Bahamas Internet Cable System (BICS-1) NSA/GCHQ-Tapped Undersea Cable Atlantic Ocean, 2015 (Image: Trevor Paglen/Metro Pictures)
Huge photographs of undersea telecommunications cables don’t seem the most obvious choice for an exclusive gallery located in the Chelsea area of New York City. But as the light shifts in the stark white gallery space, these pieces prove murkily gorgeous, the cables melting into their green and black background.
Columbus III NSA/GCHQ-Tapped Undersea Cable Atlantic Ocean, 2015 (Image: Trevor Paglen/Metro Pictures)
They are part ofsolo show at Metro Pictures. A geographer turned artist and campaigner, Paglen has a noble purpose, focusing on the technology and infrastructure of national security. His equally striking pictures of the coastlines of major cities, photographed in obscure hazes of white and blue, and juxtaposed with highly technical maps, carry a clearer didactic meaning.
NSA-Tapped Fiber Optic Cable Landing Site, New York City, New York, United States, 2015 (Image: Trevor Paglen/Metro Pictures)
The San Diego-San Francisco map has its part of the Southern Cross Cable – a trans-Pacific telecommunications network – stitched into its centre with purple tape. Coloured pins mark the locations of radar sites. In a small box above, “Seven International Choke Points” are represented on a miniature world map. There’s a distinctly home-made feel here, offsetting the highly professional photography. Add some redacted documents andfrom units such as (motto: “Resistance is Futile”), and that home comes across as belonging to a very tense paranoiac.
There’s more to this show than doom and gloom about the state; Paglen can be puckish as well, with a looping list of alphabetised Code Names of the Surveillance State culled fromand projects. Among the more than 4000 entries are “Bleak Inquiry”, “Bleeding Bunny”, “Gray Wacker”, “Gordian Knot” and “Heckled Pen”. These code names are presented without context, as if to crush the viewer with the blunt force of their absurdity. A gesture to that supposedly futile resistance is Autonomy Cube, a motherboard displayed under transparent glass that operates as a Wi-Fi hotspot, protected from government surveillance with anonymisation software (see below).
Autonomy Cube, 2015 (Image: Trevor Paglen/Metro Pictures)
The most forceful piece on display – and the largest – is Eighty Nine Landscapes, comprised of footage that Paglen shot but did not use for Citizenfour,recent, Oscar-winning documentary on Edward Snowden. Two giant screens show complementary static shots of unnamed federal complexes, industrial parks and lonely outposts. The settings are invariably bleak: ominous blue-grey clouds impend over vacant horizons. With minimal background noise and a thrumming ambient soundtrack by Frank Kruse, Eighty Nine Landscapes is the security state as horror movie, in which all the violence takes place off-screen.
At the approaching footsteps of a security guard, patrolling yet another undisclosed location, you realise that for some, Paglen’s own filming could be construed as an act of aggression – although. Eighty Nine Landscapes sums up Paglen’s message: “they” might be watching, but we can always stare back.
Trevor Paglen’s exhibition is at Metro Pictures gallery in New York from 10 September until 24 October 2015.
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