Laura Poitras Astro Noise
On ViewWhitney Museum of American Art
February 5 – MAY 1, 2016
Why the fuck am I making long-form documentaries when other ways of working are so much more energizing? I really want to do the installation project of hanging screens in a warehouse. So that entering it is like a torture chamber.
— Laura Poitras, diary entry, February 26, 2013
Laura Poitras, the dissident journalist and filmmaker, imagined creating an art installation about a month after her initial contact with Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower who would become the subject of her Academy Award-winning documentary Citizenfour. Here and elsewhere in Poitras’s diary, excerpted in the Astro Noise catalogue, we can glimpse her enthusiasm about the radical potential of installation art, its capacity to choreograph social participation, to disorient and transform consciousness through immersive experience. Titled after the encrypted file given to her by Snowden that year, Astro Noise is an ambitious, if somewhat compromised, realization of the dark delirious torture chamber Poitras initially envisioned.
In the dimly lighted front gallery, a double-sided two-channel video installation introduces the scope of Poitras’s project, brutally and elegantly. On the recto, we see the horrendous, mediatized spectacle of September 11. On the verso, we see its historical consequence—the United States’s shadowy, spatially, and temporally indefinite war on terror. The first screen plays a slow motion video of aghast New Yorkers witnessing the destruction of the Twin Towers. The opposite side shows chilling, formerly classified footage of U.S. soldiers interrogating Said Boujaadia and Salim Hamdan, two prisoners captured in Afghanistan in 2001.
Unlike Laurie Anderson’s Habeas Corpus, the monumental tribute to a former Guantánamo prisoner that opened the Park Avenue Armory’s program earlier this year, Poitras’s film installation doesn’t sentimentalize the detainees. Watching the grey, grainy interrogation footage, we can’t be certain whether Boujaadia and Hamdan are lying or telling the truth, whether they are terrorists, victims of the War on Terror, or reside somewhere in between. Both men were later sent to Guantánamo, where they were detained for six years without due process as enemy combatants. (Hamdan, who had been Osama bin Laden’s driver, is the subject of Poitras’s 2010 documentary, The Oath).
In the second installation, Bed Down Location, viewers recline on a cushioned platform, gazing overhead at a video of velvety, star-filled skies over Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. The installation, Poitras explains in the exhibition catalog, is designed to evoke the constant fear of living under drone surveillance. “By asking people to lie down in Bed Down Location,” she says, “I want them to enter an empathic space […] and imagine that there’s a machine flying above you that can end of your life at any moment.” The overall effect, however, is less frightening than ambient. In a twist ending that almost lands, a surveillance monitor at the terminus of the exhibition reveals that an infrared camera concealed in the ceiling has been secretly recording the installation, turning museumgoers into literal objects of surveillance.
While the labored cybertechnics of Bed Down Location miscarries in its attempt to manufacture empathic identification, a short home video documenting two consecutive days in a village in Hadramawt, Yemen, is harrowing. On August 28, 2012, we see an exuberant wedding party with music and dancing. On August 29, the same place is reduced to smoldering wreckage after a US drone strike. The video is part of an installation titled Disposition Matrix—a narrow, darkened corridor punctuated with illuminated niches displaying videos and cloak-and-dagger memos from Snowden’s archive. Among the twenty items cached in the walls, a series of photographs documents the rapacious construction and expansion of the NSA’s Utah Data Center between 2011 and 2016, from flat prairieland to a sinister panopticopolis. An eerie line drawing made by a former detainee in Afghanistan shows various torture implements used at secret CIA detention sites.
In its design, Disposition Matrix deliberately mirrors the exhibition’s themes of secrecy and espionage. Viewers effectively spy on the spies, peering one at a time at the documents through slits in the wall. It’s a fine, if slightly heavy-handed, conceit. But on a high-traffic Friday afternoon, the peephole set-up made for congested, uncomfortable viewing. As Jason Farago aptly noted in his review of the show for the Guardian, “the physical obscuring of documents and films runs exactly counter to Snowden’s and Poitras’s own quest for transparency.” 1
In fact, this “quest for transparency”— the desideratum of concerned documentary—has long been an object of intellectual suspicion. In a rich essay on Poitras’s work in the February issue of Artforum Stephen Squibb notes how, in the 1970s, the documentary came under critique for its unchecked epistemological claims, its faith in stable, communicable truth, and its tendency to reify an asymmetrical power dynamic between marginalized victim/subjects and a concerned liberal audience. In art, post-documentary aesthetics have mirrored these critiques by embracing ingenious pastiches of fact and fiction, essayistic non-narrative storytelling, and anarchic tangled archives. “Poitras’s recent move from documentarian to installation artist,” Squibb suggests, “perhaps stems from her own disillusionment with long-form documentary and its epistemological claims.” “Can we map a similar transition,” he asks, “[from] liberal to radical, onto Poitras’s turn to installation?” 2
I don’t think so. Artistic forms don’t neatly correspond to political meanings. While often imaginative and compelling, post-documentary tactics are not intrinsically radical or destabilizing. On the contrary, they can even be read as reaffirming the epistemological certainty of a sophistical liberal audience who already “gets it.” In my eyes, the radicalism and political urgency of Poitras’s films, through no fault of her own, feel tempered by the installation context.
The museum doesn’t automatically nullify political engagement, but the architecture of museum spectatorship does present distinct challenges. Current conventions of film and video installation tend toward either big mediatic environments or multiple looping screens. While the former offers an art of atmospheric affect, the latter presupposes a gaze that flutters impatiently from one thing to the next. Almost by design, the museum splays and diffuses narratives, displacing the drama of storytelling with the drama of space.
Poitras engages ambivalently with the language of fine art in six acid-hued abstract photographs hanging at the mouth of the exhibition. In another context, they could almost belong to the genus of decorative nonfigurative painting known under the pejorative nickname “Zombie Formalism.” Given to Poitras on a hard drive by Snowden, these authorless artworks are, quite literally, hackstractions—snapshots of armed Israeli drone feeds, intercepted by the U.K.’s classified data collection program codenamed Anarchist. A museum tour guide explained that they confirm Israel’s secret use of weaponized drones, a practice its government refuses to acknowledge. Walking through Astro Noise, I wanted—perhaps unfairly—more moments of transparency and revelation, less poetics of encryption.
But as the personal cost of Poitras’s work shifts into focus, the thematics of Astro Noise come full circle. In the final installation, November 20, 2004, Poitras appears not just as a documentarian and critic of the post-911 security state, but one of its targets. Mounted copies of heavily redacted national security documents recount how she came to be placed on a secret government watch list and subjected to relentless interrogation and harassment by the U.S. government. On the adjacent wall, a screen loops unedited footage Poitras shot on a Baghdad rooftop in 2004. Poitras’s voiceover narrates the circumstances around its filming:
On November 19, U.S. and Iraqi soldiers raided a mosque in the neighborhood where the family lived. Four civilians were killed. The next morning, I woke up to the sound of gunfire on the streets. The fighting lasted all day. One U.S. soldier was killed and others injured. At one point, the family went to the roof to see what was happening. I followed with my camera and filmed for eight minutes and sixteen seconds. These eight minutes changed my life, but I didn’t know it at the time.
Though the film—which shows the Iraqi children’s more or less unfazed reactions to the grimly routine violence—is of zero strategic value, the military accused the filmmaker of having known about the attack. Recently obtained by Poitras after she sued the U.S. government under the Freedom of Information Act, the documents reveal that she has been the target of a secret investigation since 2006. She was detained and questioned at the United States border more than forty times. The experience, Poitras has said, radicalized her, prompting her move to Berlin in 2012 and setting her on the path that led to her encounter with Snowden.
If Poitras’s vision sometimes translates a little awkwardly to the art museum, these quibbles seem fussy and parochial when weighed against the much bigger picture of her courageous activism, which includes her “9/11 Trilogy” of feature length documentaries and the Intercept, the muckraking news organization she founded with investigative journalists Jeremy Scahill and Glenn Greenwald in 2014. Poitras’s formal detour from documentary to installation may not be revolutionary on its own terms, but the sheer fact that Astro Noise is taking place in an American institution as major and moneyed as the Whitney reflects and amplifies the escalating politicization of cultural life. Perhaps this, in itself, is radical.
- Jason Farago, “Laura Poitras: Astro Noise review – Citizenfour Director Loses the Plot,“ The Guardian, Feb. 5, 2015.
- Stephen Squibb, “Moving Targets: The Work of Laura Poitras,“ Artforum, Feb. 2016.