On Friday I saw performance artist Laurie Anderson’s latest work, Habeas Corpus. Performed at the Park Avenue Armory, it was a multimedia hodgepodge of lots of things, mostly music. It was broadly “about” Guantanamo. The Armory is huge. It’s a giant vaulted space the size of a 10,000-seat stadium. It was almost completely blacked out. It felt like a physical manifestation of the legal black hole those prisoners inhabit. There were two non-blacked out locations: a giant plaster cast white chair, filled with a generically sculpted, seated human figure, and a stage. Onto this figure was projected a live video feed of Mohammed el Gharani, a former Guantanamo inmate. He was captured aged 14 and served 8 years in the prison before being repatriated to Chad.
Laurie Anderson conducted a brief interview with him, and then played a recorded interview. He talked about his relationship with his prison mentor, Shaker Aamer. He broke down while taking about Aamer, doubled over in psychic pain.
Anderson cut the tape. Then Anderson read Allen Ginsburg’s poem “Song”. It's great. Read it if you like.
A theme of the night was developing. The theme of love. That love is the only thing that sustains us through horror. The love el Gharani felt for Aamer. The love that we all feel for mothers, fathers, friends. The love we felt for others in that space.
The band TuneYards – Meril Garbus and Nate Brenner - took the stage and sang/created (using loops) a strange, Middle East-inspired sound collage. It is strange to completely agree with the philosophical/political intent of a piece of art (“Guantanamo is bad, both for the inmates and for us”) and yet… not enjoy the art. I’m not going to say the sound collage was bad, because I’m not capable of judging the relative merits of avant-garde sound collages. It just wasn’t for me.
Then Laurie Anderson played O Superman.
O Superman is one of my favorite pieces of music. It pulls off the impossible, being at once totally original and totally accessible. It sounds as strange and without precedent as it did 25 years ago, despite decades of electronic music exploring some of the territory it opened. It also meets the definitive criterion for a masterpiece: I feel something different every single time I hear it.
It happened again that night. Superman: the American icon, the pop culture vessel that encapsulates our values. To sing about Superman in the context of Guantanamo felt profound to me. As did singing it in an Armory, a military building, not unlike the military installation of Guantanamo. One line - “they’re American planes” - hit harder than usual. If you like, all the lyrics are here.
I cried, like I always cry when I hear it. It was a gift. It was also very generous of Anderson as an artist to revisit and re-interpret an American classic in this context. It must be hard to "play the hits", and I am grateful.
Then Anderson and TuneYards played another sound collage. It was even more not-for-me than the first sound collage. I gritted my teeth and got through it.
Then they introduced a wedding singer-type dude from Syria called Omar Souleyman, and his beats dude with a keyboard. I felt horrible for him. This was the very definition of a hell gig. Souleyman plays up-tempo fun Arabian party music. This was a giant cavernous room filled with old jews in pleated khakis. He tried his best, and he cranked out the jams, but it was an awkward, stilted moment.
My feet hurt. My back hurt (we were standing the whole time on a concrete floor). I left the space and went to the bar.
I felt bad. I wish I could be all smarty-pants and say “in Guantanamo they have no liberty, so in the ultimate exercise of freedom I left the art performance dungeon to go drink Merlot”. But that would be cute bullshit.
I just felt dispirited. The continued operation of Guantanamo is one of the most awful crimes ever perpetrated by this country. Not in the scale of human suffering. We’ve made far many more people suffer. But in terms of conscious, bipartisan, and at times even joyful violation of the most basic stuff we’re supposed to stand for? There’s few things worse than Guantanamo.
And what can I do about it? Nothing. It’s a military prison, encircled by a military base, encircled by water, encircled by the communist Cuban navy. Through federal income taxes, I pay for it, but there is nothing I can do to close it. The majority of Americans, and two branches of Government, believe it should remain open.
I left the space full of questions. Questions without answers.
How do we make change in a world that refuses to do so? How can individuals (such as me or you) prevent or combat evil, and bend the arc of human events toward justice?
Is the answer “nothing”? I fear it might be.
I paid $50 for the ticket. I’m glad I saw and heard some art and poetry and music. But right now I feel that – as far as human progress toward closing Guantanamo is concerned – it was a total waste of time.
The Merlot was $9.