At the Whitney, Pulitzer Prize-Winner Laura Poitras Presents a Haunting Study of America’s Post-9/11 Surveillance State
“This all needs to get out,” says reporter Glenn Greenwald, cutting off CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden mid-speech. It’s 2013, and the pair are sitting in the now-famous Hong Kong hotel room from which Snowden, with the help of a few trusted reporters, leaked information that revealed an unprecedented surveillance apparatus, run by the United States government and targeting American citizens. Greenwald and Snowden are looking at a laptop, which shows an impossibly dense Powerpoint slide, chock full of complex revelations about how exactly the government is intercepting millions of Americans’ calls, texts, and data. “Just in terms of understanding the capabilities… it’s so opaque,” Greenwald says, almost at a loss for words. “This is a pretty inaccessible technical document, but even this is really chilling.”
This exchange comes a little under halfway into Citizenfour (2014), the riveting firsthand account of the eight days during which the Snowden leaks unfolded, filmed by documentarian, journalist, digital muckraker (a job in search of a neologism), and artist Laura Poitras. Like her documentaries—particularly the trio that explore a world shaped by September 11th—her debut solo museum exhibition “Astro Noise,” which opens at the Whitney Museum on February 5th, exudes a maturity grounded in tight theatricality.
Echoing the shadowy security apparatus that is her subject, Poitras has transformed an entire floor of the Whitney—whose Meatpacking building is acclaimed for its massive windows that bring in warm sunshine—into a dark, cavernous space where light is scarce. “I’m interested in making things hard to see, just like the deep state is hard to see,” Poitras said in a statement. The artist has experienced this firsthand: “Astro Noise” includes redacted documents that reveal how Poitras was the target of a prolonged, covert investigation by federal authorities. Visitors to the show are not exempt from such surveillance, and those accustomed to passively consuming works hanging on white walls are in for a jolt. Without giving too much away, suffice to say that in “Astro Noise,” the work watches back.
Best described by borrowing Greenwald’s “opaque” and “chilling” formulation, the exhibition’s tone is set as soon as the elevator doors open onto the Whitney’s eighth floor. Six images showing various forms of digital scramble greet visitors. They are enlarged visualizations of Snowden’s leaks sourced from the British-American program “Anarchist” and published just last week on The Intercept. Displaying evidence of the intelligence program hacking into feeds of Israeli armed drones monitoring Gaza, the works were reportedly met with some nervousness on the part of Whitney Museum employees, though their resolve never faltered.
The images have been likened to the abstract paintings of Gerhard Richter, which is not unwarranted. But the relationship between surveillance and art runs much deeper than their shared formal qualities. Both are rooted in the act of looking in order to glean some kind of knowledge—and Poitras employs this overlap brilliantly, such that the museum-goer (both in watching and in being watched) palpably experiences the political critiques rumbling beneath the redacted documents, drone feeds, and unidentified signals of “Astro Noise.”
The exhibition’s narrative begins just days after the September 11th, 2001 attacks on New York’s Twin Towers. In the first gallery, a video titled O’Say Can You See (2001/2016) and projected onto a giant screen in the center of the room, captures the stunned expressions of people looking on at the wreckage of Ground Zero. The video induces a range of complex emotions—anger, sadness, empathy—that Poitras quickly flips by showing, projected on the opposite side of the same screen, a film featuring masked U.S. soldiers interrogating prisoners who were subsequently sent to Guantanamo Bay. The juxtaposition is blunt: The stark emotion of New Yorkers on one side of the screen becomes the unending war, illegal imprisonment, and mass surveillance that followed. The literal and figurative darkness of this first room engulfs the entire show.
In her earlier trio of documentaries, Poitras was concerned with examining the political ramifications of September 11th through the lives of individuals, be it a Sunni doctor running for office during American-led Iraqi elections (as seen in My Country, My Country, 2006), or Edward Snowden. Watching Poitras’s intimate yet pared-down films, I wondered how her style of editing would manifest in physical form. If “Astro Noise” provides any indication, the answer lies in bodily experience. For Bed Down Location (2016), viewers stretch out on a raised platform and stare up at a screen mounted on the ceiling that shows a starry night sky as seen from Yemen and Pakistan, lulled by the faint chirp of intelligence chatter. Humming drones fly overhead. If one lets the haunting global specter of surveillance fade for a moment, it’s even a little relaxing.
In another twist on the visitor’s experience, Poitras has cut narrow, letterbox openings into black walls (think prison door windows) at different intervals and heights. Viewers must bend and crane to see into the blinding fluorescent light boxes housing documents and screens. The contents range from unintelligible patterns of color (intercepted air traffic control data, I learned), to cartoonish hand-drawn sketches outlining telecom intercept procedures, to a memo from former CIA director George Tenet on increasing the agency’s cooperation with the NSA. Each one provides a glimpse into the extraordinary scope of the surveillance state, but it’s the constellation of all 20 and the thought of yet more documents unseen that imparts the greatest punch.
About 30 minutes into the exhibition preview, customary remarks were made to some 70 journalists representing the film and art press, who gathered in a nondescript room across from the galleries. I squeezed into a spot next to the floor-to-ceiling windows, relieved to feel even the muted light of a cloudy morning after the exhibition’s claustrophobic darkness. As Whitney director Adam Weinberg took to the podium, speaking about the show and the institution’s history of exhibiting political artists, I found my eyes drawn to the world outside the museum window: the churning Hudson River, the rusting industrial docks, the cars pulsing along the West Side Highway. It struck me that the grey New York scene, unfolding silently and unaware of my gaze, could easily have served as one of the atmospheric shots of a Poitras documentary. My skin prickled with the electric paranoia of “Astro Noise.” All those people, all those lives. All that data.