The Sound of Torture

– Ambient sound recordings are a powerful way to archive a space, says poet Jordan Scott, who presents recordings from Guantánamo Bay at the Oslo International Poetry Festival tonight.

From Guantánamo Bay, Camp Echo, cell and shower. Photo: Wikimedia.
From Guantánamo Bay, Camp Echo, cell and shower. Photo: Wikimedia.

Last night, 8 October, saw the opening of the Oslo International Poetry Festival, featuring a range of readings, talks and a “Defence of Poetry” speech by the Ukrainian poet Ilya Kaminsky. The festival, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year, has chosen speech impediments and witness poetry as its theme for 2015. More specifically, the festival will – according to its press release – consider “the potential of physical, psychological and neurological dysfluencies as disrupting societal demands for fluency and coherence.” The head of the festival, Birgit Hatlehol, describes the four-day programme as the most ambitious, political and wide-ranging yet – featuring contributors from many countries, including Germany, Poland, Syria, Iran, Yemen and Ukraine.

The festival will also present the world premiere of the sound work UNSOUND GTMO: Recording the State of Exception, created by the Canadian poet Jordan Scott in co-operation with the composer Jason Starnes. The work consists of recordings he made during a visit to Guantánamo Bay, the detention camp operated by the US military, in April this year. Scott, who published his first book Silt in 2005, is currently the Writer in Residence at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. He has visited the Oslo poetry festival before: in 2009 he gave a performance at Henie Onstad Kunstsenter based on his book Blert, a collection of poems based on his own experience of stuttering. His interest in speech dysfluencies is part of what prompted him to create his Guantánamo project, which he will present at the festival tonight. He will also give a lecture about the project on Sunday 11 October.

Kunstkritikk met Scott to talk about the project immediately upon his arrival in Oslo.

Jordan Scott.
Jordan Scott.

How did your interest in speech impediments and dysfluencies bring you to Guantánamo?

Even when I started my second book Blert, I knew that I wanted to look at the relationship between stuttering and lying. When I was growing up I was really aware, from a lot of movies and hip-hop music, that when somebody would get excited and have a slip-up of speech, that would be seen as a sign of lying. But those slip-ups of lying were always in situations of power, and situations of accusing, and that always interested me. When I started to study interrogation techniques, I found that this is what they look for, slip-ups in speech, hesitations, as signs of lying. But I was able to meet with some interrogators with the Canadian secret service, and what they actually said is that they have a really hard time trying to get their personnel not to believe that a hesitation or a stutter is a lie. Often the real sign of a lie is that people are extremely rehearsed. The relationship between speech and lying, and those procedures of interrogation, is what I have been concentrating on for a long time now. And that took me to Guantánamo, as some of the documents I was reading originated from there. I sent an application, never thinking I would be able to go.

What were you able to do there?

I applied with this project as a poet, and said that I was going to do ambient sound recordings. And I actually found that I was able to access some places that the journalists were not, because they did not see me as any kind of threat whatsoever. I was actually quite astounded at some of the things I was able to do. I was able to slip underneath some of the security, if only just briefly. If they were really thinking about it, I do not think they would have allowed me to do it. Because I do think doing ambient sound recordings is a powerful way to archive a space.

But it is really a highly secure facility, and you were essentially on a “tour” the whole time. At the end of every day we had to go through security meetings where they crop your photos, go through your journal and phone and everything. And I think that is why all the pictures you see of Guantánamo are pretty much all the same. But they just left my stuff alone. I wrote my poems on my phone while things were happening. They did not particularly care about that.

They did not actually read them?

No. Although when I got there, they knew all about my books. They had read them, as much as they could.

Are the poems you wrote on your phone also part of the project you present at the festival?

The poems are a part of the project, but what I plan to do is just to project the screenshots of the poems that I wrote on the phone, because I am really hesitant to change those, or to somehow aestheticize them. I want them to be almost like “evidence”, if a poem could ever be that, I am not sure. But part of the danger to me is to aestheticize these. I have some ethical concerns about that, but I think one way to navigate is not to change whatever I have written. I only call them poems because I am not sure what else to call them. They are definitely not how I usually write poems.

From Guantánamo Bay, Camp X-Ray. Photo: Wikimedia.
From Guantánamo Bay, Camp X-Ray. Photo: Wikimedia.

A lot of the torture at Guantánamo is done through air-conditioners, by freezing a detainee in a room for a long time, in order to get him to speak, or to say whatever they want him to say. When I was there, one of the first things I noticed was this incredible sound of generators and air-conditioners, everywhere, all the time, it was a constant. So that forms a really large part of the ambient sound. And what I find haunting about that is … You know, these sounds are generally not sounds you realize are there, they are just sounds we pass by or ignore. But in this case, if you think about the sound that you are hearing, it is essentially the sound of a specific kind of torture. Without the body. Because that is the thing at Guantánamo, you can’t see these men or talk to them, you are only witnessing the military structure around them. So how do you access them, how do you get a little bit closer? I really think that this sound is one way to do it.

Everyone that goes to Guantánamo writes some kind of negative story about it. And I got the sense when I was there that they really believe that they can change your mind. They really honestly believe that what they are doing is humane and ethical and transparent. Especially the younger people, they honestly believed that. And everybody was so polite and accommodating. I found it really banal, but horrifying. You meet the guards and the people that take you around, and they are “nice people”. You have good conversations with them, they have families, some of them, that they have not seen in a long time, and they “don’t know” anything about anything. Like when we went to Camp X-Ray, that was the first camp before they built the prison, it is just a series of cells that are out in the open; the ones you see in the pictures of the men in orange jumpsuits, with hoods, kneeling in the dirt, right. So we went there, and the Public Affairs Officer was taking us on a tour, and she was just reading from a booklet, showing us pictures. And the journalists would ask her something, and she had absolutely no idea. But I think that is part of the strategy. There is a constant erasure of the memory. Everybody down there said, “Oh, I don’t know anything about that,” about the torture, the waterboarding or anything; “I don’t know about that, I wasn’t here then.”

Of course you were not able to meet any of the detainees?

No, absolutely not. I was able to see them, in Camp 6. But they were behind huge shields of reflective glass. And behind me were like twelve marines. We just watched these men. It was lunch time, so they were just wandering in and out of the common area and there were some who were finishing their prayers. The whole thing was unethical, but that particularly was one of the more unethical parts of my time there; watching the people without their consent or knowledge, in a space where they essentially have no rights whatsoever. I felt there was a doubling, there was more at stake in that situation.

But you wanted to get closer to the body?

I was hoping to. I have spent much time reading about it and intellectualizing it, and I wanted to see if I could get closer to the actual conditions that the bodies were in. But I knew that wasn’t going to happen. So for me it was also like wanting to immerse myself in the soundscape of what they are deprived of. In terms of … maybe the natural sounds. The outside was uncontrollable, pastoral, melodic. But they do not have access to those sounds. Perhaps briefly, when they have to go between the prison and the courts at Camp Justice, across the island. Otherwise what they are hearing is just the generators and the air-conditioners. But I think it is a great question: are you able to get closer to a body through sound?

Guard Force Troopers transport a detainee to the detainee hospital located adjacent to Camp Four, Guantánamo Bay, 2007. Foto: Wikimedia.
Guard Force Troopers transport a detainee to the detainee hospital located adjacent to Camp Four, Guantánamo Bay. Photo: Wikimedia.

This for me is the initial gesture, then I want to see how it works. I do have a lot of concerns about it. The poems that I wrote on my phone … usually in my practice those would be the notes I would take before I write the poems. I was writing them while I was watching, or while I was listening, in these specific spaces.

I think it is really easy to go there and come back with some very emotional poetry. But then you have to ask yourself, whose emotion is that? They are certainly not the detainees’ emotions … It is me, as a white Canadian, and I think that has the potential to kind of create the same conditions that brought those men to Guantánamo in the first place. I do not want them to be my art project.

If you see sound as material for poetry, then really the recordings I took are almost a witnessing of the poetry of that space. I think the direction I would like to go is just this… I think sound does enough, without any kind of intervention. So I think at a certain point, I would like to just do that.

You are still processing this?

Definitely. It was not a pleasant experience. I mean, obviously I do not want to appropriate other people’s trauma. But going there really changed me in a fundamental way. It is a real sadness. That is how I would describe it. I have been to prisons before, and I have observed people in a prison, but it is just … When you are observing people you know have not been charged, and will not be charged, and have spent like over 16 years in that space. They are like “the forever detained” now, that is their new title. On my phone, I would be writing down other people’s conversations, soundbites of what the guards were saying, what the marines were saying. And that collision between being in that space and hearing really mundane talk about Hollywood and girls and … That, for me … The journalists did not give a shit about any of that. I asked them about the ethics of watching; they do not care. So I think in that sense, poets and artists should go there. It is a different level of perception that is not often brought to light. At Guantánamo, they would say like: “Ok, you are allowed to take pictures or videos of detainees, but our rule is, if their mothers can recognize their face, then we delete it.” And everybody started to laugh, and my stomach just wrenched right out, it was terrifying. Why would you say something like that? But again, it is so flattened, so banal. But I suppose that is also the soundscape of it, the chattering and the insults, all of that.

They took us through the medical facilities too. The doctor who does force-feedings had this cheerful smile and glazed-over eyes, and she was talking in a kind of up-tone voice: “And the detainees get to choose which size of tubing they would like, and they get to choose the nutrition, whether they want strawberry or chocolate or vanilla.” And I am thinking, they can’t fucking taste it, what are you talking about? And she went: “Isn’t it wonderful that they get to choose these things?” And she was describing going through the nose and into the stomach, and I asked her, how do you know if you are in the right spot in the stomach? And she said, “Oh, great question, the detainees are wonderful at telling me if I am in the right spot or not.” And I said, what does that sound like? And then this big man taps me on the shoulder, and says: “No, sir, you can’t ask that.” Anything I asked that would have gotten me even remotely close to the people that nobody is ever allowed to see, or touch, or talk to, was not tolerated.

The entrance to Camp 1 in Guantánamo Bay's Camp Delta. Photo: Kathleen T. Rhem / Wikimedia.
The entrance to Camp Delta, Guantánamo Bay. Photo: Kathleen T. Rhem / Wikimedia.