Laurie Anderson Collaborates with a Former Guantanamo Bay Detainee

'HABEAS CORPUS' live projects the image of former prisoner Mohammed el Gharani onto a massive sculpture in the Park Avenue Armory.

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Oct 2 2015, 2:00pm

In Latin, Habeas Corpus means “you have the body.” In law, it is a term referring to the legal action which allows individuals to petition grounds of imprisonment. It is also the name of Laurie Anderson’s poignant installation opening today at The Park Avenue Armory. “One thing about this show is that its so much about language,” the world-renowned multimedia artist advises me on the eve of the premiere. “Its about how you define a prisoner; how you define a person; how you define a non-person. Herein lies the intricacy of the story—within all these basic assumptions.” 

HABEAS CORPUS is a unique collaboration between Anderson and Mohammed el Gharani, a 27-year-old Chadian who spent his formative years between the ages 14 and 21 locked in the cells of Guantanamo Bay. For the two days of the installation, Anderson and her team will live projection-mapping el Gharani as he sits on a La-Z-Boy-style armchair in a studio in West Africa (like all other detainees from the infamous prison, el Gharani is banned from ever entering the United States). Every hour, the live feed will break into pre-recorded segments of el Gharani’s recollections from those horrific eight years.

Upon entering the show, each visitor recieves an accompanying 15-page program. From this alone, the scope of HABEAS CORPUS is staggering. The program delineates how el Gharani was detained and convicted, how Anderson came across his story, how the project was made, information on the teams involved (both in New York and West Africa), technical detailing, and finally transcription of el Gharani’s stories—all of this printed, in devastating irony, on glossy legal-size paper. “There’s also a very extensive piece written by his lawyers about the case against him and how it was fabricated completely,” Anderson adds. “For someone who wants to drill down into the legality (and illegality) of all this, we’re giving them every opportunity to do that.” 

She tells The Creators Project, “[The legal side] is something that I’ve never done in an artwork. Generally, I don’t have to look at that issue.” The difference, she cites, is the question of creative ownership. “When I am doing someone else’s story I have to be completely, absolutely clear that I’m representing it the right way. And I like that because its a good exercise for me to tell a story the way it really is, and not the way it could be or should be. The easiest thing is to go for that punchline. You have to end your story somehow and you look for that. But very few situations have convenient punchlines. My life doesn’t have one. My life doesn’t have a plot, it doesn’t have any of those story-like elements in it. They have to be imposed. That’s the line I’m kind of working between. His story and how I’m representing it as a work of art.” 

The next stage of the show is a triad of artworks divided into three of the Armory’s spectacular rooms. Two of these pertain directly to el Gharani's story and the third is more exterior—a small scale, 3D-projected film titled From The Air. The first, the main event, is housed in the Armory's cavernous drill hall.

Stepping inside the hall is like stepping into a vast planetarium. Under vaulted ceilings, hangs a massive disco ball, revolving with crystalline light and casting the darkened room into a spangled universe. And, at the end of this otherworldly space sits el Gharani. Four times the size of the man himself, this statue is based off the iconic Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. “I must have seen this at the Illinois State Fair—or maybe the Smithsonian: an animatronic Lincoln who was talking,” muses Anderson. “I think that’s how I got the idea for talking sculptures anyway. But, also, as it turns out," she adds. "Lincoln did suspend Habeas Corpus in 1863." 

The sculpture of el Gharani is impressive, geometric, and massive, and when it lights with the high-resolution, living, breathing, speaking man, it’s nothing short of breathtaking, as are the stories he tells during the hourly playbacks. Interestingly, these accounts are not explicit in their depiction of the horrors which el Gharani undoubtedly experienced behind Guantanamo’s closed doors; a choice which Anderson was adamant about. "I’m trying not to emphasize that in this work because I don’t want to put that in people’s minds," she says. "It’s like Abu Ghraib. I wish I hadn’t seen that. I’m glad I did, because it happened. But I wish I hadn’t, in some ways.” Nevertheless, the stories remain uncensored, raw, and honest. “We didn’t leave too many things out, because we didn’t have a huge amount of time to record. We just play them as he said them. He’s very articulate, so he was able to compress experiences."

In a separate room, facing rows of plush antique benches, is el Gharani uncompressed. Presented in the form of a looping, rudimentarily filmed documentary, he expands on his stories from the playbacks and it is here where the paradoxes and intricacies of his experiences surface in full. “It’s not just a story of complete desolation,” Anderson points out. “There are lots of complicated things in the story that make it really vivid to me. It’s not easy to just pin it on the wall—it won’t pin down.” It is this amoebic quality of the work which makes it universal. Far from being restricted to the ever-taboo topic of Guantanamo, its message extends to polemics, from the Syrian refugee crisis, to U.S. police violence, and immigration. “I can see the way this piece stretches out into the concept of ‘borders’: people crossing them and what happens when they do,” she says. 

But what about the ultimate paradox, that of making beautiful experiences which were horrifying and dehumanizing? “Out of really negative experiences, war experiences, you can also create an enormous amount of love," Anderson answers. "I’m thinking of Quartet for the End of Time [Olivier Messiaen], a composition that was written in a concentration camp. Yet, in the midst of that there can be something made that it is absolutely beautiful. This friendship that I now have with Mohammed, from across the world, would never have happened without this extreme situation. I would never have been able to understand what was going on. It would have been anthropological rather than based out of a real connection.” 

“The dark stuff can generate images of freedom and happiness and joy," she finishes. "That’s why we’re ending the story with a dance party every night.” 

Laurie Anderson and Mohammed el Gharani's show HABEAS CORPUS runs from October 2nd to October 4th at The Park Avenue Armory. Find out more on the Armory website

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