Trevor Paglen blurs the lines between art, science, and investigative journalism to construct unfamiliar and at times unsettling ways to see and interpret the world around us. Inspired by the landscape tradition, he captures the same horizon seen by American photographers Timothy O’Sullivan in the nineteenth century and Ansel Adams in the twentieth. Only in Paglen’s photographs is the infrastructure of surveillance also apparent—a classified military installation, a spy satellite, a tapped communications cable, a drone, an artificial intelligence (AI).
Trevor Paglen: Sites Unseen is a mid-career survey, the first exhibition to present Paglen’s early photographic series alongside his recent sculptural objects and new work with AI. It carries on the long history of programs by the Smithsonian American Art Museum examining America’s changing relationship to the landscape. With this presentation, SAAM is contributing to the important and ongoing conversation about privacy and surveillance in contemporary society.
Paglen’s photographs show something we are not meant to see, whose concealment he regards as symptomatic of the historical moment we inhabit. His objects act in opposition to what his images have exposed, imagining another and potentially different world. Paglen is a conceptual artist with activist intentions. Helping to better see the particular moment we live in and producing spaces in which to envision alternative futures are among his chief concerns.
Trevor Paglen: Sites Unseen is organized by John Jacob, SAAM’s McEvoy Family Curator for Photography, and is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue.
Trevor Paglen blurs the lines between art, science, and investigative journalism to construct unfamiliar and at times unsettling ways to see and interpret the world around us. Inspired by the landscape tradition, he captures the same horizon seen by American photographers Timothy O’Sullivan in the nineteenth century and Ansel Adams in the twentieth.
I’m John Jacob. I’m the McEvoy Family Curator of Photography at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and I am the curator of “Trevor Paglen: Sites Unseen.” What he is trying to do in part with his work is to show us something that is otherwise difficult to see. By showing it to us, by letting us see it, we are better able to know it and thereby to speak about it. When visitors come to the exhibition, the primary thing that they are going to see is photographs. We will present Trevor’s early photographic series in which he documented the landscape of secrecy on land, under sea, in the sky and in the heavens. We will also be presenting those in relation to other materials that he creates. He produces three bodies of work. One is the photographic series; another is what you might call research artifacts that he obtains through the public domain and through freedom of information act requests. These are essentially declassified images and documents that he incorporates into his artwork. The third body of work is Trevor’s objects, which he calls impossible objects. They are intended to make us think beyond what the photographs and the research objects have shown by helping us to imagine a present or a future where the technologies he is showing us are not dictated by the demands of the landscape of secrecy and by surveillance. It’s important in looking at Trevor’s work that he is standing in the landscape in a lawful position. Once we see the situation of our current historical moment, and begin to know it and understand it better, perhaps we can act on it as well.
Celebrating the opening of the exhibition, Trevor Paglen: Sites Unseen, artist Trevor Paglen presents a series of projects exploring planet-scale sensing systems. From fiber optic cables under the earth’s oceans and reconnaissance satellites in earth’s orbit, to the autonomous vision systems and artificial intelligence networks that have come to inhabit the most intimate parts of our lives, Paglen’s projects offer a glimpse into some of the unseen landscapes that characterize our historical moment.
Artist Trevor Paglen is joined by artificial intelligence experts Kate Crawford and Wendy Hui Kyong Chun and Georgetown law professor Alvaro Bedoya for a discussion of the role of surveillance in our lives. They explore how artists and institutions fit into the age of AI, focusing on the ethical and legal issues presented by its use. This discussion is part of Trevor Paglen: Sites Unseen at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Trevor Paglen: Sites Unseen is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum with generous support from the Carolyn Small Alper Exhibitions Fund, the Altman Siegel Family, Paul and Emma Bain, Gabrielle Bekink and the Honorable Rudolf Bekink, Joanne and Richard Brodie, Joanne and Richard Brodie Exhibition Endowment, Elizabeth Broun, the Elizabeth Broun Curatorial Endowment, the James F. Dicke Family Endowment, Sheila Duignan and Mike Wilkins, Arthur Fleischer, Jr. and Susan Fleischer, Ed Fries, Carole Gigliotti in honor of Paula and Peter Lunder, mark sanford gross and billy ocallaghan, Alex Lakatos and Kelly Riser Lakatos, Lannan Foundation, Paula and Peter Lunder, The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, Nion McEvoy, Metro Pictures, New York, the Jack and Marjorie Rachlin Curatorial Endowment, the Smithsonian Council for American Art, the Bernie Stadiem Endowment Fund, Adriana and Aaron Vermut, Virtru Data Privacy, and Elizabeth B. and Laurence I. Wood.
Trevor Paglen’s Sight Machine, with the Kronos Quartet, is made possible by support from the Altman Siegel Gallery, A.I. Now, Cantor Center for the Arts, Obscura Digital, and Metro Pictures, New York. The performance in Washington, D.C. is presented through the generosity of: Norma Lee and Morton Funger Endowment in memory of William Scott Funger, Shelby and Frederick Gans, Jason Tilroe.
Support for the exhibition’s tour is provided by: the C. F. Foundation, Atlanta, Georgia and the William R. Kenan Jr. Endowment Fund.