman jumping in front of the subway it is a little different. Sometimes I mention she had dyed blonde hair, other times I don’t. Over the years, the story has become less factual, as my memory of it has faded and I continue to add details to keep listener interest. I am sure that the woman with the dyed blonde hair has told the story of that day more than once as well, or at least she has told some sort of story to explain the burns on her arms.
In 2006 I began writing about scars because I was, at the time, working in a community where people seemed to be covered with more than their fair share. Writing about scars brought me back to the day of the subway incident, and also Raad’s car bomb photographs, each absent of car bombs and full of holes in the ground. It occurred to me that both the landscape and the body are littered with traces of encounter; they hold onto what our memories cannot, or choose not. For me, these are planes of investigation, sites of overlooked visuality, and the narratives I want to pursue.
When I learned that Raad received his PhD from the University of Rochester I began to look into applying because I believed the lens through which he and I looked at the visual world was somehow cut from the same glass. I wanted to find a program where I could consider trauma and healing, the stories we tell ourselves to keep going and those we tell others, and scars on the landscape and the body. I wanted to figure out an approach to narrative that lends equal weight to fiction as it does to fact. I wanted to tell stories, like Raad, about the things we aren’t so sure, but are absolutely positive.
Amanda Graham is a second year Visual and Cultural Studies student. She is a former public school art teacher, community organizer, and activist. Her current research interests include scars, trauma narratives, and contemporary community based art initiatives.
Walid Raad is an artist and Associate Professor at the Cooper Union School of Art. In 1999, Raad founded the Atlas Group, an imaginary foundation to research and document the contemporary history of Lebanon. His work has been exhibited at The International Center of Photography, Documenta 11, and the 2003 Venice Biennale. Raad received his Ph.D. from VCS in 1996.