SAN FRANCISCO — It’s been two centuries since Jeremy Bentham introduced the panopticon into structures of confinement and surveillance, including penitentiaries and mental institutions. Though technology and its effects on the social consciousness have come a long way since then, humans have in many ways become more imbricated in labyrinthine systems of thought and control.
Trevor Paglen’s current exhibition at Altman Siegel gallery tries to turn the tables on such systems by making visible the invisible: physical sites and apparatuses for data gathering in 21st century United States and the global extension of its gaze.
Paglen has primarily worked to date with photo-based work, tracking our increasingly surveillance-based society. His work has monitored through telephoto lenses, for instance, military bases in isolated locations, and also captured the distant operations of torture sites and “rendition” transport companies (i.e. governmental agency kidnapping). He has brought into gallery spaces the often gorgeous images of terrestrial skies spotted with predator drones, or more cosmically, the functional and non-functional debris of orbital satellite spacecraft.
In Paglen’s current show, two large-scale C-prints of California and New York coastlines distill the artist’s work. The prints are set in a diptych, next to maritime maps from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Amidst the various natural topographies of the Long Island shore, the maps depict the “landing” points of fiber-optic cables running along the seafloor — a key physical access point for data-gathering and surveillance by the U. S. government’s National Security Agency (NSA). On top of the maps, Paglen has layered NSA documents from the Snowden archive, related corporate documents, and additional images of the site. There is something schematic about these data-laden maps and more than a whiff of investigative journalism. Investigation and documentation are in keeping with Paglen’s larger, ongoing project of mapping institutional power, but in this instance, there is a bluntness that undermines the somewhat ominous nature of the maps’ companion images.
Across the gallery, in a single, smaller image, we see the point where those same New York cables reach the shores on the other side of the ocean. “NSA/GCHQ Surveillance Base, Bade, Cornwall, UK” (2014) — “GCHQ” is the acronym for the Government Communication Headquarters (the British national equivalent of the NSA) — shows a satellite-receiving installation in a nighttime landscape. The large, circular dishes, shaped like distorted Ferris wheels in a carnival setting, are at once beckoning and threatening with their semi-apocalyptic orange-red color. The seductive flares in the darkly sinister background produce the dual senses of allure and imminent threat more effectively than the data-laden maps are able.
This trajectory toward England continues with “Circles” (2015), a video projected behind black-out curtains in a darkened adjoining room of the gallery. The three-minute piece shares footage from an aerial view circling the GCHQ building complex — the headquarters gave Paglen permission to do a drone surveillance of the area — with occasional zooms that further reveal details of the exterior, including parking lots, delivery entrances, and utility fixtures, along with a small fraction of what is clearly a multitude of workers who populate the facility on an average day, given the scale of the site and its surroundings.
Scale is part of the point of Paglen’s project here — to reveal some of the massive infrastructure that services contemporary surveillance culture, which, he contends, is masked by abstract terms such as “cloud” and “information superhighway.” There is a gawking, vertiginous, immersive sensation that viewers can enjoy of actually hovering in the rarefied atmosphere of the (officially-sanctioned) drone’s-eye view of Paglen’s video. Of course, this contemporary sense of the sublime is commonplace in an era where GoPro has its own channels of mass distribution, and drones are commercially available for a relatively modest amount to everyday consumers — even if few can manage the unusual degree of access the GCHQ allowed Paglen.
Slavoj Zizek’s deflating notions about Wikileaks surge up when contemplating Paglen’s revealing vistas: “Didn’t we learn exactly what we expected to learn? The real disturbance was at the level of appearances: we can no longer pretend we don’t know what everyone knows we know.”
Not surprisingly, it is the signs of daily life in Paglen’s works that point to our implicated behavior in such systems: human figures look exposed and vulnerable as they seek leisure in the expansive shoreline of the Long Island shot; or continue their tasks as tiny workers, dwarfed at the periphery of the GCHQ building, as they enter or leave or service it. The sight of these impotent figures — even while set within Paglen’s ostensible critique, — suggest the limits of that critique, evoking yet another thought of Zizek’s: “The ultimate show of power on the part of the ruling ideology is to allow what appears to be powerful criticism.”
“Autonomy Cube,” (2015), Paglen’s sculpture produced in collaboration with Jacob Applebaum, seems to offer the most pro-active gesture toward eliding surveillance without necessarily confronting it. Behind two layers of transparent plexi-glass cubes is an elegant set of circuit boards, silicon chips, and cables. “Autonomy Cube” offers a portal to the previously, purportedly unmapped “darknet,” allowing gallery visitors to jack into this off-the-grid system, anonymously and unsurveilled — at least for now, we think.
Trevor Paglen continues at Altman Siegel (49 Geary Street, 4th floor, San Francisco, California) through May 2.