PRINT February 2016


WHAT DOES IT FEEL LIKE to look up at the night sky and know that a Predator drone might be directly overhead? In her documentaries—most famously, the explosive CITIZENFOUR—LAURA POITRAS unsparingly sheds light on the post-9/11 world, from the chaos of occupied Iraq to the outrages perpetrated by a rampant NSA. With her first solo museum exhibition, “Astro Noise,” opening February 5 at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, the artist-filmmaker exchanges illumination for immersion, deploying cinematic tactics in real space to convey the experience of life at the mercy of the security state. Here, STEPHEN SQUIBB considers the significance of both facts and affect in Poitras’s ever-provocative work.

Laura Poitras, My Country, My Country, 2006, digital video, color, sound, 90 minutes.

ON FEBRUARY 25, 2013, five weeks after she received her first message from an anonymous NSA whistleblower, and two weeks after her mysterious correspondent went radio silent for reasons unknown, Laura Poitras wrote in her diary:

I think waiting for Citizen Four is distracting me from being able to focus. I’m at the point in 1984 where they have been arrested. I’m dealing with really dark forces.

The next day, she recorded the idea for what would become her exhibition at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art:

Why the fuck am I making long-form documentaries when other ways of working are so much more energizing? I really want to do the installation project of hanging screens in a warehouse. So that entering it is like a torture chamber.

The diary is an amazing document to find in a museum catalogue: a piece of history that mixes vivid accounts of nightmares, production plans, and reading notes with reports on the correspondence with “C4.” It is also startling, even shocking. Apparently, before she even began working on what was to become one of the most famous long-form documentaries of all time, Poitras had caustically repudiated the genre—and had envisioned, in its stead, a torture chamber.

The installation idea unfolded further on March 17:

Installation project: I want a space that looks down, like a factory floor. The headphones hang from wires, so people can only move in certain straight lines if they want to see other images. People might need to switch positions, creating a social exchange. From above you witness and decide if you want to descend into the viewing area. That is the only way you’ll be able to hear, so people will. Since the headphones are hung from above, people will need to reach up and pull them down. Each headphone has multiple channels that sync with different projections. The viewer will be able to switch audio channels. From above, you hear white noise of all the headphones playing . . .

My Country, My Country [2006] seems so naïve in retrospect. As if appealing to people’s consciences could change anything. Ten years into this war it is obvious there are other forces at work.

The film Poitras is disavowing as naive is the first in her trilogy of documentaries on the post-9/11 world. Its protagonist, Riyadh al-Adhadh, is a beloved local doctor who runs for a seat in the new Iraqi parliament but loses when his Sunni party boycotts the elections at the last minute. Critical of US policy, he nevertheless understands that the ultimate function of elections is to put people like him in power—as opposed, say, to the American commanders who lock up nine-year-old kids in the outdoor prison where al-Adhadh volunteers. “This type of punishment,” he tells an American officer, “they can’t bear it, because they are children.” The officer responds: “We have looked through every one of these files. These juveniles are dangerous.” Watching the film, we love elections just for the possibility of exchanging the security expert for the medical one, just as we love due process in the trilogy’s second film, The Oath (2010), when American military lawyer Brian Mizer stands in front of the press and denounces the trial that his client, bin Laden’s former driver, is receiving at the hands of the state. Finally, in CITIZENFOUR (2014), we love the first millennial hero, Edward Snowden, for his spontaneous anarcho-libertarian instincts and his odd guilelessness, his confidence that the Constitution will protect him. Like the others, our engineer is half Quixote, half Crusoe; a stranded believer making it work by mixing equal parts knowledge and faith. Poitras’s documentaries chart the struggle of the law’s progeny to become its parents, to cultivate it and keep its rule alive under conditions of grave duress. Her films are portraits of virtue, in the sense that Montesquieu understood virtue, as the practice that sustains a republic—and what we find in these documentaries are republican instincts and institutions struggling against the absolutist fallout of 9/11, which licensed all the barely latent despotism of the American security state without successfully engendering real democracy anywhere else. Snowden’s original alias was not CITIZENFOUR but Cincinnatus—after the very paragon of civic integrity. The citizen is that angel of public life who exceeds ordinary humanity just enough to redeem it.

As a genre, documentary film has always been particularly congenial to liberal sensibilities, and Poitras makes the kind of documentaries—pointed but not dogmatic, committed but not incendiary, scrupulously verité—that exemplify this affinity. Her strategy is to amass footage by shooting constantly and unobtrusively, and she has an uncanny knack for homing in on emotionally charged moments that meld the familiar and the unthinkable. There is, for example, a short, devastating scene in My Country, My Country, when a US Army officer, in the middle of giving a business-as-usual briefing about anti-American sentiment in a contested area, suddenly begins crying over the execution of two of his team’s translators. “We miss those guys every day,” he chokes out before his voice gives way. The cynic inside us may wonder what the officer would have done if a foreign power had occupied his place of birth, but the moment resonates anyway. Those inclined to withhold compassion from the invaders are likely to find this difficult. Similarly, Poitras’s distinctly human portrait, in The Oath, of the melancholy, charismatic Abu Jandal—bin Laden’s former “emir of hospitality,” now a taxi driver in Yemen—has been widely described as “unsettling” and “disturbing,” precisely because it leaves one hard-pressed to detest this ostensibly detestable character. In short, these documentaries are invested in complexity in a maddeningly evenhanded, perhaps even public-broadcasting kind of way. When Poitras writes that My Country, My Country proffers an appeal to conscience, she is talking about the assumption, so central to liberalism, that education, understood as the distribution of information, is sufficient for political transformation. The conscientious audience must be both powerful and ignorant, so that when this ignorance is remedied, the moral impulse that starts in an affective register will transform itself automatically into effective activism. The liberal spectator is a machine that spits out justice when you insert information.

But as Martha Rosler pointed out decades ago, this has the effect of naturalizing the asymmetry between an audience understood to be powerful and the disempowered victims, who must remain so if the appeal inherent in their display is to be effective. It is because the audience is more powerful that it is enough to provide them with information in order for justice to commence. Such appeals rest on credible truth claims—we need to know that we are exercising our moral judgment freely, that our emotions are not being manipulated, that our compassion is well founded. In the art world, where the term documentary has come to connote a particular style of parafiction more readily than a mode of recording actual events, it’s easy to forget that, beyond this milieu, the putative transparency of the nonfiction film is still widely unquestioned. Poitras achieved renown, and the kind of political impact that most radical activist-artists can only crave, precisely because her films possess a veracity that seems not merely credible but heroic, even Promethean. When she won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, just as when she (with Snowden) was awarded the Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling in 2014, she was being officially recognized for plunging into the maelstrom of “dark forces” and bringing back the facts. But what happens after that?

The day after Poitras finally succeeded in downloading Snowden’s archive, April 2, 2013, she made a note to contact Whitney curator Jay Sanders about the installation idea. The name of the archive, “Astro Noise,” is also the name of the resulting show, which Snowden riffs on beautifully in his contribution to the catalogue, speculating that the pulses from stars could provide a signal sufficiently random to ensure foolproof encryption. Rife with primary documents and formerly classified footage, the exhibition itself is a kind of archive, but its poetics, as Snowden suggests, are less vested in the archive than in how its data is encountered at the level of everyday life: in its various and partial forms—as signal, code, image, document; as pulses, waves, and streams, saturating the space around us; and as object of desire, inciting the avidity of humans and systems alike. In Disposition Matrix, 2016, a work in “Astro Noise,” a winding corridor is lit only by light pouring from slits in the wall. Peeping through the cracks, the spectator encounters the security state as the fragment of a video, document, or image. The work channels the ambiguous concept of “security culture,” which designates the set of habits and customs adopted by activists to minimize the risk of exposure, subversion, or sabotage. We should be careful while battling spies, Poitras warns us, recalling Nietzsche, lest we become spies. Like the catalogue’s subtitle, A Survival Guide for Living Under Total Surveillance, Disposition Matrix moves away from the documentary display of facts and toward a practice of solidarity by summoning the experience of resistance rather than its justification.

IN MY COUNTRY, MY COUNTRY, an American adviser informs a skeptical group of Iraqi security recruits that the entire world will be watching the upcoming election. “You have the front row of one of the best shows that’s gonna be in the world!” the man says, sounding a bit like Ryan Seacrest bestowing the good news on an aspiring American idol. However, something gets lost in translation—or at any rate, once the translator finishes speaking, one of the listeners raises his hand. “Election for show?” he asks, in tentative but unmistakable English. “Just a show?” Oh, no, the adviser says, suddenly realizing the problem, not “show” like “show show”; no, it’s a real election. There will just be a lot of people watching.

Both art and politics are, of course, concerned with representation—both its possibilities and its fallibilities. For political radicals and vanguard artists alike, when representation has been the problem, iconoclasm has often been the solution, whether this means calls for direct democracy (i.e., no one is politically “represented,” because everyone is actually participating) or antiretinal gambits from the readymade to relational aesthetics. But both formations, political and aesthetic, have historically relied on surrounding institutions to represent these refusals as refusals. Poitras’s recent move from documentarian to installation artist might be understood as the articulation of such a refusal, one that perhaps stems from her own disillusionment with long-form documentary and its epistemological claims. Throughout the diary, Poitras refers to her whistle-blower as “C4”—an initially startling shorthand that leaves one to wonder whether Snowden was aware, when he coined his nom de guerre, that its abbreviation formed the name of a powerful explosive. First Cincinnatus, then C4: Is something like a passage from upstanding citizen to revolutionary citoyen suggested here—two faces of the same figure, one using language, representation, and law; the other, whatever means necessary—and can we map a similar transition, liberal to radical, onto Poitras’s turn to installation?

Installation is a kind of physical passage itself, and it has long been dogged by the suspicion that its materializations serve merely as festivalist entertainment. The very term installation, for some, connotes the least persuasive mode of political art, the worst of the ’90s, a flaccid denouement of Minimalism’s phenomenological explosion of the picture plane into real space, even a kind of bad faith—Rosalind Krauss having famously professed “over a decade of disgust at the spectacle of meretricious art called installation.” But installation might also describe the field in which artists from Marcel Duchamp to the protagonists of Fluxus to Harun Farocki have bracingly spatialized art and critique alike, splaying art’s tactile, visual, auditory, and representational elements into a material, multiplicitous array that rewires institutional structures for a self-legislating audience.

The opening of “Astro Noise” is a double-sided projection that would perhaps land somewhere in between documentary and this second understanding of installation. On one side is Poitras’s O’Say Can You See, 2001/2016, a short film composed of slow-motion images of people viewing the remains of the World Trade Center; on the reverse is projected formerly classified footage of military interrogations of prisoners who later ended up in Guantánamo. The lack of space between the two documents—and our inability to see both at once—literally makes the transfixed, dumb documentary spectator and the clandestine violence of the state into two sides of the same screen. Installation allows this identity to be experienced, stimulating our desire for an account of why the mortifyingly visible collapse of the Twin Towers led directly to the proliferation of hidden instances of state-sponsored mortification.

THERE IS A MOMENT in The Oath where Abu Jandal, the charismatic cabbie and former Al Qaeda officer, is speaking to several young men about jihad. He recounts a few war stories, and the youngsters are suitably impressed by his acquaintance with “Sheikh Osama.” Eventually, the kids get around to asking about the point of 9/11. What was the goal there? Humiliation, Abu Jandal insists. For him, 9/11 operated within an economy of honor, as a retaliation for grave affronts to dignity. In hindsight, however, we learn that Abu Jandal believes the attacks themselves were undignified. In a segment he later asked Poitras to delete, he says that he would not have participated in the events of September 11 even if he could have—he was in prison at the time—because it is necessary to confront the enemy face-to-face on the battlefield, as he had in Bosnia, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Without this confrontation there is no moment of recognition, in the Hegelian sense, between master and slave, and so the purpose of the struggle is defeated. If you’ve ever seen Gone with the Wind or read the novels of Walter Scott, you’ll recognize Abu Jandal as a familiar type: He is a Lost Causer, too old to look past the leaps in the strategic logic of insurrection, but forever young enough to crave the romance. Bin Laden was his Bonnie Prince Charlie, a young pretender who disappointed his lieutenant by swearing allegiance to Mullah Omar.

Watching Abu Jandal in The Oath, it is suddenly easy to remember that 9/11 was a mission launched by a Saudi prince against an American one. Not only was the “war on terror” not a clash of civilizations, it was, in a sense, an internecine conflict originating within the global petro-aristocracy that arose around the oil supplies of Texas and Saudi Arabia, respectively. George W. Bush responded to the attacks like an affronted noble: within that same filial economy of honor. There was nothing he wouldn’t say or do to restore the family honor in Iraq, because honor, as Louis Althusser says, is the passion of a social class—it is “the child of the nobility, since outside the existence of the nobility it would be inconceivable. And all its falsity consists in the fact that it gives the appearance of morality or merit to reasons which pertain to the vanity of a class.” The American aristocracy, sufficiently provoked, validated Al Qaeda’s strategy by retaliating in kind. The CIA black sites, as Cory Doctorow observes in his catalogue essay, are the kinds of places “you build for revenge, not for intelligence.”

This dynamic explains why flying planes into the Twin Towers managed to weaponize the spectacle to such cataclysmic effect: With an image so terrifying, and its perpetrators already dead, the humiliation is open-ended, implacable, and ongoing. Told that 9/11 was more crime than tragedy, we were led to believe that restoration by way of revenge was somehow possible, that a wound in the fabric of the visible could be mended by a campaign of invisible torture and destruction. But it can’t, and so we recognize our own dissatisfaction in Abu Jandal’s unresolved restlessness. Its familiarity unsettles us.

In the installation Bed Down Location—the title is spy-speak for the place where a target sleeps—Poitras asks visitors to lie down and look up at a projection of the night sky over Yemen, Pakistan, and other countries where drones regularly hover:

By asking people to lie down in Bed Down Location, I want them to enter an empathetic space and imagine drone warfare—not simply to understand it from news articles but to ponder the sky and imagine that there is a machine flying above you that could end your life at any moment. What does that feel like? Many people in the world are living under skies where that is a reality.

This might sound like a classic mobilization of compassion in the service of conscience and justice, but the piece’s spatiality and dynamics suggest something subtly different. Empathy generally connotes an exercise of the moral faculties, but whatever is occurring here is transpiring on the level of affect alone. The viewer, in lying down, abdicates the axis of rationality, moral intellect, and language and is subjected to a sensation of vulnerability via proprioception—awareness of the body as a tiny node, devoid of agency, in the vast space of what Eyal Weizman has called vertical sovereignty. Poitras has exchanged the appeal to conscience for a proposition that seems both more radical and less abstract. Not Oh, isn’t it awful, but This could be you. On the one hand, we have more physical freedom in the museum than we do in the movie theater or even in front of our computer screens; on the other, the experience of this freedom is provided precisely to be jeopardized.

In his 2009 essay “Politics of Installation,” Boris Groys suggests that all installations constitute fissures in democratic space, because, within them, the artist reigns as sovereign, completely controlling the viewer’s experience. “By entering this space,” Groys argues, “the visitor leaves the public territory of democratic legitimacy and enters the space of sovereign, authoritarian control. The visitor is here, so to speak, on foreign ground, in exile. The visitor becomes an expatriate who must submit to a foreign law—one given to him or her by the artist.” Here Poitras transitions from documentary to installation in order to adopt the position of the state, the better to give her audience at least a fleeting experience of nationlessness, of being outside democratic territory.

With Bed Down Location, the documentary process is replaced by a different sequence entirely. Instead of providing evidence already deduced and intended to spur action, experience is provided as a basis for an inductive process of understanding. In the first case, theory precedes practice—if the document is received as true, practice will follow—while, in the second, practice happens first and is only theorized later: “Kneel and you will believe!” as Pascal says. This is why Poitras can describe Bed Down Location as referring to “a reality,” even as she conjures that reality for the viewer via the artifice of a projection, supplying little of the kind of information provided by documentary film. She’s sharing the mimetic reality that expresses the experience of being hunted, rather than the diegetic document that testifies to the reality of people being hunted someplace else.

After Poitras tells Sanders that “the entire exhibition is about the post-9/11 era,” she continues:

But it is also very much about cinema itself, with the use of reaction shots, planetarium style ceiling projections, peepholes, narrative loops, and reveals. Already in the time of the Lumières and Méliès, cinema contained the tension between documenting cold, hard reality (people leaving a factory, trains arriving) and creating magic and fantasies.

For Poitras, installation is a technology capable of staging a self-conscious relationship to method itself. She uses venerable tropes of cinema—which constitute a common language, a lingua franca of perceptible gestures—to bypass the contemporary tension between documentary and fantasy, credible and incredible, which today inheres in imperceptible and clandestine information as much as in visual or sensory phenomena. Data and bodies alike precede the distinction between representation and reality—they straddle both. Poitras’s spatial-cinematic installations reflexively presume this generative hybridity, and so chart their course with less attention to what is verifiable or fantastical than to what is actionable within their given institutional frame. Or, I should say, institutional frames: My Country, My Country, the film that likely got Poitras placed on the Homeland Security watch list, was not strictly interested in the kind of unaccountable state sovereignty that is the target of CITIZENFOUR. It was the state itself, as airport-security installation artist, that, in stopping Poitras at the border more than forty times, interpolated her as something other than a liberal documentarian, encouraging her to set up the advanced security precautions that allowed Snowden to contact her safely in the first place.

“Laura Poitras: Astro Noise” is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Feb. 5–May 1.

Stephen Squibb is a founding member of Woodshed Collective theater company; his book City by City: Dispatches from the American Metropolis, edited with Keith Gessen, was published by n+1 and FSG in 2015.