The artist tells how his work provides a map of the digital worlds hidden landscapes and forbidden places
Trevor Paglen describes himself as a landscape artist, but he is no John Constable. The landscapes Paglen frames extend to the bottom of the ocean and beyond the blurred edges of the Earths atmosphere. For the last two decades, the artist, a cheerful and fervent man of 43, has been on a mission to photograph the unseen political geography of our times. His art tries to capture places that are not on any map the secret air bases and offshore prisons from which the war on terror has been fought as well as the networks of data collection and surveillance that now shape our democracies, the cables, spy satellites and artificial intelligences of the digital world.
There is little abstract about this effort. Paglen has spent a good deal of his artistic career camped out in deserts with only suspicious drones for company, his special astro-telescopic lenses trained on the heavens or distant military bases. (For me, seeing the drone in the 21st century is a little bit like Turner seeing the train in the 19th century.) He trained as a scuba diver to get 100ft beneath the waves in search of the cables carrying all of human knowledge. He recognises few limits to his art. In April, he will launch his own satellite and, with it, the worlds first space sculpture, a manmade star that should be visible from most places on the Earth for a few months, as bright as one of the stars in the BigDipper.
I meet Paglen in Berlin, in a prewar studio apartment, which is his current home and the centre of his operations. We sit in a high-ceilinged room among banks of computer screens and bookcases of art monographs. Two of his assistants, Daniel and Eric, are at work on an artificial intelligence project. Paglen is mostly either here directing that and five other projects with them, or on airplanestrying to figure out how to pay the rent. In the week that we meet, that latter process has become a little easier as heis named one of this years recipients ofthe MacArthur genius grant, withits stipend of $625,000 (470,000) over five years.
Paglen likes to joke that the airy apartment itself is probably one of the most surveilled spaces in western Europe. It was formerly home to the documentary-maker Laura Poitras, Paglens friend, who was instrumental in helping CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden go public about the staggering level of state-sponsored monitoring. Paglens footage of National Security Agency bases was included in Citizenfour, Poitrass Academy award-winning documentary about Snowden. In some senses, being watched goes with the territory. The apartment is also a couple of hundred yards from the archives of the old East German Stasi: millions of pages of paper records in manila files that until recently would have represented the most comprehensive data collection in human history, before Facebook and Google, the NSA and the rest upped theante.