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The Surveillance Artist Turning Landscape Photography Inside Out

Trevor Paglen's take on surveillance, privacy, and other big themes through the use of photography.

Government spying and bulk data collection are complicated and invisible topics that have been made physical by artist Trevor Paglen. Making his initial mark with landscape portraits of the US intelligence buildings and the various infrastructures that are used to conduct their mass surveillance programs, Paglen has been documenting the digital space for many years now, creating abstract photography and multimedia pieces surrounding themes of data freedom and the social issues arising from lives increasingly spent online. “One of the things that I’m continuously interested in is the material bases for culture,” Paglen tells The Creators Project. “The internet, for example, is a thing that we think about in a very mystifying way. It’s this thing that nobody can quite describe that seems like it’s nowhere but everywhere at the same time.”

In The Creators Project's documentary, Trevor Paglen's Deep Web Dive, released online earlier this week, we followed Paglen underwater of the coast of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida beaches, to examine the internet cables that channel an immeasurable flow of data and online traffic. Used by the National Security Agency to monitor and store digital information, they contain everything from posted selfies to Skype sessions.

Today, the digitization of imagery breaks into both the conceptual and impressionistic areas of fine art, where experimentation is even more pronounced, and nonconcrete subjects such as the "digital sphere" can be explored and visualized using the photographic medium. “Images are now quantified,” explains Paglen. “We usually think of images within the domain of culture where they’re open to interpretation and one image might be one thing to one person and different to somebody else. But now images are turned into data and producing data within the world.”

NSA-Tapped Undersea Cables, North Pacific Ocean, 2016. C-Print by Trevor Paglen. Image courtesy of Metro Pictures.

A digital photograph with a long list of metadata attached, for example, acts as a communication tool ready to be processed. Paglen believes this is an indication that contemporary images have taken on a larger role, becoming active participants in the world, rather than a mere representation of it. He gives the example of a CCTV camera taking a picture of a vehicle running through a red light.

Bahamas Internet Cable System (BICS-1), NSA/GCHQ-Tapped Undersea Cable, Atlantic Ocean 2015. C-Print by Trevor Paglen. Image courtesy of Metro Pictures.

“That image will issue a ticket to the driver automatically,” he says. “That’s the kind of thing that I mean. The image is actually doing something between you and the traffic ticket.”

This sort of digital processing, indicative of mass surveillance and tracking techniques, is where visualization and Paglen’s style of photographic documentation becomes important: using art to educate, advocate and explain the almost philosophical concepts of the online space.

Documenting unmarked satellites and drones in the sky in Untitled (Reaper Drone) 2015. Pigment Print by Trevor Paglen. Image courtesy of Metro Pictures.

Much like the physicality exhibited with the underwater internet cables, Paglen’s Autonomy Cube (2014), in which he worked with hacker and internet privacy activist Jacob Appelbaum, created a usable sculpture housing an internet network users can surf autonomously. His current project, How to See Like a Machine, looks at imagery’s use in both data processing and artificial intelligence.

Matterhorn (How to See Like a Machine) Brute-Force Descriptor Matcher; Scale Invariant Feature Transform, 2016. Triptych. Pigment prints mounted on aluminum. By Trevor Paglen. Image courtesy of Metro Pictures.

“We’re increasingly living in a world where most images are made by a machine for a machine and are not even seen by humans,” says Paglen. “What is the kind of dark matter of that visual landscape that is occurring? The project looks at all those ways that machines see images and what kind of information they extract from them and how that’s different from the ways those images are typically used. It strongly affects the way the world works.”

While images can be viewed as computed objects ready to be evaluated, the questions that Paglen poses makes them culturally significant in the new digital domain. His continued efforts to document this new dynamic garnered him this year’s Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize.

“The artwork in what I try to do is very simple,” he says. “I try to learn how to read the historic moments that we live in and document this kind of changing ecosystem.”

NSA Surveillance Base, Egelsbach, Germany 2015. C-print by Trevor Paglen. Image courtesy of Metro Pictures.

Paglen’s How to See Like a Machine opens at the Gwangju Biennial in South Korea on September 2, 2016. A solo show at NYC’s Metro Pictures is expected in 2017. See more of Paglen's work on his website

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