Award-winning photographer Trevor Paglen focuses on mass surveillance conducted by government agencies in his work, making these hidden activities visible and sometimes striking. In a new exhibition running through May at Altman Siegel Gallery in The City, he brings the infrastructure behind such operations into view, presenting it as ominous and enormous.
The show contains photography, video, sculpture and mixed media by the Internet-age artist and geographer who has taken thousands of photographs from public vantage spots, documenting the existence and vastness of covert data-gathering programs.
Paglen, who contributed cinematography to the Oscar-winning documentary “Citizenfour,” believes that secrecy of this sort “nourishes the worst excesses of power” and is known for stunning images capturing surveillance satellites in nighttime skies. His current show concentrates on ground surveillance performed by the U.S. National Security Agency and the United Kingdom’s Government Communication Headquarters.
It also examines the physical aspects – buildings, employees, underwater cables – of data tapping, countering the perception that online communications exist in an intangible “ether” sphere or “cloud.”
Every piece in the trim but compelling show commands serious consideration, beginning with photographs of serene-looking landscapes where there is hidden surveillance.
A beautiful C-print pictures a peaceful Point Arena coastline where, not far from view, the NSA is tapping suboceanic lines flowing with everyday communications. An accompanying collage, featuring a map, NSA materials, and other elements, provides evidence of this surveillance.
A similar work looks at surveillance taking place on Long Island, New York.
“Code Names of the Surveillance State,” a video installation, features a scrolling roster of thousands of surveillance-program code monikers. While sadly indicative of secrecy-obsessed mind-sets, the intentionally incongruous aliases – “Apeface,” “Blistering Barnacle,” “Icecream Hornet” – have a geekily comic quality.
“Circles,” a single-take video, features aerial footage of a GCHQ information-gathering site in England. Paglen zooms in on the huge complex to show building components, revealing 21st-century surveillance-state aesthetics. Presented with both a journalist’s sense of authenticity and an artist’s poetic eye, the circular architecture appears at once functional and eerie.
“Autonomy Cube” is a citizen-action companion piece to the depictions of privacy invasion elsewhere on view. Created by Paglen and computer-security researcher Jacob Applebaum, this minimalist sculpture contains electronics that create an open wi-fi hotspot. Through it, individuals can link to a network designed to provide online anonymity.
Paglen, who has written five books, has exhibited his work in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Tate Modern, London; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Last year, he received a Pioneer Award, given by the Electronic Frontier Foundation to leaders “who are extending freedom and innovation in the realm of information technology.”
IF YOU GO
Where: Altman Siegel Gallery, 49 Geary St., fourth floor, S.F.
When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays; closes May 2
Contact: (415) 576-9300, www.altmansiegel.com