In 2013, Edward Snowden sent an encrypted file containing evidence of the United States government’s mass surveillance of civilians to Laura Poitras. The file was named Astro Noise, a reference to the thermal radiation left from the Big Bang. In her current exhibition, Poitras traces the echoes of September 11, 2001, around the globe.
Poitras reorganizes and transforms massive materials of surveillance and the war on terror into several immersive and interactive art installations. The knowledge in her documentaries and journalism is here turned into a visceral experience. Disposition Matrix looks at the database run by the U.S. government. Through peepholes in a dark hallway, one can see materials including the once-secret files on the PRISM program. Bed Down Location provides viewers a place to lay down under a starry sky projected on the ceiling, until cold drone buzzing disrupts the peace of the night.
At the end of the exhibition, a monitor displays a live thermal image of viewers under the artificial sky, using the same technology used by killer drones to find targets at night. In this fictional space, the boundary between the war and the museum is eliminated. Viewers’ bodies are teleported to countries under the threat of drone strikes, such as Yemen, Somalia, and Palestine. On a screen by the exit, a live feed of codes corresponding to visitors’ mobile devices blinks as a reminder of surveillance to those desensitized to scrutiny.
It is absurd that an individual is recorded in such great detail under surveillance and yet can be abstracted and invisible in the utilitarian rhetoric of the war on terror. Bystanders near the World Trade Center site, Bin Laden’s former driver, a mobile service provider employee who explains how PRISM works through childish yet banal illustrations, people who turn off their lights in drone action zones, and Poitras herself, behind a shaky camera recording military actions in Baghdad—these complicit yet ordinary people are the best resistance to their own disappearance.
(Translated by Xiaoshi Vivian Qin)
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
2016.02.05 – 2016.05.01