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<nettime> Laurie Anderson: Bringing GuantÃnamo to Park Avenue
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<nettime> Laurie Anderson: Bringing GuantÃnamo to Park Avenue

September 23, 2015
Bringing GuantÃnamo to Park Avenue
By Laurie Anderson


Iâve been trying to describe an upcoming project called âHabeas
Corpus,â and itâs much harder than I thought. There are just too
many angles. âWhy are you doing this?â my friends keep asking.
Sometimes I no longer know myself.

I am what is known as a âmultimedia artist.â I chose that
description because it doesnât mean anything. Who isnât multimedia
these days? But it allows me to work in many different waysâmusic,
writing, performance, film, electronics, and paintingâwithout
provoking the art police, who love to tell artists to get back into
their category.

For the past six months, Iâve been collaborating with a former
GuantÃnamo detainee, Mohammed el Gharani, preparing a work of art
that we are making together. From October 2nd through the 4th, we will
be streaming the image of Mohammed into the Park Avenue Armory. He
will be sitting in a chair in a studio in West Africa, and his live
image will be broadcast to New York City and wrapped onto a large
three-dimensional cast of his body. His figureâmore than three
times life size, inspired by the Lincoln Memorial, in Washington,
D.C.âwill sit in the cavernous drill hall.

I had planned this as a meditation about real time and telepresence:
how to be there and not there at the same time. Like all former
GuantÃnamo detainees, Mohammed is not allowed to come to the U.S. I
had imagined âHabeas Corpusâ as a work of silent witness, deriving
its power from live streaming, technology, and stillnessâa work of
equally balanced presence and absence.

But things were shifting. As it turns out, my collaborator Mohammed
is eager to speak about his ordeal. And once he began to talk, the
project changed direction. So, in the installation, once every hour,
when Mohammed takes a break in West Africa, the statue will shift
to playback, and it will speak. We recorded these playback sections
in June. They include several hair-raising and moving stories about
Mohammedâs time in GuantÃnamo. We also made a film, which will be
shown in an adjoining exhibition room, in which he talks at greater
length about what happened to him.

Gradually, the truth about GuantÃnamo has come out. For the most
part, these prisoners were never the bad guys. They were not the worst
of the worst. Most of them knew less about Al Qaeda than I did. They
were taxi drivers, students, photographers, journalists, and goat
herders. Many were purchased by the U.S. from the Northern Alliance,
in Afghanistan, for five thousand dollars. Some have been held for
almost fifteen years, many in solitary confinement. All interrogated.
Most tortured. Most of the remaining prisoners have been cleared of
all charges, but they remain in GuantÃnamo with no recourse.

Mohammed was one of the youngest detainees in GuantÃnamo. He was
imprisoned for almost eight years, between the ages of fourteen and
twenty-one. He was interrogated and tortured for years, and, after the
evidence against him was dismissed, he was released by a U.S. federal
judge, in 2009. He is now twenty-seven and living in West Africa.

Although my work is sometimes political, I have always tried to stay
far away from polemics. I hate it when people tell me what to do. I
think, âYou donât even know me! How could you possibly tell me
what to do?â So I make work thatâs made of questions, not answers.
And, as this particular work moved away from a silent meditation
toward language and stories, it came to rest on the most basic of all
questions: What is truth? What is suffering? What is justice?

The history of this project is a long one. Iâve made works using
telepresence before, but, for various legal and logistical reasons,
never in the United States. In 1997, I designed a work in a small town
in Austria for the cultural centerâa thirteenth-century churchâand
its neighboring high-security prison. My plan was to build a video
studio in the prison, where a prisoner would sit still for two months.
His image would be beamed onto a life-sized cast of his body that
would be placed in the apse of the church. It would be a kind of
living statue, made of light and plaster. The work, called âLife,â
would be about the function of telepresence in contemporary culture
and the contrasting attitudes toward the body held by the church
(incarnation) and the prison (incarceration). After working on this
for several months, the project was cancelled, for reasons having to
do with ownership of the prisonerâs image. Once incarcerated, the
prisoner no longer owns his own image and so cannot let anyone else
use it. The work was never completed.

Shortly after that, I began working on a collaboration that would have
beamed prisoners at New Yorkâs Sing Sing prison into the Whitney
Museum, a work highlighting the functions of two very different
heavily guarded institutions. A few weeks after this version was
abandoned, for technical reasons, I was describing it to Germano
Celant, a curator-at-large. An hour after our meeting, he faxed me a
terse âhave located prison and cultural institution.â We did the
project that spring in Milan as a collaboration between the Fondazione
Prada and San Vittore prison.

The most difficult part of this work, for me, was the exploitation
angle. A prisoner sits motionless for months in a museum, and I
sign my name to it as âmyâ art work. Germano and I decided to
spend time in the prison, talking to inmates and looking for a
willing collaborator. The prisoners I worked with at San Vittore
were white-collar criminals, extremely smart men responsible in
various ways for dismantling the Italian economy. They knew Greek and
Latin and were charming and courteous. They were allowed to cook in
the well-equipped prison kitchen, and they had big knives and wine
collections. They were busy writing books and articles and could
receive visitors. Most of them were wearing Armani and, sometimes,
if it was chilly, some would wear very stylish quilted vests. The
only thing that was off about their outfits was the shoes. They were
wearing slippers, because they were going nowhere. Ever.

The Italian prisoners discussed the project with us while subtly
directing my attention, in their expert and seemingly offhand lawyerly
way, toward an inmate who was sitting quietly in the corner. Soon,
I was directing all my attention and questions to him. They had, of
course, decided who my collaborator would be. Santino was a bank
robber and murderer, having inadvertently shot some people on his
way out of the bank. He was serving a life sentence. He was also
a writer. He began to engage with me in the conversation, asking
questions. I said, âSantino, if we collaborate on this project, what
do you think about it? How do you see it?â He said, âI see it as
a virtual escape.â And I said, âYouâre my man.â Finally, the
show opened. It was called âDal Vivo,â or âfrom life.â

When I saw the living statue of Santino, I was shocked. He didnât
look like a prisoner. He looked like a judge. Distant. Remote. Regal.
His girlfriend came to the gallery every day and stood near the
statue, but he was unable to see her. The eeriness of real time.

I had always wanted to do this telepresence project in the United
States, especially given the privatization of prisons, the rising
numbers of prisoners, and the staggering statistic that the U.S. now
has, by far, the largest prison population in the world. So when I
was invited by the Park Avenue Armory, a couple of years ago, to
do an installation, I proposed a version of âDal Vivoâ that
would stream the images of twelve inmates from upstate New York
prisons who were serving life sentences, wrapping the projections onto
three-dimensional, double-sized casts of their bodies.

We spent months meeting people and talking to wardens. We got in touch
with the Prison Mindfulness Institute and many of the organizations
that work with prisoners teaching them meditation techniques. At
the end of three months, we were told that Homeland Security would
never allow this to happen in the U.S. because of the live-streaming

Next, Alex Poots, the artistic director at the Armory, said, âO.K.,
whatâs Plan B?â I didnât have a Plan B. I had been so determined
to make this work, and so disappointed when it didnât happen, that I
had little energy for yet another new idea. I finally came up with a
halfhearted pageantâa series of events, on floats or in cars, that
would represent moments in history and consciousness. The installation
was going to be a road, then a zone, then a no manâs land featuring
scenes of cave people looking at the moon, a backward clock, the
Kennedy Cadillac in Dallas.

I had temporarily unplugged my âtweedarââthe detector I use to
measure the nauseatingly mannered content of art works. Projects like
âMy art is counting all the steps I took from here to the gallery
and then assigning them corresponding musical notes and then playing
them through the buttonholes of the shirt of my dead father.â
Iâve done enough of these myself to be able to identify them pretty
quickly. Nonetheless, my tweedar was locked in the red zone.

The project was foundering. I had no idea how to push it forward
anymore. Then, last March, through a series of quick and unlikely
circumstances, I met Ben Wizner of the American Civil Liberties Union,
who suggested getting in touch with Reprieve, an international human
rights group that works with prisoners facing capital punishment as
well as detainees from GuantÃnamo. I remember the first call I made
to Reprieve. I was speaking in a high, manic voice about real time and
talking statues and virtual appearance. I was talking too fast. The
line kept glitching out. I was breathless, the way I get when Iâm
really excited about a project. It sounded idiotic and incoherent.
However, after a couple of minutes, instead of a polite âthank
you,â the voice on the end of the line said, âTell me more.â

I was talking to Kat Craig, an attorney at Reprieve, and after a
couple more phone calls, she said that she might have a client who
might be interested in working with me on the project. His name was
Mohammed el Gharani, and he had been one of the youngest detainees at
GuantÃnamo. She told me that he wanted to know more.

I was dumbstruck. I began to read about Mohammedâs story. He is a
Chadian who had been living in Saudi Arabia and had been captured in
Pakistan in a raid on a mosque. On the Internet, there was an enormous
amount of conflicting information. The basics were clear. I began to
learn about the work of Reprieve and the Center for Constitutional
Rights. Kat made an appointment to connect me with Mohammed.

The first time I spoke with Mohammed was March 26th. I was getting
ready to give a lecture at Harvard University. I kept losing the
connection, and I was getting more and more anxious. What would this
man make of this project? What could we possibly have in common?
Finally, Kat completed the conference call, and I heard his voice.
Light. Soft. He spoke English with a mixture of accents: Caribbean,
West African, and Arabic. It was surely as awkward for him as it
was for me, but we talked anyway about why and how we might do this
together. Mohammed said his motivation was to help his brothers in

My work is basically about stories and what happens when they are told
and retold. And what motivations might be behind alternate versions.
Mohammedâs redacted story, as well as the obvious inventions about
his actions, and how they arose and got entangled, became a big part
of our work together.

I have tried many times to imagine the process of interrogation. What
does your own story sound like to you after so many repetitions,
denials, revisions? What is it to ask and to answer hundreds of
questions about your life? In his book âGuantÃnamo,â the French
writer Frank Smith translates the transcripts of interrogations,
and the interrogator and the detainee begin to merge. The French
pronoun on, as in âone knowsâ or âone thinksââour âroyal
weââbecomes more and more mysterious as we lose track of whoâs
asking whom and what authority is and what a story is. In the
transcripts, there are also chilling pauses âNo response from
the detainee.â What does this pause mean? Is the detainee being
waterboarded? Electroshocked? This is no ordinary conversation. It is
language and stories in the service of confession, corroboration, and
coercion. Among Mohammedâs first interrogators was a woman who began
the session by saying, âThink of me as your mother.â

Mohammed was accused of belonging to an Al Qaeda cell in London in
1998. At the time, Mohammed was eleven and living in Saudi Arabia
with his very poor family, tending goats. The U.S. governmentâs
story proposed that a devious and precocious child could somehow find
his way from Saudi Arabia to London and link with a major terrorist
operation. It was oddly satisfying that Mohammed could use the same
ninja power to jump half a world away and appear, like magic, live in
the U.S., sitting in the Armory.

I spoke with a few close friends about the project, and several of
them had a lot of reservations. The word âGuantÃnamoâ sets off
sirens. People would literally recoil. Their heads would move back
almost as if Iâd just punched them. One of the saddest parts of
this project was hearing from several groups of kids who told me in
different ways, somewhat shyly, that they were afraid to talk about
GuantÃnamo because they might get âon some kind of list.â

âYou should tell it like a case of mistaken identity,â one
friend advised. Another fumed, âThatâs not a mistake, thatâs
profiling.â The more I learned about Mohammedâs capture, the more
I found out about the moment when the U.S. needed to produce bad guys
and used bounties, false information, torture, and fear to create the
prisoners they wanted. The more I thought about Mohammedâs story,
the more connected it was to profiling in general and what seemed like
the weekly event of another black man getting shot by the police. I
tried to stay focussed. Donât take it all on, I told myself. I began
to have nightmares, looped visions of prisons.

Yet the more I learned, the more I realized that prosecuting âthe
war on terrorâ was all about stories. How you describe your
experience. This is something I know well from my work, but I was
watching it happen in the world. The U.S. government had declared
the detainees ânon-persons,â and so they were not eligible for
apologies or reparations. The Geneva Conventions did not apply to
them. They could be held indefinitely and tortured, but only because
the torture was relabeled âenhanced interrogationâ and because
GuantÃnamo was not the U.S. There were also no suicides, only
âmanipulative self-injurious behavior.â

Viewed from another angle, âHabeas Corpusâ is also a work about
cameras. I just wish Susan Sontag were still around. I know she would
write a clear and killer essay about what happened when the camera
and the gun got welded together and about how adding lenses to guns
increased the deadly aim of drones and how police body cameras and
bystandersâ video recordings affect police brutality. And also how
cameras are used in prisons.

My aim in this work is also to suggest some of the changes that
occur in a culture that increasingly operates on remote. Many
transactions happen at a distanceâfriendships, shopping, and even
war. And cameras are the tools and links. There are so many of these
conversations lately: Are there more crimes, or are there just more
cameras? Iâm thinking of the bulky box cameras that people once used
to photograph lynchings in the nineteen-twenties and thirties.

This work also became about information. While weâre proud of living
in an information culture, there are huge blank spots in what we know.
GuantÃnamo has been called the âAmerican Gulag,â and, along with
other offshore black sites, it is a blacked-out area on the map. Iâm
thinking of the term âinformation poverty.â Thereâs so little
information about GuantÃnamo in the U.S. And so much resistance and
fear. How can I make something that celebrates our right to find
things out for ourselves? The right to be free? How can I do this
without being self-righteous and strident?

In April, I arrived at the airport in West Africa, and the hot air
clobbered me. I passed signs with many exclamation marks and pictures
of people with Ebola and yellow fever. A man snatched my bag. âGive
me that!â I yelled, and grabbed it back. We tugged it back and forth
for a while. I canât stand it when people help me with suitcases. At
the hotel, I knocked on Katâs door. We were meeting for the first
time. She was sitting in the hot room, unpacking a lot of stuff. She
was friendly and chatty. She was clear and confident, and I could see
why Mohammed trusts her. There was no air-conditioning in my room, and
I lay down and listened to the sounds of constant heavy traffic.

It was a sweltering morning, and I decided to do Tâai Chi in the
hotelâs airless gym. âListen behind you,â are my teacherâs
instructions about how to begin Tâai Chi. I was working on the
nineteen form and suddenly felt someone looking at me. I turned around
and saw a gap-toothed man in his twenties. He gave a half wave and
then left. Later that morning, I met him again. He was with Kat, who
introduced him as my collaborator, Mohammed el Gharani. The three
of us talked for hours in one of the hotel rooms. There was a lot
of secrecy around the meetings. Kat was always present. The bond
between the two of them was touching. We stopped several times and
left Mohammed alone in the room so that he could pray.

At first, Mohammed and I were both shy and hesitant. I was one of the
few Americans he had met who wasnât his interrogator, torturer, or
guard. I had never talked with someone like him before. I was acutely
aware of his physical presence. His back had been seriously injured.
He was still missing teeth. His head had been smashed. I couldnât
forget, even for a minute, that it was my country that had done this.
It kept making me feel like throwing up. Later, we talked outside in
the sweltering courtyard. Mohammed is a runner, and we discussed how
hard it is to run in the heat. He said he has two kids.

We went back to the room, and I set up two small clay figures and
closed the drapes. I aimed the projector at them, and they sprang to
life. I tried to explain: so this will be you, but very big, and it
will all happen in a huge space. I showed him pictures of the Park
Avenue Armory. We looked at the tiny glowing figures. I doubt that I
was giving him any idea of what I was trying to do.

I had a lot of questions, but only managed to ask a few, and they were
oblique. I listened. Sometimes I talked about my meditation teacher.
I told Mohammed that my teacher said, âTry to practice how to feel
sad without actually being sad.â We talked about whether that was
really possible. We talked about people who were inspiring. He talked
about Nelson Mandela. I talked about my friends and family and the
death of my husband. Once in a while, Mohammed bent his head and
cried. How was it possible for him to be here talking to me at all?
Kat reminded me that asking questions had been central to all his
interrogations, and she said that, as his lawyer, she had to remind
herselfâand him, tooâthat he didnât have to answer the questions
if he didnât want to. Mohammed learned English in prison. The first
words he learned were, as he put it, âthe âFâ and the âNâ
words, because thatâs what the Americans called me.â

We drove around with our producer. The sky was dark purple and stormy,
the pollution was chokingly thick. We visited several furniture stores
looking for the Lay-Z-Boy-style chair that Mohammed would sit in.
Since his back had been injured in the torture sessions and stressful
physical situations were part of his prison experience, we decided to
build a chair, designed especially for him, that would provide enough
support to him to sit for long periods of time.

Kat and I also looked for new eyeglasses for Mohammed because the
glasses he was wearing automatically darken in the light, and we
wanted to be able to see his eyes in the projection. Kat is thorough,
relentless, kind, and efficient. I told her that these conversations
were making me feel so physically sick, giving me constant headaches.
I asked her how she could stand knowing so many details about this
much suffering. She gave me a brisk, professional answer. Lawyers,
actors, and lots of other people, too, have an armor that separates
and protects them from their jobs. I donât have that, and it was
starting to become really difficult.

On later days, Kat and Mohammed and I would talk for hours in the
hotel room. He told us about the guard who told all the prisoners,
âSee this thick wall? You will never get out, and I will throw the
key into the ocean, and youâll be here forever, and my grandson will
be guarding you.â He talked about interrogation and about the guards
who were taken to Ground Zero before going to GuantÃnamo. He talked
about missing his family. He described pepper spray and forcible
cell extraction. He talked about being shackled and blindfolded and
thrown onto a plane. We jumped around between the years that he was
in the camp and his release. His stories transfixed me. They rolled
out in long sentences. He described the day that a detainee told
his interrogator that heâd had a dream that a submarine came to
GuantÃnamo to rescue the detainees. That night, he said, GuantÃnamo
Bay was filled with helicopters and ships with their searchlights on,
looking for the dream submarine.

We continued after lunch. He said that one of the hardest things to
endure was that there was no logic or reason or even pattern to the
torture, and that was one of the reasons it drove people crazy. It was
random, sudden. He described arriving on the plane with no idea where
he was. After almost eight years, his release was finally ordered. He
then spent six months in Camp Iguana, where he was constantly asked,
âDo you hate Americans?â

For Mohammed, there had been no explanation. âAfter all this, what
is justice for you, Mohammed?â I asked.

âAn apology,â he said.

Back in New York, we began to assemble the team for cutting the
statue. The plans for the live feed got more specific, elaborate. The
brilliant technical director designed increasingly redundant systems
for the intercontinental transmissions.

I met with a friend of mine who is a judge, and I described the
project to her. She leaned in toward me and said in a half voice:
âDo you have legal representation? â Even though I know my friend
and she was sitting there in running shorts and a sleeveless T-shirt,
her voice had the tone of a judge, and it had not occurred to me to
get a lawyer. Her concern and authority suddenly made me very nervous.
I thought of all the times in my life when Iâve been completely
unqualified to be where I was. This seemed to be one of them.

I flashed back to the night, long ago, when I was playing at the
Berlin Jazz Festival. I was in the middle of one of my songs, which
are basically stories with many conversational-like pauses. A man
from the back of the hall used one of these pauses to yell, âPlay
jazz!â I froze. He had a point. This was a jazz festival. The
problem was that I didnât know any jazz.

In June, I took my next trip back to Africa. We had assembled a team
to shoot the first phase of the project, and we met at the studio.
To create the effect of a person sitting in a chair, the figure
actually has to be tilted backward, reclining slightly, as if in a
business-class airplane seat. Kat, Mohammed, and I talked about what
he would say for the playback section of the installation.

We talked about torture and ERFing, waterboarding, and solitary
confinement. I began to feel the way I did when I saw the first images
of Abu Ghraib. Nauseated. Hot. I could hear myself speed-talking:
âBut Americans! Weâre âweâre âweâre good people,â I was
saying. âWeâre generous, and we help people.â I kept offering
up examples of American generosity. Next, we talked about hunger
strikes and beatings. Mohammed concluded his stories looking right
into the camera lens and addressing President Obama, âPlease honor
your promise and close GuantÃnamo,â he said, calmly. I noticed that
Kat was quietly crying, her armor not as thick as I had imagined. And
I could see that she was crying because Mohammed was speaking for
himself, and because he was so clear and assertive.

I thought of how lucky I was to be working with Mohammed, who is
articulate, likable, handsome, and humble. His skills and personality
were making the project so easy to do. I know of several human-rights
groups who have exhibited paintings and published the poems of
prisoners in a well-intentioned effort to show the humanity of the
prisoners they work with. While I admire this, it has always bothered
me a bit, too. Why should the prisoners have to be creative and
likable people? I wanted to think that if the detainee that Reprieve
had recommended to me was angry, bitter, and couldnât write a poem
to save his life, I would still want to work with him. Then again,
maybe my own ego was starting to get involved. And I didnât want
that to happen.

As an artist, I am committed to seeing things the way they are,
not the way I think they could be or should be. But faced with the
facts of American racism, sexism, law breaking, and violence, Iâm
having a hard time maintaining my belief in the across-the-board
openheartedness of my countrymen. Also, although there are
journalistic aspects to this project, I am an artist first, so, if
faced with having to choose between something beautiful and something
true, I would choose the beautiful, because I trust my senses more
than my rational mind.

The talks went on. We talked about Shaker Aamer. Shaker, the last
remaining British resident at GuantÃnamo who was pulled in at the
same time as Mohammed, was brought to GuantÃnamo on the same plane,
shackled, and blindfolded. He had taken care of Mohammed and had
become his mentor. The only time that Mohammed cried was when he
talked about people who had been kind to him. When he talked about
Shaker, he broke down. Shaker Aamer is still in GuantÃnamo, now in
solitary confinement. The day that Mohammed was released, he was
the only one who was able to yell to him, âAll the best! Goodbye!

Right now we are in the late stages of planning. The exhibition is
becoming real. Itâs going to be a crazy week. We finished carving
the statue of Mohammed, and it looks like a Cubist work, a series of
sliding planes to accommodate the projection. Weâre preparing the
live show that will happen each night. Iâve just heard that Clive
Stafford Smith, the founder of Reprieve, will come to New York for the
showâs opening.

Iâm holding my breath.

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