Laurie Anderson Takes the Truth About Guantanamo to Park Avenue

Mohammed el Gharani and Laurie Anderson collaborate for Habeas Corpus.
Mohammed el Gharani and Laurie Anderson collaborate for Habeas Corpus.
Courtesy of Laurie Anderson

Through her work as a pioneering electronic composer, performance artist, and inventor, Laurie Anderson has been in the business of telling stories for over four decades. During this time, she’s come to understand that at our best, we use stories to define ourselves and to relate to one another — when they act as a truthful account of personal experience. But at our worst, stories can be used to manipulate others and obfuscate reality — when they're twisted by tiny untruths, harbor distorted definitions, or come built upon complete fabrication of facts. Her latest installation, Habeas Corpus, staged at the Park Avenue Armory from October 2–4, unveils both of these realities through the extraordinary story of Mohammed el Gharani, imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay for nearly eight years beginning when he was only fourteen years of age.

Though Anderson told the New Yorker that she’s been exploring ideas of imprisonment and telepresence since the late Nineties, there were always logistical snags — sometimes technical, sometimes based on legal ramifications. In an interview with the Village Voice, Anderson said that her fascination with systems of imprisonment is mostly related to her exploration of time. “You have this situation [in which], literally, the crime has been turned into time in some way,” she explains. “Time is always really central in my work. This work with Guantánamo started that way; it was more or less a durational thing.”

Much like The Artist Is Present, in which Marina Abramovic famously sat motionless at the MoMA for eight hours a day during her own retrospective, Anderson envisioned a silent, stationary hologram of sorts, presiding over the installation from somewhere else in the world. But meeting with Gharani transformed that idea. “When I realized that Mohammed is such a great speaker and storyteller, I thought, 'I have to change direction on this.' When I have to revise something in the middle of doing it, that, to me, is exciting. I try to stay awake, learning a lot as I go, trying to respond to things that happen instead of just following my plan no matter what,” she says.

For her, the work quickly became about the juxtaposition between Gharani’s lived experience and the American government’s Guantánamo narrative, in which detainees are referred to as “non-persons” to justify inhumane treatment and suicide is “self-injurious manipulative behavior.” Even the interrogations themselves were a brutalized form of storytelling. “The insanity of this is just so obvious when you actually start looking at it. It is completely fascinating, because it makes you realize how much language structures your world and how much of that you’re really going to believe and act on. When [Gharani] began speaking, it became a very, very different piece and I was very happy about that because it suddenly was in my realm of what I’m interested in talking about.”

Gharani’s story is harrowing, to say the least. Accused of belonging to an Al Qaeda cell in London — despite the fact that he was only eleven and herding goats with his family in Saudi Arabia — he was shackled, blindfolded, and taken first to an Air Force base in Afghanistan and then transferred to Guantánamo, a place purported by the Bush administration to be strictly reserved for terrorists considered “the worst of the worst.” There were never any formal charges brought against him, and very little evidence of his guilt, but until he was finally released in 2009 at the age of 21, he endured interrogations, torture, and humiliation. He is still not allowed to travel to the United States, making the telepresence aspect of Anderson’s work essential. But literally projecting his live-streamed image onto a gigantic sculpture isn’t just a formality; it also has the effect of inspiring an emotional projection in viewers, resulting in empathic reactions to Gharani’s pleas as he calls for the release of Guantánamo’s remaining detainees.

“That’s totally key to the whole thing — it’s completely about point of view and empathy and language. People being able to understand his point of view is essential to the work,” Anderson says. “Empathy is what I want. As an artist my interest here is creating imagery. I don’t have a social agenda. I’m presenting some facts and imagery and people just do what they want with it. But secretly, I would love it if people started to question this whole automatic belief system.”

Her talks with Gharani, she says, were so disturbing they made her physically ill. “I had to get some therapy to help me out of this,” she admits, saying that she sought a form of EMDR, or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, often helpful for sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder. “Therapy that’s about eye movement really does help, especially people who have to deal with loops; for me the loops were images of interrogation and torture,” she says. Meeting face-to-face with someone who had endured these practices brought their horrifying realities home. “Here’s somebody who endured this, and with these weird kind of sanctions. Mohammed doesn’t really like doctors, and one of the reasons is because American doctors were at all those torture sessions. So were American psychologists. It was sanctioned; we sanctioned it. And that made me so sick I could hardly stand it.” She adds, “I’m somebody who is kind of proud of being an American in weird ways, you know, I am. And to learn that stuff was just so sickening to me that I felt very betrayed.”

As a New Yorker, Anderson has an acute understanding of Americans’ need for justice. “When there are scary things that happen, like 9-11, that’s when it’s really good to have some constitutional rules that you can apply right about then, when you’re not sure how anything should work and everything seems to be breaking down,” she says. “I know that there are a lot of people who want to punish terrorists, and I can understand that — terrorism is reprehensible, it is. But so is torturing people who were never given a chance to have a trial. It cost 3 million dollars a year per prisoner in Guantánamo. And it would have been, just on the level of sheer economics, a lot smarter to give them a trial, to say, ‘Hey, did you have anything to do with this or not? Let’s look at the evidence.’ ”

Habeas Corpus has already had an impact on other artists and musicians. After seeing the work, Anderson says, many of her friends wanted to get involved adding to the atmospheric drone that will permeate the space during performance hours. This will include performances by Omar Souleyman, Shahzad Ismaily, and Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs, but Anderson hinted at some unannounced guests as well. “A bunch of people said, I want to be part of it and I want to play. And so the sound of these drones is going to be huge. That was another part that wasn’t really part of the so-called plan. We’re improvising as we go.”

Meanwhile, organizations like Reprieve, which connected Anderson and Gharani for the collaboration, are gradually making headway on behalf of detainees still languishing at Guantánamo. Shaker Aamer, a British citizen cleared of charges in 2009, was finally granted a release window within the next 30 days, though the cruel reality is that it could take longer for his return to the U.K. The news came on the very day we spoke with Anderson, who had described Aamer as an important mentor for Gharani while the two were imprisoned. Gharani told Anderson his motivations for collaborating on the piece were to help his brothers in Guantánamo. “I said, ‘I don’t know that this can help your brothers there. But I think that you will find American brothers and American sisters who might be willing to listen to your story and understand what you went through,’ ” Anderson remembers. “There’s been such a weird blackout of information on Guantánamo in the United States. It makes people instantly uneasy — you have this feeling that something’s not right but you can’t put your finger on it because you just don’t have information about it. For me, it’s important to give people information and [let them] do what they do with it.”

Habeas Corpus takes place at the Park Avenue Armory October 2–4. For ticket information, click here.

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