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Trevor Paglen Is Making Art Out of the Surveillance State

"The internet has become the greatest tool of mass surveillance in the history of mankind, at a level that is so intimate that the mind boggles."

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Trevor Paglen lived in New York for 10 years, traveling back and forth to work on cinematography for the Edward Snowden biopic Citizenfour, until two years ago, when everything went sideways. He and his girlfriend broke up, he lost his studio space, and his studio manager moved to LA. "I had this moment that was like, oh shit, I've got nothing," he told me over a Skype call from his Berlin workspace. Friends from his flip-flopping to Germany and back convinced him to relocate to Berlin full-time.

Paglen was born in Maryland, but grew up in California and spent part of his teenage years in Germany. At UC Berkeley, he got his PhD in geography, and found that social sciences better suited his artistic senses.

He's written four books and produced artwork and installations around state security, privacy, and surveillance, including the ongoing Autonomy Cube series. These are pillar-like sculptures housing internet connected computers, which create a WiFi network allowing nearby people to browse the internet anonymously, over the Tor network.

The Autonomy Cube

Autonomy Cube installation in Madrid. Image: Trevor Paglen

"The internet has become the greatest tool of mass surveillance in the history of mankind, at a level that is so intimate that the mind boggles," Paglen said. As he continued:

"There's no natural reason why that had to be the case. The Autonomy Cube is a project that's basically trying to say, look, we don't have to take for granted that this is the way the internet works. It's perfectly possible to build a version of the internet that is anonymous that you can use without being tracked, that gives you all the benefits of being able to access the wealth of humans' collective knowledge—but doesn't at the same time create incredibly powerful tools of state and corporate surveillance." 

This, perhaps, is a theme running through all of Paglen's work: Not a suggestion to fundamentally change how society works, but an invitation to be skeptical of how we go forward.

Another project, and perhaps the one he's most well-known for, focused on CIA black sites. Using maps and testimonies by former prisoners, he got as close to the sites as he could without inviting himself for his own extended stay. From there, he'd photograph them. Out of context, they seem innocuous: Blurry shots of a dessert or a hill.

Black Site, Kabul, Afghanistan

Black Site, Kabul, Afghanistan. C-print, 24 x 36 inches, 2006. Image: Trevor Paglen

His most recent work, Sight Machine, is a performance piece in which a quartet of musicians performs before machine vision cameras and a live audience. Artificial intelligence algorithms that detect a range of scenarios are projected on the walls, allowing the audience to see what the machines are seeing. It's technology that's in everything from Facebook profiles to red-light cameras, from object recognition to missile strikes. How do computers see? How does that compare to what humans see?

Rendering of

Rendering of "Sight Machine", a performance in collaboration with Kronos Quartet. Image: Trevor Paglen; Altman Siegel, San Francisco

In January, Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University chose Paglen as its first artist-in-residence, where he's continuing the Sight Machine work. He hopes to answer more questions about how machines "see."

"People sometimes get really mad when I say I want to build a satellite that's just an aesthetic object."

What's next for Paglen is a continuation of another one of his fascinations: Space junk. He's planning projects for 2018 that again question our biggest monoliths. One of them is a satellite with no real purpose. "People sometimes get really mad when I say I want to build a satellite that's just an aesthetic object," he said. "Like, it doesn't do anything. That's offensive to people sometimes." He is, in his words, cranky about space.

He's also struggling in a new way with his own place in the world. "My job as an artist has been to try to focus attention, or say 'let's look at this,'" Paglen said. He's always trying to create that visual vocabulary on which to hinge the rest, whether it's a CIA black site or an anonymous network. But with new crises making headlines daily, and more and more issues competing for our attention, that task has become harder than ever. 

"Traditionally, I've done stuff that's very political in terms of the things I'm looking at but can be subtle, in terms of the propositions that I've making aesthetically," Paglen said. "That subtlety doesn't feel like it has much bite in the current political environment."

Whether humans should sent military surveillance to space or make machines that watch us at all times is beside the point for Paglen. His art is presented as a series of questions, or as he calls it, "a means by which you could imagine something that's counter to your common sense."

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