Spy game

Laura Poitras’s museum show leaves visitors wondering just who is doing the viewing

In a new exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the “Citizenfour” filmmaker deepens her exploration of covert surveillance

Filmmaker Laura Poitras, with a video feed of former NSA contractor turned whistleblower Edward Snowden, during an award ceremony for the Carl von Ossietzky journalism prize on December 14, 2014 in Berlin. (Adam Berry/Getty Images)

When Edward Snowden leaked a trove of NSA documents revealing the United States was engaged in a sweeping data collection and surveillance program, the revelation should have had serious repercussions. But, after the initial flurry of media coverage, cries of outrage, and a somewhat begrudged mea culpa from the president, the issue seems to have largely disappeared less than three years later.

It’s not too hard to understand why: data is a ubiquitous necessity in our modern world. We can’t — or aren’t willing to — give up our cell phones, social media accounts, and Google searches. And while we know intellectually that Big Brother may now be watching, it’s hard to fully grasp the complex reality — surveillance, after all, is most effective when invisible.

In a new exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, award-winning filmmaker and artist Laura Poitras attempts to tear down the wall of complacency and show viewers what it really means to be watched.

“For some time, Laura had wanted to depart from filmmaking to create an installation that possessed both the urgency of fact and the visceral and emotional qualities of real space and lived experience,” Adam Weinberg, the Alice Pratt Brown Director of the museum, said to a gathering of journalists armed with their own forms of surveillance — flashing cameras and rolling tape recorders. “I believe that Laura is delivering a wake up call, making real the threats omnipresent in surveillance society.”

Poitras has spent over a decade exploring the new realities of the post-9/11 world. In a trio of documentaries starting in 2006, she examined the effects of the War on Terror and the resulting issues of torture, targeted drone strikes, and Guantanamo Bay incarcerations. The trilogy ends with Citizenfour, Poitras’s Oscar-winning documentary that tells the story of how she came to be involved with Snowden and the play-by-play of events in the week leading up to the release of the NSA documents.

In the Whitney exhibition — Poitras’s first solo museum show — she continues the exploration of these themes. But, whereas viewers watching Citizenfour experience a sympathetic sense of paranoia for Snowden and the journalists about to expose the government’s secrets, walking through the installations in Laura Poitras: Astro Noise is a direct and immersive experience of what living through surveillance really means. You can’t switch it off and forget. “As a filmmaker, and as a target of state surveillance myself, I am deeply interested in the way being watched and recorded affects how we act, and how watching the watchers, or counter-surveillance, can shift power,” Poitras wrote in The New York Times in 2015, about an artistic collaboration between fellow dissidents Ai Weiwei and Jacob Appelbaum.

She could easily have been talking about Astro Noise, a project that gets its title from the name Snowden gave one of the encrypted NSA files he sent to the artist as he prepared to expose the government.

The exhibition opens with six large and colorful works from the artist’s “Anarchist” series that look deceptively like traditional pieces hanging on a wall. But these aren’t abstract paintings; they are images Poitras has created from signals collected by a top-secret surveillance project in the U.K. Each work represents a different set of data, like the signals from an armed Israeli Heron TP drone that were collected on January 28, 2010, or doppler track signals intercepted from a satellite on May 27, 2009.

The exhibit unfolds in much the same manner from here, guiding visitors through a series of installations that reveal, explain, and then frequently upend our understanding of what is really going on. “Cinema can propel people on a journey, but you have to make sacrifices. I wanted to be released by the boundary of time. I wanted to work in a way where the editing is done by the viewer, not me,” Poitras told W Magazine.

In the first room of the exhibit, “O’Say Can You See,” for instance, two different videos play on either side of a double-faced screen. The front screen shows a video of people on the streets of New York reacting to the destruction of the Twin Towers. The camera zooms in, lingering on face after dismayed face. Hands clutch mouths in horror, a little boy unconsciously rubs an “I heart NY” pin around his mouth, a man wearing a turban and an American flag pin looks on in shock. Because there are no descriptions on the wall, it takes a moment to realize what it is we’re seeing. But as looks of shock and horror continuously fill the screen, it becomes clear, even though the object of this emotion — Ground Zero — is never shown. Instead, we watch the watchers.

Playing on the reverse side of the screen are U.S. military recordings of successive interrogations of two prisoners in Afghanistan. As the scenarios get more desperate, with the space growing physically smaller and darker, it’s impossible not to wonder what our role as viewers is in these proceedings. Rather than innocent onlookers or witnesses, we’re instead implicated — through the act of knowing and watching — in the sinister events.

A dark corridor leads to the next installation room, which features a sign on the wall outside that says simply: “Bed Down Location” followed by a list of countries “Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, United States.” The room is pitch black with a large and low platform on which it’s just barely possible to make out museum-goers, lying down, looking up.

It’s a peaceful respite to lay back in the quiet, darkened room; but, given the topic of the exhibition, it’s also a little eerie. The ceiling shows the night sky, switching between locations. Stars and sometimes the tops of buildings and trees are visible. Nothing else is seen, nothing else happens, and a palpable anticipation builds. “I have this horrible fear that we’re going to see a bomb drop,” says a woman next to me to her friend.

She voiced my own concerns. Are we the unwitting targets of a drone attack? Is this what it feels like to look up into the beautiful night sky and never know if something is about to come down and crush you?

Nothing happens, but the room will return to haunt viewers by the time the exhibition ends.

After exploring another space that features a carefully curated selection of documentary evidence revealing the vast government apparatus built in the name of security, a final, emotional act relays Poitras’s own 10-year struggle with government surveillance.

After shooting an eight minute video in Iraq — one that U.S. authorities never even asked to see — Poitras was put on a government watch list and faced detention and questioning every time she crossed the U.S. border. The unedited video plays alongside official documents pertaining to her case as a recording of Poitras’s voice lays out the rather minimal circumstances that led to her being a target. “These eight minutes change my life, but I didn’t know it at the time,” Poitras intones.

Laura Poitros: Astro Noise is an experience that’s hard to shake off — and that’s the point. But it’s also not all paranoid doom and gloom. Despite the fundamental disruption she’s experienced in her own life — and the inarguably ominous post-9/11 world we live in — Poitras sees hope in the act of creating and sharing art. “Pushing beyond her familiar territory of narrative filmmaking and mining new ground, the intersection of big data, surveillance, and art, [Poitras] proves that art is a possible response to total surveillance itself,” Weinberg said. “Her belief in the power and importance of art is profoundly moving.”

Related:

Oscar-winning director suing U.S. over “Kafkaesque” intimidation

Extraordinary meeting between writer Arundhati Roy and NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden

Germany drops investigation into NSA’s alleged Merkel phone-tapping

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