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"Seeing Secrecy": Art as Evidence and Secrecy as Art

BY Jessica McKenzie | Tuesday, February 4 2014

Trevor Paglen speaking on the panel "Art as Evidence"

In the past eight months, secrets have become practically mundane.

Starting in June with The Guardian story that revealed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) had ordered Verizon to hand over Americans' phone call metadata to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National Security Agency (NSA), the avalanche of exposed government secrets continued at a frantic pace through the summer and into fall and winter. Only a week ago, articles published by The Guardian, The New York Times and ProPublica showed that the NSA and the British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) collect data en masse from smartphone apps like Angry Birds and Google Maps. In a way, these leaks have become so predictable they border on pedestrian.

This was one of the observations made by Jacob Appelbaum, speaking on the panel “Art as Evidence” at the transmediale media, art and technology festival in Berlin last week.

After Snowden, said Appelbaum, his own paranoia about the NSA “...didn't seem so crazy anymore...frankly many people became quite cynical about it and thought that if they could imagine it they could no longer be surprised by it.”

Appelbaum was joined on the panel by Trevor Paglen and Laura Poitras, who each spoke for 25 to 35 minutes on the role of art in their work of exposing, deconstructing and understanding power structures and imbalances. Applebaum and Poitras have both been centrally involved in reporting based on Edward Snowden's leaked NSA documents.

Appelbaum described how he, as an artist, sees leaked documents as found objects—objects that have the power to change the way people see the world. He gave the example of a blueprint of a USB cable with the power to infiltrate a network and inject software into a computer, which a year ago belonged to the fictional realm created by a paranoid Philip K. Dick.

Poitras and Paglen are interested in less tangible things. Poitras describes the challenges of documenting the “emotional and human consequences” of the War on Terror. She is less concerned with secrets and more with conveying truths and known facts in an impactful way:

How do you translate information that we actually for instance, we know that Guantanamo is still open and that there are people who have been there since January 2002 and they're still there and they've never been charged. So we all know that, but how much time in the last year, in the last two years, in the last five years, have we tried to take any action about that or felt any feeling about that?

Poitras and Appelbaum's talks are interesting because they grapple with familiar territory—the NSA leaks, Guantanamo, the War on Terror—but do so in a critical, self-aware, and academic way.

Paglen comes at the subject of state secrecy from a radically different angle. His work on “seeing secrecy” takes the physical state of government agencies as its subject rather than their activities. In his photography projects, he documents the physical spaces these secret institutions inhabit and the traces they leave behind.

When we're talking about seeing secrecy, I think about secrecy as always congealing into the earth's surface. In other words, I don't think about secrecy as a kind of abstract idea about what you get to know and what you don't get to know. I think about it as a series of physical and legal and social and cultural and economic institutions and as such it is made out of the same stuff that the rest of the world looks like.

One way Paglen approaches his project of “seeing” said secret physical, legal, social, cultural and economic institutions, like remote military bases, is by taking pictures of them using tools made for astronomers, rendering the otherwise invisible, visible.

In another project he uses similar tools to photograph classified American satellites and other space debris in the night sky.

Things like shell companies leave behind a paper trail. By following bureaucratic traces like security clearances, flight numbers and flight plans Paglen found and photographed secret prisons around the world, including one called the "Salt Pit" in Afghanistan.

His work is remarkable but really hard to explain, especially without the aid of visualizations. If you have an hour and a half, watch all three talks; if you only have 30 minutes, watch Paglen's.