In 2002, Mohammed el Gharani was captured by U.S. forces and sent to Guantánamo, where he became the prison’s youngest inmate at age 15. Released seven years later due to insufficient evidence, Gharani is now free and living in West Africa, but is still banned from entering the country that wrongly imprisoned him.
Last weekend, multimedia artist Laurie Anderson brought Gharani to New York’s Park Avenue Armory by way of a live-streamed image wrapped around an enormous 3-D cast of his body. For the exhibition Habeas Corpus, immersive guitar feedback drone music, created by Anderson’s late husband, Lou Reed, filled the cavernous Drill Hall, interspersed with sounds of surveillance audio and the instruments of musicians wandering about. At the center, a 16-foot Gharani sat silently looking out into the crowd and intermittently telling stories of his time in prison.
“We wanted to create a sort of meditative space so people could have this feeling of drones–[Reed’s] guitar feedback work–which is meant to put people in a sort of dream state,” says Anderson. “But what happened, which I love, was John Zorn, the horn player, came by and said, ‘Oh, I’d love to play in the space.’ It sort of mushroomed into all of these musicians.”
Before installing the piece at the Armory, Anderson traveled to West Africa to film Gharani and set up the camera for the live broadcast. After initially considering using satellite technology to broadcast Gharani, her team quickly realized that it was too expensive for a one-off project. They ended up using what Jason Stern, Anderson’s tech director, calls a “cellular multiplex,” essentially sending a video signal across several different data connections in tandem.
Back in New York, setting up the installation to map the projection onto the 16-foot sculpture was its own obstacle. Anderson wanted the seated Gharani to call to mind the Lincoln Memorial, but also wanted viewers to be able to see him straight on (as opposed to Lincoln, whose shins obscure his entire body when seen up close). Carved from a huge hunk of foam, the projection surface was less a detailed sculpture and more “a kind of cubist work of these sliding planes,” says Anderson. “What you’re coming up with is not a human shape. It’s somewhere between the second and third dimensions.”
Ultimately, the piece speaks to the dissident power of live-streaming. Through telepresence, Anderson not only enabled Gharani to tell his story directly without outside interpretation, but also allowed visitors to speak back.
“At the end–and I didn’t expect this–people were lining up to wave to” Gharani through the camera filming the museum, says Anderson. “They mouthed the words I’m sorry. It was wild. No one was copying another person; they were just saying what they felt.”