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‘Laura Poitras: Astro Noise’: The Filmmaker Explores and Engages at Whitney Exhibit

The exhibition expands on her project to document post-Sept. 11 America, engaging visitors in formats outside her nonfiction filmmaking.

Documentary filmmaker and journalist Laura Poitras has spent her career exposing the darker aspects of government misconduct, including torture and mass surveillance. In a trilogy of documentary films—My Country, My Country (2006), about the U.S. occupation of Iraq; The Oath (2010), about the Guantanamo Bay detention camp; and Citizenfour (2014)—Poitras documented the United States government’s post-Sept. 11 “war on terror.” The third film, which concerns NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, earned Poitras the 2015 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, among other accolades.

The New York filmmaker’s newest project is an exhibition of politically inspired art on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York through May 1. This immersive installation of new work builds on topics important to Poitras, including mass surveillance, the war on terror, the U.S. drone program, Guantanamo Bay, occupation and torture. Laura Poitras: Astro Noise is the first solo museum exhibition by the filmmaker.

Laura Poitras filming the NSA Utah Data Repository construction in 2011. Photograph by Conor Provenzano.

The title of this exhibition, Astro Noise, refers to the faint background disturbance of thermal radiation left over from the Big Bang and 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. The Snowden archive partially inspired Poitras’ presentation at the Whitney.

For the exhibition, Poitras created an interrelated series of installations in the Whitney’s eighth-floor Hurst Family Galleries. The exhibition expands on her project to document post-Sept. 11 America, engaging visitors in formats outside her nonfiction filmmaking. Instead, she has created immersive environments that incorporate documentary footage, architectural interventions, primary documents and narrative structures to invite visitors to interact with the material in strikingly intimate and direct ways.

Laura Poitras, ANARCHIST: Israeli Drone Feed (Intercepted February 24, 2009), 2016. Pigmented inkjet print on aluminum. Courtesy of the artist.

“Part of the thinking that led to the exhibition is exploring how people reckon with changing realities,” Poitras says. “Can installation art strike a chord that journalism cannot?”

The installation is made up of five separate pieces that are meant to stand individually but show a progression that Poitras says is important to the overall narrative. The pieces are meant to provoke and to leave an impression.

“The media cycle, especially sound bites and deteriorating conditions for journalists, leads to news stories that don’t connect to us on a human level,” Poitras adds. “Reading an article about a drone strike killing five people in another country tries to convey reality in an abstract, intellectual way. I hope the exhibition provides visitors an opportunity to engage with topics such as drone warfare on a more emotional level.”