When you walk into the Metro Pictures gallery in New York's Chelsea, your eyes will immediately get tangled up in blue. Hanging on the wall is a photo by Trevor Paglen that appears at first to be a study of the color. The blue caught by his camera, royal then aquamarine, is rich. It is beautiful. It looks like velvet. You'll want to touch it. Then your eyes will wander down to the murky depths of the photo and there you will see a tiny cable snaking its way along a sandy ground.
What you are looking at is one of the many undersea cables that carries inside it, to put it simply, the magic of the Internet. This particular cable, which runs aground on the coast of Florida, has been tapped by the NSA according to Paglen's research. Paglen, an artist who has been documenting the physical footprint of surveillance for years, got scuba-certified in order to go diving "at several locations off the coast of Florida," he says, to find and photograph the cables.
The NSA did not respond to a request for comment about the art or about whether it is tapping the data firehoses photographed by Paglen.
The tapping of undersea cables has been reported for years, and more information about the practice by the NSA and GCHQ was included in documents leaked by Edward Snowden. From the Atlantic in 2013:
[B]oth the U.S. and the U.K. spy agencies are tapping directly into the Internet's backbone — the undersea fiber optic cables that shuttle online communications between countries and servers. For some privacy activists, this process is even more worrisome than monitoring call metadata because it allows governments to make copies of everything that transverses these cables, if they wanted to.
This is part of the reason why so many privacy advocates embrace encryption of the communications and information that flow across the Internet—making it un-snoopable when collected in mass—and why many law enforcement officials want to reduce the use of encryption.
But even if you know about the tapping of undersea cables, that knowledge seems more solid and tangible when you actually see those data pipes lying there, flacidly, on the sea floor, pale, thin and exploitable.
We are visual creatures. We need images to wrap our heads around the realities of government monitoring programs. While deliberating on whether you are for or against unintended recipients gathering our digital information from these pipes and sifting through it, it is useful to see the actual pipes. Paglen says he was inspired in part by "Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet," a book by journalist Andrew Blum about the physicality of the Web.
"When we talk about the internet or mass surveillance—which are basically two sides of the same coin at this point—we use horribly mystifying metaphors to describe them: the cloud, the world wide web, the Information Superhighway, and so on," Paglen told Vice. "But everything in the world is made of stuff, right? Where is the stuff that mass surveillance is made of, and what does it look like?"
Paglen, 41, has been doing work revolving around this for years. Before going to sea, he documented surveillance on the ground, in the air, and even in space, taking photographs of spy satellites, drones, and governmental collection facilities, such as the NSA database in Utah. I know from experience that the government doesn't like photographs being taken of restricted sites, but Paglen insists on his right to film and document such places from public land.
He is part-artist, part-journalist, part-activist. The Metro Pictures exhibit includes a black-and-white video installation that plays a long, long list of code names for NSA and GCHQ programs, taken from the classified documents leaked by Snowden. The exhibit also includes video Paglen made of 12 spy facilities around the world, some of which was included in Laura Poitras's Oscar-winning documentary Citizen Four. The video includes the gorgeous white hexagonal radomes that protect antennas in the UK and white vans coming and going from the Utah database as smoke or steam drifts from a building.
Paglen's work usually makes the facilities look boring or beautiful, but always the work is a reminder of the infrastructure that makes mass surveillance possible. He "makes art out of government secrets," wrote the New Yorker in a 2012 profile. (And his work has surely inspired others, such as the Irish artist who photographed Google's data centers from a helicopter after the search giant said no to an official portrait.)
Paglen's next planned exhibit takes him even farther into the territory of artist-activist. In a collaboration with technologist Jacob Appelbaum next month, he plans to turn an art museum in Germany into a Tor node. With that new project, rather than documenting mass surveillance, Paglen will be aiding one of the options out there for resisting it.