Scenes of the NSA Are Watching Over the London Underground

Now Londoners must contemplate the surveillance state on their daily commute.

Jun 19 2014, 2:45pm

A group of huge white geodesic radomes, the telltale golf ball-like antennae often found on NSA ground stations, have made their way from a base in rural Yorkshire to a platform on London’s Gloucester Road tube station, thanks to a new installation by American artist Trevor Paglen.

Paglen’s latest work, a site-specific piece for the London Underground stop, is a huge photographic panorama that depicts the area surrounding Menwith Hill, an RAF base used by the NSA. At first glance, the landscape is idyllic and unmistakably British, with luscious green fields and a smattering of stone cottages. But lurking on the horizon are a series of white bubbles; a rare but tell-tale physical sign of the secretive surveillance conducted by the security agency.

Commissioned by Art on the Underground, Paglen’s “An English Landscape (American Surveillance Base near Harrogate, Yorkshire)” spans 62 metres between the columns of a disused platform at the station. When I met the artist at the unveiling of the piece this morning, he said it was this unusual canvas and the history of British landscape art that inspired him to create a panorama. “Turner did a lot of paintings, Constable—there’s a whole tradition of painting this kind of landscape or making art about this kind of landscape,” he said. “But we’re not living in the 19th century any more, and what do these landscapes actually look like?”

The resulting piece, which was made by overlapping many different photographs, has a trompe-l’oeil effect; the landscape peeks out between the pillars as if you’re really gazing across the Yorkshire scene. When you pass through the station on a train, you catch a glimpse of it out of the window as if you’re travelling through the dales, not the capital. 

All the while, the reconnaissance base haunts the background of the image, not immediately attracting your eye yet always present—which seems like an appropriate reflection of the kind of surveillance work that likely goes on inside.

It’s a classical landscape, with a  modern intrusion. “There’s a mystery perhaps to what exactly is going on at this base, but in terms of reading it as a piece of art you couldn’t get more traditional,” said Paglen. This follows his previous depictions of military and reconnaissance bases, which are generally presented without real comment. Paglen just shows us what’s there, no more and no less, but that throws the spotlight on geographies that are usually kept undercover, if not literally then at least in terms of operational opacity.

Image: Thierry Bal (a photographer who accompanied Paglen)/Art on the Underground

I found it interesting that an American artist should exhibit a work in the UK that depicts a base largely used by the US government but also located in the UK. Paglen, who just arrived in the country for the installation, said he couldn’t yet draw any comparisons between responses to his work on each side of the ocean. I asked if he’d considered doing anything about GCHQ. “Yes, absolutely, but we’ll see what happens,” he said. “But GCHQ and the NSA are very close collaborators, so you’re splitting hairs when you’re trying to figure out exactly who is who.”

Indeed, I was quite surprised Art on the Underground—which is sponsored by London Underground—would even commission a piece with undeniable political overtones, especially given the muteness of the debate on surveillance in the UK (which persists even in the wake of the first confirmation from government that British citizens can have their communications monitored without a warrant).

Curator Rebecca Heald said it was simply admiration of Paglen’s work that led them to the commission. “We just thought he was a really great artist. We were interested in his practice and interested to see what he might do with a site like this,” she said. 

Paglen also insists he’s not necessarily trying to stir up debate. “This is an art project, so this is not an argument about whether surveillance is good or bad … That’s really not something that art can do well,” he said. “I think what art can do well is help you learn how to see, and I mean that actually quite literally. When I look at this image, for me the question is, are these giant golf balls a bunch of aliens that have landed, or are they just really part of the landscape that we don’t acknowledge?”

Thanks to Paglen’s work, those taking the eastbound District or Circle line over the next year will have no choice but to acknowledge the radomes. Quite what they will see when they look at them—unnatural invaders or indelible additions to the topography—is down to artistic interpretation.