The MacArthur Foundation recently announced its list of 2017 fellows—24 people from all walks of life who will receive $625,000 “genius” grants, as they’re often called. CityLab is running a series of short conversations with several of the winners.
Trevor Paglen received his MacArthur Fellow grant for a wide-ranging art practice: Loosely speaking, he’s a photographer, but his interest in global information security drives him to push the boundaries of media. As an artist and geographer, he has catalogued secret prisons and military installations and mapped ocean-floor fiber-optic cable-networks. Next year, the Smithsonian American Art Museum will host the first major museum survey of Paglen’s work.
By that time, he will already have made a very unique mark on the world: In November, in conjunction with the Nevada Museum of Art, the artist will launch a satellite for a project called Orbital Reflector. Paglen’s work takes the invisible hand of technology that guides and commoditize our lives and gives it form.
Congratulation on your prize. How do you feel about this news being public?
It’s a huge honor, definitely. People are texting me right now. It’s mind-blowing. It floors me.
What are you working on?
I’m in New York City, and I have an exhibition up at Metro Pictures here that’s all about artificial intelligence and machine vision. How do we think about images that are made by machines for other machines, where we’re not in the loop? For example, a self-driving car takes hundreds of pictures every second and analyzes those images and is doing something with them. A guided missile would be doing something like that. Or an artificial intelligence algorithm that is looking at images on Facebook and trying to understand who’s in them and what kind of clothes they’re wearing and what kind of products they’re using. There’s this whole world of autonomous vision systems. That’s one of the main things I’m thinking about at the moment.
For your work, you need to keep up with advances across a variety of fields. Technology and computer science but also national security and infosec. How do you do that while also keeping up a studio practice?
I talk to a lot of people. That’s a big part of the research that I do. I talk to lots of different people from lots of fields. I’m trying to understand them. I’m trying to understand the way that people from different fields approach the world—literally, what do they see when they look at a given system or space or phenomena. I do that with people—everywhere from aerospace engineers and computer scientists to anthropologists and biologists and astronomers.
Tell me about the satellite that you’re trying to launch—Orbital Reflector.
It comes out of a series of projects having to do with satellites. One project I’ve done is called The Other Night Sky (2010–present), where I track all the secret satellites in the sky and try to photograph them: all the classified satellites and military satellites. I did another project called The Last Pictures (2012), which was a series of images that were placed on a satellite [the Echostar XVI] that went really, really far from Earth. They went into orbit 36,000 kilometers away from the planet. They’ll stay there forever, basically. That was a project thinking about time and the alterations that we make to the environment that will far outlast us.
The Orbital Reflector is a project to try to build a satellite that has no military, commercial, or scientific function. It’s to try to build a satellite that’s the exact opposite of every other satellite that has ever been built. It has aesthetics at its core. The satellite is a small satellite that will piggyback into space on a much larger satellite, and when it goes into space, it opens up and inflates a giant, 100-foot-long diamond shape that’s designed to reflect sunlight down to earth. It will appear as a star in the sky, slowly moving, for about six weeks. Then it will burn up.
Do you ever feel paranoid?
I wouldn’t say that I’m paranoid in the sense that I try to think rationally about risks or consequences that the work that I do might have. That can be in many different spheres. That can be emotionally, that can be just physically, if I’m out in the desert by myself. I don’t get paranoid. A kind of thing that I’ve always tried to use to temper myself through the more difficult projects is thinking about fear, thinking about my relationship with fear, and where is fear useful and where is fear not useful. In a way, trying to have a healthy relationship with fear is something that comes up in the more difficult projects sometimes.
Do you think that Congress is prepared to address the role of social networks in elections? Are we up to the task of regulating these technologies?
We are going to have to learn how to do that. I don’t think a lot of people understand the enormity of the shift that’s happening in the culture right now. In many different spheres, all organized around technology platforms, like Facebook and Google—these are enormously powerful corporations that have enormously intimate and specific information about a huge number of people on planet Earth. How that information is used now is really the Wild West. If that continues, we’re going to quickly find ourselves in a society in which our practical freedoms and liberties are significantly curtailed by our metadata signatures.
Who would you name to be a MacArthur Genius?
Oh, man, so man people. One of the people who comes to mind immediately is Julia Angwin, who is a reporter at ProPublica doing really, really fantastic work looking at algorithmic governance, looking at to what extent automated systems can really reproduce things like racism, sexism, and patriarchy. She’s really thinking about the interface between politics and technology platforms.