Astro Noise, a solo installation exhibition by the documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, is small but carefully and deliberately put together. It comprises six large prints arranged in a three-by-two grid, a room in which two videos play on opposite ends of the same screen, another room with video playing on the ceiling, a set of corridors with slots in the walls to display images and video, and one last room, with more video. The setup forces viewers to encounter the installation in this sequence, out of which an argument unfolds.
Poitras was the second member of the media contacted by Edward Snowden (after Glenn Greenwald), and the first to respond; the six prints that greet people coming out of the Whitney’s elevators are taken from the documents Snowden provided to her. One image is identified by the wall text as Power Spectrum Display of Doppler Tracks from a Satellite (Intercepted May 22, 2009). Two others concern Israeli drones. With one exception, they feature the color palette of thunderstorms on a weather radar—bright green, yellow, dark blue, red—and with one exception (the same exception) they would be totally incomprehensible without the wall text. The exception is a video still or photograph depicting the immediately recognizable silhouette of a drone, but that one isn’t giving up too much, either. What was the drone doing when that image was made? Who was it about to blow up? As a group, the prints highlight how little most of us still know, from a technical standpoint, of the war on terror’s prosecution. They suggest the innumerable details hiding inside the words “intelligence,” “surveillance,” and “drone.”
In the next room, I found O’Say Can You See, a set of two videos whose referents are much more familiar. The first video, playing on one side of the big screen that sits in the middle of the room, shows slow-motion footage of different people’s faces as they look at something offscreen. Some combination of the background architecture, the people’s clothes, and their worried and intensely focused expressions made it obvious to me, even without my checking the informational pamphlet, that they were looking at Ground Zero. Poitras filmed them in lower Manhattan during September and October of 2001, and the video’s sound track is a distorted recording of the national anthem as it was performed at Yankee Stadium before Game 4 of that year’s World Series. On the other of the side of the screen, I watched and listened to the interrogations by US military forces of two men in Afghanistan, interrogations that also took place within months of the September 11 attacks and that were filmed by the interrogators. The New Yorkers’ faces don’t look angry or vengeful, and the anthem sounds more like a lament than a war cry. But in walking from one side of the screen to the other, you’re made to wonder about the process by which those anxious, focused looks were used to mobilize so much violence. If the first room’s prints suggest gaps in our technical understanding of war, these videos emphasize the political dimensions of what we still don’t know.
It is in the next room that the installation begins to work on filling in some of these gaps. Bed Down Location projects images of several night skies—over Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen—onto the ceiling of a dimly lit square space. There is a platform in the middle of the room on which you lie down and then look up at the skies. The title refers to the sleeping place of a military or intelligence target, and so what you’re supposed to do while lying on the platform and looking up is imagine that you are the potential target, that a drone might be circling far overhead and preparing to end your life. I did imagine this, but I was also reminded of the James Turrell retrospective at the Guggenheim, another exhibition where people lay down on the floor together and watched images that changed very slowly and gradually. I worried about the etiquette of taking up platform space for more than a few minutes, and then I worried that a man standing nearby was about to accidentally lie down on top of me because of the darkness, which he nearly did. “Oh, shit!” he whispered to his girlfriend, who stifled a laugh. As is often and I think intentionally the case at museums, I felt more like a museumgoer than like someone trying to get into the mindset of an artwork. I wasn’t blameless in feeling this way, but it wasn’t entirely my fault, either.
The installation’s next segment seemed to compound these problems of etiquette. Whereas the line separating an artwork from the setting in which it is displayed is fairly clear in an exhibition of paintings, installation art proposes that the whole environment, including the ways you move and interact with others while inside it, is part of the work. So I noticed myself wishing that Poitras had given more thought to the fact that a museum like the Whitney is going to be stuffed with people nearly all of the time. Disposition Matrix is a long corridor that has a ninety-degree turn in the middle. There are little slots in the wall, all illuminated from within. Looking through the slots reveals primary documents that range from memos on a government watch list to mysterious and colorful displays of data to snippets of a video interview with one of the architects of the NSA’s personal data collection program. A few of the slots are positioned at a height that requires crouching down, which made me feel investigative or sneaky while looking into them. And then one slot—my favorite slot—was situated about eight feet off the ground, which made it impossible to see until I realized I could reach up and record a video on my phone, which revealed another video of I couldn’t tell exactly what. Maybe a bunker or cave. My pamphlet contained some language about how viewers would need to decide “how to interact with others in the same space,” but here again, the only interactions I had were ones I would have at any exhibition. Efforts not to block the sight lines of others. Careful maintenance of at least eighteen inches between my face and the shoulder I was looking over. Figuring out whether the two people standing in line behind me while I read a memo about surveillance meant I should move on and join the end of the line for the next slot.
Like the rooms that preceded them, these corridors were dimly lit, casting the faces of my fellow museumgoers into obscurity and fostering an atmosphere of secrecy and uncertainty. But the installation’s final segment is fully illuminated, which I took to mean that this last room’s contents would interpret or clarify what came before. It contains three exhibits. The first is November 20, 2004, and it uses an eight-minute video clip plus a set of wall-mounted documents to explain how Poitras wound up on a government watch list, a designation that has since resulted in her being detained and questioned almost every time she reenters the United States. The second is a screen that displays a live feed from a thermal camera that Poitras mounted on the ceiling of the room that displays the night-sky footage. You watch the thermal signatures of people lying on the platform and gazing up at this camera, unaware, and you think about who was watching you some twenty minutes ago. Finally, there is a screen that displays a scrolling feed of information about every Wi-Fi–enabled device in the installation space. I didn’t see a single entry for a device that wasn’t manufactured by Apple, Inc.
I had thought Bed Down Location wanted me to imagine what it would be like to look up at the night sky in Yemen and wonder if my life were about to end—in other words, to try and empathize with the experiences of those who live in Yemen and really do have to wonder about that. I thought the intrusive presence of the museum’s social codes had made that difficult to do. But the discovery of the thermal imaging camera seemed to change that room’s function. Bed Down Location prepared me instead for the experience of learning that I was being surveilled when I thought I had just been going about my life as a culture consumer in a New York museum. The screens in the final room recast my irritation, my etiquette anxieties, and my thwarted efforts to engage the contents of the work as the real mindset on which the installation was designed to act. Then it occurred to me, looking back from the screens to November 20, 2004, that the experience of learning that you are being surveilled is probably the defining professional and political experience of Poitras’s life.
It is also an experience that, according to Poitras herself, dramatically changed her approach to thinking about the war on terror. In the first two installments of her documentary trilogy, Poitras tried to help Americans understand the war from the perspective of the non-Americans to whom the war mostly happened. My Country, My Country, released in 2006, followed a Sunni doctor named Riyadh Al-Adhadh as he ran for office in Iraq’s first postinvasion election. Four years later, The Oath followed the military trial of Salim Hamdan, the first person charged with “providing material support to terrorism,” and profiled Abu Jandal, who worked as Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard before turning to a taxi and the care of his son. Poitras’s approach across these two films ranges from open sympathy to fascinated ambivalence, but in each case, her subjects are people about whom she expects her audience to know almost nothing going in. “I think in order to understand this war,” she once told an interviewer, “we need to understand Iraq and we need to understand it from the perspective of Iraqis.”
Years later, in the weeks and months after she began to receive documents from the anonymous whistleblower who would turn out to be Snowden, Poitras repudiated this view in a diary entry: “My Country, My Country seems so naïve in retrospect. As if appealing to people’s consciences could change anything. Ten years into this war it is obvious there are other forces at work.” In the final entry in her trilogy, the feature-length Snowden profile Citizenfour, she put this revised view into practice. In the place of earnest Iraqis trying out representative government or the relatable struggles of a father who wants his son to pay attention and learn his prayers, Poitras substituted an exposé on domestic surveillance and two hours with an eerily composed libertarian and his laptop. Alluringly photographed Middle Eastern locales gave way to the anonymous, upscale hotel room in which Snowden met Poitras and Glenn Greenwald for the first time (the hotel was located in Hong Kong; the film shows nearly nothing of the city outside). Citizenfour became the trilogy’s most successful chapter, and it made Poitras famous outside the documentary circles in which she had been respected for years.
Snowden’s quiet—and, I think, specifically sexual—charisma deserves some credit for Citizenfour’s mainstream success, but more credit should go to Poitras’s turn from a foreign perspective on the war to a domestic one. A Snowden who revealed that the government was spying on Iraqis and citizens of other Middle Eastern countries would not have become so famous. He might not even have had to leave the country. What made Snowden’s leaks so incendiary was the revelation that the American government was not just waging the war on terror abroad, that it was supplementing its airstrikes and black-site interrogations with the blanket surveillance of millions of American citizens. Astro Noise documents and alludes to many components of the war, including the drone program and the interrogation of suspected militants, but the experience of being surveilled as an American noncombatant is the only experience with which it successfully makes its viewers identify. It is perfectly in keeping with the domestic turn in Poitras’s work.
Whether this approach is less “naïve” than that of her earlier work, as Poitras wrote in her diary, is not so clear—it may just be that the new approach prompts more of a response. But the war on terror isn’t about surveillance at home, no matter how unconstitutional and wrong that surveillance may be. It is about the governments overthrown, the historical artifacts destroyed, and especially the millions of people who have been displaced, wounded, kidnapped, or killed—all of which is happening abroad. It is about what the United States is doing to people who live elsewhere. The domestic and foreign aspects of the war are connected, of course, or at least they should be; our elaborate and growing surveillance state seems obviously designed to detect and subdue dissent before it can pick up too much momentum. But somehow the recent public outrage over domestic surveillance never translated into any more general outrage about the war. So long as the NSA stays out of our iPhones, it seems, we’re content to let our drone operators kill whomever they like. “Appealing to people’s consciences” on behalf of those on the losing end of drone strikes is a difficult and thankless task, especially now that President Obama has insulated Americans so thoroughly from the war’s effects. But it is a task that I hope Poitras is still working through, at least in the back of her mind.
This is the fourth installment of Richard Beck’s column on the war on terror. Read more here.