Trevor Paglen @Metro Pictures

JTF (just the facts): A total of 14 pieces, variously framed/displayed, and hung against white walls in the three rooms of the lower gallery. The works on view include:

  • 5 c prints
  • 1 two-channel video installation projected on two screens, with 5-channel sound
  • 1 four-channel video installation on TV monitors, without sound
  • 1 ink drawing on paper behind Plexiglas
  • 3 mixed media pieces (2 c-prints with navigational charts; 1 submarine model with embroidered badge and reproduction of magazine page)
  • 1 Plexiglas box holding computer circuit boards
  • 2 embroidered badges

All of the works date from 2015. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Trevor Paglen shares more than the same initials with Thomas Pynchon. The photographer and novelist have immersed themselves in decades of occult military history, uncovering truths about American and European power, during and after World War II and the Cold War, that our college textbooks or government leaders somehow failed to mention or deliberately kept hidden.

The fictional plots of V, Crying of Lot 49, and Gravity’s Rainbow revolve around secret government or corporate entities that often have a basis in historical fact; Paglen’s photographs and mixed-media installations invert the formula. He exploits documented evidence of secret programs by actual intelligence agencies to drill into the fearful corners of our psyches. The sneaky power of his photographs is reliant on the shrouded atmosphere of the paranoid movie thriller. The same premise that drives the plots of The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, Enemy of the State, Minority Report, and of the Bourne franchise—that our government is constantly watching us and up to no good—stands behind Paglen’s distant views of classified surveillance sites in the desert.

For his second show at Metro Pictures, Paglen has moved from the aerial perspective of drones to the murkier depths of the sea. As before, though, Paglen seeks to expose the purposefully obscured devices and networks by which various U.S. security agencies monitor electronic signal traffic coming into and going out of the country.

A work in the first room, NSA-Tapped Fiber Optic Cable Landing Site, New York City, New York, is one of a two diptychs based on the Edward Snowden revelations. The left half, in this example, features a long distance Google image of people enjoying themselves during the summer at Mastic Beach; the right half is a navigational chart of the shore-line, annotated by Paglen with information about where and how the NSA illegally tapped into the fiber optic cables of one of the phone companies. The seemingly benign image shows the place where the buried cable comes ashore; the illustration spells out what has been going on beneath the surface.

Five murky color photographs purport to depict undersea cables (in various Atlantic Ocean depths and locations.) How they were shot is not disclosed and they are far inferior to what the intelligence services can provide their masters. That’s as it should be. Paglen’s low-tech approach reinforces his status as amateur sleuth and armchair warrior.

A looped soundless video, “Code Names of the Surveillance State,” is like a Jenny Holzer piece commissioned for an CIA strip club. Scrolling down the wall are names such as “Fox Acid,” “Bacon Ridge” and “Mystic,” disingenuous words that hide the intention of these programs to inject malware or vacuum data from the unsuspecting. A sculpture of computer parts in Plexi, titled Autonomy Cube–a collaboration with digital civil rights activist Jacob Appelbaum–is a secure Wi-Fi hotspot that routs visitors through the TOR network, the browser for the so-called dark Internet, less vulnerable to NSA snooping.

There are two more examples of the embroidered patches/ badges from black ops units that Paglen collected in his 2007 book, I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to be Destroyed by Me: Emblems from the Pentagon’s Black World. One is of an octopus encircling the globe against a starry sky. It carries the words NROL-39, which stands for “Nothing is Beyond Our Reach.” Another, for AFCYBER, reads “Resistance is Futile.”

As William Broad wrote in his New York Times review of the book, it “offers not only clues into the nature of the secret programs, but also a glimpse of zealous male bonding among the presumed elite of the military-industrial complex. The patches often feel like fraternity pranks gone ballistic.”

The grim laughter surrounding Paglen’s work is never purely cynical. His strenuous efforts to glean classified data from stone-walling agencies through FOI requests are not unlike Christo’s and Jean-Claude’s patient meetings with officials in Marin, Sonoma, and Dade Counties, tedious but necessary to the successful making of “Running Fence” and “Surrounded Islands” during the 1970s and ’80s. In both cases, the government was turned into an unwitting partner for something akin to a performance of artists going through proper channels and exercising their legal rights as citizens.

Playing in the last room of the gallery is a 24 minute two-screen video of footage that Paglen shot for director Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour, her documentary on Snowden. Photographed with a long lens, no doubt to avoid detection, the images and sounds have the drowsy spookiness of a CSPAN program gone rogue. We observe the comings and goings of anonymous workers in parking lots, the flights of birds against the backdrop of windowless bunker-like complexes, the barking of dogs. Nothing happens, and yet we know that business we aren’t supposed to know about is going on under our noses.

Paranoia can be soothing for an audience and is integral to the American entertainment diet. Film noir and alien monster flicks emerged after World War II, products of the well-founded anxities fostered by the nuclear age. A certain skepticism about the “Resistance is Futile” efficiency of the various intelligence agencies is also in order. Before accepting that the NSA and CIA know everything about us, we should remember that it took more than a decade to catch Osama Bin Laden, even after he became the most famous face in the world, and that El Chapo is still at large.

Paglen at the moment has balanced his roles as an artist and an activist without resorting to agit-prop or preachiness. Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders have been the only presidential candidates to make the NSA intrusions into a campaign issue. If the American public remains indifferent to the Wiki-leaks data or turns against Snowden, Assange, Poitras, and Greenwald, Paglen’s frustration and anger level may rise. He may then find it harder to maintain the just equilibrium that at the moment makes his probing of our state secrets and our secret state so valuable and challenging.

Collector’s POV: The works on view range in price from $20000 to $60000 for the video installation. Even with Paglen’s growing reputation, his work has not yet reached the secondary markets with any regularity, so gallery retail is likely the best/only option for those collectors interested in following up.

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One comment

  1. Ross /

    What a great write up. Thank you.

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