Jake Naughton/The New York Times/Redux/Eyevine
runs at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City from 5 February to 1 May 2016.
Images taken fromline the entrance at Astro Noise, the first solo exhibition by film-maker Laura Poitras.
But the show, at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, doesn’t hit high gear until you find yourself in the dark. There, you are confronted by a massive screen playing slow-motion footage of civilians gazing on the wreckage of the World Trade Center shortly after the attacks on 11 September 2001.
As the distorted soundtrack unwinds – the US national anthem, sung at a World Series baseball game that November – it occurs to you that the people you’re watching behaved in much the same way as you are now. Heads twist from side to side as they try to read meaning in the twisted material before them. Already, you feel implicated.
On the reverse side of the two–sided screen, two interrogations of Afghan prisoners loop endlessly, mixing the rattle of their chains to the still-audible national anthem. The faces of the US guards are obscured by digital smears, masks or shadows. We see the supposed militants quite clearly: soon they will be transported to Guantanamo Bay.
A way of life
Astro Noise is, on the surface, yet another show about surveillance in which the artist makes visible the technologies that track, record and catalogue us. But Poitras, who regularly collaborates with, New York’s other celebrated artist of the “deep state”, is more interested in her audience. Closed-circuit video, mobile-phone sniffers, infrared cameras: .
In the next installation, you can lie on your back and stare at time-lapse projections of night skies in Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen, where drones flit like tracer fire as the stars shift fluidly above. You feel at once both totally exposed – a sensation heightened by the radio chatter of drone pilots – and perfectly secure, your anonymity guaranteed in the darkness.(Don’t get comfortable: the title of this piece, Bed Down Location, is military terminology for where a targeted person sleeps.)
Poitras, who is best known for her, took the title Astro Noise from the name of an encrypted file Snowden gave her that contained evidence of mass surveillance by the US National Security Agency. The film won her an Oscar.
In stark contrast, the 8 minutes and 16 seconds of footage that make up her next installation – shot on an Iraqi family’s rooftop while US forces engaged militants nearby – made her the subject of a “classified national-security investigation”. FBI documents on the incident line the walls. The footage of November 20, 2004 () shows nothing pertaining to the security of the US, but rather focuses on some civilians trying and failing to see what’s going on down in the street.
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.
Afterwards, should you find yourself in need of fresh air and a bit of space, you can wander out onto the Whitney’s series of interlocking decks and balconies, and stare at the new, gleaming World Trade Center. It appears to inhabit an entirely different America to the one you were just immersed in.
You wonder if that’s true.
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