With the advent of embedded journalism and a pervasive emphasis from government and major media outlets alike on managing the “optics” of conflict, the modern notion of the theatre of war has become increasingly sophisticated and/or sinister, depending on your point of view. There are holes in this sprawling public relations apparatus—consider, for example, the ongoing Wikileaks saga or the latest YouTube posting of US soldiers’ misdeeds in Afghanistan. Yet to a large degree the official mechanism remains in place, quietly massaging the initial impact and lingering truths of warfare and unrest.
So how do we know what we know about war? That’s a central question raised by Montreal- and Paris-based artist Emanuel Licha in his two-part exhibition “Striking a Pose” at Latitude 53 in Edmonton and PAVED Arts in Saskatoon. The exhibition (which is curated by Marie-Hélène Leblanc and will also show at Musée régional de Rimouski later this year) takes a wide-ranging look at the way conflict is staged and the effect of this blurring of fact and fiction—not only on official reports and histories, but also on collective memory.
At Latitude 53, the five-channel video installation War Tourist follows guided tours of sites of mass devastation from Auschwitz to New Orleans, offering telling personal perspectives on how the stories and signs of tragedy are repackaged, even as they remain pointedly unresolved. It runs alongside Licha’s latest film work, How do we know what we know?, which challenges the narrative truths of contemporary war reportage that, as the recent media blackout in Syria proves, is often sourced by proxy and speculative by necessity.
At PAVED, Licha brings together two video installations—R is Real and Mirages—that delve into the calculated structures and strategies of conflict control. Both works were shot on location at training facilities for police and military, sites where the boundaries between fact and fiction are purposefully ambiguous. Set amid the confines of these architecturally precise conflict zones, soldiers and police are thrown into chaotic scenarios of riots, injuries and insurgencies played out by actors—all under the watchful eye of invited journalists, who are also, in a way, being trained to see conflict in a specific, controlled way. It’s a multi-layered stage—what Licha calls an “optical machine”—where participant and spectator are caught in a theatrical illusion to prepare for the ultimate reality.