Laura Poitras became an overnight phenomenon with the release of Citizenfour, the 2014 documentary on NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, which won her both an Oscar and a shared Pulitzer for Public Service with journalist and collaborator Glenn Greenwald. Following My Country, My Country (2006), and The Oath (2010), the documentary was the third of a trilogy critiquing post-9/11 America, a project with which Poitras has become synonymous. Her recently opened show at the Whitney Museum in New York, “Astro Noise,” which has been curated by her friend Jay Sanders, places the fruits of her journalistic investigations—including footage of Guantánamo prisoners, FBI files released under the Freedom of Information Act, and drone photos bearing an eerie resemblance to the work of Gerhard Richter—in an art context.
I sat down with Poitras and Sanders at the Whitney to discuss storytelling, power dynamics, and why the U.S. government should be looking to Germany as an example.
ARTnews: How did you meet each other?
Sanders: I co-curated the 2012 Whitney Biennial, and Laura was included in that and we stayed in touch subsequently. The topics and ways she was working in were lending themselves more toward installation-based works, and then in early 2014 we invited her to do a show here.
Poitras: Actually, the invitation was in the fall of 2013.
Sanders: Right! Spring 2014 was when you had the hard-hat tour, and when you first saw the new Whitney building.
Has the show gone through a lot of incarnations?
Poitras: It hasn’t, really. There were certain things that were grounded from the beginning. I definitely wanted to have a narrative flow in the same way that long-form filmmaking does, because I’m interested in how to reach audiences in an emotive way. So the first question we arrived at was, how broad should the focus be? I knew I wanted to look at the Snowden disclosures from a visual perspective, but I then thought, “Well, I don’t want to make it all about surveillance.” I wanted to bring in the broader context of the work I had been doing and how to approach it in a different way, because I felt that would feel liberating and that it would allow me to explore things that I can’t explore in long-form filmmaking.
Are you [Poitras] based in the U.S. now?
Poitras: I have a base in Berlin, but I’ve been based in New York for quite some time. It’s hard to answer that because I’m usually based wherever I’m working. I was working in Berlin for two years and now this show is in New York, so I’m here, but I think I still have a base in Berlin and I can imagine spending time there. It really depends on the next projects I do.
How do you choose which medium to work in?
I work by some grounding principles, one being that I’m interested in primary documents, and another being that I’m interested in recording things that are happening in real time—I made a film about the Iraq War as a record of the occupation of Iraq during that time when I filmed over 200 hours of footage. The film that emerged from it follows an Iraqi family toward elections, so obviously I’m very interested in big themes, big political themes [explored] through lived experience.
The easy access to the work is usually an emotive one that’s character-driven. You don’t need to have a political-science degree to be interested in a story about a family. So I like my work to have both a combination of primary documents and emotive connection. That’s kind of a universal thing, but there are different ways to get at an emotive relationship. One of those is through characters that I follow in long-form filmmaking, and for me that’s really powerful. Storytelling is a really powerful medium, and I combine it with documentary elements, so hopefully [viewers get] a sense of learning about the War on Terror not just through reading news stories but through actually understanding the conditions people are living in. So I’m interested in that, and those goals don’t really change with this exhibition, but the techniques that we’re using to get at them are different. In this case, instead of having a character—like an Iraqi family under occupation, or Edward Snowden in a hotel room—drive that emotive relationship, there are rooms that are set up, and a narrative flow that [acts as] the driver.
And you experience it yourself as well, when you’re lying down [watching drone footage and secretly being monitored in Bed Down Location, 2016].
Sanders: The viewer is in control of the time and their movement, so there’s an edit there as you pass around the screen. That’s a deliberate decision that the viewer makes and so the time is sort of given to the viewer in a different way to deal with the material. These experiences are carefully choreographed in that way but then what the show asks, in an unconventional way, is for the viewer to make different kinds of commitments, to lay down and [become a voyeur], and there’s so much emotional and social-physiological when you shift viewing conditions [at the end of the show, when visitors realize they were being watched]. We think that that’s the key to the experience.
Poitras: We don’t think of it so much as either-or, but that both [visual art and film], as vehicles served, can achieve different things. There are things you can’t do in a movie theater. You can’t just ask people to lie down—
Well, they’re halfway lying down.
Poitras: [laughs] Yeah. I love that as a medium, but what’s most exciting for me is the social aspect of the exhibition, and sort of making people vulnerable by having control over space. But there are hopefully a lot of similarities between this exhibition and the cinema-going experience, which is—you have a private experience, but in a collective environment. You’re with other people.
The subject is so specific.
Sanders: Right, there’s content in form, but we really see [content and form] as married and so we hoped the discursive aspects would sort of trail [the viewer] as needed but we really wanted to foreground what art can do viscerally, even as it relates to material you might see in other contexts.
Jay, in what context do you see Laura’s work? It reminds me of Hans Haacke’s piece Shapolsky et al., which was considered almost a piece of journalism when it was first shown in 1971 and now is considered a great example of conceptual art.
Sanders: Yes and no, I guess. I guess yes in the fact that [Laura’s work] deals with real things and shows you a different way to look at something as art that you wouldn’t have in another way. I think our goal should be that [the show] can deal with the real world and can affect people in a really visceral way and get them to think about them.
Poitras: I think there are definitely echoes in terms of confronting power dynamics, but I think the vocabulary [in my work and Haacke’s] is very different.
Do you consider yourself an artist or a filmmaker? It occurs to me that you’re known primarily for your subject—post-9/11 America—rather than for working in a single medium.
Poitras: I consider filmmaking an art form, so I think if you’re a filmmaker you actually are an artist. I also don’t think it’s unusual for artists to work in different ways.
As to whether my work is defined by specific topics…in a way, I’m interested in getting at certain types of things, like how to reach people in an emotive way, and how to use storytelling. Artists, by definition, communicate about what they care about. But if I cared about different things, I’d probably be using a different vocabulary to talk about those issues, so I don’t think my work is defined by the topics that I’ve been exploring. I think that you could map different content onto the exhibition, but it would also have the same flow.
I’m also interested in you as a character in this show. You include raw footage you shot in Baghdad in 2004 that led to the government giving you the highest possible rating of 400/400 on the watch list, but I also know that you don’t like to talk about yourself in interviews.
Poitras: I certainly wouldn’t be showing that footage if it didn’t have a meaning, or a point. I usually don’t show raw footage; I usually edit it, it’s refined, I make a lot of changes, and then I present what I think is finished. That raw footage is not what I would consider to be finished footage, but in the context of the piece it serves a function, which is what you just said: the government put me on a terrorist watch list. So I’m kind of trying to unpack that and I’m using my experience as a way to unpack that. So in that sense, I guess I am a character in it, but only because it’s serving a particular function in the show.
One question I had throughout the show is, do you have opinions as to how, generally speaking, the U.S. could have responded differently to 9/11?
Sanders: Well, I’d be curious about this, because this is something we were wondering, actually, in regards to the audience’s reaction. Do you feel like the experience of the show gave you any thoughts about that?
Well, not really. The show is obviously, and rightfully, critical of America’s political behavior after 9/11, but the show really brought safety and privacy to an impasse, to me, especially in the juxtaposition of the two screens in O’Say Can You See (2016).
Poitras: The answer is, of course, every moment of every day we could be doing something differently. You could go home, or you could get on an airplane. Our elected officials make decisions on a daily basis and many of these choices, in terms of the reality we’re living in now, are very misguided. I think the war in Iraq was a nightmare chapter for this country. We never should have done it. There was no connection between 9/11 and Iraq, but now at least 100,000 civilians have been killed in Iraq, and we’ve destroyed a country for generations to come. We’ve created a power vacuum in that country, and we’re now seeing the unintended consequences of that power vacuum.
But what about issues less obvious than the war in Iraq, like watch lists—
Poitras: Sorry, this is just such a silly question. Of course, I believe in things like security; I’m not naive and I believe if people commit crimes they should be held accountable. But I also think this sort of endless war forever [the U.S. is engaged in] is not the answer to a threat. It hasn’t made us safer, and we’ve radicalized a new generation of people. Guantánamo’s still open, and it’s used as a tool to radicalize people. Constant occupation is not going to bring peace. So, the question for me is, has peace actually ever been a goal? If it’s not a goal, then maybe some of these policies don’t make sense. If the goal is this sort of endless war paradigm…that’s the direction this [country] seems to be going in.
I edited Citizenfour in Berlin, which is an example of a way out. Germany is a country with a nightmare history, responsible for one of the worse atrocities in humanity—or recorded humanity—and now it’s one of the best places for privacy, and one of the best places for freedom of the press. That has shifted, so we know correctives can happen. I’m not saying we’re in the same situation as Nazi Germany, but it’s just to say that political realities can change.
Ultimately, we live in democracies and should fight for not only our democracies, but also everything they should represent.