Laura Poitras wants you to know that you are under surveillance at all times. At all times. The artist, journalist and documentary filmmaker, who won the 2015 Best Documentary Feature Academy Award for Citizenfour, the story of Edward Snowden and the NSA Spying Scandal, has her first solo museum show opening at the Whitney Museum on Friday, February 5th, and it is an immersive, installation-based exhibit unlike anything I’ve seen previously. The show’s title, Astro Noise, refers to the faint background disturbance of thermal radiation left over from the Big Bang, which is also the name that Edward Snowden gave to an encrypted file containing evidence of mass surveillance by the NSA that he shared with Poitras in 2013.
As you move from one gallery to the next, Astro Noise may elicit reactions that vary between enlightening, sobering and extremely personally horrifying, but I doubt you will leave it feeling unchanged. Her work starkly documents the complex realities of the post-9/11 world, focusing on US polices concerning indefinite detention, pre-emptive war, targeted killing, torture and mass surveillance. The “War on Terror” as these strategies are collectively known, is obscured from many Americans’ daily lives, but Poitras has worked to document its complexities, primarily through her celebrated 9/11 Trilogy of feature-length documentary films.
The first darkened gallery off the exhibit’s entryway features O’Say Can You See, a double video projection on a two-sided screen. The first side presents a visually seductive short film depicting slow-motion shots of people gazing at the unseen remains of the World Trade Center in the days following the 9/11 attacks.
In the same gallery, the backside of that screen shows grainy U.S. Military footage of the interrogation of two prisoners in Afghanistan, taking place during the same post-9/11 time period. This footage was so disturbing, I had to leave the room after a few minutes.
The next gallery features an immersive video installation called Bed Down Location, where the visitor can lay back on a carpeted platform (very comfy!) and gaze up at a ceiling projection of the skies where drone wars are conducted. The title of the work refers to the military term denoting where a targeted person sleeps, which is fucked up! If the exhibit is crowded when you visit, it will be worth your time to wait until a space on the platform opens up, so you can flat-back it for the 15 minutes or so that the video plays, because it is pretty crazy. I took a video, but it did not come out.
From Bed Down Location you will enter the L-shaped corridor of Disposition Matrix. The walls of the corridor are lined with window-like slits, each of which you can peer into to see that it contains a video or classified document. See examples below.
2002 Memorandum from George Tenet, then Director of the CIA, on increasing the agency’s cooperation and information sharing with the NSA.
Animated Close Ups of Intercepted Signals Collected Through ANARCHIST, a classified program run by UK Intelligence.
Line drawing by an NSA employee explaining an Internet surveillance method called “Shaping.”
Infrared Footage of AT&T Building, Downtown NYC.
There was a lot worse stuff than the above, some of which I could not even look at.
Exit the Disposition Matrix and get a face-full of Last Seen, a live-feed infrared video of everyone currently in the Bed Down Location gallery. SURPRISE!
In 2006, Poitras was placed on a secret Government Watch List; consequently, while traveling she has been detained and interrogated more than fifty times. In the installation entitled November 20, 2004, Poitras retraces the events that lead to her being placed on that list, evoking the hidden surveillance she has experienced.
Laura Poitras addressed the press at the the exhibit preview held on February 3rd. She seems really cool, and I have deep respect for her work.
Laura Poitras’ Astro Noise Will be on Exhibit From February 5th Through May 1st, 2016 at The Whitney Museum of American Art, Located at 99 Gansevoort Street in NYC. This Exhibit is Not Appropriate for Children Under 15.
Astro Noise Souvenir Postcard Available in the Gift Shop!