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Terence Dick
Trevor Paglen at Prefix ICA
May 16, 2018

There is a type of subterfuge that is best described as hiding in plain sight. Governments gravitate to this strategy because it means they can’t be accused of covering anything up. All the evidence is there; unfortunately, it’s a chore – or a bore – to get to the truth. You can see this in bureaucracies that generate documents so long, so dense, and so tedious as to turn off everyone except the most diligent of investigators. Many of those rare and obsessive souls have found a home in the realm of journalism, but a few take their research and turn it into art. Mark Lombardi, for example, made a tragically short career out of converting incriminating information into drawings. If he has an heir, it is Trevor Paglen, who is well on his way to distinguishing himself as the premiere artist of the metadata age.

Trevor Paglen, 89 Landscapes, 2016, video

The general public might be more familiar with Paglen’s images through their inclusion in Citizenfour, the 2014 documentary about Edward Snowden. The expanded awareness of the surveillance state that the latter’s whistleblowing brought to the planet is the necessary historical context for the production and reception of the former’s art. The centrepiece of his exhibition at Prefix ICA is a video diptych titled 89 Landscapes that resembles the structural films/videos of James Benning or the conceptual documents of Ed Ruscha. The settings in this case are often barren desert-bound buildings with no clear purpose or satellite fields on seaside plains. They are seen in gorgeous high definition wide shots that cut closer and closer to focus on details that turn ghostly in the rising heat or pixelate as the resolution breaks down. What unites these places is that they make visible the architecture of government surveillance. This is where the organizations with the familiar (and some not so familiar) acronyms listen, record, and store all those texts, emails, and phone conversations that we obliviously make available every time we communicate electronically. They are contrasted with footage of busy highways, dense apartment complexes, and views of the mega-cities that assemble and isolate all those people who are swept up in the gathering of data for the sake of security.

Before you assess the ethics of that breach of the public/private divide, you have to wrap your head around the technology of interpretation. Unlike previous eras of espionage when individuals or groups were targeted for observation, now everyone is under the net. The proliferation of electronic communication and the ever-increasing rate of processing speed and volume of digital memory have made this possible. The chilling implication of Paglen’s project for those of us not currently involved in terrorist activities is the ease with which that same technology can be exploited for further political and commercial ends. The revelation that masses of personal data were used by Cambridge Analytica to target voters with campaign advertising is just one example of how the digital landscape – the parallel world of our online identities, the homes we build there, and the relationships we construct – is being mined for resource extraction. The valuable material to be sold is us.

Trevor Paglen, Columbia-Florida Subsea Fiber (CFX-1) NSA/GCHQ – Tapped Undersea Cable, 2013, digital c-print

Photos of clouds with a pinprick drone or murky sub-oceanic depths with a seemingly innocuous cable rising out of the darkness enact the crucial gesture that turns these images from boring pictures of nothing to artworks suffused with dread. A reverse dematerialization is engendered by the artist as he makes the things we have become used to thinking of as metaphors – cloud computing, wireless everything, the world wide web – and focuses our attention on their material foundations. These are the cables that contain our communications and have been tapped by the NSA. These are the buildings that contain the servers that hold all the conversations that we’ve long forgotten. Our ambivalence to how much we give up every time we sign off on a user agreement, download a new app, activate our phone’s location services, and participate in an online survey, is in truth our voluntary abdication of our private selves. And, for the most part, we’re okay with that. Or, at least, we’re willing to sacrifice it for the convenience the technology provides. And who cares if my daily travels and Google searches end up being processed for metadata? I have nothing to hide.

This is where Paglen steps in to point out that we needn’t be worried about our own secrets. The hiding that should keep us up at night concerns the activities of our governments and telecommunications organizations. Their secretive ways, their covert operations, their shadow worlds are what we shouldn’t overlook because they work in our name and justify their actions as necessary means to ensure our safety or make our lives better. Yet the means by which they claim to protect our freedom are shrouded in black sites and obscured beneath redacted texts. Something is being hidden and, while we will likely never find out what it is (and odds are that much of it doesn’t matter), the photographs and videos in this exhibition assert the importance of knowing the hiding spots.

Trevor Paglen: Surveillance States continues until June 16.
Prefix ICA:
The gallery is accessible.

Terence Dick is a freelance writer living in Toronto. His art criticism has appeared in Canadian Art, BorderCrossings, Prefix Photo, Camera Austria, Fuse, Mix, C Magazine, Azure, and The Globe and Mail. He is the editor of Akimblog. You can follow him on Twitter @TerenceDick.



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