Prefix ICA » Trevor Paglen 2018

May 4 to June 16, 2018

Surveillance States
Trevor Paglen

Curated by Scott McLeod

Prefix Institute of Contemporary Art is pleased to present Surveillance States, the first solo exhibition in Toronto by American artist and geographer Trevor Paglen. Featuring two video installations, along with a selection of new and recent photographs drawn from several of the artist’s most iconic series, the show is curated by Scott McLeod and presented as a primary exhibition of the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival. This exhibition is the first stop in a national touring exhibition circulated by Prefix and Contact.

Trevor Paglen seeks to shed light on the complex, widespread and increasingly ubiquitous phenomenon of surveillance designed to monitor communications in the putative interest of global security. As the title of the exhibition suggests, Surveillance States features an array of works that engage with and respond to the role of surveillance in our everyday lives. The title holds a double meaning, at once making reference to governments that are engaged in surveillance of their own or other nations, and the state of mind and being that arises in a world under close observation.

89 Landscapes (2015) is a two-channel video installation that presents a series of panoramic images of unofficial government surveillance facilities. Comprised of material shot for Laura Poitras’s Academy Award-winning documentary Citizenfour (2014) about whistle-blower Edward Snowden—for which the artist was a contributing cinematographer—instruments of surveillance are revealed in scenes of bucolic landscapes, uncharacteristically marked by satellite dishes and radomes, busy city centres and moody seascapes.

Circles (2015) is a single-channel video installation with a single focal point – the Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ), a cryptography and intelligence agency located in South West England. Originally screened in the United Kingdom as an introduction to the theatrical release of Citizenfour, as well as a video installation in art galleries, this short video encircles this massive facility ¬– the largest of its kind outside of the United States – from the air. Intermittently, the camera zooms in on individuals as they move to and from the building, the surveillants now the surveilled.

The photographic works Near Nogales (2017) and Four Clouds (2017)—a quadriptych—represent the artist’s recent interest in what he refers to as “invisible images”—images made by machines for other machines, without human vision or other intervention. With the assistance of custom-built software, he created photographs that represent what the machine “sees.” The former captures the border between Mexico and the United States as seen through the computer-vision algorithms that continually monitor the area. The latter depicts the sky as seen by four different algorithms used for object recognition, guided missiles, autonomous surveillance systems, and 3-dimensional modelling.

The exhibition also includes a selection of photographs from two earlier bodies of work. Untitled (Reaper Drone) (2013) is from a series in which the artist documents reaper drones in an array of skycapes. Almost imperceptible, the drone appears as a mere speck in an expansive and colourful sky. Columbia-Florida Subsea Fiber (CFX-1), NSA/GCHQ-Tapped Undersea Cable, Atlantic Ocean (2015) and Maya-1, NSA/GCHQ-Tapped Undersea Cable, Atlantic Ocean (2015) are from a series based on undersea cables that were likely tapped by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA). Spanning more than a half-million miles through the ocean, the network of cables connect all continents with the exception of Antarctica.

About the artist

Trevor Paglen is an artist and geographer who was born in 1974 in Camp Springs, Maryland. He holds a BA from UC Berkeley, an MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago and a PhD in Geography from UC Berkeley. He contributed research and cinematography to the Academy Award-winning film Citizenfour, created a radioactive public sculpture for the exclusion zone in Fukushima, Japan, and, in collaboration with Creative Time and MIT, launched an artwork into distant orbit around Earth. In 2018, he will receive major retrospective exhibitions at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (Washington, DC) and the Museo Tamayo (Mexico City). A recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, he is represented by Metro Pictures (New York) and Altman Siegel (San Francisco).

About the curator

Scott McLeod is a writer, curator and arts administrator. The founding director of Prefix Institute of Contemporary Art, he focuses on contemporary practices, with a specialization in photographic, media and digital art. His upcoming projects include solo exhibitions of the work of Lara Almarcegui and Amar Kanwar.


For their support of Surveillance States, Prefix gratefully acknowledges the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival. Prefix also gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Business for the Arts, the City of Toronto through the Toronto Arts Council, and the Canada Council for the Arts. The work of Trevor Paglen appears courtesy the artist, Metro Pictures (New York) and Altman Siegel (San Francisco).