Someone to Watch Over Me: Poitras Surveys the Whitney

Anyone fancy a $20 club sandwich at the cafe afterward?

Laura Poitras’s installation Astro Noise (on display until May 1) ruined the new Whitney for me.

I admit that as someone who writes about culture, I’m a bit behind the hype machine on this one (okay, REALLY behind). After all, “The Whitney Comes to the Meatpacking District and What It All Means for the Future of Art” think pieces are sooooo Spring Collection 2015. Undaunted by my congenital coolness defect, though, and in need of a February column, I grabbed my Hunter College faculty ID, which admits me to the museum for free (the hefty admission price being one of the major factors delaying an initial visit), and made my way to the Westside Highway on one of the coldest days of the year.

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I wanted to be wowed by pure aesthetic bliss. I intended to write about experiencing the permanent collection in its posh new digs flooded by expensive Hudson River–view light. Instead, I ran headlong into the American post–September 11th surveillance state. Or rather, Poitras made me distressingly conscious of the surveillance state in which you, me, and just about every other human on this planet has become enmeshed.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]She’s not a typical Chelsea gallery artist.[/pullquote]

What makes Poitras’s achievement even more stunning is that she is not a typical artist in the Chelsea white-box gallery sense of the word. She shared in a 2014 Pulitzer Prize for helping The Guardian to break its story on NSA spying of American citizens. She won both Oscar and Emmy Best Documentary awards in 2015 for her feature film about Edward Snowden, CITIZENFOUR (the whistleblower’s alias when he first contacted her), which is the final installment of her “9/11 trilogy.” She is one of the founding editors of The Intercept, an online investigative journal. Oh, and she received a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship in 2012.

Poitras’s staggering level of success would usually trigger a very bad case of career envy on my part, but her impressive CV has come with a hefty price: de facto exile from the United States. Footage she shot in the vicinity of a firefight between American and Iraqui forces in 2004 in which a US soldier died brought her under the scrutiny of Homeland Security. That video is projected as part of the installation, and it’s readily apparent that nothing she captured on film could have possibly compromised American operations. Other than some smoke at the top of the frame, the melee isn’t even on camera. Despite that fact, she was placed on a watch list. Traveling, even within the United States, became an ongoing hassle. She finally moved to Berlin.

“Astro Noise” begins with a dual projection, “O’Say Can You See.” On one side of a screen is slowed-down footage of New Yorkers and tourists stopping to look at the smoldering wreck of the World Trade Center. On the other, CIA video plays of suspected Al Queda members being interrogated in Afghanistan around the same timePlaying on the sound system is a manipulated recording of a soprano singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Yankee Stadium a few days after the terrorist attacks.

Visitors at the Laura Poitras show
None of these people is aware that they are being filmed.

I stand there transfixed by the faces of these unknown people, with a growing sense of anxiety. None of them seems to be aware that they are surreptitiously being filmed. Watching them watch the activities at Ground Zero begins to feel intrusive. The slowed speed of the footage creates a dreamlike effect, like being privy to someone else’s nightmare. The obsessively looping soundtrack reminds me of the proliferation of signs after the catastrophe that exhorted individuals to “say something if you see something,” in essence enlisting us all as civilian agents of the surveillance apparatus. The “day that changed everything” really had.

The video on the other side is equally engrossing. The series Homeland, which often filter the viewer’s experience “indirectly” through the lenses of security cameras and other recording devices, comes to mind. It’s always a cool and effective technique, but it also makes a spectacle out of surveillance and coercion. I have to keep reminding myself that these are not actors on tape playing characters, but real people who’ve had their lives upended by American invasion and warmongering. These men will eventually spend years in confinement on Cuba without formal charges or conviction for any crime.

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In the next room, people are lying down in the dark and gazing up at the ceiling on which video of the night sky is projected. All of these vistas have been filmed in locales with an active American drone presence. No drones appear, though, which makes the experience actually rather soothing and restful. It’s so soothing, in fact, that the man next to me has fallen asleep and is quietly snoring.

This is what we look like to an American drone.

Poitris has a “reveal” waiting for the viewer at the end of the show, however, that disrupts any sense of ease. A flat screen monitor is set up at the exit. On it is projected infrared footage from that room, and we can watch other museum-goers gazing up at the ceiling. It’s the same technology used to target “enemy combatants” in nighttime drone attacks. With this gesture, she transforms attendees from the distant voyeurs of the first part of her installation into targets in the second. The effect of knowing one has been reduced to an easily picked-off, glowing outline is profoundly unsettling, bordering on a violation.

I surface from my immersion in Poitras’s panopticon. I had intended to go downstairs and take in the Whitney’s permanent collection,but the thought of spending any time with the Hoppers and Woods and Calders is suddenly unappealing. Instead I walk outside onto the frigid terrace to get some air – the kind of sharp, clear winter air that makes Manhattan glitter. The Freedom Tower twinklingly dominates the tip of the island. I am reminded again of how staggeringly beautiful my city is at night, at least from a distance, and I think how it’s not an accident that our most famous building is called the Empire State.

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[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]I think about how seductive it is to be watched.[/pullquote]

I think about how the Whitney family fortune came from Standard Oil. I think about how everything seems to go back to oil. I think about how privileged we are here and how many natural resources are required to keep the skyline light show going and how we will do anything to control those resources. Another Standard, the High Line hotel rises to my left. It seems as if every curtain is drawn, opening up the entire grid of the building to inspection. I think about how seductive it is to be watched. And how scary. And how millions of people around the world don’t get to make a choice about that. I think about how the cost of one night’s stay in that hotel is more than many people in the Middle East earn in a year. I think about those who are suffering in the world while the endless party rages below me on the cobblestone streets. I wonder how it will all end.