© Trevor Paglen Studio

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The chances are that after coming into contact with Trevor Paglen’s work, the world — or at least the sky and the sea — will never look quite the same again. Artists and scientists from Ptolemy and Aristotle to Leonardo, Copernicus and Galileo, to the researchers at Nasa and Cern, have been observing the heavens and the tides through the centuries and their findings have progressively changed our understanding of the world. But rather than distant planets or the surface of the moon, Paglen’s field of interest lies closer to home. He is gathering material evidence of the systems of advanced technology that we all use every day but that — obscured by euphemisms such as “internet” and “cyberspace”, or deliberately coded and concealed by the intelligence services — we rarely see or understand. He wants to make visible the workings of the modern-day surveillance system by putting the evidence under the microscope — in this case, the powerful telescopic lens of his camera.

Since 9/11, what is commonly referred to as the war on terror has given governments a licence to invest in covert operations at home and abroad. Paglen has photographed black sites in Afghanistan and listening stations within the 13,000 square miles of America’s National Radio Quiet Zone, central to the National Security Agency’s Echelon intelligence interception system, where radio waves are tightly restricted. He has tracked and photographed US reconnaissance satellites and drones — particularly reaper drones that can carry “Hellfire” missiles, used in Iraq and against Isis. In 2012 he sent a disc etched with 100 photographs — a time capsule of this point in human history — by satellite into geostationary orbit, where it could remain for billions of years. Most recently he has been photographing locations off the coasts of Europe and the US where international underwater fibre-optic cables come together before reaching land.

Referred to as “choke points”, these are places that the NSA taps for access to international communications data. As Paglen explains, speaking on Skype from New York: “Choke points are places where clusters of fibre-optic cables connect the continents to each other. So the United States is connected to Europe through a series of cables on the bottom of the ocean. And those cables . . . all land at very specific places. There are about four on the east coast of the United States; a couple of places in Europe. The places where they come on shore are quite literally a ‘choke point’ in the internet. And the NSA is interested in these because if you can tap those places, you are able to get a lot of bang for your buck. In other words, you are able to surveil a tremendous amount of the internet because you put a tap on the bottlenecks and everything’s got to go through [it].”

In the UK, the choke point is off the coast at Bude in Cornwall. “That coastline,” says Paglen, “is where the fibre-optic cables go under the beach and into the plant. Sitting on the top of the cliffs is an NSA base.” This is GCHQ Bude, jointly operated with the NSA, which also gathers information for the Echelon network. Paglen says: “That’s the kind of thing that once you put your goggles on, you see exactly what’s going on, but without those NSA goggles it doesn’t really make a lot of sense.”

“Mid-Atlantic Crossing (MAC) NSA/GCHQ Tapped Undersea Cable Atlantic Ocean”, 2015 © Courtesy the artist

The “goggles” analogy is a favourite image that Paglen uses to explain the importance of learning to “see” in the same way the NSA does. In 2001, he started a work, “Code Names of the Surveillance State”, which is an ever-growing list of the names that the NSA and GCHQ use to disguise their various covert military and intelligence systems and operations. He exhibits the list on gallery walls or projects it on to the façades of buildings, as he did on the Houses of Parliament in London last year.

Teaching people how to see the society they inhabit is one of Paglen’s basic aims. “I always start with the assumption that everything that happens in the world is actually in the world,” he says. “It sounds like an obvious thing to say but it’s a very powerful methodological premise. Infrastructures of power always inhabit the surface of the earth somehow, or the skies above the earth. They’re material things, always, and even though the metaphors we use to describe them are often immaterial — for example we might describe the internet as the Cloud or cyberspace — those metaphors are wildly misleading. The Cloud is buildings with servers in them.”

Though he was speaking with the Skype video switched off, Paglen is a shaven-headed, neatly bearded 41-year-old with beady blue eyes. He was born on Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, where his father was an air force ophthalmologist. (He has said before that he doesn’t want people to read his childhood into his art.) He spent most of his teenage years in Germany and returned to the US in the early 1990s to study comparative religion and philosophy at Berkeley in California. From there he went on to an MFA at the Art Institute of Chicago, then back to Berkeley for a PhD in geography.

“Columbus III, NSA/GCHQ-Tapped Undersea Cable Atlantic Ocean”, 2015 © Courtesy the artist

He explains that trajectory like this: “I am not a religious person at all. What I thought was fascinating about comparative religion was that these were the stories that humans have told themselves about where they come from, who they are and where they’re going, and what it means to be alive on the planet. And a big part of these stories is the encounter of the unknowable, the limits of human perception; that’s always bound up with theological questions.”

This took him to art, and in turn to geography. He chose geography, he says, because he found the language of art criticism too limited. “Art criticism is in many ways analogous to literary criticism, in the sense that we think about signs and meanings and all that stuff. And that never worked for me. I thought, ‘Art isn’t just these disembodied images that live in some extra-dimensional space, it’s always things in places. It’s always in buildings that have architectures and entrance fees and trustees and they’re part of a political and economic culture, part of a sociological climate, and traditional art theory can’t really account for that very well.’ So I was interested in how does art live within a broader society, and geography gives you a theoretical language with which to talk about that.

“I would say that the fundamental question of geography is about how humans shaped the Earth’s surface and how we, in turn, are shaped by the ways in which we have shaped the Earth’s surface. So for me geography was just a set of tools that allowed me to ask these kinds of questions and to try to think through them.”

“NSA/GCHQ Surveillance Base, Bude, Cornwall, UK”, 2015 © Courtesy the artist

In 2013, Paglen was asked by a friend, documentary film-maker Laura Poitras, to work on Citizenfour, the film she was making about Edward Snowden, the computer analyst who leaked information about the US surveillance of phone and internet communications. Paglen was a cameraman on the film but he was also given access to the Snowden archive to try to work out how to give the material Snowden was disclosing a visible form.

“I was brought on to think how you make images that help us develop a visual vocabulary with which to see these structures. Because we really don’t. Very few people have any idea what the internet looks like, let alone what mass surveillance really looks like. But in many ways it doesn’t look like anything, which is oftentimes part of the aesthetic strategy that is used.

“I had to learn about a lot of infrastructure that was deeply unfamiliar to me, obviously. The first thing I did was to go to academics and people in the communications industry and to say, ‘What is this? I really don’t understand what the internet is.’ So you start learning about data centres and switches and rubbers and cables and landing sites and the materiality of it.” And this is what led him to the surveillance of undersea cables.

“They Watch the Moon”, 2010, a classified listening station in the forests of West Virginia, within the National Radio Quiet Zone © Courtesy the artist

At first, he photographed stretches of sea and coastline where he believed the choke points to be. “I was making these images that are essentially just like a seascape, and inside the frame of the seascape are these cables and choke points but they’re obviously not visible because they’re under water and under beaches. So I started to think what would happen if you learnt how to scuba dive.” And that is what he did. He also began to correlate all the data he could find to identify the location of the choke points under the sea. He consulted maritime navigational charts — “you need to look at those because although cables are considered critical infrastructure in most places, they don’t want ships dropping anchors there. So to prevent people from pulling them up with anchors or fishing trawlers, they’ll mark them — they don’t say what they are, they’re just little squiggly lines that say, ‘Don’t drop an anchor here.’ So that’s one clue that you have. Then there’s a company called TeleGeography that works for the underwater cable industry mostly and they create maps of where cables are, who owns them and what they do. Then, you have to think about where the cable would have to come out from under the ground — for example, if there was a reef, it would have to come out to go over.

“In some cases you’re also looking at FCC licences [the Federal Communications Commission regulates radio, television, wire, satellite and cable communications]. You’re looking at environmental impact reports. And you put all this stuff together and come up with what I would think of as ‘candidate sites’. I was trying to design dives where you would swim from one GPS co-ordinate to another and you would potentially encounter these cables or where you should be able to see them. And that’s really how it works.” Again, he says, you have to know where and how to look. “You have to do a lot of work to put yourself in the position to be able to see one of these things in the first place. You don’t know whether you’re going to see it or not but you have to put yourself where you could see it if it were going to be visible to you.”

If it sounds like there is a needle-in-a-haystack quality to all this, there is. Paglen remembers: “I think on the first dive trip, the ship’s captain was, like, ‘OK, you have, like, a five square mile search pattern and you’re looking for something on the bottom of the ocean that’s about four inches in diameter and may or may not be there.’ He was, like, ‘Good luck with that.’”

“Untitled (Reaper Drone)”, 2013. The drone is just visible in the lower left-hand section of the image © Courtesy the artist

But they found them. At an exhibition in New York last autumn, Paglen showed a series of deep blue-green images from the depths of the ocean, in which the lines of cable were just visible in the murk. Even so, once he had found the choke points, how was he so sure that they were the places where the NSA had a tap? “’Cause you get it from the horse’s mouth,” he says. “In the Snowden archive, there is a document called the Cable Master List, which is a list of all the underwater cables that have taps on, so that’s really important, because that grounds it.

“It’s a funny document,” he adds, “because you always think [Groucho Marx-type voice]: ‘Isn’t the one thing that you don’t do when you’re a spy, is put all the secrets in one document?’”

Much of the impact of Paglen’s work comes from the tension between the familiar, sometimes banal images — seas, skies, deserts — and the sinister implications of what they contain. I wondered how important it was for him, as an artist, to know that his photographs are based on empirical evidence? Given that we all live within a context of covert surveillance, he could, after all, make pictures that just suggest the presence of a satellite or a drone or a cable.

“Autonomy Cube”, 2015, in collaboration with Jacob Appelbaum. When installed in a gallery, the cube creates an open WiFi hotspot that uses the alternative Tor network to anonymise internet use. Picture ©Trevor Paglen Studio © Trevor Paglen Studio

He rejects that idea. “I want the research that underlies the project to be correct and solid, even though that’s not visible in the image. Because when you really research something and you are paying attention, you always learn something that you otherwise wouldn’t do. I can’t sit here and make an image in my head. There’s a whole school of art that thinks that’s interesting. I don’t, particularly.”

Does he think of himself as an artist, or as a political activist?

“I do not see myself as a political activist,” he says. “I feel like my job is learning how to see and creating metaphors and creating forms of seeing and making them available to other people. I don’t think that images make arguments. There is obviously a politics to choosing where you put your eyes. But at the end of the day, the best that images can do is to help us develop a vocabulary with which to understand the historical moment we live in. My question is, what is the specific story that we learn? How do we see the sky in 2015? What is the difference between looking at the constellation of Orion and seeing reconnaissance satellites in it, versus, you know, Van Gogh and the ‘Starry Night’? And at the end of the day that’s what I’m doing but you have to do a lot of research to get to that point, because the world’s a complicated place and it’s hard to see the historical moment.”

Did his work ever get him into trouble?

“I’m very conscious about breaking laws. That’s not interesting to me. However, I am interested in exercising the rights that we have. I think that it’s important that we do live in more or less free societies. This kind of work is perfectly legal. In America there is a very long tradition of doing this kind of stuff, and part of the project of seeing is also to insist on your right to look, your right to see. And giving other people the right to do that as well. It’s not only that you make an image of something and you put it in a gallery. You’re also giving people permission to look at something, and that’s another important thing that art can do.”

Trevor Paglen’s work is included in ‘Electronic Superhighway (2016-1966)’ at the Whitechapel Gallery, London, January 29 to May 15. He has been shortlisted for the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2016, at The Photographers’ Gallery in London, April 15 to June 26; paglen.com

Photographs: Courtesy of the artist; Metro Pictures, New York; Altman Siegel, San Francisco; Trevor Paglen Studio

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