Material World

Visualizing the Snowden archive

Apparitions, exorcisms, psychic powers, ectoplasm, fairies, magic, spirits and UFOs: the artist Tony Oursler has spent the past 20 years amassing more than 2,500 books, postcards, posters, photographs and artefacts that claim to document previously unseen phenomena. There’s a ‘Manuscript of transcriptions of séances from 1936–48’, a ‘Spirit photograph of Walt Whitman’, a ‘News photograph of a face seen in a microscopic speck of moon dust, 1970’, and a ‘Photograph of angel hair’ taken in 1953. This summer, Oursler debuted a catalogue and accompanying film about his archive, under the name Imponderable. Indeed, its size and scale, and its mystical contents, are not only difficult to visualize but hard to comprehend.

‘Secret Power’, the title of Simon Denny’s New Zealand Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, shares some of the strange magnetism of Oursler’s collection, and similarly attempts to conjure a shadowy magic incomprehensible in scope. Denny’s installation is inspired by the previously published materials collected by Edward Snowden as evidence of widespread surveillance programmes run by the US National Security Agency (NSA). Denny appropriated or re-imagined the codenames, acronyms and imagery from the NSA and other security agencies’ internal documents, incorporating designs by a former NSA graphic designer, David Darchicourt. Ironically, this iconography overlaps with the subjects in Oursler’s archive, using symbols of magic and the occult, logos based on wizards and swords, clip art of magicians and super­heroes. Denny explained that he framed his jumble of chaotic imagery and objects to mimic the overwhelming feeling of ‘information overload’ that the documents themselves produce.

Although vast, virtual and cryptic, the Snowden archive is not infinite or unintelligible. While it points to something insidious and ineffable, it is also discrete and knowable, and full of potential discoveries. Snowden carefully culled a vast quantity of confi­dential material and strategically opted not to release it publicly or leak it gradually, but to hand over the information as a digital archive to a journalist and a documentary filmmaker. He also provided instructions on how to mine it for the biggest stories, emphasizing that the decisions about what to publish should be left to the journalists and their editors. For the handful of researchers who now have access to it, the process of wading through and interpreting it is just beginning. Two years on, the public has seen only a fraction of what is ‘inside’. Without people who can decode, decipher and distribute the information – bringing its contents from the imaginary world into the visual, physical one – the archive remains inert.

When Snowden first met with Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras in a Hong Kong hotel room in June 2013, they did the most immediate and urgent work to bring its contents to light, making sense of the complex data with Snowden’s help, and organizing the information into journalistic stories, published by media outlets including the Guardian, the Washington Post and Der Spiegel. Simultaneously, Poitras was filming footage that would comprise the heart of Citizenfour (released in 2014), a real-time document that contextualizes the archive and humanizes the person who shared it with her.

Almost immediately, the collaboration with artists began. For Citizenfour, the American artist Trevor Paglen travelled to the uk Government Communications Headquarter’s Bude site in Cornwall, the Menwith Hill listening station in North Yorkshire and the NSA's Utah Data Center, among others, to film the physical infrastructure where the secret programmes revealed in the documents are largely being carried out. Paglen has also used information in the archive to document the locations where undersea fibre-optic cables are being tapped by the NSA, and to photograph them both above and below water. He tracks the virtual maps and graphics in the archive to their physical corollaries, grounding the opaque idea of government surveillance in the real world.

In April of this year, Rhizome and The New Museum facilitated a collaboration between artist and technologist Jacob Appelbaum (who, as a journalist working with WikiLeaks, was a key figure in researching and reporting on the Snowden archive) and artist Ai Weiwei. The project, called Panda to Panda, unfolded in Ai’s Beijing studio, and was documented in a short film by Poitras for The New York Times website. In the film, Appelbaum presents documents he has selected and printed from the archive, explaining what each one describes, then hands them to Ai, who feeds them matter-of-factly, and with barely a reaction, into a paper shredder. Ai and Appelbaum then stuff the shredded pieces of the archive into hollowed-out soft-toy pandas (along with micro SD cards with a backup of the original documents), creating a limited-edition artwork that is a physical as well as a symbolic manifestation of the Snowden archive.

The name ‘archive’ is becoming more apt, as the surveillance programmes it documents have no doubt changed and developed since Snowden made them public. But journalists and researchers continue to draw from the well of information it contains and, in turn, the process of interpreting those sources continues to unfold. As the depths of the archive are plumbed, interpreted and made visible by journalists, lawyers, geographers, anthropologists and artists, each view gives us another angle on how to make the imponderable ponderable and, therefore, actionable. This month, both Paglen and Appelbaum will open shows, in New York and Berlin respectively, which are inspired by and give shape to the archive, as will Poitras’s exhibition at the Whitney Museum next year.

The Snowden archive, with its vast quantity of documents, is itself a distillation of a much larger, more shapeless collection, which stretches potentially infinitely into the future and uncertainly into the past. It is evidence of a vast data set collected by the NSA and other intelligence agencies – an archive that is distinctly not curated, the contents of which, in fact, belong to us. And that is the real imponderable. Snowden wanted to organize the evidence to make it less so. Since then, journalists, writers and artists, by creating stories, symbolism and visual metaphors, have given physical shape and revealed a human element to what otherwise seems like a virtual, faceless, unknowable entity. When Poitras films Snowden in his Hong Kong hotel room outlining the evidence of government surveillance programmes, when Paglen shows the physical infrastructure that facilitates them and when Denny reveals how poorly designed their internal memos are, it reminds us that they are all ‘made by humans’. And what can be created by ordinary people can also be understood, decoded and dismantled by them.

Christy Lange is programme director of Tactical Tech and a contributing editor of frieze. She lives in Berlin, Germany. 
Issue 173

First published in Issue 173

September 2015

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Janiva Ellis, Catchphrase Coping Mechanism, 2019, oil on linen, 2.2 x 1.8 m. Courtesy: the artist and 47 Canal, New York; photograph: Joerg Lohse

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