Photographer Trevor Paglen‘s work deliberately blurs the lines between science, contemporary art, journalism, and other disciplines to decipher the world in which we live using painstaking and unknown research methods. His subjects include experimental geography, state secrecy, military symbology, and visuality. He is the author of Invisible: Covert Operations and Classified Landscapes (coauthored with Rebecca Solnit); Experimental Geography: Radical Approaches to Landscape, Cartography, and Urbanism; Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA’s Rendition Flights; I Could Tell You but Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed by Me: Emblems from the Pentagon’s Black World; and Blank Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon’s Secret World, among other books.
In his 2014 project The Last Pictures, commissioned by Creative Time, Paglen explored themes of deep time (geologic time), politics, and art in a collection of photographs. His website explains, “The Last Pictures is attached onto the outer surface of a communications satellite and will orbit around earth for billions of years, transforming the project into what will become one of the most enduring material relics of contemporary civilization.” Paglen worked with materials scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to produce a micro-etched disk of 100 photographs surrounded by a gold-plated shell, which is designed to last billions of years in space. Paglen describes The Last Pictures as a “collection of images that might explain something about why these spacecraft are there and maybe explain something about what happened to the people that made them and why the people that made them are not there anymore.”
Two of Paglen’s works were displayed in the (Infra) Structure exhibition at Lannan Foundation in 2016. The images are from his series on the geography and aesthetics of the National Security Agency’s global surveillance program. For this body of work, Paglen visited shoreline sites and underwater locales where the NSA has tapped transoceanic cables. Contrary to popular belief, personal communications and data are not transmitted through thin air via a “cloud.” Rather, information is passed from one part of the globe to another through an intricate underwater cable system that the NSA monitors regularly at designated choke points. Coupled with collages of maritime maps and documents revealing their status as NSA surveilled locations (like this one at Morro Bay, California), Paglen’s banal seascapes reveal to the viewer just how little we know about what goes on below the surface. Learning to scuba dive, Paglen extended his work to the ocean floor, documenting the vulnerable and very much physical infrastructure that global communications depends on, such as this internet cable in the Bahamas.
Paglen was born in 1974 in Maryland. He has a BA from the University of California-Berkeley, an MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago, and a PhD in geography from UC Berkeley. He has shown his visual works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Tate Modern in London, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the 2008 Taipei Biennial, the 2009 Istanbul Biennial, the 2012 Liverpool Biennial, and many other solo and group exhibitions. In 2016 Paglen won the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize. He currently lives and works in New York.