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.