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February 13, 2014

Looking at Trevor Paglen’s NSA Photos for the Greenwald/Intercept Launch

“…photographs are ‘useless as evidence, for the most part, but at the same time, they’re a way of organizing your attention’.”

from “Prying Eyes: Trevor Paglen makes art out of government secrets” (The New Yorker, Oct 22, 2012)

The big Internet news this week was the launch of Glenn Greenwald’s investigative website, The Intercept, the sight kicking off with a post featuring Trevor Paglen’s images of national security buildings. Understandably, this set off quite a buzz on the internets. The question, though, is what Paglen’s photos really show and what is it they had to offer day one?

If you’ve familiar with his vast and fascinating body of work, Paglen has been photographing military and national security installations for years. It’s not that the pictures have investigative value (or have resulted in any more governmental transparency), however. As Paglen himself says about the imagery in his video embedded in the post (this transcription may be a few words off here or there):

The images are helpful for people to wrap their heads around what these institutions are. To just point to them and acknowledge that they are there. That they exist and they are doing work. Beyond that, I hope they can contribute to a wider cultural vocabulary. To think about these institutions and what it is they do. To think about the effect that they have on the society around them.

The point is that there’s a fundamental social, political and, perhaps, most importantly, a psychological value to making these sites more visible and recognizable than they are. Driving this home, the New Yorker’s Paglen profile states that his photos, lacking in informational detail and sometimes illegible, serve as “a metaphor for the difficulty of uncovering the truth in an era when so much government activity is covert.”

Taken from the air, the photos frame these edifices like pulsing brains, the buildings and parking lots clearly situated in a larger landscape. If the sumptuous colors say “rich,” even sexy (as overfunded as beaming with hubris); the unbroken stretches of light say “technology”… or “always on; the darkness referencing … darkness,” I’d say it’s no accident. But then, serving as an opening act for what many are hoping will be a more stable version of WikiLeaks, the question is whether people were expecting the images to do more.

If the photos are too literal, too glossy, “not illegible enough,” its probably because they are ultimately assignment photos, the artist-scientist tasked with designing the stage curtain for this much anticipated unveiling. Though I, too, find them a little stock, what seems to characterize the images are monitoring allusions. I’m thinking thermal imaging, energy mapping, night vision — revealing these mystery organs plugged in to our major arteries.

Given Paglen’s gifts and his reputation, coupled with the excitement and sky high expectations of this new venture (along with the fact that the photos were presented editorially), people were likely expecting the sublime. Rather, what Paglen seems to have delivered, in illuminating these security temples, was a more basic metaphor to brand the new venture. Speaking for Intercept, the message to the security establishment – more consistent with an ad campaign than an exercise in perception — seemed to be: you’re so evident and emitting and we’re tapping in.

(photos: Trevor Paglen/The Intercept)

  • black_dog_barking

    Holy shit. These images communicate very bluntly the size of the security operation. These building complexes are huge, the Ft Meade installation has an ocean of parking. Enormous factories that produce no consumer good, provide a service that is ethereal in it’s best light.

    In a previous era building like this might house Kodak or Bell Labs and the resources gathered together to make products and services that demonstrably made life better. Where do the resources come from that create these monuments? Who writes the checks that pay for this? I’ve never heard of the National Geo-spatial Intelligence Agency until now. What exactly does Geo-spatial Intelligence mean?

  • Scarabus

    Size matters here. (Be sure to click on the images to see bigger versions, fellow readers.) What I miss is something to establish perspective. Like bdb, I don’t remember having heard of the Geo-Spatial thing – or the National Reconnaissance Office. These are three out of how many such agencies or offices? How do these structures and their staffs compare in size to others we might have heard of?

  • bystander

    I’m glad you featured these, Michael. I was fearful you were going to go on by. And, it appears that the video I sent you of Trevor’s 30c3 presentation (Six Landscapes**) was way behind the curve. Seems you’re already familiar with his work – which I find utterly fascinating.

    Behold the surveillance state. Our tax dollars (probably on a black budget) at work.

    His discussion of how he gets these photos is interesting. Even more so, to me, is his “operating theory” that these entities – which prefer to remain unseen and unknown – have a bureaucratic existence which he is able to pick up, track and trace; particularly in reference to his chasing the “black sites.” Some of which is so bloomin’ obvious that you wonder why you don’t see it under your nose all the time, like his presentation of military uniform patches which was both hysterical and horrifying.

    ** I really hope that the “An error occurred, please try again later.” message I’m getting from youtube doesn’t mean that these video presentations are being removed. I’ve caught a couple of his presentations since 30c3 and they’re worth the time.

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