“Astro Noise” devotes considerable space to the impact of U.S. military force on the Middle East. A video filmed by Poitras shows an Iraqi family standing on the roof of their home peering over the walls as gunshots ring out. “What’s going on?” someone asks off camera. “I saw the Americans. I swear to God. At the end of the street,” comes the reply. “These Americans are a curse.” As the scene unfolds, it’s remarkable how unfazed the family appears. Children shown on screen are curious to see what’s happening, but that doesn’t stop them from laughing and joking around. It seems as though a certain degree of violence has become commonplace.
Voice-over narration recorded by the artist explains how she too became a target of the national-security state. After filming the Iraqi family on their rooftop in 2004, Poitras says she was placed on a government watch list. “These eight minutes changed my life, but I didn’t know it at the time,” she explains as the video plays on a loop. “I was the target of a classified national-security investigation conducted by the FBI and undisclosed intelligence agencies.” After that, Poitras was searched and detained each time she crossed the U.S. border. She spent a decade trying to figure out what was going on. Twelve heavily redacted documents on display, which Poitras obtained through a lawsuit, detail the FBI investigation.
For her part, Poitras says she didn’t create the exhibit to achieve a particular outcome. “You make art because you want to express something—at least that’s what I do,” she told me in an interview before the show opened. “It’s not because I have an end goal or end result in mind.” Still, Poitras wants her art to have an impact. “There’s something inherently hopeful about doing any kind of art,” she said. “You’re hopeful that it’s going to reach somebody.”
Adriene Jenik, a visitor from Phoenix, Arizona, who told me she’s taken the time to read the entire Senate torture report summary—a document spanning hundreds of pages that details CIA interrogation and detention—expressed optimism that the show will at least get people talking. “It brings all this into a public setting where there’s the possibility of speaking about it,” she said. “Anytime you bring something out from the shadows, I think that’s good.”
The exhibit acts as a reminder that most Americans remain at a safe distance from drone strikes, torture, and interrogation. Halfway through the show, visitors peer into rectangular slits cut into gallery walls to view documents and video. There are drawings detailing torture and surveillance methods, an interview with a prisoner held at Guantánamo Bay, and images of devastation created by U.S. air and drone strikes. As you look at the objects, you’re at a physical remove. Recessed compartments make it difficult to see clearly, an echo of the fact that it is nearly impossible to fully grasp the mechanisms and consequences of America’s fight against terrorism.