Surveying Surveillance

The Whitney Museum of American Art has just opened a new exhibition, Laura Poitras: Astro Noise. Based on the work she did for her award winning documentaries, and specifically CITIZENFOUR, she designed an immersive installation for a museum setting.


Taking the viewer from passive to active, her show provides a visceral experience of the world in a post 9/11 framework, crystalizing the complexities of the “war on terror” that all populations grapple with today and going beyond calculated words and terms that have become a part of language around the globe. Her themes of tactical surveillance, ground wars, torture and the use of drones become immediate and ever present.


While the issues are very real, sometimes emotions and reactions to the issues become detached or desensitized for people when visuals and sounds are thrown around repeatedly in a barrage of constant stimuli. Ms. Poitras brings this back to a relatable, palpable and urgent context that demands your undivided attention. Spy boxes set in the walls of one room provide the viewer a chance to read declassified documents, look at signals collected via satellite (which oddly resemble African textile patterns), and diagrams of surveillance activity on computer data.

Laura Poitras: Astro Noise. Whitney Museum, NYC.

While focusing in on specific and curated choices to explore, her exhibition provides detailed information in small bits that have profound effects on the viewer. One of the most powerful moments is the discovery that you yourself have been surveilled during the walkthrough and you didn’t even realize it until you were about to leave. It’s a quick, if chilling, reveal. It also echoes Ms. Poitras’s own experience of being monitored in her travels, as she was detained and questioned in airports for a solid decade without really knowing why.

Laura Poitras’s work is at once personal and universal—she strikes at the heart of the matter, which is the difficulty of implementing measures to maintain a country’s national safety, and coming to terms with the collateral damage that can result, sometimes not so unintentionally.


Laura Poitras: Astro Noise runs through May 1.