“Jesus, I have no idea what I am about to enter into. I’m still not sure it is for real. I still wonder if they are trying to entrap me” noted the director Laura Poitras in her journal on February 9, 2013 after being anonymously approached by Edward Snowden under his cover name Citizen Four. Poitras and journalists from the British newspaper, The Guardian — who together published the biggest leak in the history of secret service to the public — could hardly foresee what the meeting with Snowden would bring to them: a shocked society, a Pulitzer Prize, and an Oscar for Poitras’s film documenting the meeting.
Three years later, in spring 2016, the Whitney Museum in New York opened the exhibition Astro Noise presenting Poitras’s documentary work in the field of contemporary art. Despite a lukewarm reception from critics, who described the exhibition as a failed attempt at translating the medium of film into space, the exhibition brought together artists, theoreticians, journalists, and witnesses of the war against terror in panel discussions (available on youtube), and enabled the publication of The Survival Guide for Living under Total Surveillance including texts by Hito Steyerl, Jacob Applebaum, Jill Magid, Dave Eggers, Trevor Paglen, Laura Poitras and others.
Should Poitras only touch briefly on the pressing issues of the contemporary political climate in her exhibition, the book cuts sharply through the tissues of our everyday reality of pervasive cameras, GPSs, and the never-ending cycle of surveillance. You shudder when you read about years spent in the Guantanamo prison, an account by a wrongly accused citizen of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Lakhdar Boumediene, and calls by Edward Snowden and Jacob Applebaum for conscious vigilance and responsibility — and at the same time you try to remember how many times in the past hours have you agreed to and approved the endless legal document by which you gave away a part of your privacy to one of the internet supranational giants.
To use words such as “guide” or “survival guide” in the title of the book is somewhat problematic. Despite accurate descriptions and interpretations of the present situation, all the texts confirm the feeling of burning hopelessness. Should we follow the example of the exposed “heroes” of the digital era, such as Edward Snowden or Laura Poitras, the boundaries of our privacy would narrow below the dimensions of the physical body. Truly responsible behavior on the internet to which the book invites us, actually makes it impossible to use any global communication tools at all. Unfortunately, this “guide” won’t tell us to what extent one can exist as an autonomous individual without the risk of being constantly surveilled.
Poitras, Laura. Astro Noise: A Survival Guide for Living Under Total Surveillance. Whitney Museum of American Art, 2016. ISBN: 9780300217650.