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Poitras exhibit at Whitney turns U.S. govt threat to liberty into political art
By Lucy Komisar
“Astro Noise,” by Laura Poitras.Art as politics reaches new intensities in the Whitney Museum’s disturbing and powerful new exhibit of film maker Laura Poitras’ selection of videos and documents to define the U.S. government’s threats to liberty after 9/11. The exhibit opened in New York Feb 5 and goes till May 1, 2016.
Whitney Museum of Art, 99 Gansevoort Street, New York City, bet Washington St. & 11th Ave. (Meatpacking District)
Opened Feb 5, closes May 1, 2016.
Museum opens 10:30 am, closed Tues. Under 18 free. Students/seniors $18. Adults $22. On Fridays, 7–10 pm, admission is pay-what-you-wish.
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar Feb 3, 2016
Laura Poitras at the press preview, photo Lucy Komisar.
Astro Noise, the name of the show, comes from the faint background disturbances of thermal radiation left over from the Big Bang, the start of our universe. It is the name Edward Snowden gave the encrypted file with evidence of mass surveillance by the National Security Agency that he provided to Poitras in 2013. She would make the documentary, “Citizen Four,” about Snowden.
The most upsetting part of the exhibit is a 12-minute film produced by the U.S. military of two prisoners they were interrogating in Afghanistan.
Salim Hamdan and Said Boujaadia are held in dungeon-like conditions, often hooded.
Prisoner told we will ask the Pakistani government to capture and arrest your wife in Karachi, photo Lucy Komisar.
The longer interrogation is of Salim Hamdan, a Yemeni captured during the invasion of Afghanistan, and declared by the U.S. an illegal enemy combatant. He said he had worked as Osama bin Laden’s driver for the money.
The interrogator says, “We will ask the Pakistani government to capture and arrest your wife in Karachi.” "So we can question her." Museum visitors are at the side, viewing the reverse screen.
“So we can question her.” Museum visitors are at the side, viewing the reverse screen, photo Lucy Komisar.
In the end, after more than five years of prison in Guantanamo and Yemen, his conviction was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington and he was acquitted of all charges.
The video was obtained as evidence in the U.S. court case. Hamdan and his brother-in-law were the subjects of Potras’ documentary, “The Oath,” in 2010.
The reverse screen shows people disturbed at what they have seen, photo Lucy Komisar.
The reverse of the screen show stunned “viewers” and their reactions. Museum visitors as drone targets.
Museum visitors as drone targets, photo Lucy Komisar.
There is involvement by museum-goers, witting and not. People are invited to lie on a platform in a dark room and look up to gaze at what they might see from the courtyards of homes in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and the U.S.
And in the other room, we see those – our – bodies as multi-color drone targets.
In a dark twisting room, providing a vision of the secretive Deep State, exhibits of documents, drawings and videos are seen through voyeuristic peepholes that offer only partial views.
There’s a 2002 memo from CIA Director George Tenet on increasing the agency’s cooperation with the NSA.
Also cell phone footage of casualties from a Sept 2012 U.S. airstrike in Yemen.
Access across the U.S. for phone and data collection, photo Lucy Komisar.
And a prisoner’s line drawings of implements of torture at a secret CIA detention sites in Afghanistan.
A home video presents two days in a town in Yemen. The first shows a wedding, the second the results of a U.S. drone strike, taken by a man whose brother-in-law and nephew were killed in the strike.
And then, for the visitors who have cell phones, in case they think this exhibit is about “others,” a monitor showing the wi-fi signals coming from those phones via Wi-Fi Snifter software by Surya Mattu.
Poitras, who had been living in Berlin as a result of U.S. government harassment when she entered or left the country, returned to New York to prepare the show. After “Citizen Four,” her profile is so strong that she can cross the American border with the same freedom as most citizens.
Museum director Adam Weinberg sets the show in “in the tradition of socially and politically engaged artists…progressive artists such as Ben Shahn and Alice Neal.” He said, “The aim of the projections is to provoke moral and ethical responses.” Indeed, they do. Or they should.
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