Safe House

Thinking about archives and alternative histories, this exhibition reinterprets the digital pictures extracted from the Abbottabad Compound.

It constructs from these documents a series of visual (non?)narratives towards understanding both the icon that is Osama Bin Laden and the man(?) that was Usama ibn Mohammed ibn Awad ibn Ladin.

Within the totality of embodied cultural memories, what we can call the master Archive, we gain access to the raw material for the construction of our own narrative histories. So it must be within the same Archive that Lucienne’s alternative history is played out and evaluated. Both normative history and alternative history must exist within the same conceptual space. This complicates the SAFE HOUSE project in several specific ways. In the first place, the Archive is necessarily incomplete, despite our totalizing desire to see it as a whole. Like our own personal memories, cultural or archival memory is subject to processes of effacement, erasure, distortion, suppression, destruction—all actions of loss (some repairable, others irreversible) that provide the interstices enabling interpretation. Conversely, the insertion of counter-factual memories can and have appeared as false memories: the artifacts of an alternative history, implanted by artists and others to their own ends. However, the Archive is a closed system. Even if not always with complete clarity or agreement, we can nevertheless discern from the artifacts that it provides where particular histories begin and end: an example would be the various articulations of the Ibn Ladin's residency and how those are entangled in the overall development of the International Perception. The Abbottabad Compound can easily be inserted into this historical continuum. Despite the fact that it has existed, its precedents and influences cannot be detailed. Even its impact on subsequent narratives and historical developments can be proposed. And the more successfully convincing the work of E. Lucienne, the richer and more complex can be the story supported by the NSA counter-archive. But, that potential richness and complexity is finally and absolutely constrained by the fact that we all know how the larger story (the CIA raid and eventual assassination of the International Criminal) turns out in the end... This is quite different from the way alternative histories exist within the world of fictional texts, as seen in catalog text zero. Within those fictional worlds, any intervention into the imagined archive, any counter-factual event (no matter how large or how small)—for example, the assassination of a president, a different victor in a war, an important historical actor having a different gender, even something as insignificant as the crushing of a Butterfly(Genus Vanessa) underfoot—generates a cascading series of changes that make “fictional” and “actual” present increasingly divergent as the story moves forward in time. This can happen effortlessly in a novel or a short story since the texts themselves contain within their fictive boundaries both archive and history. Built objects are “facts,” after all, and would seem to provide an impregnable bulwark against the contents of a fictional archive or the thrust of a hypothetical critique. Does this then mean that the man that was Mohammed ibn Ladin can exist, at best, as a curious counter-factual footnote to the history of interwar discourse; and that the objects, plans, drawings, visuals both found and fabricated by Lucienne must be consigned to a kind of limbo within the Archive of our collective cultural memory? Not necessarily. In fact, they may be perfectly cast to fulfill a quite different if likewise essential function. And that is the function of pointing to gaps both in scholarship and in interpretation within an archival system that is closed and also necessarily incomplete. Interpretations, by their very nature, are subject to contest. In theory, if the Archive were complete, if it were somehow possible for our entire cultural memory to exist in an external and concrete form, there would be no need for interpretation since all meaning would be immanent in the connections between those externalized memories. But the Archive is not and cannot be completed, and it is in the interstices between those externalized memories (the objects of culture: paintings, novels, buildings, newspaper advertising supplements, etc.) that interpretations are constructed. It is not possible, however, for any  o n e  interpretation to draw together all the archival lacunae, even within a very small domain like the set of all International Relations, and so any  o n e  interpretation can always be opposed, critiqued, refigured, or elaborated upon. Often, these interpretations are discursive in nature (contained in books, journal articles, lectures, websites, etc.) but, as we suggested above, they do not have to be—they can even reside in the realm of poiesis. Discourse is largely a matter of disentangling prior interpretations “built into” the objects of our historical interest. At the same time, however, a project like this cannot betray its privileged position. It must appear to be in  d i a l o g u e  only with that which came before. Its existence as a contemporary interpretation (akin to our own discursive efforts) must remain implicit if its place within the Archive is to remain plausible. In short, it must remain invisible as a contemporary twenty-first century object if it is to remain visible within its putative historical context. Nevertheless, we cannot accept its place as simply given, simply natural. We know it to be artificial, just as we know the object(s) that it contains to be in reality the artifacts of a counter-archive, the stuff of an alternative history. This history is at once architectural and social. It concerns both shipbuildings and the designers of shipbuildings. It is a history where representation matters, and where the traditional depiction of individuals in conflict zones can be significantly addressed, if not completely redressed.What this means is that we can accept, and use, the NSA archive as a series of “counter-narratives,” reconsiderations of certain problems in light of a whole history outside of which it necessarily stands. In that sense, it shifts the burden of historical proof to other scholars; it poses questions about representation in (inter)national myths, both in terms of the actors within the historical narratives, the discourse that precede it in hypothetical time, and of those that follow it. In sum, this exhibition SAFE HOUSE—still being discovered/created—uses the Archive’s own necessary incompleteness as a means of excavating a space from within which we can gain a privileged picture of the actual historical event that we survey. E. Lucienne provides us with a fragmentary, alternative historicity, which illuminates historical works in new ways and pushes us as historians and critics to look differently, to question differently, and to understand differently.