Filmmaker and journalist Laura Poitras’s first art exhibition, presented at the Whitney Museum, expands on her ‘9/11 Trilogy’ films (2006–14), which include the Academy Award-winning Citizenfour (2014). It was during her first correspondence with that film’s protagonist, Edward Snowden, that she approached Whitney curator Jay Sanders to produce installations as an ‘energizing’ alternative to filmmaking: a way to position viewers as protagonists rather than as passive spectators. Snowden named the incomprehensibly large collection of information he would soon send to Poitras ‘Astro Noise’ and Poitras transformed a relatively miniscule selection of it into the works in the eponymous exhibition, which also includes older film footage. Together, the pieces embody what Julian Stallabrass has termed the ‘data sublime’: the experience of being overwhelmed by a deluge of data without being provided with the conceptual tools to process it.
The first work we encounter, a selection from the ‘ANARCHIST’ series (2016), is case in point. Six colourful, seemingly abstract inkjet prints mounted on aluminium hang beside wall labels listing satellite signals intercepted by the British government in Cyprus, visualized in the prints in various stages of their collection and processing. Why display just six medium-scale prints from a collection of many thousands (or more)? And what purpose do they serve as autonomous aesthetic objects, when the information they represent remains indecipherable? Snowden leaked unedited material deliberately in order to affirm his impartiality, but Poitras’s selection is mystifyingly arbitrary. What is the effect of disjunction between image and text here when we’re incapable of comparing, much less verifying, the sets of information within ‘Anarchist’ as a whole? Without a sense of the volume of information intercepted or what it means, we experience the work as a wash of colourful data porn.
Disposition Matrix (2016), in contrast, is a series of staggered slits in a dark corridor, which reveal brightly lit documents, drawings and videos leaked from the US National Security Agency. The material is engrossing, yet its peep-show, proscenium-style presentation once again serves little function save to underscore the clandestine nature of the documents’ contents. Museums are ideal spaces for the slow digestion of visual information and close inspection of a few documents provides insight into the otherwise overwhelming torrent of classified material obtained by Poitras and other journalists. But the installation is superfluously theatrical: only one person can view an item at a time, causing inevitable traffic jams and forcing quick scans instead of patient reads. Unlike ‘ANARCHIST’, however, Poitras’s selection of documents here seems more purposefully representative and relies less on our trust of unverifiable caption information.
Before reaching the Disposition Matrix corridor, we are invited to lie on a cushioned platform and gaze up at Bed Down Location (2016), a video projection of night skies above cities in Pakistan, Nevada, Somalia and Yemen that shows drones flying overhead like shooting stars – an empathic yet serene attempt to recall the fear of deadly air strikes that plagues many in the region. Hidden thermal cameras capture images of our supine bodies and display them on a video monitor at the exhibition’s end, where a wall text explains that Poitras has also installed software to intercept the wireless signals from our mobile phones. Like the drones, Poitras uncovers the various surveillance apparatuses used to monitor our lives. But these aestheticized revelations fail to challenge our expectations of the post-9/11 world and, instead, magnify our passivity towards an Orwellian state.
‘Astro Noise’ fails to exploit the data sublime as a productive strategy for contemporary art. Unlike her nuanced and contemplative films, Poitras’s installations are governed by arbitrary formal decisions that leave little agency for the viewer, foreclosing the very freedom that she hoped to create.
First published in Issue 180