REVIEW: Walid Raad's Restless Archives: Sweet Talk: Commissions (Beirut 1994)

Joni Cheung | December 8, 2017

Walid Raad, Sweet Talk: Commissions (Beirut 1994). Installation view, Audain Gallery, 2017. Photo: Blaine Campbell.

After the Lebanese Civil War ended in 1990, the city of Beirut was riddled with the remnants of a violent conflict. In response, and as a result of violence and trauma, the urban redevelopment of the city was quickly initiated. The rapid reconstruction of Beirut is the central point of interest explored by Walid Raad in his exhibition Sweet Talk: Commissions (Beirut 1994), presented at the Audain Gallery from October 12 to December 9, 2017. In this exhibition, Raad presents four elements from his ongoing series Sweet Talk (1987–present), which looks at the political, economic, and social change and urban redevelopment of the city of Beirut post-war. Sweet Talk creates a map of the landscape and architecture of the city before and during its process of redevelopment and renewal. The project involves studying and composing a multitude of analogue negatives and digital files, which Raad has been collecting and archiving since the mid-1980s. Through Sweet Talk, Raad seeks to identify the different ways that communities are “sweet talked” into ideas that they may not completely be aware of or support: such as bits and pieces of the city that have survived the war but could potentially be erased because of the redevelopment, where histories are subsequently erased and forgotten.

As you enter the foyer of the Audain Gallery, you pass by a white bookshelf in a glass vitrine where a selection of books provide contextual information on Raad’s practice, the history of Beirut, the representation of trauma, and the development of photography. You struggle to read the faint, light grey vinyl on the wall in front of you that introduces you to the exhibition before turning a corner and pulling back a white curtain to enter the gallery, where your eyes adjust to the dim light.

An arresting panoramic projection composed of three projectors runs along the entire west wall of the gallery. The silent digital video Sweet Talk: Commissions (Beirut) – Solidere (1994–1997) mesmerizes you with its imagery. A high-rise, contextualized within the cityscape, has been repeatedly doubled, unfolded and mirrored, implodes and rebuilds itself through a looping sequence, creating a sense of instability and vertigo. Through its abstraction of the city, you lose your sense of time and position in space. Watching the video, you begin to question which way is up and which way is down. How can you orient and ground yourself in a landscape that is constantly changing?

On the east wall opposite the projection, fourteen small colour C-prints are hung in a single line, in groups of three or four. Sweet Talk: Commissions (Beirut) Storefronts (1994–2005) is a photographic series that captures storefronts in central Beirut which were damaged or almost completely obliterated during the war, but have somehow survived the violence. However, they now risk being eradicated by the extensive redevelopment project. Similar to Charles Marville and Eugène Atget’s photographic series from the 1880’s to 1920’s that documents the streets and buildings of Paris before their removal during the turn of modernization, Raad attempts to document these small shops that persist even with the threat of erasure, a consequence of the reconstruction of a war-torn city. Their small scale requires that you get up close to observe their details. At first glance, you can see that most of the buildings possess a similar architectural style and are boarded up. Some buildings no longer register as retail spaces because of the unnatural deterioration of their façades caused by war. Some exteriors are covered in holes that look like the result of bullets, while other buildings have gaping hollows and are crumbling. Regardless, some of the storefronts still appear to be open for business, and others look as if they are just getting ready to open. Some storefronts still have products on display. These details suggest the presence of residents, although people are literally absent from every photo.

The difference in scale between the fourteen photographs and the video projection is extreme. The fourteen photographs possess a sense of intimacy in contrast to the overwhelming presence and weight of the panoramic projection. The play between the intimate and the overwhelming reflects the complex relationship that many people have with cities. Certain parts of a city could be filled with immense nostalgia, while other places create anxiety and make one feel small and vulnerable.

On the south wall, Sweet Talk: The Hilwé Commissions – plate 278 (1992–2004/2004), a large, minimal composition, that is anchored by a digital image of a multi-story building, hangs on its own. A tiny black and white photograph of the building, supposedly taken in 1973, is situated in the upper third of the right border. An enlarged and distorted colour photograph of the same building, taken in 1992, occupies the center of the composition. The caption “AG_AGP_Sweet Talk_Commission 1991–2005 (Hilwe): PL278 (1991) / PL278 (2005)” is printed in small font, below the black and white photograph. Unlike the other images in this exhibition, this digital composition operates as a proposal for the construction of this “new” building during the process of restoration of post-war Beirut. This proposal speaks to the redevelopment plan, in which most of the city was to be rebuilt to look as it did before the devastation of war. What does it mean to rebuild a city as it was before it experienced such violence? Is this process of simulacra restoration effective in coping with (and erasing) the physical and psychological trauma that has already been inflicted on the city, but also the bodies and minds that inhabit this space. 

Walid Raad, Sweet Talk: Commissions (Beirut 1994). Installation view, Audain Gallery, 2017. Photo: Blaine Campbell.

When standing outside of the gallery looking through its Hastings Street windows, you will find Sweet Talk: Commissions (Beirut)_Untitled_5 (1994), a choppy, colour large-scale panorama that depicts the redevelopment of Beirut amid buildings that carry multiple wounds from war. The panorama is composed of multiple images taken from “Martyr’s Square” in central Beirut, where the green line use to divide East and West during the war. Shot from the central road, which was restricted during the war, the appearance of different buildings and the wide view of the cityscape required quick shots from different vantage points. The distinct hues of blue and grey skies within each image reflects Raad’s decision to shoot using a camera that was not regulated (because of his quick photographic process) and to not change these differences in post-production. Like David Hockney’s photographic collage series “joiners”, there is a sense of movement and fluidity in time and space that is unlike the other works in the exhibition. The Frankenstein’esque suturing of photographs, in which the edges of each frame overlap or just barely touch, and where the top and bottom edges are never completely aligned or parallel to the wall, reveals the photographic process required to capture and assemble this view.

Sweet Talk can be viewed as a reflection on the intangibility and fluctuation of history, in which not only the architecture, but memories and experiences of cities and events are ever changing. The works also consider how the violence and trauma of war mark the bodies and minds of the people who live in these places. Raad’s process of documentation and preservation creates a restless archive that questions whether what is being preserved are elements of the past or the present. The artist’s archive challenges the assurance of linear and simple facts. At the same time, he also investigates how the effects of war leave impressions on bodies, minds and places, even after the physical evidence of these experiences have changed or disappeared.

The questions that Raad provokes through the exhibition extends to a conversation between Sweet Talk: Commissions (Beirut)_Untitled_5 (1994) and Vancouver based artist Stan Douglas’ Every Building on 100 West Hastings (2001). Raad’s panorama of Beirut’s city centre in the midst of development faces the city block of 100 West Hastings, which Douglas documents in his cinematic panorama photograph, and which has undergone gentrification since the photograph was taken. What comes out of the conversation between these two works is the analysis of different types of violence that exist. Where Raad’s work speaks to a clear and sharp violence, a process of post-war redevelopment that is messy, rough and in plain sight, Douglas’ work portrays slow violence, a process of redevelopment and gentrification that is silent, withdrawn, and could go unnoticed, until it is too late.

The redevelopment of the Woodward’s building that the Audain Gallery is situated in stands in stark contrast to the insidious gentrification that Douglas depicts. Woodward’s used to be a popular department store from 1903 to 1993, but the business closed in 1993 and the building sat unused for seven years while the neighbourhood declined (during which time the building was squatted and became a symbolic beacon for the pressures of gentrification in the city). In 2010 the building was demolished and rebuilt as a mixed use complex of commercial businesses, market housing, cultural organizing, social housing, and Simon Fraser University’s School for the Contemporary Arts. One can see a direct relationship between the destruction of the Woodward’s building and the demolition of the building in Raad’s looping video projection. The material violence of literally blowing up a building also resonates with the force of the social changes behind the redevelopment plan. The difference between the reconstruction of the Woodward’s building and 100 block West Hastings across the street provokes the questions, why is redevelopment pushed more aggressively in certain places, more than others? What is lost and erased in this process? Who and what is being displaced, immediately or over time? And, what are the buildings being replaced with?

Upon entering the exhibition you experience an unsettling feeling: the lack of human presence in the images, the foreign yet familiar types of facades and structures, and the distortion of space due to violence, all contribute to a sense of haunting. You feel uneasy, as if you are being confronted by the ghosts of the buildings themselves. But you also wonder if perhaps you are also being confronted by metaphysical histories–histories that haunt the essence of Beirut, and cannot be erased by the physical removal and renewal of buildings?

The notion that material objects, such as buildings, have the potential to hold experiences and memories that happen in and around them, and that these experiences and memories may remain (perhaps in the shape of the building) even when the tangible architecture no longer exists, may sound nostalgic and even superstitious. But, by looking closely at the processes of destruction and renewal of physical entities, Raad proposes a connection between physical processes of change with metaphysical processes of change. Through Sweet Talk, Raad destabilizes a global condition in which facts and histories are acknowledged as indisputable truth. He presents the position that all facts and histories are changeable. Through his photographs, which are unstable in themselves, through their reading, reception, and meaning, which all change over time and across contexts, the idea of complete non-fiction no longer stands. Using fiction, Raad tries to look at how violence effects us. He also uses fiction to prod at the viewer’s need for simple and clean truths, and asks the viewer to question why this need exists in the first place. Sweet Talk provokes the questions, considering that information can disappear, be destroyed, or rewritten, how can we know how much of accepted histories are true? Just because information is destroyed does not mean that it has disappeared; if so, how can it be made visible, audible and legible again?

For more information on Walid Raad, Sweet Talk: Commissions (Beirut 1994) click here.