Monday, February 08, 2016

A Bridge Too Far?

“I really think that the war on terror makes us less safe.”
Laura Poitras

With an Oscar and a shared Pulitzer Prize to her credit, Laura Poitras latest venture is the art installation Astro Noise on show at the Whitney Museum of American Art. An exhibition that explores the issues of mass surveillance, the war on terror, the U.S. drone program, Guantánamo Bay Prison, occupation, and torture.

The idea came to Poitras three years earlier whilst waiting for the now world famous whistle blower Edward Snowden to re-establish contact with her.

As she wrote in her diary at the time “Why the fuck am I making long-form documentaries when other ways of working are so much more energizing? I really want to do the installation project of hanging screens in a warehouse. So that entering it is like a torture chamber.”

But before the installation could be realized Poitras made her Oscar winning long-form documentary Citizenfour and became heavily involved with the publication of Snowden’s revelations of American mass surveillance.

Growing up in a well-heeled suburb of Boston, Poitras attended a private school about which she told Vogue’s Sara Corbett “there was a lot of unstructured time, which allowed me to develop my senses creatively.” 

After leaving school became a sous-chef first in Boston, then later in San Francisco, a quick paced, high stress environment, an excellent training ground for her later film making ventures. Whilst in San Francisco Poitras studied experimental and avant-garde film which eventually replace her interest in cooking and at 32 she graduated from New York’s New School for Public Engagement.

Three years later Poitras embarked on her first long-form documentary Flag Wars which was nominated for an Emmy after being screened on PBS in 2003. The attack on New York’s Twin Towers on 9/11 had a profound effect upon her and the ensuing drumbeat for the Iraq war was a cause for alarm.

As she says “I had a real sense that we were moving in a direction that was really dangerous. That was when I realized I wanted to say something about it.”

There followed a trilogy of films My Country, My Country in 2006, which was nominated for an Oscar, The Oath in 2010 and the aforementioned Oscar winning Citizenfour in 2014.

And now her Whitney installation Astro Noise Poitras has found another way to portray her concerns.
As she says “I’m interested in going back to these themes of the war on terror. What does it mean? How can we understand it on more human terms?”

How well her cinematic vision translated to the confines of the white cube has left the Guardian Newspaper’s art critic Jason Farago underwhelmed.

As he wrote “Yet amid her anxieties, she asks herself a curious question: “Why the fuck am I making long-form documentaries when other ways of working are so much more energizing?” I regret to say Astro Noise answers that question for her: because energizing is an insufficient aim, and she is capable of so much more.

Poitras’ Astro Noise is on show at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art until the 1st of May.

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