In books like Blank Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon's Secret World, and Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA's Rendition Flights, Trevor Paglen visits closed-off prisons and aviation hubs that few people will ever see firsthand. Through Paglen's in-depth writing and research, these geographically remote facilities — whether it's Afghanistan's Salt Pit, where suspected terrorists were tortured with regularity, or Area 51 in the Nevada desert, where Air Force planes take off to unknown destinations — become linked to a bigger network of U.S. government secrecy. With a Ph.D. in geography from UC Berkeley and a penchant for traveling and asking nosy questions, Paglen is well-suited for expository looks at Washington's global undertakings.
Paglen is also an acclaimed visual artist, with a Master of Fine Arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and his photographs of the U.S. government's secrecy network are also illuminating — and disturbing — because they spotlight a parallel fact: Washington's surveillance apparatus is hiding in plain sight, not just at distant locations that are "out of sight and out of mind."
In the quaint Mendocino town of Point Arena — just 100 miles from San Francisco — the National Security Agency employs a fiber optic cable that runs under the Pacific Ocean from Japan, according to formerly secret documents that Paglen uses in his new exhibit at Altman Siegel gallery in downtown San Francisco. On the right side of Paglen's diptych called NSA-Tapped Fiber Optic Cable Landing Site, Point Arena, California, United States, he gives artgoers a detailed map of the coastal waters that traverse Point Arena and go west to Japan and southward to San Francisco, a detailed map of NSA sites around the United States, and other oceanic and topographical calculuses that plot the interconnectedness among NSA operations and life in Northern California. The diptych's left side features a Paglen photo of the beautiful foggy waters off Point Arena. Waves roll over an ocean of blue that — if you didn't know about the NSA cable underwater — would be a romantic seascape of everything that makes California a state of envy. A second Paglen diptych, NSA-Tapped Fiber Optic Cable Landing Site, Mastic Beach, New York, United States, has the same effect — a map with one-time secretive details, twinned with a photo of America at its idyllic best, in this case a scene of sunbathers and beach frolickers in the Long Island enclave that's just 70 miles from New York City.
Danger is lurking nearby, Paglen implies. Like the ordinary beach scenes in the landmark 1975 movie Jaws, which belied the film's terror to come, Paglen's images play with people's expectations. (At Altman Siegel, the photos of Point Arena and Mastic Beach are also featured as stand-alone images, without the accompanying maps.) Through his art, Paglen connects the dots — and documents — that Edward Snowden begat in 2013 with his leak of NSA material, though Paglen began working on issues of classified secrets long before Snowden emerged as a pivotal figure, and Paglen has long exhibited his photos at such venues as SFMOMA, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, and London's Tate Modern. The audiences that flock to Paglen's art exhibits may not be the same audiences that read his books, though there is overlap. Paglen's art makes the abstract less abstract, the invisible more visible, the global more local, but it doesn't provide easy answers. It's art that intimates and invites conversations.
"I'm an artist — I'm not a photo-journalist — so I don't feel like it's incumbent upon me to make images that explain themselves, or to make images that are clear, both both literally and metaphorically," Paglen says. "I tend to be much more interested in images that ask questions, that are indistinct, and that if you want some kind of 'resolution,' that resolution has to come from yourself rather than the image. I want to put you, the viewer, into a position that asks you to think about whatever is it we're looking at."
"All the artwork that I do," Paglen adds, "is ultimately very impressionistic and ultimately abstract. I think there's a space for that in the world of art for what I hope can be productive questioning. Art can be a place where you can make visual things that are unclear. And that's great."
Paglen is no one-man operation. He wrote Torture Taxi with investigative reporter A.C. Thompson, formerly of SF Weekly. Some of Paglen's most arresting previous photos are of nighttime skylines streaked by government satellites, and Paglen worked with technology experts to develop the software that tracks those spacecraft. For Citizenfour, the Snowden documentary that won a 2015 Academy Award, Paglen shot footage of surveillance sites. At Altman Siegel, Paglen's photographs of those sites, including the NSA's Dagger Complex in Germany, are eerie nighttime visions of barbed wire, satellite dishes, and people-less vistas.
Paglen, a former Berkeley resident who now divides his time between New York and Berlin, is good friends with Laura Poitras, Citizenfour's director. In a tuxedo, he attended the Feb. 22 Oscars in Los Angeles, and as the category for "Best Documentary Feature" got closer during the ceremony, Paglen tweeted his anxiety ("so nervous"), and then his reaction when the film won: "Omg." The award, Paglen says, "is a huge vindication of Snowden's actions as a whistleblower and an acknowledgement of the enormous threat to democracy posed by secret mass-surveillance."
That threat is viewable at Altman Siegel, in photos, maps, videos, and other documentation that illuminates a secretive world that the U.S. government would rather suppress. We don't see the actual underwater fiber-optic cables that the NSA uses to gather data on Americans' phone calls, but they're there. With Paglen's art, the cables are easier to imagine. With Paglen's art, government surveillance is easier to picture and quantify. Like Paglen himself, artgoers who see his work are often left with a one-word reaction: OMG.