Last Thursday afternoon, I received an email from the artist Trevor Paglen. I’ll respect his privacy and not reveal the contents of the message, or the Gmail account he uses, but I’ll tell you about his sign-off. Instead of the standard message, “Sent from my iPhone,” or some cute variation on that along the lines of “Sent via my carrier pigeon,” Trevor Paglen’s final dash reads “Sent from a tracking device.”
I was looking at the email on my own tracking device, and if the NSA wanted to know what I was doing at that exact moment for some odd reason, it could easily track my Uber and figure out I was headed from my apartment to Metro Pictures in Chelsea, where Paglen’s latest show is currently on view. The show confronts surveillance head-on, with the works displaying a direct approach to the largest domestic spy program in history. Paglen, at times, makes some of the frillier big-ticket shows in the neighborhood seem a bit frivolous.
Paglen has the bonafides to do this kind of thing. He collaborated with Laura Poitras on Citizenfour, the Academy Award–winning documentary about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, and is a contributor to the Intercept, the news site edited by Glenn Greenwald, the reporter who first published information from Snowden’s purloined document bundle. His book “Torture Taxi” exposed the extraordinary rendition policies of the CIA, and his series “The Other Night Sky” photographed classified satellites as they float around the earth, accepting and emitting data.
After the car dropped me in Chelsea, I saw Paglen—big and jock-like, in jeans, with orange sunglasses hanging on a t-shirt collar—walking down 24th Street. We went into Metro Pictures, where the show had opened that morning, and a cluster of visitors already crowded the space, some of them using their tracking devices to snap pictures of the works.
“The origin of this show was, I was working on Citzenfour and trying to make images for that,” Paglen said, in a tone matter-of-factly considering the subject at hand. “How do you try to understand what these infrastructures are? How do you make images that somehow speak to that?”
He motioned toward a nautical map on the Bay Area, the tech world’s fertile crescent, with a series of curving lines all crashing into each other right off the coast. These are cables that bring information across the Pacific. At one specific place on the map, there was a convergence of lines in a single spot, and this is what’s called a choke point, a cluster of undersea cables so dense the NSA can tap a lot of Internet at one time.
“You have these metaphors, like, the ‘cloud,’ or ‘cyberspace,’ but the Internet is cables that are laid on the bottom of the ocean. That’s how it works—literally, it’s a fiber,” he said. “A choke point is a juicy target for the NSA, because they can get all this stuff coming from China and all that.”
Some beeping started happening from Paglen’s pocket, and he took out his tracking device—which was larger than normal and looked like a satellite phone or something—put it to his face, and walked off to the front of the gallery. It sounded like he was talking in another language. After a few minutes he came back.
“This is just some ephemera that I was collecting while making the movie,” he went on, speaking softly but within range of my tracking device, which was recording the conversation. He was pointing at some U.S. Navy patches and a toy submarine. “This is the USS Jimmy Carter, which is designed to land on cables on the ocean floor and put taps on them.”
Then he walked up to a photo of an undersea landscape, lit by greenlight.
“So, I was looking at these choke points, and I was thinking, what would happen if I went and scuba dived down to the ocean floor and found these things and photographed them?” he said. “So I learned how to scuba dive.”
Next to the undersea photo was a page from a government document with nearly every line blacked out.
“This is a ‘declassified’ document,” Paglen said, making the quotes in the air with his fingers.
There was a picture of the night sky with a twinkling something at the center, a photo with a kind of sublime beauty.
“This is a spy satellite that hovers over Europe and sucks up everyone’s information from their cell phone,” Paglen said, squashing my previous thought.
Elsewhere, there was a list of nonsensical phrases, running in white lights down an LED screen.
“This is the found poetry of thousands and thousands of code names that have been picked up from the Snowden cables,” Paglen said.
Then there was a glass cube, inside of which was an installation, some computer hardware laid bare and open, the motherboards connected via wires and covered in widgets and knobs. It was running a Tor network in the gallery.
“If you look on your phones and you go to your wifi, you’ll notice that there’s a network called Autonomy Cube,” he said as he looked at his phone and went on his wifi. He connected to the network called Autonomy Cube.
“Tor has a way of anonymizing content,” he said. “It was originally built so spies could read newspapers and not get the IP addresses traced back to, like, Langley or something. Now it’s used so, like, Iranian dissidents can communicate with the outside world and circumvent state censorship. Places like Turkey, China, Russia—actually, Putin has a bounty on Tor; he’s offered a million dollars to someone who can, like, kill it.”
He also acknowledged that Tor could enable the protection of terrorist actions, keeping them out of sight.
“There’s a lot of people in law enforcement who get angry about Tor, but Tor has saved thousands of lives,” he said. “If you’re in Uganda or Iran and you’re queer and you want to find out what that’s about and connect with the rest of the world, if you just use the standard Internet, very bad things can happen. You know, you could get tortured and killed, things like that.”
Paglen bent down to look at his work close up, to admire it.
“Obviously it’s a sculpture, but it’s also an intervention into the infrastructure of the institution that hosts it,” he said. “What would a more civic-minded version of the Internet look like? What could the Internet look like if the Internet hadn’t been turned into the greatest means of mass surveillance in the history of humanity?”
After we walked through the screening room where a video work was installed—landscapes that he made for Citizenfour that got cut, he said—I asked if there was an urgency to his work that sets it apart from other shows in Chelsea.
“I feel that urgency,” he said, again speaking right into my tracking device. “But art is a big bunch of things. Art is a big tent that can include all kinds of different practices and all kinds of different things.”
His next project will address an even more immediate incursion of surveillance into the art world: the unfortunate reality that the government also spies on us while we’re looking at art in museums and galleries, records the kinds of things we like, and turns our tastes into data.
“More and more museums are installing these biometric kinds of demographic surveillance systems—beacons and facial recognition stuff—and, like, trying to figure out what kind of artworks people are paying attention to,” he said. “Museums, we can imagine them being like libraries—the point is that you can take out any kind of book that you want, and the police can’t see what kind of books you check out.”
I asked if this was actually happening, and he said yes, dead serious. They’re watching us in museums.
“Maybe museums could be these little bubbles in this landscape that is more and more surveilled—like, these little oases from that,” he said. “It’s been installed in a few museums already, but we don’t have to go there. We’re all going in this direction of demographic surveillance without really thinking about it, but if we could imagine an alternative,” he trailed off. “That is a conversation you can have right now, and you can have it right now because it hasn’t quite happened yet.”