New York

Trevor Paglen, NSA-Tapped Fiber Optic Cable Landing Site, Morro Bay, California, United States, 2015, C-print, mixed media on navigational chart, 48 × 60".

Trevor Paglen, NSA-Tapped Fiber Optic Cable Landing Site, Morro Bay, California, United States, 2015, C-print, mixed media on navigational chart, 48 × 60".

Trevor Paglen

Metro Pictures

Trevor Paglen, NSA-Tapped Fiber Optic Cable Landing Site, Morro Bay, California, United States, 2015, C-print, mixed media on navigational chart, 48 × 60".

Curious viewers looking for advance information on Trevor Paglen’s recent exhibition at Metro Pictures in the run-up to its opening probably encountered a rather unusual promotional tease created by the artist, an obliquely ominous “trailer” of sorts advertising the show, posted on the gallery’s website and picked up by numerous other online outlets. Clocking in at just over a minute, the video features only the names of the artist and gallery and the dates of the show interspersed among a sequence of loosely related images—a placid seascape, a scuba diver descending through murky water, a web of wires, a distant phalanx of gleaming white radomes—accompanied by a disquieting audio track of lowering technological hums and chitters.

It turns out the trailer was essentially a highly abridged version of Eighty Nine Landscapes (all works 2015), a twenty-four-minute, two-channel video installation that’s composed of footage—long-distance views of sites hosting, with greater and lesser degrees of opacity, elements of the US government’s sprawling security apparatus—Paglen shot while working as a cinematographer on Laura Poitras’s groundbreaking 2014 documentary, Citizenfour, but which wasn’t used in the film’s final cut. The trailer makes sense as a seductive audiovisual précis to Paglen’s practice, which has consistently probed the clandestine operations of the American military-technoindustrial complex, looking to identify what traces their surreptitious activities leave in the spatial, material, and textual record. Yet in its slick cinematic spookiness—and its vaguely cloak-and-dagger rollout and subsequent scrubbing from most of the websites that had featured it in the weeks before the opening, including Metro Pictures’s own—the trailer also points toward one of the more ticklish issues that has always attended Paglen’s project: the slippery slope between a controlled deployment of certain sub-rosa tropes for artistic effect and an overreliance on a theatricalization of the “covert” that the project as a whole would seem to critique.

Can Paglen’s work trade on the sexiness of the recondite black world he documents without being compromised by it? Certain works steer clear of such questions by prioritizing function over form—Autonomy Cube, for instance, the most recent iteration of a project made in collaboration with computer researcher and activist Jacob Appelbaum that creates a mobile Wi-Fi hot spot that also operates as an anonymizing Tor relay. Yet other elements of the show seemed content to generate an easy frisson through their mash-ups of schlock and awe: a few menacing examples of the symbolically overripe military insignia the artist has been collecting for years; a comprehensively redacted secret government document pertaining to the Stellar Wind surveillance program framed like an Ad Reinhardt–esque relic; a scrolling list containing thousands of admittedly oddball but also uselessly decontextualized military program code names.

Questions concerning the relationship between the work’s content and its presentation also came into play around the artist’s most recent project, which considers the system of undersea fiber-optic cables that carry data around the globe and the ways they are physically controlled and surveilled by US government security agencies. The diver in the trailer was Paglen himself, and a suite of his dimly atmospheric marine photographs of certain of the tapped cables snaking their way across the floor of the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea was shown in conjunction with a pair of complex mixed-media displays detailing the “landing sites” for two particular cables (one in New York City, the other near San Francisco), the so-called choke points where the American government is able to gain access to them. These diptychs include what seems to be a strategically incomprehensible amalgam of marine navigation maps, photos, and collaged bits of both leaked and freely available data, twinned with large-scale C-prints of the unremarkable landscapes in which these vital pieces of data infrastructure were hiding, as it were, in plain sight. Such information-dense works suggest a related problematic of Paglen’s project: Was the extra data there to aid understanding, or to instrumentalize—for the purposes of a compelling artwork—a certain species of opacity not unlike that on which it draws? The issue finally isn’t whether Paglen’s work beckons instances of the treacherously invisible into view—it absolutely does. The question is rather what principles it uses to shape the visible form they’re given, how, and to what end, their insidious absences are made present.

Jeffrey Kastner