International Women’s Day is a day to celebrate the social, economic and political achievements of women across the world. In the light of women recognized on an international scale, we must look to the example of the influential and ever so inspiring Laura Poitras. An artist, an author, a filmmaker, a whistleblower: Poitras needs no introduction – her outstanding body of work has accumulated numerous accolades, cleverly articulating contemporary geopolitical theory on a human scale.
The Whitney Museum is currently displaying Poitras’ first solo exhibition Astro Noise in its raw, goosebumpy glory. Having recently visited and experienced the work myself, I was inspired by her journey in the artistic investigation of surviving total surveillance.
Astro Noise isn’t a single work, but a collection, as it follows the launch of a new book and numerous documentaries. After 9/11, and the US invasion of Iraq, she released her powerful 9/11 Trilogy, three feature-length documentary films that follow the lives of those in jeopardy, being a family of an Iraqi doctor during the United States occupation, two men involved with Al Qaeda and issues at Guantánamo Bay, and the most notable being Citizenfour, in which she received encrypted emails from someone with information on the government’s massive covert-surveillance programs, then flying with Glenn Greenwald to Hong Kong to meet the sender, who was the infamous Edward Snowden. Her work has won her a Pulitzer, Oscar, and a MacArthur Genius grant . It has also made her quite famous, and disliked by many a government – reports say she is somewhat paranoid if not on edge, and low profile if not exceptionally private. Who wouldn’t be, you may think – when you hear more about her work.
Poitras moved to Berlin in 2013 and began her work on Astro Noise, creating a moving installation that expands her filmmaking practice into a series of immersive media environments, capturing fly on the wall recordings and surveillance – showcasing intimate lives without intrusion.
Each installation in the exhibition employs documentary elements, the first being selections from ANARCHIST (2016), a series of images Poitras drew from the documents Edward Snowden gave her. They display various stages in the process of descrambling collected symbols through a top-secret operation run by the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the UK’s surveillance team.
When you enter the space you are greeted with O’Say Can You See (2001/2016) an eerie film captured on a double projection on a two-sided screen. The first screen depicts New Yorkers emotive reactions to 9/11, as they look up to the space where the Twin Towers stood, the second showcases military-interrogation footage of the U.S. military threatening and manipulating tied up and clearly tortured prisoners in Afghanistan, whom were subsequently transferred to Guantánamo. By juxtaposing the scenes Poitras takes viewers directly to the aftermath of 9/11, and what that meant for America. “These faces capture a moment in history at a crossroads,” Poitras told The Whitney. “Many different paths could have been taken. Fifteen years later we are seeing the unintended consequences of the choices we made.”
The third and possibly the most interesting installation is Bed Down Location (2016), in which the audience is invited to lie down and look up at a night sky ceiling, one that alters projections of Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan – countries where the United States military conducts “targeted killings”, in which aircrafts premeditate the location of a target outside a battlefield. It also includes footage from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, where drones are tested. All the viewer can hear is “astro noise,” a military term that defines where a targeted person sleeps. I found this beautiful, insightful, unsettling all at once. Eerily, you find yourself relaxing, staring at the night sky with an intrepid uneasiness as drones fly ahead. and You feel you are being watched, and it turns out you are – at the end of the exhibition the viewer realizes they have been filmed as they lay, enticing the premeditated theme of a journey under surveillance.
The fourth installation is a mixed-media work titled Disposition Matrix (2016). It features primary footage or a classified document in small, window-like slits, so the viewer gets the sense of its secrecy. Poitras told The Whitney, “The idea is to evoke a notion of the deep state, of a hidden world, of something hard to see.” The fifth and final piece, November 20, 2004 (2016) is documents displayed in lightboxes – in which Poitras provides examples of when she was on a secret government watch list in 2006. Consequently, she has been detained and questioned while traveling more than 50 times – Snowden, her partner in Citizenfour is now seeking political asylum in Russia.
Poitras’ work not only showcases the idea that technology is moving faster than abilities of comprehension, but that the military industrial complex is more invasive than we realized. Astro Noise took me on an immersive journey under that said surveillance, and helped me understand what it would feel like to live and survive that experience, which many are living as I write. While a passive spectator, each viewer is a protagonist in each scenario, battling with the moral and ethical dilemmas they must face in what they are shown. If anything, she asks us to look at our lives and what is going on in the world through a different lense, appropriating a reality that we need to understand, and asking us to consider our position and responsibility in the war on terror.