The Intercept has landed. The new digital publication was launched by Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, the journalists who distributed the Edward Snowden documents, along with Jeremy Scahill, journalist, and producer and writer of the documentary Dirty Wars. The described aim of The Intercept is to publish “fearless, adversarial journalism across a wide range of issues.” i’m eager to see how they proceed.
Its first post – a chilling report on how the NSA‘s surveillance program often provides the White House with their two self-legitimating “sources of intelligence” for strikes in their targeted assassination program. “…death by unreliable metadata.” This article is not illustrated, save for a generic image of an airplane in the sky.
Its second post – a project by Trevor Paglen, co-commissioned by Creative Time Reports, consists of aerial nighttime views (shot from a rented helicopter) of the headquarters of the NSA, the National Reconnaissance Office, and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.
On his own website Paglen defines his work– alongside a silhouetted image of presumably himself looking through a camera device eerily similar to a portable surface-to-air missile weapon – as blurring the lines of science, art, and journalism.
The Intercept brings the Paglen photos into the explicit realm of journalism. And why should critical artists today be held solely to a focus on the politics and economics of the art apparatus? Why be held to a narrow definition of “Institutional Critique”? That said, critical artists can be held to an attention to the politics of representation. (And why not ask the same of reporters and editors?)
The politics of representation: I wonder about the structures of spectatorial identification in the Paglen project, a representational, not to say psychical, identification with the militarism – the frisson of its paraphernalia, its power, its subjective views – that the work sets out to critique.
“What, “ Paglen writes in introducing the photos, “does a surveillance state look like?” And then he provides his visual response.
In the didactic video that accompanies the publication of the aerial photographs, the camera follows Paglen to a helicopter garage, including a nightime shot of what seems to be a camouflage-covered tank of some kind. Following this shot, there are a couple of shots in the helicopter that position the viewer as if looking out the windshield, and then a cut to a point-of-view shot that starts to look like the terrain of the photographs. (It would take another paragraph to describe and analyze the sound during this segment.) Later in the video, you see Paglen at the helicopter garage site, talking to someone who could be the pilot. This is followed with a view of a dramatic sky, a shot of two helicoptors on a field, and a shot of the sky with something in flight. Then we see Paglen as he describes wanting to create a visuial and cultural vocabulary, taking such photos as a reference point for a larger conversation; he explains how “we” tend to assume that such institutions as those photographed are different from other civic institutions such as libraries, which make us think that “we” can’t make demands of them as we might of a public library’s hours and budgets and policies.
Clearly, one point of the aerial view in this project is to connote the unapproachability of these high-security government structures. But the aerial photographic view will always provide particular types of identification, for example, with gravity- and nature-defying technologies, with the act of targeting, and in this case with one’s own scopic surveillance set up to challenge the government’s.
The introductory text, written by Paglen in the first person, links to the one officially-released photo of the NSA, a wiki page. Paglen finds the image insufficient (it’s old). But does the official, daytime, overhead view provide less information than the nighttime shot that Paglen took of it?
Crisp, detailed, matter of fact, the almost monochromatic daytime shot is surprisingly more chilling a view than Paglen’s dramatic overhead photos in which light and its lack produce scintillating nighttime chromatics. Many of the comments posted to the article praise the Paglen photos for their beauty; one commenter states that she will use it as a screensaver. Is the intention to make the buildings look as innocuous as libraries might be thought to be?
Both Paglen and I were participants in Simon Leung’s brilliantly conceived 2006 conference and exhibition entitled “The Look of Law,” which “addresse[d] the direct and residual effects that state power has on our psyche and how this, in turn, constitutes the force of Law.” At the conference, I publicly expressed to Paglen my sense that the work he presented in the conference seemed to bind the spectator up in an identification with the subject of his critique – through various representational means. I’m not interested in repressing such identifications, but rather in an attention to the psychical dimensions of all visual processes, in particular when they visualize power and violence.