O Superman

On Friday I saw performance artist Laurie Anderson’s latest work, Habeas Corpus. Performed at the Park Avenue Armory, it was a multimedia hodgepodge of lots of things, mostly music. It was broadly “about” Guantanamo.

The Armory is huge. It’s a giant vaulted space the size of a 10,000-seat stadium. It was almost completely blacked out. It felt like a physical manifestation of the legal black hole those prisoners inhabit. There were two non-blacked out locations: a giant plaster cast white chair, filled with a generically sculpted, seated human figure, and a stage. Onto this figure was projected a live video feed of Mohammed el Gharani, a former Guantanamo inmate. He was captured aged 14 and served 8 years in the prison before being repatriated to Chad.

Laurie Anderson conducted a brief interview with him, and then played a recorded interview. He talked about his relationship with his prison mentor, Shaker Aamer. He broke down while taking about Aamer, doubled over in psychic pain.

Anderson cut the tape. Then Anderson read Allen Ginsburg’s poem “Song”. It’s great. Read it if you like.

A theme of the night was developing. The theme of love. That love is the only thing that sustains us through horror. The love el Gharani felt for Aamer. The love that we all feel for mothers, fathers, friends. The love we felt for others in that space.

The band TuneYards – Meril Garbus and Nate Brenner – took the stage and sang/created (using loops) a strange, Middle East-inspired sound collage. It is strange to completely agree with the philosophical/political intent of a piece of art (“Guantanamo is bad, both for the inmates and for us”) and yet… not enjoy the art. I’m not going to say the sound collage was bad, because I’m not capable of judging the relative merits of avant-garde sound collages. It just wasn’t for me.

Then Laurie Anderson played O Superman.

O Superman is one of my favorite pieces of music. It pulls off the impossible, being at once totally original and totally accessible. It sounds as strange and without precedent as it did 25 years ago, despite decades of electronic music exploring some of the territory it opened. It also meets the definitive criterion for a masterpiece: I feel something different every single time I hear it.

It happened again that night. Superman: the American icon, the pop culture vessel that encapsulates our values. To sing about Superman in the context of Guantanamo felt profound to me. As did singing it in an Armory, a military building, not unlike the military installation of Guantanamo. One line – “they’re American planes” – hit harder than usual. If you like, all the lyrics are here.

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Not angry

I’m not angry much.

Things people consider “big, angry-making issues” don’t make me very angry. War makes me angry, I suppose. But the minute after I learn we’re invading yet another country, I feel almost instant resignation. What’s the point in being angry about it? It’s a waste of time. What does it matter if I’m angry? I’m just a tiny cog in a machine. Actually, I’m not even that. A machine needs every cog to work in harmony. Every piece of a machine matters. I do NOT matter. I’m less of a cog, more of an ant. I’m one ant in a giant colony of 300 million ants. It doesn’t really matter what I say or think. We’re attacking that other ant-hill, and that’s that. Just like the Queen doesn’t care what any individual ant thinks, no politician cares what I think. I can be safely ignored. So can you.

I suppose I could go out into the streets and peacefully protest. But the politicians already expected lots of us to do that anyway. They thought about it before they announced the war. They factored it in, and decided to go ahead and do some war anyway. Me protesting won’t make a blind bit of difference.

However, I do get angry about very, very tiny, inconsequential things. I get angry when people wear backpacks on crowded subway trains. You should place your bag on the floor between your legs. Why don’t people know this instinctively? Everyone should be aware that wearing a backpack needlessly takes up space in the train car. And even if you are NOT instinctively aware of it, there are signs everywhere on the train reminding you “don’t wear backpacks on crowded trains”.

Every time I see someone do it, I want to say something. I never do. My only actual response is this: when I am leaving the subway car, and thebackpack bastard is staying on, I drop my shoulder and try to deliberately hit the person’s backpack. This results in one of two things:

1) If the backpack is carried over just one shoulder, I can sometimes knock it off their shoulder, and onto the floor. That feels good. That’s where the backpack SHOULD have been in the first place.

2) If the backpack is carried over BOTH shoulders, I can sometimes hit the backpack with my shoulder in such a way that the wearer spins off-balance and almost falls over. This is the best. It makes them look stupid, and may result in them not wearing a backpack in future: punishment, plus potential redemption.

I don’t know how to square this circle. I’m more outraged – and more willing to take direct action to prevent – crowded subway backpack-wearing than I am war. Does this make me a bad person? Or have I just found the only war that I think I can help win?