Laurie Anderson was telling me about the history of New York’s Park Avenue Armory when she was interrupted by an important email. Since this was a phone conversation, the short pause that followed made it seem as if the call had been cut off. “Wow,” she said after a few seconds of silence. “I just got a message that Shaker Aamer is released. He’s been in Guantanamo, and he’s been in solitary for many years. That’s pretty colossal. I didn’t think it would actually happen.” Aamer, who has been held in the U.S. government prison for 14 years under false accusations of terrorist affiliations, is now expected to travel to the United Kingdom this month.
From October 2 through 4, at the Park Avenue Armory, Anderson will engineer her own release of a Guantanamo detainee, albeit in a more metaphorical sense. In an installation titled Habeas Corpus, Anderson will project former Guantanamo prisoner Mohammed el Gharani’s image onto a quadruple-life-size plaster rendering. Loosely modeled after the Lincoln Memorial, the sculpture will show el Gharani seated in a chair, making him feel present, even though he is actually in a studio in West Africa, with a camera pointed on him. He can’t travel to America, so, in a sense, Anderson’s installation is the closest el Gharani will get to visiting the country. This on top of the fact that, in Guantanamo, people are declared nonpersons, while here, in the Armory, it’s hard to deny el Gharani’s superhuman aura.
A live feed will allow el Gharani to see the Armory visitors as they react to his “telepresence,” as Anderson calls it. He won’t have an audio feed, though. “We didn’t really want to establish a live audio connection, partly out of protection for him, in case someone decides to come up and speak his mind,” Anderson said. “He’s had enough of that, frankly, people doing that to him.”
As Anderson wrote in an essay about the installation for the New Yorker, “The history of this project is a long one.” (Anderson also produced a 29-page booklet contextualizing the installation.) In the essay, titled “Bringing Guantánamo to Park Avenue,” Anderson says that project began in 1997, when she conceived of it as a work for a 13th-century church in Krems, Austria, about bodies being held in criminal-justice and religious spaces. But, as Anderson explained to me, the history of Habeas Corpus extends back even further, to 1977, when she made her first projection sculpture, At the Shrink’s.
At that time, Anderson had wanted to use film somehow, but she was concerned about its durational aspect. “Every time you get to the Biennale, in the film room, you’re like, ‘Oh, God, it’s gonna take me six hours to see that stuff!’” she said. “Nobody wants to stop and sit on that bench for six hours.” So she thought to herself, “What if it’s a sculpture, and it’s just talking?”
At the Shrink’s is a little clay figure whose projection tells a narrative about Anderson going to her therapist’s office. One day, she notices lip marks on a mirror and then, the next, realizes that they have disappeared. As it turned out, the therapist’s 12-year-old daughter had been kissing the mirror. The therapist couldn’t see these marks from where she was sitting, and the maid had cleaned the mirror on Fridays.
“That was the first little sculpture story, which is about, ‘From what point of view are you seeing things?’” Anderson said. Anderson went on to repeat that in 1998 with Dal Vivo, an installation made for the Fondazione Prada, in Milan. Curated by Germano Celant, that installation beamed a Milanese prisoner’s image onto a double-life-size clay sculpture. “It was my way of getting stories into a gallery, like being a combination of sculpture and performance, and that’s what this Armory piece is on a larger scale,” she added.
When the Armory invited Anderson to do a project two years ago, she knew she wanted to bring a telepresence to the United States. After nixing a plan to have twelve projections of upstate New York prisoners with life sentences, she heard about el Gharani through Reprieve, a British human-rights organization, and went to West Africa to meet him. Together, they discussed the horrors of Guantanamo (“I toned it down in the New Yorker, too, how sickening the stories were,” she said) and how this would ultimately figure into Habeas Corpus.
Originally, Anderson had just wanted to have el Gharani’s telepresence without any audio track, “being a silent myth,” as she put it. Then she noticed how interesting his hands were. If he were to speak with any gestures, his projected hands would move away from the plaster ones, and the ghostly effect would be ruined. “As I was talking to him, I realized, ‘I love listening to this guy. He is so articulate. This should be part of this,’” she said. “So then I thought, ‘I’ve got to make a movie where he can use his hands,’ so I also made a movie of him speaking.” That film will be played in adjacent room. (Meanwhile, Anderson’s feature-length film, Heart of a Dog, which she calls a “cousin” to this installation, screens next week at the New York Film Festival.)
She added, “Really, it was because Mohammed and I started talking a lot that it became about stories, and I was really happy about that. It adds a dimension that I hadn’t expected, and I like it when projects take a wild U-turn.”
It was also important for Anderson that we hear el Gharani speak—his silent telepresence wasn’t enough. Likewise, to have the installation without any audio wasn’t enough either. Anderson has also invited the tUnEyArDs’s Merrill Garbus, the Syrian singer Omar Souleyman, guitarist Stewart Hurwood, and Shahzad Ismaily to perform at night. During the day, there will be a guitar-feedback soundtrack, courtesy of the late rocker and Anderson’s husband Lou Reed.
Anderson said that Reed’s soundscape “does put you in this very strange beta zone very quickly” and is “going to be quite loud.” Played over swirling specks of light coming from a disco ball, the sound can disorient viewers. (Guantanamo prisoners are sometimes tortured with ear-splitting rock, pop, and rap music.)
The performances were more light-hearted, however. “I’m just inviting people to come, mostly horn players and bagpipe players, improvising with drums,” she said. “I love the idea of it being just like busking, people just doing stuff that’s a little bit improvised.”
Anderson is deeply interested in the possibilities of human interaction. (She couldn’t resist saying hello to her dog when he came trotting over to her during our phone conversation.) Though Habeas Corpus is obviously political, Anderson described it as the opposite of what she did for Occupy Museums, which, she said, was “using some elements from art to achieve a political goal.” Here, she focuses on how the tense political climate has affected how we relate to one another, using two telepresences no larger than an iPhone—one of her dog, the other of herself, both in an adjoining room—as an allegory.
In the telepresence, titled From the Air, Anderson traveled with her dog to California, where the dog was nearly attacked by a hawk. As Anderson narrates this experience, it becomes clear that this is a metaphor for surveillance technology. And now, because of the sculptures’ size, we loom over Anderson and the dog like the hawk—or a drone. “It’s a story about the development of fear and freedom,” Anderson said, “and to be helpless about it.”
But Anderson doesn’t want Habeas Corpus’s viewers to feel helpless. She confessed that she was secretly hoping people would react. “My hope is that some NGO comes in,” she said, “and goes, ‘I want to help these people.’ Or people go, ‘I want to bring my whole meditation group here and sit and just think about this.’ And I hope, also, that people act on what they learn.”
She continued, “When Mohammed said his motivation was to help his brothers in Guantanamo, I said, ‘You know, I don’t know that this is going to help your brothers. I have no idea. But I do know that some Americans, when they hear your story, it’s not going to be OK with them, what we did. It’s really not. You’re going to find some American brothers and sisters.’ ”