'Don’t shoot!' Trevor Paglen's impassioned plea to the NSA
The artist recalls the time he took a 'perfectly legal' photography flight over the institution's Maryland headquarters
Trevor Paglen knows what he wants his art to do. “I want art to help us see the historical moment that we find ourselves in,” he says in his Phaidon book. “If I look up at the night sky and try to track all the secret satellites and pieces of space debris, for example, I’m engaging in an activity and seeing a landscape that’s very specific to the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.”
Unfortunately, certain places that might conjure up our moment in time aren’t as easy to access as the night sky.
A few years ago, following Edward Snowden’s National Security Agency leak, Paglen became aware that there was only one image of the Agency’s HQ available to the public, and it didn’t really show the building as it looks today.
“In 2013, Paglen realised that almost every article published about the National Security Agency was illustrated with the same stock aerial photo of its headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland.” explains Professor Julia Bryan-Wilson in our Trevor Paglen book. “Though it is an outdated image that was obviously taken several decades ago (the shapes of the cars in the crowded parking lot effectively date it to the 1970s), it was the only one in circulation due to tightly controlled regulations about airspace.”
Paglen also realised that he could, quite legally enter that airspace, in a helicopter and take a new photograph, showing the building as it stands today, but that it might be wise to inform the NSA, in case the Agency tried to shoot down the helicopter he was in.
“We called up the NSA and said ‘we're going to fly a helicopter over your headquarters, and take pictures,’” he says in this Art21 video, in which he describes shooting the picture. The helicopter flight was, Paglen says, “perfectly legal,” though the NSA weren't keen.
“They said ‘we don’t want you to do that,’” he recalls. “We said, ‘well, we’re not asking permission. We’re just telling you we’re doing this, and don’t shoot us.’”
The NSA sent its employees out to monitor Paglen’s flight, and instructed colleagues to switch certain lights on or off, to obscure aspects of the building.
Judging by the finished image, that exercise in obfuscation wasn’t wholly successful. The resulting bird's eye shot is quite clear, which, in itself, presents other problems.
“It looks like we’re in a shopping mall,” says Paglen in the video. “It seems like a very normal kind of looking place. And I struggle with that, because on one hand, the extent to which the NSA’s tendrils are in our everyday lives, perhaps this perspective is at odds with that.”
However, he also understands that presenting the NSA as a relatively normal, public institution might help the general public hold the Agency to account.
“what I like about this perspective in this particular instance is that it puts you in the situation where we can look at a building like this and to some extent perhaps imagine that in fact these are civic institutions,” he says. “You, as a member of the public should be able to exert the same kind of power over this institution that we can symbolically do by looking at a photograph shot from this perspective.”
To see more of Paglen’s similarly historic imagery, order a copy of our Contemporary Artist Series book dedicated to his art and the working methods he employs in its creation.