Emanuel Licha’s War Tourist and Other Works

Prefix Photo 40, Nov. 2019

Emanuel Licha, Hotel Machine, Creative Documentary and Film Installation, 67 MN, 2016. Image courtesy of  http://emanuel-licha.com/

“Let’s search for signs of destruction,” says a tour guide to an unseen tourist as he navigates the streets of Sarajevo. “[This is] a really, really good part, unfortunately, for these destructions. This is a typical front-line house. This is how they all got destroyed…. They used anti-aircraft guns.”

As viewers of Emanuel Licha’s video War Tourist: Sarajevo (2004–05), we follow the camera as it slowly glides across the wall of a building. Its windows and floors are blown out and all remaining surfaces are pocked with hundreds of holes from the oversized artillery. “We call these houses ‘Swiss cheese houses’,” our guide tells us. Driving the “tourist” around the city, he stops at the most “fantastic” sites of destruction, recounting how soldiers perilously negotiated the front lines, and noting that, “War is not bad for everybody: the war is bad for civilians, but if you’re a criminal and if you pay the politicians, don’t worry; war is the most beautiful thing that can happen to you in your life…. There is no just or pure war in the world.”

Travelling along unsteadily, the camera zooms in and out and pans across the landscape, enticing the viewer into an almost-erotic relationship with the ravaged surfaces.  The ironically named “roses of Sarajevo,” in particular, are visually compelling: these are the patterns left by the impact of a grenade, each with a deep central indentation and concentric “petals” of broken rock or concrete that radiate outwards. Millions of these wound-like scars dot the city. One is tempted to say that they are “beautiful,” perhaps because of, rather than in spite of, the shock of violence they still contain. Smaller scars inflicted by shrapnel surround many of the “roses,” like the cartoon dust that trails after a falling star. “They are obviously now part of the decoration,” says the guide. Now, more than twenty years later, cast in the role of voyeur, we watch them float across the screen. For services rendered, the guide asks, “Do you need a receipt? That’s forty Euros for eighty kilometres.”

We have learned nothing new, in an informational sense, about the conflict in Sarajevo. Rather, what our forty Euros purchased was intimate proximity and visual arousal—the vicarious experience of being there in person. First-hand experience, but without implication. Why is watching this video in the comfort of a gallery or online so compelling? Why do millions of people travel abroad every year in order to peer into the evidence of the pain of others?

It is on this point of thrill-at-a-distance that Licha’s War Tourist turns. Sarajevo is part of a series that includes four other works that feature the “tourist” visiting other sites of trauma between 2004 and 2008: Auschwitz-Birkenau, Chernobyl, post-Katrina New Orleans and the suburbs of Paris after the riots in 2005. As each video is presented on its own monitor in the gallery, it is possible, while watching one video (under headphones) to see the others and read their subtitles, which produces an unsettling multiplicity and layering of human disaster and desire: the individual works meld into a vertiginous experience of manufactured empathy. In the online version of the work, the viewer can select a “destination” from a scroll-down menu; Licha thereby establishes equivalence between war tourism and the highly commercialized and seemingly personalized experiences available for purchase in the so-called “transformation economy.” In New Orleans, for example, a decal on our guide’s van identifies the tourism company for which he works. One damaged house after another appears through the windows of the van, and we see another group of tourists ogling a ruin—once someone’s private refuge, now evidence of the government’s ineptitude and indifference. But, of course, no transformation ensues from this detached observation. In each video, it is clear that the guides are simply delivering the goods requested, showing tourists what they want to see—wreckage, ruins and zones of human destruction and misery wrought by war, systemic violence and natural disaster. As such, the tour is effectively that of a phantasm—a site conjured in the imagination of the tourist—rather than that of reality itself.

Licha weaves a sense of interiority and imaginative projection, along with emotional and ethical ambivalence, into these videos by way of his working procedure and directorial choices. The guides vary greatly in their relative professionalism; some express their own views about the politics of the various sites, while others, more dispassionate, withhold their opinions. The guide’s delivery in War Tourist: Auschwitz-Birkenau, for example, is deadpan, devoid of editorializing. One’s own thoughts flow into this discursively empty space, shaped only by the camera’s responses to the tour guide’s cues. The viewer inhabits the camera’s viewpoint as it reveals the distinctive features of the site, such as overcrowded stables lined with bunk beds and the iconic archway proclaiming “arbeit macht frei.” The camera, in an apparently amateur, inconsistent style, roams around distractedly, looking at random visitors passing by or at the guide’s personal features and attire.

Decidedly not documentary, and decidedly not journalism, War Tourist neither conveys facts and events nor offers carefully researched historical assessments. Neither does it express feelings. Instead of presenting an argument or seeking to initiate a dialogue, it provides a container for whatever arises from our own intellectual and emotional depths vis-à-vis these sites of damage and destruction.  By casting the viewer as a tourist rather than a participant, Licha makes the distance in time and space from the traumatic events at the heart of this work acutely palpable. Despite the seeming immediacy of our casual spectatorship, the lived experience of any of these five sites remains inaccessible: War Tourist literally casts us asunder, too late and too far away to be able to arrive at any sort of historical truth. Rather than the events themselves, Licha brings to light the economic and cultural mechanisms at work in the disaster tourism industry and, more generally, in our cultural thirst for vicarious experience: this industry operates more through seduction than through communication between mutually respected equals.

By contrast, two of Licha’s later works, Mirages (2010) and Hotel Machine (2016), consider journalism itself as a kind of tourism. In Mirages, he explores Medina Wasl, a mock Iraqi town in the middle of the Mojave Desert, built and operated by Hollywood. The film opens with a sinister scene—a wind storm spirals over the dry, cracked desert; the mountains in the distance resemble the backdrop of a vast, lifeless stage across which a mechanized toy soldier crawls forward commando-style and a cargo train rolls by endlessly. Entering the town,—all within a fiction that extends a thousand square miles.

Medina Wasl forms part of the United States Army Fort Irwin National Training Center, where troops rehearse the motions of war before being deployed to actual theatres of armed conflict in the Middle East. The extras, hired to play the roles of the inhabitants, are members of the Iraqi diaspora in the U.S.; however, as is so often the case with cross-cultural performance, they play not themselves, but the “foreigner,” as imagined by the white, military gaze. The town’s hotel, elevated above the rest of the town and comparable in stature to the mosque, features windows with a 16:9 (i.e., wide screen) aspect ratio that frame this gaze explicitly. At one point, a woman peers passively out of a window. A man’s off-screen voice asks: What do you see? She calmly and in detail describes what she sees as the viewer looks together with her through the window at the action below. A bomb explodes and people scatter frenetically, but she continues in the same calm tone. In Medina Wasl, soldiers are being trained not only in military techniques; they are also being trained to compose themselves for the photographs that are taken from such hotels. And reporters, like the woman in the window, are also being trained—to frame and interpret the action below according to the perspectives and agendas of those in power—the “big guns.”

If such interpellations were entirely successful, there would be no need for the military to overtly control which images can circulate; the optical machine would regulate itself. Luckily, a totally mechanized and militarized vision will never be realized; such efforts will never be able to occlude all other vantage points. But the implications of this fictional town are interesting to think about nevertheless. As Licha has pointed out, “Medina Wasl is not just a training centre preparing its users (soldiers, journalists, viewers) for an already existing reality, but it … also includ[es] them in the process of inventing a future reality.”[1] The operator here is fiction itself, which is given form in an imaginative space and then established as a model for the present. Licha’s use of a toy soldier makes the point: much like children’s games in which the participants suspend reality and step into fictional roles—you be the cop, I’ll be the robber—fictions are effectively ontological exercises that allow us to explore and develop new facets of being and behaviour. But children’s games and toy figures can be stopped at will, everything then returning to “normal.” But who, we might ask, can bring these military exercises, so consistently and persistently actualized, to an end?[2]

The blurring of fact and fiction is endemic to the contemporary hyper-mediatized image-scape; the distinction between them has become a mere line in the sand. Not only do fictive images have real consequences, but documentary images also contain fictional elements within them. Licha’s film Hotel Machine further examines the reciprocal relationships between the events, the architecture and the documentation of war. As the title suggests, it explores the functions of “war hotels” in cities that have recently endured armed conflict: the Mayflower in Beirut, the Holiday Inn in Sarajevo, the Hyatt in Belgrade, the Al-Deira in Gaza City, and the Hotel Ukraine in Kiev. In these hotels, international reporters converge with politicians and other key players, all of whom expect physical security, reliable communication systems, and comforts such as hot meals and hot water regardless of the bombs falling around them. Hotel Machine, however, is not a documentary, despite its seemingly objective delivery. Indeed, the film works primarily on an aesthetic rather than an informational level, using elements of science-fiction and suspense genres in order to portray the hotels as embodied entities that are experienced viscerally, both by their inhabitants and the viewer.

The film opens with an anxiety-inducing sound collage of traffic noise, airport announcements, elevator dings, and news reports about power and water outages over a crackling radio. Chambermaids meticulously clean mirrors, slowly revealing their reflections from beneath layers of spray and smudge. One woman throws open the heavy drapes and light streams into the recently occupied room, illuminating the dust in the air. Gradually, the atmosphere settles, but not for long: luggage carts squeak and rattle down the halls; chairs are methodically arranged in the conference room; doors seem to breathe heavily when they are opened and closed, emitting gasps of music or a rush of freezer-cold air. As the film progresses, we are taken behind the scenes of the polished surfaces and politesse into the guts of the hotel: the boiler room, the electrical room, the kitchen and the industrial-scale laundry. Conflated in the film, the hotels appear almost indistinguishable: the décor changes but the tone is the same, each hotel seeming to operate as a tightly wound but well-oiled machine. Pipes drip, gears hum and grind, fluorescent lights flicker, dishes clang and clatter, phones beep, and generators, guards, bartenders and cameras all stand by on high alert.

Four main protagonists negotiate the narrative of this “machine.” Most visible are the hotels’ maintenance and service staff, who dutifully accomplish their various tasks. Occasionally, they share anecdotes about the reporters and politicians they have served, now finding humour in the grim effects of war. In one scene, a waiter asks another, “Do you remember that lady at the restaurant? She called the waiter to complain. She said she had found an object in her steak…. It was shrapnel. We bought food wherever we could….” The two waiters re-enact similar events by moving furniture around in the dining room, demonstrating that the past is still alive in the present. A second narrative strand is woven through these daily goings-on by way of the “fixers,” recognizable by their crisp, light blue shirts and beige vests. Fixers are individuals hired to “fix” the comings and goings of journalists, arranging their meetings with key people and staying abreast of the news. The first time we meet them they are sifting through the business cards of the journalists and media outlets for which they have worked, selecting a few whom, presumably, they will contact. The fixers’ hands are deep in the soup, so to speak: they subtly steer the knowledge that is produced and disseminated about any given conflict. At various moments in the film, the viewer is invited to look over a fixer’s shoulder as he observes on a cellphone or laptop an interview with a journalist or scholar. Relative to the full scene/screen, these portable screens are minuscule, but they puncture the diegesis with “expert” opinions that serve to position the viewer at a critical distance to the unfolding narrative.

Despite the significance of this third, meta-narrative strand—the summation of Licha’s extensive research on the role of war hotels—there is a fourth, no less important, protagonist, whose presence registers only aesthetically: the architecture itself. If sharing his research were his aim, Licha would not have needed to make a film; an essay would have done. It is crucial that an account of Licha’s work analyze the mechanisms of the films themselves as well as their subject matter. Scholarship does not discuss the hotels as living, breathing organisms, for example, but Hotel Machine shows us that they are just that—alive. Licha’s interest in architecture is long-standing: in War Tourist, for example, the ruins and scarred buildings testify to the atrocities that took place in and around them; they function as artifacts of war and metaphors of suffering. In Hotel Machine, Licha explores the way in which architecture does more than merely witness and endure: it actively shapes the exchanges and possibilities for action within its frame.

Take, for example, the hotels’ balconies and windows: not only do they, like the private boxes in a theatre, provide a convenient bird’s-eye view of the action below, but they also offer a ring-side seat to reporters, whose cameras serve as the intended audience. Think of the international news media’s images of war—the anti-aircraft “fireworks” over Belgrade, for example, or the deadly mass protests in the main square of Kiev—that are so deeply ingrained in our minds. From within the safe confines of a designated hotel, media networks stream live footage into the homes of millions of curious onlookers “back home” who watch with awe and without discomfort or disruption of any kind. While one can easily imagine that this material might produce apathy among some viewers, images of war, disseminated instantaneously across cyber-space, have actual consequences, either as a result of slowly mounting public pressure from the international community, or with shocking rapidity, as interested parties mobilize to gain visual control of the conflict.

“Snipers and journalists are related in the kind of attention they give,” states one of the experts in Hotel Machine. Reporters behave like “image snipers,” hiding, waiting for action. Licha allows us to experience the slippery boundary between the two: the camera scans the built environment, the balconies and long corridors of high-rises and dead-end concrete alleys, while a crackling, urgent and intermittent dialogue can be heard on a two-way radio. Whether this sequence is historical or whether the soundtrack has been constructed or assembled in post-production is unclear, and perhaps irrelevant, because the effect is the same: we relish the tension and mounting sense of danger, eagerly awaiting our cathartic release, knowing that we cannot be harmed. The snipers have no such guarantee; neither are the reporters’ insurance policies bulletproof. But in this cinematographic conflation of their respective positions with our own, Licha impresses upon us that we, as consumers of journalism, are doubly implicated in the spectacle. Media corporations do whatever they consider necessary in order to increase their subscription base, including seeking out and disseminating increasingly sensational images of conflict in order to captivate and feed an insatiably hungry audience.

In an interview in 2007, Licha stated: “I believe it [is], in a way, easy to worry for the rest of the world, but this concern often acts as a smokescreen for what happens right next door.” [3] Both war tourism and journalism function as just such a smokescreen, allowing us to take pleasure in the horrors we visit or witness precisely because they are elsewhere, while, at the same time, giving us a false sense of engagement. In his current project, titled 4×4, Licha further explores this contradiction. Here, he focuses on the First-World practice of sending aid workers to sites of acute human suffering following war or disaster, which itself is often a result of actions undertaken by these same “helping” nations. More specifically, 4×4 is a cinematographic exploration of the infrastructure of aid, with special attention paid to the armed and fully equipped 4×4 vehicles that are used to travel to unarmed and ill-equipped populations. Humanitarian aid is considered nobler than tourism or journalism, but Licha’s work shows that they are equally implicated in a political and optical system rife with power imbalances, contradictions and exploitation.

Licha brings a steady and discerning intellectual pressure to bear on the infrastructure and ambivalence that undergird and fuel war tourism, journalism and international aid. By scratching at the gloss of sensationalism and faux altruism and exposing how these industries perpetuate themselves, Licha impresses upon us the urgent need to interrogate the means by which a small percentage of the world’s population inflicts violence on others and extracts visual pleasure from war.

[1] Emanuel Licha, “Training the Eye for War: A Politics of Spatial Fictions,” NECSUS European Journal of Media Studies, Spring 2017, https://necsus-ejms.org/training-the-eye-for-war/. Accessed October 15, 2019.

[2] Anne Cauquelin explores this line of thought in R for Real (Bordeaux and Monflanquin: Pollen and Zebra3, 2008): 10.

[3] “Emanuel Licha, interview by David Norr,” in Elsewhere (Tampa, Florida: Contemporary Art Museum, University of South Florida, 2007), www.emanuel-licha.com. Accessed October 15, 2019.

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