Art for a Post-Surveillance Age

The Orbital Reflector, as Paglen calls it, seems at first glance almost romantic, even deliberately naïve. It has no scientific purpose; it doesn’t even carry a camera. But under closer scrutiny, it can be seen as an elaboration of the artist’s ongoing thesis about art, technology and the impossibility of separating either from a specific moment in time. ‘‘It began as a thought experiment in which we imagined that spaceflight was the opposite of what it actually is,’’ he explains over lunch at Soho House, at a table overlooking the Berlin TV tower, with its iconic dome evoking Sputnik, Earth’s first satellite. In the American mind, space is a frontier: ‘‘We imagine going to the moon and planting a flag, going to an asteroid and mining, going to Mars and setting up a colony,’’ he says. ‘‘And I think that expansionist mentality is very self-destructive, especially given the kind of precarious relationship we now have to the ecosystem here on Earth, because it allows us to imagine that Earth is disposable.’’ Billionaire entrepreneurs may dream of colonizing Mars, but in fact, space is not going to save us. Aliens are not going to grant us absolution. ‘‘People expect this kind of profound cosmic altruism, which is very religious in a way. Space is completely wrapped up with this kind of stuff, which is what makes it interesting.’’

Slide Show

Trevor Paglen’s Art

CreditC-print, courtesy of the Artist and Metro Pictures, New York

The Orbital Reflector draws a clear parallel between contemporary art and space exploration: the ideal of a purely visionary gesture, and the less starry reality. While the satellite — a small, five-kilogram box called a CubeSat, from which a 100-foot-long inflatable structure will deploy — has no commercial or military purpose, its success depends on the very systems of power Paglen has spent more than a decade critiquing. Built by an aerospace contractor called Global Western, it, likely along with a governmental reconnaissance satellite, will launch from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base on a Space X rocket into low orbit. The project illustrates how unfeasible it would be to execute any other way: For all the talk of civilian spaceflight, it remains a thoroughly militarized domain.

Managing the project is Zia Oboodiyat, a retired engineer who ran large communications satellite programs for the San Francisco-based Space Systems/Loral. He first met Paglen in 2011 while the artist was working on the time capsule; Oboodiyat oversaw the construction of the satellite the disc was attached to and advocated for the project. When Paglen approached him about the Orbital Reflector, Oboodiyat immediately recognized its potential lyricism. ‘‘You don’t have to be rich to see it; you don’t have to be tall to see it,’’ he says. ‘‘You don’t have to be American. Anybody anywhere on Earth has equal opportunity to see something that gives humanity hope.’’

Paglen’s partner in the project, the Reno-based Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art, is fund-raising to cover the $1.3 million cost. The center’s collection includes extensive material from the giants of land art, including Walter de Maria and Michael Heizer. The Orbital Reflector places Paglen (for the moment, anyway) in this tradition — an artist defying the laws of nature and practicality in order to create a work larger than himself. ‘‘It is a high-risk proposition — rockets do explode; CubeSats sometimes fail to open,’’ says David Walker, the museum’s executive director. ‘‘But it’s exciting, too, because we see outer space as the ultimate mirror for human aspiration.’’ The Orbital Reflector is like the inevitable conclusion to the land art movement; Paglen’s work, like Heizer’s, may start in the desert, but will eventually leave the Earth entirely.

Paglen moved to Berlin partly for financial reasons — ‘‘I wanted to hire people, not spend $10,000 a month on a studio in Sunset Park’’ — but seems to have found a home amid the city’s young expat artists and WikiLeaks types. At a Vietnamese restaurant, he bumps into a hacktivist friend who looks all of 17. ‘‘These guys have guts,’’ Paglen notes, after saying hello. ‘‘He was way up the butthole of the F.B.I. I probably shouldn’t talk about it.’’

Paglen doesn’t describe himself as a dissident — ‘‘I’m as American as it gets, a product of these contradictions’’ — but it’s impossible not to connect the themes in his work to a childhood spent on military bases. His father was an Air Force ophthalmologist; his mother, one of the first female Episcopalian priests. In third grade, in the San Francisco Bay Area, Paglen got in trouble for skipping school to sneak into lectures on dinosaurs at Berkeley — the same lecture halls in which he’d later be working toward his doctorate. The family moved to Wiesbaden, Germany, when he was 12, and he spent two years in a German school in a nearby village, where, as a foreign student, he was ostracized. ‘‘When you’re not the beneficiary of privilege, suddenly you see it for what it is,’’ he says.

An ongoing theme in Paglen’s more satirical work is the puerile machismo of military culture’s symbology and nomenclature, ‘‘the collective unconscious of this world of secrecy and violence,’’ as he puts it. One afternoon, Hanna Mattes, who oversees Paglen’s studio and helps manage its external production, is consulting with the artist on one of the sculptures he’s making for the fall show: an enormous dragon inspired by the small trophy in his studio. The trophy, Paglen explains, is presented to members of the 315th Network Warfare Squadron upon retirement. Paglen’s version will be a 12-foot sculpture inscribed in fetishistic detail, like medieval armor for the cyber age. The best way to preserve the details, they conclude, will be to 3D-print the mold in four sections, lightly polishing them to remove any marks. Another concern is the weight: The finished dragon, cast in bronze, will weigh two tons. Paglen mentions a crane. Mattes looks at him. ‘‘Maybe we should just paint the form for the exhibition.’’

The dragon will be included in the 2018 Smithsonian exhibit. This year’s Metro Pictures exhibit will showcase Paglen’s ongoing work with different kinds of artificial intelligence technologies, taking viewers down a rabbit hole of imagery, from the now quaint-seeming pictures first made by humans in the early 1990s to train military facial recognition software, to the kind of ‘‘invisible images’’ computers hallucinate for themselves — say, when we post an image on Facebook — in order to make sense of the external world. ‘‘This is how an A.I. brain sees a shark,’’ Paglen says back in his studio, looking at a weirdly beautiful Abstract Expressionist-like swath of blues and grays that results from a computer creating a visual amalgam of thousands of images of the animal in water. The exhibit invites critical questions about the extent to which artificial intelligence algorithms, with their potential for programmed-in bias, are governing our reality. It’s also aesthetically provocative: ‘‘Man,’’ a distillation of figurative imagery, vaguely recalls a Francis Bacon portrait; ‘‘Rainbow’’ — a blend of cosmic-like rainbows — a Dali-esque dreamscape. ‘‘It’s like I’m relearning art history,’’ Paglen says.

So how does an artist who has devoted his career to empirical scrutiny of those things that will shape our future, from artificial intelligence to the annexation of space, respond rationally to a time in which reason itself — when it comes to political discourse, at least — seems to be increasingly endangered? ‘‘Those are foundational questions for me,’’ Paglen says. ‘‘Nothing that you make in the world exists in isolation from the social and political and ecological dimensions of it.’’ He hasn’t given up on art’s ability to spark the imagination — and to make us see the things we might prefer not to. The Orbital Reflector presented an opportunity to ‘‘get messy . . . to make something that’s beautiful, but also self-contradictory, and tries to challenge common sense.’’ It’s Carl Sagan meets Dada for a new millennium’s inhumanity.

As we talk, the sky darkens in Berlin, and the first blinking glimmerings appear. ‘‘For me, there’s something very romantic about going and looking at the stars and trying to photograph spy satellites,’’ Paglen says. ‘‘Ultimately, what it comes down to is looking at the sky and trying to understand something about one’s place in history. People have been doing this for tens of thousands of years. This is kind of a variation on that. What if we could imagine a sky that wasn’t out to get us, you know?’’

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Source: New York Times

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