O’Say Can You See: Laura Poitras at the Whitney
Laura Poitras: Astro Noise at the Whitney Museum of American Art
February 5 to May 1, 2016
99 Gansevoort Street at 10th Avenue
New York City, (212) 570-3600
September 11th, 2001 changed the course of countless individual lives as well as American history. Filmmaker Laura Poitras’s exhibition examines the regime of surveillance, post-9/11, that has expanded outward to encompass the globe as well as inward to monitor its own citizens. Poitras uses its visual language and techniques to craft a conceptually powerful statement that makes not only the government, but also the viewers and the artist herself, complicit in this unblinking digital gaze.
Greeting viewers as they exit the elevator is a series of inkjet prints mounted on aluminum, the ANARCHIST series (2016). These colorful prints resemble glitch art, a genre that celebrates the novel forms made possible by the corruption of digital information. Except in Poitras’s case, the images are not so much corrupted as encrypted: the original source material for these prints was leaked to Poitras directly by Edward Snowden. They depict signals intercepted by British intelligence from Israeli drone aircraft flying over the Mediterranean. By decrypting these images, Poitras performs an act of counter-counter-intelligence, spying on spies spying on spy planes.
A double-sided video installation, O’Say Can You See (2001/2016) plays in the gallery’s first room. The side facing the entrance shows footage of onlookers near the wreckage of Ground Zero. Watching these watchers as they stare, cry, or snap photos, the viewer is never given access to the object of their gaze, having to reconstruct the absent spectacle through their various reactions. A distorted version of the National Anthem plays on loop in the background, appropriated from the 2001 World Series played in New York in the month following the attacks. This digitized yet operatic voice, distorted and fragmented to a point of unrecognizability, blends with hushed voices coming from behind the screen. Projected on the reverse side is footage from U.S. military interrogations of suspected terrorists. The prisoners are led into the interrogation rooms with their heads in bags, cut off from both vision and visibility. The soldiers and interrogators have their faces digitally blurred out: they can see without being seen, while the objects of their gaze are denied both of these privileges. The camera is an invisible observer as well, but its vision is hardly objective: the tape cuts out frequently, leaving the events that occurred in the gaps unknown and unknowable. O’Say Can You See presents two sides of the same situation through two different responses.
The gallery’s second room contains Bed Down Location (2016), a video projection on a screen suspended from the ceiling. Viewers are invited to lie on a carpeted platform and stare up at the screen as if stargazing or watching clouds. Such activities, here dislocated from a particular place and time through the medium of video, are the focus of this piece: constellations slowly crawl across the screen, shot in time-lapse in various locations around the world. Occasional white streaks break the slow, steady movement of the stars, suggesting the presence of orbital satellites or aircraft. When the view changes to daytime, a black dot – a blind spot on the screen’s visual field – comes into view against a cloudless blue sky crisscrossed by drones and their contrails. The sun goes down, the stars come out again, and clouds drift by to cover them up. The atmosphere seems peaceful, but military radio chatter breaks the room’s silence, a reminder of the drones and satellites suspended above. They remain barely out of our sight, but as this show goes on to reveal, we are very much within theirs.
A narrow hallway leads away from Bed Down Location, its walls riddled with glowing holes that resemble mail slots or, more ominously, viewports in prison cell doors. This latter analogy seems apt, as behind these peepholes lie documents of surveillance, torture, disappearance, and the power structures that facilitate it all. Most of these portals are at eye level, while several are lower and one — containing covert footage of the aftermath of a U.S. airstrike in Yemen — is set higher, impossible to see by normal means. One particularly disturbing video features former CIA and NSA technical director William Binney talking casually about the ease with which government agencies can make people “disappear.” In another interview, Murta Kumaz – a former prisoner from Afghanistan who was himself “disappeared” to Guantanamo – speaks about being waterboarded during his time in government detention. In the slot below this video sit a series of drawings of torture implements from CIA black sites sketched by another former victim; to see these drawings the viewer has to take up an uncomfortable posture akin to the “stress positions” detainees are made to stand in for hours on end. Everything behind the slots has been leaked in one way or another, and by walking up and looking in, the viewers are made complicit by looking at things they aren’t supposed to see, the very act intelligence agencies perform legally every day.
One might expect an exhibition by an acclaimed film director to end with a cinematic twist, and the show’s final room does not disappoint. Poitras finally turns her powers of counter-surveillance on herself, exhibiting an unedited video she shot in Iraq that, as explained in an accompanying voice-over, ended up getting her placed on a “watch list” and subsequently harassed by government agencies. Displayed in lightboxes next to the video are prints of the FBI’s files on her, documents that she had to sue the government to gain access to. The heavily redacted files contain no sweeping revelations, but the act of the artist looking at herself through the medium of government surveillance is a fitting end to the show: or it would be, if not for two LCD monitors mounted to the wall next to the exit. The dark “blind spot” in the center of Bed Down Location’s overhead screen, mentioned earlier, is actually an infrared camera, and its footage is broadcast live on the right hand monitor. Everyone currently “stargazing” in the other room, along with their body temperatures and heat signatures, is made visible to viewers leaving the exhibition. A smaller monitor to the left scrolls an endless litany of IP addresses, device IDs, and wireless providers as a computer running custom Wi-Fi sniffer software logs and displays information about every wireless device connected to the museum’s network. As people take and share photos of the exhibition on their phones and tablets, their personal metadata unwittingly becomes part of the show itself. In this exhibition, Poitras masterfully reverses the Whitney’s slogan, “you can see America from here.” By harnessing and deploying the techniques of the surveillance state on itself, herself, and museum goers, she shows just how clearly America can see you.