Filmmaker Laura Poitras turns her anti-Big Brother activism into fine art with 'Astro Noise' museum installation

The effect is unnerving. Shortly after gazing at artfully displayed museum materials about U.S. government surveillance — primary-color images of Doppler tracks, documents painting distinctions between "clandestine collection" and "covert action" — the viewer realizes they are being spied on.

A space where one can lie down to look up at a simulated night sky dotted with drones is, in the next room, made visible on a screen, where those same viewers can see that images of them were being captured. Next to the screen sits a more insidious piece — a "Wi-Fi sniffer," which displays technical details of the phone in one's pocket.

It is an exercise in table-turning. Visitors believe they are safely distanced observers — only to suddenly learn they are the subject.

These experiences come courtesy of "Astro Noise," a new installation at the Whitney Museum of American Art about surveillance and the War on Terror by filmmaker Laura Poitras.

In her so-called post-9/11 film trilogy, anchored by the Oscar-winning 2014 Edward Snowden documentary "Citizenfour," Poitras sought to use her first language, cinema, to show the spread of government spying in civil society. Now she has undertaken a less-common experiment — bringing her activist zeal and storytelling chops to the world of fine arts.

"I wanted to build an experience that would ask you to engage but also make you vulnerable," Poitras said of the installation, which runs through next month. "I want it to be shocking but also communicate in a clear way that makes people see things differently."

Poitras is in her downtown office overlooking the Hudson River about a mile south of the Whitney. High-ceilinged but of limited space, the office feels a little larger now that many of the installation materials have finally been moved out.

The journalist-turned-artist, 52, uses the area as a staging ground for all her efforts — as a director (her latest project is about Julian Assange, with cooperation from its subject), as a producer (she helps oversee Field of Vision, an ambitious series of documentary shorts launched last year and mainly distributed online) and as a kind of spiritual leader to a new generation of watchdog journalists.

And, now, as gallery exhibitionist.

It is this last label that raises the most questions, not just due to the material but because of how it expands on her chosen profession. Filmmakers often carry a theme from one movie to the next; Poitras herself has done that with the two movies, "My Country, My Country" and "The Oath," that preceded "Citizenfour."

But directors don't often cross into the museum or gallery worlds. "Astro Noise" implicitly asks whether a commercial filmmaker can move fluidly between mediums if their efforts are united by a common goal.

Poitras says she sees fewer walls than others might.

"I wanted this piece to have the same progression as a narrative film," she said. "I wanted you to feel as if there was plot. Except there would be no plot — the progression would be the physical space."

Certainly there are narrative elements in "Astro Noise," and a measure of flow. The visitor moves from a longform video of post-9/11 CIA interrogations — projected on a giant screen in the center of a large room — into a space where formal documents of CIA and FBI policy can be viewed through eye-level slits.

The installation then steers the viewer to the drone and self-spying spaces before landing them in front of a looping video. The piece represents roughly 10 minutes of footage Poitras took from the roof of an Iraqi home about five years after the U.S. invasion there — footage that appears to be why she landed on a U.S. government watch list.

 "Astro Noise," in other words, has a continuity of both space and time, emblematic of a mind that thinks in acts. (This, incidentally, is also the operating principle of "12 Years a Slave" director Steve McQueen, one of the few other film directors who crosses over to visual art. Later this year the Whitney will host a show of his too.)

But the sequencing is more than just a device. The structure seeks to convey a larger point: What begins as a military response in a foreign land can quickly come home to roost.

Poitras is evidence of this herself — she has an ongoing lawsuit over her place on the watch list and incorporates some of the case documents into the exhibit. The line between chronicler and chronicled is constantly blurring.

Soft-spoken but with an intensity of purpose, Poitras comes off as someone for whom politics is never far from her mind.

The artist actually began work on "Astro Noise" well ahead of "Citizenfour." She and Whitney curator Jay Sanders began talking in early 2012, before Snowden even reached out to her. Poitras and the institution began collaborating in smaller ways — "The Oath" was at the museum's 2012 Biennial, and she held an event in which some visitors were detained, voluntarily. "Astro Noise" then began to take shape.

Rather than art coming from film, in other words, all her work derives from a core belief: The U.S. is overstepping its bounds, amassing a trove of information about civilians that could easily be turned against them.

It may be a refreshing shift to convey these ideas via conceptual art, but the idea of fashioning gallery shows out of the stuff of government policy raises questions. Can art and its abstractions convey the hard-reality complexities of foreign affairs?

And can a piece like this be enjoyed or even exist independently from its politics? Would Dick Cheney or a more hawkish sort, for instance, behold it in the same way, or even consider it art?

Sanders, who worked closely with Poitras on the show, said the installation is itself meant to grapple with these issues.

"It's a complicated dialogue," Sanders said. "I think a lot of people would say [the show] is political. But it's also empathetic, showing what it's like to live in a country where drones fly overhead.

"That bundle of artistic intent and political positioning is what makes this interesting. I hope the show opens up those issues."

Poitras says she sees it as a fine but instructive line.

"I guess some would say it is political. I don't really think of it that way," she said. "I want it to be unsettling. What would it be like if the Chinese were flying drones over the U.S.? What would it be like if our citizens were being interrogated in this way?"

Poitras relocated back to New York after several years in Berlin, where she had gone to work on "Citizenfour" in what she believed was a more hospitable climate for the film's provocations.

Her efforts since returning home have to been to build a kind of informal mini-empire of watchdog journalism; Field of Vision in particular is key to this, publishing "seasons" of documentary-short work. She also has been working on the Assange piece, which is expected to be an episodic series about his actions and life in the embassy of Ecuador in London. (Poitras was last there in the fall and will likely return soon.) Assange, she said, has been railroaded because he exposed important and dangerous foreign-policy decisions.

 Her underlying point in much of her work, especially “Astro Noise,” is that the surveillance state, and the larger culture of interrogation and detainment of which it's a part, is not something that happens to others, but affects all of us. No one can simply look at an exhibit with detachment.

If that world view feels unduly dystopian, Poitras believes that can  be a dangerous way of thinking. Such concerns seem exaggerated or too early, she says , until it's too late.

Nor does she believe foreign-policy mistakes are relegated to the past.

"It's not history, it's present," she said, turning ideological.  "Guantanamo is still happening. Look at ISIS. It's shocking how much of the media doesn't talk about the connection between the Iraq War and how it directly led to ISIS."

She built an installation like this, she said, to bring home the urgency.

"When you watch a film they are characters in a plot. You have some relationship to them, but it's a projection, a transference," she said. "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."


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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on March 20, 2016, in the Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Big Sister versus Big Brother - Filmmaker Laura Poitras refocuses anti-surveillance activism into her `Astro Noise' fine art installation." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe