Under Constant Surveillance with Trevor Paglen and Laura Poitras

Some months ago, curator Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy, an agent of dOCUMENTA (13), had a conversation with artist and writer Trevor Paglen and filmmaker and journalist Laura Poitras. They met in a high-rise building in downtown New York city. It was a clear, sunny day, even Governors Island was visible from there. Located to the South of Manhattan, Governors Island is the site of a now inoperative military fortification built in the 18th century to defend New York city’s harbor. Inspired by the sight of that building, Sofía, Trevor and Laura’s conversation made reference to architectures of siege, to spaces being besieged, such as the Internet, and along the way they discussed surveillance, archives and the grammar of images.

SOFÍA HERNÁNDEZ CHONG CUY: When I think about siege, architecture is one of first things that come to mind. Alberti’s star-shaped fortress design proposed new war strategies during the 15th century and throughout modernity. Today, of course, there are different kinds of wars, as there are different military tactics and architectures.

TREVOR PAGLEN: For our time, a more relevant reference than Alberti might be the star-shaped urban planning of Haussmann in Paris, allowing military access into the heart of civic life. I would be interested in discussing the inroads the state creates to militarize everyday life, particularly, its ways of surveillance and control.

LAURA POITRAS: This makes me think of the Panopticon, of how you internalize the state, and its relation to mental besiegement and captive minds.

SH: It’s interesting that you both mention ways of being or feeling watched and monitored. Architecture associated with siege is about creating defensive structures and protective borders. How do you see these kinds of mechanisms, if not architectures, playing out in our environment today?

LP: I’ll talk about a very specific example: I went to Iraq in 2004 to document the so-called nation-building project—the United States occupation. It was quite interesting how the U.S. labeled the territory. There was the Green Zone, in which basically the U.S. military created a security barricade imprisoning itself from Iraqis; and there was the rest of the country, which was the Red Zone, implying danger. The idea that one can engage in conversation with others while at the same time create physical borders is quite terrifying.

SH: What you describe is a tactic of siege—that you are within a space, not outside of it, whether to reach a series of agreements or surrenders.

TP: Over the course of the last decade military architectures, strategies and tactics developed for places like Iraq, Afghanistan and the deterritorialized “everywhere war” have also been structuring society within the U.S., but let’s not pretend this started on September 12, 2001.

LP: We know the U.S. has historically violated boundaries and engaged in actions and violations of populations. What is peculiar is that after 9/11 these actions have been legalized. Torture Memos basically say that torture doesn’t exist until there is organ failure. There is a new categorization of enemy combatants; Guantanamo is totally outside of any legal framework; surveillance programs in the U.S. have secret interpretations that the public can’t access... It’s endless.

TP: Yes, the rise of secret laws is what I wanted to point out.

SH: What do you mean by secret laws?

LP: You have the Patriot Act, for example, that as a citizen you can access and read, but then the government has a secret interpretation of it that it doesn’t disclose to its citizens. In the instance of surveillance, say, the secret interpretation of Section 215 is that if you share your communication with a third party, such as an Internet provider, you forego your rights of privacy.

SH: But haven’t there always been state secrets, and ultimately undisclosed law interpretations and military operations? I can think of certain political precedents—and even how these have been mediatized through American film, particularly during the 1970s.

TP: You mean the post-Watergate moment?

SH: Yes. And, in last decade, there has been a very interesting dialogue with cultural production of the 1970s, and now that I think about it seems related precisely because of its reconsideration of media and surveillance.

TP: What’s interesting about those films from the 1970s is that they come out of a very cathartic moment in political history with the end of Watergate. Everybody knew that Watergate was wrong. Even Nixon! The Church Committee and Pike Hearings that were set up in its aftermath were unprecedented in American history. These congressional committees really did go through all the CIA’s illegal activities and put together a list of all its secrets. Many films of that time period were coming out of an examination of American militarism, this post-Vietnam, post-Watergate moment. But immediately after that post-Watergate catharsis, we have the hostage crisis in Iran, wars breaking out in Lebanon, and the invasions of Central America—in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras. The infrastructure of today’s global war on terror, as we understand it now, was being set up in the 1980s and culminates with Iran-Contra in 1986. What happens at the end of Watergate is very different to what happens at the end of the Iran-Contra.

LP: At least there were court hearings during that time! Where are the torture hearings today? That’s what I find so staggering now. What is so frightening now is the way in which state transgressions are endorsed and institutionalized. At what point is there going to be some kind of a reckoning? What does this idea of looking forward, rather than looking back, mean? I think it’s an absolute descent into the abyss.

TP: Absolutely. We see this even the day Obama comes to power. He orders a couple of things: shut down the CIA prisons, shut down Guantanamo Bay. I was, like, this is great! Then, three months later, he’s sitting on one of these rendition cases—the Binyam Mohammed case before the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco and the U.S. Justice Department attorneys, now under the Obama Administration continued making the Bush-era argument that the case could not go forward due to "state secrets." The judges couldn’t believe that the Obama Administration was making the same argument as Bush. They kept saying to the Obama lawyers something to the effect of "you’re sure this is the argument you’re supposed to be making?…"

LP: At that time, Obama did release the Torture Memos. He then promised to release other existing images of torture, more brutal than those that leaked from Abu Ghraib, but it didn’t happen. This desire to contain—particularly visual representation of what the U.S. is engaged in—happens at the same time when state secrets are invoked.

SH: Now that you talk about controlling images and how these circulate or not, the notion of siege can be rethought.

LP: That’s what my pursuit has been: how can we get more visual representations of what the state is doing? And what are the images that can potentially turn or change how people perceive the world?

SH: That’s why visual art is so important.

LP: And journalism, too, visual representations in general, as well as primary documents.

SH: There are new and longstanding critiques—from Susan Sontag to Errol Morris and everyone in between—about the so-called efficacy of images of war and torture, about what an image produces or not, about its impacts and its limits. We’ve been talking about the concept of being besieged in terms of architecture or in terms of law. How can we talk about it in terms of image making?

TP: I think part of the task of artists and journalists is to generate a vocabulary—a cultural vocabulary and, potentially, a legal vocabulary. What was really interesting about the way a lot of these “state secret” cases were brought before the court was that the Department of Justice would say, “these cases cannot proceed because the vocabulary that you would have to use to talk about these things is classified.” As a response, organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights were putting together huge appendices to lawsuits, saying: “This is the vocabulary that we want to use to talk about these cases in court. This is all in the public record. Here are images, articles by journalists, statements by government officials.” As an artist, I have an interest in partaking in the process of generating vocabulary and grammar—and that’s quite different from Susan Sontag or Errol Morris’ fetishistic understanding of images as things-in-themselves. I think about images in a more relational way.

SH: I like the idea that the force of an image generates a lexicon that becomes part of colloquial speech and even the law. If we didn’t have these images, narratives or documentaries, there would be little or no visibility of existing struggles or ways of discussing them.

TP: Thinking about images in this broader sense, say grammatically, al- lows for more varied understandings of what images do, or are supposed to do.

LP: I’ve been trying to document the War on Terror with two goals: one is to create some kind of a visual record to see what this looks like on the ground; and, secondly, to structure my films in such a way that they implicate audiences in what they’re witnessing. Sympathy simply maintains the status quo. I can’t separate the fact that I am an American citizen, and that it’s my country that is making these political occupations, detentions, renditions and drone strikes. I’m interested in finding ways to document and show these things, ways that make audiences feel they are not distant observers but instead implicated in the very actions they’re witnessing on film, and that may shift how they understand the world.

SH: Different ways of seeing seem like an underlying topic in this conversation. I would like to go back to the idea of the Panopticon as it could relate to the Internet, a space of production, gathering and exchange, a space of markets, conflict and war, and, as such, a space of constant surveillance.

TP: I actually think that when it comes to the Internet it would be most helpful to think about the archive as the model rather than use the Panopticon as a reference. The new National Security Agency (NSA) in Utah is a giant database, searchable retroactively. It’s not looking at your life through a surveillance camera; it’s being able to look at any point of your life, and potentially assembling those points into any desired collage.

SH: This was likely a dream of J. Edgar Hoover.

TP: It’s very much connected to this new legal regime with secret laws and secret interpretations of laws, and at the same time the reinvigoration of things like the Espionage Act, for example. All of these some-how seem to fit together in terms of thinking about what the future of American civic life look like. The U.S. has set up a surveillance state that the Stasi could never have even dreamed of.

LP: What do you think motivates it?

TP: Honestly, I think that to a large extent these things motivate themselves. (This is one of the very weird theses that I put forth in my book Blank Spots on the Map.) In other words, I think the best explanation for why Guantanamo is there right now is that it’s there. As weird as that sounds, its own materiality carries with it a lot of material and political inertia. It’s an enormous amount of work to try to undo these institutions.

SH: But detention camps have been shut down, historically.

LP: The war on terror is very profitable for a lot of people, for both the military and private contractors. But I also think there is a real fear of information, and the Internet is allowing people to communicate. There are ways in which powerful systems contain agency. Capitalism, for example, which doesn’t need to oppress people, just keeps them busy earning and spending. But the Internet opens up a space for a totally different type of agency and connection that is transnational, and I think this frightens the state. And so now the Internet needs to be militarized, and we get Cyber Command.

SH: Cyber-what?

LP: Cyber Command, a new command unit of the U.S. military.

SH: It sounds like a button in a computer keyboard devised in the 1980s.

LP: Keith Alexander, who heads the NSA also heads U.S. Cyber Command. All other U.S. military commands are geographically based. This new command unit is not tied to land but to the Internet and is focuses on “cyber warfare.” I think it’s the state’s effort to contain the power of information sharing, because it’s terrified of how information can freely move between people and of the types of political activism and agency this allows. We see that in the Arab Spring. We don’t say the Internet caused the Arab Spring, but it facilitated it, in the same way that roads facilitate movement.

SH: And some of the vocabulary that we use for the Internet, such as firewalls or pirates comes from the language of war. The connotation of militarized space was there before Cyber Command.

LP: Look at the case of Bradley Manning, accused of leaking sensitive information through Wikileaks. He’s being charged with aiding the enemy on the grounds that he used the Internet. In the same way that there ’s a classification of enemy combatants outside of the law, I expect to see new classifications of crime on the Internet.

TP: What is the intersection between that and secret laws, the Espionage Act, and this whole other part of that war-on-terror?

LP: Legalization. There ’s this whole carving out of a legal framework that I think is going to be targeting people who use the Internet to exchange information in ways that the state finds threatening. What we’re see- ing with Wikileaks is a desire to carve the press or the media away from activities of information sharing. There ’s a new law, the National Defense Authorization Act, which basically says journalists going to conflict zones may potentially be exposed to material support charges and that you can be held indefinitely until the end of hostilities.

TP: What you find yourself in is a constant state of emergency.

LP: What’s so staggering right now is the gradualness of it all—Guantanamo, then secret laws, renditions, one thing after another, after another.

TP: Or unemployment! The creation of new norms, in particular, the institutionalization of informality, seems like a really big part of this. If we ’re talking about potentially becoming an enemy combatant by put- ting something on the Internet, then Bradley Manning is the prototype
for what that figure might be. That’s everybody.

SH: Listening to you talk about the NSA, the building of an archive, the so-called militarization of the everyday, makes me notice the various forms with which we provide information almost by default to third parties, like with our health insurance providers. Every time we go to the doctor, we pretty much sign off on all that information that ought to be private. Why would the state want that?

LP: Basically, your medical records are a domain, your emails are a domain, your cell phone is a domain, your employment, your bank records, the books you buy, and the idea is to create a through-line.

TP: This is no longer the classic guy sitting in a van with headphones...

SH: I suppose the information you share over email and your purchases do build a person’s portrait, however superficial, but even medical records, biological information... all of that is in some computer server in Utah? How is it possible that we’ve gotten to this point?