On the eighth floor of a tony new art museum on the west side of Manhattan, I'm watching the interrogation of an enemy combatant. Filmed in 2002, the footage shows Osama bin Laden's driver, Salim Hamdan, shortly after his capture in Afghanistan. He sits on the floor of a dark room, an armed guard standing silently behind him, as an interrogator asks questions in bad Arabic from just out of frame. It's grainy VHS footage, slightly canted and occasionally tracking or hanging up on a frame.
The circular questioning is difficult to follow. Who wrote the letter? the interrogator asks. My wife, Hamdan says. What's your wife's name? Saboura, he says. Why did she write Fatima at the bottom? To remind me of our daughter Fatima. After a few minutes, a bag is placed over Hamdan's head and he's taken out of the room. The footage cuts out and starts again. Now the room is dark, and Hamdan's foot is strangely swollen, a flashlight shining into his face. The questions start again. Why don't you tell us who wrote the letter?
The footage is part of Astro Noise, the first solo museum exhibition from Laura Poitras, which opens today at the Whitney Museum in New York, with an accompanying book out later this month. Poitras is best known as the first person to receive the Snowden documents, a process she detailed in her Oscar-winning documentary CitizenFour. Before that, she made The Oath, a feature-length documentary entirely devoted to Hamdan's trial, which was also featured in the Whitney's biennial show in 2010. But Astro Noise represents a new step for Poitras, trying to translate those same issues of war, surveillance, and secrecy into the museum world.
Can surveillance art do anything that journalism can't?
As a strict exchange of cultural capital, the Whitney exhibition is a perfect match. Poitras' work needs a home, and the art world gives her a freedom of presentation she'd never get from conventional journalism. The Whitney, meanwhile, wants to stay politically relevant, an increasingly tricky proposition for an art museum. Having one of the world's leading surveillance critics in residence makes the gallery look like it's not just showing off rich people's furniture, but really engaging with the issues of the modern state. As Whitney director Adam Weinberg put it at a press briefing, "she proves that art is a possible response to total surveillance," which would certainly be great news for the art world. But while the union makes sense in broad strokes, the details can be awkward, and Poitras is clearly most comfortable when she's presenting unvarnished facts without the fussiness the gallery world usually demands.
The interrogation footage is a perfect example. Part of what's gripping is the secrecy. This was recorded as part of a CIA operation, so there's a real thrill in seeing it play out in public alongside all those leaked NSA diagrams. But it turns out the interrogation video isn't really a secret at all. Poitras' team declined to say where they'd gotten the video, but it seems to have been officially declassified and released by the Pentagon shortly after Hamdan's trial. The footage used in the exhibit has been kicking around YouTube for nearly four years, VHS artifacts and all. It was just too old or obscure to pass as journalism, too relentlessly monotone to be presented as a documentary. Putting it in a gallery was the only way to get anyone to pay attention.
There's very little art to it — all Poitras' team did was put it on a big screen in a big room, split with crowd footage filmed after the 9/11 attacks — but it's easily the best part the show. Watching Hamdan, we're forced into the room with him, forced to feel the creeping terror of the interrogation. Do we believe this man? What will happen to him? Would we try to help him if we could? As the interrogator's questions tick by, you can see all the anxiety and helplessness of the War on Terror forced onto a single person. The juxtaposition with the shell-shocked crowd footage isn't particularly profound, but it makes its point. Right or wrong, our fear did this to him.
Poitras' view of military surveillance treads on familiar visual ground: monochrome infrared video, VGA-hued data readouts, thermal camera feeds. As she knows from Snowden, this is what surveillance actually looks like on the back end — but as an aesthetic choice, it takes on a trickier meaning. We've seen this view before in Zero Dark Thirty, Sicario, and even the Call of Duty games, all of which hold it up as a kind of fetish for What Must Be Done To Keep Us Safe. Of course, those works are propping up state power while Poitras is trying to tear it down, but it all looks the same onscreen. It's a nasty trap, and Astro Noise isn't quite nimble enough to wriggle out.
It's a problem for surveillance art in general, which has become a thriving scene in the nearly three years since Snowden made his trip to Hong Kong. In 2014, Trevor Paglen projected the names of more than 4,000 NSA and GCHQ programs onto the side of the UK parliament building. In a Davos exhibit last month, Heather Dewey-Hagborg presented two life-size 3D-printed models of Chelsea Manning's face, reproduced from her DNA using a scientifically dubious phenotyping process. Both projects made for great news items but somewhat confounding art. Did we come away understanding anything new, or feeling anything we hadn't felt before? Was there any element of the art that wouldn't translate to a blog post?
For Astro Noise, the element seems to be Poitras herself. We follow her own surveillance documents, her interview subjects, her feeling of being the target of this horrible machine. The same feeling was in CitizenFour, realizing that every phone, every camera is turned against you. It's an important feeling, maybe the single largest difference between those who feel a psychological toll from the Snowden news and those who still don't see why any of it matters. Maybe a museum is a good place to survey that gap and try to bridge it. Or worse, maybe it's the only place left that's trying.