Settling Scores

John Haber
in New York City

Laura Poitras and Anri Sala

"I honestly don't know," he said. "I don't remember."

The lines could belong to countless police or FBI procedurals past and present. One recognizes them instantly as an evasion, to the point of an admission of guilt. For the question of the year of the man's birth, though, they take on a logic from the far side of the looking glass. The unseen interrogator and grainy video make their logic more chilling still. The White Rabbit did not remember his birth either, I can assure you. Do you, honestly? At the Whitney, Laura Poitras wants to know. from Laura Poitras's Anarchist (courtesy of the artist/Whitney Museum of American Art, 2016)

Think after Poitras that new media cannot allow political upheavals to speak for themselves? Think again. Anri Sala would like a few moments of your time. He would like to speed them up, to slow them down, and to connect them to the wider world. And nothing for him does that as well as music. If he, too, has trouble adapting new media to a museum, so be it.

One can approach his midcareer retrospective as a film festival spread awkwardly through three floors of the New Museum or, the museum suggests, a single "symphonic experience." One can see it as an unusual version of sound art in which video plays as great a part as sound and music as great a part as art. One can see it as a series of multichannel installations that call out to the viewer, like its title video, Answer Me. One can see it as a series of musical phrases that call out to one another. Musicians in fact have a term for that, call and response. One can see it, too, as political art—with the displacement his own, as a native of Eastern Europe.

The matrix

Laura Poitras is not literally asking what you remember, but she does want you to question your responsibility or complicity. One day the interrogator could well turn on you, she believes, just as an investigation turned on her. It stopped her every time she sought to enter her own country, the United States, and it took her years to find out why. She had been in Iraq, in the Green Zone, as a reporter and filmmaker, staying with a family that had sought refuge in a mosque. When they awoke to gunfire, the day after an American raid killed four civilians, the family took to the roof to see—and she captured them in eight minutes of unedited footage. Those minutes, she says, changed her life. She displays them alongside portions of her case file, heavily censored.

The children seem at ease or even at play, even as all eyes are upon them. For Poitras, one can never tease apart the everyday from violence or violence from the surveillance state—no more than in that grainy video of an interrogation after 9/11. Its bearded subject in white is kneeling, and for all one knows of his language he could be at prayer. The subtitles, in turn, do point both ways, as in an installation by Edmund Clark, to an awful crime and to an awful logic turned against the criminal. The man, one of two in Afghanistan that day, ended up in prison at Guantánamo Bay for all his protestations. "You keep saying," he objected, his head falling closer and closer to the ground, that "these things are mine."

For Poitras, there may be two sides to every story, but she frames both sides as a frontal assault on her country's undisclosed intelligence. Her 2011 video, O'Say Can You See, takes two sides of a large screen. On the other side, Americans respond to Ground Zero in the days after the attack, wiping grief in slow motion from their eyes. The soundtrack consists of the national anthem played soon after at a World Series game, but looped and distorted to become a dirge as unintelligible as the interrogation. One knows what these people have seen, just as one knows what happened in Afghanistan, but that, too, remains off-screen. They might be weeping for both sides of the screen.

Obviously Poitras is taking sides. You may know her solely from Citizenfour, her documentary about Edward Snowden. Yet she considers it only the third in an entire trilogy about the Iraq war, the National Security Administration, and life after 9/11. She takes the title of her retrospective, "Astro Noise," from Snowden's term for his project. While she wants to engage viewers throughout her run with forums, shared interviews, and other events, she sees the threat as a given, like astro noise itself—the sound left over from the Big Bang. Screen captures at the show's entrance display signals from Israeli drones and commercial intelligence satellites, as pixilated as TV art and new media for Nam June Paik. Most are poor substitutes for information or abstraction, although a drone appears in the final print, bursting into a sphere of light.

She created those aluminum inkjet prints and the remaining installations for the occasion. The show fills the museum's top floor, curated by Jay Sanders, but it feels much smaller, and it would fail completely if it did not. Her vision is just not that large. Although she appeared in the 2012 Whitney Biennial, she is still more a reporter and less an ironist or visual artist than Jenny Holzer on censorship or Walid Raad on terrorism and war. Even when she wants to engage the viewer in a dialogue, she sets the terms. Disposition Matrix places more government documents on the run-up to war behind slits in six black walls, so that one becomes a partner in breaching the wall of silence, but also oneself a spy.

The focus on drones and clinical procedures will hardly speak to everyone, even on the left. An older lefty would remember the towering but clumsy abuses of the Pentagon Papers and Richard Nixon—or the ease with which human beings indulge in brutality, from My Lai and "the smell of napalm in the morning" to today. At her best, Poitras lets others remember for themselves, like Snowden on film. The people on both sides of that first screen have their say, and so does the audience free to choose sides as they circulate about. For Bed Down Location, one can lie with one's back on a communal table to watch drones in a sky moving between white, daylight, and a starlit black. It is a hard bed, but for a moment one can put the war on terror to rest.

Broken rhythms

To be honest, Anri Sala would like a lot of your time. It would take well over an hour to sit through the six successive videos on a two-sided screen at the exhibition's midpoint alone. And that still leaves videos to either end of the floor, plus extended videos on the floors above and below, both on the scale of a work of classical music. If that were not enough, two videos that do not quite fit anywhere else play in the museum's theater each Wednesday. You may not notice it, but the disruptions begin even earlier, in the lobby. Eerie music gathers in strength as one gives it attention, and every so often drum taps shatter its stasis.

Anri Sala's Dammi i Colori (Marian Goodman/Hauser and Wirth/Galerie Rudiger Schotte, 2003)Back upstairs, the shifts in time go hand in hand with alterations to music. That dissonant music is Verklärte Nacht ("Transfigured Night"), the early string septet by Arnold Schoenberg, and Sala transfigures it further as The Present Moment. Two long screens face off from distant corners of the second floor, their twenty-channel sound isolating the occurrences of single notes from the score—B-flat to one corner, D to the other. He means both to isolate moments from the work and to have it gather slowly into a whole. Here, too, rhythms kick in when one least expects it, time to coincide with those two notes. The drumsticks resting on four drums seem to have a life of their own.

The fourth floor settles scores on a still grander scale, from another work of early modern music. Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, by Maurice Ravel, plays out on two screens placed one above the other, slightly staggered to the left and to the right. Sala alters its tempo so that the two performances move almost imperceptibly in and out of sync—with each other, but also with their deadened echoes from soundproofed walls. The change is not nearly imperceptible enough, though, for a dj on video at the other end of the floor, who tries to replicate it on two turntables. Sometimes she slips and fails, even as the work flows almost seamlessly across the entire floor. The surrounding darkness is disorienting enough on its own.

The darkness may offer comfort or dangers. Ravel composed the work for Paul Wittgenstein, the philosopher's brother, who had lost his right arm in World War I, and one of the two screens shows only one arm, as if cut off in the very act of performance. Is this the art of war? The drumsticks share one drum with human skulls, while the other three drums perch upside-down on the ceiling like a single kit whose drummers have fallen to their death. Sala calls them Moths, like moths in a corner of the attic, so take care of your sweater. The concerto laps over into the museum's grand stairwell as well, where videos testify to other scenes of abandonment—a truck stop in Texas and a highway at night in Albania, where a horse lifts its hind leg in response to passing cars.

Sala, now based in Berlin, is from Albania and returns there with Dammi i Colori (or "give me the colors," an aria from Tosca), to see what Communism has left behind. Apparently, little more than exile, in dirt lots and decaying blocks of Soviet-style housing. "Tell me that this city does not exist," someone begs him, but of course it does. Yet he zooms in on signs of renewal, concrete exteriors undergoing a paint job in fantastic colors. The far end of the third floor has a darker ending, as Senegalese children speak from beneath a fluorescent beam in an underground room like a torture chamber. Their litany of Lak-kat (or "gibberish") runs from whitey and the great white hope to dark, a very dark thing, and the darkest thing—by way of alien and stranger.

The displacements in time, space, and politics extend on that central screen to other places and other music. It runs from the woman's call to answer me to the Clash on barrel organs—and from free jazz, the performer's head on the other side of a window easy to mistake for a potted plant, to its repetition, but with a live sax player also circling the screen. As curators, Massimilano Gioni, Margot Norton, and Natalie Bell have created formidable obstacles to taking all this in, and so has the artist with minor photographs and drawings. The dual emphasis on time and music may recall the echoing voices and sound art of Janet Cardiff, Christian Marclay, and The Clock, but one cannot just peek in and out for choice moments and a few good jokes. Still, what may fail at first takes on a cumulative sense of the memories behind the music, as the ambiguity of displacement and renewal becomes one's own. As the Clash wonder, "Should I stay or should I go now?"

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Laura Poitras ran at The Whitney Museum of American Art through May 1, 2016, Anri Sala at the New Museum through April 10.


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