Astro Noise: Laura Poitras and the Static of Surveillance
When filmmaker Laura Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald flew to Hong Kong to meet Edward Snowden for the first time, Poitras brought her camera with her. The resulting 2015 Academy-Award winning documentary provides a you-are-there, 100% real-life espionage story unfolding minute by minute before our eyes called “Citizenfour.”
The most uncanny aspect of “Citizenfour”, is the time shift. You are there, in the hotel room, as Edward Snowden releases his story in real time, and moving out of anonymity into the international spotlight before our eyes, even though the events shown onscreen took place a year earlier. The point of view, the tension, the you-are-there is so palpable, you forget it took place in a previous news cycle.
“Citizen Four” is a thriller story writ large. Even though you know the outcome: that Snowden managed to get to safety in an undisclosed location in Russia, was not picked up by the CIA or the FBI despite his branding as a traitor by the United States government. It evokes nail-biting, edge-of-the-seat attentiveness in the telling.
Snowden originally sought out Documentary Director Laura Poitras due to her previous body of work, which includes “My Country, My Country” (2006), about Iraq under U.S. occupation; and “The Oath” (2010), about two men affiliated with Osama bin Laden, one of whom is the first defendant to be tried in the U.S. military tribunals established by the United States Department of Defense. She was not an investigative journalist for a major news site, though immediately contacted her colleague Glenn Greenwald, a reporter for the The Guardian UK.
Despite the risk, Snowden reached out to Poitras due to her track record as a storyteller and free speech advocate. She in turn delivered his request as the anonymous “Citizen Four” to “ensure this information makes it home to the American public.” Clearly, she did even more than that. She controlled a narrative that could have been spun into black and white traitor terrain.
The film presents Edward Snowden, an earnest American citizen, holed up in a Hong Kong hotel, who believes what he is doing is the right thing, full knowing he may end up in prison or worse.
Here is an excerpt from the director’s acceptance speech:
The disclosures that Edward Snowden reveals don’t only expose a threat to our privacy but to our democracy itself. When the most important decisions being made affecting all of us are made in secret, we lose our ability to check the powers that control. Thank you to Edward Snowden for his courage, and for the many other whistleblowers. And I share this with Glenn Greenwald and other journalists who are exposing truth.
As documented in the film, Edward Snowden currently lives under protection in Moscow, where he frequently participates in virtual interviews on free speech, democracy and the virtual space, including last years robotic appearance at TedTalks, “How to Take Back the Internet.”
This week at the Whitney Museum of Art, Laura Poitras marked her museum debut with Astro Noise, her first solo museum exhibition which builds on topics explored in her previous documentary work, including mass surveillance, the war on terror, the U.S. drone program, Guantánamo Bay Prison, occupation, and torture.
In these immersive environments, the audience assumes the role of voyeur, captive, and participant. The title, Astro Noise, is the name Edward Snowden gave to an encrypted file containing evidence of mass surveillance by the National Security Agency that he shared with Poitras in 2013. With seismic historic signficance, it also refers to the faint background disturbance of thermal radiation left over from the Big Bang, said to have created our universe.
The exhibition, includes “O’Say Can You See”, a two-sided doublescreen video installation with close-up footage of New Yorkers’ reactions to the ruins of Ground Zero in the weeks following the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers on one side and surveillance footage of U.S. Intelligence interrogations of suspected terrorists on the other.
“Disposition Matrix” provides eye-level peep holes for viewing de-classified documents, drone photographs and prisoner footage, bringing us to the discomfort zone of voyeur as participant.
“Bed Down Location,” the most dream-like of the installations, allows viewers to lie down on a platform to view ceiling projected footage of night skies over Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan where U.S. drone strikes are a frequent occurrence. Despite the unsettling soundtrack drawn from drones and their pilot conversations, the piece includes audio collected by NASA of noise from the edge of our universe, and the ceiling, and awe-inspiring skies full of stars moving across in time lapse, with random clouds tracing the skyline. This peaceful feeling dissipates however, when a second video screen in the next gallery over reveals infrared imagery of participants watching the bed piece footage: we are being watched as we watched, surveyed as we survey.
“Astro Noise” continues Laura Poitras’ rigorous questioning of the ways we view, are viewed and the ways our movements, GPS coordinates, buying patterns and social media activity are translated into data by corporate and government entities, often without our awareness.
What are your thoughts on the ways we are being surveyed in the post-9/11 world? What forms of intervention can take place within the dialogues of critique and disclosure about these practices? And will these technologies help us in the quest for global peace, free speech and equality?