“What Invisibility Looks Like”

Richard S. Leghorn, the Pentagon official who coined the phrase “Information Age,” in 1960, never thought it would catch on. More than half a century later, no ...

Richard S. Leghorn, the Pentagon official who coined the phrase “Information Age,” in 1960, never thought it would catch on. More than half a century later, no better descriptor has appeared, and raw, limitless information—whether it’s the 1s and 0s of binary code or the As, Ts, Gs, and Cs of the human genome—has become more important than ever for understanding life, the universe, and everything else. The work of Terry Winters and Trevor Paglen suggests that information has inspired its fair share of great art, too.

This is both unsurprising and surprising. Some artists are bound to react to a scientific breakthrough as major as the information boom of the last couple decades. It was one thing, however, for Turner to paint the Great Western Railway or for Picasso to paint an exploding bomb—those technologies came in recognizable packages, with intrigue and drama to spare. It’s another for today’s artists to make images that engage with weightless, invisible signals. Doing so means dragging data out from behind the scenes and somehow expressing it as a thing—and this is what Winters and Paglen have been trying to do, in very different ways, for the bulk of their careers: Winters by incorporating the excited complexities of data into his paintings, Paglen by conveying the menace data poses to anyone who values their privacy.

The peculiar thingness of information has long been central to the work of Terry Winters. Growing up in New York City in the 1960s, he’d spend hours wandering through used bookstores. “They were a cheap and inspiring resource for reference material,” he recalled in a Paris Review interview. “Just the abundance of pictures, exquisite photogravures, chrome lithographs, precise line engravings, or simple woodcuts. A dizzy and dazzling array.” Bibliophiles will recognize the feeling he’s describing: the giddy excitement of seeing the world’s knowledge compressed into words, so that near-infinite quantities of information suddenly seem accessible.

Something of the same giddiness animates the paintings, prints, and drawings Winters has produced over the past four decades. Examining the works on display at Facts and Fictions—a retrospective of Winters’s career at The Drawing Center in Manhattan—highlighted the way he crams a tremendous amount of information into the frame. There is, to begin with, the extensive research he puts into each piece. Winters is an amateur scholar of microbiology and computer science, and at various times his images have suggested the forms of DNA molecules, microchips, and computer-generated maps. His interviews sparkle with references to topology, dynamic systems theory, and Mexican crystal caves; it’s hard not to be impressed with the way he juggles so much information so deftly, drawing brilliant, unlikely connections between the hard sciences and the art of painting.

But even if you know nothing about Winters, you can sense the centrality of information in his oeuvre simply by looking closely. Particularly in his work from the late 1980s onward, complex patterns swirl in and out of focus, giving the feeling of endless, breakneck evolution. Quite often, these patterns recall the shapes of recognizable, or nearly recognizable, symbols and notations. Untitled (2009) resembles sheet music, just as Linking Graphics, 2 (1999) resembles an old player piano roll (often cited as a predecessor of modern binary code, it’s worth bearing in mind). Other images on display in Facts and Fictions recalled grids and graphs: vast Euclidean boxes left intriguingly empty.

Winters paints signs with the same intensity other artists reserve for the objects they usually represent. Instead of a body, he offers a strand of DNA; instead of a melody, he offers a treble clef; instead of a landscape, he offers a map. In his most striking work, bits of coded information seem to writhe and mutate until they stop symbolizing things and become things in their own right.

Terry Winters, Lake, (2017). Oil, wax, and resin on linen. 80 x 60 inches (203 x 152 cm). © Terry Winters, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

This effect is by no means simple, and Winters spent the first 20 years of his career learning how to convey it, navigating between two very different styles of painting. During his time at Pratt Institute, in New York, he gravitated toward minimalism, with its spartan emphasis on the flatness of the picture plane. In the decade between graduation and his first solo show, however, Winters began to question some of minimalism’s tenets, especially the supremacy of the objet d’art, or finished work. The most important element of art making, he came to believe, wasn’t the image that ended up on the canvas but the lengthy physical process of applying it, of which the objet d’art was merely a record. The ideal painting would give a vivid sense of its own creation—think, for instance, of the way Jackson Pollock’s drips and splatters immediately call to mind the artist racing around the canvas.

It was, in part, Winters’s interest in conveying process that inspired the earliest paintings he displayed in New York. Much of his work from the early 1980s looks like a petri dish viewed under a microscope: cells, molecules, viruses frozen in the process of replication. The translucent, conical forms hovering in Untitled (1982) seem to occupy different stages of the same life cycle, while the hulking black object at the center of Dome (1985–86) resembles a cell on the verge of splitting in two.

There’s no mistaking the microbiological resonances in these works, yet Winters seems to have resented that critics interpreted them simplistically: as images of, not loosely inspired by, cells. That the paintings he produced beginning in the mid-1990s seem nimbler and less literal-minded than their predecessors is largely a result of their materials: around this time, Winters began painting with a combination of oil and alkyd resin that allowed him to work quickly and generate a sense of speed—“energy made visible,” as he put it—with his brushstrokes. These images still convey a kind of process, but it’s Winters’s own, literal process of applying pigment to canvas, not the implied processes of mitosis or DNA replication.

For all their intensity, Winters’s paintings can be surprisingly playful. Their bright, tessellating shapes invite interpretation, only to squirm teasingly away from it. This is a third kind of process Winters evokes in his work: the struggle to make sense of information, to find the common thread. The unwritten rules of pictures would suggest that the four long, irregular ovals of Untitled 2 (1999) are related to one another in some way, but it’s impossible to say exactly how. Why are all but one of the ovals colored light blue? Are they all supposed to be in different stages of some mysterious process? If so, which one is closest to completion? Winters invites such unanswerable questions, undercutting his own patterns with mysterious glitches and hiccups. Studying Untitled 2 at The Drawing Center, I was reminded of Eadweard Muybridge’s famous photographs of a racehorse in mid-gallop, except out of order and with a donkey thrown in, just to keep me on my toes.

Eadweard Muybridge, Animal Locomotion, plate 628 (1887). Photograph by Boston Public Library / Flickr

The 1990s were an ideal time for these sorts of images. This was the decade when, as Trevor Paglen recalled recently, “There was much to do about the fact that digital images lack an ‘original’”; endless articles were being written about how the availability of infinite data changed the role of the artist from creator to curator. (In this vein, Lawrence Lessig, Malcolm Gladwell, and Austin Kleon each claimed we had entered the “Age of the Remix.”) One of the most common interpretations of Winters’s later work, in fact, is that it’s a metaphor for the way imagery gets circulated in the Information Age: every component is a copy of a copy of a copy, with no end in sight.

It would be simplistic to say this was the key to understanding all the artworks in Facts and Fictions, though Winters makes no secret of his indebtedness to the internet and to information science in general. All 12 of his new paintings recently displayed at the Matthew Marks Gallery in Manhattan began as Google searches—Winters found a series of public domain images, all technical diagrams, and transformed them into overwhelming, large-scale works. But the question, ultimately, isn’t what role the Information Age played in making these paintings, but what role it plays in our experience of them.

In 1936, Walter Benjamin published his famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility,” the blueprint for every art/technology think piece written since. In it, he claimed that the rise of industrialization had compromised the “aura” of the individual work of art—that ineffable sense of uniqueness and sacredness that exists only when no machine can produce a copy. We’ve gotten to a point where it’s futile to deny that the way we receive and process information has changed fundamentally. One popular theory about why is that the internet has sucked away whatever aura the work of art had left to its name—a grim thought for almost any artist.

Walking through Matthew Marks Gallery, however, you might have thought this theory is nonsense. Winters’s paintings may originate on the web, but, hanging on the wall, they’re utterly singular. He paints squares and circles with a sort of deep luminosity that couldn’t possibly exist in a technical diagram. Somehow, he’s restored the aura of anonymous mass imagery, beginning with prosaic sketches but then enshrining them in endless thin layers of wax, oil, and resin.

This, like much of Winters’s recent work, seems like an especially shrewd way of making peace with the Information Age. Though he tips his hat to the data boom, he still makes art after the fashion of Jackson Pollock, using paint to convey a unique style, vision, and energy. Raw data is clearly there in his paintings and drawings—as a thing, as a process—but it doesn’t stay raw for long. An artist, Winters said recently, “takes information from the world and out of it creates another possible world.” The source of the information may have moved from a used bookstore to a Chrome browser, but the end result is much the same.

If Terry Winters’s career suggests a nonaggression pact with the excesses of the Information Age, the artist Trevor Paglen’s has been an all-out war, full of secret treaties, back stabs, and sudden ambushes. The stakes are high: in an essay for the New Inquiry in 2016, Paglen argued that advances in data collection were already leading to a tyranny of surveillance, in which people’s smallest behaviors could be recorded and used against them. This tyranny has all the seductiveness of Brave New World, mixed with the brutality of 1984: “an active, cunning exercise of power, one ideally suited to molecular police and market operations—one designed to insert its tendrils into ever-smaller slices of everyday life.”

It’s certainly possible, in this environment, to go on painting like Jackson Pollock. But Paglen’s career suggests that he believes artists have a responsibility to try something riskier and more brazenly political in their work—particularly since the production and the interpretation of images are integral to the dystopia he’s describing. The politically conscious image maker, then, will notify viewers of the threat of surveillance, drawing their attention to the dangers brought about by the Information Age, without lulling them into the false confidence that things will get better.

The three Paglen pieces featured in Art in the Age of the Internet, 1989 to Today, a recent exhibit at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, suggest how a bold artist might go about spreading such a message. Two of Paglen’s photographs appeared there: the first, NSA-Tapped Undersea Cables, North Pacific Ocean (2016), features a row of cables floating in a murky, bluish-green expanse; the second, RAVEN 2 in Corona Borealis (Signals Intelligence Satellite; USA 20o) (2015), seems to depict a tranquil night sky. The third piece, Autonomy Cube (2014), consists of a functioning Tor router encased in a Plexiglas box; visitors are invited to log on to the router’s Wi-Fi network and browse the web anonymously. All three works are currently in the Smithsonian as part of Trevor Paglen: Sites Unseen, a major retrospective on view until January 6, and then traveling until fall 2019.

Trevor Paglen, Autonomy Cube (2014). Plexiglas cube with two functioning motherboards, W-lan server. SFMOMA. Photograph by rocor / Flickr

Taken together, this trio might call to mind the accoutrements of a spy or a whistleblower, not an artist, and there are elements of all three professions in Paglen’s career. Born in Maryland in 1974, he earned an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, then a PhD in geography from Berkeley, during which time he studied the architecture of the American prison system. Some of Paglen’s earliest published photographs document the barely acknowledged prisons that flourished under the Bush administration’s War on Terror, in which suspected terrorists could be tortured without the public’s knowledge. Another Bush-era project gathered patches from the “black world” of the US military, totems of top-secret organizations that officially don’t exist.

You can sense, rumbling beneath these early works, the threat of a militarized surveillance state, which has the power to arrest and torture its own people without betraying the slightest sign of a disturbance. One potential way of opposing such a threat, Paglen seems to believe, is to make the atmospheric concrete: replace the unseen menace of the black world with a patch or a picture. In a harsh review of Art in the Age of the Internet in 4Columns, Ed Halter faulted the exhibit for advancing “an impoverished and self-serving definition of art, one centered on rare objects that can be displayed in the physical space of a gallery.” Yet it’s exactly this kind of art that Paglen seems to be trying to weaponize: old-fashioned or not, objects in galleries have the power to clarify and demystify—and this, in an era when the state goes to great lengths to conceal itself from view, is no small feat.

All of which suggests that Paglen, like Winters, refuses to give up on the thingness of information. A great many of his photographs at the Smithsonian show the almost absurd lengths he’s willing to go to in order to document data in its physical forms; to photograph the internet cables buried in the trenches of the ocean floor, for instance, he first had to master deep-sea diving.

Paglen’s faith in the power of the physical object underlies his decision to display a (rather ugly) Tor router in a box. Doing so achieves two things: first, it brings the router into sharp focus, drawing attention to a device most of us ordinarily barely think about; second, it creates a connection between object and viewer (or, more precisely, the viewer’s smartphone) that allows the viewer the kind of wireless freedom that’s already become almost unheard of. Combine these two points, and you arrive at an uncharacteristically optimistic message: by becoming more conscious of information’s thingness, internet users, too often mocked for their passivity, can win back some of the autonomy their governments have stolen from them. In Paglen words:

Intuitively, “the Internet” seems like a liminal space, a kind of abstract nowhere that is everywhere, seemingly, a space of pure culture. But telecommunications technologies and networks are made out of physical stuff in the same way that everything else is. “The Internet” is made out of transoceanic fiber optic cables, landing stations, amplifiers, switches, exchanges, communication satellites, and on and on.1

Paglen’s approach to depicting the Information Age carries a serious risk, of which he’s well aware. One of the most common (and irritating) criticisms of his photography is that it’s obscure—for instance, in only three sentences, the critic Jerry Saltz managed to call Paglen’s images “fuzzy,” “blurred,” and “idiotic.” Paglen could have taken clearer pictures of undersea cables or black-world bases if he’d wanted to, but what would have been the point? Keeping the photographs a little blurry, a little out of focus, allows him to avoid giving the impression that he’s mastered his subject matter in any way. A clear, well-lit, well-framed image of Guantanamo Bay offers a kind of false reassurance that the threat of the black world is manageable, understandable, easily dealt with. Nothing could be further from Paglen’s own view of the Information Age and the threat of digitized surveillance.

“People like to say that my work is about making the invisible visible, but that’s a misunderstanding,” Paglen said last year. “It’s about showing what invisibility looks like.” Learn to distinguish between these two concepts, and you’ll have an excellent way of understanding art that engages with the Information Age. Works like Undersea Cables don’t merely treat information as a motif; nor do they render it wholly comprehensible through representation. The information remains unsorted, not fully decipherable, concrete but still sinister.

In interviews, Winters and Paglen both have a strange—and revealing—tendency to bring up cave paintings.

During a 2008 talk among Winters, David Levi Strauss, Peter Lamborn Wilson, and Brooklyn Rail publisher Phong Bui, Bui brought up a primal image of art making: a man who swims “to the shore of an island from a shipwreck and [sees] a geometric pattern drawn on the sand. He’d see it as a sign of culture. He’ll know that man has been there.” Much the same was true of images painted on the walls of prehistoric caves, Winters observed, before noting of such images: “It’s impossible to overestimate their significance or relevance.”

Paglens’s interest in cave art runs even deeper. In 2012, he completed work on The Last Pictures, a series of one hundred images etched into a gold-plated disc. The same year, the disc was placed inside the EchoStar XVI television satellite and launched into space. Even after running out of fuel in 2027, the satellite will continue to orbit the planet at an altitude of 20,000 miles—millions of years from now, in fact, it’ll still be there, guarding images of a human race that in all likelihood will have ceased to exist. “Cave paintings for the 21st century,” Paglen called the photographs.


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There have been projects like this before, most famously the Carl Sagan–sponsored Voyager 1 Golden Record, which featured audio samples of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and images of DNA and the solar system. Paglen’s images tell a grimmer story: natural disasters sparked by human activity, migrants surveilled by predator drones. These images may be in keeping with the spirit of the earliest human art. In the famous “shaft painting” in the Lascaux caves, a stick figure with an enormous erection stands by a host of animals. “When I look at it,” Paglen said, “I see a painting of a humanoid who has just inaugurated the greatest mass extinction that the world has ever seen and is sexually excited by that. I sometimes think that the artist who painted that scene meant it as a confession to the future.” Why launch drone photographs into space, then? To show, after the fashion of the earliest artists, that “we know exactly how we’re killing ourselves, and we’re going ahead and doing it anyway.”

Two artists, two different views of cave art: one optimistic, one pessimistic; a sign of culture versus a confession to the future; “here I am” versus “here’s what killed me.” And aren’t these really Winters’s and Paglen’s views of the Information Age, too? For Winters, the ubiquity of data allows talented artists to do the same things they’ve always done, only better: assert their creativity, their uniqueness. For Paglen, big data poses an existential threat to the human race, but one that’s too seductive to escape. Call Winters and Paglen the yin and yang of art in the Information Age: one a polymath who makes data his tool, the other a prophet who fears this tool may be our last.


This article was commissioned by Anne Higonnet. icon

  1. “Trevor Paglen in Conversation with Lauren Cornell,” in Mass Effect: Art and the Internet in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Lauren Cornell and Ed Halter (MIT Press, 2015), p. 258.
Featured image: Trevor Paglen, NSA-Tapped Fibre Optic Cable Landing Site, Morro Bay (2015). C print and mixed media on navigational chart. Lannan Collection, Nevada Art Museum. Photograph by rocor / Flickr