[March 1 2016]
Astro Noise, by Laura Poitras is an immersive exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, curated by Jay Sanders. Poitras is a dedicated journalist, filmmaker and artist addressing the effects of the war on terror. With few opportunities to hold governments accountable for their tactics, Poitras’ work offers the public transparency. She situates international conflicts on a human level.
Poitras is best known for her acclaimed 9/11 Trilogy consisting of My Country, My Country, The Oath, and CITIZENFOUR which investigate the War in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, and the Surveillance State respectively. With Astro Noise, Poitras provides a physical environment to address these themes beyond the screen; it’s a platform for active discovery.
The exhibition is a labyrinth of shadows punctuated by brightly lit confidential documents. This is best illustrated by Poitras’ video and sound installation “Oh Say Can You See”. Guests are initially greeted with by an uncanny mirror image. A montage of faces, not unlike those visiting The Whitney, is shown in slo-motion. They are reacting to the wreckage at ground zero, the rubble of an event that has shaped politics since. Astonishment and sadness radiate from stoic expressions. Unconscious facial gestures add levity to the scene, a candid portrait of empathy and concern alongside apathy and confusion.
“Oh Say Can You See” puts the emotional experience of 9/11 back to back with video clips of the interrogations of Said Boujaadia and Salim Hamdan in Afghanistan before both men were sent to Guantanamo. The grief and loss felt from 9/11 lead to the violent detention of these innocent men. Poitras deftly weaves these narratives together. A distorted recording of the American National Anthem echoes alongside the Arabic dialogue of the prisoners’ questioning.
Two cultures that are often seen at extremes are linked through visceral emotion, but the grainy images from Boujaadia and Hamdan’s cells stands in stark contrast with the bright American footage. The men are hooded, they must ask permission to stretch their legs, they are pushed to disclose the locations of their families, but throughout this they act with civility. Although exhausted and humiliated, they still smile. They look their captors in the eyes. These men have integrity despite everything that’s been stripped away from them.
“Oh Say Can You See” builds a narrative that is not black and white, but colored with the full spectrum of human experience. Within the gallery the glowing images illuminate the audience’s faces, peoples legs amble beneath the suspended video screens. We are all connected by these events. Poitras reveals it with an objective lens. By presenting facts and experiences she allows visitors to draw their own conclusions.
Astro Noise is a comprehensive view of the war on terror, addressing surveillance, torture, drone strikes, and data collection. Poitras approaches these themes through unique angles that situate the audience in the center of the conversation.
“Bed Down Location” projects images of Middle Eastern skies on the ceiling above a large cushioned platform. Visitors lay back and consider the heavens, but these majestic and poetic images carry a sinister threat. In Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan children pray for rain because drones fly in clear skies. “Bed Down Location” is a military term denoting where a targeted individual sleeps. Drones attack from the heavens into the home. There is no safe place to hide from unmanned war machines.
Poitras subverts the innocent experience of watching the stars. There is an infrared camera at the center of the projection sending a live feed of thermal images to a monitor at the exit of the exhibition. Visitors who were casually relaxing later consider their bodies from a drones-eye-view. Stargazing stares back.
Surveillance is ubiquitous in the world today, seamlessly and invisibly integrated into our daily lives. It is easy to ignore but startling to see the actual data. Next to the thermal feed of “Bed Down Location”, a monitor titled “Last Seen “unfurls an endless scroll of Wi-Fi signals from visitors’ personal devices. This eerie list acknowledges how vulnerable our privacy is.
“Last Seen” uses Wi-Fi Sniffing software designed by Surya Mattu, but it is not an invasive protocol, it does not collect or store information, unlike the regimes used by the NSA and Five Eyes (shared intelligence between US, Canada, UK, New Zealand, and Australia). Documents presented in “Disposition Matrix” show the reality. It is one thing to say we are all being watched, it is another to see the PowerPoint presentations used to describe the extent of surveillance.
For instance one document titled “BLARNEY Access” boasts “70+ additional accesses across the U.S. from 30+ providers for Domestic Long Distance, ISP, and Data Center collections”. Another hand-drawn diagram includes a smiley face exclaiming “Yeah!!! Make data happen!”
“Disposition Matrix” showcases individual documents and videos in narrow light boxes. The views are for your eyes only, teasing the sensation of their confidential nature. What’s surprising is the mix of lo-fi communications alongside impenetrable computer processes.
Math may drive the data, but human’s must design, interpret and communicate these functions. One of the most chilling documents features hand-drawn illustrations of torture devices, showing that alongside all our technological advancements we still resort to cruel and ineffective means for intelligence gathering.
Surveillance is a tactic of war, but a video of William Binney discusses it’s application on domestic populations. Binney is a former NSA agent turned whistleblower in 2001 due to the use of the Trailblazer and Stellar Wind programs on American citizens. Binney estimates that the NSA has collected over 20 trillion American phone calls, emails, and other data transactions.
Most people do not see, hear, or feel the mass surveillance that whisks personal information into data collection centers, but Poitras has first hand experience of being a person of interest. She was caught in the crossfire of these programs while she was working on “My Country, My Country”. The film follows Dr. Riyadh al-Adhadh’s candidacy in the first Iraqi election after U.S. occupation. It provides an on-the-ground view of life in Iraq after the invasion.
After completing the filming Poitras was frequently detained by U.S. officials, often held in U.S. customs for eight hours or more and interrogated. She realized she’d been placed on the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) watch list and began petitioning the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for details regarding her case. 10 years later she received a file of redacted documents confirming a FBI investigation and surveillance of her work.
“Novermber 20, 2004” presents a selection of these documents alongside a video clip of a bomb strike in Iraq that Poitras happened to film during her stay with a local family. Poitras’ voice narrates the video on loop “These eight minutes changed my life”. The raw footage mostly features Poitras’ host family, three children goofing off while suggesting ways to get the best vantage point. It is sobering to consider children growing up in a war zone, excited to have the day off school despite the dangers of the occupation.
“November 20, 2004” isn’t shocking. It’s hard to recognize the conflict in the footage. The official documents are mostly blank spaces. The war on terror is hot and cold, but mostly invisible, secret, hidden behind algorithms and machines.
In the hallway outside of the exhibition the “ANARCHIST” series shows six stages of an image descrambled from GCHQ’s Troodos Mountain antennas. Abstract color blocks with vivid pixilation coalesce into an overblown view of a drone in flight. The final image is largely obscured by the sun. Even when reality comes into view, it only offers a partial truth. Surveillance is not fact, it is personal interpretations.
The catalogue for Astro Noise confronts this further. Fact and fiction, history and future predictions are collected from Ai Weiwei, Jacob Appelbaum, Lakhdar Boumediene, Kate Crawford, Alex Danchev, Cory Doctorow, Dave Eggers, Jill Magid, Trevor Paglen, Edward Snowden, and Hito Steyerl as well as an introduction by curator Jay Sanders and excerpts from Laura Poitras’ Berlin journal and the FBI documents regarding her personal surveillance. This collection provides first hand experiences with surveillance from artists, academics, and writers. The catalogue breaches new territory across diverse mediums.
Astro Noise unravels the mechanisms at play in the war on terror and looks into the eyes of the lives affected. It traverses the heavens and the arenas of war, including all of our personal devices. The scale of surveillance is difficult to grasp, but Poitras offers a human perspective. Astro Noise pieces together the threads of this narrative for an unfiltered view of our world today.
Text and Photo Elise Gallant