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May we suggest

Features / December 28, 2012

Gaze Chaser: Emanuel Licha and the Optics of War

Beirut, Cairo, Tripoli, Baghdad—this list of cities is indelibly linked to war and conflict in the modern era. In the minds of most Westerners, these places also exist in a hazy mix of fact and fiction. Between official government statements and unofficial reports of suicide bombings, insurgent attacks, riots, uprisings and reprisals, reality on the ground is hard to determine, let alone imagine.

So, how can we know what we know? The question resonates through the work of the Montreal-born, Berlin- and Paris-based filmmaker and artist Emanuel Licha. He has spent the past 10 years exploring the front-line perspectives of participants and journalists—investigations that have taken him from disaster tourism in Chernobyl and New Orleans to police- and military-training facilities in France and California. For his upcoming project, Hotel Machine (2013), Licha travels to Beirut, Cairo, Jerusalem, Tripoli, Baghdad and Sarajevo to visit “war hotels” where foreign journalists gathered to cover the news. The hotels offered safe haven and connection points to local sources. For Licha, the hotels represent “gaze shapers” that play a central role in the landscape of war and in his own work.

Bryne McLaughlin: You’re currently working on a feature-length documentary film that takes a look at war hotels as key conduits for how we see war. Where did the idea come from and how does it fit with your earlier works?

Emanuel Licha: Hotel Machine comes directly from another work, Mirages (2010). For that film, I went to a training camp in California, Fort Irwin, where the US Army has installed everything they imagined to find in a village in Iraq or Afghanistan: the mosque, the police station, the shops, the roofs where snipers might position themselves…everything that could be strategic to the soldiers—and then this hotel for journalists. In fact, the hotel is the only functional building; all of the others are facades. It’s also the highest building in the camp, along with the mosque. There is this window in the hotel room that has the exact proportions of a movie screen. So I would be sitting on the bed and looking out of the window and the scene was already framed for me. It was easy to notice that this was a great place to watch from, but also that being anywhere in the camp you would see this hotel. From that moment, I understood that it was important for the soldiers to remember that place, to remember constantly that they are being watched and every move they make is being scrutinized by the media. So it’s really a back and forth, gazing in both ways. Later, I really looked at that place as an optical machine, a site where you train for war but also learn to look, to watch, to gaze at war.

BM: Did Mirages begin with you already understanding how journalists played such a key role in that reciprocal gaze?

EL: Not so much. It might sound really naïve but it came as a surprise when, at the camp, they started introducing me not as an artist but as a journalist. For another work, R for Real (2008), I was at an urban-warfare training camp for police forces in France. Then I was more interested in where fiction comes in during the preparation for conflict—how the real has to be fictionalized in order to be thought. Fiction is not only an imitation of reality; it has its own capacity to produce the real. In both R for Real and Mirages, I was trying to make sense of this. I’m interested in how we look at images of violence and war and how our gaze is participating in the fabrication of those images.

BM: So these training camps are like a complex game that sends the soldier, policeman, actor, journalist and spectator spiralling down the rabbit hole, so to speak. Yet there are very real implications. What were the starting points for you to look at these multiple layers of reality and illusion?

EL: Well, I guess my entry point was not really the illusion. Even if they say they are not for “real,” both of those training camps are producing something real. They say it’s a preparation for reality. But actually they are already functioning to produce this reality, or to contribute to it. It was very interesting to go to France first, because it was much more modest. They used pretty much the same vocabulary as the camp in California, but it was almost naïve the way they were doing it. They didn’t have actors or extras; they were playing both roles—the police and the rioters. There would be a whistle and they would switch to the other side. In California, they had a control tower and the commander would be standing there imagining what would be the next scenario and giving orders, as a film director would do. Then comes the role of journalist. One should of course immediately think about them when you consider the construction of images. I guess that’s where I’m at now. I would say artists and filmmakers like myself who are interested in those images of conflict are also in a way contributing to the fabrication; we are building a critique of those images while also adding to their power, in a way.

BM: Next came the video How do we know what we know? (2011). It questions the role of journalists in a time when news media is more and more dependent on unsubstantiated reports from otherwise inaccessible conflict zones. Do you see this as a bridge between what you saw at the training camps and your interest in war hotels?

EL: Yes, exactly. How do we know what we know? was produced while researching Hotel Machine. I had conducted interviews with several international war correspondents, and some of them told me the only way to understand what was happening in those hotels was to go during a conflict, which is not what I want to do for Hotel Machine—I’m going after the fact, in a time of relative peace. Still, I felt I had to see for myself. So I went to the Syrian border in southern Turkey. Refugees were starting to arrive and all the media had gathered during just a few days. I soon understood that these hotels are important not only as the place where journalists stay and work, but also as where they meet the main protagonists of these conflicts—the negotiators, the commanders, people from NGOs. It really becomes a hub. In that sense, they function as “gaze shapers.” They modify the way journalists look at war. Hotel Machine will be about that. I plan to go to war hotels in Sarajevo, Beirut, Cairo, Tripoli, Jerusalem and, hopefully, Baghdad. The final montage will blend all of those sites into a kind of meta-hotel.

BM: Much of your work concentrates on meta-fictions embedded in the sites you photograph, and you bring a parallel strategy to installations of your work in galleries. In the 2010 exhibition “Why Photogenic?” at SBC Contemporary in Montreal, you created a sculptural labyrinth for Mirages that guided viewers through the installation. Was this meant to implicate them in the work?

EL: I guess I’m always looking for interaction. If the image is projected on a wood panel that is in the middle of your way, it bothers you. You have to interact physically with it. Even before I was interested in war, I was already dealing with all kinds of critical apparatuses that allow us to look at the other, and the way we invent different techniques to trap or attract the other through the gaze, though the eyes, through vision. This is really important when I formalize the work. In “Why Photogenic?,” spectators came into the space through different steps, first looking at the report on that place, then at the interviews with those technicians. I was looking for a way not to impose my vision on this place but instead to propose, to put this spectator back into my steps.

BM: Hotel Machine will be a feature-length documentary film, which is different in many ways from making an artwork, particularly in terms of audience. Do you also imagine the film as a gallery installation?

EL: It will have two versions, one as a film and the other as an installation. I will try to bring the viewer into the different zones of the hotel. For example, there is the lobby, where the gaze is searching for events or people, or the rooms, which is a much more reflexive gaze. Then you have the swimming pool, or the bar, which are spaces where you socialize. And all of those transitional spaces—elevators, corridors, balconies—where you go from one space to another, either within your hotel, or from the inside to the outside. Without making the spectators believe that they are in a hotel, I’m trying to make them feel that each space corresponds with a way of looking at things, of communicating with people and gathering information, but also of understanding the environment, of either the hotel or the conflict. Spectators bring their own experience to the project, building upon my fiction with their own understandings.

BM: Whether it’s the aftermath of war in the former Yugoslavia or combat training for Iraq or Afghanistan, your work often deals with sensitive subjects. Do you see this as taking a political position?

EL: Political art or artist are tricky terms because they often come with the next word in the list: activist. So if we agree to take political far away from activist, then I would say this is definitely political work. In terms of accusing or finding the guilty one, not at all.

BM: So you put the onus on viewers to engage on that level?

EL: Yes, but I’m with them. I try to embark by making, I hope, a strong argument, even if it puts me in a ridiculous position. That’s the provocation and I’m expecting this to spark something in the viewer. I don’t need to be there for the discussion. War Tourist (2004–08) is a good example. There is “war tourist,” and then there is the guide who is showing him the landscape, who is staging or exaggerating certain aspects. He’s the one who says, “Look in that direction. Film this.” He’s framing the image and the war tourist is a very nice visitor: he moves his camera as soon as the guy tells him to. If you take each video one by one, it can be pretty boring. You might learn a few things about different cities and conflicts, but any journalist, any tourist could do this. My argument, my proposition, my political stance would be to show all five videos in the same room at the same time, making sure that the spectator is forced to move and choose from one to the other.

BM: Does this multilayer, multi-perspective approach offer clarity or confusion?

EL: I would say both. Take, for instance, Mirages. In interviews with the technicians and actors at Fort Irwin, I asked them to explain their work, but while editing I mixed in a line I had written and asked them to say: “I like to be here. It’s like being in a movie.” From one interview to the next they repeat that line, and people in the audience start wondering. Does that repetition bring confusion? I’m not taking a moral stance there; I think there is already so much confusion in the images we are shown on television. What I’m interested in is this moment when spectators wonder. Even though all of these projects deal with conflict and the fabrication of the war, it might surprise you, but I’m not so interested in wars. I think they are like climaxes—peaks in one’s life or in world history, a shifting point. But talking about war means thinking about much more than war—it is a filter to the idea of reality that goes beyond war.

This is a feature from the Winter 2013 issue of Canadian Art. To read more from this issue, please visit its table of contents. To view videos and photographs by the artist, please go to

Bryne McLaughlin

Bryne McLaughlin is Deputy Editor at Canadian Art.