Laura Poitras, whose 2014 Edward Snowden documentary Citizenfour won the Academy Award for best doc, has a show on at NYC's Whitney Museum called "Astro Noise," which attempts to capture the sense of overwhelming surveillance she's lived under since the US government targeted her while she was shooting a documentary in Iraq.
Poitras is an accomplished person: winner of the Macarthur "genius" grant and the Pulitzer in addition to her Oscar. She returned from exile in Germany last year, and edited a book, Astro Noise: A Survival Guide for Living Under Total Surveillance, to accompany the show. The book includes contributions from the likes of Dave Eggers and Ai Wei Wei, as well as an original, unauthorized Sherlock Holmes story I wrote based on new Snowden docs.
The Village Voice profiles Poitras, the show, and the book, and gives a sense of what Poitras has lived through since she decided to take on the mass surveillance apparatus.
The book is very much tied to the installation, but it also stands on its own. What was your vision when assembling it?
I wasn't interested in the museum publishing a book that was full of theory about my work. I definitely wanted to steer away from that. I thought it was an amazing opportunity to work with people I want to work with, and to have the book as an extension to the exhibition, as its own art piece. I was also very interested in making sure it was grounded in political realities. I wanted to work with topics that are not just theoretical, and I wanted to commission work for it. One of the most important commissions is the essay by Boumediene. He had endured something that I thought was really hard to imagine, and I always felt that I wanted to reach out to him again, and the book gave me the opportunity to do that.
The sketch in the book: Is that Boumediene's drawing of a prisoner being force-fed?
No, that's a sketch by another prisoner, of a confinement chair, a force-feeding chair. That was one commission that was really important as a political gesture, to say I want to use the resources that are going into making this book to commission something by a former Guantanamo prisoner. Also, in the exhibition, we're including some videotape from people whose families were targets of drone strikes, and we're giving them a licensing fee. We wanted to include the work but do it in a way where the people are credited for their work. I also wanted to have a tension between fiction and nonfiction. Cory Doctorow — I love his essays so much — I approached him and asked if he'd be interested in writing something if I gave him some Snowden archive [material] to look at, and he jumped on that chance. He'd already received a commission to do Echoes of Sherlock Holmes, so immediately he said, "This might seem like a crazy idea, but how about I do a story that breaks news and I use Snowden documents, but I tell it as a Sherlock Holmes story?" I was really excited about that and what that meant in terms of approaching the archive material differently and looking at the ways in which there are things that have happened in the war on terror that are more terrifying than you can imagine, that feel so Kafkaesque, but that are true, and to blur those lines between fact and fiction.
THE SLEEPLESS NIGHTS OF LAURA POITRAS: THE SNOWDEN COLLABORATOR AND AWARD WINNER ON HER RETURN TO NEW YORK
[Anita Abedian/Village Voice]
Astro Noise: A Survival Guide for Living Under Total Surveillance [Laura Poitras/Whitney Museum]