Incorporating his academic background as a geographer, and the skills of an investigative reporter, Trevor Paglen is an American artist whose work has sought to expose the often hidden physical apparatus and architecture that governments and, increasingly, private companies employ to monitor and control the public. His rich large-format photographs tend to be the result of a long process of research: in 2015 he learned to dive in order to find and document the points where transatlantic cables that form the Internet enter the US, secret infrastructure hubs that the NSA have been known to tap. In 2013 he hired a helicopter to photograph American spy stations in the US and overseas. He is involved in The Intercept, the website set up in 2014 by Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill, and he contributed to Citizenfour (2014), Poitras’s Oscar-winning documentary on Edward Snowden. This year he won the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize. For this issue he produced an artist’s project that graces both the cover of the magazine and six interior pages.
ArtReview Is it important for art to stand up to power?
Trevor Paglen That’s not the point, but that can be an effect of it. What I want out of art, and the kind of art that excites me, are the things that help you see the moment in history that you’re living in. So, in the effort to do that, sometimes you end up in an adversarial relationship to power through that project, and I think that one should not shirk away from it.
AR Obviously you have worked with people like Laura Poitras, people who are artists but who would also be viewed as activists. What’s the line between what you do and activism, or journalistic activism?
TP I guess there’s a practical aspect to that in the sense that most activists that I know, when they go to work they do policy or legal or advocacy work. That’s not what I do when I go to work. When I go to work I think about colour. I’m thinking about how the art is engaging with the world, I’m developing metaphors, ways of seeing, hopefully, calling attention to things. All of this is inherently political, however. Political in the sense that you’re proposing to the society that we pay attention to one thing over another, which is a mode of political determination.
I think a lot of artists are interested in thinking about how one could imagine a different world, or how one could just simply learn how to understand the world that one lives in, and I think that that’s a project that people in many disciplines are concerned with. Whether it’s activism or anthropology or physical science or geomorphology, and all of those disciplines, inevitably, intersect with politics. If you’re doing anthropology, that’s inherently political. If you’re doing geomorphology and you’re thinking about natural resources somewhere, oil and what effect humans have on the earth’s surface, that’s also obviously political.
AR You studied geography, not art, and there’s a belief that because science is empirical, it’s apolitical. Now, that’s not true, right?
TP That’s not true. Nobody actually thinks that. I mean, maybe that’s an image in the public’s mind, but, you know, scientists work on stuff that they’re funded to study, and that’s always political.
AR That’s the same for artists: the art that we get to see is the stuff that is pushed through by funding – in a way the Power 100 is an attempt to shine a light on that and on the decision-makers.
TP That’s the politics of visibility.
AR When art is used as a symbol of capitalistic power, that’s pretty simple. Rich person wants to buy a painting. He or she buys a painting. Done. However, art is also tied up into things like state power: winning awards and representing countries; you’re invited to travel, to do museum shows. Do you worry about participation in this power system, given that your work looks at power?
I don’t think that you can exit the power system. Power flows through everything. We’re not complicit with it, we’re features of power. We’re products of power. We can’t decide to not be a part of it. Power is what we’re made of. Power is relations with other people, trying to do things in the world
TP I don’t think that you can exit the power system. There’s literally no place in society where you can stand and imagine that you’ve removed yourself from those kinds of power relationships, whether they’re economic or state forms of power. Instead I think of it as more about the opportunities to contribute to a conversation about power, about culture, about the state of the world and the future of it. I guess I don’t think of it in such a black-and-white way – that you’re either complicit or you’re not – that’s not how power works. Power flows through everything. We’re not complicit with it, we’re features of power. We’re products of power. We can’t decide to not be a part of it. Power is what we’re made of. Power is relations with other people, trying to do things in the world. So, for me, having access to audiences is a way to suggest that maybe we should be paying attention to one thing or another.
AR Is there a chance the art object – the thing in a room – could break free?
TP I’m not sure that the object has that power either, but I do think that it can create different relations. One can be very cynical about the art market, and one is usually correct in that cynicism. The art market will certainly validate not what’s the greatest contribution to the culture but what’s the greatest contribution to the market. On the other hand, I think that the art market isn’t that efficient, and weirdly, when you look at what shakes out at the end of the day, often it is the good art.
AR It’s interesting that you allude to an inefficiency, because, as an industry, art has barely embraced technology. It’s weirdly old-fashioned and clunky.
TP That fits with the luxury-goods market, though. When you look at high-end goods, they’re inefficient, they’re handmade for the most part, they’re custom-tailored. So that part I get. I guess what I mean by inefficiency is a little bit more like, in the long run, art isn’t collectors and auction houses, it’s art historians, critics, writers and other cultural producers. For the most part, art historians don’t care, or even know what auction prices are. Those are the kind of inefficiencies I mean.
AR You mentioned the idea of ‘drawing attention’. One thing to say about your work is that it’s very beautiful. You look at a photograph like National Security Agency Surveillance Base, Bude, Cornwall, UK  and it’s a beautiful picture of a beautiful place, but one with very a scary subject.
TP I think that a lot of us secretly want to live in a world in which bad things are ugly and good things are beautiful. That would make the world a lot simpler, but that’s not the way it works. So I play with that a lot in the work that I do – that tension between aesthetics and power.
AR A lot of the stuff you photograph also wants to be either technologically or politically invisible – surveillance bases, drones, the hard infrastructure of the Internet – often both. Given all this attention to tech, do you think you could have made this work say ten or 20 years ago?
TP Yes, absolutely, similar work could have been made during the 1960s, and people did, but when we’re looking at architectures of data mining and data collection, whether that’s state powers like GCHQ or the NSA or – I actually think more importantly – the Standard Oils of the Internet age in the form of the Googles, the likes of Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook, these are already, and are in the short-term future, radically changing the ways in which societies work, and the ways in which de facto rights and privileges are allocated. That has huge implications for democracy, equality, freedom and these kinds of things. So I think it’s absolutely crucial to spend some time trying to under- stand them, and they’re very poorly understood from a cultural perspective, or from a political perspective, quite frankly.
AR We’re speaking over Skype for free, and I have no idea what the business model is. I just assume data collection: presumably they follow where we are, know exactly who we’re both talking to, but I still don’t know exactly how they monetise that. I mean, presumably they must do, but what is more interesting is my ignorance.
TP When you look at tech, the business model today isn’t advertising, it’s venture capital, right? So if you look at a company like Uber, their business model actually isn’t making money, it’s raising capital. That’s today. The advertising is a default thing to do with the Internet marketing, trying to get you to buy some Crocs or whatever. Everybody knows that that’s not a sustainable means of making money on the Internet. So what the next version of that is – and this is already starting to happen – is that you need to get into finance, insurance, credit, labour. With a company like Uber, you see the labour part. What they’ve managed to do is to develop a model in which the labourers are freelance contractors whose time can be modulated in even smaller increments than a Fordist model could accommodate. The workers bear all the risk of owning the means of production. I’m just trying to put this in classical terms, you know.
AR There’s a total break that Marx could never have predicted. You reminded me of Percolata, a startup that basically uses a sort of Uber principle on behalf to the retail industry – Uniqlo and the like – in which an algorithm analyses employee behaviour in relation to profitability. The algorithm will determine that ‘if Fred works with Wilma sales go up, but they suffer if he’s partnered with Barney’. From this the algorithm spits out a roster, diminishing the need for a manager.
TP Things like this are a real revolution in productivity and, correspondingly, extracted profit. Or take a company like Fitbit. They sell you this thing, it helps you exercise or whatever, but the real model is to sell that information to health insurance companies that can modulate your insurance premiums based on them. The same is true of Facebook and Google, all these sorts of companies. The medium-term future of that is to extract money out of you based on a microanalysis of your beta data signature in all kinds of ways. What that adds up to is a society in which people are, in a very real sense, given very different rights within society. These are the kinds of things I’m thinking about now.
AR This is a slight shift, though – your work has, at least to date, been about state power. Tell me a little bit about the project for this issue of ArtReview. The badges you made for the photographs, for example – they are like military badges.
TP I like making badges. I make badges for all kinds of different projects. It came out of a book project called I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed by Me , and a series of artworks related to that. That was about collecting military patches that were made for projects and programmes that ‘didn’t exist’, for secret projects. It struck me as a really interesting strand of visual culture. How do you represent that which must not be represented? Which presents an interesting art historical question too – I mean, this is an old question going back thousands of years. Then what you also have is a bit of an unmediated glimpse into that culture of secret state power. In that visual language you often see a self-reflexivity that wouldn’t be made publicly. We all know this from our own jobs. I’m sure within ArtReview there are some very candid conversations about how power works in the artworld that you couldn’t publish, but internally you would make jokes about it. So the same is true of the NSA and the like, where internally they would be, very self-consciously, talking about themselves as the bad guys. So for the magazine I was imagining what this might look like for the artworld: what if the artworld made uniform patches that weren’t for public consumption but which actually gave you a glimpse into its unspoken id?
This article first appeared in the November 2016 issue of ArtReview