Why the Whitney is “Nervous” About Upcoming Laura Poitras Show

Why the Whitney is “Nervous” About Upcoming Laura Poitras Show
Laura Poitras's "ANARCHIST: Power Spectrum Display of Doppler Tracks from a Satellite (Intercepted May 27, 2009)" 2016.
( Courtesy of the artist)

Classified images leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden will figure as artworks at the Whitney Museum of American Art in its Laura Poitras solo exhibition, “Astro Noise,” opening next week. In an unprecedented sprint from headline to gallery wall, news of the covert intelligence program to which the works pertain will have scarcely broken — last night, in two stories on The Intercept — before the large-scale prints go on view to the public on February 5.

Poitras, a documentary filmmaker, artist, and journalist who became a household name in 2013 for her reporting with journalist Glenn Greenwald on the warrantless spying programs exposed by Snowden, is including newly revealed visuals from the Snowden archive in her show, as well as in an accompanying catalogue. The images are products of a program in which, according The Intercept, “American and British intelligence secretly tapped into live video feeds from Israeli drones and fighter jets, monitoring military operations in Gaza, watching for a potential strike against Iran, and keeping tabs on the drone technology Israel exports around the world.” The story continues:

“Under a classified program code-named ‘Anarchist,’ the U.K.’s Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, working with the National Security Agency, systematically targeted Israeli drones from a mountaintop on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. GCHQ files provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden include a series of ‘Anarchist snapshots’ — thumbnail images from videos recorded by drone cameras. The files also show location data mapping the flight paths of the aircraft. In essence, U.S. and British agencies stole a bird’s-eye view from the drones.”

Declassified government materials are nothing new to the art world — take Jenny Holzer or Mariam Ghani, for example. And even classified materials have found their way into art, as when Simon Denny used graphics from documents in the Snowden archive that had been made public the year before (by Poitras), in work that mimicked the NSA’s cluttered and cheesy PowerPoint aesthetic for the Venice Biennale. (He also commissioned an ex-NSA graphic designer.) But this is probably the first time that an artist showing highly classified documents has been so closely involved with their initial exposure — and the first time that a museum has displayed such works so soon after that exposure, and on American soil. 

In an interview, Poitras described the institution as “nervous,” but, almost in the same breath, also “incredible” in their support of this work. “My experience working with institutions frequently revolves around the question ‘What is the worst-case scenario?’ And their job is to imagine those, because it’s completely new territory,” Poitras said in New York in November, speaking of the potential risks the museum might be taking on.

Upon entering the gallery, visitors will meet six enlarged archival pigment prints on aluminum, among them brightly colored visual depictions of decrypted and descrambled signal analysis captured by GCHQ, which as of 2012 hacked into foreign drone feeds (there are no indications that the operation has been shut down since, according to Poitras). At least one print depicts an intercepted Israeli drone signal. After that, viewers will proceed through four separate installation works driving home the realities of the surveillance state. Other materials from the Snowden archive will appear throughout the show and in the catalogue.

“With anything that’s dealing with the [Snowden] archive, we’re taking it through a separate journalistic process,” Poitras said, which includes “confronting the government” — seeking comment from government representatives — and “making sure it’s in the public interest.” Ahead of the release of her Oscar-winning documentary “Citizenfour,” Poitras grounded the revelation of classified materials in news stories. This time, Poitras’s fellow reporters at The Intercept, Cora Currier and Henrik Moltke, timed the release of today’s Intercept stories to precede the opening of her exhibition at the Whitney.

“First we found the images, then we found the story behind them,” Poitras wrote in a follow-up email to ARTINFO about the prints, a couple of which are vaguely reminiscent of Gerhard Richter’s abstract squeegee paintings, but with pixelated gradients, almost a net-art fever dream. “When we started research for [the] Whitney [exhibition], we approached the archive differently and began by looking at it from a visual perspective, which led us to the Anarchist story,” Poitras explained.

Co-reporter Moltke, an independent journalist who has previously collaborated with Poitras on a number of NSA stories (including the agency’s partnership with AT&T, the alliance with “third-party” nations codenamed “Rampart A,” and GCHQ’s spying on climate change summits), helped Poitras comb the archive for compelling visuals and later acted as a go-between for the artist’s reporting team and the museum.

One reason for the Whitney’s concerns might be the World War I-era Espionage Act, the vehicle for prosecuting disclosures of information “relating to the national defense.” Called “singularly opaque” in the dissenting opinion of the 1971 Pentagon Papers case, the statutes neither draw distinctions between various security clearance levels — it was written well before our sophisticated state secrets apparatus today — nor does it carve out a safe haven for journalists or third parties receiving the leaked information.

But even under the Obama Administration’s severe crackdown on leakers and intrusive investigations into reporters, no journalist or publisher has ever been prosecuted under the Act.

In this case, the Whitney will be serving as a third party — the equivalent of a newspaper — in providing a public venue for this classified information, and would arguably be protected even if the news had not been broken elsewhere. “Prosecuting any kind of third-party publisher would raise alarm bells,” said Heidi Kitrosser, a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School whose scholarship specializes in free speech law and legal issues relating to national security, adding that prosecution would be an “extraordinary step.”

“Given that it is Laura Poitras in connection with journalistic endeavors, my guess is that it would be perceived as too closely linked to journalism to really create a distinction worthy of the different type of prosecutorial decision,” Kitrosser said.

Still, Kitrosser added, she would “not be surprised and fully expect[s] a lot of angry talk and denouncements from the government and talk of threats to prosecute.”

And the legal issues are certainly not minor. “If [the Poitras work] is that sort of material [with a high security clearance], then there’s all the more legal risk,” said Floyd Abrams, an attorney who defended The New York Times in the Pentagon Papers case (as well as the Brooklyn Museum of Art in its 1999 legal battles with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani over a Chris Ofili painting). He later added that “before showing an exhibition of this sort, I’m confident that the Whitney is taking serious steps to ensure itself that any legal risk is minimized.”

In performing legal due diligence, the museum worked with outside legal counsel David Schulz, an expert in media law and national security journalism. Schulz did not view Poitras’s act as raising different liabilities at the Whitney, an art museum, than it would at a news organization. “The legal questions that are presented by the exhibition are really no different than the legal questions presented by Laura’s journalism,” Schulz said in a phone interview. “So my role as outside counsel to the Whitney was really to counsel them the same way a media lawyer would counsel a newspaper about the role of the First Amendment in protecting their rights of expression and how that plays out in material that may be classified by the government.”

“We looked at the same issues and followed the same procedures that a responsible news organization would undertake,” Schulz added, pointing out that a museum, like a newspaper, is protected under the First Amendment.

The Whitney might seem a surprising venue for a show like this, given its cozy relationship with the White House of late. Last spring, First Lady Michelle Obama spoke at the museum’s downtown dedication, before President Obama visited the museum with daughters in tow last summer. In 2014, the museum lent two Hopper paintings to the Oval Office.

The museum did not respond directly to the question of how it anticipates this exhibition will impact that relationship, but instead offered that it was “extremely pleased” to be organizing Poitras’s show. “Throughout its history the Whitney has presented the work of artists who engage in charged artistic and political issues, particularly from an interpretive documentary perspective, and we continue to serve as a platform for artists to express their ideas,” the spokesman wrote.

As a private institution, the Whitney still receives some federal funding regularly from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). For this exhibition, the museum did not apply for or receive any federal funding.

Poitras spoke admiringly of the museum’s decision to mount her show. “When [the Whitney] reached out to me [in 2013], I was in Berlin, unsure of when I would come back to
the United States,” she recalled of the days after publishing the Snowden revelations. “There was a question as to whether the government would try to bring charges against Glenn Greenwald or me.”

“So it was bold of them — there’s a lot of risks in reporting on material that the government doesn’t want public,” she said. “That’s just the way it is.”