Trevor PaglenApril 1, 2015
Trevor Paglen’s career has taken off like a spy satellite. He has become a key political artist of our time, despite the fact that his larger project is to represent something quite difficult to depict visually—namely, government secrecy. His work draws our attention to (if it does not always actually reveal) the network of sites, operations, and practices on which our government spends our tax dollars in the name of protecting us. The arrival of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden in the popular consciousness, and all of the related revelations that subsequently emerged, have only made Paglen’s work seem more prescient and relevant. His fascinations are now our fascinations. And so Paglen, whose contributions to the 2014 Snowden documentary Citizenfour recently won him the right to share an Oscar, finds himself a standard-bearer for committed political art.
Paglen is interested in the landscape and the things our government likes to hide there. As artworks, his photographs and videos are usually without incident and gesture toward conceptual aesthetics—aren’t we all Duchampians now? In his latest show at Altman Siegel Gallery, Autonomy Cube (2014), a computer server encased in a Plexiglas cube, is poised on a pedestal in the middle of the gallery. The piece toys formally with Marcel Duchamp’s famous Fountain (1917) and the minimalist cubes of Robert Morris and so many others. Like many previous works by Paglen, for instance his pictures of secret government sites that can barely be perceived because they are so incredibly distant, or of satellites so tiny and far away that all we apprehend is the beautiful night sky, Autonomy Cube manifests the gap between the desire to expose something sinister and the desire to produce something visually cool and oblique. The distance between the work and its meaning is odd, even uncomfortable. That is the point.
Conceptual artists, from Joseph Kosuth to John Baldessari, manifest philosophical and aesthetic thinking through their investigations of the nature and form of art. That is one version of politics, perhaps, but not the kind that turns up in Oscar-winning movies. Paglen’s interests are far sexier, but his work is as restrained as if it were painted by a sign painter. In Circles (2015), the viewer is presented with an extended aerial view of the circular building that houses the GCHQ, the British version of the National Security Agency, as seen from a helicopter circling above. The camera occasionally zooms in to focus attention on people moving around the site, backing up trucks, or smoking cigarettes in what appears to be a garret next to a helipad (the inner circle). Flashbacks to Robert Smithson’s filming of his own Spiral Jetty (1970) are inevitable, but without the voice-over, or the allusions to geological time, there is little of the primeval magic that Smithson invested in his own artistic gesture in the Great Salt Lake. Paglen’s video is so boring it makes your skin crawl, except when you reflect that these folks probably spend their days sorting through other people’s emails and texts, looking for patterns. This discomfort is likely intentional, and naming it is a credit to the work.
An installation work in the exhibition, NSA-Tapped Fiber Optic Cable Landing Site, Point Arena, California, United States (2014), recalls Smithson’s Non-Sites from the late 1960s, in which he re-created landscapes in a gallery through maps, technical data, and photos. Smithson’s works also included stones brought from the sites themselves, but there is no parallel to this in Paglen’s piece. Paglen is not producing earthworks, but he is drawing from that vocabulary to make another point, namely that if you look beyond the horizon, you will realize that landscape, and even nature, are far more political than you previously imagined. A landscape’s meanings emerge from its uses, and if making an earthwork is a way to transform territory, so is establishing a surveillance mechanism that records the entire world’s communications and movements. Such a practice is mostly invisible, but it does happen somewhere, in embodied form, such as when governments re-create landscapes (or build circular buildings) to transform their territories for their own purposes.
Another important point comes through the names that those working for the government’s secrecy division employ to signify their actions. Remaking a place often involves changing its name, and the titles of covert operations leave traces of their existence like a snake’s shed skin. In Code Names of the Surveillance State, Paglen elucidates these names, organized alphabetically and drawn from leaked documents now available to all on the internet. The list is amusing (“Steel Flauta”!) but also seemingly endless, a temporal elaboration of secret government actions far longer than the litany of credits at the end of a typical film. And the actions the list refers to will surely continue; one could well imagine such a list stretching out to infinity. The implication is both banal and creepy.
The only thing worse than knowing your government is spying on you like this is that here you are, in an art gallery, without much agency to do anything about it. Luckily there is the aforementioned Autonomy Cube, an anonymous server created in collaboration with Jacob Appelbaum. This device is part of a system of servers worldwide that allows people to communicate via email or any other electronic media without revealing their location to government spooks. Autonomy Cube represents both a bit of art-historical posturing and an active response to government surveillance that allows viewers to imagine an alternative to our current condition. Perhaps a gallery is as good a place as any to begin planning the revolution.