In this contribution, an early version of which was presented at the Moving Images in Asian Art Conference at the Australian National University in 2016, Kate Warren examines the work of a pair of Franco-Lebanese artists, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige. With a moving image practice that explores hidden aspects of Middle Eastern history, Hajdithomas and Joreige cross multiple boundaries: both geographical – in the divide between East and West that is just as prevalent in the contemporary art world as it is in global geopolitics – and formal, between film and video, fiction and documentary, and cinema and the art gallery.

Negotiating the boundaries and competing priorities between the art gallery and the cinema is both a fruitful and challenging space to occupy. While increasing numbers of artists and filmmakers are moving fluidly between these spaces, on many levels the art and film worlds also remain critically separate. As Laura U. Marks writes recently, “the market […] has bifurcated into the cinema circuit and the art circuit, and the discourse splits too, between the respective terms and historical references for film and for visual art.”1 My article considers one pair of artists, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, who have worked successfully across these realms throughout their entire careers, integrating their engagement with contemporary art and cinema into a critical and multi-layered practice. Working out of Lebanon and France, Hadjithomas and Joreige’s works have featured prominently across the international biennale and film festival circuits. The complex ways that they blur and work across various boundaries are also culturally and historically specific, informed by the post-conflict development of documentary, film and video art practices in Lebanon.2 Considering Hadjithomas and Joreige’s work can help us think critically about the possibilities of hybrid practices that cross boundaries between gallery and cinema, and also between fact and fiction.

Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige: Multi-Stage Practitioners

Hadjithomas and Joreige have been collaborating since the 1980s, making feature-length documentaries, fiction films, photographic series, videos and multimedia installations. They publish artist books and critical articles, and regularly expand on their projects through performances and lectures. Throughout their practice they extrapolate their projects across media forms, exhibition spaces, and temporal distances. They prefer to define themselves not as “artists” or “filmmakers”, but rather as “researchers”, who use diverse creative modes to investigate the histories, representations and imaginaries of Lebanon.3 They are often associated with what has been loosely termed the “Beirut School”, a group of artists who emerged in the 1990s, including Ziad Abillama, Lamia Joreige, Rabih Mroué, Walid Raad, Marwan Rechmaoui, Walid Sadek, Jayce Salloum, Lina Saneh, Jalal Toufic and Akram Zaatari.4 These artists have developed a legacy of investigating the possibilities and intricacies Lebanon’s contemporary histories, imageries and political systems, especially across moving image, documentary and narrative practices. Art critic Kaelen Wilson-Goldie writes that while these artists’ “unity of purpose” has been somewhat overplayed, “together they initiated a long-term, far-ranging conversation about the mechanisms of history and the ability of contemporary art to challenge or subvert it.”5

Hadjithomas and Joreige began their collaboration by taking photographs in the 1980s and 1990s, in response to the end of the Lebanese Civil War.6 Beginning as a conflict between Maronite and Palestinian forces, various sectarian groups and foreign powers became involved over the protracted conflict in Lebanon between 1975 and 1990. Hadjithomas and Joreige’s first feature film Al bayt al Zahr (Around the Pink House, 1997) engaged with the war’s complex aftermath, as a fictional account of reconstruction in Beirut. A few years later, they learned that a print of their film had gone missing in Yemen. For their follow-up film El film el mafkoud (The Lost Film, 2003) the pair travelled to Sana’a to investigate, a trip that highlighted not only their own missing film but also “the gaps within the world of Arab cinema as a whole, caught between the often Orientalist expectations of Western audiences and the fact that the productions supported by the region’s elites often serve only to reproduce a dominant ideology.”7

Like many of their contemporaries, Hadjithomas and Joreige’s practice inhabits these gaps and interstitial spaces of representation, history and memory. They highlight the importance of latency in their work, describing it as “an obscure form, troubling because it cannot be delineated; it is not a defined territory, but a diffused state, uncontrollable, underground, as if lurking, as if all could resurface anew.”8 Latency reflects the hidden remnants of conflict – unexploded landmines, missing persons – and also the field of visual images that Hadjithomas and Joreige interrogate. They are preoccupied with the diffused power that images possess, as well as the limitations to that power. In order to explore this shifting visual imaginary, from their earliest collaborative projects they have mobilised their research and investigations across media, across time, and across stages. Two early projects, Khiam 2000–2007 and Wonder Beirut (1997–2006), are particularly important, as they underscore how latency and the “in-between” spaces of representation have influenced and defined their cross-media approaches. Their multi-stage strategies have allowed them to respond with the urgency that certain stories and situations require, but to also return to their stories and subjects over time, reframing and extending their enquiries.

Hadjithomas and Joreige

Still from Khiam 2000-2007 (Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige). Courtesy of the artists and Galerie In Situ – fabienne leclerc.

Khiam is a project that investigates an infamous detention centre in southern Lebanon. Originally built as French army barracks, during the civil war it was controlled by the Israeli-supported South Lebanon Army.9 Hadjithomas and Joreige filmed Part One of their project just before the camp’s liberation, at a time when images of Khiam’s brutal reality did not exist in the collective consciousness. They interviewed six recently-released detainees who recounted their experiences, describing the brutal, degrading and often tortuous methods and living conditions that they endured. Visually and formally, the 52-minute film that Hadjithomas and Joreige construct from these interviews is unpolished and raw – reflecting, as the filmmakers say, “a sense of urgency […] intimate testimonies just before the camp was dismantled.”10 Interviewees all sit in the same chair and speak directly to camera, bearing witness to their experiences. The film is edited in a way that fragments the individuals’ stories, and pieces them together according to shared topics. It gives Khiam a compelling sense of repetition and structural development without the need for overt contextualisation or extra-diegetic explanations. The nature of the camp becomes apparent to viewers through the lived experiences described by the interviewees. They recount acts of desperation but also of resistance, including the crude but creative methods of sewing that prisoners developed. Fashioning tools and materials from the sparsest of resources – stones, olive pits, unravelled socks – prisoners crafted and traded these hand-made objects in defiance of the restrictions and traumas faced.

The urgency that the filmmakers speak of relates to the initial absence of images of Khiam, but also to its future liberation, which would create new challenges to representation. In 2000 Khiam was turned into a museum with large sections being repainted, covering and destroying the traces of presence – like graffiti and names scratched into the walls – that were left by the prisoners. Then in 2006, during the 33-day conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, the entire complex was razed to the ground, prompting Hadjithomas and Joreige to re-interview their subjects and create a “sequel”, of sorts. These multiple acts of erasure created desires to compensate for the absence of representation, in both film and photography. Alongside the two films of Khiam, Hadjithomas and Joreige created a number of photographic series, including Objects of Khiam (1999), which documents the handmade crafts of the prisoners (figs. 2–4). In a second series Landscape of Khiam (2006–7), they photographed the rubble of the destroyed camp. A series of steel boards had been erected, bearing images of the camp before it was destroyed. For Hadjithomas and Joreige, this intervention was like “an artistic installation but without an artist,” a mise-en-abyme that further obfuscated the history and representation of this site.11 In photographing the photographs, they highlight how superficial acts of “memorialisation” can be substituted for a deeper understanding and questioning of history.

Hadjithomas and Joreige

Objects of Khiam (Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, 1999). Courtesy of the artists and Galerie In Situ – fabienne leclerc.

The connections between the moving image components of Khiam and the associated still photographic series are very clear in terms of their content and narrative. Formally and aesthetically, the connections become less immediately obvious. In contrast to the raw aesthetic of the film, the Objects of Khiam series pictures its objects in crisp focus, accentuating the colour and form of the objects against a stark white background.12 The filmic and photographic series can be exhibited separately, and indeed they often are; Khiam the film has been regularly screened theatrically as a discrete cinematic event. This certainly reflects my own initial introduction to and critical engagement with Hadjithomas and Joreige’s practice. I first came to know their work through these theatrical channels, such as film festivals and reviews. However, for a colleague of mine, who is equally engaged with their work, her point of entry came strictly through museological and gallery settings. When we compared our mutual interest it was clear that despite coming from different formal frames, there was a consistency of engagement and storytelling that had been mobilised across forms and spatial stages.

Whereas some audiences will view Khiam in a theatrical setting, other viewers will see it presented either projected or on screens in a contemporary art gallery, more along the lines of a video installation. This second audience may have less time or opportunity to sit through the entire duration, but they are more likely to encounter it alongside its associated photographic series. It could be argued that displaying the same content in such different settings will produce vastly different viewing experiences and understandings of the content. The risk with such arguments is that they can innately rely on presumptions of the “ideal” viewing environments and formal strategies of installation. As practitioners, Hadjithomas and Joreige are characterised by flexibility and adaptability, including at the level of form and installation; TJ Demos has characterised such practices recently along the lines of the “nomadic”, drawing on Achille Bonito Oliva’s definition of nomadic artists who exercise “their freedom to wander across the boundaries of various cultures, nations and media forms.”13 As formal nomads, they negotiate the boundaries between gallery and cinema by refusing to privilege an ideal viewing situation or a “comprehensive” presentation of their project’s constituent elements. Because in the case of a project such as Khiam, even if all of its formal components are presented together they still do not, and can not create a “whole” picture or understanding of the reality and history of the prison. Fragments and lacunae construct the project, and naturally inform its formal presentation strategies as well.

Hadjithomas and Joreige

Still from Khiam 2000-2007 (Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige). Courtesy of the artists and Galerie In Situ – fabienne leclerc.

In Khiam, Hadjithomas and Joreige use both film and photography to expand the visual sphere of history, however it will always be incomplete. In doing so, they also reveal the fissures and contestations that become engrained and internalised in subjective experience and history itself. At the end of the second film, the interviewees reflect on the mismatches between their memories of Khiam, and the physical realities they encountered when they later returned as free citizens. One interviewee, Sonia Baydoun, says:

I asked myself how I could have felt [the cell] so large, how it could contain four of us. I had made it into another world […] I wondered how I could have imagined all that! Recollections and imagination, by their very nature, cannot be limited to the area of a room, three meters by three, but extend it indefinitely.

Baydoun’s recollections reveal gaps between experience and memory, reality and fiction. They are not false memories though, rather their imaginary nature is a real expression of how prisoners survived and lived through trauma. Hadjithomas and Joreige frequently use the term “imaginary” to describe how the visual legacies and histories of Lebanon are constructed, and they explore this further in the project Wonder Beirut.

In the 1990s, Hadjithomas and Joreige noticed that postcards of pre-war Beirut were re-appearing in libraries and bookshops. Suspicious of what they saw as a nostalgic impulse, they reframed these images in a way that expanded on the quasi-fictionalising tendencies latent in this visual re-emergence. For Wonder Beirut they created the fictional persona Abdallah Farah, a photographer who was commissioned between 1968 and 1969 by the Lebanese state to shoot the postcards’ images. In 1975, Farah began burning his negatives, matching the physical destruction occurring in Beirut at the time. Across various iterations of the project Hadjithomas and Joreige distributed the now scarred postcards, and exhibited them as photographic prints in galleries. They ironically distinguish Farah’s actions between his “Historical Processes” – which were historically accurate in their alterations – and his “Plastic Processes” – which were novel, speculative acts of destruction. Unlike Khiam, Wonder Beirut does not have a significant moving image component, being largely realised as photographic objects and performances. There is nonetheless a highly cinematic quality to this project. With its fictionalised premise and narrative construct, Wonder Beirut evokes a feeling of a latent film, a documentary perhaps, that could have been made but never was. While this latent film was never given form, Wonder Beirut displays an expanded conception of film, and an understanding of how to use and exploit the overlapping qualities of different media.

 

Film and Video from Lebanon: In-Between Fact and Fiction

From the beginning of their creative partnership, Hadjithomas and Joreige established a central position of working at the interstices between different media forms, and between the stages and venues where their work is displayed.14 Their central preoccupation with researching and interrogating the relation between images and narratives is crucial in this regard. Not only do they open up the boundaries between mediums and spaces, they also open the boundaries between the reliability of these images and narratives. By framing its narrative within the fictionalised character of Abdallah Farah, Wonder Beirut conflates truths and untruths. It sows doubt into reality, and confers a sense of plausibility onto speculative fictions.

This strategic blurring of the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction has become widespread in contemporary art practices of recent years – well before terms like “post-truth” and “fake news” became common parlance. Art historian Carrie Lambert-Beatty has identified the pervasiveness of what she calls “parafictional” strategies, whereby “real and/or imaginary personages and stories intersect with the world as it is being lived.”15 Parafictions operate with “one foot in the field of the real,” relying on levels of plausibility and deception, to the point where they can “achieve truth-status – for some of the people some of the time.”16 Lambert-Beatty identifies an exponential increase in parafictional strategies in Western contemporary art, film and media spheres in the twenty-first century, and one of her key examples is The Atlas Group, the fictional pseudonym of Lebanese artist Walid Raad. However these types of blurrings of fact and fiction have been a defining quality of art and film from Lebanon long before the post-9/11 context that Lambert-Beatty focuses on.17

As curator and writer Rasha Salti acknowledges, these strategies have developed in response to a longer context of contemporary Lebanese history and politics, whereby “[s]ubjectivity – the writing of the self – carved an interstitial space between the manufacture of nonfiction and the fictional image and narrative.”18 During the civil war, competing narratives circulated between different factions, turning most “factual”, or “documentary” representations into sites of contestation. Salti describes growing up in this context, where the competing ideologies meant that citizens had to consistently decipher and synthesise “at least two versions to every incident, scuffle, exchange of fire. Nonfiction was palpably constructed, its ‘fictional’ nature unmasked to the naked eye.”19 Curator and co-director of the Beirut Art Centre Sandra Dagher agrees, noting that this has invariably influenced the nature of contemporary art and film produced: “artists blur the boundaries between fact and fiction […] because it is the closest to the general context we live in. It is a fact that we do not agree on our collective history.”20 For Dagher, the political insecurities and sectarian divisions that persisted after the civil war were never thoroughly resolved – a sentiment that Hadjithomas and Joreige acknowledge in Wonder Beirut, when they note that the nostalgic images of Beirut started re-appearing “like nothing happened”.21 Conflations between fact and fiction were engrained within the social and political life. Rather than trying to re-instate these boundaries, a productive strategy for artists has been to embrace and work with such uncertainties.22

Artists such as Hadjithomas and Joreige, Raad, Akram Zaatari and Rabih Mroué are now firmly established on international contemporary art and film festival circuits, however their acts of fictionalisation must also be understood within these historically specific circumstances, not simply within contemporary Western trends towards parafictions and speculative narratives.23 Similarly, historically and culturally specific contexts have influenced the ways that film and video production in Lebanon developed and intersected. Post-war creative practices have been directly linked to a proliferation of film, video and moving image technologies. Zaatari describes a distinct surge of video production tied to post-civil war reconstruction in Lebanon, connected in part to legacies of photojournalism and television production. Many media producers in Lebanon received their formative training in the 1980s in these journalistic and documentary fields, as foreign news agencies hired local camerapeople, and brought with them a certain degree of infrastructure.24 After major hostilities ceased, numerous practitioners continued to explore the conflicted nature of documentary representation through moving image works. In 1992 Jayce Salloum and Walid Raad established a workshop for artists and writers to create independent video projects, bringing with them a portable editing suite and Hi-8 camera to Beirut.25 In 1999, the production centre Beirut DC was founded by a group of filmmakers, and 2001 saw the establishment of né.à Beyrouth; both organisations supported and screened independent film and video productions.26 Also in 2001, Zaatari and Mahmoud Hojeij organised the pan-Arab project “Transit Visa”, inviting nine emerging Arab artists to Beirut “for a week of meetings, screenings, video training, and video production.”27

Although heavy fighting in the civil war ended in 1990, Dagher notes that in the years following “Lebanon has lived through successive states of tension at different levels,” ultimately leading to the 33-day conflict in 2006 between Israel and Hezbollah.28 The availability of digital video and networked communications created conditions for another proliferation of film and video practices, which took place throughout the conflict itself. Dagher observes that “the production of digital video and the intensive use of web technology had an extremely important impact on the initial artistic output during the war,” allowing citizens from all backgrounds to raise national and international consciousness of the situation, and to document the impacts of the conflict.29 The relative ease and accessibility of digital technologies allowed for reactive responses and un-sanctioned representations, creating a publicly compiled archive, whereas “previous wars [had] left very scant and only ‘official’ archives.”30 Kaelen Wilson-Goldie notes that “in the three months that followed the August 14 ceasefire, more than fifty short films and videos made during or in response to the war were screened publicly in Beirut.”31

The aftermaths of both conflicts involved widespread turns to film and video, and the threads of connection are evident in Hadjithomas and Joreige’s work. In 2001 they created the single-channel video Rounds, featuring fellow artist and regular collaborator Rabih Mroué as he drives around Beirut. With the camera focused tightly on Mroué the city itself is barely visible; rather it is evoked through the stories and anecdotes that Mroué tells, about the war and post-war reconstruction. More than ten years after the end of hostilities, the lasting impression that Mroué gives is of the ongoing impacts of the conflict and the challenges of reconstruction, as they are experienced daily by citizens trying to navigate the city. Rounds is a short video, not quite eight minutes long, however it is also something of a prequel to one of Hadjithomas and Joreige’s most widely received feature films, Je veux voir (2008), which I will explore my final section, along with their multi-stage project The Lebanese Rocket Society (2013). These later, ambitious projects reveal how Hadjithomas and Joreige have evolved their critical engagement with the politics of the visual imaginary, while still working at the intersections between fact and fiction, cinema and gallery.

Seeing and Believing: Je veux voir and The Lebanese Rocket Society

If the two recent conflicts in Lebanon both spurred an abundance of filmic practices, the nature of these proliferations were certainly not identical. In a detailed discussion of post-2006 video practices, Wilson-Goldie argues that “the slew of short videos created during the latest war in Lebanon do not share the conceptual cleverness of, for example, Raad’s work with the Atlas Group.”32 For Wilson-Goldie, while these works are less concerned with mining the ambiguities between fact and fiction, they do still “push forward certain elements consistent with the contemporary art that has come out of Beirut for the past ten years; they insist […] on marginal subjects and incidents, and they deviate from the grand narratives of historical events.”33 Hadjithomas and Joreige have acknowledged how the situation in 2006 impacted their creative practice. That year they revisited Wonder Beirut to add a final part to the project, Latent Images, a photobook and performance program. It reveals that Abdallah Farah continued taking photographs when the civil war finished, yet he never developed them. He amassed rolls and rolls of untouched film, a compulsive act of documentation removed from representation. Latent Images is the project’s concluding act; Hadjithomas and Joreige have described it as an attempt to “get out of the latency.” It was an acknowledgement that, in light of the war between Lebanon and Israel, the “strategy about latency should evolve” and these images needed to be given a new sense of visibility.34

However in their evolution of latency Hadjithomas and Joreige do not revert to tropes of realism, or easy definitions. Instead, they commandeer a medium that has become something of a zeitgeist in contemporary photography: the photobook. The status of photobooks has been rising for years, and they have become a particularly popular medium for publishing documentary photography.35 Compared with fine art prints, as tactile objects photobooks are more readily available to be touched, held, and engaged with on an intimate and accessible level. Hadjithomas and Joreige exploit and overturn these formal qualities, introducing a highly performative element. The artists created a photobook with individually-sealed pages that had to be physically sliced open; this revealed not the actual image, but rather a photograph of the roll of film and a textual description of the image. Thus while Hadjithomas and Joreige (partially) lift the veil from their hidden photographs, they continue to operate at the intersections between reality and fiction, imagery and narrative. The photographs exist in an in-between space, no longer archived out of sight, but neither fixed in representation. In performances of Latent Images actors read the text on-stage; the audience must “listen” to the photograph and imagine it in their own minds, making the images simultaneously real and fictional.

Hadjithomas and Joreige

Je veux voir (Joan Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, 2008). Courtesy of the artists and Galerie In Situ – fabienne leclerc.

Their next major feature film Je veux voir develops from a similar premise. The project arose after the filmmakers found themselves in Paris at the outbreak of the 2006 war, unable to return to Lebanon. Filmed in the aftermath, it again features Rabih Mroué in “driver” mode, but this time he is acting as guide to visiting French film legend Catherine Deneuve. Deneuve is ostensibly in town to attend a gala thrown by the French Ambassador, but beforehand she agrees to visit the south of Lebanon on a road-trip, of sorts, with Mroué. She has never been to Lebanon and, as the film’s title indicates, she “wants to see” the effects of the conflict before the area is rebuilt. Through its central narrative construct – of Deneuve and Mroué both playing semi-fictionalised versions of themselves – Je veux voir refuses to distinguish between the real and the fictional. Uncertainties pervade the film: Is it scripted or improvised? Is Mroué and Deneuve’s trip planned or spontaneous? Why do they take this trip? In the post-war aftermath what is left to see, and what truths, if any, can be revealed?

The film’s “resolution” reaffirms all these uncertainties, when Mroué and Deneuve arrive at the border between Lebanon and Israel. As the two tentatively walk towards this highly guarded boundary, at the urging of the filmmakers (Hadjithomas and Joreige also playing themselves) Deneuve turns back towards the camera and shrugs uncertainly. It is an ambiguous moment, which perhaps epitomises the criticisms that the film faced upon its release. While Je veux voir received positive international reviews, it was criticised in Lebanon for not assuming a clear political position. In discussion with Laura U. Marks, Hadjithomas writes, “none of the multiple parties could take it to their side. So they were very angry at us.”36 The film was perceived as ambivalent, a term so often taken to mean indifferent or uninterested. However, ambivalence more precisely means to hold opposing or contradictory feelings at the same time. With this in mind, a more illuminating scene occurs when Deneuve and Mroué encounter an Israeli fighter jet entering Lebanese airspace. The plane simulates an attack by breaking the sound barrier, resulting in an exceptionally loud explosive sound. The interconnections between real and fake are profoundly illustrated in this instance, as the “mock” attack nonetheless exerts real effects of shock and intimidation.37

In light of the criticisms that Je veux voir faced, and their evolution of latency in Latent Images, one could be forgiven for thinking that Hadjithomas and Joreige had shifted to a more clear-cut creative mode with their recent project, The Lebanese Rocket Society. The main component of this project is a feature-length documentary film, which tells the story of Armenian scientists who established a scientific rocket program in Lebanon in the 1960s, led by Dr Manoug Manougian. Hadjithomas and Joreige were fascinated not only by the remarkable story itself, a positive story of innovation and discovery, but also by the fact of its obscurity. The unearthing and re-telling of forgotten and marginalised histories is a key strategy in reclaiming experiences and representations formally excluded from dominant historical discourses. For Hadjithomas and Joreige, not only had this history been forgotten, they describe how people could no longer believe that it was even possible in the first place: “Nobody remembered it at all. So it was really, like […] a withdrawal of our memory […] People were even imagining that it was impossible to have had a scientific project at that time.”38

This point is crucial to understanding The Lebanese Rocket Society. The project’s research questions became not only “Why was this history forgotten?” but also, “Why is it difficult to believe or imagine its reality?”. As opposed to actively blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction as in Je veux voir, The Lebanese Rocket Society reveals an example of how these blurrings have been integrated into the collective consciousness, and how these legacies of contestation and multiplicity continue to exert ongoing effects. Hadjithomas and Joreige interweave actions and representations across both cinema and gallery installation in order to address these questions. The first two-thirds of The Lebanese Rocket Society film are largely in a conventional-style documentary format. Hadjithomas and Joreige narrate their investigation into this history, interviewing scientists involved and illustrating their film with archival imagery. The last third of the film, however, documents the artists’ own creative intervention into this history, and the evolution of their research into a multi-part gallery exhibition and installation. As a tribute to the researchers at the space program, the artists document their creation of a life-size sculptural replica of the Cedar IV rocket, which they then deliver for display in the foyer of Haigazian University, where Manougian and his team worked.

Hadjithomas and Joreige

The Lebanese Rocket Society: Cedar IV, A Reconstitution (Joan Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, 2013). Courtesy of the artists and Galerie In Situ – fabienne leclerc.

The Lebanese Rocket Society recalls Khiam in the sense that while its filmic, sculptural and photographic components can be exhibited and screened across independent spaces, they are not autonomous. Indeed, they create a complex feedback loop between their processes and forms of research, creation, documentation, exhibition and reinterpretation. The Lebanese Rocket Society represents a sophisticated integration of the possibilities of cinema and visual art in response to larger concerns around the visual and historical imaginary. The documentary reveals that towards the end of the rocket program it was already being perceived by external actors through a militaristic lens, a framework that has only intensified, eclipsing the original scientific endeavour.39 Building the replica rocket was an experiment in understanding and enacting how this history became unimaginable. This performative element of the project activated and made tangible these legacies in the present-day; despite being a purely sculptural object, a memorial to the peaceful basis of Manougian’s rocket program, Hadjithomas and Joreige’s re-enactment quickly became entangled in bureaucratic systems. As they describe it, they had to “deal with a lot of local, regional and international powers, you need a lot of authorization […] informing different people that this is not a weapon but a sculpture.”40

 

Just as the history of the Lebanese rocket program had become almost impossible to believe, Hadjithomas and Joreige give themselves an almost impossible task: building and then transporting their sculpture to the university. It was a creative provocation; driving an 8-metre long rocket on the back of a truck through the streets of Beirut was sure to attract attention and elicit memories of conflict and war. Achieving this required belief, in both obscured histories and alternate futures. In The Lebanese Rocket Society belief is not the end-point, it is only the beginning. Hadjithomas and Joreige use both the film and the gallery to emphasise this. They establish the history of the rocket engineers, and then go on to supplement, blur and reposition this history. In a further provocation they repeated their bold urban passage, this time using a large wooden silhouette that mimicked the size and shape of the rocket. From this they created a series of c-print photographs of the convoy, a blurred and almost glowing white shard moving through the streets. While the long, rocket-like form remains unmistakeable, its details become opaque – a trace of a trace (figs. 10–11).41 A second series, The President’s Album (2011), presents 32 identical prints, each combining archival images of the Cedar IV Rocket’s launch (an album of which was offered to then President Fouad Chehab), and a photograph of the reproduction rocket. The 8-metre long prints are alternately folded, each presenting a different slice of the concertina, and hung with spaces between each image – quite literally “stretching” the “truth” along the gallery wall.

Hadjithomas and Joreige

The Lebanese Rocket Society: The President’s Album (Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, 2011). Courtesy of the artists and Galerie In Situ – fabienne leclerc.

The photographic and sculptural elements of The Lebanese Rocket Society complicate established processes of documentary and historical enquiry, aimed at uncovering forgotten histories. For even when such a history is recovered, it will always bear the traces of its “forgetting”. Rather than eliciting an anxious or melancholic sentiment, for Hadjithomas and Joreige this is a point of departure, an opportunity to understand history through its fragments and its imaginative reconstitutions. In the final minutes of The Lebanese Rocket Society, the film enters full speculative mode, jetting off into an animated imagination about what could have happened if the rocket program had not been prematurely halted. It is a dramatic stylistic shift, and when considered in relation to the other imaginative reconstructions that constitute the whole project, it counters any sense of nostalgia about what “could have been”.

Conclusion

The Lebanese Rocket Society is one of Hadjithomas and Joreige’s most ambitious projects, reflecting the various strategies of intersection, evolution and extrapolation that the pair mobilise across their entire body of work. By working fluidly across art and film, fact and fiction, they are able to simultaneously contribute new historical understanding and contest that understanding. This is undoubtedly a delicate balance for artists and filmmakers to strike. However, when considering contemporary hybrid practices, and the increasingly porous divisions between “truth” and “lies” in political and social spheres, the imperatives to negotiate these boundaries are critical. Hadjithomas and Joreige blur their boundaries but, crucially, they do not destroy them entirely. Rather they exploit the moments where these margins become porous, where they overlap and become multidimensional. Their approach to history, imagery and representation provides an illuminating example of how, by working at the intersections and interstices, creative practices can be constructive and critical at the same time.

Acknowledgements

Thank you to Mikala Tai for inviting me to be involved, and to my fellow panellist Anita Archer who also introduced me to Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s gallery. Thank you to Antoine Laurent at Galerie In Situ – fabienne leclerc, and Steven Daly, studio manager, for their prompt and attentive assistance with providing research materials and images. My final thanks to Daniel Fairfax and Senses of Cinema for inviting me to be part of this special dossier.

This article has been peer-reviewed.

Endnotes

  1. Laura U. Marks, Hanan al-Cinema: Affections for the Moving Image (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2015), p. 15.
  2. Although the wider geo-political contexts are beyond the scope of my article, I am keenly aware of Christine Tohmé’s important observation that Lebanon cannot be understood in isolation, “you have to understand it as part of a region where things are unstable, where the whole map is being redrafted.” Christine Tohmé, “Nouveaux Niches”, Artforum International 53:9 (2015): 321.
  3. “Artist Profile: Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige on ‘Latent Images’”, Guggenheim Museum, October 27, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r-dtL5X-gCc.
  4. Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, “By All Accounts”, Artforum International 53:9 (2015): 326.
  5. Ibid.
  6. “Artist Profile: Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige on ‘Latent Images’.”
  7. Harvard Film Archive, “Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige – Lost Films and Mediations”, 2016, http://hcl.harvard.edu/hfa/films/2015decfeb/hadjithomas_joreige.html.
  8. Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, “Latency”, in Christine Tohmé and Mona Abu Rayyan, Home Works: A Forum on Cultural Practices in the Region (Beirut: Aškāl Alwān, 2003), p. 40.
  9. Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, “Khiam”, http://hadjithomasjoreige.com/khiam/.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, “Landscape of Khiam”, http://hadjithomasjoreige.com/landscape-of-khiam/.
  12. In the commercial gallery realm, it is now common practice for artists working with video and multimedia to also produce limited edition still prints derived from their moving image works (even if they are themselves also editioned), as more widely sellable art objects. However, this is not the case with the associated photographic series that Hadjithomas and Joreige produce; they are not derivative, but the artists use them as a means to expand, evolve and supplement the initial works.
  13. Quoted in TJ Demos, The Migrant Image: The Art and Politics of Documentary During Global Crisis (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013), p. 11.
  14. This is true not only conceptually of their practice, but practically and economically as well. Their production company Abbout Productions, which they established in 1998, is involved in the entire filmmaking process from production to distribution. It supports not just Hadjithomas and Joreige’s work but productions by other filmmakers, including Ghassan Salhab, Vatche Boulghourjian and Mohammad Malas, amongst others. Marks, Hanan al-Cinema, op. cit., p. 52.
  15. Carrie Lambert-Beatty, “Make-Believe: Parafiction and Plausibility,” October 129 (2009): 54.
  16. Ibid., p. 56.
  17. In her recent Hanan al-Cinema: Affections of the Moving Image (2015), Laura U. Marks has argued recently that this is true of Arab experimental film and video more broadly, however this is beyond the scope of my article.
  18. Sandra Dagher, Catherine David, Rasha Salti, Christine Tohmé, and T.J. Demos, “Curating Beirut: A Conversation on the Politics of Representation, “Art Journal 66:2 (2007): 116.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.
  21. “Artist Profile: Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige on ‘Latent Images’.”
  22. Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, “Walid Raad and the Atlas Group,” Bidoun 2 (2004), http://bidoun.org/issues/2-we-are-old.
  23. As Catherine David observes in this context, it is important to critique and challenge the “fantasy coming out of Western-centric modernity, as if it had exclusive claim to critical thinking and expression and we were still trapped in the invention-versus-copy dynamic.” Dagher et al., “Curating Beirut”, p. 118.
  24. Akram Zaatari, “The State of Producing Video in Lebanon”, Instants Vidéo de Manosque (1998), n.p. Quoted in Laura U. Marks, “What Is That and between Arab Women and Video? The Case of Beirut”, Camera Obscura 54 (2003): 48.
  25. Marks, “What Is That”, p. 50.
  26. Beirut Cinema Days (Ayyam Beirut al-Cinemaiyya) and the Lebanese Film Festival, respectively.
  27. Laura U. Marks describes the importance of “Transit Visa” in “its forced propagation of a video scene, whose first tiny sproutings are well documented in four documentaries by the organizers and a book.” Marks, “What Is That”, p. 50.
  28. Dagher et al., “Curating Beirut,” p. 100.
  29. Ibid., p. 102.
  30. Ibid., p. 101.
  31. Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, “The War Works: Videos Under Siege, Online and in the Aftermath, Again”, Art Journal 66, no. 2 (2007): p. 69.
  32. Ibid., p. 81.
  33. Ibid., p. 81-82.
  34. “Artist Profile: Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige on ‘Latent Images’.”
  35. Melissa Miles, “The Drive to Archive: Conceptual Documentary Photobook Design,” Photographies 3, no. 1 (2010): 51.
  36. Marks, Hanan al-Cinema, p. 19.
  37. While ambivalence might not suit the immediacy of political interests, Jacques Rancière has argued that in Hadjithomas and Joreige’s practice it is precisely their blurring of distinctions between fiction and documentary that gives their work political agency. Todd May, Benjamin Noys, Jacques Rancière and Saul Newman, “Democracy, Anarchism and Radical Politics Today: An Interview with Jacques Rancière,” Anarchist Studies 16, no. 2 (2008): 179.
  38. Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, “But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise: Hadjithomas and Joreige on Forgotten Histories,” Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative, 26 October 2017, https://www.guggenheim.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/guggenheim-ubs-map-video-transcript-hadjithomas-joreige-forgotten-histories-11.7.17.pdf. On this point, Jalal Toufic has written about the various withdrawals of tradition, culture, memory that occur after surpassing disasters. For Toufic, the “duty of at least some artists is to disclose the withdrawal and/or to resurrect what has been withdrawn.” Jalal Toufic, The Withdrawal of Tradition Past a Surpassing Disaster (Los Angeles: Redcat, 2009), p. 61.
  39. In discussing the project, Hadjithomas observes that “when you think about a rocket today, in Lebanon, you think about a missile.” Ibid.
  40. Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, “What Was Lost,” Ibraaz, May 2, 2012, https://www.ibraaz.org/interviews/20.
  41. Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, “Part 4: Restaged,” http://hadjithomasjoreige.com/restaged/.

About The Author

Kate Warren is a writer, researcher and curator. She publishes extensively on Australian and international cinema and contemporary art practices. She has curated exhibitions for the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Channels Festival of Video Art and Blindside Gallery. She received her PhD in Art History from Monash University in 2016.