Lebanese Artist’s MoMA Work Ties IDF to Big Art Money

When Walid Raad was asked to join an artists’ trust, his research into its founders triggered an unlikely exhibition.

Walid Raad's Scratching On Things I Could Disavow
Julieta Cervantes

An interactive wall is at the center of an installation on the first floor of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Twinkling, colorful lights beckon visitors to approach and study the writing, arrows, tables, lists, pictures and names that together form a somewhat cumbersome diagram, above which appear head shots of two men and the captions Moti and Ronen. The installation is part of the latest work by Lebanese artist Walid Raad, 48, called “Scratching on Things I Could Disavow.”

The work — which at first glance looks like the scribbles that might help a TV detective solve a murder — actually traces the connection between a fund supporting hundreds of artists around the world and the Israeli military and high-tech industries.

Raad has held weekly performances in front of the installation in recent months, called “Walkthrough.” Both the performance and the installation are part of a large retrospective of Raad’s work at MoMA. His previous works were about the civil war in Lebanon. During the performance, he tells his U.S. audience and tourists what he discovered after being invited to join the Artist Pension Trust, which recruits 250 artists in the great cultural centers of the world — such as New York, London, Berlin, Mumbai, Beijing and Mexico City.

The trust’s deal with the artists is that they give it one work a year, with which APT can do as it pleases: show it, store it or sell it. If the trust chooses to sell the artwork, it keeps a third of the profit, gives the artist a little over a third, and divides the rest among the other 249 artists in the same city. By doing so, APT ensures that artists have something to live on, even in tough times.

High art and high-tech

 Walid Raad's work at the MoMA
Thomas Griesel

APT representatives approached Raad to join a branch in Dubai. But when he looked into the people behind the initiative, he was surprised to find names from Israeli high-tech with a rich history in the army’s elite units. These included APT co-founder Moti Shniberg, who, according to Raad, made his money in the Israeli high-tech firm ImageID.

Not only did these people serve in the Israeli army, they also served in elite intelligence units — including 8200, Lotem and Mamram — says Raad, pointing to the sketch of the Israel Defense Forces units on the wall. Raad turns to his audience, which is sitting politely on folding chairs opposite his work.

“I’m not sure if you know this, but in Lebanon any link between an Israeli person and a Lebanese person, any link between an Israeli institution and a Lebanese institution, will be trouble. But this is not just a link to Israel. I mean, do I want anyone in Lebanon to find out I’m joining a retirement plan for artists started by an Israeli man who made his fortune in an Israeli high-tech firm where most of the employees and investors have links to Israel’s elite military intelligence units? This is no longer trouble. This is actually dangerous, and not just for me. This could be dangerous for any artist who joins APT,” Raad declares.

He was curious to find out who the 250 promising Arab artists were who had been recruited by APT for Dubai, he said, and to find out more about the trust as a whole.

“By 2012, APT had signed contracts with around 1,400 artists,” he informs his audience. “And these artists had already given the company around 5,000 artworks. But if and when all the trusts close — which means if and when 250 artists join each trust — APT will become the largest privately held art collection anywhere in the world — and this is without the company spending a single dollar buying a single work of art. I must admit, this isn’t bad.”

Walid Raad's work at the MoMA
Thomas Griese

Raad recounts arriving at his meeting with Shniberg at the latter’s Manhattan office. He was happy for the opportunity to ask Shniberg about the relationship between elite IDF units and the artists’ fund.

“You’re from Lebanon, right?” Raad recalls Shniberg asking. “So I’m sure you know how things are in Lebanon. I’m sure you know how things are in Syria, in Egypt, in Saudi Arabia. And I’m sure you know how things are in Israel. In Israel, many things are linked to the army. In Israel, the high-tech sector is always linked to military intelligence. Please don’t tell me this actually surprises you. Please don’t tell me you’re one of those naive, left-wing, head-in-the-sand pontificators who actually think the cultural, technological, financial and military sectors are not and have not always been intimately linked.”

Shniberg tells Raad about other projects he’s working on, which Raad shares with the MoMA audience. One is a plan to assess the risk involved regarding the timing of buying or selling an artwork — spring or fall, London or New York. Another is software to predict fluctuations in the value of artworks — by Picasso, for instance. The software programs were developed by Ronen Feldman, of whom Raad enthuses, “He graduated from the most celebrated [training program]. I mean, take MIT, Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Caltech — add them all together and you get this incredible unit in the Israeli army called Talpiot.

“And the more Moti is talking to me about mathematical algorithms, risk management, semantic web-text analytics, ImageID, the more I’m getting lost in all the details,” says Raad. “And for some reason, I start to feel a bit tired. I’m feeling a bit nauseous and decide I need some fresh air. I don’t feel so good all of a sudden.”

Making money from 9/11

Walid Raad's work at the MoMA
Thomas Griesel

The wall bears a large legend, “September 11, 2001,” and unless one has researched the people Raad mentions in his work, it’s impossible to predict what he will say. He isn’t talking about conspiracy theories, he assures his audience, after reading out the date. “The Twin Towers, they go down at what time? 9:59 and 10:28. Six hours later, Moti is not just thinking. Moti has already filed an application to trademark the phrase “11 September, 2001.” Six hours later, I’m still trying to get my emotions in check and this man has had the amazing presence of mind to file to trademark “11 September, 2001.” How do you train for this kind of presence?” Raad asks his stunned audience.

Raad’s work is about more than Israel, though. He also casts a spotlight on Abu Dhabi, where the United Arab Emirates has an ambitious project to turn Saadiyat Island into a cultural capital, and on the world-renowned architects who are building branches of the Guggenheim and Louvre there.

Raad was born in Chbanieh, Lebanon, and lives in New York. He’s presented works in the biennales of Venice and the Whitney Museum, and in museums in Germany, Spain and his homeland. His most acclaimed work, “The Atlas Group,” uses historical language and war footage, and is based on “aesthetic facts” and “personal facts” to create an alternative archive that engages in trauma and memory from the Lebanon war. In 2011, he established the Gulf Labor Coalition, to expose the exploitation of the foreign workers building Saadiyat. His activity got him banned from Dubai in 2013.

He doesn’t grant interviews to the Israeli press and refused Haaretz’s request. However, the curator of the retrospective did speak with us. “That was the first opportunity he had to show it in such an expansive way,” explains Eva Respini. “He has shown bits and pieces, but never in such an extensive way as in MoMA now. The performance is a key aspect of that body of work, and the body of work is unlocked through the act of performance.”

The giant wall — over which the IDF units are arranged — next to the Israeli names Moti and Ronen with their pictures, could arouse unease. One wonders whether, when preparing for the exhibit, the museum team expressed concern that the subject matter engages with, among other things, the control Jewish businessmen have in the world of art.

Walid Raad's work at the MoMA
Thomas Griesel

“Walid is extremely sensitive about these issues,” responds Respini. “He is very, very careful with his language... never once does he say Jewish, never once does he say Muslim, never once does he say Christian. That’s due to his own experience as a Christian Arab living in Lebanon in a war with many factions, many political sides, and he is very careful about the way he talks about these issues. So when people say that the work is about tracing Jewish money, I want to be very careful and I want to correct you — I think this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the work.”

In his “Walkthrough” performance, Raad reminds the audience that in contrast to previous works, which engaged in trauma and memory of the Lebanese civil war, this time the work engages in relatively traditional facts. He even invites the audience to check each detail he mentions.

Respini tells Haaretz that checking the information presented by Raad isn’t necessary. “The work itself is research-based. Both he and I would be pleased if the work and exhibition inspired someone to do research, but it’s not necessary to do it. I say to people that you can enjoy and really get something from the work, even if you know nothing about the history of the Middle East.”

After Raad tells the audience of Shniberg’s September 11 initiative, he adds that he forgot to ask him about it during their meeting. By the time he remembered, he was outside and didn’t want to return.

“When I secured the appointment with Moti, I thought I was going to find all kinds of insidious links between collectors, artists, bankers, the military, Israeli intelligence and financial wizards,” he says. “But actually, today, when I look at all of this, what can I say? Yes, I say to myself, this is intelligent. But at the end of the day, it’s also all-too-familiar. All too banal. It’s expected. And I for one don’t find any of it insidious. I don’t even find this interesting — certainly not interesting enough to deserve an artwork. After all, do we really need another artwork to show us — as if we didn’t already know — that the cultural, financial and military spheres are intimately linked? No, we don’t. This may be intelligent but it isn’t insidious, and it’s certainly undeserving of more of my words — so I’d better stop.”