Theater of Cruelty

Snowden in the art room at the Whitney Museum

Award-winning documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras places the "war on terror" within the museum's four walls.


Laura Poitras: Astro Noise
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York February 5–15. May 2016

If we were to dare to make a psychiatric diagnosis in the first 16 years of that 21. century, paranoia is a good candidate. I experienced a hint of the condition when I saw Laura Poitras' documentary The Oath (2010) on the laptop on the flight from Oslo to New York. The film is a portrait of Osama Bin Laden's former bodyguard, and is the second in a series of three documentaries in which Poitras addresses the so-called "war on terror" in the years following 11. September 2001. As Bin Laden appeared on the screen, it suddenly struck me what an unusually bad idea it was to watch this movie on the plane. I came up with a story – probably a walking story, but alarming nonetheless – about a guy who didn't enter the US because someone had observed him watching compromising movies on the plane, and shrunk me every time someone passed in the aisle. The cabin crew had for a long time notified the immigration authorities.

Processing of the Snowden files. Laura Poitras is a meritorious documentary filmmaker and journalist, winning both Oscar, Sundance and Pulitzer Prizes in recent years. A turning point in her career came when she was contacted in 2013 by an anonymous alert who wanted to share information about the US intelligence service's surveillance program. Together with journalist Glenn Greenwald, she traveled to Hong Kong and filmed the meeting with the whistleblower, who introduced herself as Edward Snowden. That resulted in the documentary CITIZEN FOUR (2014), which is unique in being first-hand witness to one of the most important events in recent history.
When the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York now presents the first major presentation of Poitras' work on the exhibit Laura Poitras: Astro Noise, the question is why she has wanted to present her material through installations rather than documentaries. There may be good reasons to do so. Unlike in journalism or in the film, where a narrative develops chronologically, an exhibition provides opportunities to follow several parallel lines of argument and thus create new connections between objects and documents. As in the films, the many branches of the "war on terror" are the theme of the exhibition, and much of the material comes from the Snowden files. Initially it seems like a good idea to present this in the art room. For example, images created by information from Israeli drones or visualizations of satellite orbits look like abstract paintings with their grainy color fields.
03 Astro-Noise from press-(3)Organizing this type of material into a large-scale installation where documents and images were linked across the rooms would have been an excellent artistic processing of the Snowden files. Unfortunately, Poitras does not take advantage of these opportunities Astro Noise. Instead, you have an exhibition that has the architecture of the installation, but which follows the film's dramaturgy: The audience becomes actors themselves, where you are led through a series of darkened rooms, but the exhibition's narrative follows a carefully planned chronology.

To be seen while watching. This is already evident in the first floor of the work O'Say Can You See. On a large screen dividing the hall into two, close-ups are projected of people watching the collapsed World Trade Center in the months after September 11, 2001. The film is played in slow motion to reveal every detail of the emotional faces with reactions that alternate between anger , disbelief, sorrow and pain. In this installation, Poitras takes a very effective dramaturgical approach. Movies are projected on both sides of the screen, so that at any given time the other half of the audience is watching something you cannot see yourself. But the installation also has a narrative function, for the film shown on the opposite side of the screen consists of images from Afghanistan where two men kneel on a ground floor while being questioned about their association with Al Qaeda. In other words, the audience moves through space as in history, from Ground Zero to Afghanistan.
The title "O'Say Can You See" is the first words of the American national anthem The star-spangled banner, and precisely the dialectic between seeing and being seen is the exhibition's guiding motif. By the way, the title phrase also gives associations to the ubiquitous New York underground searches that make surveillance a civic duty, "If you see something, say something" – as if this had become a new national anthem for the American people.

The audience's recumbent bodies appear in the interface of an infrared drone camera aiming at a bomb target.

It is obviously crucial for Poitras to influence the audience both emotionally and physically. The exhibition does little to dampen the paranoid inclinations the audience may already have. On the contrary, it is a demonstration of how to provoke such reactions. In the next room, the audience is invited to lie down on their backs on a soft bench and stare up at a starry sky projected on the ceiling. In the last room of the exhibition, the perspective is reversed: On a screen you see the outline of the audience's lying bodies as shown in the interface of an infrared drone camera aiming at a bomb target.
Again, one becomes conscious that one is being watched while one is watching.
01 Astro Noise Press The following room is dedicated to the installation Outline Matrix – the title comes from the US intelligence database of possible abduction or liquidation targets. Here are various video clips and documents embedded in the wall in darkened corridors, so the audience must stand crooked and squint through small openings in the wall. While the documents here show how the secret services are given more leeway in the pursuit of terrorists, the videos show the consequences. Here is an interview with a torture victim, pictures from Abu Ghraib prison, the remains of a bombed-out car after a drone attack. These are very interesting documents, but what is the purpose of presenting them through peephole in the wall, apart from turning the audience into spies? Rather than mystifying it further, would it be best to highlight this material?

Exaggerated exhibition. «I want to draw viewers into the narrative of the work so that they leave it in a different mind-set from when they entered. I'm also interested in having bodies in spaces and asking them to make choices, which is not something you get to do in a movie theater, ”Poitras says in an interview in the exhibition catalog. But the exhibition is so staged that there is no room to make any choices; the movements you take through the rooms are given in advance, and each installation requires a specific response. It seems Poitras and the museum's curator do not properly trust the audience's ability to be touched by the material, and that to compensate for this supposed indifference, she stages situations that provoke emotional reactions.
There are undoubtedly important issues to be addressed Astro Noise, and strong measures may be required to shake the audience into action. After working journalistically and activist to uncover the surveillance and violation of international law by the US government for decades without seeing any significant political changes, Poitras can be forgiven for doubting the effectiveness of traditional journalism. To object to an activist exhibition's presentation can seem pedantic, if not downright unpolitical. But considering a work of art often requires a question that is as political as it is aesthetic, if not also ethical: Does the goal justify the funds?
That I tend to answer no after watching Astro Noise, is also because Poitras himself shows a different direction in the exhibition. For the most effective of the installations,  November 20, 2004, is also the one that rests at least to the stage of the audience and does not try to provoke an emotional reaction. On the contrary, it is a highly personal account of Poitras' own experience with the intelligence service. Between 2006 and 2012, Poitras was stopped and interrogated at airports over 50 times, which eventually forced her to move to Germany. Poitras was given the documents after suing the authorities; It turned out that she was suspected of "terror conspiracy" after filming an incident in Iraq in which an American soldier was killed. The film footage that Poitras did this day in 2004 is presented in the exhibition along with the heavily censored FBI papers. The many holes of unedited information in Poitras 'FBI folder get a counterpart in the unedited footage – the film shows nothing but a flock of children looking over the railing on the rooftop to watch the shooting in the neighborhood as they play in front of Poitras' camera. Here you get a staggering realization of how an unfounded suspicion can change lives. Paradoxically, it is only when she plays the lead role that Poitras gives the audience enough room to not only respond but also reflect.

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