Laurie Anderson Beams a Former Guantanamo Inmate into Manhattan
Just days after the leaders of the world descended on New York’s Midtown for the UN General Assembly, and throngs of Manhattanites gathered to catch a glimpse of the Pope, Park Avenue Armory. Anderson, a pioneer of sound- and time-based technologies in art, has been working with telepresence for some time now. She has also spent the last six months developing a project, Habeas Corpus (2015), with Mohammed el Gharani, a Chadian man who was captured in Pakistan by the U.S. government and, in 2002, became one of the youngest inmates at Guantánamo. El Gharani entered the notorious prison at just 14 years-old and spent the next seven years of his life there, routinely subject to torture and solitary confinement. Accused of being an Al Qaeda operative with connections to London’s terror base, el Gharani was, in fact, a goat herder.
Through this weekend, he’ll be telecast from a studio in West Africa—where he now lives—into the Armory’s Drill Hall at four times his true scale. Thousands of high-res images are being streamed live through the internet and projected onto an enlarged model of his body, seated in a chair to resemble that of the Lincoln Memorial. There he rests, shrouded in gently revolving pointillist lights from a jumbo disco ball hung from the center of the space. In the cavernous, darkened hall, seemingly suspended amid constellations, he appears like a cosmic deity and a towering monument to human rights.
Viewing el Gharani’s telecast body and hearing him talk about his experiences is powerful and moving but less harrowing than one might imagine. It’s deeply troubling to be reminded of the staggering human rights violations committed by U.S. forces. But Anderson brings levity to the experience, as does el Gharani, who aside from a missing tooth and small scars on one arm, displays remarkably few outward signs of his time in the prison. Intelligent, soft-spoken, and philosophical, he smiles and recounts the pleasure of receiving messages and signs of empathy from the public while in Guantánamo. He only breaks down when talking about his “brother Shaker,” a fellow inmate who became a bastion of resistance and support for other prisoners. Shaker Aamer remains at Guantánamo today but is said to be released to the United Kingdom later this month.
“I didn’t ask him to go into enormous torture details because I heard an awful lot, as much as I could handle,” says Anderson, who spent time in West Africa talking to el Gharani and collaborating on the project. “I thought: I need to represent that as best I can, but it’s very hard to get images out of your mind. I’m trying not to go into all the grisly details of what happened to him but to talk more about what interrogation was like, how a story is constructed, how it feels to have someone impose a story on you.”
Anderson approached el Gharani as a collaborator, and indeed, the work conveys his presence without much intervention. “I’m not putting my own opinion in,” adds Anderson. “This is not usually what I do, I’m not really in the truth-telling business. I have to be careful that I don’t shift people’s minds away too far from the actual story. And that’s easy to do, all you have to do is play something a little bit sentimental and boom, your opinion is there.”
Aside from el Gharani’s voice, all that can be heard in the Drill Hall is the orchestral drone of an immersive guitar feedback work created by Anderson’s late husband, Lou Reed, fused with the sounds of surveillance audio and wind. A series of musicians, including Omar Souleyman and Merrill Garbus (of tUnE-yArDs), will perform for each of the three nights of the project’s run, a celebration of what Anderson calls “the joy and freedom that comes from knowing.”
Celebrations aside, Habeas Corpus is testament to the dissident power of networked technologies. Guantánamo inmates were declared non-persons by the U.S. government. And even those who have been released like el Gharani are legally bound from stepping foot inside the country. By way of millions of pixels, Anderson has enabled el Gharani to be present. “It’s about borders and about someone jumping across a border just a block away from where Putin and Obama were having their discussions about Syria,” says Anderson.
In large pamphlets issued by the Armory, el Gharani reflects on his story. “The American government has never apologized or publicly admitted its mistake,” he writes. In a video work accompanying the telecast, he addresses viewers and the president (who, seven years into office, has failed to fulfil his promise to close Gitmo): “Send them home, that’s my message to Obama. There is still time.”
Tess Thackara is Artsy’s Writer-at-Large.