On the Target

Laura Poitras: Astro Noise

an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City, February 5–May 1, 2016
A detail of a still from Laura Poitras’s video installation O’Say Can You See, composed of images filmed at Ground Zero in the days after the September 11 attacks, 2001/2016
Laura Poitras
A detail of a still from Laura Poitras’s video installation O’Say Can You See, composed of images filmed at Ground Zero in the days after the September 11 attacks, 2001/2016

Installation art is a mixed genre. It can be contemplative in ways denied to a picture hanging on a wall or a film projected on a screen. At the same time it lends itself to provocation, to “confrontational” ambitions: the spectator may be startled by light or noise, or subjected to a calculated deprivation of stimuli. “These objects,” it seems to say, “are chosen and reconstructed pieces of your world. Taken together, do they somehow change your idea of the world?”

Laura Poitras’s “Astro Noise,” now installed at the Whitney Museum, concerns the systems of secret surveillance that have proliferated since the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. The exhibition offers an incitement to thought in a new medium by Poitras: a dissident expatriate who won a Pulitzer Prize for articles explaining the NSA documents revealed by Edward Snowden and an Academy Award for her documentary film about Snowden entitled Citizenfour. You are met on the eighth floor—it is the most somber and deliberate of greetings—by a slow-motion video of people who seem to be spectators much like yourself. They are looking up from a sidewalk at an enormous unnamed thing, apparently a building or some flying object, but you see only their faces, never the thing itself.

The footage is high-definition and drenched in colors sharply fixed. Little by little, with help from captions and context, you realize that these people are looking at the remains of the World Trade Center in the days after the catastrophe. The large vertical panel on which the film is projected has been entitled by Poitras O’Say Can You See, and it was a courageous decision to show nothing but the faces. We have seen the planes crashing and the buildings falling hundreds of times, but with what emotion?

These reactions of grief at the scene of suffering tell us something fresh about the experience of collective sympathy—its fathomless power and the compulsion by which it isolates and unifies. We feel alone even as we see that others are feeling the same. The people here are old and young, of many races, new to the city and native, fashionably dressed or humble in the extreme, but for the moment they are caught and held by a single emotion.

Or they almost are: we know that they have been held in the camera’s view longer than reality kept them, thanks to slow motion, and certain ones have been chosen instead of others through the economy of editing. In any case, this…



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