How we all are watched

Ci­ti­zen­four di­rec­tor Laura Poitras’s look at US sur­veil­lance mea­sures un­set­tles Saul Auster­litz

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We en­ter to a mys­tery. On a screen, slow-mo­tion footage of peo­ple gaz­ing off at some­thing just out­side the frame. An older man with glasses and a salt-and-pep­per goa­tee stands still, watch­ful. A Sikh man with a tur­ban and an Amer­i­can flag pin looks on, and a woman with a face mask over her mouth and sun­glasses clipped to her blue shirt shakes her head.

Th­ese are, we soon re­alise, Amer­i­can faces – faces of all colours, all races, all gen­ders, gath­ered to­gether to peer at a spec­ta­cle both ed­i­fy­ing and ter­ri­ble. Then mu­sic, lurk­ing just un­der our men­tal aware­ness, floats up in the mix, and we hear The Star-Span­gled Ban­ner slowed, ghostly, spec­tral.

A quick glimpse at the pam­phlet for film­maker Laura Poitras’s new show at the Whit­ney Mu­seum of Amer­i­can Art, Astro Noise, in­forms us that the gaz­ers are stand­ing near the pul­verised re­mains of the World Trade Cen­ter in the weeks af­ter two air­planes were flown into the build­ings by ter­ror­ists. We read into ev­ery face we see, in­tent on craft­ing their in­scrutable vis­ages into a mes­sage, a per­spec­tive.

Is the man in the base­ball cap with his cam­era in his hand shak­ing his head at the hor­ror of what he is pho­tograph­ing, or is he mo­men­tar­ily dis­tressed by a bad snap­shot? Is the middle-aged man whose lips are tightly pressed to­gether in a man­ner im­me­di­ately rem­i­nis­cent of then-pres­i­dent Ge­orge W Bush wip­ing his eyes in sor­row, or in pa­tri­otic rage? Is the Sikh man’s flag pin a trag­i­cally nec­es­sary in­oc­u­la­tion against home­grown big­ots in­tent on seek­ing re­venge on those they be­lieve to be Mus­lim?

Poitras, an ac­claimed doc­u­men­tary film­maker who is mak­ing her mu­seum de­but with the Whit­ney show, pro­vides us with no an­swers with O’Say Can You See, only more ques­tions. For as we watch this loop, pressed against the walls of the dark­ened gallery, we can see a crowd as­sem­bling on the other side of the room, gath­ered to watch a video on the verso side of our screen.

The set­ting makes us in­stantly cu­ri­ous, our para­noia kick­ing in as we won­der what the oth­ers might be watch­ing. Even­tu­ally, we drift to the other side, and are faced with grainier footage from a grainier time and place. Flash­lights frame the out­line of a body and a face.

We must pass by the watch­ers of the fallen tow­ers to see the in­ter­ro­ga­tions. More cru­cially, the two screens are con­joined, im­pos­si­ble to be glimpsed si­mul­ta­ne­ously. We can only ever take in one view at a time, even as the sound of the ghostly na­tional an­them drifts onto our brief, frag­men­tary vi­sion of other places. “Novem­ber 2001, Afghanistan,” the words on the screen tell us, and we come to un­der­stand that th­ese two scenes, hap­pen­ing in op­po­site quad­rants of the world, are tak­ing place at one and the same time.

They are two halves of a sin­gle whole. We must ven­ture be­yond the in­ward-gaz­ing pa­tri­otic view to see the dam­age be­ing done in its name. And those keep­ing an eye on the Twin Tow­ers are ac­tu­ally fac­ing the wrong way, their backs turned to the crim­i­nal be­hav­iour of their com­pa­tri­ots. They can­not see it, and per­haps, Poitras seems to be say­ing, they are in­tent on not be­ing able to.

Astro Noise asks us to pro­ceed through dark­ened cor­ri­dors and switch­backs, never al­low­ing us a glimpse of the lay of the land, or to an­tic­i­pate what sur­prises might lurk for us around the next cor­ner.

Poitras has cre­ated a phys­i­cal space in­tended to repli­cate the ide­o­log­i­cal and in­tel­lec­tual space of per­ma­nent warfare, of the na­tional se­cu­rity state run amok.

The strangely sooth­ing Bed Down Lo­ca­tion asks view­ers to lie down on an over­sized ot­toman and gaze up at the gallery ceil­ing, where we can watch the night-time sky slowly scroll by over­head. The ef­fect is strangely sooth­ing – when do New York­ers ever get to see the stars? – and yet the recorded chat­ter play­ing in the back­ground is un­set­tling, as if the quiet over Ye­men and Pak­istan might be shat­tered at any mo­ment by a mur­der­ous drone.

Dis­po­si­tion Matrix is a se­ries of let­ter­box-sized cutouts in a dark­ened room, each with a pho­to­graph or doc­u­ment or short film hid­den in­side its mouth. View­ers must crane and bend to see each se­cret com­part­ment.

The blips of in­for­ma­tion are de­liv­ered with­out con­text or ini­tial ex­pla­na­tion. Why are we look­ing at sub­ur­ban golfers play­ing a round? What is this video of cel­e­brants at a Ye­meni wed­ding? Some of the items on dis­play here are de­cep­tively ba­nal, while oth­ers, like the crude draw­ings of tor­ture im­ple­ments, are im­me­di­ately jolt­ing. As we learn when we ar­rive at the tail end of Dis­po­si­tion Matrix, al­most all of the doc­u­ments and films on dis­play here come cour­tesy of Ed­ward Snow­den, the NSA (Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency) whis­tle-blower who was the sub­ject of Poitras’s last film, Ci­ti­zen­four. Poitras is mak­ing art out of the found ma­te­ri­als of cur­rent events.

It is not un­til the very last in­stal­la­tion, Novem­ber 20, 2004, that we are pro­vided with any in­sight into Poitras’s mo­ti­va­tions, or her own his­tory. We hear her voice as she tells us that she had been “the tar­get of a clas­si­fied na­tional se­cu­rity in­ves­ti­ga­tion con­ducted by the FBI and undis­closed in­tel­li­gence agen­cies”, af­ter wit­nesses saw her film­ing a sur­prise at­tack on Amer­i­can sol­diers.

“The govern­ment never asked to see what I filmed that day,” she in­forms us in a never-end­ing loop. “This footage is unedited.”

The eight min­utes and 16 sec­onds con­sist of Poitras look­ing down on an Iraqi fam­ily that is it­self look­ing out from a rooftop on a chaotic scene below, with Amer­i­can tanks cir­cling, and un­seen Iraqi fight­ers lurk­ing. The gallery’s video screen is sur­rounded by heav­ily-redacted Amer­i­can govern­ment doc­u­ments per­tain­ing to Poitras, ar­gu­ing that the film­maker “may have been in­volved with anti-coali­tion forces”, and an­other with a checked box for “DIS­SEM­I­NA­TION OF IN­TEL­LI­GENCE TO FOR­EIGN GOV­ERN­MENTS”. The re­sult is qui­etly chill­ing. A govern­ment that could be so wrong about Poitras, we un­der­stand, could be wrong about any­thing.

The en­tirety of Astro Noise takes place through the look­ing glass, pen­e­trat­ing the thin scrim of post-9/11 pa­tri­o­tism and para­noia, and dig­ging through the ar­chives of Amer­i­can na­tional se­cu­rity ex­cess. Poitras’s voice is vivid and com­pel ling, and the doc­u­ments are a re­minder, if any was needed, that she knows this world as in­ti­mately as any other chron­i­cler. She has made a sur­pris­ingly smooth tran­si­tion from screen­ing room to gallery.

But there re­mains some­thing trou­bling about Poitras’s hy­brid role. With Astro Noise, as with Ci­ti­zen­four, Poitras is blur­ring the dis­tinc­tions be­tween artist and ac­tivist and doc­u­men­tar­ian. What does it mean to go from mak­ing a doc­u­men­tary about Snow­den to dis­play­ing his doc­u­ments in an art mu­seum? Does aes­theti­cis­ing the global war on ter­ror neu­tralise the cri­tique on of­fer?

Poitras is not just a chron­i­cler of the on­go­ing na­tional se­cu­rity state, but a vic­tim, and her cri­tique is coloured, as it rightly should be, by her own ex­pe­ri­ences. Where Ci­ti­zen­four had been trou­bling for shield­ing its sub­ject from rea­son­able crit­i­cism, Astro Noise is sim­i­larly dis­con­cert­ing in its de­sire to ren­der the very source ma­te­rial of an em­pire in ide­o­log­i­cal dis­ar­ray as an aes­thetic ex­pe­ri­ence.

Can Poitras trans­form drone flight pat­terns into Bar­nett New­man zips with­out fa­tally com­pro­mis­ing her ad­vo­cacy, or ad­vo­cate while in search of an artis­tic truth? On our way out the door, a com­puter run­ning a pro­gramme called Wi-Fi Snif­fer tracks view­ers’ mo­bile use as they pass through the gal­leries. Like it or not, Poitras is re­mind­ing us, we are all be­ing watched now.

Cour­tesy Conor Proven­zano

Laura Poitras films the NSA’s Utah Data Cen­ter un­der con­struc­tion in 2011. The fa­cil­ity re­port­edly pro­cesses all com­mu­ni­ca­tion such as pri­vate emails, phone calls, in­ter­net searches and card pur­chases.

An­ar­chist: Data Feed with Doppler Tracks from a Satel­lite (In­ter­cepted May 27, 2009), 2016.

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