Earworms + Radio Voices: In Conversation with Gregory Whitehead

Why broadcast a performance documentary about the sanctioned torture taking place at the notorious Guantánamo Bay ‘facility’ on Australian radio, where it was first commissioned by ABC’s Soundproof?

The verbatim voicings heard in On the Shore Dimly Seen are revealed courtesy of Wikileaks—and the latter is the creation of estranged Australian activist, Julian Assange.

Gregory Whitehead hears the radio-space as the ultimate public forum: “… at least we can bring these brutal scripts, the entire twisted repertory of the Total Theater of Torture, out into the open air.”

Written texts motivate Whitehead’s work—from its core libretto of an interrogation log to the morphing ‘text’ of the Star-Spangled Banner to the interview script of Dick Cheney. He is equally driven by writings about torture and ethics, media and ritual. Earlid’s curator, Joan Schuman, asked him about bearing witness and how art manages to reveal more than a reality tour through the heinous.

Earlid: The fall 2016 Earlid exhibit featuring your work was spun after I read Em Strang’s essay, “Over Yonder Horror,” in Dark Mountain’s Spring 2016 issue. She says there’s something gracious about taking the time to think and feel a way in to the pain and suffering of others, and to transform that contemplation into a work of art.

GW-TVGregory Whitehead: Yes, I like what Em Strang writes about empathic capacity, though she is certainly aware that the commercial media depend on creating shock through momentary identification with victims; and wary of how this shock is manipulated, milked, drained, leaving viewers ever more passive, numbed. Direct confrontation with violence shuts down both the emotions and the brain, as a way of protecting the self. Freud was already on to this in his study of WW I shell-shock victims (and many other subjects), Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Shock may be effective to grab attention, but it cannot sustain it.

By using the transcript of the interrogation as the core “libretto”, and not trying to imagine the lived experience of the victim through some sort of performative re-enactment, I wanted to create enough distance, such that the contemplative space could deepen, and reduce the space of shock. Of course, the transcript creates its own kind of aftershock as we consider the implications of those dark actions, but that slight psychological distancing embodied by the transcript allows the listener to witness the scene in a different way. The element of obliqueness creates a space of engagement and even resistance, first for us three performers, and then for the listener.

There’s another fantastic book, by Jill Stauffer, Ethical Loneliness, with a subtitle: the injustice of being heard. Victims of our torture are beginning to speak out, books like Guantánamo Diary. We must listen very carefully to those voices as well, and not just listen: act! As Stauffer persuasively argues, hearing a voice without acting on the implications of that testimony creates yet another layer of wounding. I know of one study of the long-term mental health of victims of USA-sponsored torture in Chile during the 1970s that concluded that more damage was done by the long years of silent injustice than by the primary trauma of the torture.

Earlid: Related to this idea of being heard, I have a question about your use of a written transcript (of the interrogation) to offer these voices, artfully, to the ear. How do performative voices bring such witnessing closer (do they?) as compared to visually stark images or other documentation of international torture?

Gregory Whitehead: I was deeply moved and influenced many years ago by Susan Sontag’s writings regarding the suffering of others; how the use of primary documents in particular can become the twisted inverse or implosion of empathy, and turn us into accomplices. The perversely exploitative and sadistic ethos of our regime of torture became clear for the world to see in the vast trove of photographs taken by perpetrators at Abu Ghraib. For many, I fear this became a form of entertainment and gratification: torture-porn. My material was different: the language used to record, to deflect, to dismiss, as well as the laundry list of approved scripts and techniques for the violation of these human beings. Inside that language resides a whole history of science and research into the destruction of subjectivity; the science of learned helplessness; the science of dread, dependency and debility.

Radio creates the ideal space for such a performance, allowing the listener into the “script” of this interrogation without complicit voyeurism. My own voicing was almost a whisper—to preserve the intimacy that might allow the listener to enter in—and the same with the performance of Anne Undeland. Even when she wanted to scream from the content of the text, she kept the performance calm. Not cold, but calm.

Then there are the extraordinary vocal excavations and exposures of the national anthem performed so brilliantly by Gelsey Bell, who manages to convey intensity, depth and even pure rage yet without pushing the ear away, of shutting it down. Both Anne’s and Gelsey’s performances were incredibly brave, their willingness to live with this material for so long, and make something from it. Their voices also inspired me to keep going, day after day of the final mix, which was quite exhausting as you can imagine.

On another important point: radio is such a profoundly personal medium, engaging not an assembled audience in one place, as in theatre, but a scattered, dispersed community of individual listeners, unknown to each other, finding them one by one, in their own private spaces. In that spirit, I tried to conjure the tone of a private conversation, bringing each pair of ears through the terrible ordeal, a single day in the life of detainee 063. Horrific content, to be sure, but it is only horrific if you truly try to come to grips with it, and that can only happen if you have the space to think. That was my fundamental challenge, for this piece: to create a space to think about the unthinkable.

Earlid: I want to explore a couple of words with you—liturgy and litany—and how they relate to the public sphere, to a description of your work, to witnessing in general. Virginia Madsen wrote a review-essay of “Dimly Seen” and she uses the phrase ‘liturgy of torture.’ I was thinking about your song-stories as a ‘litany of horror.’ Liturgy and litany have some common threads involving a kind of call and response and, thus, a public relationship or entwining.

Gregory Whitehead: Yes, and for this understanding, I was inspired by a Rebecca Gordon essay on the Torture Body, that follows the structure of the eucharist from the sursum corda through to the final prayer after communion. She makes the case quite convincingly that torture has become something like a eucharist, not of cleansing and forgiveness, but of punishment and disappearance, in the hands of the state; a daily practice, as she writes:

… torture is not a rare or aberrant event. It is an important tool in the apparatus of the majority of modern nation-states. We are told that it is a tool of interrogation, but its primary purpose has little to do with the extraction of information. Torture exists to destroy any opposition to those in power — and to dismantle the structures of organized opposition to power. Far from being a phenomenon of the unenlightened past, torture is common practice today. Even as you read these words, human bodies are torturing other human bodies in cells all over the world, including the prisons of the United States.

In the interview between Dick and Chuck (which is a slightly modified condensation of the infamous interview between Dick Cheney and Chuck Todd), I wanted to bring that latent catechism to the surface, through the structure of the voicing.

Earlid: I was struck by how very American (and maybe ‘manly’) these names are, while the detainee just gets identified by an anonymous number. So it’s a kind of ‘over here’ and ‘over there’ dichotomy or familiarity and distance. Can listening to such unrelenting details about far-away torture reveal or obscure such actions that we know are going on, but as a ‘public,’ simply ignore (it’s all done in private, but your work broadcasts it in public)?

dimlyseenGregory Whitehead: When the summary of the Senate report was made public, I read every page and thought: OK, surely there will finally be a move for accountability regarding the authors of this horrific regime of torture, or at least a program of compensation and reparative justice for the victims. I should have known better! I asked many friends and colleagues if they had read the summary, and they often responded they were too ashamed to do so, or that they tried, and could not turn the pages.

Here again, perhaps the more immersive space of listening opens a possibility for consideration that page after page of redacted violence shuts down. Radio also offers the ultimate public forum, the ultimate forensic theatre: that is, the space in which certain historical facts and actions might be aired out. We may not have the courage, as a collective, to conduct a trial to hold the perpetrators accountable for their crimes, but at least we can bring these brutal scripts, the entire twisted repertory of the Total Theater of Torture, out into the open air.

Earlid: Similarly, does ‘singing’ a conversation, say, between a journalist (“Chuck”) and a torturer (“Dick”), soften the reality of such an act or bring it more starkly to the fore?

Gregory Whitehead: To my mind, art has the power to replicate the real in a way that creates emotional, psychological and reflective space that would not be possible through confrontation with the raw document. I am certain that in the chanted version of the interview, a different understanding emerges then from merely excerpting the audio from the actual interview: by bringing it into my own voice, chanting at a slow tempo, I try to open a possibility for the listener to hear the profound ethical vacuity of this dialogue with fresh ears.

And remember that music, and particularly the Star-Spangled Banner, was used extensively as part of the tortures, looped over and over and played at high volume, whether for sleep deprivation or to set the scene for the various scripts. The transcript for the day I selected begins with the detainee standing at attention, for the national anthem. Such a profound violation of our own professed values! Gelsey Bell then takes that perverse overture and turns it inside out, in variation after variation for the rest of the piece.

Earlid: Yes, and here’s the scariest thing for me. After listening to “Dimly Seen” several times, I could ‘hear’ the song in my head and found myself humming it later. My mind then had to somehow snap it out of my ears, but I was queasy and still wanted it in there—for all kinds of reasons—aesthetic ones and a need to still be starkly rattled about such truths I was hearing via the work.

Gregory Whitehead: I have made something of a study of “ear worms” over the years, and have tried to hatch them often within my plays and voice castaways. There are many shape note songs that have this effect, as well as Celtic lamentations and Gregorian chants. During production, I am the host for the parasite, and live with those worms for weeks on end. I must have faith that they will eat all the rotted parts of my brain, and create a bit of space for new questions and ideas.

Gregory Whitehead works in performance documentary.

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