“Artists work within political realities, no matter what the content or focus of the work,” says artist Laura Poitras, whose exhibition, “Astro Noise,” opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art on February 5. “Art is alive. It’s vital.”
Poitras made headlines with her 2014 documentary, Citizenfour, which details her trip to Hong Kong to speak to NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden. “Astro Noise” explores many of the issues in Poitras’s films: surveillance, the American response to 9/11, the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, and the drone wars. She denies that her work takes a “stance” and is hesitant to claim that her work is any more political than other artists’. When “Astro Noise” opened, the Whitney was hosting a Frank Stella retrospective on its fifth floor, filled with large abstract works. Certainly, Stella lived within a political reality, but it’s hard to tell from what’s mounted on the walls. For Poitras to deny that she’s working in a particularly political mode seems querulous and evasive. Some works are certainly more politically and socially engaged than others. To deny that just seems silly.
Poitras constructed her exhibition as a narrative. To enter the show, the viewer walks into a dark room and is immediately confronted with a large screen displaying footage of New Yorkers’ faces as they witnessed the aftermath of the World Trade Centers’ collapse. On the other side of the screen, the US military interrogates prisoners in Afghanistan following the attacks. Throughout successive rooms, a screen on the ceiling projects night skies over Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan for a work called Bed Down Location, and a series of peepholes reveal official government documents and interviews related to Poitras’s themes. In the final room, streaming data reveals that cameras have been watching and broadcasting the bodies lying on the raised platform of Bed Down Location.
With this format, Poitras says she gains a new control of “bodies and space.” She and curator Jay Sanders charted the exhibition’s path and erected walls to strictly determine the paths that audiences will take. Sanders describes the layout as a “labyrinth.” Indeed, to navigate “Astro Noise,” you have to wander through blacked-out rooms, never quite sure what lurks beyond the next corner. The tight construction and the enveloping darkness effectively evoke a sense of claustrophobia. US decisions have ensnared the country in war and controversial practices, and the exhibit effectively instills in the viewer a corresponding anxiety and the feeling of being trapped.
Some of the pieces are more difficult to unravel. Before walking into the “labyrinth,” the viewer confronts Poitras’s ANARCHIST series, pigmented prints mounted on the wall. While exhibition materials reveal these to be “a series of images that the artist has drawn from the documents provided to her by Edward Snowden” that “show various stages in the process of descrambling the collected signals,” they don’t mean much to the viewer unacquainted with high-level signals and technology. That is to say, a majority of us.