Laura Poitras: Astro Noise
Laura Poitras: Astro Noise — which ran from February 5 to May 1 2016 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York — was the first solo museum exhibition by the artist, filmmaker and journalist Laura Poitras. It deals with the topics of mass surveillance, the war on terror, drone warfare, occupation and torture. She had already investigated many of these issues in her films, including Citizenfour, which won the 2015 Academy Award for Best Documentary, and in her reporting, for which she shared the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. In Astro Noise, Poitras expanded her films and journalism into a series of installations and immersive media environments.
Poitras’s involvement in these topics began with her “9/11 Trilogy,” a series of three feature-length documentary films. The first, My Country, My Country (2006), follows the family of an Iraqi doctor during the U.S. occupation. The Oath (2010), which was included in the 2012 Whitney Biennial, weaves together the stories of two men involved with Al Qaeda and the larger issues surrounding the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. Citizenfour (2014) details Poitras’s meetings with former NSA contractor Edward Snowden as he revealed the massive scale of the National Security Agency’s global surveillance programs. In these films, and in the reporting she did with Glenn Greenwald and others on the Snowden revelations for the U.S. edition of The Guardian and The Washington Post, Poitras investigated the strategies and tactics developed in the aftermath of 9/11 that have come to be known as the “war on terror.”
For the Whitney exhibition, Poitras created an interrelated series of immersive environments that incorporated documentary footage, architectural interventions, primary documents, and narrative structures. The title, Astro Noise, referred to the faint background disturbance of thermal radiation left over from the Big Bang; it’s also the name Snowden gave to an encrypted file containing evidence of mass surveillance by the NSA that he shared with Poitras in 2013. “I wanted this piece to have the same progression as a narrative film,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “I wanted you to feel as if there was a plot. . . . In Citizenfour you’re watching someone who makes a bold decision. But it’s someone else. It’s not you. And Astro Noise is all about you.”
“Poitras writes in the show’s catalogue that she is interested in the visitor as a ‘protagonist’. She’s not kidding. As you leave the show, two screens reveal that the exhibition has had you, the museum-goer, under surveillance. The first screen displays the live feed from an infrared camera positioned directly above the supine patrons of ‘Bed Down Location’. As they get up and leave, their heat signatures cling to the platform. You are complicit in their surveillance, yet the temptation to linger is strong.
“The second screen, ‘Last Seen’, is a running list of the specs and Wi-Fi activity of every mobile phone and device carried through the exhibition.”