Following TREVOR PAGLEN‘s photo story “Axis of Evil” in 032c #13 (Summer 2007), Peter Richter now profiles the artist in the Post-Snowden Age.
Sometimes even eavesdropping experts prefer to have their mobile phones turned off. There’s a place in the woods of West Virginia where there’s no reception at all. Absolutely nothing that can transmit or receive is allowed there, including radios and remote controls. Police check rigorously, driving around with radio detectors. It’s known as the National Radio Quiet Zone, and it houses a facility run by the NSA that mostly collects earthly signals from outer space.
Artist Trevor Paglen knows that astronauts are really there waiting to receive news from aliens, but he also knows that it’s not the whole story. So one night in 2010, Paglen—tall, athletic, and in his late thirties—drove as close as possible to the zone, where he climbed to the top of a mountain to identify what the large, no-reception complex seals off. And when the moonlight was most beautiful, Paglen took a picture using the strongest microscope camera.
The moonlight is significant because before artificial satellites were sent into orbit up there, the secret service understood how the underside of the moon would reflect transmissions back to Earth that would otherwise be sent into the depths of the cosmos. The effect is called “Moon Bounce,” and it greatly pleased eavesdropping experts in the 1950s.
You don’t have to work for the secret service to make the connection between Paglen and the main catchwords of our time – from “drone war” to “Merkel’s cell phone.” When I arrive at the airport, thinking about the next passport check, I wonder if it’s really a good idea to use my smartphone—which already contains emails from Paglen—to Google directions to his place. Goodbye, impressive starry sky. Hello, paranoia. Wouldn’t it be easier to just call the NSA directly and say, “I’m about to meet the man who’s constantly spying on you, the CIA, and the secret divisions of the U.S. Army. If you’re planning to record this through my cell phone, could you also take care of transcribing it for me? Who was it that said at the start of the NSA scandal that the surveillance was mainly aimed at journalists from abroad? We make jokes over the phone until we actually start to flinch at every word that might grab the attention of an algorithm.
But finding the entrance to Paglen’s home and studio on the southern tip of Manhattan isn’t really that easy without Google Maps. It’s housed in a dark art-deco high-rise set between highways and the entrance to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. Batman would look good here, on the roof, glancing down with consternation at the thoughtless commotion of Gotham. That’s a little bit what it looks like.
I find Paglen on the 29th floor; the Hudson River glistens in the sun below. Paglen spent a lot of time at the beach when he studied at Berkeley in California. He’s an academic surfer boy, clad in jeans and a hoodie with a haircut and beard that make him resemble Louis C.K., the melancholic philosopher of stand-up comedy.
He smiles a “welcome to reality” smile and says, “That’s exactly what it’s about”: Someone like Snowden always has to show up with concrete documents before people really become conscious and aware of what they’ve always known but kept repressed. Without concrete proof or half-clear images, this knowledge remains as abstract and intangible as radioactivity. So these images form the very front where he’s been operating for a while now.
But while Edward Snowden is waiting in exile in Moscow, and Chelsea Manning is behind bars in Kansas, Paglen can welcome visitors to his place in New York, and recently he’s had exhibitions in Baltimore, Istanbul, and Cologne. All three men confronted the world with U.S. state secrets, only in Paglen’s case it isn’t called whistleblowing. It’s called art. There are aesthetic reasons for this, but also legal ones.
When Paglen searches the sky for drones with his telephoto lens, two sets of artificial eyes meet and the seeing that is delegated through instruments becomes a question of aesthetics, too. Or when Paglen uses an even more powerful telescope—made for astronomy—to zoom in from a distance of 50 kilometers to the testing grounds that are invisible to the human eye, it is not a coincidence that the pictures call to mind Gerhard Richter’s paintings. They are part of an artistic tradition of blurriness, which means we are also not so far from William Turner. Just as his abstract effects and clouds of light reveal how the perception of the world was altered by the rise of the railroad, Paglen’s pictures represent a moment when the technological revolution is giving our perception of the world a good grilling.
Or: When Paglen uses special lighting techniques to expose the traffic of American spying satellites floating in the sky over Yosemite National Park, it is also not coincidental that the images recall those taken at the very same spot by photo-pioneer Ansel Adams. The dramatic geography of America is extending into space on orders from strategists. That’s one way to interpret these pictures.
And finally: When Paglen, together with MIT, shoots into space a capsule that contains the “Last Pictures of Humanity” it’s a direct commentary on the fact that the orbit is already full of satellites that will circle up there even well after the Earth has ceased to exist. All that will remain of humans are those tin boxes we used to receive our senseless, blaring TV programs to spy on opponents and control their combat drones.
Even when there’s no powerful telescope, we’re still dealing with extreme distances and time spans, to the point that a view from the future looking back a few million years to the end of humanity becomes so inconceivable that it touches nothing less than the classic category of aestheticism: the sublime.
For Paglen the sublime in theory is no different than it was to the philosopher Edward Burke: something that can’t simply be called beautiful since it tends to be the horror of it that attracts us. Paglen puts it more simply: “Nuclear missiles are scary, but I can stare at them all day long.”
This is not simply a child of the 20th century speaking; Paglen grew up around this culture. In 1974 he was born into the world of the military, on Andrews Air Force Base, in Maryland, a place that continues to preoccupy him today. His father worked as an eye doctor for the army. As a teenager he spent five years on a base in Wiesbaden, Germany, and still speaks a little German, although he is known to dislike talking about his youth. He wants to protect his work from interpretations reducing it to an Oedipal reaction to his upbringing. At best one can get him to talk about German punk bands like the Spermbirds and how they let the Americans on the army bases use their microphones. Back then in Germany, even Paglen had a mohawk, skateboarded, and played in a punk band. It’s possible to at least surmise from this a certain attitude towards the at-attention expectations of the U.S. Army.
What he definitely did get from growing up on air bases, Paglen says, is an awareness of what’s going on in the world—and a degree of impartiality towards these things. Which is why, after studying art and geography, he pushed on like a classical cartographer drawn to the blank spots on the map created by the U.S. military. He ended up tracing airplanes that don’t appear on any flight plan, which led him to visit and photograph the secret prisons of the CIA, even in Afghanistan. He published a book about it called Torture Taxi. And he shows pictures of the Army’s drones in galleries—for a long time, America’s new miracle weapon was being controlled through the unencrypted channels of normal television satellites. It’s like the story about the hare and the hedgehog: no matter what was in the news, Paglen had already done a work about it.
Then the wonderful peace activist Barack Obama got elected, and people told Paglen, “Well, Trevor, you’re going to be out of work now.” But up here, on the 29th floor above the Hudson, that though induces a burst of hearty laughter.
Is he the Edward Snowden of the art world? The legally relevant difference is that Paglen is not acting as a dependent employer of the system, but as a free American citizen; he didn’t have to sign a confidentiality statement. Paglen knows exactly what his rights are, and goes only as far as the law permits. Sometimes, when young men from the security agency try to take his photos away, he has to say, “Sorry, buddy, but that’s not the law!” He told the NSA recently, “I am about to fly over your headquarters with a helicopter and take a few photos, please don’t shoot me down.” It caused a discussion, until everyone realized that he was in fact allowed to do it.
This is what makes the United States different from countries like Russia or China, which would have put Paglen in a camp (at best), but also different from almost every other Western state. “On the one hand, the U.S. spends more money on its military than the rest of the world put together, and it spends more just on the secret part of the military than China, the second largest military power, spends on its entire army. At the same time, there are no laws here about how a private person has to deal with state secrets. You could get wind of the most secret of secret programs and publish it on your blog the next day.” “America,” Trevor Paglen says, despite its record number of secret military projects, “is still the most open country on Earth.”
His work is therefore by no means simply a criticism of the U.S. It is also a manifestation of its freedom. “The underlying idea is that people should exercise their freedom,” he says. “Because freedoms are only good if they are actually used, not just theoretical. I use them in order to keep them alive. If you stop using your arm for a year, it will also stop functioning.”
Anyone who adheres to anti-American resentments won’t be happy with Paglen in the end: What becomes apparent here is more like a variation on the ultra-American skepticism of government that indirectly connected the Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party movements. Europeans are increasingly worried about Big Data in the hands of private corporations like Google or Facebook, which, as portrayed by cypherpunk-science-fiction, could someday replace government. As an American, Paglen sees the problem the other way around: Private companies could, at least theoretically, be regulated, but the hidden realms of the army and secret service were created specifically to facilitate conventional illegal activity. Places that are not found on any map abet what’s not covered by the law. That doesn’t sound like much of a direct response to the ageless saying from the time of the Inquisition: “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.”
During our discussion, the guileless Hudson River now glistening below the evening sun, I am overcome by a shudder at the thought of these mirrored images: Paglen’s investigative impetus and what the secret services call intelligence are similar in a disturbing way: both demand a transparent world without secrets but would like themselves to be exempt from the transparency and ban on secrets. But the situation here is not like the comic series Spy vs. Spy, where two similar secret service agents stand face to face. Here we have State vs. Citizen. And the question remains: who is allowed to demand transparency from whom and who not.
This is how it comes about that the person fighting against government secrecy, when we return to talking about cell phones, finds secrecy for private use a very good and important thing. Paglen strongly recommends to me to use encryption technology, even though the secret service can crack that too if they want, but it will cost them more. “But that’s more of a tactical solution than a strategic one.”
Towards the end he speaks again as having grown up in a world of uniforms. “I don’t think encryption is going to save democracy, and the sheer fact that we feel like we have to use encryption technology to protect ourselves from state surveillance is a first-class sign that democracy is not doing so well right now.”