Noises are the sounds we have learned to ignore.
—R. Murray Schafer
After conducting a yearlong clearance review, the United States Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM) granted me permission in April 2015 to visit Guantánamo Bay as a part of a so-called Media Tour. I had applied as a poet researching dysfluency. I provided numerous documents and references and agreed to several background checks, and then final approval arrived as a signed “Country Clearance Form.” I booked a round-trip ticket from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the only American airport with service to Guantánamo Bay, on a flight operated by IBC Airways (“Your Gateway to the Caribbean”).
I’m not exactly sure why I was allowed to visit Gitmo. From conversations with military personnel stationed there, I learned that access is awarded on a case-by-case basis and that the criteria for acceptance change with every command rotation. As far as I know, I was the first poet to be granted clearance. I got the sense that some units are simply more open than others to non-journalists and to applications that propose political or critical stories.
I spent five days touring the facilities. I was taken through almost every site on the premises: the Medical Center, where force-feeding was explained and demonstrated; the Detainee Library, where I was allowed to browse many of the approximately 10,000 volumes of books and magazines available to detainees; Camp VI, where I was allowed to view detainees “going about their day”; Camp Justice, where trials are held; Camp X-Ray, the first detention facility built at Gitmo, which is now completely overgrown and where I was allowed to walk through the cells, staging areas, and interrogation booth in the afternoon and at night; and Camp Iguana, the juvenile detention facility where Omar Khadr was held.
The frontispiece of my press kit read:
JOINT TASK FORCE GUANTANAMO
SAFE * HUMANE * LEGAL * TRANSPARENT
I was never left alone at Gitmo, though I was permitted to collect a variety of field recordings and write poems and notes on my iPhone. For security reasons, I was not permitted to record what one Public Affairs (PA) representative referred to as “non-permissible human voice.” I attempted to record every¬thing else, and I transcribed as much overheard speech as I could.
When it came to photographs and video, members of the Media Tour were prohibited from capturing “frontal facial views, profiles, 3/4 views, or any view revealing a detainee’s identity.” In other words, as one PA representative put it, “If their mother can’t identify the detainee in the photo, then it’s a good photo.” Every day of the tour ended in the same way: with an Operational Security (OPSEC) meeting. At these meetings we were made to show PA representatives our photos, audio recordings, videos, and “other artistic renderings” in case any of it constituted Operational Protected Information:
I happened to visit Gitmo during the Baltimore riots, which were constantly being played on all the screens and radio stations at the facility. Much of the talk uttered by members of the military addressed the possibly imminent closure of Gitmo, the allegations of torture and enhanced interrogations, and the (non)legality of detaining the one hundred and eleven men that remained at the time I was there. The soundscape of this talk was one of feedback loops and evasion, repetition with variations on an echo-forming language strategy:
That’s not in my lane.
I don’t know what they’ve done or what they haven’t done. I’m not privy to that information.
I’m not authorized to tell you that, sir.
I can’t speak to that. But I’ll see if I can find someone who can.
Sir, you’re not allowed to ask that.
That happened before my time.
The neighborhood is burning itself out.
Even if they’re good, they can’t talk.
The ambient recordings collected here capture the room tone of a once-held violence or a never-heard pastoral. The sounds belong to the disappeared and the indefinitely detained, their calls for rights and home flung out only to evaporate in the impossible sea air that surrounds. Ambient recordings as a kind of empty form that resonates with the visually-redacted photo or the lexically-redacted poem.Redaction looks like ambience sounds.
How can we listen to redaction? How can we listen to entire systems of it?