How Laura Poitras Explored Spying and the War on Terror at the Whitney

Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

There is always this question," Laura Poitras tells me. "How do you penetrate into topics that are being ignored?” The filmmaker, who won an Academy Award and shared a Pulitzer Prize for her reporting on NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s disclosures, has spent the past 15 years making movies that aim to keep the public talking about America’s war on terror and the growth of the surveillance state. For her most recent exploration of these topics, though, Poitras chose to make not a documentary, but an art exhibition.

“Astro Noise,” on view at the Whitney until May 1, takes visitors through a series of darkened galleries, each of which houses a different immersive work. Through large-scale video projections, Poitras puts viewers in a claustrophobic interrogation room in Afghanistan, and underneath a starry sky —and maybe also a drone — in Somalia. A narrow hallway is lined with small rectangular openings, through which viewers can see fragments of documents and film. Through it all, visitors realize when they leave the gallery, they’ve been watched: A program has tracked their cell phones, and a camera has recorded them. Poitras spoke to Vulture about how the installations in “Astro Noise” allowed her to tell a deeper story about the post-9/11 world. 

How did you approach the show differently than you would approach a full-length film?
When I make films, usually I'm interested in a certain topic, and I try to go someplace where I can spend time with people, usually over a long period, and come to understand that topic. With the installation, it was different, because it's not following a character. The grounding principle was the space. The space becomes the journey and, in a way, the plot. It's very much a narrative experience.

I worked closely with Jay Sanders, a curator at the museum, and decided early on that there would be a series of rooms. I knew I wanted to begin with the video "O’Say Can You See," which I filmed at Ground Zero right after 9/11. Building from that, another theme that I wanted to look at was the drone wars. And there was an interest in creating a confined space within the exhibition. We did a number of iterations. That ultimately became where redacted FBI documents are, and a video I filmed in Iraq. That piece was one of the last to come together in the museum, because it wasn't until October that I got the first FOIA documents back from the government.

How did making “Astro Noise” help you understand the Snowden archive in ways that you hadn't before?
I'd been documenting the war on terror for years. I’ve filmed at Abu Ghraib, I made a film about Guantánamo, I made a film in Yemen. Then I got access to this archive material that, after the fact, provides understanding of another layer that I wasn't able to see when I was filming. So, going back and showing the footage from Abu Ghraib, and then finding a document that's coming from a contractor, an interrogator, who was at Abu Ghraib at the same time, and being able to pair those things — I was interested in being able to use the material from the archive in that way. It definitely wouldn't have emerged through any kind of typical news-gathering.

What can art show us about this topic that journalism can’t?
The piece on the flip side of “O’Say Can You See” shows an interrogation. It's 15 minutes long. One of the things that's been most surprising is that people are sitting and watching in the museum. They're not just passing through. I'm not sure if I wrote a news article about that interrogation that people would give it the same kind of attention, on many levels: intellectual attention, emotional attention.

Or these pieces here [she points to two brightly colored, abstract images], which are from the Anarchist story. When I was preparing for the show, I said, Okay, I want to understand the Snowden archive on a visual level, not just the hard-news stuff. I was working with another journalist that I've been collaborating with. We started coming across these really compelling images that also had a really interesting story, a story we hadn't seen before because we weren't looking at the archive with that lens. It was about this program called Anarchist. The image itself isn't news. What's news is the fact that GCHQ [the British intelligence agency] has hacked into Israeli drones in real time and can see what's going on as they're flying over the occupied territories or in Gaza. I'm interested in how a kind of layering can come together within the image, that you first maybe approach it as an abstract image because you're in an art museum, and then you read the description and you realize it also has a really complex backstory. 

You’ve said that plot, and the need for resolution, can be relentless, and can give a sense of false conclusion to stories that aren't finished. But as journalists we often accept that we need to use plot in a very particular way to tell our stories.
I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with plot. I constantly go back to it, and then I get frustrated with it. I get why we do it. There's a film that I really, really love, that sort of breaks every rule of plot but that works so beautifully. It's Steve McQueen's Hunger, which is an incredible film about the hunger strikes in Ireland, and Bobby Sands. It's told in every way you're not supposed to: You meet the protagonist 20 minutes in. There are these scenes that just go on — one of them is, I think, 18 minutes long. It bucks what you think of as plot structure, but it's so beautiful.

Storytelling is this universal thing: We rest on it, we learn about human nature from it, we’ve been doing it forever. We understand why we want resolutions. But life doesn't always fit that. So you get these lessons about the world through stories, but oftentimes life is much more disruptive and non-narrative. I love work that pushes that boundary.

One piece in the exhibition shows a short video you took in Iraq in 2004, and a series of documents detailing how, because of that footage, you were repeatedly detained at the U.S. border. Why did you include this material in the show?
In a way, it's central to all the other pieces. Everything in the exhibition probably would have unfolded differently if it weren't for the fact that I was put on this watch list.

Some of the reviews of the show have talked about protest art. Do you consider your work in that way?
I haven't read every review, but I did read the word "activist-artist." That I don't agree with. I do focus on content that's political, but that's just because that's what I'm interested in, and every artist should focus on what they're passionate about if they want to make good work.

That’s different than activism. Which isn't to say that I haven't done activism. I have. I do think that every artist works within a political context. We don't exist in a vacuum. But I don't make work in order to have an impact. I know that Citizenfour and that reporting has had an impact on how the world views surveillance. But I wanted to make the film — it wasn't like I made a different film because I wanted that impact. I made the film I wanted to make about Edward Snowden.