Trevor Paglen is so hot right now. His work, which is about surveillance, secrecy, data collection and artificial intelligence, is everywhere — including in space. In 2012, with help from scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he launched a disc micro-etched with 100 images into geostationary orbit, where it will remain for billions of years. Meanwhile, interviews with the artist haunt the Internet and the art press. Paglen won a $625,000 MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant last year.
I have asked myself why, since seeing his massive retrospective at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, my mind keeps sliding off it, like water off wax. The answer came to me when I tried to imagine seeing the same body of work assembled 20 years hence. I tried — but failed. I could only see it secreted away in storage.
Despite its almost painful zeitgeistiness, Paglen’s work remains outside and “about” its subjects, always nibbling at the edges — academic rather than artistic. His pieces — enlarged photographs, texts, enigmatic objects, installations of ephemera — are like precociously clever footnotes that don’t quite know how to penetrate to the heart of the matter.
It’s noteworthy that a government funded museum in the nation’s capital is hosting an exhibition by an artist with a critical take on government secrecy. I commend it for doing so. I only wish the art were more convincing.
Paglen, who is based in Berlin, was born on Andrews Air Force Base in Camp Springs, Md. He spent large chunks of his childhood on military bases in Texas, California and Germany. He studied religion at the University of California at Berkeley and fine arts at the Art Institute of Chicago before returning to Berkeley to get a PhD in geography. In his late 20s, he discovered a cache of aerial photographs for the U.S. Geological Survey with large areas of landscape redacted. He researched and visited the sites. He started thinking about secrecy.
The Smithsonian show includes photographs of underwater communications cables, secret military and intelligence gathering sites, including U.S. military prisons (known as “black sites”), and drones and satellites in the sky. Almost without exception, these photographs are boring to look at — so much so that you conclude there must be some purpose behind their visual tedium.
And there is: They serve to provide a kind of drone note of unspecified menace, tapping into widespread fears about government and corporate surveillance. What they don’t do, unfortunately, is anything to harness and direct the feelings thus aroused, by converting them into art (or even insight).
To display a photograph, for instance, of National Security Agency buildings at Fort Meade, Md., at night, the car park around its perimeter floodlit and punctuated by stray cars, is to provide nothing more than ominous mood music. You are left to conclude that, because it is secret, the work being done there is exclusively nefarious. Perhaps it is. Perhaps it isn’t. But the presentation feels lazily tendentious.
You can see Paglen’s problem. He is a visual artist interested in secrecy. But secrecy is a mechanism, a system, that aspires to invisibility. How can you show it?
Paglen’s strategy insists that everything covert intersects with the visible world at some point. Secret operations have code names. Secret documents have black redaction marks. The storage and transfer of data rely on physical infrastructure. Paglen doesn’t crack codes or expose secrets. “Rather than trying to find out what’s actually going on behind closed doors,” he has said, “I’m trying to take a long hard look at the door itself.”
But this is unsatisfying, both visually and conceptually. It is boring looking at doors.
Nor is it enlightening. We learn nothing about the reasons for secrecy, or what is at stake when governments protect knowledge, or when they try to get at knowledge protected by others. (For a stimulating take on that, try visiting the International Spy Museum.)
For one three-channel video, Paglen collected more than 4,000 code names from the Edward Snowden files. This was his way of revealing the scope of secrecy in the files without revealing the secrets themselves. For another, he compiled 89 pieces of footage of intelligence facilities around the globe. (The footage was for Laura Poitras’s film about Snowden, “Citizenfour,” to which Paglen also contributed research.) “The bucolic scenery,” we are told, “belies the ubiquity of surveillance and the institutions that support it.”
Again, fine. But isn’t this, in the end, just another way of producing that same drone note of unspecified menace? I would rather get that from David Lynch: He’s better at it and takes it somewhere deeper, more disturbing.
Another work, a C-print, uses a courtroom drawing from the trial of Chelsea Manning. “Paglen photographed the drawing hundreds of times through a microscopic lens, then stitched the images into one large abstraction of color washes and wispy fibers,” explains the wall label. The result of this elaborate process is entirely abstract. And utterly dull.
Paglen explores hot button and legitimately alarming issues such as facial recognition technology. And he inquires into the implications of machines, rather than humans, reading and interpreting imagery (and acting on those interpretations). consists of footage of four musicians performing a Debussy string quartet. As the performance proceeds, the footage is overlaid with evidence of computer vision systems, including face detection software and, later, more powerful artificial intelligence systems, “interpreting” the footage. The footage is fed through different algorithms and projected on a screen showing us, in essence, what the software is seeing.
Having read about it in advance, I was excited to see this. Algorithms are where it’s at, after all. They are the serpents we are all wrestling with, like poor old Laocoön, the Trojan priest who warned against Greeks bearing gifts. But the results, once again, were visually tedious and unenlightening.
Paglen’s titles are in line with the work: portentous. “Seventeen Letters From the Deep State,” “It Began as a Military Experiment,” “Untitled (Reaper Drone)” and “Venus Flytrap (Corpus: American Predators) Adversarially Evolved Hallucination.”
But there’s another strand to his work. He is interested in “decoupling” advanced technology “from the corporate and military interests underlying the [aerospace] industry.” So, in a surprising switch back to something resembling the 19th-century credo of “art for art’s sake,” he has designed prototypes for “nonfunctional satellites” — pointless sculptures, essentially — and is working with the Nevada Museum of Art to get one of them, “Orbital Reflector,” launched into space in October.
All of which is pretty cool and in its way, impressive. But mostly, let’s face it, on a logistical level.
Great art has to have something more to it. It has to feel urgent, necessary. It is neither a form of academic inquiry nor a paranoid platitude nor an arbitrary gesture. The show’s curators contend that Paglen, who refers to his art as “experimental geography,” “blurs lines between art, science and investigative journalism.”
It does, and putting it that way makes it sound exciting. But it’s really a kind of hedging of bets. It’s the kind of refrain you hear again and again in the art world when the art in question is not quite convincing on its own terms.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said a video showed the Kronos Quartet. The video depicted four musicans performing Debussy.
Trevor Paglen: Sites Unseen, through Jan. 6, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Eighth and F streets NW, americanart.si.edu.