Remaining anonymous in today's society is an arduous task when everything, down to your most intimate desire, is regulated. At times, your phone knows more about you than you do, predicting your wishes before you even know you have them. The ability today's gadgets have to track your likes and dislikes, needs, and wants is facilitated by the devices collecting data from your internet searches, referred to as surveillance capitalism. The conundrum to avoid this sort of surveillance is twofold: one remains up to date with appliances but refrains from using them, or one does not buy anything that could track them and is consequently cut from the world. The issue becomes never-ending, as no one can afford to be disconnected from the world because of such a menial and common thing as owning a phone.
As Glenn Greenwald said, “the internet is the epicenter of our world, the place where virtually everything is done. It is where friends are made, where books and films are chosen, where political activism is organized, where the most private data is created and stored. It is where we develop and express our very personality and sense of self.” (eflux.com, 2015).
Trevor Paglen has a substantial issue with the way these platforms know everything there is to know about a person. In collaboration with Jacob Appelbaum, a hacker, he created Autonomy Cube, a Wi-Fi box covering the installation room it is found in. Upon entering, the visitor can connect to the Wi-Fi, which allows access to a search engine in which the user remains anonymous and is therefore untrackable.
The nature of this artwork strays from the conventional one of being looked at principally because of its beauty. Autonomy Cube carries a straightforward message. It is to be seen and used, aiming to be understood in societal terms, not artistic. The work can be considered both conceptual art and pop art. The former is due to the artists having considered the meaning behind the work to be more important than the work itself, and the latter is because of the popular culture and mass media the piece is based on.
The work consists of a plexiglass box on a pedestal containing open circuit boards laced with cables. They are fully functioning individual computers connected to the institution's Wi-Fi. The panels create an available hotspot using the institution's network provider, allowing visitors to connect to the internet using their phones or laptops and browse the internet without surveillance or trackage. To achieve this, Paglen and Appelbaum used the browser 'Tor', which anonymises internet traffic without being surveyed, anonymising the user.
The American navy created Tor to protect the anonymity of US intelligence agents who were abroad and had to contact the mainland. The system is also known as 'onion routing' because it encapsulates messages in various layers of encryption that are peeled away through routing nodes, and the final layer is decrypted when the message arrives at the destination. The reason for which the government cannot track users down is that Tor uses random pathways through its nodes, so one never knows where it's coming from. Therefore, the principle of anonymity has always been encoded in the system, resulting in the ideal execution of Paglen's Autonomy Cube.
To understand why Paglen created this work is to understand its context. The artist became interested in mass surveillance and data collection when he developed an attraction to supermax prisons in the US, often located in the middle of nowhere, far away from civilisation, so people would be put off visiting the inmates. His interests derive from the amount of intrusion the US government (in his case) has on the everyday man and the secrecy that follows it. His previous work, called Limit Telephotography, is a photographic series of military places signed on US maps as "non-existent". He goes as close as legally possible to them and records them with an enormous zoom. Through Limit Telephotography, he proves that there are places that do exist and are used strictly for government purposes.
This artwork highlights the State's involvement in the average man's life; it allows one to experience using the internet outside of its oppressive arms and the constant threat of espionage. In an interview, Paglen explains “the internet was supposed to be the greatest tool of global communication and means of sharing knowledge in human history. And it is. But it has also become the most effective instrument of mass surveillance and potentially one of the biggest instruments of totalitarianism in the history of the world” (BOMB, 2016). The statement on Paglen claims the proliferation of surveillance technology in our daily lives, and the disconcerting obliviousness of public knowledge on this issue. An issue that risks transforming open societies into a controlled state.
This series refuses the usual notion of art for art's sake by creating something useful and meaningful, raising awareness that the current apathy and permissive attitude of people allow corporations to use and be sold. Paglen explores the question of how one represents that which, by definition, must not be represented? Paglen imagines and executes what an alternate network may be like, not relying on the same one.
Paglen, T., and Appelbaum, J., (2016). ‘Trevor Paglen and Jacob Appelbaum’. BOMB, 135, 56–64. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24878933
Author Unknown, ‘The Tor Project’, Torproject.org https://www.torproject.org/about/history/
Edith Rauss Haus for Media Art, Trevor Paglen and Jacob Appelbaum: Autonomy Cube, (2015), E-flux.com, https://www.e-flux.com/announcements/2916/trevor-paglen-and-jacob-appelbaumautonomy-cube/
Paglen, T., Paglen.studio, (2020), https://paglen.studio/2020/04/09/autonomy-cube/
Trevor Paglen 'Autonomy Cube', 2015, https://paglen.studio/2020/04/09/autonomy-cube/
Trevor Paglen 'Autonomy Cube', 2015, https://www.phaidon.com/agenda/art/articles/2018/june/05/trevor-paglen-s-surveillance-free-safe-space/
Trevor Paglen 'Autonomy Cube', 2015, https://www.kw-berlin.de/en/commission/julia-scher/