Experiencing Laura Poitras’ art exhibition, Astro Noise, which opens today at the Whitney Museum and will be on display until May 1st, is like walking through a documentary, which is something I wish I could experience more often, and especially when it’s directed by someone as assured at the Oscar-winning director of CitizenFour, as well as My Country, My Country (POV 2006) and The Oath (POV 2010).

It’s a remarkable work, even more so when you consider, although Poitras once studied the visual arts, she’s primarily a feature documentary filmmaker. That may be her greatest asset: she knows how to tell a narrative.

Not that the exhibition starts off on its best foot. When you get off the elevator on the 8th floor of the Whitney, you are introduced to Astro Noise with colorful images drawn from documents provided to Poitras by Edward Snowden. The images come from satellite and drone intercepts, and they aestheticize the surveillance state that have become the focus of Poitras’ work. I wasn’t particularly inspired by those first pieces.

I attended a press showing at the Whitney, where Poitras appeared deeply moved by the moment, saying she was “terrified” at the prospect of releasing the work to the public. She emphasized that the exhibit was a collaboration, perhaps even more so than a film (which I’ll have to ask her about some day).

Upon entering the exhibit, I was sucked into Poitras’ masterful storytelling ability. The exhibit opens with a screen that displays people reacting to Ground Zero, in the months after 9/11. It’s brilliantly layered. We only see people’s reactions, so the devastation is unseen. And we, the visitors, are placed in a position of empathy as well as mutual voyeurism. It’s such a heady turn and yet, it’s such an emotional one, I was blown away and transported to that gut-wrenching time 15 years ago.

After opening our hearts, Poitras hits visitors with the (literally) flip side of the screen, which shows two men being interrogated in Afghanistan. Immediately, Poitras challenges us, and the thread of the story, of a nation attacked and then its response, begins to unspool.

After that one-two punch, we are treated to a place to lie down. Visitors can lay their bodies on a platform so that they can look up at a moving night sky. What are we looking at? A sky of stars and drones and surveillance satellites, no doubt. Lay there long enough and you may notice something especially creepy, as I did. But no spoilers here.

The exhibit then leads to a corridor of small slits, not unlike prison door windows, which show documents, images or videos, which build upon the story of a nation reacting to 9/11 with a state of agitation and aggression that feels as menacing as it does inevitable.

The end of the exhibit features Poitras’s voice telling of how the government put her under surveillance due to her work. There’s a final piece that really captures the experience, and thrusts the visitor personally into the subject, but, again, I don’t want to spoil the effect.

Astro Noise is a title that appears not to do the work justice—the exhibit screams out its own relevance, but Astro Noise sounds like dinky, long-obsolete Apple II software. The title actually comes from a file named by Snowden and it’s the term used by astronomers to refer to the oldest light in the universe. In other words, it’s layered, like the exhibit itself, which I found deeply moving, thought-provoking and well worth a visit.

Laura Poitras: Astro Noise will be at the Whitney Museum of American Art from February 5 to May 1, 2016. Find out more information here

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen