Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

Laura Poitras: spies, lies and videotape

An immersive new show at the Whitney turns the viewer into the viewed

George Pendle | February 12th 2016

An art museum is traditionally a place you go to look at things. An immersive and unsettling new show at the Whitney Museum in New York flips this concept on its head. This time the artworks are looking at you.

Occupying the museum’s entire eighth floor is the work of Laura Poitras, the only person to have won an Oscar, a Pulitzer Prize, a MacArthur “Genius” Award and a career retrospective at a major American museum. A documentary film-maker, she became well known in 2013 for her role disseminating the top-secret documents uncovered by the whistleblower Edward Snowden (her documentary on him, “Citizenfour”, won the Oscar). However, Poitras had been documenting the evolving geopolitical situation since 9/11, her camera tracking an increasingly paranoid American political juggernaut and the human lives that were unlucky enough to get in its way. Poitras herself is one of these victims; since 2006 she has been detained and interrogated more than 50 times.

Upon entering the exhibition you are greeted not by polemic but by a series of images that might have escaped from the Frank Stella retrospective a few floors below. Brightly coloured geometries spark on the wall in a manner not too dissimilar from Stella’s own minimalist paintings. Yet these blocks of colour and Day-Glo lines (pictured) represent data signals collected by the Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) from listening devices atop Mount Troodos in Cyprus. Entitled “Anarchist” (2016), after the spying operation itself, the pictures depict signals stolen from satellites, drones and radars in the Near East in various stages of the descrambling process. One could say that the descrambling of images into information is what the art-viewing process is all about, yet throughout this show the role of the viewer and our relationship to the images on show is constantly questioned. Are we viewers or voyeurs, instigators or dupes? 

“O’Say Can You See” (2001/2006) immediately brings these questions to the fore. It’s a double video projection on a two-sided screen. On one side are the faces of pedestrians as they walk past the remains of the World Trade Center in the days immediately after its destruction. We watch the watchers as they shake their heads, wipe away tears and put their hands to their mouths, the dumb show of grief on full display. On the other side of the screen are two videos also taken shortly after 9/11, but these depict interrogations by the US military in Afghanistan. A man with a bag on his head is thrust into a room, his legs are in chains and a masked soldier stands behind him with a gun. The prisoner feels his wounds and breathes heavily, the bright light causes him to wince. Here are all the gesticulations of pain and fear. While the first video is shot in crisp slow-motion, the second is grainy and murky. Are the mourners on one side of the screen responsible for the interrogation in the room on the other side? Or is it vice versa? Poitras does not say. It’s a powerful double whammy illustrating how the consequences of 9/11 wound their way around the world like barbed wire, entangling all manner of people into a strange coexistence.

In the next room a film of the night skies over Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan is projected onto the ceiling. The viewer is encouraged to lie down on a raised platform in the centre of the room to gaze at them. It’s peaceful despite the buzz of radio noise, but the name of the installation causes some nervousness. “Bed Down Location” (2016) is the military term to describe where a person targeted for a drone attack sleeps. Indeed, when you get to the final room your discomfort is only increased when you see that the room you have just been in is being scanned by infrared heat detectors and your thermal image has been transmitted onto a television screen for everyone to see. You weren’t a viewer, you realise, you were a target.

Before then, you must walk through “Disposition Matrix” (2016), a corridor that has been lined with the small window-like slits you might find in the door of a prison cell. By peering through these holes you might see a classified government document, a video of the devastation following a drone attack, or ominous pictures of the giant data banks that hold tapped information. You’re viewing a hidden world, snatching a glimpse of something that is normally buried out of sight, the physical difficulty of viewing these objects mimicking the greater difficulty of discovering their existence in real life.

“Disposition Matrix” cleverly deals with what was one of the major problems of the Edward Snowden archive: its sheer volume. How is one meant to display so much information without completely numbing an audience? Poitras is the latest in a long line of artists who have sought to unveil hidden systems. In the 1970s Hans Haacke traced the money trail that travelled between iniquitous corporations and art museums. He did so on the walls of the very museums he was critiquing, showing how the former’s money could be exchanged for the latter’s moral credit. In the 1980s and 1990s, Mark Lombardi specialised in drawing constellations of influence depicting alleged financial and political frauds. Works such as “George W. Bush, Harken Energy and Jackson Stephens, ca. 1979-90” (1999) documented the links between the Bush and Bin Laden families and were even studied by the FBI in the wake of the September 11th attacks. More recently Trevor Paglen, a collaborator with Poitras on “Citizenfour”, has been taking beautiful, almost romantic photographs of the hidden surveillance infrastructure that surrounds us. In his series, “Drones”, rose-tinted skies of the utmost luxuriousness carry within them an ominous black dot, a drone in the distance.

Such a show could have become shrill or preachy. But Poitras prefers to immerse us in the facts rather than beating us over the head with them. This is less a lecture than a disquieting engagement. The final piece in the show, “Last Seen” (2016), is simply a monitor showing a stream of data. The wall text explains that these data are the Wi-Fi signals snatched from the mobile devices of each visitor to the exhibition. The viewer has become the viewed. The watcher has become the watched. You can’t get out of there quickly enough.  

Laura Poitras: Astro Noise Whitney Museum of American Art until May 1st

Readers' comments

Sign in or Create your account to join the discussion.