The nebulous function of political art
Image courtesy Stephanie Berger
By Chloe Wyma
“I have chosen to be here virtually because I am not allowed to come to this country and I have some things to say,” former Guantanamo detainee Muhammad El Gharani wrote in the folio-sized booklet disseminated during performance artist Laurie Anderson’s immersive installation Habeas Corpus, at New York’s Park Avenue Armory.
Entering the Armory’s cathedralesque Drill Hall, the audience confronted Gharani’s colossal telerobotic likeness beamed in from an undisclosed location in West Africa and projected on a humongous Styrofoam throne. The sixteen-foot-tall monument of the 27-year-old ex-prisoner seemed not only strikingly real, but metaphysical, presiding over the blackened room showered with electric stars like a Skype-era godhead.
Captured at age fourteen, Gharani was detained and tortured at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp for seven years on allegations that he has worked as an eleven-year-old al-Qaeda operative in London. A Chadian citizen, Gharani had never traveled outside his native Saudi Arabia, where he was born and lived with his family. In 2009, a US Federal judge ordered his release, dismissing all charges against him due to lack of evidence.
These were melancholy sketches, not, as one might expect, graphic descriptions of torture.
Dwarfed by Gharani’s colossal cyber-statue, Anderson played a mournful tune on the electric violin and, in her eloquent, plainspoken cadence, recited verses from Allen Ginsberg’s “Song”: “The weight of the world is love.” At a few intervals early in the evening, the digital statue would spring to life, delivering pre-taped recollections from his years spent in US custody. These were melancholy sketches, not, as one might expect, graphic descriptions of torture. In one poetic anecdote, Gharani remembered that one of his fellow detainees told his interrogator of a dream he had that a submarine came to rescue all the prisoners. That night, Guantanamo was flooded with helicopters and ships searching for the imaginary submarine.
As she put it in a thoughtful New Yorker essay about her project, Anderson had initially conceived Habeas Corpus as “a work of silent witness.” Indeed, Gharani’s words—sometimes barely intelligible amid the reverbing acoustics—felt auxiliary to the immersive grandeur of the total installation. Gharani’s statements were printed in the exhibition program, and a display in an adjacent annex offered more details of his story. But in the dark, glittering ambiance of the operatically grandiose performances, historical specifics and political exigencies played second fiddle to the auratic sublimity of the young man’s mediatized presence.
During Sunday’s performance, Gharani’s testimony served predominately as the warm-up act for an eclectic lineup of performances by Anderson, quirk-pop vocalist Merrill Garbus (aka tUnE-yArDs), avant-garde multi-instrumentalists Shahzad Ismaily and Stewart Hurwood, and Syrian dance music singer Omar Souleyman. In what felt like an arty, NPR-sanctioned twist on the celebrity benefit concert, Gharani’s gigantic effigy presided over Garbus and Ismaily’s blissed-out, half-tempo version of the tUnE-yArDs jam “Bizness” and Ismaily and Hurwood’s droning improvisations. Regrettably, none of the artists composed original material for the performance, though Anderson’s haunting rendition of her 1981 hit “O Superman” did feel uncannily topical. Originally written in response to the Iran Hostage Crisis, Anderson’s words seemed like a riposte to Ginsberg: “When love is gone, there’s always justice. And when justice is gone, there’s always force.”
Anderson has received deserved praise for giving visibility to Gharani, and, by extension, to the almost 800 people who have been detained at Guantanamo, 115 of whom remain incarcerated there. The installation’s title, Habeas Corpus refers of course to the writ against unlawful imprisonment. But translated literally, it means, “You shall have the body,” and, in this sense, thematizes Anderson’s act of producing the absentee prisoner through a technological surrogate. “Because Gharani, like every other Guantánamo detainee,” New Yorker music critic Alex Ross writes, “had effectively been declared a non-person—someone to whom the elementary protection of habeas corpus does not apply—Anderson made the compensatory gesture of monumentalizing him.”
The political sympathies undergirding Habeas Corpus are well placed, but its aesthetics felt strange and off-putting. How could the neo-baroque pyrotechnics of Gharani’s statue, the learned distortions of avant-garde noise music, or the mystical affirmations of Beat poetry speak adequately to the injustice Gharani suffered under US policy? The evenings’ eclectic performances seemed to congeal into one played-out meta-ballad—one of human suffering symbolically redeemed by aesthetic abstraction. “Out of really negative experiences, war experiences, you can also create an enormous amount of love,” the artist said in an interview with Creators Project. “…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.” But to my friends and I, millennial viewers nursed on a skim-milk diet of cultural postmodern and its politics of difference, this appeal to aesthetic sublimation seemed naïve and tone-deaf, as did the specter of Bono-ization and the unproblematized spectacle of a black body for the edification of an overwhelmingly white audience.
With its operatic bravado and heaping portions of liberal pathos, Habeas Corpus represents an alternative to the “critical documentary” genre that has arguably become the academically privileged mode of politically oriented art in the early twenty-first century. In his 2013 book The Migrant Image, critic and art historian T.J. Demos offers a celebratory inventory of these new strategies, generally characterized by a sophisticated brew of progressive sentiment and tasteful ambiguity. The new political artist, he writes, rejects the earlier ‘engaged’ artistic solutions of activism and political art from the 1990s, where traditional documentary strategies yielded authoritative exposés based on now-outdated regimes of truth.” (Haven’t you heard? Truth is passé!)
The art audience—typically white, American, middle-class—wasn’t implicated in the violence and barbarism applied in their name.
Whereas Anderson’s project hinged on the charismatic presence of the monumentalized individual to appeal to our emotions, Demos’s new model political artists reject “the tendency of the traditional documentary project: to engender a compassion for the struggling and disadvantaged that conveniently overlooks the viewer’s situation and potential complicity.” Granted, Habeas Corpus can be critiqued along these lines. In what seemed like a missed opportunity, there wasn’t much criticism of the Obama administration’s continued use and expansion of Bush-era torture tactics, nor his failure to deliver on his promise to shutter the infamous prison. The art audience—typically white, American, middle-class—wasn’t implicated in the violence and barbarism applied in their name.
While Habeas Corpus hinges on what Jacques Derrida derided as “the metaphysics of presence”—a privileging of that which appears—much new genre political art foregrounds the limits of representation by embracing an aesthetics of opacity and erasure. Jenny Holzer’s painted scans of redacted military and intelligence documents and Trevor Paglen’s impressionistic photographs of CIA black sites expose the abstractions and obfuscations produced by US counter-terrorism operations (though not, à la Demos, the ontological inaccessibility of “outmoded regimes of truth”).
Another trope of recent politically inclined art is the clever elision of fact with fiction, which allows artists to engage with the documentary format while questioning the genre’s truth claims. A “cultural research organization” created by artist Walid Raad, The Atlas Group archives and displays confabulated artifacts of Lebanese history. For instance, Raad’s “Bachar Tapes” are fake documentaries devoted to Souheil Bachar, a fictionalized prisoner of Lebanese Hostage Crisis. “The Guantanamo Bay Museum of Art and History,” a virtual museum created by artist Ian Alan Paul, is an elegant monument to post-Guantanamo future. “Located at the former site of the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp in Cuba,” the museum, according to the website’s copy, “is an institution dedicated to remembering the U.S. prison which was active between 2002 and 2012 before it was permanently decommissioned and closed.”
An even better counterpoint to Habeas Corpus might be art duo Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabrs’ “Camp Campaign.” Both works are motived by outrage at the abuses Guantanamo Bay as their theme, but the similarities seem to end there. Mobilized by Giorgio Agamaben’s theory of the “state of exception,” the artist duo embarked on an exploratory road trip across the United States in 2007, touring various other types of campsites and internment centers in an exploration of “the camp” as “the paradigm of our time.”
Praised by Demos in his book, Camp Campaign is exemplary of the etiolated combination of aesthetics and politics that has become enshrined as an academic style. A far cry from the immersive grandeur of Habeas Corpus, the Camp Campaign exhibition at New York’s downtown nonprofit Art in General was a rag and bone agglomeration of film, video, slides, old LPs, and banners that conflated “documentary models and fictional scenarios” while taking on “an improvised, semichoatic cast.” “Because there was no pretense to categorize or order the unwieldy data,” Demos writes, “the exhibition offered a desultory assemblage of resonant alignments, nonsensical contiguities, and potential allegorical relations, which could be neither clearly summarized nor easily comprehended.” For Demos, aesthetic obscurity becomes a political virtue, and vice-versa. He applauds the artists’ avoidance of “goal-oriented activism and instrumentalized political engagement” in favor of a “productive uncertainty… that defamiliarized the conventional expectations of art and politics alike.” The supposedly radical sublation of aesthetics and politics begins to sound like abstraction for abstraction’s sake.
Should it giftwrap its message in poetic affect or should it resist anything resembling aesthetic integration?
Taken as a pair, Habeas Corpus and Camp Campaign represent opposing visions of what contemporary politically oriented art ought to look like. Should it make an appeal to the liberal conscience, tugging at our heartstrings with electric violins, or should it cultivate an ironic distance, taking pains to avoid sentimental humanism? Should it transfigure horror into a culturally elevating message, or should it foreground its own impotence in the face of the problems it represents? Should it give voice the marginalized and dispossessed, or should it mediate on the structural asymmetry of the artist/subject relation? Should it giftwrap its message in poetic affect or should it resist anything resembling aesthetic integration?
Should we care? Despite critical prescriptions for hermeneutic ambiguity, critical self-reflection, and formal disjuncture, there is no ideal, unimpeachable political aesthetic. The grimly obvious reality is that neither Habeas Corpus nor Camp Campaign will close Guantanamo Bay, yet artists working in various idioms continue to produce work in response to political injustice, the aggregated impact of which is difficult to quantify, but not insignificant.
Habeas Corpus sidestepped the navel-gazing mannerisms of much new genre political art, but jumped too quickly from horror to redemption. This short circuit became embarrassingly obvious as evening concluded, jarringly, in a remarkably awkward “dance party” lead by Souleyman, with the audience tentatively clapping and bopping along to the exiled wedding singer’s bumping synth-folk. A seemingly inappropriate programming choice given Habeas Corpus’s not exactly disco-worthy subject matter, the dance party was in fact crucial to the work as Anderson sees it: a life-affirming redemption of suffering through human compassion. “This friendship that I now have with Mohammed, from across the world, would never have happened without this extreme situation,” she said in the same interview, “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. That’s why we’re ending the story with a dance party every night.”
Attempting to redeem atrocity before fully confronting it, Habeas Corpus produced its own abstractions, rooted in friendship, sympathy, sincerity and culminating in the faltering feel-goodism of the global-grove dance party and in the lame commercialism of the Habeas Corpus branded T-shirts, buttons, and makeshift cardboard benches. We take home an attenuated, hologram-like version of political horror: present yet spectral.