Trevor Paglen on Art in the Age of Mass Surveillance and Artificial Intelligence
Trevor Paglen aspires to see the unseen. The artist explores the act of looking through various angles—such as how artificial intelligence systems have been trained to “see” and categorize the world, or the disquieting sense of being “watched” by a security camera—and creates scenarios that frequently implicate viewers in the experience. At other times, he’ll take pictures of places that are typically kept far out of sight, including the rarely seen headquarters of America’s National Security Agency, or the Mojave Desert, home to numerous military facilities, prisons, and a former nuclear testing site. Paglen, who has a Ph.D. in geography from University of California, Berkeley, also thinks about the relationship between space and time, and how the associations a person makes while looking at something—be it a landscape or a satellite in endless orbit around the Earth—are fleeting and constantly changing. By highlighting seemingly invisible frameworks that exist in the world, Paglen invites viewers to think about life’s inconspicuous, and often unsettling, realities.
Paglen, who is 47 and has studios in New York and Berlin, draws on science, technology, and investigative journalism to make his wide-ranging work. In one of his early projects, “Recording Carceral Landscapes” (1995–2004), he wore a concealed microphone and posed as a criminology student to document the interiors of California penitentiaries. For “The Last Pictures” (2012), he collaborated with materials scientists at M.I.T. to devise an ultra-archival disc, micro-etched with a collection of 100 images, and launched it into space on a communications satellite for aliens to find. More recently, his viral digital art project and app “ImageNet Roulette” (2020), which allowed users to upload photos of their faces to see how A.I. might label them, horrified many users with racist, sexist, or overtly stereotypical results, leading ImageNet, a leading image database, to remove half a million images.
Beyond his art practice, Paglen continues his preoccupation with perception. He studies martial arts, surfs, and composes music—activities that require constant, intense awareness. It all stems from a heightened consciousness of, and interest in, the concept of observation that he’s carried for nearly his entire life. “We’re all trying to learn different ways of seeing,” he says.
On this episode, Paglen discusses his deep-seated fascination with perception, talking with Spencer about the impacts of surveillance, deserts as sites of secrecy, and the value of trying to perceive forces that seem impossible to see.
Paglen speaks about his 2012 project “The Last Pictures,” his fascination with cave paintings, and geostationary satellites as monuments to particular moments in history.
Paglen explains the trajectory of “Orbital Reflector,” a nonfunctional satellite that he sent into low Earth orbit in 2018, and why he thinks about outer space as a mirror.
Paglen talks about deserts as places where people put things they don’t want others to see. He also details how Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” (1970) in Utah’s Great Salt Lake shifted his thinking around time and space.
Paglen recalls growing up on a series of Air Force bases, and how the experience shaped his understanding of surveillance. He also remembers picking up a camera for the first time.
Paglen discusses some of the activities he’s engaged in outside of his creative practice, including making music, surfing, and martial arts. He also speaks about going undercover in California prisons, and what he learned about perception from an investigative journalist.
Paglen talks about scuba diving to locate undersea cables owned by the N.S.A. He also considers his work related to the American West and artificial intelligence.
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SPENCER BAILEY: Hi, Trevor. Welcome to Time Sensitive. It’s so great to have you in the studio today.
TREVOR PAGLEN: Thank you so much for having me. It’s great to be here, and it’s a beautiful studio you’ve got.
SB: I wanted to begin on the subject of space—specifically time and space. I’m clearly starting here because this notion of space in your work carries many different meanings, and I was wondering what immediately comes to mind for you when you’re thinking about the relationship between time and space?
TP: Well, when you say the word “space,” I immediately think about it in two ways, instantly. Obviously, there’s outer space, [which] I’ve done a lot of work with. Then I have a background in geography, in addition to art, and so there’s a conception of space there, which means something completely different.
When you specifically ask about time and space, I go to the geography side of it. One of the things that’s interesting is that you don’t really make a distinction between the two when you’re thinking in that geographical sense. What I mean by that is that space is always in flux, and that those fluxes have a temporality to them. They have different temporalities to them. So when you think about space, you don’t think about it as a fixed, static thing. You think about it as a breathing, undulating thing. And you think about time in the same way. Time is not necessarily linear. My friend Rebecca Solnit had a beautiful way of putting it [in her book River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West], where she said [something to the extent of], “We can think about time as a river, and there is an overall flow to it, but it has little eddies and whirlpools and tendrils that it makes as well.” So I guess at a very high, conceptual level, that’s my answer. But I’m sure that’s not particularly revealing. [Laughs]
SB: I do want to get into talking about outer space, and then we’ll get to Earth space. For the project “The Last Pictures,” which you did in 2012 with Creative Time, you sent this time capsule up into deep space aboard the EcoStar XVI satellite. And there were these images etched on a silicon disc, chronicling human history from the Lascaux caves, all the way to political protests.
Let’s start with this satellite, EchoStar XVI itself, which is a part of a series of transportation-communication technologies that have, as you’ve written [in the book that accompanied the project], “in a relatively short period of time, fundamentally altered our relationship with time and space.” Can you speak a bit about the evolution of these technologies in the context of that project?
TP: Okay. [Laughs] These are great, huge questions, and you—
SB: Yeah, it is multiple barreled. [Laughs]
TP: Each one deserves a book. I was talking before about how time and space are blended into each other, and it’s very hard to distinguish between the two sometimes. Material things have temporalities built into them. If you think about something like nuclear waste, it has a temporality built into it. It has a decay rate, and you’re creating something that is poisonous, [and] that will be poisonous for hundreds of thousands of years into the future. That sense of time is baked into the material. And that’s true of materials in general.
“The Last Pictures” project was inspired by a series of conversations that I had with an amateur orbital analyst in Toronto, a guy named Ted Molczan, who tracks spy satellites with a pair of binoculars from his balcony. He’s part of a group of about a dozen people or so around the world who do this kind of thing for a hobby. I was hanging out with him once in Toronto, and I was interested in the decay rates of satellites. Satellites, when you put them up in orbit around the Earth, they decay at some point. The reason for that is that there’s no really hard line that separates the Earth’s atmosphere from space. The atmosphere just gets thinner and thinner and thinner, the further out you go. So as a satellite orbits around the Earth, there are small amounts of drag that those little particles of atmosphere exert on it.
I was doing calculations on these, and I started looking at geostationary satellites. These are satellites—mostly communication satellites and signals-intelligence satellites—that orbit around the Earth at the same exact rate that the Earth itself rotates. So when you have satellite TV, you put a dish up outside your house, and you point it at a specific spot in the sky. There’s a satellite at that spot in the sky, and the reason that satellite can sit there is that it’s orbiting the Earth at the same rate that the earth rotates.
When you do the calculation for the decay time of a geostationary satellite, which is…. They’re thirty-six thousand kilometers away. They’re much, much further away than, you know, imaging satellites, and things like that. The number you get is infinity. And I looked at that and I was like, What the hell does that mean? Does that mean that these don’t decay? I asked Ted that, and he said, “Yeah, they don’t decay.” And in fact, their so-called “end-of-life maneuver” is, sometimes, to go even further away from Earth into what’s called a graveyard orbit.
The geographer in me was thinking, Well, if they don’t decay, there’s no geomorphic forces in space. There’s no erosion. There’s no rain. There’s no tectonic activity. That means that these are potentially, and probably, the longest-lasting objects that the humans will make.
I started immediately thinking about a distant future in which the humans are all gone, and there’s just maybe a small layer in some geologic strata. But there would be this ring of dead robots, basically, that would be our legacy in terms of our contribution to the planet or whatever.
I thought, These are monuments, in a way. They are monuments of a particular moment in history, in a particular relationship to the Earth. With “The Last Pictures,” it was an attempt to acknowledge that. It wasn’t so much an attempt to tell the story of the humans, so much as to create an impressionistic vision of these kinds of contradictions—an impressionistic image that perhaps suggested that the reason why these spacecraft were there maybe had something to with the fact [that] the humans were not there anymore, in the distant future.
That gets us to what your original question was about the role of communication technologies. On the other side of it, when we’re looking at satellites, they have extremely long histories, projecting forward into the future. But at the same time, these are very much instruments of temporality in the sense of facilitating communication between people across the world at very rapid speeds, facilitating production, and organizing activities at very high speeds. In the opposite sense, they’re a technology of speed, or a technology of folding distant spaces into each other, if you want to think about it that way.
SB: What’s fascinating to me, among many things about that project, is this notion of these cave paintings from so long ago being projected so far into the future.
TP: I’m absolutely obsessed with cave paintings. For me, they’re a really interesting way to pose the question of, What is an image? Obviously, as an artist, that’s a question I’m obsessed about. What are we doing? What are these things that we make? The reason cave paintings are so interesting is that they’re case studies of images that have become detached from history. They’ve become detached from the contexts under which they were made. They’ve become detached from the stories that led to their making.
It’s funny, when you look at the history of the interpretation of cave paintings, it’s just like, whatever was in the zeitgeist at that moment. If you look at the fifties, it’s like, patriarchal and hunting, and this and that. And you look at the sixties, and it’s, “Oh, maybe people were doing drugs, and maybe doing this and that.” So you see these changing interpretations over time. I think nowadays, if you read contemporary literature on cave paintings, they say we have no idea. [Laughs] These are essentially mirrors. That’s not to say that they’re meaningless, or that they are…. In a way, they are nonsense. But at the same time they feel, to me anyway, like gifts from our ancestors. That’s just a really interesting way to think about an image, I guess.
SB: How does the Anthropocene, or the moment of human-made geologic consequence, fit into this?
TP: I think it is a very Anthropocene kind of project. People define the Anthropocene in a lot of different ways. Some people say, “Well, it’s always been the bacteriacene. It’s always going to be that.” People are now talking about the pyrocene, what have you. I got interested in the idea from a geomorphologist, a guy named Peter Haff, who wrote an article called “Neogeomorphology” [for the Eos Transactions American Geophysical Union] that was introduced to me by physical geographers when I was at U.C. Berkeley.
The argument Haff was making was that, if you look at historical geomorphic forces—what moves around sediment on the surface of the Earth—traditionally, it’s erosion, vulcanism, plate tectonics. And you look at what’s happening now, well, now it’s like construction, real estate, people moving stuff around. So the argument that he was making from a physical-science perspective is that actually, if you want to do geomorphology, you’ve got to understand something about how real estate markets work. Because that is now a geomorphic force that is moving more sediment around than plate tectonics. It’s just a helpful way for me, I guess, to think about the ways in which the lines between humans and nature are very complex, and in fact, don’t exist.
SB: How did you select this particular collection of a hundred images?
TP: What I actually did was I created a seminar at Creative Time, and got a group of really diverse people, mostly graduate students. We all just got together once a week, and every week we would go and research different kinds of images, and then get together as a group and talk about them. And talk about not only the images, but the ethics of the project, and just thinking about, What are we doing? What kinds of things do we imagine that it’s possible to say? And what is it not possible to say? And how do we negotiate that line between believing, in a very fundamental way, that images really don’t mean anything once they become detached from history? On one hand, what we are doing is nonsensical. On the other hand, we’re making a contribution to the future. There’s an ethical imperative there, and how do we negotiate that, on the other side?
That’s how we collected all of the images. We would vote which one we thought were the best candidates. At the end of the day, I sat down with a group of about three or four hundred images that we’d collectively vetted, and then made the final selection.
SB: It seems like such a massive, even preposterous, kind of exercise. I’m wondering, did you think of this work as related somehow to this idea of the overview effect? Or how do you capture the overview effect?
TP: I don’t know what that is. What’s the overview effect?
SB: The overview effect is something that astronauts say that they feel after a certain amount of time in space, and upon circling the Earth, looking back down on it. And it creates this sort of awesome perspective that you can only get from being there. It kind of connects also to what Stewart Brand was doing with the Whole Earth Catalog, and showing this image of space, and the idea of access to tools. And I know you’ve talked about the planet as a sensor. So I’m wondering, was that kind of thinking part of your process? Like, how do we provide another way of viewing the Earth?
TP: I know that point of view as the “God’s-eye view.” I think there’s a lot of different ways of talking about it. So here, we get to this question of space and time again. What’s interesting is that any collection of stuff that you make, any cultural artifact that you make, is highly specific to the moment in time that you make it, and to the cultural conditions that you make it under, and to your own situated relationship to the world around you. It’s hyper, hyper specific. On the other hand, as we look further in time, into the past or into the future, the work that we want those cultural objects to do expands and expands and expands.
For example, if you look at cave paintings, people always want to interpret them as, like, “This is ‘early man.’” [Laughs] Or, “early humanity,” or whatever it is. There’s a tendency to want to collapse all of human culture and knowledge into a single figure, that this artist who made this cave painting is somehow representative of the collective consciousness and unconsciousness of human history. Moving forward, the same thing happens. We knew that when we did this project, people were going to instinctively want to interpret it as trying to create some document of all humanity for the future, which is obviously an absurd proposition. We were super conscious of that.
And, it’s funny, we dealt with that. The first image in the collection is a really purposely bizarre one. It’s a photograph of the back of a drawing by Paul Klee called…. Well, it’s written about by Walter Benjamin. Klee had a series of drawings of angels, and there’s a famous essay by Walter Benjamin called “Thesis on the Philosophy of History,” where he’s writing about this angel. And he’s talking about the figure of the angel of history as one in which the angel is a figure of progress going forward, and the humans are following behind this angel of progress.
He says we don’t have to think about it that way. When we look at this drawing, perhaps the angel is actually looking back at us, and what’s propelling the angel forward in history are the explosions, and the violence of the present. Perhaps the angel is being blown forward in history as a kind of recoil from the violence of the present. So by inverting that, it’s such a specific image, and I think that’s what we were just trying to say right from the front: There is a vision of history here, but the meaning of the image is so hyper-specific that that should be an indication as to the contingencies of everything that follows.
SB: More recently, following ten years of development, you created “Orbital Reflector,” which was a reflective, nonfunctional satellite that went into low Earth orbit in late . It’s deployment got kind of bungled during the  government shut down. And now it’s lost in space.
SB: Could you talk about the trajectory of this project? It seems fascinating to have spent so much time on it, to have actually realized it, to have launched it, and then to actually see that it becomes lost. Its original purpose maybe isn’t able to be executed upon, but at least … something happened.
TP: It was very similar to “The Last Pictures” in the sense of, I’ve always thought about space, and particularly the night sky, as a kind of mirror. It’s something that we create images of ourselves [in], and then attribute them to the cosmos, somehow. And that’s true of Babylonian astrology, which is where the names of many of the stars come from. People would look at the stars and try to divine the future. The same is true now, like the Hubble Space Telescope, where they’re up there trying to look at space. And what are the questions? Where did we come from? What is our place in the universe? Where is all of this going? The same questions. There’s a cultural aspect to this as well. In the American idiom, space is a myth of the frontier: Star Trek [V]: The Final Frontier. What do you do when you go to space? You go to the moon and you plant the flag on it.
SB: Manifest destiny.
TP: [Laughs] Manifest destiny, exactly. And then you think about mining. So, this is Nevada.
SB: The moon is Nevada.
TP: The Russian tradition is really different. That was one of the big inspirations for “Orbital Reflector,” actually. A lot of the early work in aeronautics and astronautics was done by Russians. They got busy in the early twentieth century, primarily inspired by a late-nineteenth-century Russian philosopher named Nikolai Fyodorov.
Fyodorov has a crazy story. He had something that he called the “Philosophy of the Common Cause.” What he wanted to articulate was a vision of how societies should be organized, and how people should treat each other. The tenets of his philosophy were that all human activity should be organized in the service of a higher purpose. That higher purpose should be, one, making ourselves immortal [laughs], and two, resurrecting everybody who’s ever lived. In order to do that, we need to develop space flight, so that we can go out into space, and collect the particles of our ancestors that have evaporated from the Earth, so we can bring them back and reconstitute them. And once we’ve resurrected everybody who’s ever lived, we’re going to need places for them to live, so they’re going to have to live on other planets, as well.
So a lot of young Russians, budding engineers are like, “Right Let’s get busy. Let’s figure this out.” But what that translates into is a very different sense of what space is, and this is reflected in a lot of Russian science fiction. You think of someone like Stanislaw Lem, or like, Solaris is obviously influenced by this kind of philosophy. You go into space, and you see your relatives. You see the ghosts of your past. And so—
SB: That gives “space-time continuum” a whole new meaning.
TP: A whole new meaning. But again, it’s this mirror effect. “Orbital Reflector” came out of that, and I was thinking about space as a mirror, so I thought, Well, let’s build a mirror to reflect sunlight.
I guess, for me, the other part of the project—and this is also very influenced by Fyodorov as well—was to think about what forms of production could look like if you detached them from capitalism, if you detached them from militarism. The entire history of space flight is one of the military, including now. I mean, SpaceX is a defense contractor. So is Starlink, by the way. So that was the imaginative work of that.
When you think about aerospace engineering, in a way, it might be akin to [what we mean] when we talk about art for art’s sake. Could you do aerospace engineering for aerospace engineering’s sake? Can you then think about the politics of space flight, on one hand, and then on the other hand, what are conceptions of public space at this planetary scale?
This is why the termination of the project is kind of ironic. What happened is, we launched the rocket—and it was a very small satellite, it was about ten centimeters by thirty centimeters, about the size of a brick—and it was going to open up and deploy this huge mirror. When we came off the rocket, we were near some other satellites, so we needed to wait a little while for the satellites to drift apart, so that when we inflated we weren’t going to be in danger of endangering somebody else’s satellite. And we needed to get approval from the F.C.C. to do that maneuver.
We had about six weeks to do it—we’d built the components to last for that long. If you want to build everything radiation-hardened, costs go up exponentially. We thought, Well, that’s more than enough time. We don’t need that. So we launch it, and [Donald] Trump shuts down the government. Why? Because he’s pissed off that they weren’t funding this border wall. Now there’s nobody at the F.C.C. you can call. There’s nobody at NASA you can call. There’s nobody at the military you can call. So you were in this limbo. It became a kind of beautiful irony, in the way that this project, [which] was trying to think about space on this planetary scale, gets shut down by a government that is so dedicated to building a wall between here and Mexico that everything else has to stop. [Laughs]
SB: That’s wild. On the subject of space, you’ve also spent a lot of time in deserts.
SB: In the context of this conversation, how do you think about the desert, and how does it compare to your considerations of outer space?
TP: There are so many different ways to approach the question. I guess one way that you can think about the desert [is], we could just think about it in terms of, historically, how the notion of the desert has been narrated in particular forms of American settler colonial histories, which is, the desert is a wasteland. The desert is empty, and you can go there and do whatever you want. You can strip mountains apart and create toxic landscapes from that. There’s a kind of extraction that goes on there as well. The desert is a site of militarism. When you look at a map of Nevada, you see there’s huge military [bases]. They’re the size of European countries in the Mojave Desert and the Basin and Range [Province] in Nevada.
When the Second World War starts, these [areas] become these bombing ranges. Bombing, bombing, bombing. Military exercises. Then, of course, you get to atmospheric nuclear testing. Literally, the most bombed place in the world is Nevada. It’s just thousands of nuclear weapons that have been set off there. So you get that sense of the desert as an “other” place. A kind of an outside place, where the rules of the rest of the society don’t necessarily apply; [it’s] both very old and has real political consequences in terms of what kinds of activities are undertaken there, and who uses that land for what.
We see that in the history of mining, in particular. We see that in the history of military activities, in particular. You see tons of prisons out in the desert. So it’s a place where, very much, you find a lot of things that people don’t really want you to see. So that’s one conception there. If you go and talk to the Shoshone folks, they’re going to tell you a completely different story about the desert. I mean, that’s a very, again, colonial vision of the desert. So that’s one way of answering the question.
There are many other ways of answering the question. Like, you see differently in the desert. Your perception changes really dramatically, and to me, that’s one of the really magical things about being out there, is that there are places where there’s a kind of silence that’s almost otherworldly. And your vision becomes very acute. When I spend time in the desert, I become intensely aware of the environment, and the changes in it, and the undulations of it. It’s a form of perception I don’t think you really get, or I certainly don’t get, in a city at all.
SB: I wanted to mention this talk you gave once [at Dia Beacon] on Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty,” and where you said of time, “If we start to think of time as a spiral instead of an arrow, we can start to imagine how changing the shape of any particular movement that we make affects the overall contours of time itself.” I had to mention that quote.
TP: Thank you.
SB: Could you speak a little bit to your time around “Spiral Jetty”? How did that shift your thinking at all about a landscape, or about this idea of a desert or time in a desert?
TP: I think it has to do with some of the ideas that we were talking about earlier, in terms of our relationship to time and space, and how these things are folded into each other, and how spatial interventions we make are also temporal interventions. Political structures that we make also have a temporality to them.Things that we make travel forward in time with us, and they have a kind of velocity to them that can be hard to change.
I’m just remembering when I was giving that talk about Smithson, I had been to “Spiral Jetty” several times. And I had to write this talk. I was really confused. I was like, How? When I said I wanted to write about Smithson, the people at [the] Dia [Art Foundation] were like, “Oh really?” I was like, Wait. Why is that a problem? It was like, “Oh, everybody’s afraid to touch Smithson.” I was like, Okay. Did I just step into something that’s going to be more complicated than I thought?
But my friend Kate Crawford, who I’d done a lot of work with, was in Berlin at the time. She came over one afternoon, and we just sat there, and we were watching the Spiral Jetty film over and over again. We went back and looked at a lot of the stuff that [Smithson] was reading—just some of the really pulpy science fiction, and even works about prehistoric art that he was looking at—and trying to understand the constellation of images and ideas that were in the back of his mind going into that. [We] started realizing that there was this different form of temporality that he was thinking about in that piece.
SB: Yeah, that referenced George Kubler’s The Shape of Time, which is a book I, shockingly, even though I host a podcast called Time Sensitive, didn’t know about.
TP: Exactly. There’s that, and then there was another…. and then I think he was getting stuff from [Henri-Louis] Bergson, either directly or indirectly as well.
SB: I understand one of your earliest memories is a memory of the desert, or at least, an imaginary memory of the desert. Can you speak to this experience or memory?
TP: Yeah. I grew up in the [U.S.] Air Force. When I was really young, we were living in San Antonio, Texas, and my dad was transferred to the Bay Area in California, to Novato. We were going to drive from Texas to California, and I remember my dad talking about, “Oh, we have to get a C.B. radio for the car, because we’re going to have to go through the Mojave Desert.” And it just was, in my mind, this huge, expansive, hostile thing that we had to get [through] from one side to the other. We needed to have this radio, like astronauts, [so] that we could get help if something were to happen. Maybe it was more formidable at that time to travel across the desert. Now, it’s no big deal. But I remember just having that vision, and there being something foreboding, but also really magical and otherworldly, about thinking about this journey.
SB: You mentioned that you grew up or were raised on an Air Force base, or a series of Air Force bases. Your father was an Air Force ophthalmologist and your mother was an Episcopalian priest. You moved around a lot, as you mentioned, from Texas to California. Your family also lived in Washington, D.C., for a time, and finally, at age twelve, you moved to an Army airfield in Germany, where you lived until college. What was it like to be a military kid, or traveling around like that all the time?
TP: References are so different, I guess. There’s a million ways to answer that question, but I did move around a lot. When you’re in the military, you get a very different sense of what the geography of the U.S. is than if you’re living in the continental U.S., because there’s bases in Korea, in the Middle East, in Germany, and all over the world, and you’re constantly meeting people that are coming from there. So you really do get a sense of the footprint of the military around the world, and that becomes a part of [how] you think about the U.S. is, because it is. I don’t think you would otherwise get that sense of that global geography of the U.S.
Moving around a lot—and this is something I really value—you get comfortable with being in different spaces. You get comfortable meeting new people all the time. One of my takeaways is that you just maybe really get comfortable being in the world. You get really comfortable socializing with a lot of different kinds of people. The military’s a very diverse place. On the other hand, it’s very authoritarian, and if you’re a teenager and you—and certainly someone like me—at some point, I couldn’t handle it anymore. I was like, What the hell is this? I can’t deal with this. The kind of rigidity, and the kind of conformity—that’s very much a part of that culture as well.
SB: Being surrounded by the military, quite literally, when did surveillance enter your consciousness?
TP: [Pauses] “Surveillance” is such a funny word. If I ever thought I had an idea of what it meant, I don’t know what it means any more. [Laughs] I think I’ve just been conscious, perhaps. I think maybe the personal aspect of that has to do with thinking about how you become, to a certain extent, and are treated, according to ways that other people define you. That is something that always felt very present to me, and perhaps even more, my moving around a lot, because I had a lot of different opportunities to present myself in different ways, in different kinds of contexts. So I think I’ve always been aware of the fact that there’s a kind of freedom that you lose when you are being classified, categorized, tracked, or surveilled, by others, as a general concept, but also [in] a specific context, and in specific ways.
If you think about whether that’s state surveillance, or when you think about Google or Facebook or what have you, how are you being classified? How are you being treated as a result of those classifications? What forms of evidence are being used in those classifications, and how does that impact your everyday life? What are the costs of that? It’s a very squishy answer, but I think that.
SB: It was like osmosis. It was just always there.
TP: Yeah, I think so.
SB: Was art something that was on your mind? I know your grandmother was an artist, right?
TP: My grandmother was an artist, yeah. Art’s always been on my mind. Some people ask, “When did you become an artist?” It’s like, I’ve always been an artist, since I was a kid. It’s always just been a part of what I did, and I never thought twice about that. It’s just part of the way I am in the world.
SB: When did you pick up a camera for the first time?
TP: I am probably the first generation that went backwards into photography, in the sense that I was doing video first, and then reducing that. Like cutting out, cutting out, cutting out, and then you arrive at photography. The first time I shot with a still camera, I’d been shooting video for years by that time. I think the first time where I really started to try to understand what the possibilities of still photography was when I was spending a lot of time out in the desert. I was trying to think about, How do you make images that speak to these kinds of things that we talked about before, that are going on: there’s nuclear testing, and classified military experiments, and prisons, and that sort of thing.
I started using telescopes to try to look around the desert. You would see mirages, and heat, and shimmering, and then structures in the distance—this very impressionistic way of seeing that you get as a combination of the strangeness of some of the activities going on in the desert, combined with the strangeness of the atmospheric effects there. I thought, Well, I think you could make this an image. I think you could make these impressionistic images out of this way of seeing that I was trying to explore.
I reached out to some friends of mine who I knew were photographers and I said, “Hey, can we collaborate? I want to build a camera that will fit on these telescopes and do this weird stuff.” They all just looked at me like I was nuts. They’re like, “Wait, why would you do that? How about … no?” So I thought, Okay, screw it. I’ll figure it out myself.
I got a camera. It was funny, I was studying for my qualifying exams at the time, and I would just read books and take notes all day until my mind was totally filled up. Then, in the evenings, I would experiment with telescopes and cameras. I was trying to photograph the airport in San Francisco from the top of my building at U.C. Berkeley, and I thought that was about the right distance that I wanted to be able to photograph at. I just did experiments for several years, really, before I started getting the hang of it. I had this weird hacky form of photography, [where] I was using telescopes, all this stuff. I didn’t even have a lens over the camera. And then again, just progressively started going backwards to, now, the point where I’m shooting eight-by-ten film in a very nineteenth-century style of working sometimes. [Laughs]
SB: I understand as an undergrad at U.C. Berkeley, you majored in religious studies. What led you to that particular major?
TP: I studied religious studies and music composition. And I was studying continental philosophy, which at Berkeley is in a program called Rhetoric. What I got really interested in was different global forms of philosophy, and that’s religion. I mean, that’s not [René] Descartes, or [Immanuel] Kant, or someone like that. The Western philosophers are a part of that literature of religious thinking, or theological thinking. But when you’re looking at the big philosophical questions, and how they’ve been posed by different cultures at different moments, and the stories that have emerged from those questions, the vast majority of that is within a religious context. I did a comparative religion degree, and I guess to me, what was interesting about [that] was, you’re asking questions [that are very similar] to philosophy, but you have this hugely more diverse body of thought, and cultures, and traditions, and stories. It was just such a more colorful way of thinking about philosophical questions.
SB: Musical composition, I should mention here. You had played in a punk band.
TP: Yeah. I was in a bunch of punk bands—
SB: And also a thrash group called Noisegate.
TP: [Laughs] But I also wrote chamber music for string quartets, and stuff like that as well. That’s been fun. I’ve been able to reconnect with that a little bit the last few years, because we’ve been collaborating with the Kronos Quartet out of San Francisco, and doing a series of performances with them. That experience has become useful in a way. I can read a score, and make notes about something like that. That’s fun.
SB: I want to touch on this point, because it seems like a really interesting, transformative moment in your life. In Germany, you skateboarded. You became a vegetarian. During your Berkeley years, you had this sort of dreadlocked mohawk, [and wore] cut-off camouflage.
TP: I don’t know where you’re getting this stuff from, but you’ve done a lot of research.
SB: I did a lot of research. What did you learn through this experience? What did punk culture, being a part of that scene and world, teach you?
TP: What was so exciting to me about the kind of specifically Bay Area vision of punk—that was really influenced by a guy named Tim Yohannan, who started Maximum Rocknroll and a club in Berkeley called 924 Gilman, where I worked for many years—was that for him, punk was not so much a musical style, [but] much more a way of creating space. So planting the seeds of geography. What his vision was, was that punk is a way of doing things. It’s a way of trying to create spaces that are outside of the culture that corporations create for us. Can we, as kids, basically put together our club, have other kids play, and we just run the whole thing and create our own spaces and create these little autonomous zones? Can we find a vision of a different way of living, through that?
And it doesn’t matter what style of music it is. What matters is, what are the values that musicians, and the people creating that culture, what are they bringing to the table? When we’d have bands play at Gilman, there’d be huge … there’d be hip-hop bands and funk bands, just a huge range of things all the time. That was tremendously influential to me, that sense of what it means to create culture, or what it means to create space. What are the politics of that? What are the things that culture can do, particularly when you try to imagine detaching it from culture industries, for lack of a better word?
SB: Eventually you also got into what might be called “surf culture.” You surf.
TP: Sure. Yeah.
SB: What have you learned through surfing, as well?
TP: The two things that I do outside of art are surfing and martial arts. They’re just so much the opposite of what I normally do. I mean, they’re just intensely embodied things, where they are so much about being hyper, hyper aware of your circumstances, of the situation around you. Reading it, reacting to it in a way that is not cerebral at all. For me, surfing and martial arts, they’re a form of paying attention that is really intense and really, really different from the kind of Cartesian way of working that so many of us spend so much of our time doing. That’s what’s exciting about it.
SB: You’d begun doing prison activism as an undergraduate. And then, from  to 2004, worked on this project called “Recording Carceral Landscapes,” looking at the interiors of California penitentiaries, wearing a concealed microphone, posing as a student of criminology. Would you say this is the beginning of your art-making as we know it today? Tell me just a little bit about that process. Because it’s almost like being an undercover journalist somehow.
TP: You’ve really done your research. I don’t talk so much about that project—not because I don’t like it, but it was still an early project for me. I was doing a lot of prison-abolition work in the late nineties and early 2000s. I was working a lot with a group out of Oakland called Critical Resistance to produce radio shows and media. It was very functional. So I was like, I want to make art that—not even art—I want to make cultural stuff for the purposes of trying to change these politics. So super direct. It’s like, this is not for museums. This is not for art galleries. This is art, or cultural stuff, that I’m making in the service of this cause, and it’s going to respond to the needs of this community, one hundred percent.
In parallel to that, I was doing this project, this “Recording Carceral Landscapes” project, that was going to be more of an institutional project. There was a little bit of an investigative side to that, which is something that has continued. But there’s also a way of thinking about space that was in that project.
I was trying to think about, in this broad sense, How do you record a prison? But then you start asking, Well, where are actually the walls of the prison? Obviously there’s the barbed-wire fence, but then there’s a company downtown that is issuing the bonds to build them. There are neighborhoods where people are affected by prisons. When you start to ask, “Where is the prison?” and you ask it in this more expanded sense, you start answering that question with, “The answer is everywhere.” You just don’t see it.
So I was trying to think through that in that project. In the broadest sense, in making a series of recordings, [I] was trying to create a vision of…. I was trying to undo our conception of prisons. Like, these are big hunks of concrete out in the desert, or out in places, and people go and are trapped there. I’m trying to think about, What are all the forces in society that are churning and working in different places, and in different ways, to produce mass incarceration? What’s going on in Sacramento, or in courthouses? What’s going on in the world of finance? What’s going in culture, et cetera, et cetera?
SB: And of course, in the midst of this project, 9/11 happens. Did this shift your perspective on that work, the whole work? If so, how?
TP: Yeah. So 9/11 happens, and what is the signature, the iconic institution of 9/11? Guantánamo Bay. It’s a prison. Very quickly after 9/11, I started to see so many of the kinds of logics that I had seen in looking at the prison system in this expanded sense. That kind of racism, the kind of colonialism, the kind of violence, the kind of revanchism, and in a way, seeing that starting to play out on a global scale.
It also became quickly obvious that there was a network of secret prisons, that the C.I.A. was creating these black sites where there were obviously these…. They were torturing people, and disappearing people, and I started investigating that. In some of the early interviews that I did, talking about that work on C.I.A. black sites, I would say things like, “Yeah, well, here’s Guantánamo Bay, but we have this other thing called Pelican Bay in California”—which is the California super-max prison, far in Northern California, where also this rampant torture was happening. Like disappearances, the same kinds of dynamics. I think that was a little early for the war-on-terror conversation. People would look at me like I was crazy. I was like, “No, you guys, we’ve been doing this.” But I think, in hindsight, that there are a lot of homologies between those two things.
SB: I wanted to mention this because your work has so much to do with what we might call the “known unknowns” of our world: Donald Rumsfeld, in 2002, famously talked about the “known knowns.” “There are the things we know we know….” Do you remember when he said that? And did that strike you, that he talked about the world in a way where he’s saying, “There’s also these unknown unknowns”?
TP: I can’t ever hear that quotation without thinking about the addendum that I think [Slavoj] Žižek made to it, which is, We also need to talk about the unknown knowns, which are our forms of ideology. What are the things that we believe that we don’t even know we believe, because they’re so ingrained? To me, that seems like the more poignant question—it’s like, What forms of politics, what forms of violence, do we produce and reproduce in ways that we don’t even know that we’re doing it?
SB: After earning an M.F.A. at the Art Institute of Chicago, in 2002, you go on to get a Ph.D. in geography at [U.C.] Berkeley, and I was wondering, in what ways did this geography work, and your time in the desert during these years, shift your thinking around your art? And I say this in the context that you’ve gone on to create what you’ve called “preposterous things,” “impossible objects,” “experimental geography.”
TP: I had started down this road of doing artworks that had a lot of research that went into them. I remember my advisor at the Art Institute, a really fantastic woman named Terri Kapsalis, and one of the things that she would always underline in the work was, she’d say, “If you’re doing work with plants, that work needs to be recognizable to a biologist. Someone who’s an expert on plants, they should be able to get something out of it that a layperson wouldn’t be able to. It has to be good from top to bottom.” You can’t phone it in, in terms of the rigor of the work. At that time, there were a lot of people playing around with those tropes. The artist as anthropologist, the artist as sociologist. And the idea was that the artist would adopt the persona of a social scientist or another kind of field, and then do some artwork related to that. And I thought, Well, what if you just also were that?
SB: Why can’t you be an artist-geographer-photographer?
TP: Exactly. That was my motivation towards doing the Ph.D. Also, I didn’t have a way to make a living, so I thought, I’ll just go read books. That’s great. Doing the Ph.D., it was just great to get that kind of training. Now, there’s art Ph.D.s and things like that. There wasn’t at that time. I didn’t even tell anybody, except my advisor, that I was doing art at the same time. [There’s] a level of rigor that you learn and just that question of, How do you research something? That’s not necessarily something that you can intuitively do. There’s a craft to it. There are a lot of different crafts to it.
On the one hand, I was learning how to do that from the social sciences perspective. But also at that time, I was working twenty hours a day at the time. I was collaborating with a really great friend of mine, a guy named A.C. Thompson, who’s an investigative journalist. We were working on the C.I.A. black sites project together. I was learning so much from him about how to do that investigative research, which is really different than the more social sciences way of working. So I have to credit
him, just as much as my advisors at Berkeley, in terms of being formative in teaching me different ways of trying to see something—which is ultimately what all these things are, whether that’s art, or journalism, or social science, or comparative literature. We’re all trying to learn different ways of seeing.
SB: This work has led you to all these different sites, all over the world. What have been some of your more remarkable moments during these trips? Whether it’s, I don’t know, I imagine you’ve probably been accosted by some security guards. What have been some of the strangest or most extraordinary things to happen while taking pictures in places you maybe shouldn’t be, or in these very remote locations?
TP: I mean, there’s a million stories like that. The one that immediately comes to mind is not one having to do with guards or anything like that. I did a project where I was trying to find all the undersea cables that the…. So I had been working a little bit on the Ed[ward] Snowden project, and in that archive there was a catalog of all the undersea cables that basically were owned by the N.S.A. And you could track them: You could go, Okay. Here’s this cable that’s connecting this town in California to this place in Hawaii to this place in Korea, what have you.
I thought, Well this is a physical infrastructure. That’s something that’s very clear when you start looking at the Snowden stuff. It’s a description of a highly material, highly specific, planetary communications infrastructure. And, I wanted to see it. I mean, that’s what I spent a lot of my time doing, going out and trying to learn what things look like.
So I learned how to scuba dive in a swimming pool in Berlin, and then had to take that a little bit further, and had to learn some stuff about underwater navigation and bathymetry, and a little
bit about how the ocean works, and how you look at it from an underwater perspective. Then I started finding people that would try to explore this stuff with me. We would go out in boats, and I sort of have figured out that, Okay, if we go and dive here and do this pattern, we should intersect these internet cables, because there’s this rock formation here and the cable won’t be able to go under it. That should be a place where we can see the internet. This was a lot of work to get to the point where you put yourself in a position to see something, if indeed it’s possible to see. And that’s a recurring theme in my work.
SB: I don’t think most people realize looking at your pictures how much time has gone into making them.
TP: There’s just a massive amount of work that goes into them. And a massive amount of preparation. Also, what you don’t see is the things that fail. You’re trying to see this thing, and actually you just can’t see it. But that first time that I saw an internet cable on the bottom of the ocean, [it] was a very concrete example of that process, resulting in seeing something that very few people have seen, and yet that is so fundamental to the way that society works, on many many different levels. And of course, being underwater, it’s such an alien environment, for lack of a better word. That’s certainly one of the most sensorially, and in a way, intellectually gratifying moments of seeing that I’ve had. But there are many examples of those.
SB: I wanted to discuss how your work also references something we’ve seen so many times, which are images of the American West—whether it’s loose references to Timothy O’Sullivan or Ansel Adams—and how you view the work you’re creating within the history of what they did, and this history or notion of the American West.
TP: When you’re making images, you’re not…. We’ve talked about the fact that you’re never making them in a vacuum. You’re doing them in a historical context. You’re doing them in the cultural context. You’re doing them in a situated context about, Who are you specifically as a person? How are you seeing? How do your experiences shape that? But you’re also in a conversation with your ancestors, and you’re in a conversation with your descendants. So there’s, again, this temporal access that’s come up so much in our conversation.
Whatever it is that you’re looking at in the world, there’s probably a history of other artists for hundreds, if not thousands, if not tens of thousands of years of other artists who have looked at that same thing. For me, a part of that question is, How have other people looked at this in the past, and how did their ways of seeing tell you something about that moment in history, and can you contribute to that? I almost think about it as a conversation. Be like, Oh hey, O’Sullivan, you’re looking at this landscape in Nevada this way. I’m looking at it this way. That’s interesting to see: the things that change, and the things that stay the same, and the forms of politics that are built into the ways of seeing that are crafted in different moments in history. So yeah, I very explicitly, and sometimes much more implicitly, am referring to a whole history of different kinds of images, and different ways of seeing and, in many ways, trying to comment on that, or participate in a conversation about that, or think about that.
SB: I mean, there’s even an abstract or painterly quality to what you do. I’ve seen people reference your work in the context of J.M.W. Turner or Gerhard Richter. There’s this blurry nature of the work. Is that something you’re actively exploring, and trying to find the bounds or the barriers between, say, what a Richter is doing and what you’re doing with a camera?
TP: The answer is yes, only insofar as…. I work in a lot of different idioms, but one of the idioms that comes up over and over again is the one in which you’re almost making a claim, and then retreating from that claim at the same time. You’re making the claim in the sense that you’re trying to see something about the world, but at the same time, you’re always recognizing the fact that images are fragmentary, impartial, and frangible, and delicate, and actually, ultimately, meaningless, as we talked about in relation to “The Last Pictures” stuff. For me, creating objects or images in which all of these things can be true at the same time, and are evidently true at the same time—those are the things that I get a lot of satisfaction from, in terms of objects that feel compelling to me.
SB: I wanted to finish with your longtime interest in the relationship between photography and artificial intelligence. You’ve done a range of projects in this space, from “ImageNet Roulette”, which some listeners may recall, a viral selfie app; or more recently, “Bloom,” creating pictures of flowers out of artificial intelligence. How are you thinking about A.I. right now in this context we find ourselves in? And by context, I also mean Covid-19; I mean this current technological space we’re in.
TP: I’ve worked on computer vision and A.I. for at least a decade at this point, and I get angrier and angrier about it, to be honest with you, because I have seen its…. The limitations of it are so obvious, and the consequences of it are also so ubiquitous, and so consequential, I guess, that I think a lot more people who are coming from a background in art or photography or the humanities, or even just a kind of have a humanistic critical mindset, really need to be a part of these conversations. Because up until this point, those conversations have mostly been happening in an engineering context, and a computer science context. And the assumptions that are made in those contexts would light your hair on fire.
You asked specifically about photography. You can think about, and I do think about, computer vision as a genre of photography. That’s actually a very helpful way to think about it, because it shifts the questions that you ask of it. When you think about what a computer vision system is, it’s a video camera, or a sensor, or a point making a series of images. I think about video as photography, it’s just making twenty-four images a second or whatever. And then building an automated, interpretive framework to analyze those images.
In crude computer-vision systems, that might be like, Look for lines, or squares, or edges, or shapes, or what have you. But in more contemporary machine-learning applications, that might be, Recognize somebody’s face. Or, try to detect their emotional state by looking at their face. Try to read their gender identity, or what have you. Create a description of what might be happening in an image. These are all applications that people in computer vision are developing and deploying now.
When you think about it that way, in the conversation about photography, we have a very long history, and a very well-developed set of conversations about questions like, What does it mean to interpret an image? What can an image actually tell you? What are the ethics of making images of people? What are the politics of using them in different kinds of contexts? These are conversations that have been happening for a very long time, and that we have really good ways of thinking about.
I think that bringing that series of conversations to computer vision allows us to think really differently in ways that are incredibly productive about what it is that we think we’re doing when we’re building A.I. and computer-vision systems. And I think very quickly, when you start applying those conversations from photography, or really the humanities in general, to these, what have historically been considered technical systems, you realize that we have some problems here.
SB: You’ve said that, “What I want art to do is help us see who we are now.” Who do you think we are now, in this time of Covid-19, and mass surveillance, and A.I. excess, in so many ways? And how does that compare to twenty years ago, when you were starting to explore a lot of these things? In your mind, broadly speaking, what have been some of the larger shifts on the planet that you’ve seen through your own lens?
TP: I think that, in a philosophical way, that’s a really, really difficult question to answer. So I’ll answer it in a more practical way, that maybe is a little bit allegorical as well.
A lot of the images that I made in the early 2000s, I think, are now impossible to make. And I want to give a shout-out to my friend, a photographer named Will Matsuda, who said something I thought was really poignant on his Instagram post the other day. He said [something like], “It’s gotten to the point where all landscape photography is photography of environmental change.” And he’s living in Portland, [Oregon]. I thought that was just so insightful.
That comes back to when I said that a lot of those images of photographing with the telescope in the desert are not possible now. Because the desert’s filled with smoke, every summer. There is not a time now when that environmental destruction in the air is not present. That’s new. That’s different.
SB: That’s a change. We’ll end there. Trevor, this was so good. Thanks for coming in. Really appreciate it.
TP: Thank you so much. This was really fantastic. You’ve excavated a lot of stuff here, and it’s been really great to talk to you about it. Thank you.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on August 2, 2021. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity by our executive editor, Tiffany Jow. The episode was produced by our assistant editor, Emily Jiang; managing director, Mike Lala; and sound engineer, Pat McCusker.