Laura Poitras: Astro Noise

May 2016 Poitras Damon WInter NYT


“Astro Noise,” Whitney Museum of American Art, Feb. 5 – May 2, 2016.

In the “Seeds of Time,” Frederic Jameson famously wrote of our cultural moment, “It seems to be easier to imagine the thorough-going deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness of our imaginations.”

In response, many artists have taken it upon themselves to try to find ways to communicate the reality of the increasingly obscure mechanisms of the contemporary global capitalist system, giving some sort of materiality to its circuits of finance, its systems of transportation and communication, its maps of surveillance infrastructure, and the interrelationships among sites of extreme exploitation, in the hope that artistic practice can once again be deeply intertwined with some kind of revolutionary practice.

Allan Sekula made films and photographs of global maritime trade that tried to make palpable the system of commodity production and its basis in the exploitation of low-wage workers. Trevor Paglan has tracked surveillance satellites and photographed “choke points,” the clusters of fiber optic cable offshore of the U.S. and Europe where the NSA tries to intercept information traveling over the internet.

In “Astro Noise,” an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras builds on this impulse with an immersive installation designed to force museum goers to move from a simple intellectual awareness of the extent of the new surveillance state to the kind of knowledge enriched by experience and emotion.

“Astro Noise” was first conceived by Poitras in 2012-2013 while exiled in Berlin to avoid U.S. government confiscation of film footage she was editing, and at the same time, receiving the first e-mails from Edward Snowden, a disembodied voice she knew only as Citizen Four. The context of her creative work, as noted in her “Berlin Journal”—excerpts of which are included a companion volume to the show—was the impending imprisonment of John Kiriakou, an ex-CIA agent put away for telling a reporter about the torture going on at black sites, the suicide of Aaron Schwartz who was facing imprisonment for trying to “free” academic journals from commercial pay walls, and her own secret meetings with Julian Assange.

C4, as she calls Snowden, could be the agent of entrapment, for her, or for Assange, or even other collaborators, she worries. She wants to publish audio of Chelsea Manning before being shut down. She records her expectations that proceeding to engage with Snowden would likely land them both in jail or exiled. These musings are interspersed with her thoughts upon re-reading “1984” and Cory Doctorow’s “Homeland,” as well as accounts of her nightmares and extreme physical reactions to anxiety.

In the midst of all this, she critiques the naïveté of her first film about Iraq, “My Country My Country”: “As if appealing to people’s consciences could change anything. Ten years into this war it is obvious that other forces are at work.” As the engagement with Snowden proceeds, she realizes that a film may not be best way to empower viewers. She imagines an art exhibition that could create an aesthetic experience and reveal information in a way that more directly engages.

She turned to Whitney performance curator Jay Sanders to execute that idea. Installation, she and her collaborators hoped, might be able to do what highly layered, complex, and non-didactic documentary films, such as Poitras’ “The Oath,” seemingly could not—position the viewer in a less passive relationship to the outrages of state spying and torture.

“Astro Noise,” then, represents a most serious effort by an artist given unparalleled trust by some of the most important whistleblowers of our time—and radicalizing under the pressure of events—to bring capitalist reality home in an important venue for mass culture. While the reality of the increasingly rapacious art market and liberal character of public art institutions like the Whitney make one initially suspicious of her choice of venue, there is no doubt that the thousands of New Yorkers and tourists who found their way to her show are more politically sophisticated and thoughtful about how to act than before they went in.

In addition, Poitras and her collaborators on the accompanying text, Astro Noise: A Survival Guide for Living Under Total Surveillance, have taken every advantage of the privileged space still accorded art to try to break through the normalization of 24-7 spying that is the goal of much popular culture dealing with the so-called War on Terror, streaming panels and creating a book that stands alone and offers theory as well as fiction.

One ponders entering the spaces of the installation while gazing at giant vibrantly colored images that lightly reference the giant color field paintings hanging in other parts of the museum. The images are in fact the output of a British spy program named ANARCHIST and were created from the intercepted feed of Israeli drones. I was immediately reminded of standing in a house in Ramallah with a fellow activist who explained that the sound I heard was the noise of drones that flew 24-7 in a grid pattern over the entire West Bank, allowing the Israeli government to track each individual at any point in time, day in and day out.

Once inside the first darkened space, the viewer confronts a room-size dual-channel video screen. On one side is slow-motion film of New Yorkers in a stadium reacting to the sight of the Twin Towers falling. As one walks around the divider, and looks at another giant screen, one finds oneself thrust into a mud-floored room where several prisoners, including Salim Hamdan (Hamdan v. United States), are hooded and interrogated by masked U.S. soldiers. The footage was declassified some time ago, at the time of the Hamdan trial; it is not its newness but its projection, which puts one in the room, which makes the experience so shocking.

The viewer next enters the “Disposition Matrix,” a long narrow series of halls punctuated by narrow slits that remind one of the eyeholes in a prison cell door. Through the slits one can view part of the Snowden “archive” of leaked documents, including the graphics and world maps that various spy agencies used to promote their tradecraft at conferences, as well as the cartoonish sketches used inside the agencies to boast of their omnipotence. The position of the slits forces the viewers to share a narrow space and spurs strangers to interact while trying to decipher just what they are seeing.

One of the most moving elements of Disposition Matrix is a video interview with Murat Kurnaz, an innocent sold to the U.S. for bounty and then secretly rendered. Kurnaz describes how he was tortured by being hung by his wrists from the ceiling and how he felt after the man hanging in front of him was left in place long after his death.

“Disposition Matrix” feeds into the space called “Bed Down Location.” The space is named with the phrase that U.S. troops use to designate a site where a target sleeps in preparation for the assault. Museum-goers enter the darkened room and lie down facing up at the projection of night skies over Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, watching the stars and the glints of drones constantly in motion above them. A faint sound of drones and intermittent transmissions from drone pilots completes the experience of being a target night after night and for years on end.

Poitras’ own experience of surveillance is the theme of another space. Viewers watch the eight-minute clip of video she took from the roof of the home of an Iraqi family who lived in the Green Zone, a clip that intelligence service documents on the adjacent wall explain led to Poitras’ becoming a person of interest, stopped 40 times at airports with her working materials confiscated, before she fled to Berlin.

Despite this harassment and a reasonable fear of imprisonment for dealing with classified materials that shame the U.S. government, Poitras has made a show that is not about the inescapable totality of the police state but about resistance, the resistance of Murat Kurnaz, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, herself, and countless numbers of Iraqis, Afghans, Somalis, Yemenis. She clearly hopes that we, too, will resist, in solidarity with all of the victims who have allowed her to turn her camera upon them.

The socialist movement that we need in these dire times is a movement like those of the past, in which the heroism of the world’s working people in their battles for freedom, dignity, and justice nourished artists and an intelligentsia, who in turn created new ways to comprehend our situation and empower our action. Laura Poitras and her collaborators on “Astro Noise,” the exhibition and the book, should be thanked for making this vision a little less remote.

Photo: Laura Poitras in her studio with objects exhibited at the Whitney Museum of Art.  Damon Winter / New York Times



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