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Laura Poitras Has a New Way to Explore American Surveillance

Laura Poitras Has a New Way to Explore American Surveillance

READ MORE: Meet the New Face of Journalism: Cinema, Powered by Oscar Winner Laura Poitras’ Field of Vision

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.

Pushing the Boundaries

Poitras credits Sanders, a Whitney curator who specializes in performance, for pushing her to bring “Astro Noise” to life. Back in 2012, Sanders and fellow curator Elizabeth Sussman asked Poitras to bring “The Oath” to the museum’s Biennial. Poitras herself was also asked to contribute something extra. 

“People weren’t really thinking about surveillance yet,” she said. “It was not a topic that people were concerned about.”At the museum, a performance group called Stimulate interacted with the audience, and Poitras’ team detained museum-goers at the entrance, questioning them. “We’d really pushed the boundaries of the institution,” she said, noting that Sanders was in attendance at the time.

Poitras later reached out to Sanders to get some advice on how to transition some of her work into an installation. He eventually hit on the idea that Poitras should make whatever she was going to make for the Whitney itself, and formally invited Poitras in 2013, as she was working on “CITIZENFOUR” from Berlin. For Poitras, it was “a pretty tense time,” one during which she wasn’t even sure if she could come back to America without being detained or subpoenaed. 

Getting the support from an institution like the Whitney was big, but it was something she’d experienced before. “Throughout during the work that I’ve done, [I’ve had] these juxtapositions of getting support from institutions for the work, and then also having the government voice their lack of support,” Poitras said.

The Terror of Time

Upon completing “CITIZENFOUR,” Poitras set about turning the installation into a reality. Poitras has always kept very busy — her filmmaking and her journalism have long occupied her time, and her successful new venture, Field of Vision, is working to revolutionize both the way film fans access timely documentary shorts and the way filmmakers make and deliver them — putting together “Astro Noise” was the kind of project she knew she had to make time for, no matter the stress.

“The biggest crunch was time,” Poitras said. “I haven’t taken downtime. There are people I haven’t seen since I’ve been back in New York that I literally haven’t had time to see because I’ve just been feeling the crushing pressure of this deadline, which is not a deadline you can move.”

As is so often the case for Poitras, the project is a group effort, utilizing the talents of not just people like Poitras or Sanders or cinematographer Kirsten Johnson or reporter Henrik Moltke, but also the dedicated studio team at Poitras’ own Praxis Films. When Poitras took to the podium during the show’s official press preview last week to contribute a few remarks, more than anything, she appeared visibly moved by the cumulative result of their work together.

“This was a challenging audio-visual show, a challenging show in terms of content,” she said. “I felt like they were being bold in inviting me. I was moved by all of that.”

During the exhibit’s opening night last Friday, a steady stream of observers and (or, as is the case with “Astro Noise,” active participators) steadily milled through the exhibit, most of whom took the path that Poitras and her team had laid out so many weeks before. Near the exhibit’s end, a young woman gestured towards the wall that contains mounted copies of Poitras’ own heavily redacted FBI files. “Did you know about this?,” she asked her companion.

“I didn’t,” he said. “But I do now.”

“Astro Noise” is currently open at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and will run through May 1. Find out more information here.

READ MORE: Oscar Winner Laura Poitras on How Field of Vision Will Change Documentary Filmmaking

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