Finding a Voice
Laurie Anderson Confronts Guantanamo, Torture, and Life after Lou Reed
The torture and survival of a former detainee, as well as love, death, and rebirth, are central to Anderson’s two new projects.
The shrine to the Dalai Lama in Laurie Anderson’s New York loft is as I remember it—as are the paintings and shelves of art books.
When we last met here at her Tribeca work studio in May 2013 for a London Times interview the performance artist, composer, writer, and musician revealed that her husband, the rock star Lou Reed, had just had a life-saving liver transplant.
“It’s as serious as it gets. He was dying. You don’t get it for fun,” Anderson told me at the time.
“You send out two planes—one for the donor, one for the recipient—at the same time,” Anderson told me. “You bring the donor in live, you take him off life support. It’s a technological feat. I was completely awestruck. I find certain things about technology truly, deeply inspiring.”
Reed died, age 71, a few months later in October 2013.
Today, an air of concentrated busyness pervades the loft, as Anderson and her assistants prepare for an ambitious show at the Park Avenue Armory, running October 2-4, which examines the story of Mohammed el Gharani, one of Guantánamo Bay’s youngest detainees.
The piece is called “Habeas Corpus,” because Anderson feels this long-cherished principle of justice was ridden roughshod over in Gharani’s case.
Gharani, held captive from when he was 14 to when he was 21, told Anderson—and audiences will hear the same, too—of the torture he endured at the hands of U.S. soldiers.
Gharani was never tried or found guilty of any crime, and was released in 2009 without an apology from the authorities.
Reprieve, the organization that campaigned for Gharani’s release, said he was “falsely accused of fighting for the Taliban in Tora Bora and being a member of a London-based al Qaeda cell. He had never visited either Afghanistan or the UK. The evidence used to keep Mohammed in Guantánamo Bay for seven and a half years was based purely on statements from two other prisoners.”
Before he was tortured at Guantánamo, Reprieve said, Gharani was taken to Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, “where he was kept naked for days and racially abused. One of the first words that Mohammed learnt in English was ‘nigger.’”
Gharani, who was returned to his homeland of West Africa, will not be at the show. He cannot enter the United States.
However, his image will be beamed into the huge event space. Anderson, who loves experimenting and innovating with technology, design, and music, has already recorded interviews with him.
Reed designed a soundscape for the show, using guitars and amps in feedback, and the main Armory space and other rooms will examine, through video, music, and art, themes of “time, identity, surveillance, and freedom.”
Similar themes are explored in Anderson’s other big project of the moment, the film Heart of a Dog, which is being screened at film festivals prior to an October 21 release—an ode in animation and sound to Anderson and Reed’s much-loved rat terrier, Lolabelle.
Today, on fine barking and cute form, Will, Anderson’s 3½-year-old border terrier, makes his own presence felt.
Anderson—tufty-haired, watchful, soft-spoken, direct, fools not easily suffered—ushers me through to another part of the studio and sits me in a huge green chair.
She is excited about the “colossal” news that the last British prisoner to be held at Guantánamo, Shaker Amaar, will soon be released. He has been held since 2002, also with no trial.
“I was really like a lot of Americans when I hear that word,” Anderson says of Guantánamo. “I feel a combination of shame and fear. It’s really defined as this kind of no-man’s land. There’s a real blackout of information about it.
“The information that rises to the top is propaganda: ‘These are the worst of the worst of the bad men.’ Nobody questioned that assessment, even though it was made by the same people who spoke about ‘weapons of mass destruction.’ They were never there in any way, except in delusional form.”
Anderson traveled to Africa in April to meet Gharani and record him talking about his experiences as part of the project: These recordings will intersperse with a live feed of Gharani.
As Anderson explained in a recent New Yorker article: “He will be sitting in a chair in a studio in West Africa, and his live image will be broadcast to New York City and wrapped onto a large three-dimensional cast of his body. His figure—more than three times life size, inspired by the Lincoln Memorial, in Washington, D.C.—will sit in the cavernous drill hall.”
Anderson is one of the world’s best-known installation and performance artists. Growing up in Illinois, she told me in 2013, she was a “sky-worshipper”—and you can see this realized on Heart of a Dog. She “skipped to school, looking at the trees full of squirrels and a 180-degree Midwestern sky. It always calmed me and still does.”
After studying art history and sculpture, Anderson worked as a comic book artist and art critic, and began to perform “little pieces” in lofts and art spaces.
She told me in 2013 that she had a disdain for pop culture (“I’m a snob”), so reaching No. 2 in the U.K. charts in 1981 for her single O Superman was merely a diverting trifle.
She has always been more interested in pursuing her preoccupations with bigger themes like the weather, the environment, watching and being watched, weapons, war, dreams, and freedom.
Most people think Guantánamo is a place where “people in orange jumpsuits are being abused by young soldiers,” Anderson says today. “It’s a very unpleasant and disturbing image, but for a lot of Americans who are outraged about terrorism, as they should be, it’s indelible.”
Anderson emphasizes that she finds terrorism “reprehensible” but that Gharani and other innocent people like him had nothing to do with it.
“I was suspicious of Guantánamo from the beginning: Why were suspects being rounded up so quickly?” she says.
“It was a time of great chaos, and one of worst ideas to have come out of that was to get revenge in this way, and also to find justification to go to war. I understand why people who are experiencing chaos and fear would want revenge, but it went so out of control.”
It cost $3 million to keep an individual prisoner there for a year, so Guantánamo has been “a waste of resources,” too, says Anderson. People should have been “rounded up,” she says, but there should have been fair trials. Habeas corpus should have been enforced. “The king not is not supposed to be able to throw you into his dungeon and leave you there,” Anderson says. “Our Constitution comes from the Magna Carta.”
As well as chaos and fear as engine fuel, there was the matter of war being profitable for companies, she adds. “I think it was mostly revenge, though.”
As for Gharani, Anderson tried to absorb as much information about his treatment as possible, and then stopped—simply unable to hear any more.
“I don’t have the defenses a lawyer does. He was hung in really horrible positions. He had suicide attempts. He was made to experience extreme cold. His back is completely out. His head and teeth were smashed.
“ERFing squads [Extreme Reaction Force] would come in and beat him. One of the things that make ERFing so terrible is that you don’t really understand why a bunch of guys are coming into your cell and beating you up. They’ll just do it for no reason sometimes. The notion of cause and effect meant nothing anymore.”
Gharani does not have much faith in doctors, as American doctors and psychologists were present at his torture sessions, violating, says Anderson, their Hippocratic oath.
“I’m sure those doctors found ways to justify it about it being for the greater good,” says Anderson, “but I’m somebody who doesn't think my life is more valuable than yours, or his, or hers.”
Anderson was so sickened by what she heard she had to have therapy herself, particularly eye movement therapy, as she calls it, after she began suffering from “repeated visual loops,” envisioning the horrors—what it was, what it felt like—that Gharani endured.
“The loops are also something a prisoner goes through because their interrogator asks them the same question literally thousands of times, over and over,” she says.
In the verbatim reporting of some of these sessions, the French word “on,” is used, meaning “one.” It is unclear if the word refers to interrogator or prisoner, or another observer. This shifting, unclear perspective reminded Anderson that war is also an “act of storytelling.”
Anderson thinks about the NSA “collecting stories,” and to what end are those stories being collected, and mulls how the story of a crime is a story assembled backward.
Treating the prisoners at Guantánamo as “non-persons” meant the authorities could do what they liked to the detainees—they had stripped them of their humanity, says Anderson. “We can throw you in prison and not tell you where you are, we can torture you.”
She was most shocked by what Gharani wanted, which was an apology. “He didn’t really want anything else but an acknowledgment that this had happened to him. And no one would give him that—because he’s a non-person and there were no charges, so he couldn’t be absolved, as there were no charges he could be absolved of. So he’s tortured and then dumped.”
Gharani has odd jobs and scrapes by, says Anderson, but is still traumatized by what happened to him. “When we talked, we cleared the room of people, because it was very hard for him to say this stuff. He knows an audience will be in New York, and I know how difficult it is for him to talk. I don’t have enough experience to say, ‘This is what a torture victim will be like,’ but I do know how many times we had to stop because he wasn’t able to go on.”
Gharani’s story is also a “border story” for Anderson—he was arrested in Pakistan rather than his home country. “This is a huge theme right now in terms of refugees, Canadians, Mexicans, and walls,” says Anderson.
“I don’t think much of Trump,” she adds of the Republican presidential frontrunner. “But he seems to strike a chord with a lot of Americans. They’re very interested in his so-called business success, and corporate America is where we do business, and we like success stories.”
What about his views on immigration? “He’s an idiot,” Anderson says twice, softly. “I think he is fairly good at getting attention. I have a few different bets with a few different people about how long he’ll stay in the race. In some of my bets he drops out, in some of them he goes all the way and gets elected.”
She thinks that’s a possibility? “Yes. Because I remember people saying Reagan will never be president: ‘He’s an actor.’ I remember him being asked, ‘Can an actor be president?’ And he replied: ‘Can a president not be an actor?’ And that was an astute point.”
Anderson is “probably” a Hillary Clinton voter: “But we’ll see who’s running. She may not make it, either.”
Anderson has told Gharani he should write a book, which she hopes would feature all the redacted bits of other texts without the black lines through passages. Despite his experience, he managed to learn English. He now is married and has two children, a little boy and girl, aged 1 and 3.
“When people talk about ‘the breeding ground’ of terrorism of these places, how people get together afterwards, that is ridiculous,” says Anderson. “By the time people are thrown out of prison their bodies are broken, and many of them are crazy because they’ve been in ‘solitary’ for years.”
Heart of a Dog is linked to “Habeas Corpus,” said Anderson, because both are about surveillance and empathy, which reminded me of something she told me two years ago about watching Reed go through the liver transplant.
“When you’ve been with someone for a long time [she and Reed had been together for 21 years and married for five] it’s almost like it’s happening to you because of the empathy between partners,” she told me.
Lolabelle was an empathetic creature, too. She died of cancer, though her life was once imperiled on a rural walk when a bird swooped down as if to pick her up. It’s a moment brilliantly evoked in the film, as are the bits where Lola, wearing a camera, takes us through the West Village as seen through her doggy eyes.
“Another reason dogs love us is that we invented cars,” smiles Anderson. “That made a big impression on them, sticking their head out of the windows, ears flapping in the wind. Cats don’t give a damn. They just sit on top of the refrigerator going ‘Uh-huh.’”
Lolabelle died 49 days shy of Anderson’s birthday. According to Buddhist belief, the “bardo” is the 49-day period after death, ending with the rebirth. “She would have been reborn on my birthday,” says Anderson. “That’s beyond eerie. The ‘bardo’ is the process, rather than place, in which your identity is shed and your energy, as Tibetans believe, begins to take on another life form. So for me, who’s not a heaven believer, that’s another big story I like—time.”
In some way, Anderson says, religions explain where we come from and what happens when we die, “which are huge mysteries for humans—how do we exist in time? Time is always a central element of whatever work I do—how you experience it, cut it up, chop it up, how to make a story out of it.”
Did her Buddhist beliefs help in the wake of Reed’s death? I ask.
“Buddhist beliefs help in the wake of life and death, in every single thing,” Anderson says. “It’s exactly the same thing I think of as an artist: It’s about paying attention, that’s all it is. It’s not connected to anything else, its just about how much attention are you paying to what is going on at the moment.”
Anderson’s beliefs “are no different to what I do as an artist. I try to see things as they are, not as they should be or could be. I’m a journalist. I try very hard not to go for the easy punchline.”
Reed plays a doctor in Heart of a Dog and helped Anderson a lot with the music she uses. “He’s really good,” she said of Reed’s acting. “There is no more fun than getting a wing of a hospital and you and your friends get to dress up as doctors and use hospital equipment, and just pretend that you’re being doctors and patients.”
She declines to talk about grief and grieving directly but says: “I love to work. It has nothing to do with therapy. I think a lot of people see things like that, but I work whether I am sad or happy. I like making things. I’m sure people will read into things, and that’s fine.
“I mean, if I were Woody Allen I would call Heart of a Dog ‘Love and Death’ because it’s the interplay between those things that interests me and how they illuminate each other. That’s what the film is about.”
Anderson is working on “secret stuff,” declining to discuss specifics so as to allow her to let ideas stew for longer. She took this reporter downstairs to a little studio where she made her clay figures that feature onstage. She projects moving images of people onto them.
Imagining Gharani’s own image, I ask how he feels about becoming a star. Anderson smiles. She thinks, excited. Is he bitter at all after everything that has happened to him? I ask.
“He’s a pretty incredible guy. In the last six months at Guantánamo he was constantly asked by his captors, ‘Do you hate Americans?’ OK, he’s been imprisoned and tortured by Americans for seven years. And they ask him, ‘Do you hate Americans?’” Anderson rolls her eyes.
“What do you possibly say to that, Mohammed?” Anderson asked Gharani.
“You know, there are a lot of Americans,” he replied.