On Saturday afternoon, at the Whitney Museum in New York, Laura Poitras had a warning for her audience: “If there’s anyone in the room who has intelligence, who has clearance, you’re going to be seeing classified information as part of most of our work.”
“They’ll have seen things that they’re not supposed to have seen,” film producer Jess Search said jokingly. “We don’t want that.” The crowd laughed.
Poitras was sitting next to artists Hito Steyerl, Trevor Paglen, and Jill Magid, data researcher Kate Crawford, and Whitney curator Jay Sanders. They were gathered to discuss surveillance technology in honor of Poitras’s show “Astro Noise,” which opened at the Whitney on Friday, and Search was moderating. The atmosphere was surprisingly light and casual—jokes were made about the crappy slide designers at the NSA, and Steyerl, with her pink Nike sneakers, was the most sharply dressed of the bunch. Despite the grave topic of the panel, there was a lot of laughing.
After starting 20 minutes late, the panelists filed in front of a sold-out audience and introduced each other. Paglen was introduced by Search, who then spoke for Magid, who then spoke for Sanders, who then talked about Steyerl, who then said a few remarks for Poitras, who had some nice things to say about Crawford, who brought it all full-circle by introducing Search. This whole process took another 20 minutes.
With that all over, Poitras and Sanders could start talking about “Astro Noise.” Sanders, who organized the show, first got in touch with Poitras in 2012, when he included her work in the museum’s biennial. The next year, he approached her about doing a solo show. “In general, with the exhibition, there were a number of building blocks that Laura was decisively clear about,” he said. “One was this initial concept of the book—that it not be a monograph, not a set of historical, theoretical texts elucidating her practice, but that we immediately shift the genre.”
The book became something like a guide for how to survive in a surveillance state, with Edward Snowden, Ai Weiwei, Dave Eggers, data journalists, and all of the panelists contributing to it.
Lakhdar Boumediene, a former Guantanamo Bay prisoner who went on a hunger strike for two years, also wrote a piece for the catalogue, but he couldn’t be there on that day, so Poitras showed a video interview with him. In the video, Boumediene describes how he was force-fed in such graphic detail that it caused one audience member to faint. A five-minute intermission ensued as the crowd nervously watched a doctor and some members of the Whitney security team escort the person out of the auditorium.
“Perhaps we should’ve said that the content is sensitive, which I hope you all are,” Search said.
Poitras concurred and quickly directed the conversation back to what she was saying. “The other big theme that we were interested in,” she said, “was combining [two] different genres—fact and fiction—because there are so many stories from the war on terror that are so horrifying, you can’t believe they’re real. We want to juxtapose [them]. Boumediene’s story is an example of that.”
Next up was Crawford, who, after being a part of a minimalist electronica band, became an academic. “I don’t have the same beautiful pictures to show you,” she said, “but fortunately, this beautiful human being named Edward Snowden released a bunch of documents, and that means that we can have a look at those. We can think of this as a form of government-funded art, if you like that.”
Crawford’s talk loosely centered around the experience of going through the Snowden archives. “Once you start to look at them,” she said, “there’s this strange mix between a hifalutin, technical register, and then it moves into this much more jocular and brash bragging about to how to crack systems. I began to think of this as signals-intelligence bro.”
For Crawford, the documents gradually became more difficult and terrifying to read. The slides all seemed to have their own language, and the signal-intelligence bros acknowledged that they couldn’t even sort through all of their own information. “There’s words about a ‘tsunami intercept,’ a flood of information,” Crawford said. “It’s just too much intel for them to be processing. This is the contradiction that I wanted to talk about today—we’re using more and more of these big data systems, but we’re getting to these extraordinarily complicated points where you want more of the data, but you cannot even possibly hope to understand what that data means.”
Poitras asked Crawford how she felt when she first went through the Snowden archives. “After seeing those documents, I went home, passed out, and slept for 12 hours. It was just pretty overwhelming,” Crawford told her. And what about Steyerl? “Oh, it wasn’t that exhausting,” she said.
Steyerl pulled up a scrambled video still from the Snowden archives. It didn’t look like much, but, as Steyerl explained, she had a secret mental algorithm that could filter the signal from the noise. Picking up on the tsunami intercept Crawford mentioned, Steyerl explained that the image—which, when decrypted, is just Israeli drone footage of clouds—looked a lot like an ocean of data. Crawford nodded along.
“You have to ask the question, who is being recognized as signal, so to speak, and who ends up being disposable noise?” Steyerl said. She explained that this was inherent to art history. Just look at the legacy of abstract painting, some of which looks eerily like NSA surveillance imagery. She quoted Jerry Saltz’s theory of “crapstraction,” “random paintings drawn of random patterns from random datas, which are worth craploads of money because of speculative investors.”
“How does the NSA extract patterns from random nothingness?” Steyerl said. “Crapstraction is not a bad guess.” After theorizing that the scrambled image could be what it looks like to be blinded by a drone strike, a huge round of applause followed.
Now the panelists were running out of time, so Search had to limit Paglen and Magid to eight minutes each. Before the panel began, Paglen told Search that he can do 800 slides in under eight minutes, so she challenged him to do just that. From the start, it seemed like Paglen was going to win. Slides of Paglen’s photographs of pretty beaches and sunsets whizzed by—they show surveillance technology in places where it can’t usually be seen. As he was furiously darting through slides, Paglen explained that the Snowden archive “gives you a a pair of goggles that allows you to see through the eyes of the NSA.”
He pulled up a photograph he took of a top-secret NSA patch. An octopus had its tentacles curled around a globe; above it was the phrase “Nothing is beyond our reach.” Paglen asked, “Once you learn to see through the filter of the NSA, how does that allow you to see the world differently?”
Magid, the final panelist of the day, pulled up a photograph from Snowden’s NSA files of a person wearing a Batman T-shirt. The person, whose head is cropped out of the photo, holds up a torn piece of paper that says, “I’m not trying to impress you but, I’m BATMAN.” As Magid pulled up the slide, the audience laughed. “I actually think they hire poets,” she said, “because they’re great.”
She spoke about her practice, which has involved chatting with spies, deliberately getting followed by authorities, and even getting cease-and-desist orders for accessing certain information. None of what she has done was, technically speaking, illegal. It was all readily available to the public. “I kept thinking I was going deeper, but everything I found was public,” she concluded. “The permeabilities of these systems are there, if you just look for them.”