Trevor Paglen: art in the age of mass surveillance

By Tim Adams

The artist tells how his work provides a map of the digital world's hidden landscapes and forbidden places

Trevor Paglen describes himself as a landscape artist, but he is no John Constable. The landscapes Paglen frames extend to the bottom of the ocean and beyond the blurred edges of the Earth's atmosphere. For the last two decades, the artist, a cheerful and fervent man of 43, has been on a mission to photograph the unseen political geography of our times. His art tries to capture places that are not on any map – the secret air bases and offshore prisons from which the war on terror has been fought – as well as the networks of data collection and surveillance that now shape our democracies, the cables, spy satellites and artificial intelligences of the digital world.

There is little abstract about this effort. Paglen has spent a good deal of his artistic career camped out in deserts with only suspicious drones for company, his special astro-telescopic lenses trained on the heavens or distant military bases. (“For me, seeing the drone in the 21st century is a little bit like Turner seeing the train in the 19th century.”) He trained as a scuba diver to get 100ft beneath the waves in search of the cables carrying all of human knowledge. He recognises few limits to his art. In April, he will launch his own satellite and, with it, the world's first “space sculpture”, a manmade star that should be visible from most places on the Earth for a few months, “as bright as one of the stars in the Big Dipper”.

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