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Thursday, October 2, 2014

Trevor Paglen: Pioneering Ways to View the Invisible

Posted By on Thu, Oct 2, 2014 at 9:19 AM

click to enlarge Trevor Paglen photographed the NSA's headquarters from a helicopter in 2013. - TREVOR PAGLEN/THE INTERCEPT
  • Trevor Paglen/The Intercept
  • Trevor Paglen photographed the NSA's headquarters from a helicopter in 2013.

Every year, San Francisco's own Electronic Frontier Foundation toasts the brightest stars of the online world at its Pioneer Awards, which honor "leaders on the electronic frontier who are extending freedom and innovation in the realm of information technology." Award recipients are typically politicians, journalists, and technologists who have made significant contributions to civil liberties online – last year's honorees were Aaron Swartz, who helped develop RSS, the Creative Commons organization, and Reddit, and Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald, the journalists who broke the first of the revelatory stories about the National Security Agency spying based on documents released by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden. 

This year, however, the EFF is honoring someone a little bit different: Trevor Paglen, who the organization dubs a "groundbreaking investigative artist." It's an apt title for Paglen, a former Berkeley resident whose work could be most easily lumped into the genre of photography. A more nuanced parsing of his work reveals something that is part journalism, part research project, part endurance test, part installation art, and occasional sculpture.

Over the course of his career, Paglen has photographed classified military sites, secret prisons in Afghanistan, the NSA headquarters, and drones. He's the first artist to be honored by EFF since it introduced the Pioneer Awards in 1992, and for good reason – his work is as revealing and fascinating as any of the previous awardees. At the awards ceremony tonight, Paglen is honored alongside Frank LaRue, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection for the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, and Congressional Representative Zoe Lofgren, with a keynote speech from the Yes Men. He spoke recently with SF Weekly about his artwork and research. (This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Your work has focused on black ops, rendition flights, code names  things our government keeps hidden from us. What attracted you to these subjects?

I think that the short story is that, after 9/11 it became very, very clear that the United States was building a sector of the state that was working in secret and was involved in policies and actions that strained credulity. The United states was building a giant apparatus that was going to operate in secret and was going to have forms of power and coercion to it that would strongly shape the future. So, I wanted to look at that and I wanted to understand how the state was changing, how the nation was changing, and how the world would change because of that.

From an artistic perspective, we need to try to see the historical moment that we live in. That's where the artwork comes in – it's very simple; it's trying to see the world around us.

Given the secrecy around these subjects, how did you learn to research and reveal them?

I had three different backgrounds. I had a background as an artist: I'm interested in seeing things, in allegory and metaphors. At the same time, I was also working as a social scientist, on a Ph.D at UC Berkeley. I was comfortable doing research as part of my process.

I've also been very good friends with the journalist A.C. Thompson, who works for ProPublica now. He really taught me a ton about how to do investigative work from the journalistic side. I collaborated with him on some of that work. He was really influential on me in terms of thinking about how to conduct investigations.

Your work straddles the barrier between journalism and fine art. How do you balance between those worlds?

I've always worked with multiple outlets. An enormous amount of research does go into these projects and I do a tremendous amount of writing. I've done more traditional journalism, although its not my profession. I'm fundamentally interested in communicating with other people and understanding how the world around us works. I convey that research through writing, through images, through talks. The fine art thing, that's my background – where I'm coming from with all this work. I think there's something powerful about art; I think there's something powerful about images. Museums and galleries are some of the few places we go to contemplate images – we think about culture there in a little more rigorous way than in other places.

click to enlarge The National Reconnaissance Office in Chantilly, Virginia - TREVOR PAGLEN/THE INTERCEPT
  • Trevor Paglen/The Intercept
  • The National Reconnaissance Office in Chantilly, Virginia
You recently published a series of images of surveillance agencies on The Intercept, a new publication from Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald, and Jeremy Scahill that focuses on investigative reporting. What was that process like?

The background was that when the Snowden articles started being published, there was really not much to look at. These articles were having a pretty dramatic effect on how we understand the state and the vocabulary we have to understand it. But at the time, there were really only one or two images of the NSA that were in the public domain. I thought, The visual vocabulary that we have to understand the state apparatus is so poor that I want to expand it a bit. We rented helicopters and flew over these agencies. We put them out in the public domain.

I had been talking to The Intercept – I wanted the images to be released with somebody else. It seemed like a really natural fit with what I wanted to do with those images. What I wanted to do with the images was really similar with what The Intercept was doing with reporting.

You're receiving a Pioneer Award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation this year. The awards honor those who expand freedom and information in the digital world, and you're the first artist to ever receive one. What's that like?

It's amazing. When I got the email from those guys I was totally stunned; I couldn't believe it. I've known the EFF for a long time and have had a pretty long relationship with them. To receive that honor is just huge, because of who they are and the people who have been honored in the past. 

Do artists have a responsibility to stick up for civil liberties?

No, not at all. Art is a tricky thing because it's a field that's so varied and has so many different corners to it. I don't want to make any normative claims about what art should be because I think art is powerful precisely because it doesn't have to be anything.  in the ideal world, art is a sphere of culture where you can do anything without the constraints that you might have in other fields.

Some of your recent work, like The Last Pictures and Nonfunctional Satellites, focuses on outer space. What drew you to that subject matter? 

What initially got me thinking about space is that space is a canvas onto which we tend to project our fantasies. This has been true for most of human history. You go back to ancient Babylonians, who were trying to divine the future from the stars, to the present day where the Hubble Telescope is trying to look out into space to ask the big questions: Who are we? Where are we going? Space has been a vehicle throughout history for people to ask these kinds of questions. It was interesting from an artistic perspective to look at that.

In a lot of my work, you don't find optimism, you find dead space ships and surveillance satellites. I have a much more somber relationship to space than a lot of other people.

What's next for you?

A big project, coming back to the political stuff. I spent a lot of time this year working on Laura Poitras' documentary, CITIZENFOUR, about the Snowden revelations. I shot mostly landscapes for that; I was going around the world and filming different places where the NSA was tapping fiber optic cables and the Utah Data Center and such. Some of it is specific and some is more abstract. It comes out a week from Friday in New York.

EFF's Pioneer Awards are at 6:45 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 2 at The Lodge at the Regency Center, 1300 Van Ness Ave., S.F. Tickets are $65-$250; visit for more information and tickets. 

For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.

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About The Author

Kate Conger

Kate Conger has written for SF Weekly since 2011.


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