If you’ve seen the documentary Citizenfour, about the NSA surveillance state and disclosures by Edward Snowden, then you know the work of Trevor Paglen. He served as a cinematographer for the film and was thanked in the credits. Until recently, the official website provided updates on where to see his artwork.

Paglen, who is the first artist to receive a Pioneer Award by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has been working on art involving the shadowy-side of government for many years. He first came to prominence for releasing a book called I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have To Be Destroyed By Me: Emblems From The Pentagon’s Black World. The book is a collection of official patches that were issued to participants in secret military missions. The patches are almost all ominous and include phrases that would be catnip for any conspiracy theorist:

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Paglen tells SF Gate that when he first started, it was hard to gain acceptance:

People couldn’t understand what I was trying to do and would say, ‘It’s not art and it’s not journalism.’

Further explaining exactly what it is he’s doing, Paglen tells the Guardian:

I want to help develop a visual and cultural vocabulary around surveillance. It’s difficult to talk about something that is so abstract and when we imagine these agencies we think of them as very separate from other civic institutions.

This year, Paglen published unrestricted aerial photographs of the NSA and other intelligence agencies to encourage public engagement with the surveillance programs their tax-dollars fund.

Most recently, he’s taken to doing guerilla building-projections in London, listing the secret code-names of various NSA programs. The same enormous scrolling list of names has also been installed on the second floor of the Chelsea gallery, Metro Pictures. According to the explanatory text:

The code names are deliberately nonsensical, often droll and sardonic words or short phrases without discernable connection to the programs they designate. “Bacon Ridge” is an NSA installation in Texas, “Fox Acid” an NSA-controlled Internet server designed to inject malware into unsuspecting web browsers, and “Mystic” a program to collect every phone call from the Bahamas.

Today Paglen’s work is widely accepted, if not applauded, and many artists have been working with the surveillance state as subject matter. A ton of great ones are collected in one place for the Spanish exhibition, A Screaming Comes Across The Sky. Combining the black bag archival spirit of a tinfoil hat-wearing maniac with the conceptual text of Lawrence Weiner, he’s creating important work that impacts multiple fields.


Trevor Paglen: Code Names of the Surveillance State, October 25 – December 20, 2014 at Metro Pictures in Chelsea
(Photo: IMGURWikipedia)