by Justin Elm
Laura Poitras’s first solo exhibition, on view from February 5 - May 1, 2016 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, investigates our post-9/11 world. Astro Noise, the exhibition’s title, begs the question: what is the nature of mass surveillance? Using video, projections, Wi-Fi, and custom software to create immersive environments, Poitras interprets a 21st century way of existing.
The show opens to a black room with back-to-back projected videos. The two-channel video piece titled O’Say Can You See (2001/2016) juxtaposes video of solemn facial expressions with prisoner interrogation. The facial expressions are the reactions of witnesses to the 9/11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center. On the opposite projection, the individuals being interrogated are possible collaborators of al-Qaeda. The intention is to draw a continuous line from one event to the other, a cause-effect analysis. It’s an artificial environment created for the viewer to pass behind the curtain, as it were. O’Say Can You See, as the first installation, makes clear Poitras’s intention to underscore our hyper-surveilled world.
Poitras wants us, as viewers and citizens, to acknowledge the duality of our mass surveillance state. The questions being asked by the exhibition are familiar: what is the cost of security, are we really free, and who is the villain?
Unfortunately, the primitive allegory being utilized in her work swiftly turns the exhibition into reductive hyperbole.
As a director and documentarian, Poitras is accustomed to using cinematic techniques to ask said questions, or create a particular narrative. As a medium, cinema is inherently subjective due to its necessity of cutting and arranging during the editing process. Without debating the merits of subjective versus objective art, or whether either is possible, it’s apparent Poitras breaks away from her title as director in order to adopt the title of artist.
Adopting the title of artist changes the definition of her work from documentary to art object. In this, Poitras attempts to overcome the obstacle of one-sided subjectivity—argumentation—that exists within the documentary framework in order to ratify the exhibition as being objective. Objectivity here, something we too often willingly accept in the art world, implies validity.
Poitras equates this subjectivity of cinema to passive viewing experience, as noted in the curator’s statement, “‘I’m not interested in a passive viewing experience,’ she notes. ‘Instead, I want to create an environment and narrative experience that challenges the viewer to engage emotionally, physically, and intellectually.’” Poitras assumes objectivity via the authenticity of individual experience, but makes use of the same cinematic techniques that boil down to transparent argumentation.
The same conclusion can be drawn from the following installation in the exhibition titled Disposition Matrix (2016), in which a corridor of assorted articles alludes to the surveillance programs of both the NSA and GCHQ. Videos, stills, and memorandums embedded in the wall forces the viewer to peer through a narrow opening to try and make out what’s being presented. The installation is an elementary interpretation of uncovering a hidden secret. Due to the restrictive nature of the presentation of these objects, one cannot really see the work at all. Disposition Matrix does not allow a viewer to take in the weight of what’s being presented, it manufactures a feeling Poitras wants us to experience—in turn debasing the weight of the content being presented.
Bed Down Location (2016) is another manufactured experience, intended to shock and terrify, in which one lies down in order to look up at a digitally projected sky. Oddly reminiscent of James Turrell’s Meeting, it’s not until a drone flies through the sky do we understand the message Poitras has prescribed. Later in the exhibition, she doubles down on her message of being watched from above when the viewer discovers that while one looks up at the artificial sky, a heat sensor looks down at the viewers and live-streams an image of your heat signature to be registered on a separate display. The audience watches the drone, the drone watches the audience, and the audience watches itself.
The gaping mouths of the viewers after the curtain has been pulled on Poitras’s spectacle is enough to know the work has served its purpose in capitalizing on the nascent anxiety of the audience.
The gross oversimplification of what Poitras is attempting to discuss assumes that the complexity of today’s political climate can be easily rendered via artistic tropes and cinematic techniques. She positions her truth as being readily available, or just there, as if all we have to do as viewers is open our eyes to see it. Contrast this with a selection of Hito Steyerl’s work, who also has a background in documentary filmmaking. Red Alert (2007), three vertical monitors showing the same shade of red, exists in both the artistic and political realms. The piece is somewhat mawkish due to its heavy reference to Newman, Malevich, Rodchenko, et. al, but avoids the problem of brazenfaced censure by allowing the viewer to approach the work on their own terms. Even Guards (2012), a piece documenting security guards at the Art Institute of Chicago Museum, avoids the same issue by using the editing process to eliminate any emphatic narrative elements that inevitably arise from an interview process.
In truth (one Poitras fails to see) nothing today is readily available. In our society, that unknowable-ness, that other, is channeled into fear-driven domination.
To paraphrase Hobsbawm, the great fear is back, and Poitras exploits our collective disquiet with precision. As viewers, we abandon our critical faculties and passively absorb (mouths open) the dramatic narrative being projected. Simply stated, it’s an implicit failure on the part of the viewer—an abandonment of our capacity to understand the world in favor of a predetermined and anxiety-driven agenda. Our failure to call domination by its name is the cultivation of domination over ourselves by ourselves, solidifying its already secure position.
The sheer complexity of our world, and a very real inability to comprehend it concretely, is why art is so vital. Art helps us comprehend what we cannot rationally understand; it reveals the otherness of reality and the context in which it matters most. When art tries to force-feed its agenda to the audience, as Poitras’s exhibition attempts, it becomes dogmatic. Poitras debases the dialectical nature of truth in her effort to unveil truth. She wants us to see, but prevents us from really seeing.
This is not an argument against her political program or agenda; her project is necessary, worthwhile, and deserves support. Her documentaries have merit and are worth a watch, but re-interpreting them into art installations showcases Poitras’s ignorance of how art functions. Art is not a labor of concepts seeking to persuade us, it’s not logic, and it’s not reason. Her work exists in the same voice and tone as a propagandistic film—it’s trying to persuade us. And this inherent argumentation is precisely what facilitates Poitras’s work to become dogmatic. Art is mimetic and speaks through form; it’s the possibility of something other than self-assertion—precisely Poitras’s failure.
The collapse of the work doesn’t lie within the content—it’s Poitras’s inability to abstain from using cinematic and artistic tropes and the audience’s passive acceptance of the overwrought spectacle. If the viewer does not attempt to approach the work critically, we as viewers negate the entire project of art as such. Measuring the work against what art can and should do is the only way to successfully navigate a show that feigns being art in the service of dogmatism. Poitrais’s project is progress, and she fails to recognize that said project is indeed functioning as its own opposite—it is only the audience that can point out the failure. When we fail as well, perhaps we are given no less than we deserve. In this, perhaps Poitras really is the great artist she’s being trumpeted as after all. She gives us what we want: self-abandonment in the first degree—and the right to comfortably wave goodbye to critical thought.