The artist informs how his work supplies a map from the digital worlds hidden landscapes and forbidden places

Trevor Paglen describes themself like a landscape artist, but he’s no John Constable. The landscapes Paglen frames include the foot of the sea and past the blurred edges from the Earths atmosphere. During the last 2 decades, the artist, a contented and fervent man of 43, continues to be on the pursuit to photograph the unseen political geography in our occasions. His art attempts to capture places that aren’t on any map the key air bases and offshore prisons that world war 2 on terror continues to be fought against along with the systems of information collection and surveillance that now shape our democracies, the cables, spy satellites and artificial intelligences from the digital world.

There’s little abstract relating to this effort. Paglen has spent a large amount of his artistic career camped in deserts with simply suspicious drones for company, his special astro-telescopic lenses trained around the heavens or distant military bases. (For me, seeing the drone these days is a touch bit like Turner seeing the get trained in the 1800s.) He trained like a scuba diver to obtain 100ft underneath the waves looking for the cables transporting all human understanding. He recognises couple of limits to his art. In April, he’ll launch their own satellite and, by using it, the worlds first space sculpture, a man made star that needs to be visible from most places on earth for any couple of several weeks, as vibrant among the stars within the BigDipper.

I meet Paglen in Berlin, inside a prewar studio apartment, that is his current home and also the center of his operations. We sit inside a high-ceilinged room among banks laptop or computer screens and bookcases of art monographs. A couple of his assistants, Daniel and Eric, are in focus on a man-made intelligence project. Paglen is mainly either here directing might five other projects together, or on airplanestrying to learn how to spend the money for rent. Within the week that people meet, that latter process has turned into a little simpler as heis named certainly one of 2010 recipients ofthe MacArthur genius grant, withits stipend of $625,000 (470,000) over 5 years.

Paglen loves to joke the airy apartment is most likely among the most surveilled spaces in the european union. It had been formerly the place to find the documentary-maker Laura Poitras, Paglens friend, who had been instrumental in assisting CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden go public concerning the staggering degree of condition-backed monitoring. Paglens footage of National Security Agency bases was incorporated in Citizenfour, Poitrass Academy award-winning documentary about Snowden. In certain senses, being viewed complements the territory. The apartment is another handful of hundred yards in the archives from the old East German Stasi: countless pages of paper documents in manila files that until lately might have symbolized probably the most comprehensive data collection in history, before Google and facebook, the NSA and also the rest upped theante.

STSS-1 and Two Undentified Spacecraft over Carson City (Space Tracking and Surveillance System, USA 205), 2010. Part of Trevor Paglens project The Other Night Sky, in which he used long exposures to record the transit of satellites and space debris. Photograph: Courtesy Trevor Paglen/Metro Pictures, New York

Sitting on the edge of his seat, Paglen talks slightly reluctantly about his journey here. He is by turns animated and wary, excited by his projects but careful not to make them seem anything more than they are. I am not a journalist or an academic, he says, I dont feel it incumbent on me to make sense of everything. What I am saying is, This is an image of something in our world. You might think you know what it is, but I am going to tell you somethingdifferent

He resists autobiographical interpretations of his work, though youcant help but feel that a psychologist might at least see them as worthy of mention. Paglen was born at Andrews air force base, in Maryland, where his father was an ophthalmologist. As a boy, he lived on bases in Texas and California, before his family settled when he was 12 at the US army airfield in Wiesbaden, Germany, where he stayed with his father until university after his parents separated. His first experience of the ways in which politics can shape geography was in this divided country; he had not long started school here when the Wall came down.

Paglens academic career, too, looks in retrospect like a perfect primer for his artistic practice. He studied the philosophy of religion, then fine art, then did a Phd in geography (looking at the ways humans shape the surface of the Earth and how that in turn shapes us). He also drifted a little, played unhinged bass in a punk band called Noisegate, and was into Californian surf culture.

Paglen first became interested in hidden places while studying at Berkeley with a project he did on the architecture of the American prison system, during the years in which mass incarceration became Americas unspoken political philosophy (a form of revenge against the civil rights movement, he says now). He photographed the enormous prisons out in the Californian desert and came to think of them as places that were both inside and outside American society. After 9/11, when it became clear that the US was setting up secret prisons around the world, probably the most visible indication of that was Guantnamo Bay, he began to determine a resonance between his project and also the fight against terror.

That set him taking into consideration the good reputation for secret places. In 2003, he earned the very first of numerous camping journeys towards the blueprint of these off-grid locations, Area 51, the highly classified air pressure base in Nevada, pitching on snow-capped Tikaboo Peak to determine what he often see. That began him on his artistic journey into the field of rendition and drones and additional-judicial spaces.

Prototype for a Nonfunctional Satellite, 2013. Part of a series exploring the idea of launching a decorative sculpture into the night sky. The object would remain in low orbit for several weeks before burning up on re-entry. Photograph: Courtesy Trevor Paglen/Metro Pictures, New York

I think a lot of that work was animated by a kind of anger, he says. But also equally by curiosity what did these places look like? When the Snowden files were released, he homed in on the fact that nearly all the documents were about infrastructure and they gave addresses. He did a lot of work pinpointing the key underground and undersea junctions of cabling, where much of the listening took place, and photographing them. Just trying to learn how to see the landscape of the internet as it were, he says.

How often does his quest for this language brings him up against the authorities?

Well, every time, he says, with a laugh. The military is quite predictable in a way though. What I am more wary of in the desert is coming across crazy people doing drugs or whatever. Those encounters are often the most disconcerting.

In some ways, I suggest, it as if he is engaged on a postmodern right to roam protest, making a physical argument against official secrecy. What have been the personal highlights?

I think the first time I worked out how to predict where a certain surveillance satellite would be and then went out and looked and it showed up, he says his ethereal photographs of the sky are traced with tell-tale dots and lines. He also recalls learning to see lethal Reaper drones within the Nevada desert air. They’d watch him watching them. It was certainly one of individuals situations in which you understand when it was elsewhere on the planet, that will most likely function as the last factor I’d see, he states.

His pictures, frequently shot at distances of numerous miles, are snapshots from the known unknowns in our world. Because he explains his practice in my experience during the period of an mid-day, he runs via a dizzying sequence of illustrative images on his pc. It’s a slideshow interspersed with my asking: Whats that? and him with patience explaining what we should can easily see: a speck of the drone evidently from the sun the white-colored domes from the largest NSA station outdoors the united states at Menwith Hill near Harrogate the shore at Bude in Cornwall to which a cable transporting the worlds data makes landfall.

Bahamas Internet Cable System (BICS-1) NSA/GCHQ-Tapped Undersea Cable Atlantic Ocean, 2015. Paglen learned to scuba dive in order to trace the internet cables that carry vast amounts of data across the worlds ocean floors. Photograph: Courtesy Trevor Paglen/Metro Pictures, New York

Paglens most recent work is another departure into that digital landscape, this time into the terra incognita of artificial intelligence. He is developing a program that can take, say, the algorithm that controls a laser-guided missile or a self-driving car and recreate what it sees of the world. Or he has deconstructed the Facebook intelligence that seeks to scan our uploaded photos for evidence of what we wear and what we buy (to sell to advertisers) and repurposed it as an intelligence that only looks at photographs in terms of objects important to Freudian psychoanalysis or late-stage capitalism.

He sees this in some ways as a new way of looking, one entirely appropriate to the times. We live in a political moment where it seems reason has gone out the door, he says. And at the same time we have these incredibly predatory institutions being created, whether it is white supremacy on one hand or Facebook on the other. It is kind of a surrealist moment. Everything is like Magrittes Ceci nest pas une pipe. Nothing is what it seems.

In some ways, there is a kinship in Paglens work to the paranoid surfaces of Adam Curtiss documentaries, or possibly Don DeLillos fiction, but he’s also at pains to assume how an alternate world might look.

Trevor Paglen: You might think you know what it is, but I am going to tell you something different. Photograph: Courtesy of Trevor Paglen

A recent installation, Autonomy Cube, saw him demonstrate an internet with the opposite business model, one that would still give you access to all the worlds information, but would preserve anonymity and not collect your data. He is also looking at ways in which art might take that utopian principle into space.

In this sense, the forthcoming satellite project, what he calls the Orbital Reflector, is a kind of antidote to all he photographs. It will be followed in June by a major retrospective of Paglens work at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC. The program, ten years within the making, would be to launch the very first ever satellite that doesn’t have military value, no scientific value, no commercial value, only aesthetic value. A satellite that’s the complete opposite of what we should have started to expect. Not at all something that observes our every move, but something which we are able to gaze up at in old-fashioned question, just a little gemstone on the horizon.

The work has been backed, fittingly, through the Nevada Museum of Art. The sculpture will piggyback off a Space X rocket prior to being ejected. Once in low orbit, an easy mechanismis made to open a blow up Mylar structure, about 100ftlong and 6ft high, with highly reflective planes, that they insists willbe visible towards the human eye alone like a twinkle at night sky.

And just what does he want individuals to think when, in April, hopefully, they gaze up in internet marketing?

I just hope people love it, he states. There isn’t any message behind it. In addition to the concept that maybe you’ll sometimes find techniques used in taking into consideration the world.

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