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.
When I curated The Look of Law, I took an ecumenical approach to including art works that to my mind constitute examples of the effect of the representation of the state–actual or imaginary–has on the psyche. What I was most interested in Paglen’s work was how the viewer might feel when confronted not so much with the depiction of “secret” sites of extraordinary rendition, but with the presentation of something that is enunciating itself AS a secret. In other words, what are we to do with a lens that does not so much depict as corrodes from within? (“These are black sites?” is not so far from “Are these black sites?”) The questions I had were about the erotics of the secret, in what is the sense of sovereign enjoyment when one *feels* included, let into the fraternity; and more importantly, in thinking about the secret not as information that can be revealed or depicted, but as a fetish in and of itself. In this sense, this interrogation cannot be separated from how this image came to you, from the facilitation of the secret and the fetishist himself.
Pace Paglen’s claims on the Intercept site about his NSA photos (that if we can see the NSA we can start making demands on it), I am not convinced about a claim that art “gives” agency to the viewer in general. In this case, since the photographs enunciate from such a specific position of Paglen’s aesthetic and “expertise” in the military/intelligence complex, to my eyes, what the photographs provokes is reflection on an art apparatus that secures Paglen’s author function (many of the comments that challenge the claim that these are the first time these buildings are depicted include links to the contrary).
Your point about how there is, structurally (and literally), a lens that places the viewer in an indentificatory alignment with power, masculinity, and technology is an important critique. I suspect Paglen might not dispute this. Your critique, I imagine, might be met (has been met?) with obliviousness to why that’s a problem. (I say this provisionally, but this is a fact-checkable bit of information: I remember when I did the studio visit with him in 2006 he said he’s able to do what he does because he knows and is comfortable around “these guys” because he “grew up around them”–by which he means those in the governmental agencies he “exposes.”) I don’t look to Trevor Paglen, the way I might to Julia Scher, Mary Kelly, or yourself, perhaps, for a critique of masculinist militarism exactly because he’s swimming in it. It’s like that joke about asking a fish “how’s the water?” The fish would respond, sincerely, “what’s water?” And yes, that’s a problem, but a fish feels entitled to water. That privileged sense of facility is the open secret of transparency. And that, too, is the look of law.
Your interest in the viewer’s reaction to work that enunciates itself as a presentation of “secrets” is very interesting, Simon – not least because it’s often the case that when the secretive aspect of a government activity is foregrounded in an exposure, the expected or anticipated reaction can veil the more significant dynamics at play in the relationship of subject to government. I think it was Baudrillard’s reaction to Watergate that the most outrageous aspect wasn’t that the US government had lied, but that Americans were shocked that their leaders had lied.
I think the question of identification in art is always complex, as it is in life. Your choice of the word “alignment” in this regard is important. Psychical identifications of some kind will invariably be created through images, and I wouldn’t even rule out the possibility of identification playing a role in the creation of a critical relation to power, masculinity, and technology through images. But identification can be both created and disturbed in the same work. I’m not sure I can find that in this project.