Stan Portus is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in C Magazine, Ossian Magazine, Photomonitor, Emotional Art Magazine, Design Exchange Magazine, Review 31 and others.

Conditions for Memory
Arc Magazine


In Lamia Joreige’s film Embrace (2004), two figures pull at one another’s arms, moving on and off the grainy screen. Behind the figures cars race past in front of a warehouse. Bathed in red light that comes from the road it is hard to see the blue evening sky hanging over the sea in the distance. In this clip what is actually happening is unclear; with every movement what the figures are doing can be reread, reinterpreted, reimagined. Uncertainty is often at the crux at Joreige’s work, and points towards the deeper issues of constructing stable narratives surrounding the history of Lebanon and it’s capital Beirut, the city that forms the setting for Embrace, and home of Joreige.

Born in 1972, Joreige studied film and painting at Rhode Island School of Design, graduating in 1995. Her films, writing and installations traverse the problematic histories of Lebanon, and the relationship between personal recollection and collective cultural/historical memory. Often taking Beirut as the subject, Joreige explores museums, people’s personal memories, and longer histories, to help offer new perspectives on Lebanon’s past and in particular the Lebanese Wars (1975-1990), that saw different sectarian and political groups clash. Often other countries such as Israel and Syria supported these groups, and the conflict acted as means for outside forces to fight their own battles. The Lebanese Wars have left a lasting impact on the country. Between gaining independence from France in 1943 and the 1970s, Lebanon was seen as an example of post-colonial success, but the 15 years of conflict left economic difficulty, political uncertainty, population displacement, militia groups and religious tension, as well as thousands dead, missing and handicapped.

It is these difficulties that Joreige traverses through challenging the orthodoxy of certain histories, and documenting the personal, even if, at times, trying to understand the past shifts beyond fact and into fiction; a poetic act that challenges the past, but exemplifies how, “in the middle of tales of conquest and defeat that shaped (and disfigured) Beirut, one wonders amidst narratives that point out to the impossibility of constructing a good history”.

Andrew Downey states that, “working with archives has become an apparently dominant aesthetic strategy for contemporary artists engaged with the heterogeneity of cultural production across the Middle East”. These artists include Hadji Thomas and Khali Joreige, Abdullah Farah, Walid Raad and Akram Zaatari, as well as Lamia Joreige. Arguably this turn relates to the fetishization of the archive as a place that plays a role in the production of knowledge. For Derrida the Greek route of the word archive, arkhē, means commencement and commandment. The archive becomes a place of origin through domiciliation and consignment of documents, creating a single body of information, that projects power and consequently is used as a referent or base for knowledge. The archive as taxonomy and classification system could also be understood as one possible historical form. Foucault describes this as historical a priori which creates “a condition of reality for statements” but not “a condition of validity for judgements”, and it is on this possibility for alternate judgements that artists such as Joreige address and challenge the assigned power of archives.

In Underwriting Beirut Mathaf (2013) Joreige elucidates the authority ascribed to the National Museum of Beirut due to its institutional power, and the validity of the histories it presents. Mathaf is the Arabic word for museum, and the area of Beirut which is home to the National Museum. It also sits on the now extinct Green demarcation line, which during the Lebanese War marked the border between East and West Beirut and resultantly was a point of conflict that saw kidnappings and shootings.

The Lebanese War saw objects looted, destroyed and taken from the museum leading to a collection that is lacking. Yet establishing what was taken, destroyed or put onto the art market is difficult, as the museum had no comprehensive records of its collection prior to the Lebanese War. It is also hard to establish what the museum does and doesn’t hold, beyond issues of what was and wasn’t lost, due to the barriers put up to individuals such as Joreige:

For various reasons – political and non-political, rational and irrational, and mainly practical because of the museum’s organization and shortage of staff – it has proven impossible for me to access the museum’s post-war inventory, storage, archive of documents and photographs, and library publications including the museum’s bulletin.

When working on Underwriting Beirut Mathaf, the individual in charge of the Museum’s archive informed Joreige that she could only look at what was in the galleries. In response to the museum’s policies, in December 2012 Joreige photographed as many objects as possible that were on display in the museum. Later, compiling all the object captions into one image Joreige created a testament to what impression a visitor to the Museum would gain of Lebanon and Lebanese identity, but only in the month of December 2012. As the objects on display in the Museum will change – being moved in and out of the inaccessible store – so too will the visitor’s impression of Lebanon’s history. By showing the loss of objects, and the possibility of fragile judgements from museums, Underwriting Beirut leaves open questions about what is learnt from archives, but also questions relating to access and structure: the formulation of historical a priori itself.

However the critique is not meant to end with the institution. Hal Foster’s assertion that artists who work with archives are less concerned with critiques of representational totality and institutional integrity, and instead wish to move beyond the archive itself as focus, is true of Joreige. Trying to access the archive of the National Museum of Beirut turned into an institutional critique, but Joreige also wishes to challenge the historical narratives that, although may have their physical home in archives, exist away from institutions.

Just as the archive is shown to be a construct, and a changing one at that, Joreige also shows how histories outside of the archive are illusory and malleable in Beirut, Autopsy of a City (2010). Divided into three chapters, the multimedia installation alters the relationship between the city and history. Joreige believes that the Lebanese War disrupted Beirut’s relationship with history, a fact that is present in Underwriting Beirut, but an issue which Beirut, Autopsy of a City considers through a much longer historical time frame. Joreige discovered that long before the Lebanese War, Beirut had been destroyed and rebuilt over and over. This may not be surprising for the capital of a country that was established in 1920, yet it is a history that in Joreige’s eyes has fallen into darkness due to Lebanon’s very recent history of violence. By assembling different historical records and installing them in a superficial timeline the first chapter of Beirut, Autopsy of a City reveals Beirut’s tumultuous past. But it also draws out new associations and relationships between the ancient and modern shifting the work of the archaeologist into that of a poet, challenging accepted forms of historiography whilst revealing what Foster describes as an archival impulse, the desire to look back and make the past current again through its rereading and new presentation.

The second chapter of Beirut, Autopsy of a City, titled Beirut, 1001, is a video projection that steps beyond juxtapositions of historical documents, and uses a collage of photographs to create fiction. The film shows the transition of Beirut from a small town to a modern city. It starts with the old town in the foreground, looking out over the sea. Boats float in the harbour as gradually new buildings appear, taking the place of the old. Mountains emerge in the background and we begin to see the long stretched curve of Beirut’s seafront. Buildings continue to rise in the distance and old streets give way to modernist towers. Fog falls over the scene and all that is visible is a jetty protruding out into the ocean, but silhouetted against the hazy sky are helicopters, and then warplanes flying over the city in formation, until the whole scene disappears in cloud. At one moment the video shows a ship from the 19th century, a sky from the 1980s and a sea from the 1950s. The Beirut shown never existed at one moment in time, but Beirut’s past is shown through amalgam and allegory. The third chapter turns to Beirut’s future, doing away with historical pictures and documents and moving into an entirely fictive scene. Titled Beirut 2058 all that is left is the coastline, raising the question of how Beirut, a city with a history of erasure and conflict, will fair in the future.

Creating fictions from history echoes Downey’s assertion that the gaps in archives – allow a ‘productive aperture’ that lets the artist imagine. Instead of the artist producing verifiable knowledge, in its place there are suggestions of what could have been, what could have happened. Artists such as Joreige are therefore dealing with a caesura in historical knowledge, but often more is done than simply returning to historical material to offer ideas about what could have filed the gaps that now exist, addressing issues concerning the historical a priori, or imagining the future.

At times Joreige’s work reflects Jacques Rancière’s ideas of ‘the aesthetic age’. Rancière argues this is where the fictive and poetic have begun to merge with the ‘empirical’ that is seen to constitute historical truth, forming a new regime of meaning that challenges History and blurs the logic of fact. This is arguably present in Beirut, Autopsy of a City but the fictive there is clearly distinct from records of the past. We know that the Beirut 1001 is an amalgamation of images and we know that the future of Beirut has not happened. Instead Rancière’s question of whether fact has allied with fiction to form new regimes of truth, or parafictions, is best seen where the question of ‘did this happen?’ is near unanswerable.

Here and Perhaps Elsewhere (2003) presents the different stories of several involved with a shooting across Beirut’s demarcation line in 1986. We are given the testimonies of Ziad, the sniper; Oumna, who Wahid Sale – the victim – came to after the shooting, and Oumna’s friend; Nabil, a militia man, who was stationed on the demarcation line the day Sale was shot; and a woman who bore witness to Sale’s death. In this fiction all recounts are told to a detective who is investigating the death a year later. The testimonies are illustrated with photographs from Beirut illuminating the characters backstories, and images from the streets show where the event took place and look as if they are from the time of the shooting, leading to an eerie feeling that even if this is fictive something like Here and Perhaps Elsewhere happened anyway as we are aware of the history of Beirut and the Green demarcation line.

Rancière pushes the coming together of writing stories and writing histories into a political frame, arguing that art operating in this manner is operating like politics. Both are “material rearrangements of signs and images, relationships between what is seen and what is said, between what is done and what can be done”. Art such as Here and Perhaps Elsewhere is also politicised as it causes disruption to the histories and systems of classification held by people in positions of power. Rancière argues that art acting in this manner opens up space for deviation, for thinking away from the conditions they are in. This may be an important factor for art addressing the Lebanese War, as Joreige acknowledges the reluctancy to talk about the past from factions of the general public in Beirut, and how “many of the ‘actors’ of the war are still ‘acting’ today in our current political realm”.

The Atlas Group Archive operates in a similar manner to Here and Perhaps Elsewhere. Created By Walid Raad in 1999, The Atlas Group is an imaginary foundation that aims to document the history of Lebanon through compiling archival photographs into fictive amalgamations and presenting them in exhibitions. The foundation also refers to experts such as Fadl Fakhouri the ‘foremost historian of the Lebanese civil wars’, and individuals like Souheil Bachar who was held hostage from 1983-1993 in Lebanon, however both are fictional characters played by actors. Like Joreige, Walid’s project highlights the power of combining fiction and fact, and it too facilitates new modes of thinking and deviating from systems of classification and held histories through images and testimony. But unlike Walid, Joreige also stimulates this opening up of memory and space for new thought through a different means, revealing how the conditions for memory, and the departure points for readdressing history, are not always tied to institutions (imaginary or real), dependent on the creation of fictions, or created through photography (a medium that is often turned to by an array of artists working with archives in the Middle East), but are in fact present in personal belongings, in the things people hold with their hands.

Objects of War (2000- 2006) is a series of films that ask people to talk about an object they have from the Lebanese War. The second in the series starts with the camera focusing on a woman sitting in front of a red wall. She holds up what is left of her old ID and explains that it is still with her in Berlin where she lives now, but part of it was lost on the 8th July 1982. Putting the flimsy document down, the camera pans up and she shakes her head correcting herself. The subtitles read, “No, the 8th June”.

Just before the 1982 Israeli invasion into Lebanon she was in Shemlan, where her family used to go on holiday in the summer. She explains to the camera that they had heard Israeli forces were coming towards Shemlan from Beirut, where the conflict had started, so they hid in a monastery alongside villagers and other tourists.

“It was very chaotic. I remember there was so much chaos”. She pauses and smiles. “In the monastery… One could hear from one side, the women, reciting the Koran. And from the other room, women, reciting the Gospels”. She tries to recollect the name of a senior figure from the village but can’t – he was the person who directed the soldiers towards the monastery.

“The strange thing for me was that it was the first time I had seen an Israeli. No one had ever imagined, in ’82, that Israel could enter. It was the first time in my life that I felt hatred”. Hatred at the occupation, hatred at the bullets fired into the walls to terrorize who was hidden inside. But she realised, when confronted by a young Israeli soldier, who looked no older than 20, that he too had a face, and that he too was a human being standing there in the same room as her. Looking back to the monastery through her ID, her eyes well and she laughs, struggling with what Joreige describes as the “paradoxical feeling of hatred but humanity at the same time”.

The ID turns into a mnemonic, bringing back a series of experiences that otherwise would have remained hidden or repressed. Proust asserts in Remembrance of Things Past that “The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) of which we have no inkling”. Of course, Joreige’s subjects have chosen their objects for discussion, but the revelation of humanity in conflict evokes the power objects hold for recollection that Proust describes. In Objects of War the testimonies are also resolutely political in that they test official accounts of the Lebanese War’s history by drawing from the personal, whilst set within the bounds of the more wider known past such as the Israeli invasion and splits between Religious groups. Consequently the possessions talked about and through in Objects of War reveal the power and complexity of memory: tied up, formed, somewhere between personal experience and collective memory.

It is Joreige’s work that focuses on the personal in war and conflict that offers the most potential for testing knowledge, and as a record and archive itself, like the archives she has turned to in other work, it will act as testament to a time and moment, creating not a utopian end through research and discovery that Foster argues is the aim of archive based art practice, but instead a heterotopia: varied points of departure for those in the future to turn to and conduct their own process of reinterpretation and understanding. Derrida argues in this vein stating that the archive, which we have seen manifested as institutional, artistic and personal, “is a question of the future, the question of the future itself, the question of a response, of a promise and of a responsibility for tomorrow.

Yet the two figures jostling back and forward, even in their uncertainty, point at something beyond the difficulties and blind alleys that history and the future force us to face, and to memories of another kind. They point at the people who are at the centre of these stories, who live lives in terror, tragedy, conflict, war, and political struggle, but are also living away from it, even if for a moment in the early evening with street lights blazing. We like to imagine they’re dancing. We hope they embrace.