(UR) New York, NY — On May 1, the solo exhibition of filmmaker and journalist Laura Poitras will end its run at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. The show, titled “Astro Noise,” shares its name with that of an encrypted file containing evidence of the NSA’s mass surveillance program given to Poitras by now-famous whistleblower Edward Snowden — the subject of her Academy Award-winning documentary Citizenfour.
Like much of her work, the exhibition focuses on themes that, with regard to the United States government, have become tragically commonplace in the post-9/11 world — such as spying in the name of safety, torture as interrogation, a campaign of indiscriminate drone strikes, and unabashed overreach into the lives of ordinary citizens.
But more than simply highlighting these elements of contemporary American society, with “Astro Noise” Poitras sought to immerse her audience — to get her viewers to literally feel the consequences of the direction the government has taken the country.
“I wanted to build an experience that would ask you to engage but also make you vulnerable,” the artist told the Los Angeles Times in March. “I want it to be shocking but also communicate in a clear way that makes people see things differently.”
In one of the exhibit’s installations, for instance, the audience is invited to lie down and stare up at the ceiling, where video of beautiful, star-filled night skies above Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan are being projected. The next clip is daytime shots of drones streaking across the sky in Arizona, leaving viewers to think twice about what they’re seeing when the stars return.
More disturbing, however, is what happens when viewers move on to the next room of the exhibit. There, they find themselves looking at real-time footage of people lying down in the previous installation. It hits them: they were being spied on, and now they’re spying on someone else.
Poitras may be the most high-profile individual attempting to use art to raise geopolitical awareness and enact change, but she’s far from alone. Around the world, artists and art collectives are more and more targeting the issues that affect society in the Digital Age — perhaps no issue more so than that of mass surveillance and data collection.
In the Netherlands, a current exhibit titled “Hacking Habitat,” and featuring work from various artists, is on display in a former penitentiary. The idea is to draw a parallel between the brick and mortar prison and, according to art historian Katerina Gregos, “a society that is very much governed by digital networks and information technologies which can be seen as a kind of, also, invisible panopticon.”
Also in the Netherlands, a project by the Dutch art collective SETUP has created a national database of all Dutch citizens using open source data, alone. The goal was so was simple to achieve that the group began to refer to the database as the DIY NSA.
“We expected it to be easy,” said Tijmen Schep, creative director of SETUP, at the project’s unveiling, “but it was even easier.”
In Vienna, the exhibit “As Rights Go By” features artwork in myriad mediums — films, drawings, and even a board game, among others — in an attempt to “explore the impact of globalization, financialization, and mass surveillance on civil rights and human rights, as well as the social and judicial inequalities they entail.”
“Globale: Global Control and Censorship,” currently on display in Germany, is a collaboration of “scientists, journalists, activists, and artists from some twenty countries around the world” with the stated goal, “to expand public debate about the ever-present surveillance and censorship methods.”
Each of these projects, and the others like them, reflects the growing discomfort of a global population of citizens who increasingly feel their every move is under constant scrutiny. Artwork, it seems for many, is another means by which the discussion about these issues can be widened.
“I feel confident that if we knew what the state was doing, our relationship to it would be different,” filmmaker-turned-artist Laura Poitras has said. “I want to do work that brings some of those realities to life so that we can reckon with them.”
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