‘Astro Noise’: When Mass Surveillance Is Art

In a new exhibition at the Whitney, the filmmaker Laura Poitras examines a post-9/11 world.

Laura Poitras / Whitney Museum of American Art

It starts with shock, sadness, anger, and fear.

Step inside “Astro Noise,” an immersive exhibition by the filmmaker and journalist Laura Poitras, and one of the first things you see is a video showing the distressed faces of men, women, and children. Text appears on screen to indicate that they are staring at Ground Zero, the site of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City. The footage vividly captures the emotional toll of terrorism. It’s the starting point for a story of America and the war on terror that Poitras wants to tell.

The show, on display at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, considers America’s national-security state, delving into drone strikes, interrogation, torture, and surveillance. It’s well-worn ground for Poitras, who’s documented post-9/11 America for years. She’s even become something of a celebrity as a confidant and chronicler of the fugitive whistle-blower Edward Snowden, whom she explored in the Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour. “Astro Noise” builds on her earlier work, but it stands apart. The show implicates and involves its audience in the subject matter—something that would be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve with breaking news, reported inquiries, or documentary film. By doing so, the exhibit blurs the line between victims and perpetrators in America’s fight against terrorism.

Every American citizen is part of the surveillance state. “Astro Noise” asks its audience to recognize and confront that participation, even when it’s passive or unintentional. One of the most understated yet affecting elements of the show comes at the very end. A screen mounted on a white gallery wall displays infrared video of visitors lying down to look up at images projected onto the ceiling in a previous room. The message is clear and it is disturbing: You didn’t know it at the time, but, earlier when you passed through that space, you were being watched and recorded. Then a second realization sets in: You are now unwittingly spying on someone else.

The concept of government surveillance is no longer revelatory. It’s been nearly three years since Snowden leaked documents detailing sweeping surveillance programs carried out by the U.S. National Security Agency in the name of protecting the country. Since that time, the former government contractor has been alternately branded a hero and a traitor. A steady drip of disclosures from the materials he leaked has fueled a tense debate over privacy, civil liberties, and national security.

“Astro Noise,” also the name of a file that Snowden sent to Poitras in 2013 documenting mass surveillance, opens up a new avenue to keep that conversation alive. Its unflinching exploration of America in the aftermath of 9/11 creates a degree of discomfort likely to stick with visitors. “A lot of art makes you feel something, but it doesn’t always connect with a concrete reality,” said Patrick Jaojoco, a graduate student at New York’s School of Visual Arts who showed up last Friday to see the show on opening day. “There’s a realization that this is all happening, and that’s really disturbing. It makes me nervous about what’s going on here in the U.S. and abroad.”

At the same time, the very thing that could engage a wider audience threatens to relegate the subject matter to the realm of curiosity. Mounting anything inside the protected walls of a museum risks the impression that what’s on display is removed from reality. “It’s so important politically, but doesn’t it get watered down in a way that’s sort of unfortunate?” wondered Kate Horsfield, another visitor who saw the show opening day. “You start looking at the beauty of the art, the staging of it all, and that takes you away from the actuality of the event. It becomes a show. It’s too easy to look at it, then just walk away.”

The installations are disorienting and don’t offer easy questions or answers. Opposite the screen showing people staring out at Ground Zero, a second video shows a U.S. military interrogation of prisoners in Afghanistan. Dialogue appears onscreen, but it’s difficult to know how to judge what is happening. Later in the exhibit, video shows the bombed-out aftermath of a U.S. drone strike in Yemen; the bleak destruction is contrasted with the raucous joy of a wedding that occurred in the same town a day earlier. It isn’t immediately clear why the strike was ordered and who was targeted. Ambiguity is pervasive throughout the show. It’s often hard to tell what’s true and who to side with.

“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.

There will inevitably be visitors who make the trek to the Whitney because they are fans of Poitras’s work or interested in the war on terror. There will be others who step into the gallery not knowing much about either. The show has the potential to reach a wide array of people. “I feel confident that if we knew more about what the state was doing, our relationship to it would be different,” Poitras said. “I want to do work that brings some of those realities to life so that we can reckon with them.”