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Laura Poitras and the art of whistleblowing

The investigative filmmaker approached by Edward Snowden to leak the NSA files returns to Berlin with an exhibition exploring state-sanctioned violence.

Image for Laura Poitras and the art of whistleblowing

Laura Poitras, an investigative filmmaker approached by Edward Snowden to leak the notorious NSA files, has returned to Berlin with her own art exhibition exploring state-sanctioned violence. Photo: Jan Stürmann

To the inexperienced eye, the images hanging on the walls of the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (n.b.k.) might look like broken computer screens. What you’re actually looking at are visualisations of radio signals hacked by the US and British intelligence agencies. These colourful patterns printed on aluminium plates are based on information leaked by Edward Snowden – and created by the woman who made his explosive revelations public in collaboration with journalist Hendrik Moltke.

Welcome to Laura Poitras’ first solo exhibition in Europe. The filmmaker is no stranger to the topics of surveillance and human rights: in 2015, she received an Oscar for her documentary Citizenfour on Snowden’s NSA disclosures. That same year, she returned to the United States after moving abroad for a spell when her work landed her in trouble with the authorities. “I came to Berlin in 2012 because I thought I could protect my sources better here,” Poitras said. “There’s a deep understanding of the dangers of surveillance here.”

Circles, as the exhibition is titled, is about more than just the NSA files. It focuses on US and worldwide state violence in both its physical and psychological forms. Equipped with a headset, visitors are taken on a journey through modern-day abuses often ignored by society and mainstream media. ‘Edgelands’, a series of video installations created by Poitras in collaboration with New York artist Sean Vegezzi, confronts the viewer with the US city’s overlooked prisons.

One 10-minute sequence shows the Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center, a floating prison that’s been at anchor on the East River for 29 years, hidden away in an isolated industrial area. Poitras and Vegezzi choose to refrain from any complex editing or background music – this isn’t a fairytale; it’s cold, hard reality. You only ever get to see the ship from the outside: blank walls shield the harassment happening inside from the public eye.

The two artists did manage to listen in on and record the radiograms of wardens, though. This way, you get to witness how they intimidate and attack prisoners on an almost daily basis. At one point, a warden can be overheard saying: “Remind these inmates we run this vessel!” Most of the detainees are still awaiting trial.

Image for Laura Poitras and the art of whistleblowing

Laura Poitras, ANARCHIST: Straightened Doppler Track from a Satellite (Intercepted August 4, 2009), 2016, pigmented inkjet print mounted on aluminum, collection of the artist. Photo: Courtesy of Neuer Berliner Kunstverein

In their work, Poitras and Vegezzi also show prisoners at Rikers Island – New York City’s main jail complex, which is notorious for abuse and violence – being forced to bury bodies on the nearby Hart Island. A testament to the power of Poitras’ journalism, this practice was stopped once excerpts of the footage, now on show in this exhibition, were made public.

The next visual installation begins with a view that has become all too familiar during the pandemic: an online conference. The work centres on the voices of activists, lawyers and journalists in India, Mexico and elsewhere targeted by the Pegasus spyware developed by Israeli company NSO Group. At this installation, the headset beams out a voice message in which someone talks about the nightmares they’ve been having, wondering aloud whether they made a mistake going up against the powerful cyber-weapons manufacturer. This chapter of the exhibition, titled ‘Terror Contagion’, documents research collective Forensic Architecture’s ongoing investigation into NSO.

Much of the viewing is direct and harrowing, but one installation gives your eyes a break and allows you to ‘listen to the hacks’. A collaboration between Forensic Architecture and Brian Eno works with data sonification to create a minimalist futuristic soundscape.

It’s not exactly relaxing, but then again, nothing about this exhibition really is. For Poitras, moving from the big screen to the gallery is just the latest development in her crusade for transparency and justice. “Art is a good way to make the world visible.”

The exhibition is on Tue-Sun, 12-18, and 12-20 on Thu. It runs through Aug 8. Entry is free.