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Artist Trevor Paglen Talks to Jameel Jaffer About the Aesthetics of NSA Surveillance

NSA/GCHQ Surveillance Base, Bude, Cornwall, UK
NSA/GCHQ Surveillance Base, Bude, Cornwall, UK
Jameel Jaffer,
Director, Knight First Amendment Institute
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September 24, 2015

On Friday, a federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, will hear argument in Wikimedia v. NSA, a challenge to the lawfulness of “upstream” surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency. The NSA conducts this surveillance by tapping directly into the Internet backbone inside the United States — the network of high-capacity cables, switches, and routers that carry Americans’ communications with each other and with the rest of the world. By tapping into physical infrastructure in this way, the NSA is able to copy most international text-based communications, including many domestic communications, and search the contents of these communications for tens of thousands of search terms. The court challenge, which was filed by the ACLU on behalf of organizations including Wikimedia, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International USA, and The Nation, is one of the most significant surveillance challenges to have been filed since the Snowden disclosures.

Trevor Paglen is a New York-based artist whose work deliberately blurs lines between science, contemporary art, journalism, and other disciplines to construct unfamiliar, yet meticulously researched ways to see and interpret the world around us. His visual work has been exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Tate Modern, London; The Walker Arts Center, Minneapolis; The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the 2008 Taipei Biennial; the 2009 Istanbul Biennial; the2012 Liverpool Biennial; and numerous other solo and group exhibitions. His most recent book, The Last Pictures, is a meditation on the intersections of deep-time, politics, and art. Some of his newest work, which focuses on the geography and aesthetics of the NSA’s global surveillance programs, is the subject of an exhibition at Metro Pictures in New York City. The exhibition runs through October 24.

In anticipation of tomorrow’s hearing in Wikimedia v. NSA, Paglen agreed to answer some questions from Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer.

Trevor, thank you for agreeing to talk about your work, and for allowing us to post some of that work here. I’ve admired your work for a long time and it’s a privilege to get to talk to you about it. How did you develop an interest in issues relating to surveillance?

I’ve always been interested in trying to “see” the historical moment we find ourselves living in, and asking what the “big issues” of the day are. I started thinking about mass surveillance around the time of The New York Times’ 2005 revelations about the Stellar Wind program and the subsequent Mark Klein revelations. At the time, I was spending a lot of time looking at the so-called “state secrets privilege” in relation to work on CIA black-sites that I had been doing. Cases from your El-Masri v. Tenet to the EFF’s Jewel v. NSA showed that a huge and violent infrastructure associated with the “war on terror” was being constructed, and its workings were being kept out of the public, political, and juridical spheres through various forms of secrecy. The NSA’s mass-surveillance programs are very much a part of the same extra-legal geography that CIA black sites, drone wars, and even military facilities like “Area 51” are.

NSA-Tapped Fiber Optic Cable Landing Site, Point Arena, California, United States

NSA/GCHQ Surveillance Base, Bude, Cornwall, UK

Many of your photographs relating to surveillance including the ones we’ve posted here are beautiful, even stunning, but to anyone who knows what’s going on in that building, or under that body of water, the photographs are also eerie. They’re like pictures of Dorian Gray. Is that eeriness one of the things that made you interested in these particular scenes?

Most definitely. I play a lot with aesthetics and the tension between seeing and not-seeing. It’s a pretty old trick in art: to take something that seems familiar and show that something deeply strange might be going on that we have a hard time recognizing.

The Utah data center depicted in one the images we’ve posted here is reportedly used to store communications obtained through upstream surveillance. The immensity of the data center gives you an idea of the scale of the surveillance. Is the staggering scale of the infrastructure needed to support all of this surveillance something you deliberately set out to convey?

National Security Agency Utah Data Center Bluffdale, UT

National Security Agency Utah Center, Bluffdale, UT

There are a couple of ways in which I try to point towards the scale of surveillance. On one hand, buildings like the Utah Data Center are so massive and hold so much information that their physicality points to the scale of the programs they support. On the other hand, one of the pieces I like a lot is called “Code Names of the Surveillance State,” which is a massive scrolling list of over 4,000 code names for various NSA projects. Individually, they’re deliberately nonsensical, but in aggregate I think they give a peek into the scale of the surveillance state.

As you’ve been creating art relating to surveillance, there’s been an extraordinary public debate provoked by Edward Snowden’s disclosures about the proper limits of government surveillance power. Do you see your art as a contribution to that debate? Or do you think of the art as something that exists on a plane apart from politics?

I don’t really see anything in the world as being separate from politics, so I wouldn’t say that art is either. But I think what’s powerful about art is that it can help us to see the world around us, and what’s more, give us permission to look. I don’t really think that are can make an argument one way or another, but I hope that it can help develop the kind of visual vocabularies that we use to navigate and make sense of the world around us.

Some of your previous work has to do with drones. Like your surveillance images, your drone images are beautiful and frightening at once. Something else the two sets of images have in common is their focus on new technology. Do you expect technology to be a focus of your future work as well?

Technology has always been a part of my work because technology is so interwoven with the rest of the world at this point that there’s no place where “technology” ends and something else begins. Having said that, technologies have moral and ethical “scripts” built into them in the sense that they enable certain forms of behavior and preclude others. There’s no such thing as “neutral” technologies. I’ve got some newer projects I’m developing having to do with machine-vision and automated-seeing, and another handful of projects having to do with the “geology” of images (looking at, for example, mines where photosensitive minerals come from). One of the big projects I’m also working on is a collaboration with Jacob Appelbaum, where we’re building sculptures that also serve as open Wi-Fi hotspots that route all data over Tor and are themselves Tor relays. For that project, called “Autonomy Cube,” we’re trying to imagine what the Internet might look like if privacy and anonymity were built into its backbone, as opposed to the corporate and military surveillance that are indistinguishable from today’s Internet.

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