This time last year, filmmaker and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Laura Poitras was knee-deep in the kind of work she scarcely expected to see herself doing in the course of her long-form documentary filmmaking and the relentless reportage it required: Campaigning for an Oscar. While Poitras' efforts both in front of and behind the camera paid off, with her deeply investigated "CITIZENFOUR" winning the Academy Award for Best Documentary, few people think that Poitras did it for the awards glory, especially Poitras herself.
"I don't miss it," Poitras said when asked about her time on the circuit. "I don't like it. I'd much rather be just sort of focused and make stuff. It feels always very disorienting."
Making stuff is where Poitras is at now, thanks to the recent opening of her first large-scale art installation, a new exhibit called "Astro Noise" at New York City's Whitney Museum of American Art. The title refers to the residual background disturbance from the Big Bang, as well as the label for an encrypted file her "CITIZENFOUR" subject Edward Snowden used to hold NSA intelligence information. So it's not entirely new territory, but the medium marks a shift for her: Poitras' ability to use her reporting to tell striking stories is taking on a new shape, one that (mostly) doesn't involve talking about awards.
An "immersive installation" located on the eighth floor of the Whitney, "Astro Noise" combines video and audio components alongside documents, line drawings, maps, diagrams and even a large bed to walk its viewers through a mixed-media space that reflects the state of American surveillance. It's very much in Poitras' wheelhouse, considering the focus of her films, she said the new project represented a desire to move into a space that required active participation from her audience.
When Indiewire sat down with Poitras last week, just as her exhibit opened to the public, the exhausted (but noticeably pleased) filmmaker-turned-installation-artist seemed nothing short of elated that a recurring theme in her work was finally ready to be seen — or, more accurately, experienced — in a new light.
Staying on the Continuum of Creativity
Although filmmaking allows Poitras to research, package and deliver compelling stories to large audiences, it's hardly the only way for her to reach people, and it may not even be the most immediate and effective. Still, for Poitras, it's all linked. "It feels very much a continuum," she said. "It's cinema, it's storytelling, it's themes and topics that I know very well." But there's one crucial difference: "In a movie theater, there's a certain kind of fixed relationship to the images that I got turn upside down in this, which has been totally thrilling."
More specifically, Poitras wanted to empower her viewers. "I like letting things play long and letting the viewer navigate how long to give a particular amount of footage and, in a sense, make their own edits from one space to another, or one image to another," she said. "But I'm also interested in how space can be used to exert a different kind of control, over space."
That's why when you walk through "Astro Noise," its layout begs for definite starting and stopping points. When Poitras first started working with Whitney curator Jay Sanders, they "were grounded in certain things," she said. "We were certainly grounded by the space we had to work with, and I told him early on that I [wanted it to] have a narrative flow and that it would have a clear beginning and an end, an entrance point and an exit point." Additionally, "Astro Noise" is designed to give participants a sense of agency. "I wanted to have a spatial narrative that involves, you have to make choices," she said.
Experiencing the Space
The installation starts with a video installation called "O'Say Can You See," which juxtaposes videos from New York City on 9/11 with footage from interrogations in Afghanistan from years later. As the installation progresses, viewers next find themselves in the "Bed Down" installation, which uses a large bed (meant for sharing) to encourage visitors to lay down and watch drone footage play out on the ceiling. "I'd been wanting to do something that tackles drone warfare for a long time," Poitras said of the "Bed Down" section. "It's something I find really frightening, in term of the direction the country's heading."
Subsequent rooms in the installation offer further evidence of drone warfare, the influx of American surveillance and the impact of torture techniques on detainees or people of interest. In the final rooms, things move into much more personal territory, with Poitras' own (heavily redacted) FBI files lining the walls. It's a reflection of the kind of surveillance Poitras herself has been on a government watch list for a decade, thanks to a wire she sent to the subject of her 2006 documentary "My Country, My Country."
When asked how the surveillance has changed her life, Poitras was reflective. "It's 10 years, it kind of is my life," she said. "It's hard for me to go back to, 'How does it change your life?," because it's been a big chunk [of it]."
She did find one curious upside. "I'm thankful in a certain way," she said. "It's made me be able to grapple with things that I care about in a way that [I can] use my personal experience to do work that I probably wouldn't have been doing otherwise...But it's pretty bad."
After she was stopped at the airport on the way to Berlin to premiere her film "The Oath" and told she was on a no-fly list, Poitras shared her story with journalist Dennis Lim, who was writing a piece about it for The New York Times. "I said, 'You know, I'm on a watch list,' so he reached out to the government, and their response was, 'We're not going to confirm or deny the existence of a watch list,'" she recalled. "So then you get this mangled language where, 'Poitras claims to be on a watch list.'"
That situation has changed. "Now at least I can say, 'I am on a watch list,'" Poitras said. She's got the papers to prove it.