Laurie Anderson, no stranger to storytelling or feats of artsy ambition, is preparing a momentous multimedia work about a subject as pointed and political as they come: the story of a long-suffering detainee from Guantanamo Bay. Under the title Habeas Corpus, the project involves the “telepresence” of an ex-prisoner, Mohammed el Gharani, whose image will be broadcast live from his current home in West Africa onto a large statue version of himself in the middle of the Park Avenue Armory in New York. The space is enormous: 55,000 square feet, with a soaring ceiling and a sense of expectancy built up by a line of ambitious arts programming there in recent years. The presentation, too, is expansive, with the main video presence of Mohammed abetted by a soundscape featuring ghostly feedback tones devised by Lou Reed and, at night, a rapturous concert with live performances by Anderson along with Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards, downtown composer Shahzad Ismaily, guitarist Stewart Hurwood and scorching Syrian party-starter Omar Souleyman.
Habeas Corpus will be open for visitation in New York day and night from October 2nd through the 4th. Anderson talked to Rolling Stone about her ambitious work, the story of an innocent detainee and hopes they both share for making his story known.
What was it like when you first learned about Mohammed and his story?
It was shocking, learning about how he had been captured and what was happening in Guantanamo. I went over and met with him and it was very intense. Remember what it was like when you first read about Abu Ghraib and wondered, What is this combination of porn and violence and weirdness? He was there for seven years. He’s now 27 and lives in West Africa. Where I actually can’t say: He’s stateless, and his lawyer is careful because she wants to make sure they won’t have problems. It’s a struggle for detainees who are dumped somewhere and then don’t have citizenship. Nobody wants them, so it’s a struggle. I traveled there several times, and then I started finding out more about the stories of other people. He said he was interested in doing this, and when I asked why, he said, “I want to help my brothers” — his fellow detainees — “in Guantanamo.” I’ve been sick learning about this stuff. It literally makes me sick to sit across a table from someone whose back has been broken, whose head was broken, who was cut all over — and to realize: We did that?
[The work] was going to be silent, but Mohammed is so articulate that I realized he should tell the story. He learned English in prison. He’s a Chadian citizen, grew up in Saudi Arabia, and went to study computers at his uncle’s school in Pakistan when he was 14. He was in a mosque, and he was grabbed with a bunch of other people. Most of the people in Guantanamo were sold to us. In a lot of ways we were looking for the prisoners that we needed. We needed a lot of Saudis, so he got scooped up in that. Then they get shipped to Guantanamo and the interrogation begins. Most of these guys are taxi drivers, goat herders — you and I know more about Al Qaeda than they do. But he, Mohammed, was accused of being an Al Qaeda operative in London when he was 11 years old. It’s insane. A lot of the charges come from other detainees who have been tortured for years and will say anything: “Yeah, I think I saw him in Tora Bora.” Torture is horrible and, if you can say something that will stop it, most people will.
What is Mohammed’s life like now?
He’s 27 years old and has two kids now. He’s a wonderful person. He somehow has a sense of humor in tact. I wondered why people who have been released are not doing any sort of class-action suit or banding together, but most of the lawyers I asked said these guys are exhausted and they know they could be crushed. They physically crawl out of there and don’t want to talk about it ever again. They just want to try to live the rest of their lives. They’re wrecked. Mohammed was able to get out in time. He was the youngest detainee, so he was taken care of by a lot of guys who were there. He was 14 and he was detained until he was 21. It was his young adulthood that he spent there. I don’t know how he survived solitary. The only time Mohammed cried was when he talked about people who helped him.
What was it like for you working with him?
It’s taken a toll on me. I’m not somebody who likes to make art about subject matter that is so terrifying, but I’m a lot better now that I realize it’s also about freedom and telling the story. The U.S. redacted version of this has nothing to do with the reality of what happened to Mohammed — it’s completely made up. Laws don’t apply in Guantanamo. It’s offshore, so it’s not technically the United States. These people were designated “non-persons,” so [officials] no longer had to adhere to the Geneva Conventions. They were enemy combatants, not even prisoners of war who could be released at the end of the conflict. The war on terror — when is that over? They don’t even have the rights of the POWs, so they were given military tribunals. In ’05, the Center for Constitutional Rights sued to give them the right to habeas corpus, and they won. Gradually some of these people have had trials and as soon as they did, judges said, “You need to go — there’s no evidence here at all.” It was also interesting to watch the suicide rate plummet as soon as they decided not to call it “suicide” but “manipulative self-injurious behavior.” There was lot of that. It’s really poisonous. I’ve been in a dark place with this.
You said you don’t like to make art about dark subject matter, so what made you persist?
My own view of terrorism is I find it reprehensible, and I don’t have a problem with prisons. But I have a big problem with solitary and torturing people. For most Americans, it’s a very uncomfortable topic. When I mention this to friends and say “Guantanamo,” their heads move back two inches. I don’t blame them. All the misinformation around says only the worst of the worst are there, and if we happen to mess up with a few guys and mistreat them, it’s all for the greater good. But the power of telepresence is in the power of the moment. You’re looking at this guy who is there. I’m not asking anybody to have any particular attitude toward this, except one of physical presence. There you are, in real time, with this person.
What does the soundscape entail?
The soundscape is some drone feedback of Lou’s guitars: a beautiful piece from Metal Machine Music that his technician Stewart Hurwood is going to be playing. That means that Stewart is tuning the guitars the same way that Lou tuned them for Metal Machine Music. Lou worked on the tuning for years. He knew about this project as well, not the version with Mohammed but the idea that I was going to do something at the Armory. It’s like Lou is there. He loved this kind of immersive stuff. We’re setting them up on a big platform and there will be feedback designed and also atmospheric multichannel sounds of surveillance audio and wind.
Did Lou serve at all as an inspiration for this?
I inherited his weapons collection, these really heavy swords and tai chi weapons. I’ve been working with a trainer to get strong enough to even pick them up. My goal is to do sword-form with them. When I think of working now, I think a lot about Lou and how fierce he was, how honest he was. That’s really inspiring to me. Talking about writing, he would always say, “Why don’t you just say what you mean in that song, instead of saying it’s ‘like’ something?” I would say, “Metaphor?” He wasn’t into metaphor that much. He was into giving people names and having them say things. I’m happy his sound will be there.
When Mohammed isn’t sitting silently, the video image of him will speak. What will he say?
He’s going to sit from 12 to 7 p.m. every day, but he’s going to take a break every half-hour, to eat, pray, stretch. It will go to playback then and the statue will speak. He tells stories about himself and other detainees. For example, he tells a story about one detainee who told this interrogator that he had a dream that a submarine came to rescue all the prisoners. That night, Guantanamo Bay was filled with U.S. helicopters and ships looking for the dream submarine.
Was the dream submarine located?
They never found it. But they spent all night looking for it.
At night, the atmosphere will change dramatically in terms of vibe . . .
Because it’s so heavy, I want to have a dance party at the end of the day. [Around Omar Souleyman] it is impossible not to dance. It’s ecstasy.
The Armory is a dramatic setting. What interested you most about it?
I was interested in it as a mediation space. In the end, this is a piece about meditation more than anything else: presence in present time. I’m an artist, not a polemicist, and I’m terrified of rhetoric. Any time somebody tells me what to do in some kind of political artwork, I run screaming in the other direction. I really hate it. You don’t even know me — why are you telling me what to think? This is an artwork that has heavy political overtones, but that’s just what happened. I’m not under any illusion that political art is more important than anything else. Sometimes it’s really strident and awful. For me, looking at a blue sky or a blue painting would give me more of the feeling of freedom than some long theater work about “freedom.” I trust sensuality. I trust music and imagery to make a space that feels free enough so that people wonder: What is that? Who is that? Why is that? It’s all about questions, not about trying to answer anything for anybody. That’s why I’m an artist: to be free. I wanted to make something for people to think about.