In a Hong Kong hotel room in June 2013, American computer analyst Edward Snowden revealed classified information from the US National Security Agency (NSA). Described as the largest intelligence leak in history, revelations included proofs of the government’s illegal wiretappings on phone and Internet communications of hundreds of millions of users worldwide.
The top-secret information became the basis of 2015 Academy Award-winning documentary Citizenfour, as well as creative inspiration for the 2015 San Francisco solo exhibition of artist and geographer Trevor Paglen. If the film reveals live video footage of Snowden’s behavior at the time of disclosure, Paglen’s exhibition at Altman Siegel highlights the materiality of communication networks, themselves intangible yet ubiquitous creatures.
Paglen’s strategy consists of materializing networks of mass data surveillance by focusing on some tangible constituent elements—fiber optic cables, landing sites, satellites, etc. For instance, the gallery features two photograph-diptychs of NSA and Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ), located respectively in New York’s Mastic Beach and the Mendocino town Point Arena in California. Along with video and sculpture, the two works reveal the localization of the landing sites for fiber optic cables used to tap and intercept transatlantic signals. Furthermore, the left picture of each pairing depicts an almost-deserted, uncanny, and natural landscape, while the other consists of collages of layered documents, such as maps or corporate papers from the Snowden archive. Assembled together, the mirrors represent two distinct—pictorial and diagrammatic—physical visions of the same site, evoking the multiple dimensions of the surveillance organism.
Prior to this exhibition, Trevor Paglen contributed to a project by filmmaker Laura Poitras (another recipient of Snowden’s revelation in 2013), in which Poitras also implemented similar methods in Citizenfour to make visible the stakes of secret mass-surveillance. For the documentary, Paglen shared video recordings of NSA surveillance facilities, such as the GCHQ Bude of Menwith Hill Station, UK, a long-term research project of his on the American surveillance state. The contrast between the nighttime apparitions of peaceful, barbed US facilities and the palpable anxiety of the paranoiac whistleblower summons a feeling of imminent danger, mixed with a sudden awareness of nonexistent privacy and limited agency.
Autonomy Cube (2014), also on view at Altman Siegel, brings forward a temporary opportunity to reverse the trend of diminishing privacy towards total publicness. The transparent Plexiglas cube houses several internet-connected chips that together generate a Wi-Fi hotspot for visitors. Co-created with American independent computer security researcher and Snowden’s confidante Jacob Appelbaum, the work routes all traffic over a worldwide network of volunteer-run servers that help make data private and anonymous. In the exhibition space, Autonomy Cube becomes a shelter for resistance that not only protects users’ actual privacy, but also their own expectations.
“Trevor Paglen” is at Altman Siegel, San Francisco, until May 2, 2015.