Montreal Gazette NOVEMBER 30, 2021 - by T'Cha Dunlevy


"What happens to the person the minute they are hacked? What happens in their private life? What kind of violence are they exposed to?"

Laura Poitras is proud to say she is "in the category of people designated as a terrorist" by the United States government.

The American filmmaker and journalist won an Oscar for her 2014 documentary Citizenfour, a profile of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, and her reporting on the NSA contributed to the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for public service awarded jointly to the Guardian and the Washington Post.

Poitras was at the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal's new temporary locale in the basement of Place Ville Marie on Tuesday to discuss her collaboration with London-based research collective Forensic Architecture on the exhibition Terror Contagion, which runs until April 18.

"I always put it in my bio that the U.S. government considers me a terrorist, because I know how many other people in the world that label is used and weaponized against - often journalists, and people the state wants to target because of their work."

Poitras and Forensic Architecture spent the past two years looking at the human cost of the cellphone malware Pegasus, created by Israeli company NSO Group and sold to countries around the world. At last count, fifty thousand people have had their phones hacked by Pegasus, including many journalists, activists and politicians.

"A phone is infected, but the phone belongs to someone," said Forensic Architecture founder Eyal Weizman. "What happens to the person the minute they are hacked? What happens in their private life? What kind of violence are they exposed to? And what happens in the country where they live? We're talking about relationships between events, and that relationship has to be spatialized to be understood. We need to understand data as something that is immersive and has an architecture."

Forensic Architecture's research reveals that what begins with a targeted phone hack can lead to an insidious array of real-life consequences.

"Digital violence means physical violence," Weizman said. "It's not simply a question of privacy. It's violence."

"Surveillance is a form of violence," Poitras concurred. "It's linked to physical violence, but the surveillance itself is violence."

While noting that "it's an extremely visual experience," John Zeppetelli, the Musée d'art contemporain's executive director and head curator, is the first to admit the exhibition is "not very common in a museum."

"It just goes to show the vast spectrum of possibilities in the art world at the moment," he said. "It's an incredibly timely exhibition, to consider the kind of surveillance state we live in, and invasion of privacy."

Over the past few years, NSO Group has been sued by WhatsApp, Facebook, Microsoft, Google and, most recently, Apple for the way its malware has been used to extract the information of iPhone and Android users by accessing text messages, photos, passwords, cameras and recording calls. In November, U.S. officials placed the company on a trade blacklist.

"Forensic Architecture started its journey in the context of the anti-colonial struggle in Palestine," said Weizman, who was born in Israel but works in London as an architect and a professor at Goldsmiths, University of London.

With Terror Contagion, the group maps the physical and psychological toll of Pegasus by talking to journalists, activists and others who have been targeted by the malware.

The interviews and "contagion" maps are included in the exhibition, in which visitors can wander from one screen to the next, guided by the voice-over narration of Snowden, set to an ominous soundtrack by Brian Eno. It feels disorienting, alienating and chillingly futuristic.

"Forensic Architecture, in trying to correlate these hacks and this targeting, built this platform to cross-correlate information," said Poitras, whose eighteen-minute documentary Terror Contagion is included in the exhibition, and who collaborated with Forensic Architecture on the entire project.

"You're in the platform with this piece, which triggers the sense of being targeted yourself, that you're entering into a dangerous zone."


Forensic Architecture and Laura Poitras present Terror Contagion from Wednesday, December 1 to April 18 at the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal's temporary location in Place Ville Marie. For tickets and more information, visit