In 1867 Timothy O’Sullivan headed out West. The Irish-born photographer’s acclaimed Civil War photos had brought him to the attention of the US Federal Government; now, he was joining a major geological survey at the government’s invitation. His job was to supply visual geographic information that would help in establishing links between the railroads, tapping natural resources, and romanticizing the American West to attract potential settlers. The resultant landscape photos crystallized the magic of wide-open American spaces in albumen-silver and laid crucial groundwork for Ansel Adams.
A 21st-century artist, geographer, and explorer, Trevor Paglen makes heroic-looking photographs in the tradition of O’Sullivan. On view in Paglen’s current exhibition at Metro Pictures are four large-format deep-seascapes that the artist shot while scuba diving. They’re suffused with an inky blue-green beauty, yet something is amiss in Paglen’s sublime C-prints: thick cables emerge from the ocean bed like exposed veins, testifying to a strange and emphatically contemporary phenomenon. The photos are attuned not to O’Sullivan’s booming national networks of railroads but to the proliferating networks of transoceanic fiber-optic communications cables that are the backbone of the global internet; not to the governmental tapping of the earth for natural resources but to the governmental tapping of choke points along these cables for treasure troves of data.
With titles like “Bahamas Internet Cable System (BICS-1) NSA/GCHQ-Tapped Undersea Cable Atlantic Ocean” (2015), these photos aren’t celebrating the internet’s status as a new terrain that can empower or make things possible. Rather, they visualize Paglen’s ongoing investigation of covert military and intelligence operations in the wake of the 2013 Snowden revelations.
A central motif of the Metro Pictures show, which spans Paglen’s newest photographic, filmic, sculptural, and collaged work, is the relationship between transparency and opacity, visibility and invisibility. In the deep-sea photographs, the nebulous water partially obscures the cables that emerge — a fitting visual metaphor for pictures in which the real subject only comes to the fore when one knows the backstory.
A tranquil photograph of California’s foggy Morro Bay is similarly impenetrable until one turns to the topographic map at its side. Collaged with documentary snaps of ships, buildings, and warning signs as well as transparencies containing snippets of Snowden documents and open-source information about questionable government and corporate actions, the map reveals that Morro Bay is a fiber optic cable landing point that the National Security Agency (NSA) has elected to tap. In another photograph, a constellated night sky features a nearly imperceptible surveillance satellite, which at first glance looks like just another pretty dot of light hovering over Europe.
For the most part, Paglen successfully avoids the risk of heavy-handedness that accompanies a theme like the interplay between opacity and transparency. His images are visually compelling and draw the viewer into a specific story; their aesthetic and narrative content keep them from didacticism. Sometimes, however, Paglen does toe the line: an inked-out top-secret document, “TOP SECRET, COMINT STELLAR WIND, NO FORN” (2015), feels obvious.
Though it can appear cryptic at times, Paglen’s work fundamentally exposes and undercuts the NSA’s attempts at opacity and clandestineness; at times, it even seems to ridicule these attempts. Across three vertically oriented TV monitors scrolls an alphabetized list of more than 4,000 code names for NSA surveillance programs, picked up from the Snowden cables. The names are laugh-out-loud absurd, including such gems as “Taco Suave,” “Ferret Cannon,” and “Stodgy Loaf.” In such a decontextualized, endless stream, the code names form a found poetry of the fish-riding-a-bicycle genre and serve as a welcome bit of mockery in the midst of a serious analysis of the surveillance state.
One of the strongest works in an already strong exhibition is “Autonomy Cube” (2015), a sculptural collaboration between Trevor Paglen and hacktivist Jacob Appelbaum. The piece turns the gallery into a Tor relay point, creating a secure wifi hotspot that anonymizes web traffic to evade the government’s normal surveillance capacities. People from ordinary citizens to political activists, LGBT youths to whistleblowers, often use Tor to avoid surveillance, seek out access to censored information, or organize political activities. Here, in a swanky Chelsea gallery far away from seriously repressive regimes, it’s accessible to any visitor but addresses less urgent needs.
The motherboard that enables this is embedded in a clear cube and displayed as a sleek sculpture. The cube’s form references and subverts another art historical touchstone: the geometric Minimalist sculpture that was intended as a self-contained aesthetic space that would keep the real world at bay. It’s a stark contrast with the hardware inside and the flurry of zig-zagging data packets, unseen but almost palpable in their omnipresence, that “Autonomy Cube” directs in and out of wifi-enabled devices in the gallery.
A handful of talented artists — James Bridle, Simon Denny, and Evan Roth, to name a few — are trekking the same thematic landscape as Paglen, exploring the surveillance state, the physicality underlying the virtual, and the making visible of the invisible. But Paglen distinguishes himself by leveraging Minimalist sculpture, landscape photography, and Turner-esque Romanticism, simultaneously working in and subverting an art historical language to talk about the present. Paglen nudges the aesthetically inclined to take a deep dive into the structures of the surveillance state. In the gallery and museum circuit, this is a recipe for success as well as a stairway to hype (and Paglen is hyped), but the fact of the matter is that this unique approach allows the artist to do what no one else does quite as well: riddle the technological and aesthetic sublime with eye-opening holes.
Trevor Paglen continues at Metro Pictures (519 W 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 24.