Notes on a Tribunal

Combatant Status Review Tribunals pp. 002954-003064: A Public Reading is a two-day presentation at MoMA, today Saturday November 12 and tomorrow Sunday November 13, of a four-hour reading of transcripts from Combatant Status Review Tribunals held at the United States military prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba in 2004-2005, excerpted from a collection of transcripts released online by the US Department of Defense. This event, organized by the artists Andrea Geyer, Sharon Hayes, Ashley Hunt, Katya Sander, and David Thorne, with the participation of readers,  is a really interesting way of being exposed to and absorbing some of the complex meanings of political events that have taken place under conditions of secrecy, though “in our name,” at least for citizens of the United States.

The reading is very effectively situated in the museum in a transitional space, on one of the vestigial landings of the old (or what I would call the pentimento) of the original MoMA Bauhaus-style staircase and tantalizingly near the exit (no entrance) glass doors leading to what at least today was a member’s preview to the exhibition of Diego Rivera murals. I felt strongly that Rivera would understand, he would approve–and most likely he would depict, in a boldly yet delicately drawn and painted fresco, the scene in front of him: the restrained visuals of political theater staged with readers representing presiding military officers, a recorder, the detainee, the “Personal Representative” of the detainee, all sitting around four tables set into a square surrounded by the museum audience, on rows of chair set behind the tables, as well as seated on the staircase, intent on listening while trying to tune out the noise of the crowded museum. Rivera would paint this crowd scene, perhaps providing an identificatory cartouche of the double identity of each reader: Official questioner>art historian Yve-Alain Bois, detainee Personal Representative>actress and playwright Anna Deveare Smith, (two of the readers when I was there). I’m not sure if the artists would have preferred a more advantageous setting, quieter, and larger with more room for an audience, as in the situation evidently afforded it at documenta12 as pictured on MoMA’s website for this piece:

Andrea Geyer, Sharon Hayes, Ashley Hunt, Katya Sander, David Thorne. Combatant Status Review Tribunals pp.002954–003064: A Public Reading. 2007. Performed at Documenta12, 2007. © the artists

However I think the current site is perfect: so much better to “occupy” and reanimate the ghost of MoMA’s history within the confines of MoMA’s current physical and symbolic status as one of the Department of Defense-like corporate behemoths of the international art industry.

Image from today's reading photographed and uploaded to Facebook by Andrea Geyer

The moment that I experienced in a short time attending this performance today offered some perspectives I had not expected. Given what is known of the way these hearings were conducted, one assumes that the readings are meant to expose the lack of transparency of the entire situation of capture, imprisonment, treatment, and legal practices as well as the seeming randomness of who ended up at Gitmo, with the fact of the impropriety of these tribunals according to military and treaty law creating the implication that all such captives are innocent. However as the proceedings I happened to witness at the reading today progressed, the narrative went from the detainee’s assertion of innocence to a close questioning by the military officials as to how, as a self-stated simple humble “worker,” he had managed to support his family in Yemen while traveling for months and on a number of occasions between Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan, where he was captured, while doing or not doing undefined jobs here and there. This lack of conclusiveness, this seed of doubt as to the veracity of the detainee, and the lack of conclusion, at least in the performance of the transcripts, as to the final determination of this detainee’s status, created a more ambiguous and complex political narrative than I had expected to experience.

9 Scripts from a Nation at War, a multichannel video installation by the same artists, Geyer, Hayes, Hunt, and Thorne will be shown at MoMA from January 24 to July 30, 2012. But participation through presence is a politically enriching act: the readings from Combatant Status Review Tribunals pp. 002954-003064 will take place again tomorrow at the museum from 12 to 4, on the second floor (free if you go to information desk and say you had done a RSVP).