The Squirrel Accumulator: Trevor Paglen and the NSA
Trevor Paglen at Metro Pictures
September 10 to October 24, 2015
519 West 24th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, 212 206 7100
An opening shot reveals a green field with geodesic domes in the distance. The camera zooms in; the domes shimmer in the heat against a hazy white sky. The scene changes to an ocean overlooked by a rocky cliff. The tip of a satellite antenna can be seen over a hill in the distance. As the camera zooms, more antennas are revealed scattered among farmers’ fields. The next view is outside of an upscale condominium building at night: some windows are lit, some are dark. A single window comes into focus. People go about their evenings, cooking dinner and pouring drinks as the camera watches from somewhere outside.
These scenes constitute the first few minutes of Trevor Paglen’s two-channel video installation, Eighty Nine Landscapes (2015), part of his current solo exhibition at Metro Pictures. In the video, Paglen films the government’s “black sites” of internet and phone traffic interception from as close of a vantage point as possible. This video serves as a microcosm of the exhibition’s examination of the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs: like the oblivious condominium residents in the video, people across the world are being watched without their knowledge or consent, and the antennas, domes, and satellite dishes are just a few of the instruments used in this monumental monitoring scheme. Paglen’s exhibition chronicles his quest to watch these digital watchmen, a journey that has led to the depths of the ocean and across the globe.
Two diptych pieces dominate the gallery’s front room: each consists of a photograph of a misty seascape next to a nautical map of the region. Pinned to the map are snapshot photographs and transparencies of news articles, leaked memos, and downloaded material regarding the construction and surveillance of the undersea fiber optic cables that connect America’s networks to the rest of the world. NSA-Tapped Fiber Optic Cable Landing Site, New York City, New York, United States (2015) has pinned to it a snippet from a Washington Post article about the NSA that reveals the agency’s code names for Verizon (“Stormbrew”) and AT&T (“Fairview”). These names join countless others in Code Names of the Surveillance State (2015), a four-screen vertical video installation in the next room. Previously exhibited as projections on gallery walls and outside on monuments and buildings, the piece consists of an endlessly scrolling litany of alphabetized codenames purportedly used by the NSA. Each of these names stands for something, but its exact significance is lost on the viewer, appearing as something benign (“Starfish,” “Turquoise”) or nonsensical (“Turtle Biscuit” or “Squirrel Accumulator”).
The bulk of the work in this show consists of large 60 by 48-inch photographs of undersea cables in the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic. The sea floor is murky and hazy, and in some cases the cables can barely be distinguished from the silt and reefs around them. Shot while scuba diving, these photos show the artist getting as close as possible to the sites where the NSA’s regime of information control is executed. Like the black sites in the video installation, the artist’s proximity to these places is a kind of communion with the surveillance state, an attempt to reach out and touch the physical appendages of the untouchable.
With Internet and voice traffic being intercepted via undersea cables and from installations across the globe, is there any means of resistance? A possible solution sits, encased in inch-thick Plexiglass, on a pedestal in the middle of the gallery. Called Autonomy Cube (2015), the piece’s naked circuit boards are a functional router that connects the user’s phone or laptop to a TOR network, a kind of shadow Internet used by dissidents, whistleblowers, and criminals alike. TOR has the advantage of being anonymous and nearly untraceable; Autonomy Cube is thus thought to be outside of the networks of surveillance shown in the exhibition. Even so, pinned to the wall behind the router is a patch depicting a stack of green cubes. Its embroidered letters read: “AFCYBERCOMMAND: RESISTANCE IS FUTILE.” TOR may potentially be a tenable loophole for now, but how long will it be until the NSA figures out a way to extend its surveillance to all of the dark shadows of the Internet?
Paglen’s show may not provide any absolute solutions to the issues surrounding digital surveillance, but his quest to shed light on this hidden world has resulted in a body of work that blends the didactic with the paranoid aesthetics of conspiracy theories. But, in the aftermath of the NSA’s highly publicized leaks, is the conspiracy still just a theory? After all, you’re not paranoid if they’re actually watching you, right?