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  • You (Shall) Have the BodyPatterns of Life in the Shadow of Guantánamo
  • Keith Feldman

In order to function, that is, to be readable, a signature must have a repeatable, iterable, imitable form; it must be able to be detached from the present and singular intention of its production.

Jacques Derrida

Are we witnesses who confirm the truth of what happened in the face of the world-destroying capacities of pain, the distortions of torture, the sheer unrepresentability of terror, and the repression of the dominant accounts? Or are we voyeurs fascinated with and repelled by exhibitions of terror and sufferance? What does exposure of the violated body yield?

Saidiya Hartman

For three days in early October 2015, the Park Avenue Armory museum in New York City staged "Habeas Corpus," a work of installation art that exposed, if not a present-tense violation of the body, then the flickering visions of its immediate past.1 The writ of habeas corpus—Latin for "you (shall) have the body"—emanates from the Magna Carta, and decrees that authorities holding a person captive must present the body of that person before a tribunal tasked with ruling on the legality of their captivity. This foundational principle of the rule of law was routinely denied the roughly 780 people held at the U.S. detention camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. In response to numerous habeas petitions brought by detainees, the U.S. Supreme Court clarified first (in Rasul v. Bush, 2004) that, based on the early 20th century Insular Cases resolving questions about the geographical dispensation of U.S. sovereignty after the Spanish-American war, the writ of habeas corpus did indeed apply to people held on the Caribbean island;2 and second (in Boumidiene v. Bush, 2008), contrary to the Military Commissions Act of 2006, that people held captive at Guantánamo Bay did indeed have the right to bring habeas cases.3 The Park Avenue art installation signified upon this legal history. It foregrounded the ways the detained body was obscured from the purview of law and refused entrance into the sovereign territory of the United States. Produced by the acclaimed U.S. [End Page 189] performance artist Laurie Anderson, the installation's centerpiece featured what Anderson called the "telepresencing" of Mohammed el Gharani.4 Born in Chad and raised in Saudi Arabia, in 2002 the then-14-year-old El Gharani was taken captive in Pakistan and detained for two months at the U.S. military prison in Bagram, Afghanistan, before being sent to Guantánamo, where he was held without charge.5 The U.S. state claimed that El Gharani had been part of an Al Qaeda cell in London, though El Gharani had never visited London, and even if he had, he would have been a preteen at the time alleged by the state. In 2009, U.S. Judge Richard J. Leon ruled that the allegations against El Gharani were meritless, and, later that year, U.S. authorities at Guantánamo facilitated El Gharani's release to Chad.6

For "Habeas Corpus," the Park Avenue Armory's cavernous Drill Hall was cross-hatched by a dazzling refraction of countless beams of light scattered throughout an otherwise darkened room. Their play on the floors, walls, and ceiling signaled a sense of extra-terrestrial transport, a site beyond all that our Earth-laden gravity seemingly holds in place. At the center of the installation was what one viewer described as "an apparition of ambiguous magnificence": a sixteen-foot-high sculpture of a chair, into which was projected a live video feed of El Gharani broadcast from an undisclosed location in West Africa.7 The sculpture's dimensions and proportions resonated with those of the Lincoln Memorial, an allusion underscored in the installation's printed program.8 In a video interview screened in another room El Gharani recounted, among other things, his visit with Anderson to a West African slave fort, a site he suggests was laden with a sense of historical repetition and similitude: capture, forced trans-Atlantic transit, indefinite captivity. What had begun for Anderson as an aesthetic exploration of "telepresence, cameras, time, and prison" had transformed into a...


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