Installation view of Laura Poitras: Astro Noise (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, February 5—May 1, 2016). Photography by Ronald Amstutz.

Installation view, ‘Laura Poitras: Astro Noise’ at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, February 5–May 1, 2016 (photo by Ronald Amstutz)

Laura Poitras is an excellent filmmaker. Her three films about the post-9/11 world (My Country, My Country; The Oath; and Citizenfour) comprise a particularly nuanced exploration of hard-to-tackle themes: honor, violence, loyalty, patriotism, and privacy. These films are successful, carefully constructed works of art that delicately balance character, storyline, and context.

The Whitney Museum’s Astro Noise, Poitras’s first solo museum exhibition, seems built upon an incorrect premise: what works in a film — thematically, visually, and emotionally  — might be reconstituted to function within a white-cube art space. Astro Noise unsuccessfully privileges content over context.

Still. Laura Poitras, O’Say Can You See, 2001/2016. Two-channel digital video, color, sound. Courtesy of the artist.

Still from Laura Poitras, “O’Say Can You See” (2001/2016), two-channel digital video, color, sound (courtesy the artist) (click to enlarge)

The exhibition begins with “O’Say Can You See” (2001/2016), a two-channel video installation. The first screen shows the faces of onlookers visiting the site of the twin towers just after 9/11. Their expressions are disturbing — betraying shock, confusion, and upset — but not surprising. Sometimes a hint of the rubble is visible in a viewer’s glasses, but a more-than-fleeting glimpse is hidden from museumgoers.

The second channel, located on the reverse side of the same screen, presents footage of the interrogations of prisoners in Afghanistan. Handcuffed and hooded men sit in a dirty, concrete room while interrogators repetitively question them about information so banal that any broader relevance to the “war on terror” is hard to imagine. An interrogator suggests that missiles and Al-Qaeda documents have been found in a prisoner’s car, yet he continues to question his captive about a signature on a family letter. The detainee claims his wife wrote the letter but signed his daughter’s name. The interrogator seems quite intent on proving that the daughter’s name is actually the name of the wife, or the name of someone else altogether. The dispute eclipses, at least in the footage we see, further mention of the missiles. The exhibition brochure notes that both prisoners were sent to Guantanamo.

“O’Say Can You See” plunders frustratingly obvious parallels and dichotomies: The twin towers are hidden from exhibition viewers; interrogation involves the uncovering of supposedly hidden information. An event that happens in New York ruins lives halfway around the world; the detainees’ guilt is unproven, and they may be simply bystanders, as trapped in circumstance as the New Yorkers who watched the towers fall. Themes of complicity, guilt, meaningless interrogation, and the difference between a bystander and an accessory to violence are integral to discussions of 9/11 and the American invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq — but so much so that placing them in a museum exhibition in 2016 feels unoriginal. “Disposition Matrix” (2016), an installation of selected documents, drone and video footage, suffers from the same thematic repetitiveness and overexposure, as does “ANARCHIST” (2016), comprised of inkjet prints of surveillance data from the UK Government Communications Headquarters.

02 Astro Noise Press copy

Laura Poitras, “ANARCHIST: Power Spectrum Display of Doppler Tracks from a Satellite (Intercepted May 27, 2009)” (2016), archival pigment print on aluminum, 45 1/4 × 65 in (courtesy the artist)

“Bed Down Location” (2016) does not repurpose documentary footage or objects, and consequently is the most successful piece in Astro Noise. In “Bed Down,” viewers can lie on their backs on a large, square platform and admire projections on the ceiling: scenes of night skies in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan. The visuals are peaceful, and might remind museumgoers of counting stars as children. In Astro Noise‘s final gallery, a screen shows real-time, heat-sensor images of the bodies quietly gazing up at the ceiling two rooms away. What viewers experienced as innocent and calm is revealed to contain the hidden menace of drone warfare.

Why is a museum an appropriate and/or interesting venue in which to explore surveillance, violence, and post-9/11 military invasions? Astro Noise does not explore this question, but rather uses exhibition space as a mere container in which to place content that’s already been examined successfully in other mediums, most notably Poitras’s own films. “Bed Down Location” offers a glimpse of what Astro Noise might have been — an interactive exploration of what surveillance means in real time. Or perhaps ideas of secrecy and propaganda within art could have been probed, by juxtaposing Poitras’s work with some kind of propagandistic socialist realism, or with art that was used to promote American ideals of freedom during the Cold War. Astro Noise does not tease out the difference between a museum exhibition and a documentary film enough to warrant its repurposing of material.

Installation view of Laura Poitras: Astro Noise (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, February 5—May 1, 2016). Photography by Ronald Amstutz.

Installation view, ‘Laura Poitras: Astro Noise’ at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, February 5–May 1, 2016, showing “Bed Down Location” (2016) (photo by Ronald Amstutz)

Laura Poitras: Astro Noise continues at the Whitney Museum of American Art (99 Gansevoort Street, Meatpacking District) through May 1.

Correction: This piece originally stated that “O’Say Can You See” showed viewers watching the collapse of the twin towers on 9/11, not visiting the site soon after. We regret the error, and it has been fixed.

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Julia Friedman

Julia graduated from Barnard with a B.A. in European History, and from NYU with an M.A. in Visual Arts Administration. She works as Senior Curatorial Manager at Madison Square Park Conservancy.

2 replies on “Laura Poitras’s Unimaginative Transition from the Screen to the Museum”

  1. Though I wasn’t blown away by the show, this review seems intent on policing certain boundaries between documentary film and contemporary art from a rather outmoded elitist perspective. The author suggests that the flaw with Poitras’s attempt to enter the “white-cube” fails due to lack of complexity, originality, and institutional reflexivity – all values that have become more or less irrelevant to most contemporary art today yet are only resuscitated here when someone more popularly known as a filmmaker and activist infiltrates the hallowed space of the art museum. Furthermore, I would argue that “Astral Noise” does take into account the context of a museum exhibition and its difference from documentary film in the ways it is premised on the embodied encounter of the viewer with the work through installation arrangements that force a phenomenological awareness of the spectator in relation to surveillance technologies. As for the lack of complexity/originality – perhaps the issues addressed are so pressing and dire that the avant-garde games the author laments the absence of are incapable of delivering the sheer force that Poitras wants to hit the viewer with.

  2. “O’Say Can You See” is footage taken at Ground Zero but in the weeks after the attacks, not during the event–a key distinction as the twin towers are not “hidden from exhibition viewers.” The extended reaction shot is part of Poitras’ focus on documenting 9/11’s aftermath and the challenges of representing, as filmmaker, activist, or artist at the Whitney, an incomprehensible event and its far-reaching, often inscrutable, and purposefully obscured effects.

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