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OCTAVE – on Trevor Paglan’s ‘Code Names’

October 25th, 2013 by Steven ten Thije

Trevor Peglan, ‘Code Names’, 2007 – today. Copyright photo Peter Cox

A small joy I have these last weeks is walking past Code Names (2007 – today) by Trevor Paglen. It’s an endless list of names that designate fake firms that appear in government budgets. These firms function as the fiscal infrastructure for the vast amount of money connected to classified NSA and military programmes. Reading them you enter into an absolutely weird world of imagination and speculation. You immediately see nerd-like men sitting in fancy offices, or just in the unobtrusive rooms, all over the world thinking of a new name in which they can hide their next morally debatably plan. They imagine things like ‘Alembic’, ‘Bell Weather’, or ‘Zodiac’, but also more telling ones like ‘Goodbye’ or ‘Hollow Tile’. With ‘Goodbye’ you immediately see Bond-like action, the extermination of some evil villain somewhere in an exotic land. Whereas ‘Hollow Tile’ sounds like important data stolen and stored somewhere in a secret location. But of course everything is just a product of my own imagination.

Today however suddenly one of these words gave away some of its secrets. Browsing the NRC-website (a Dutch newspaper) I came across a short article on the recent scandal around the eavesdropping NSA did on German Prime Minister Angela Merkel. Apparently she wasn’t the only one to get this ‘special treatment’ but 34 other ‘world leaders’ were also tapped. The information came, not surprising, from the classified files disclosed by Edward Snowden, also a vital source for Trevor Paglen. To give the article some weight the NRC published the memo that inspires NSA-operatives to listen in on world leaders. I’m adding the image in the text.

Disclosed NSA-file. Source NRC-website.

In the second paragraph you’ll read the sentence: ‘These numbers plus several others have been tasked to OCTAVE.’ Of course, you can imagine that after reading the mysterious word in capitals I jumped up from my seat and walked to the list to check and there it is:

Trevol Paglen, ‘Code Names’, 2007 – today, Photo by author.

Now this word, one among many, lost its status as semi-fiction and can be linked to a real fact, a real programme. Also a programme that truly did surprise me, because somehow I did not imagine that the US would be so rude to tap one of their major allies, but they did. Knowing this changes the work, even if formally it stays the same. The world of the ‘special programmes’, even if you know they exist, is too much coloured by action movies and thriller novels to be ‘real’. Now all of sudden this one word and fact brings the entire list slightly closer to the world of physical facts in which I live. As a result the work goes through one of the oldest artistic processes: it makes the abstract concrete. It brings the world we know mentally into the world we inhabit physically. Even if today this process doesn’t concern the divine, as it did once upon a time, but reflects the God-like power that superpower states have access to and use. It makes Paglan’s work next to completely contemporary also already classic.

Ps. For those who want to know. It seems our own PM was a bit disappointed to not be on the list of 35. See this Speld-article (sorry Dutch only). Don’t worry Mark, you’ll get there. Next time only don’t arrest a Russian diplomat, but try a US-one for a change…

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