"These 8 minutes changed my life, but I didn't know it at the time."
So says the disembodied voice of documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras to visitors of Astro Noise, her new solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Before Poitras introduced the world to Edward Snowden and made Citizenfour, the documentary about NSA surveillance, she had spent years being detained and searched at airports because of time she spent in Iraq making a documentary about an Iraqi family.
Museum visitors can watch eight unedited minutes that Poitras filmed in 2004 of the family, with whom Poitras was living, who have just awoken to gunfire. The family wanders to their roof to try to get a glimpse of what's happening outside. Here are clips from the film:
The day before, the U.S. military has raided a mosque in the neighborhood, says Poitras, killing four civilians.
On the wall to the left of Poitras's film is the U.S. government's version of events, as obtained by Poitras in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. She wanted to know exactly why she was detained and searched dozens of times at airports; it turns out that it was a result of these eight minutes.
The documents, which include her FBI file, subpoenas to unknown entities for information about her, and a grand jury investigation into her, were obtained recently and released publicly for the first time in her art show. (Yes, the documentary filmmaker is breaking news in an art show.) The files explain that the government was convinced that Poitras knew that U.S. soldiers would be ambushed, and that she was on the roof to capture footage of the attack.
According to the file, Poitras "watched and filmed the ambush" and then became "significantly nervous and denied being on the roof or filming the attack" when interviewed by the military. A member of the military "states that he strongly believed Poitras had prior knowledge of the ambush and had the means to report it to U.S. Forces; however, she purposely did not report it so that she could film the attack for her documentary," according to the file.
Poitras's disembodied voice tells visitors: "The government never asked to see what I filmed that day."
Poitras portrays the two versions of events, her lived experience and the government's version of it, side by side for museum visitors to see how surveillance has played out in her own life. And they can decide for themselves whether it justified the surveillance and airport detentions that followed for Poitras.
It's part of what makes Poitras's exhibit feel as much like a haunted house as modern art. Taking up the entire eighth floor of the new Whitney, visitors are asked to move through the exhibit in one direction, in part so they can experience what it feels like to watch and to be watched. There is a room of artifacts of the surveillance state, including files from the Snowden stash, glimpsed through slits in the wall. In one part of the exhibit you will stare up into the skies of surveilled countries; in another room, you will stare down, with the eyes of a drone operator.
Where Poitras collaborator Trevor Paglen's photos of undersea cables and NSA spy facilities showed us what mass surveillance looks like, Poitras's work shows us what it feels like.
“News stories don’t satisfy on a human level,” she told the New York Times. “We know that Guantánamo is still open, but do we really know what that means? The idea is to experience an emotional understanding, so it’s not just an intellectual abstraction.”
The show is on display at the Whitney Feb 1 through May 5.