Trevor Paglen. Photo by Wendy Ewald. Image courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

“Barbie, Grace Jones or me?” Trevor Paglen on tech and sex

The artist digs into the power structures behind modern technology in his Smithsonian American Art Museum lecture

A couple of years ago the American artist Trevor Paglen met up with his friend, the American filmmaker Laura Poitras. Poitras had just been given Edward Snowden’s cache of NSA documents and was wondering how to make sense of them.

Paglen had already completed a series of works that examined secret US government projects, but even he was stumped as to how best to turn Snowden’s files into something that might grab ordinary people’s interest.

Eventually he realised that - as he said at his Smithsonian American Art Museum lecture a few days ago - “if you want to make sense of these documents, you have to understand how the Internet worked.”


STSS-1 and two unidentified spacecraft over Carson City (2010) by Trevor Paglen
STSS-1 and two unidentified spacecraft over Carson City (2010) by Trevor Paglen

While many hackneyed tropes describe the Internet and World Wide Web, Paglen realised quite quickly that Snowden’s documents described a physical network of cables, which carry the world’s information.

He dug more deeply into these systems, photographing the stretches of shoreline where oceanic cables reach land, and the NSA bases that tap into those cables; he programmed telescopic cameras to shoot images of unidentified spy satellites, and created machine-learning software to spoof the algorithms that form part of much of our world’s surveillance software.

After describing how some machine-learning systems sometimes class individual’s faces as partially female, Paglen wondered who the programmers regarded as 100% female. “Is it Barbie? Is it Grace Jones? Is it me?”


Paglen NAA

Later this year he hopes to offer everyone an unequivocal signal, when he launches his own satellite into space; called Orbital Reflector, the craft will have no military or scientific purpose, but will simply reflect light back to earth, allowing us to see just one of the manmade objects that look down on us from the heavens.

Why? Well, Paglen admits that his art isn’t going to fix many of our modern maladies. “But I hope that these kind of projects could give us glimpses into a world that could be more just, more equitable and more beautiful,” he concludes.


Trevor Paglen
Trevor Paglen

To get a clearer idea of where those points for improvement might lie, order a copy of our new Trevor Paglen book here.