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Trevor Paglen

Metro Pictures
519 West 24th Street
September 10, 2015–October 24, 2015

Trevor Paglen, Bahamas Internet Cable System (BICS-1)
NSA/GCHQ-Tapped Undersea Cable
Atlantic Ocean
, 2015,
C-print, 60 x 48".

A fiber-optic cable snakes along the ocean floor somewhere in the Caribbean, strangled by algae. This is one of four photographs in Trevor Paglen’s show, which swirls around the recent NSA scandal and our clicking, buzzing surveillance state. The picture’s title tells us that this cable has been tapped.

There are four images of the cable and three landscape photographs, all opaquely picturesque. The city seen from the harbor in NSA-Tapped Fiber Optic Cable Landing Site, New York City, New York, United States, 2014, is a quaint little skyline scrawled upon the dimming horizon. A map of that same area hangs next to the C-print, lashed with arrows and numbers, pocked with telegraphic messages punched onto the blank abstraction of this cartographic dream. Inset photographs of Brutalist architecture and a nineteenth-century political cartoon force a sense of inevitability, of pounding domination, to the map, and we see the photograph anew: a dense grid of data to be harvested by the state.

Paglen was the cinematographer for Laura Poitras’s documentary Citizenfour (2014): His Eighty-Nine Landscapes, 2015, is a kind of ennobled “extra features” section on the DVD, as a two-channel video shows cities, facilities, hills, barbed-wire fences, clip-clopping policemen, a whole wordless montage of scenes and settings starkly composed. But all of these were material for Poitras’s film; they all tell the story of hypocritical agencies and whirring conspiracies. We come to understand that these neatly laid pictures—waves lapping in California, sheep working their way up a hill—have been stuck in the net of high-speed communications, images to be archived, perhaps turned against us. A grid of lit-up apartments glows warmly in the night; they twinkle like pixels.

Tobi Haslett