- Dissonant Archives: Contemporary Visual Culture and Contested Narratives in the Middle East ed. by Anthony Downey
"We are literally in need of archives," declares Hela Ammar, a Tunisian visual artist and "self-described militant feminist." Ammar's statement, published in March 2014 on the multilingual research forum Ibraaz, is one among many declarations about archive formation after the Arab Spring (Gabsi 2014). Underlying its urgency is the assumption that in times of disorientation, archives reorient people, acting as symptoms of and remedies for the precariousness of political upheaval. "It is precisely when the future appears uncertain," continues Ammar, "that one returns to the past." While this may be the case, the uses of archives are not limited to their symptomatic and therapeutic appearance in times of revolution. Archive is also among the preferred critical terms used to theorize subversive aesthetics and politics today.
A weighty anthology, Dissonant Archives features the work of over thirty scholars and contemporary artists, including Emily Jacir, Mariam Ghani, Walid Raad, Akram Zaatari, and Naeem Mohaiemen, who have contributed to an unprecedented expansion in archival knowledge in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. The fields of visual culture and archival studies jointly emphasize finding and analyzing unconventional sources of history, sources encompassing everything from media texts to material ephemera. This edited volume contributes significantly to the ongoing reconstitution of historical sources by focusing on new archival practices in contemporary art. To list some examples from Dissonant Archives, these practices include disfiguring postcards and photo negatives to reveal the impending destruction of Beirut in work by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige (22); producing fictional documents to address historical traumatic gaps and repetitions in work by Walid Read and the Atlas Group (215); inserting red embroidery into official records to blend national history with family archives in work by Hela Ammar [End Page 348] (163); entombing wooden boxes containing artwork to recall archival withdrawal and salvage (via disappearance) in times of siege by Akram Zaatari (29); and curating mobile-phone photographs of every bomb dropped on Misrata during Libya's civil war by Adelita Husni-Bey (291).
The anthology began its life online in 2014 with essays, art, and interviews uploaded to Ibraaz, a thriving digital archive for researchers of the Middle East. As a whole, the collection argues that archives are eminently contestable configurations and therefore can direct us toward political possibilities that are alternate and uniquely speculative in nature. "Far from [being] epistemically stable, historically fixed, or hermeneutically coherent," archives are intrinsic to any future that breaks with colonial histories and is yet haunted by the colonial present (27).
Crucial to the narrative of contesting colonial power through archives is the visual theorist Ariella Azoulay's essay in the anthology. Azoulay makes an important distinction between the "material archive" of the people and the "abstract archive" of the philosopher (194). Studies of the material archive are less interested in poststructuralist questions of repetition, the compulsions of the death drive, and the desire for authentic origins as deconstructed in Jacques Derrida's (1996) Archive Fever. Rather, material archives enable art activism by deploying aesthetic representation in an attempt to correct the political under- or misrepresentation of histories and peoples. Azoulay dedicates her essay to Anat Kam, an Israeli woman who, "during her compulsory military service, collected digital documents containing explicit discussions and instructions regarding the 'liquidating' of Palestinians, euphemistically referred to as 'targeted killing'" (196). Afterward Kam sent the incriminating documents to Haaretz, which published a portion of them but betrayed her as the source of the so-called illegal archive, resulting in her arrest for treason. Through Kam's example Azoulay critiques Derrida's characterization of the sentries, or agents of the state, who guard the archive and its secrets from the public. Instead of upholding an unjust law by assuming the singular power to interpret its secret archive, Kam exposes the law by granting the public a right to access and know Israel's archive of executions. Azoulay coins the phrase material archives to account for...