American artist and geographer Trevor Paglen is widely known for his photographs, videos, and other projects that seek to make visible the covert operations of the military and the extensive apparatus of the state. His work sheds light on the complex, widespread, and increasingly ubiquitous phenomenon of surveillance designed to monitor communications in the putative interest of global security.
Surveillance States features new and recent works by Paglen that engage with and respond to the role of surveillance in our everyday lives. The title refers not only to those governments that are engaged in surveillance of their own or other nations, but to the state of mind and state of being that arises in a world under close observation.
The exhibition consists of two video installations, along with an array of photographs drawn from several of the artist’s most iconic series. Circles (2015) is a single-channel video installation supported by Abandon New Devices and Britdoc and originally screened in the United Kingdom as an introduction to the theatrical release of Citizenfour (2014), a documentary film about whistle-blower Edward Snowden, directed by Laura Poitras and for which Paglen served as a cinematographer. Circles depicts the Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ), a cryptography and intelligence agency located in southwest England, the largest facility of its kind outside of the United States. 89 Landscapes (2015) is an immersive, two-channel video installation that presents a sequence of images of unofficial government surveillance facilities. The photographs in the exhibition include selections from his series documenting reaper drones—the drones appearing as mere specks in expansive and colourful skies—and his series based on undersea cables that had been tapped by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA).
Most recently, Paglen has turned his attention to what he refers to as “invisible images”—images made by machines for other machines, without human vision or other intervention. Examples of systems that utilize such images include face-recognition technology, self-driving automobiles, robotic factories, and artificial-intelligence algorithms that scour images on the internet. With the assistance of custom-built software, Paglen has created photographs that represent what the machine “sees.” Near Nogales (2017) depicts the border between Mexico and the United States as seen through the computer-vision algorithms that continually monitor the border, while Four Clouds (2017) depicts the sky as seen by four different algorithms used for object recognition, guided missiles, autonomous surveillance systems, and three-dimensional modelling.
Combining exhaustive research into military and intelligence operations with aesthetic explorations of form and colour, Paglen’s work reflects his extensive efforts to uncover physical markers of otherwise invisible activities. As such, his work is not declarative or explanatory; rather, it is revelatory.
Co-presented with Prefix Institute of Contemporary Art