Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Bernard E. Harcourt reviews Astro Noise

Laura Poitras. Astro Noise: A Survival Guide for Living under Total Surveillance. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2016

Review by Bernard E. Harcourt

Interspersed among the haunting images of onlookers gazing, mesmerized, at the dreadful remains of the World Trade Centers, and framed by the worrisome traces of drone and satellite signals intercepted by the British intelligence agency GCHQ, there is a striking photograph of a woman lying fully outstretched on her back, extended on a divan, basking in rays of sun. Arms tucked behind her head, one knee up, she lies there looking at the camera, a contented smile on her glowing face, her clothes red hot from the radiance of the trees on fire behind her.

The arresting photograph serves as the frontispiece to curator Jay Sanders’s introduction to Astro Noise: A Survival Guide for Living under Total Surveillance, the publication accompanying Laura Poitras’s 2016 exhibition at the Whitney Museum of Art. It is one of the few images that were not part of exhibit itself. The photo credit is to Jacob Applebaum, a contributor to the volume. The caption reads: “Laura Poitras. Summer of Snowden (Berlin) 2013.

The photograph is curious. It seems slightly out of place in its glamorizing of the artist. Its title is more reminiscent of a love story than of Guantánamo or the NSA’s grim programs of massive surveillance. Is it, perhaps, a trope familiar in clichéd art exhibition catalogues: a seductive portrait of the artist? But this publication aspired to be more than the celebration of an individual artist and something rather different from, in Sanders’s own words, “a traditional exhibition catalogue” (p. 29). It was supposed to serve, as its name suggests, as a “survival guide” for our dire times.

It is an odd photograph indeed. A strange curatorial choice. But in the end, tellingly, the photograph captures quite precisely what is missing in this survival guide and what actually drives the surveillance capabilities of our digital age: our own desire to exhibit ourselves, to expose ourselves. That single photograph challenges us to reexamine and rethink, critically, the very notion of an “exhibition catalogue” in our expository society in this digital age (fig. 1).

Figure 1. Artist rendition captured using iPhone 5. Permission to reproduce the actual photograph was not granted by the Whitney Museum or by Yale University Press, nor by Nome Gallery or Jacob Applebaum without preapproval of the content of this essay. The actual photograph is, of course, online at Nome Gallery for everyone to see at their digital press release here and on another webpage here.

 

 

The task is urgent and poignantly made in the very first lines of Poitras’s contribution to Astro Noise—the first two sentences, in fact, of her “Berlin Journal.” Penned on 4 November 2012, her first diary entry reads: “I haven’t written in over a year for fear these words are not private. That nothing in my life can be kept private” (p. 81).

These words, most likely, were private—despite the best efforts of the US government, which was constantly surveilling, detaining, and searching Poitras and which placed her on a terrorist watch list. And these words would probably have remained private. Poitras carefully hid her journal in Berlin. They would have remained private, that is, until Poitras herself published them for us all to read, every one of us, including the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, Russian and Chinese intelligence services, and others. Until, that is, she exposed her diary to all of us.

It’s unlikely that the FBI or the CIA would have gotten their hands on her private diary. They are surely not as efficient or competent as Big Brother in George Orwell’s 1984, who, as you may recall, was able to read every entry of Winston’s private diary without him ever knowing, repositioning perfectly that speck of dust he meticulously placed on top of his diary every time to make sure he knew if anyone had even touched it. No, our government agents are probably not as adept. But, it turns out, they don’t need to be today in our expository society. Neither the FBI, nor the CIA, nor the TSA needed to covertly seize Poitras’s private diary. They just needed to wait patiently until she exhibited it to them in perfectly pristine published form.

And then, every intelligence agency around the world—and every one of us—could read all her most private thoughts, her fears, and her nightmares; her belief that Glenn Greenwald is “clueless on the security-technical side of things” (p. 95); or that Edward Snowden “wants to release an FAA 702 document quickly before the key” (p. 96); or, referring to government investigators, that “These people are evil” (p, 97); or, revealing her own strategic decision-making process, the questions that haunted her during this momentous year: “What will create the most attention and also give me space to keep working?” or “What decision will bring maximum awareness? And maximum public outcry? Maximum government response?” (p. 97) (and not, strangely, some other pertinent questions that might come to mind).

“I should also destroy this fucking notebook” (p. 99). Those are the last words Poitras penned in her diary on 15 May 2013. Perhaps that might not have been such a bad idea—or, barring that, she might have turned the journal over to her attorney to ensure that it remained privileged. But instead of destroying it, Poitras published it for us all to read in a “survival guide.” And so, in the end, ironically, it is not Big Brother who violated her privacy and innermost thoughts. It is not the FBI that is truly responsible for the fact that “nothing in my life can be kept private.” The government didn’t even need cable splicing, the PRISM program, or bulk collection of telephony metadata. No, Poitras exposed herself on her own. That is the ultimate irony of the expository society.

 

 

Poitras’s private diary tells other secrets as well, including some of the theoretical and strategic choices of her CITIZENFOUR and of the Whitney show, Astro Noise. “The antagonist of the film is the state,” Poitras writes in her journal on 18 November 2012 (p. 82). From the private entries, it is clear that Orwell’s dystopia was the theoretical reference point. Reading and rereading it all through February and March 2013, quoting passages from the novel in her journal, 1984 serves as the theoretical and practical spine of her work—the heart of her praxis. “The book is terrifying and so relevant to today. The fear of an all-knowing state. Doublespeak,” Poitras jots down (p. 87).

But this exposure too is a bit double-edged. Surely the all-seeing surveillance state is one “antagonist” today, especially in light of the remarkable and courageous Snowden revelations; but it cannot be the only one, when there are so many other entities collecting, mining, sharing, and selling our personal data. Where is Google and Facebook, or Amazon.com, or Acxiom and all the data brokers, or Microsoft who worked hand-in-hand with the FBI and the NSA to give them back door entries into its Outlook and SkyDrive platforms? Where are the other corporate, retail, telecom, and social media tentacles of surveillance, not to mention our neighbors who are tapping into our Wi-Fi with packet sniffing software, or ourselves, even, who are stalking others on Instagram?

In the West today, we do not face, exclusively, the situation that Ai Weiwei so powerfully documents in his haunting contribution to Astro Noise—a pictorial album of Chinese government spies following him and his family—so much as we face a multifaceted tentacled web that goes far beyond the state. Social media, retailers, smartphone applications, Internet providers, web browsers are all collecting our private data. Most new technology and apps—even the games—thrive on accessing our contacts, our GPS location, our calendar, and all our private information.

A quick look at the infamous PRISM slides reminds us of the reach into our personal lives of these nonstate entities: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL, Apple, and others. And for a pittance, a mere twenty million dollars per year, the NSA had direct access to their servers—over and above the cutting and splicing into telecom cables that gives the NSA direct access to all digital communications (as Trevor Paglen patiently and meticulously discusses in his contribution to Astro Noise).

The task today is to get beyond the Orwellian model of the state as our main antagonist. In 1949, Orwell did not face the neoliberal multinational corporation or the expository seductions of the digital age. Today, by contrast, we must look both at and beyond the state to the social media, corporate and retail interests, Silicon Valley, AT&T—many of which afford wide-ranging access to the NSA, often free of charge.

Just this past summer, the Intercept reported how Microsoft’s research division was pitching, during Donald Trump’s Republican convention, new software that allows for mass facial recognition technology at political rallies and provides instantaneous “mood recognition.”[1]  This program promises to capture the gender, age, and mood of each participant at a political rally. According to Alex Emmons, the software, which is called “Realtime Crowd Insights,” is “an Application Programming Interface (API), or a software tool that connects web applications to Microsoft’s cloud computing services. Through Microsoft’s emotional analysis API — a component of Realtime Crowd Insights — applications send an image to Microsoft’s servers. Microsoft’s servers then analyze the faces and return emotional profiles for each one.”[2] At the “exhibit” at the Republican convention, a small camera would scan the room and display every five seconds a new image (fig. 2).

Figure 2. Photo courtesy of Alex Emmons/The Intercept.

Why focus exclusively on the state when corporate surveillance is so much more adept, effective, advanced, and, increasingly, dangerous? (Incidentally, one of the contributors to Astro Noise works for Microsoft Research New York City, so some of these issues could surely have been explored in greater detail in her essay, rather than staying focused exclusively on the NSA and GCHQ).

Dave Eggers’s contribution to Astro Noise, a snippet from the screenplay of his novel The Circle, gets at this issue very effectively. Corporations, it turns out, are far ahead of the government—and often much more nimble at collecting everyone’s data and rendering them dependent. In Eggers’s fictional depiction, “Circle Democracy,” there are only 140 million registered voters out of 244 million eligible voters, but there are 241 million Americans registered with the Circle. The corporate enterprise is so far ahead, in fact, that, as the protagonist exclaims, “The government needs us more than we need them” (p. 133).

Beyond corporations and social media, we also need to critically examine ourselves, with our apparently insatiable and irresistible impulses, urges, and jouissance to exhibit ourselves. The antagonist today is not only the state; it is also all of us, as well, who expose ourselves on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Google+, Tumbler, Snapchat, and Vine, who search and buy online, stream Netflix, and share images on Instagram, leaving digital traces everywhere—we who give ourselves away to total surveillance. And not only us but our gadgets and devices as well—our smartphones that emit GPS data and allow Facebook to cull data from all the other apps. Plus now the Pokemon GO virtual reality game has become another such powerful entry point into a treasure trove of personal information and interconnected geolocated data.

What we need is a survival guide to our exhibitory age and our expository society—not just to the surveillance state. Part of the task of survival will be to learn how we, each one of us, contribute to this total awareness through our own expositions and how we can struggle against it.

Poitras’s exhibit at the Whitney touched on some of this at the beginning and end; in the second gallery, in Bed Down Location, the viewers were invited to lie down and watch the night sky in countries like Pakistan and Somalia, innocent of the fact that their bodies were being scanned by heat seeking technology and their data captured to be displayed back to them in the final gallery—where, in addition, all of their mobile phones were streaming metadata on a flat-screen monitor. These elements offered a glimpse of how our own little pleasures contribute to our digital surveillance. But in the survival guide, it seems, it is only that puzzling image of Poitras lying extended on a divan that enacts the pleasure and the dangers of our expository society.

In the end, the 1984 paradigm of the totalitarian state may be a deeply misleading metaphor for our time and actually quite dated. It is almost too comforting because it distracts attention from the other seductive aspects of the digital age that we all cherish and love so much, and embrace with all our passion. To face those as well, that would require that we look ourselves in the mirror. And take a much wider view of what Tony Bennett originally referred to as “The Exhibitionary Complex.”[3]

 

 

“A traditional exhibition catalogue.” At its best, the exhibition catalogue theorizes artistic work and places it in a historical and discursive context. It enriches our experience of the exhibit. There is surely some of that in Astro Noise: Weiwei’s haunting self-portraits offer a first-hand glimpse into total surveillance; Paglen and Jill Magid’s contributions document and gloss the frightening technical capabilities; Lakhdar Boumediene’s moving autobiographical account gives us a real sense of the Guantánamo experience, frighteningly illustrated by the drawing of another Guantánamo detainee Moath al-Alwi (fig. 3).

Figure 3.  Force-feeding restraint chair sketch by Guantánamo detainee Moath al-Alwi, 2013. Al-Alwi is a Saudi-born Yemeni who has been held at Guantánamo Bay prison since 2002 without charge or fair process. In protest, he began a hunger strike in early 2013. Courtesy Professor Ramzi Kassem, CUNY School of Law, Immigrant and Non-Citizen Rights Clinic, New York, counsel for al-Alwi.

At its worst, though, the exhibition catalogue reverts to a hagiography of the artist, turning our attention from the theoretical conversation to the cult of the person. There is also a little of that in Astro Noise, particularly at the book ends.

A “Survival Guide” is, indeed, a different object. At its worst, it rests on a misdiagnosis. At its best, it points forward and helps us figure out how to resist. In that vein, Jacob Applebaum notes that “resistance in an age of mass surveillance requires the ability to see as surveillance states do. It requires understanding different methods of surveillance, from the intimately physical to the abstract and electronic” (p. 157). True. But it also requires some introspection and self-awareness, some recognition of just how much we exhibit ourselves to the state and police, to neoliberal multinationals, to social media, to friends and enemies, to each other. It requires us also to look honestly in the mirror and meticulously dissect how we are creating, willingly and unwillingly, but so often lustfully, our own “data double” through our social media traces, online purchases, self-promotion, webpages, blog posts, selfies, likes, and shares—as well as, more and more inevitably, our doctor visits, loan applications, constant credit checks, apartment rentals, tax payments, salary deposits, metro swipes, and elevator passes.

Yearning for more guidance from a survival guide, one can finally turn to Snowden’s namesake essay, “Astro Noise”—named after those faint traces from the big bang, as well as the original digital file Snowden sent Poitras (see p. 92). Snowden’s contribution is only a page and a half long. Part technical proposal, part poetic essay, it offers a suggestive idea about stellar encryption and a poetic gesture about our humanity. Snowden’s idea is to use the unique and truly random signals of astro noise as an encryption key; it’s an interesting suggestion, though one that would call for a much longer empirical research paper, rather than a poem.

But once again, it seems, the desire to exhibit prevailed. The token contribution, only 535 words in all, gives more the impression that someone wanted to have Snowden’s name on the front page and in the table of contents—and especially on the catalogue copy, perhaps to improve sales or communications?—than to engage him seriously. Given his extraordinary role in exposing the NSA, it would have been especially useful to this survival guide to have a real contribution from him about how to negotiate our condition of total surveillance in the expository age.

The result is puzzling, more pastiche than survival guide, with a smattering of other thought-provoking contributions by Cory Doctorow and Hito Steyeri, complementing those already mentioned by Appelbaum, Boumediene, Crawford, Eggers, Magid, Paglen, Poitras, and Weiwei. It is important to emphasize, though, in relation to the essay “Asking the Oracle,” that it’s a bit of an exaggeration to suggest that the USA Freedom Act “ended the bulk collection of Americans’ phone metadata records” (p. 150). More accurately, the USA Freedom Act instead turned the task over to the telecom companies—at the taxpayers’ expense, no less.[4] So, today, a different set of foxes guard our expository henhouse. And recall that those telecoms, such as AT&T, who are now protecting our data under the USA Freedom Act, are the very same corporations that worked tirelessly for decades to surreptitiously turn over our metadata and more to the signal intelligence agencies, for free.[5]

 

 

Several contributors, Lakhdar Boumediene and Ai Weiwei especially, have shown such fortitude and resilience in the face of repressive state apparatuses. Other contributors, Snowden and Poitras notably, have exhibited such extraordinary courage and bravery throughout the entire episode of the NSA revelations, earlier as well during the war in Iraq, and still today—such “civil valor” in the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, as Alex Danchev reminds us in his contribution to Astro Noise (quoted in p. 223). Perhaps the most remarkable expression of this—turning that courage to tell truth into a revolutionary form of parrhesia, as Charleyne Biondi and others have noted—has been Snowden’s insistence that “it’s not about me—I don’t want to be the story” (quoted in p. 221–22). But all this courage, resilience, and civil valor is diminished when we don’t recognize our own exhibitionist tendencies and how they feed our own surveillance and repression.

“The reification of the artist doesn’t interest me,” Poitras tells Sanders in an opening dialogue in the volume. “Instead, I wanted to do something about practices and political realities that I hope will work on its own terms and will also make a statement against art theory or theory for theory’s sake” (p. 35). It’s not clear whether Poitras is drawing an equation between art theory and theory for theory’s sake, but there are surely good reasons, at a time like the present, to resist theory for theory’s sake with the idea of praxis—as Poitras knows so well, having intentionally appropriated the term for her production company, Praxis Films.

But the turn to praxis is no excuse to go lighter on theory than on practice. No, it’s theory and practice—it’s practice informed by critical thought—that alone can help to get us out of our expository mess. What is called for is critical thought that informs practical engagements with deep reflection and self-reflection. And that surely requires profound theorizing for praxis’s sake—beyond the state as the main antagonist, deeply engaged with issues involving our own subjectivities, cognizant of our own implication in this new digital expository society, ready and willing to critically examine all entities and all of us, including companies like Microsoft (especially since a contributor works there) or Google (given that it is such a generous contributor to the Whitney). [6]

In the end, the paradoxes and ironies of Astro Noise force us to pose one of the most challenging questions in our age of social media, of virtual reality, and of total surveillance: will it ever be possible for us—caught in this digital mesh that seduces by means of our own desire to exhibit and expose ourselves, this world of Instagrams and Facebook posts, YouTubes, Amazon purchases, Netflix, Tweets and, now, Pokemon GO, all of which we now know is collected and mined by the NSA—will it ever be possible for us to really get beyond, in Sanders’s words, the “traditional exhibition catalogue”? Or are we just destined to go on living in an expository society that itself resembles nothing more than an exhibition catalogue?



[1] Alex Emmons, “Microsoft Pitches Technology That Can Read Facial Expressions at Political Rallies,” The Intercept, 4 Aug. 2016, theintercept.com/2016/08/04/microsoft-pitches-technology-that-can-read-facial-expressions-at-political-rallies/

[2] Ibid.

[3] See Tony Bennett, “The Exhibitionary Complex,” New Formation 4 (Spring 1988).

[4] See Bernard E. Harcourt, “Surveillance State? It’s So Much Worse,” The Chronicle of Higher Eductation, 29 Nov. 2015, http://www.chronicle.com/article/A-Mad-Frenzy-of-Disclosure/234338

[5] Julia Angwin et al., “AT&T Helped U.S. Spy on Internet on a Vast Scale,” New york Times, 15 Aug. 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/us/politics/att-helped-nsa-spy-on-an-array-of-internet-traffic.html?_r=0

[6] See whitney.org/Support/Corporate/CorporateMembership