2015-12-07

#rpTEN-Speaker: Trevor Paglen

As most locals know, before you can enjoy the sunny skies of May, you have to put up with the dire Berlin winter. You can hardly blame someone for wanting to escape. Enter #rpTEN speaker Trevor Paglen, donning diving gear off the coast of Florida. Nice - but it's not like he's on holiday. Paglen is leading a group expedition to the submarine cables, which transport “the Internet” to other continents. He'll be joined not only by nature enthusiasts, but also by many individuals from the art world. The diving expedition is taking place as part of Art Basel Miami Beach. Trevor Paglen is an artist, who held his first major exhibition in Germany last year. He focuses on portraying the shadowy realms of military and intelligence services. Looking for clues about the things that take place behind closed doors, he documents airports, door signs, fibre optic cables and more. Those cables at the bottom of the sea? He's not the first to have an interest in them: the NSA regularly taps into them to intercept mass communications.

Paglen is constantly on the look-out for such nodes of the “black world”, the term used to refer to the giant, yet mostly invisible, part of the US military and intelligence services, consisting of secret code names, secret locations and 52 billion secret dollars.

Armed with his camera, he travels to spots intended to be overlooked and uses his lens to magnify them beyond recognition. His images of concealed airbases resemble schematics, his aesthetics hint of paint mists à la William Turner, injected with a critique of power politics. Paglen looks at the interplay of geography, visibility and politics.

As a photographer and geographer, he is keen to promote a new form of seeing, orientated along the principles of epistemology. Believing that society in general asks too few questions, he responds: “How do we know what we ought to know? What is proof? My photography makes assertions, while at the same time questioning whether it's possible to ever fundamentally assert anything”

The concept of “Art as Evidence” motivates Paglen in his work (cf. a discussion with him at the Frankfurt Art Association) and is similar to Laura Poitras' approach in the documentary “Citizenfour”, for which he worked as a camera man. Joined by scientists and other artists, he meticulously researches his material. The interconnection of documents, maps and photography can transport stories.

Over the past few years, journalists and researchers have been working hard in and outside Germany to uncover and identify the ever-present world of surveillance. In response, Paglen organised the “Eagle Eye Photo Contest” last year to capture these locations.

The scope of Paglen's photography can be seen in his “The Last Pictures” project: Similarly to the Voyager Golden Records, his space voyage art project consists of 100 images from human history, micro-etched onto MIT-developed discs, encased in gold. These discs now reside in space as a testament to future generations – and perhaps even aliens – about human civilisation's achievements and wrongdoings. The selection of images lead to a very interesting dispute between Paglen and Werner Herzog, which can be read up on here.

Along with the definite and documented, Palgen is also fascinated with symbolism. For his series “Symbology”, he has spent the last years collecting and deciphering badges and insignias belonging to military and intelligence services special units. The symbols and emblems offer an insight into contemporary military culture and answer questions formerly reserved for mystery cults, secret societies, religions and mystics: how does one present something, which, by definition, shouldn't exist?

Currently, Trevor Paglen is working on project “Surveillance in Museums”. More and more cultural sites are installing biometric or demographic monitoring systems in the name of “Audience Development”. The technology allows one to monitor which works of art gain the most attention. In contrast, we at re:publica 2016 look forward to all of Paglen's exciting works, produced since the 1990s. In the meantime, a visual preview can be found here.

Photo credit: Trevor Paglen