Deconstructing What We Know
Emanuel Licha’s Real and Imagined Narratives
By Bart Gazzola
How do we know what we know?
Emanuel Licha breaks a number of “rules” in his single channel video work How do we know what we know? Some of these transgressions are formal, in that the video seems to ramble, with no clear structure. We seemingly meander around places whose importance are not immediately obvious, or that seem to be “no places” that are usually ignored or edited out of “real” news stories. Other “infractions” are more metaphorical, in that people speak – and their speech is given power by being reiterated in subtitles – whom are often silent in works about sites of contested histories or in “proper” news reports. In Canada, news from the Middle East, or war zones in general, is packaged and prepared.
I am unsure if I think that Licha’s video work is giving clarity and nuance to the site he’s exploring, which is revealed to be Syria early in the video, or obfuscating it. Early on, one of the impeccably groomed talking heads of CBS News directly addresses “how they know what they know.” He explains that the story they’re presenting is pieced together like a quilt from cell phone images and video and various interviews, and one can’t help but wonder (as this is the Middle East, where ideology often trumps fact) if it’s like the old children’s game of telephone, where one message can take on a completely different – even opposite – form by the time it reaches the audience.
Licha doesn’t provide any background, any major explanation or discourse, in this work. There is no simple, easy synopsis, and though Licha often seems to borrow from journalistic discourse, he doesn’t bother with the “five Ws” of this milieu. This is alternately frustrating and liberating. We are left to our own critical reading and listening (or lack thereof) to determine what we’re being shown. It’s our biases – or our choices – that define what is presented to us, as opposed to the reporter, editor, or owner of the medium that presents us “truth.” We impose our own narrative, or we try to fit this work into our pre-existing one. How do we know what we know? can slide into how we only wish to know what we already know.
Do we still need journalists?
This is another statement given power and authority by Licha, as it also appears as a subtitle, one of the few examples of the artist’s hand guiding us in this work. And in thinking about this piece by Licha – and positioning it with his other works, with evocative titles like Striking a Pose or R is for Real – I found myself looking backwards. The infamous Battleship Potemkin by Sergei Eisenstein, is a 1925 silent film that has – seemingly without contradiction – been hailed as one of the greatest cinematic works of all time, but also some of the most influential propaganda ever manufactured. It broke ground formally, with montages and cut aways, and its graphic quality, especially in terms of violence both depicted and alluded. It still holds audiences rapt, even though it makes the viewers willfully discard any ideas of truth. To ask “how we know what we know?” here would only fracture the beautiful and horrific work of art that Eisenstein has fashioned from bits and pieces of a history, places and people that are perhaps ill used to make something greater. But there was no slaughter on the Odessa staircase, and the “glorious revolution” that the Potemkin uprising supposedly inspired wouldn’t happen for more than a decade. Even more out of step with the Eisenstein’s fable, the Stalinist purges would destroy many of these “revolutionaries.” Facts are such troublesome things, when telling stories. Or perhaps we are to never trust the storyteller, just the story.
To return to the harsh reality that Licha presents in his work, I’ll quote one of his characters, when asked about who stays at one of the empty yet opulant (presumably Syrian) hotels, near to where the events are unfolding: “There are no foreign journalists, only local.” The locals have to live it. They’re still there after the cameras have been turned off and we’ve turned off the news for the evening. The aforementioned CBS anchor, teleprompter at the ready, with the cell phones and interviews, has been edited as radically as Eisenstein’s Potemkin. When one of the roadside scenes has a Western journalist who appears briefly, does his blurb and then leaves, you share some of the abandonment of the camera crew, and Licha provides another guiding subtitle, in the words of one of the crew: How will it be when they’re gone? Or what will happen when there are no witnesses, anymore, at all, to what happens here?
Anyone looking for answers in Licha’s work will have to provide their own. Perhaps that’s why Licha, in what he presents for our interpretation here, sometimes offends me. In previous videos he’s adopted that documentary pose, letting his camera take in everything, in a somewhat indiscriminatory manner. Previous videos have shown what appeared to be riot scenes, but are revealed to be training exercises in fake and extensive “cities” that are training grounds. The camera is positioned behind the riot police in Striking a Pose, so we feel protected, or that we’re on the “right side” – and when we find out that Licha has “lied” to us here, how can you not start to wonder about every camera angle, in all his works? Or more disturbingly, about where we are positioned – literally, or metaphorically – in other “news” reports? Again, how do we know, what we know? And once you ask that question, you are not only overwhelmed by that great definer of postmodernist discourse – doubt – but you begin to wonder how we have EVER known what we were so smugly sure we knew, in previous stories and previous places. And god help us with future ones.
During the time that Licha’s Striking a Pose was at PAVED arts in Saskatoon, I noticed that some hopeful soul had scrawled the graffiti “the revolution will not be televised” on a wall in the downtown. The author of that infamous spoken word diatribe, Gil Scot-Heron, passed away recently, and that is perhaps a small mercy. The revolution has not only been televised, but it’s been remixed, re-edited, and re-issued (The theme song will not be written by Jim Webb or Francis Scott Keyes nor sung by Glen Campbell, Tom Jones, Johnny Cash, Englebert Humperdink or the Rare Earth).  The same events can be presented by media and journalists so that you’d never know you were watching the same event if you channel surf between FOX news and CNN. Many of these apply less rigour and critical looking than Licha, whose gaze is unhurried and lingers, seeming to make sure to not miss a hidden detail. It’s not so much the gulf between these constructed narratives that upset our notions of truth (NBC will not be able to predict the winner at 8:32 on report from 29th district) : it’s that again, we feel that doubt, and wonder how we know what we know…
How will it be when they’re gone?
This is being written as the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre is being commemorated, if it can be put in such a ghastly manner. There are few images of the late twentieth century as iconic as the protester who blocked the army tank, moving to prevent it’s lumbering progress. But this emblematic, unforgettable image and the massacre and resultant narratives around it, a touchstone of modern history, have been made into an “unevent” in the nation state within which it occurred.
As well, the current incarnation of the Olympics are underway in the seat of the “empire,” London: and if Eisenstein’s Potemkin is to be mentioned, then we need to remember that the modern spectacle that is the opening ceremony of these “games” owes its form and (perhaps it’s homogenizing function) to Leni Riefenstahl’s 1938 opus Olympia. Licha’s “propaganda” lacks the aesthetic seduction of Riefenstahl’s masterwork: does this make it closer, or further, from truth? Again, how do we know what we know?
And before we become too smug and righteous, I would ask about our own “sites of contested narratives” in Saskatchewan. While watching Licha’s video, I was reminded of the works of Marjorie Beaucage, or Jayce Salloum, that privileged the voices of Aboriginal elders in the “occupied country of Canada.” In a University of Saskatchewan class I attended years ago, these voices were dismissed by many because they didn’t conform to a 30 second sound bite for easy digestion (in an ideological way more so than formal). Like with Licha’s How do we know what we know?, we see what we want to see, with our own sensibilities and expectations. Like the journalist Licha presents, who rushes in and out of war-torn countries, and makes us ask: Do we still need that kind of journalist? Or makes us ask: How will it be when this type of journalist is gone? The latter question might even be hopeful, allowing stories to be written by people from newsworthy countries, and not about them. But when you ask people for their stories, they may not all be “celebratory” or fit within the larger ideological bias of the nation for whom this “story” is being “told. This is a “problem” not just in Syria, or the Middle East, but here, as well. The “rushing” journalist is less concerned with the facts than with the spin of fitting them into the already defined larger narrative of his or her “empire.”
How do we know what we know? (Epilogue)
All the “subtitled” phrases privileged by Licha are questions. He provides no answers. In this video, cars go by the cameramen, people seem to go about their days and lives, and some of the scenes – such as the ones at the hotel, with the staff cleaning and vacuuming – suggest a banality and familiarity that is almost comfortably boring. These scenes could happen in any setting. No grand revelations, no easy, clean solutions.
In examining this work, R is for Real, Striking a Pose, and the work that Licha has done with the simulacra of Baghdad constructed in America as training grounds for soldiers on their way to the real Baghdad, an idea came to mind: Licha is engaged in the portraiture of war. Like any portraitist, he presents alternate sides, and different angles, some of which may mesh together, and many will not.
This is not a new idea: the modernist / post modernist rift defines our current era, but we’re forgetting that in the history of war artists, of which Licha is the latest manifestation, this rapture is the rule. The life spans of Francisco Goya and Jacques Louis David are nearly identical, but their images of their times stand at extremes to each other. Emanuel Licha has simply chosen to look to what the masses look to, and take its form and its substance and its own ideology, and turn them on their heads. He asks how do we know what we know? And having no answers, provides none.
 It’s worth noting that this piece was made before the most recent cycle of massacres, government denials, and the international détentes regarding potential actions. Somehow, this continuing cycle of violence and the voices around it enhance the ambiguity and horror of Licha’s work.
 Gil Scott-Heron, from The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.
 Gil Scott-Heron, from The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (http://www.gilscottheron.com/lyrevol.html)
 Jayce Salloum, in conversation with the author, on The A Word, CFCR 90.5 FM, December 2011.