Seeing Things

Trevor Paglen is a writer and “experimental geographer” holding a Ph.D. in geography from Berkeley. His thought-provoking visual artworks deliberately blur the lines between social science, contemporary art, political theory, and activism. Constructing unusual but meticulously researched reinterpretations of our world, Paglen is an artist whose work is so radically new that it forces viewers to redefine what constitutes art.

In 2005, he was the first to observe and photograph the airplanes used by the CIA for their “extraordinary rendition” program, the extrajudicial transfer of people from one country to another. Paglen later published his findings in a book called Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA’s Rendition Flights. For his ongoing project The Expeditions, he leads excursions to document the way hidden military activities shape landscapes and to view infrastructure whose very existence is sometimes classified.

NIELS VAN TOMME: In the past years you have been investigating the world of “black” military operations. Can you explain what those are?

TREVOR PAGLEN: I look at military intelligence operations that are undertaken in secret, ranging from surveillance satellites to weapons testing to more operational stuff like the “extraordinary rendition” program. There is a wide range of things.

Trevor Paglen. Symbology, VOl. I (2006) 20 fabric patches (detail)

NIELS VAN TOMME: Doing this kind of advanced research, uncovering secret worlds, provides you with a remarkable starting point as an artist. How do you represent something that officially does not exist? How do you get access to a world that is totally kept secret?

TREVOR PAGLEN: Well, I do not gain access more often than I do, which becomes a part of my process. It’s something that happens over and over again in my work. In fact that’s what I am trying to capture: the moment when something becomes visible but remains unintelligible, when you find evidence of absence in a certain sense. For my project Symbology, I compiled patches, insignia, and symbols referring to secret military programs. Strangely enough, this “black world” is rich with such symbolic imagery, even though it affiliates someone with deeply held secrets. Again, when these patches get displayed they give you clues to what some of these programs might be, but they do not tell you what they are. Nevertheless, you know that there is something.

NIELS VAN TOMME: You have developed an innovative technique called limit-telephotography, which uses tools from astronomy to produce revealing photographs. Can you explain how you came to this process?

Trevor Paglen. Large Hangars and Fuel Storage (2005)
Tonopah Test Range, NV Distance ~ 18 miles. 10:44 a.m. C-Print 30″ x 36″.

TREVOR PAGLEN: Secret operations typically happen out in the dessert in Nevada, Arizona, or New Mexico, really far away from cities or anything. There are these giant restricted military ranges around these sites, so there’s often no place where you can go to actually see some of these secret places. I started to aim at the ground with the kind of equipment that would normally be used to take pictures of the planet Jupiter. I was trying to find places where I would have a line of sight to some of these “black” sites and shoot landscape photos. That’s the technique. I’m talking about taking photographs from twenty to fifty miles away. When you’re looking at something on the ground that far away, there’s so much heat, haze, and thick atmosphere that the images start falling apart. All of the colors fall apart from each other.

NIELS VAN TOMME: The images become almost abstract.

TREVOR PAGLEN: Exactly. Again, we are coming back to this theme that is present in almost all of my work. It’s about showing something and not showing it at the same time, but also pointing out the epistemological collapse that goes along with that. It seems that these images are about seeing the places they are trying to depict, but in a certain sense they also show you the physical limits of vision. This is what happens when you push the human eyeball as far as it will go. It shows you how it looks like when vision starts falling apart.

NIELS VAN TOMME: I’m intrigued by your installation “Missing Persons.” The first time I glanced at it, I found it very provocative that you had published the names of people that the U.S. government had kidnapped. Then I looked closer and discovered that those aren’t really the names of the actual missing people. Or are they?

Trevor Paglen. Missing Persons (2006) (detail)

TREVOR PAGLEN: No, they are the names of the people who are doing the disappearing. They’re fake names. If you are working for the CIA and you’re going to kidnap someone and have him tortured, you’re not going to use your own name. You will make up a fake identity and a fake passport. The project consists of the different signatures on documents from people inhabiting these fake identities. The signatures are very inconsistent from one document to the next, because it is clear that it is not a real person. Also part of “Missing Persons” are the fake passports used in these operations. The passport will have a photo on it of a certain person, but all the other information on it is not real. And again we are coming back to this question about what is visible and what is invisible and this epistemological/visual limit.

NIELS VAN TOMME: With artistic work that relates so closely to military and political secrecy, whom exactly is your audience? I can imagine it goes beyond the art world.

TREVOR PAGLEN: Oh yes, it goes hugely beyond the art world. It’s a very broad audience. On the one hand, there are people who are critical of these kinds of programs: the art world, activists, organizers, and lawyers. On the other hand are people from the CIA all the way to those who work in these secret parts of the military. I’m told that in the secret divisions of the Air Force my patches book [I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to be Destroyed by Me, which brings together all the images from the 'Symbology' project] is a total bestseller. Apparently all of them have that book in their office now. [Laughs]

NIELS VAN TOMME: That’s crazy! What kind of reactions do you get from them?

TREVOR PAGLEN: A lot of them love the book. You have to remember that people are people. A lot of these guys have jobs where they cannot tell their wife what they do for a living. They can have an unbelievable alienated career. The book shows you something about the world of these secret programs, but in a certain way it also recognizes some of the people that have been a part of this world. It’s a part of our human nature that we want to be recognized for what we do. And that extends to some of these guys too, although it’s a secret what they do. It’s ironic that this book is a hit partly because of that.

NIELS VAN TOMME: After studying this “black world,” do you think the military should continue these secret missions? Aren’t they designed to protect people in the first place?

TREVOR PAGLEN: Here is what I think. We have a $30-60 billion secret world that employs millions of people and I don’t think we should have that. Of course, we do not need to be publishing the frequencies soldiers in Iraq are using for communication. We do not want to put their lives in danger. For me having a secret world at this scale is enormously dangerous for democracy and fundamentally incompatible with it.

NIELS VAN TOMME: What do you think is your task as an artist? Regarding the work that you do, would you consider it a political position?

TREVOR PAGLEN: In a certain sense, yes. My goals with art are quite limited. I want to achieve two things. The first is to help us to be ourselves. The second, which is related to that, is to help us develop a visual and cultural vocabulary that we can use to see ourselves or to think about who we are, where we have been, and where we are going. This is a classical argument, but I have quite modest expectations from art. I’ve done a lot of activist work and have been a very vocal critic of the Bush administration. I do not need the artworks to be didactic in the same way that my writing sometimes needs to be. You need to be very clear about what it is that you are saying, about what you think is right or wrong, which position you have. For me, art is part of that project, but it’s not at all the entirety of it. I think about making art as a part of an overall project, a political project.

NIELS VAN TOMME: How did you get initially interested in military operations? Is it a hobby?

TREVOR PAGLEN: I grew up in the military, so I was around it a lot. About eight years ago, I was studying prisons in the United States and I was going through all these old satellite and aerial image archives. This was before Google Earth. I wanted to see where these prisons were, what was around them, why they were in the places that they were. Predictably enough, it turned out that newer prisons were in the middle of nowhere, relatively invisible, in the same kinds of places where a lot of these military operations go on. When I was going through those archives I would notice places where the images had been taken out. I started to realize they were not there because some of these military installations are not supposed to be out there. I decided it was incredible to have a blank spot on the map in this information age. It was a very Conradian moment. I wanted to fill them in and took it from there. Initially I went into UFO and conspiracy theories, but I quickly realized that there was something much more at stake here. The War on Terror was getting started and I very early on got the sense that these blank spots on the map were somehow paradigmatic of something that was happening politically.

NIELS VAN TOMME: Are you working on a new project at the moment?

TREVOR PAGLEN: Yes, I am working on a few new projects that I’m not going to talk about. [Laughs]

NIELS VAN TOMME: Perhaps I should try to uncover those secrets?

TREVOR PAGLEN: Right. [Laughs]

Niels Van Tomme is associate director of arts and media at Provisions Library. He is also an independent curator, art critic, and contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. This series on new media is part of a special collaboration with Provisions Library supported by the Arca Foundation.