Nettime mailing list archives

<nettime> Deft Critique of Laurie Anderson's Habeas Corpus
John Young on Mon, 26 Oct 2015 17:19:57 +0100 (CET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Deft Critique of Laurie Anderson's Habeas Corpus


             The Guantánamo Saga in Laurie Andersons Habeas Corpus

   [2]Jeremy Varon  [3]October 22, 2015
   On a brilliantly sunny, fall afternoon, a dozen members of Witness
   Against Torture  a grassroots group long dedicated to closing the
   prison camp at Guantánamo  broke from our marathon strategy meeting to
   see the GTMO-themed installation of the renowned performance artist
   Laurie Anderson. Titled Habeas Corpus, the groundbreaking exhibit was
   up for just three days, from October 2-4, in New York City. Invited to
   attend by Guantánamo attorneys who had collaborated with Anderson, we
   were eager to see what a gifted artist would make of subjects in which
   we had become reluctant, amateur experts.
   The trek uptown felt like traversing both social worlds and centuries.
   Our starting point was the dilapidated auditorium of Maryhouse, the
   fabled East Village headquarters of the radical nun and founder of the
   Catholic Worker movement Dorothy Day. Commended by Pope Francis in his
   address to the US Congress, Day enjoys newfound fame. Yet Maryhouse
   stands as a defiant holdout of a disappearing New York. Frayed posters
   from generations of political struggles hang from its walls, while
   stacks of the Catholic Worker newspaper, still sold at the
   Depression-era price of a penny, dot the floor plan.
   Our destination was the resplendent Park Avenue Armory in an achingly
   posh stretch of the Upper East Side. Converted with the aid of
   seven-figure gifts into a state-of-the-art exhibit space, it seemed an
   incongruous vessel for a topic so grim as torture at a dusty island
   Entering the exhibit was to be transported again. A huge disco ball
   hung suspended in the dark, cavernous hall dark. Amidst the undulating
   dollops of its reflected light, one had the sensation of floating in
   outer space. The thrum of expertly toned guitar feedback, engineered by
   Lou Reed collaborator Stewart Hurwood, enveloped the room. Live
   musicians drifted about to create impromptu accompaniment. One heard
   singing evocative of a muezzins call to prayer, classical strings,
   something like a North African bagpipe, and Andersons own work on the
   electric violin.
   The space was ethereal, eerie, and absolutely beautiful. My immediate
   comparison was to Dream House, the sublime sound-and-light installation
   currently on view at Manhattans Dia:Chelsea. (Combining minimalism and
   psychedelia, and with its shag carpet floor, it feels equal parts
   gallery, cathedral, and retro stoner den.) As my senses melted into
   trippy pleasure, my discomfort with Habeas Corpus stiffened. The
   precise risk the exhibit courted was aestheticizing or even falsifying
   something wicked. With terrible irony, the sensory deprivation of
   enhanced interrogation converts into sensory delight. Confinement
   yields to expansiveness. Nothing about the prison in Guantánamo, my
   political mind protested, should inspire this kind of art, dreamily
   enjoyed by connoisseurs of the urban avant-garde.
   Any chance of extended reverie or confidence in the fairness of this
   criticism, however, was disrupted by the exhibits focal point: the
   massive, three-dimensional image of Mohammed el Gharani. Originally
   from Chad, el Gharani was sent to Guantánamo in 2002 at age 14. He was
   freed seven years later after being tortured in various settings.
   Filmed at an undisclosed location in West Africa, el Gharani was beamed
   in real time into the Armory, where he sat still on a sculpted chair.
   El Gharani himself could observe the spectators observing his image.
   Those released from Guantánamo are forbidden from entering the United
   States. By means of Andersons hi-tech wizardry, el Gharani thus
   achieved what no former detainee has been able to do: to appear in the
   United States in an immediate, near-corporeal way. While el Gharani
   took scheduled breaks from his hours of sitting, pre-recorded audio
   testimony about his ordeal played over his empty chair.
   El Gharani was present, absent, and never really there. With this
   haunting effect, Habeas Corpuscomplicates its own message, while
   opening up multiple readings of its aesthetic. Hopeful but muddled,
   Habeas Corpus mirrors the irresolution of the reality it seeks to

  You Shall Have the Body

   Much of the exhibits substance owes to its interplay with its title,
   Habeas Corpus. Habeas corpus has a special place in American law and in
   the legal and moral landscape of the war on terror. The term
   translates, as the exhibit materials explain, into you shall have the
   body. Formally originating in the Magna Carta, it was regarded by the
   United States founders as an essential bulwark against tyranny. No
   authority, habeas dictates, can throw you into secret, incommunicado
   detention. Instead, the captor must present the prisoner (the body)
   before a competent tribunal to determine the legality of his detention.
   Different from a criminal trial judging guilt or innocence with respect
   to a specific charge, habeas challenges the initial act of
   imprisonment. Indeed, the vast majority of the nearly 800 men who have
   been held at Guantánamo have never been charged with crimes.
   Whether the Guantánamo detainees had habeas rights for years dominated
   legal and political wrangling over the prison. The Bush administration
   notoriously insisted that the detainees, by virtue of being held on
   leased, Cuban territory and ascribed the novel status of enemy
   combatants, had no such rights. Facing pushback from the courts, it
   concocted in 2004 the Combat Status Review Tribunals as a pitiful
   stand-in for due process. The sham proceedings traded in secret,
   fanciful evidence often obtained under the duress of torture. As this
   system sputtered, a Republican Congress legislated away habeas rights
   for the detainees.
   The detainees status as non-persons also dominated years of
   anti-Guantánamo activism. The signature motif at demonstrations has
   been figures dressed in the detainee uniform of an orange jumpsuit and
   black hood. Especially when displayed at shrines of American democracy
   in Washington, D.C., the ghostly icons indict the myth of American
   fidelity to the rule of law with the reality of brutal, lawless
   Witness Against Torture has dramatized with special force the denial of
   the Guantánamo detainees as juridical subjects vested with rights. In
   January 2008, just when the Supreme Court was considering whether they
   had habeas protections, we held a mass arrest at the Supreme Court
   building. To the arresting officers, many of us gave the names of
   individual detainees in lieu of our own. The detainees names, to our
   happy surprise, were entered into the court docket. At our subsequent
   trial, we were able to give the detainees a symbolic version of what
   they had been refused to that point: their day in a US court. Some
   defendants prefaced each statement by indicating that they were
   speaking on behalf of a specific prisoner. Others maintained total
   silence so as to register the inability of the detained men to speak on
   their own behalf.

  We Hear You and See You

   Only with its June 2008 Boumediene decision (announced shortly after
   our conviction on misdemeanor charges) did the US Supreme Court
   definitively rule that the prisoners at Guantánamo had a Constitutional
   right of habeas corpus. Long-filed habeas petitions soon reached
   federal judges, with the presumed power to set free those unjustly
   bound. El Gharanis petition was heard in 2009 and decided in his favor
   by US District Judge Richard Leon. Reproduced in excerpts in the thick,
   over-sized exhibit booklet, his ruling oozes with contempt for the
   governments flim-flam case. The unclassified versions of other early
   habeas rulings, publicly available but rarely read outside of small
   legal circles, expose the ludicrous nature of many detentions. Merely
   publishing Judge Leons ruling in such a high-profile context is itself
   a public service.
   Andersons Habeas Corpus shows at least a simulacrum of el Gharanis
   body. Doing so, it nearly fulfills the essence of the legal concept,
   distilled to a literalism. The whole exhibit can be read as the
   digitized telling of a legal-ethical pun. In the installations signal
   moment of triumph, el Gharani narrates his watching Judge Leons ruling
   on closed circuit TV in Guantánamo. His guards jump for joy as they
   explain to him that he has won his case. Though hardly a tribute to the
   US legal system, the exhibit suggests that the near-broken wheels of
   justice can still turn. We behold the smiling, adult el Gharani, surely
   wounded by his captivity but free.
   This spectacle was especially resonant for one among our crew, Luke
   Nephew of the Peace Poets. Nephew was part of the 2008 Supreme Court
   arrest. He had taken as his detainee name Mohammed el Gharani, and he
   carried the identity with him at future protests. Captured on YouTube,
   Nephew can be seen signing off as Luke Nephew, aka Mohammed el Gharani
   after a stunning performance in 2011 outside the US Department of
   Justice of his poem [4]There is a Man under that Hood. The poem
   intones, To the detainees / no matter how broken and shattered and
   tortured you feel / there are people in these United States / who hear
   you and see you / who know that you are real.
   Without quite knowing it, the installation spoke to years of activist
   efforts to represent the detained men, both in their legal erasure and
   their humanity. As if in dialogue with Nephews poem, Habeas Corpus
   permits us to hear and see el Gharani. In this light, the exhibit hall
   exists as a de-territorialized anti-Guantánamo in the abstract realm of
   the law. Its solemn beauty radiates the wonder of el Gharanis return
   from oblivion.

  A Trophy in the Library

   But theres a rub. No federal judge has freed anyone from Guantánamo,
   including el Gharani. Boumediene may have granted habeas rights. But
   the Supreme Court did nothing to mandate that the US executive branch
   act on the judges rulings. As a result, many detainees successful in
   their petitions continued to languish in Guantánamo. As habeas attorney
   Sabin Willett wryly put things: A fellow wins his case against the
   government and the remedy is for the court to say to the jailer, please
   will you do something about it? By April 2011, Willett pronounced
   Boumdiene a [5]trophy hanging in the library, impressive and lifeless.
   Worse, the Obama administration  eager to limit the power of the courts
    appealed unfavorable rulings. The result was not only the reversal of
   individual judgments but the dramatic revision by conservative judges
   of how such cases are adjudicated, stacking the deck against the
   petitioners. An October 2011 appeals court ruling in the case of Adnan
   Latif  a mentally troubled man from Yemen whom the Department of
   Defense itself had years earlier recommended for release  established a
   presumption of regularity in consideration of evidence submitted by the
   government. This standard, [6]in the view of a dissenting judge, comes
   perilously close to suggesting that whatever the government says must
   be treated as true.
   Latifs attorneys filed for the Supreme Court to reconsider his case and
   the broader mess that habeas had become. In June 2012 the court
   declined. By September, Latif was dead, presumably by suicide. His
   attorneys attributed his death to his despair over never leaving
   Guantánamo. Latifs body, to extend Willetts metaphor, hangs next to the
   Boumediene trophy.
   Meanwhile, the Obama administration promoted a second path for release
   from the prison, the Guantánamo Review Task Force. Comprising the
   military, law enforcement, and intelligence agencies, the Task Force
   has designated more than 100 detainees as cleared for transfer after
   cautious review of each case. But this is a security classification,
   not a legal judgment, equally powerless as habeas to ensure ones actual
   freedom. The release in fits and starts of 123 men under Obama has in
   each instance been a political decision, entangled in geo-political
   calculation, transfer diplomacy, partisan combat, and struggles over
   the separation of powers. [7]Fifty-four men cleared for transfer remain
   at the prison. It is a strange form of tyranny when the tyrant
   continues to hold prisoners whom it declares it wants to free.

  Dream House

   None of this history is decipherable in Habeas Corpus, with profound
   implications for the piece. The exhibit creates a false picture by
   suggesting that Judge Leon freed el Gharani. A work of art is not a law
   lecture, and too heavy a pedagogic burden crushes arts spirit. One may,
   moreover, present a moral truth while scrambling the facts. But much of
   the devil of Guantánamo has always been in the details. The checkered
   journey of habeas here matters. Bringing it to mind in the vast hall, I
   began again to see its beauty as deceptive.
   But inspecting the el Gharani corpus in detail, I experienced a final
   reversal of feeling and judgment. His projected body appears less
   substantial the closer one gets to it. It rests awkwardly on its
   three-dimensional chair. The limbs flatten and grow out of proportion,
   verging on grotesque. We see only a distorted spectral image of el
   Gharani, not the man himself.
   The body is withheld even as it is shown. This double move  in an
   exhibit in warring dialogue with itself  captures the fraught status of
   habeas corpus as a matter of law for the detainees. Fast-moving text
   projected opposite El Gharani enhances the exhibits self-questioning.
   We see disjointed bits of his testimony traveling from left to right,
   which one therefore reads backwards: between its the; you, Americas
   the; America North know; a after are we where; it months couple; for
   difficult was; days first the. Even spun forwards, the fragments barely
   I took this confusion as a sign both of the trauma el Gharani suffered,
   as well as the shattered syntax of the law at Guantánamo. It has not,
   and cannot, be made whole. Habeas Corpus becomes its own dream house,
   containing dream and nightmare both, the transcendent promise of the
   law fulfilled and the cruelty of a mirage.
   Casting ourselves out of this netherworld into fading sunlight, we
   wound our way back downtown to sit at beaten wooden tables, amidst
   fraying political posters, to imagine what it would mean to really see
   el Gharani.

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime>  is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: http://mx.kein.org/mailman/listinfo/nettime-l
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime {AT} kein.org