By Terence Hannum
Trevor Paglen has an anecdote about a time he was retrieving images from a secure military site in the United States when he was stopped from taking pictures by Military Police. They detained him and brought him to the office of a higher official who Paglen assumed would reprimand him in some way. Instead, in the comfort of his office, the official greeted Mr. Paglen as a doting fan and produced his own copy of Paglen’s book I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to be Destroyed By Me (Melville House Press), and there was a tacit detente.
I heard Paglen relay this anecdote in an artist talk in 2010. An uneasy chuckle went through the audience. At that time, we all had fresh memories of the George W. Bush administration’s weaponizing of intelligence gathering on civilians, and of its obstruction of inquiry into this domestic espionage. Paglen’s projects had teeth to bare in the presence of power.
Today, in 2018, as the president of the United States seeks to discredit investigations of his campaign, the Left spends its energy defending the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the intelligence apparatus that terrified it only eight or nine years ago. The timing is right, then, to become reacquainted with Paglen’s oeuvre. It is also fitting that Paglen, who has made a career out of making the invisible intelligence and surveillance network visible, will have his mid-career retrospective, Sites Unseen, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC (June 21 through January 6, 2019)—located between the International Spy Museum and the National Museum of Crime and Punishment, but one block away from the FBI.
I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to be Destroyed By Me was a book Paglen assembled of esoteric patches given to special Air Force pilots who had flown secret flights, typically test flights. The pilots wear these patches on their shoulders as emblems of what they have accomplished. One has to be in the trade to fully understand their cryptic meanings; most flights are classified, but the patches are marked by symbols that can begin to map the extensive secrecy of the military industrial complex: five stars and a single star (Area 51, the Air Force’s secret and much mythologized experimental aircraft site), thunderbolts (electronic warfare), a sigma symbol (radar evasion). Many of these patches contain clever slogans such as “Don’t Ask! NOYFB,” or a ring of black with plain yellow text that reads “Classified Flight Test” above an image of a stereotypical alien head holding a stealth bomber and “Gustatus Similus Pullus” (“Tastes Like Chicken”) below, or "Omnis Vestri Substructio Es Servus Ad Nobis," a play on the internet meme “All your base are belong to us” from the 1989 game Zero Wing. It is a secret language full of knowledge and inside humor. It is these secret maps that interest Paglen, who holds a PhD in Geography from the University of California, Berkeley. They drive him to fashion new representations of this covert world, which Americans pay for, vote for, whether they want to or not. The allocations of public funds for such operations as extraordinary renditions or experimental aircraft test flights are the keys to determining what is being hidden; every secret leaves a trace.
Sites Unseen will touch upon many of the phenomena—in the land, sea, and air—with which Paglen is concerned. His artworks incorporate a plethora of media, be they photographs of CIA “black sites” using long-range lenses (the same lenses typically used by amateur astronomical photographers), images of underwater cables on the ocean floor, annotated maps of the internet’s physical reality, or pictures of the sublime night sky smeared by the lights of spy satellites. His recent work has expanded its focus, including works addressing the limitations of artificial intelligence, and Trinity Cube, a minimal, Larry Bell-like cube composed of compressed irradiated glass from the Fukushima reactor. He has also just received funding via Kickstarter to launch a physical satellite into orbit (following Elon Musk’s car). No matter the subject, be it the night sky or black site, what concerns Paglen is vision—what can be seen and what remains invisible. Paglen has often said that his practice is about revealing these hidden worlds in which so many are knowingly or unknowingly complicit.
Paglen’s notoriety emerged during and in the wake of the Bush administration. In that post-9/11 era, a veritable legal gray area was encouraged, legislated, and planned, defining who could be detained, what could or couldn’t be done to them, and what, if anything, constituted a win. Bush’s “War on Terror” became an exercise in America’s moral cynicism actualizing already latent desires—the wholesale imprisonment of enemy combatants with no plan for due process, the initiating of wars with no plan for resolution, and the umbrella of domestic surveillance. Paglen perhaps best brought focus to the real geography of these desires with his multiple investigative projects on black sites, locations where covert CIA projects, including secret imprisonment and torture, took place. He has generated haunting images of hidden architecture lost in hazy heat patterns and video that was later incorporated into the 2014 Laura Poitras documentary Citizenfour. While Paglen was researching these sites, he realized certain aspects of the planes have to be registered, such as tail numbers and log books. The research led to Missing Persons, framed compositions of signatures of different CIA agents signing as the same name at various airports and culminating in the book co-authored with AC Thompson, Torture Taxi (Melville House Press) about the CIA’s secret extraordinary rendition program.
In 2014, Paglen shot photos of the National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland as part of a series of government buildings never before permitted to be documented by civilians. Other structures in the series include the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) which are now all available for free from Wikimedia Commons. The image of the NSA is not spectacular in and of itself. Shot from above and at night, like many of Paglen’s images, it is a fairly mundane building that doesn’t look out of place for Maryland government architecture. To me this piece is emblematic of the problem with Paglen’s work during the Obama administration. To critique the state, he has had to get close to it, retaining approval, access, and intelligence of his own. The image shows us something we could not have seen before, unless of course maybe you worked for the NSA. It vacillates between reinforcing the authority of the state surveillance apparatus as an icon and revealing a secret.
Many of the projects Paglen engaged in during the Obama years began at the end of the Bush administration, such as his series of images, The Other Night Sky. This series revealed the trails of spy satellites. Paglen collaborated with amateur astronomers to pinpoint their location. By the end of the Obama era, this project evolved to focus on drones in dusky skies, in a critique of the Obama administration’s prefered use of robotic warfare to anonymously kill “enemy combatants” and civilians.
Every presidential administration is different, with a different cast of characters occupying positions of power, and obviously a different set of operative principles in place when dealing with matters of state. I am curious to see how Paglen’s practice, honed during the Bush years, continued over the Obama administration, will evolve in the Trump era. He seems to work best with a strong target, and Trump’s patchwork of inept appointees and nominees tends to jerk from one position to another. While Sites Unseen, a mid-career retrospective, will focus on Paglen’s past work, it is his response to where we are now that most interests me.
In December of 2015, Trevor Paglen used the outskirts of the colossal art fair Art Basel: Miami to charter a boat from the south Florida coast to the physical location of one of the hundreds of internet cables laid across the sea floor. The outing was attended by those skilled enough to scuba dive, and affluent enough to afford the excursion. Paglen’s images of these murky depths, where information flows unseen and vanishes beneath the seafloor, were then exhibited at Metro Pictures in New York City. These images and the myth-building around them, the art quest akin to the destination-based art of Robert Smithson or Nancy Holt, attain two things. The work demystifies the voyage of information in the digital age—we are not referring to the invisible angelic messengers that philosopher Michel Serres writes about in Angels: A Modern Myth; rather, the internet consists of something physical. Secondly, the underwater cable photographs play into the growing mystique of Russian cyber-espionage. Only last December was it being reported that Russia had its submarines snooping on the ocean floor around the locations of these very cables. This resurrected Cold War fears of Russian espionage and potential acts of sabotage. The development also spoke to the very ghosts we’re confronting in Paglen’s work. In this sense, perhaps Paglen is right where he needs to be, between conspiracy and the cold truth.
Paglen’s greatest successes have come in analyzing the “War on Terror” that was taken off the shelf by the Bush administration, fully formed, and which did not change much under the Obama administration. The infrastructure of the “War on Terror” remains firmly in place. Guantanamo still exists, American soldiers are still in Afghanistan and Iraq, the NSA’s domestic surveillance continues. Yet the same citizens that objected to the growth and invasiveness of the intelligence apparatus now find themselves defending the “deep state," in hopes that it will deliver them from the inept Trump administration. Certainly, reviewing all of Paglen’s work up to this point can be haunting, harrowing, and serve as an inflection point where we should acknowledge that most political art rarely changes politics; that is the realm of politics and real activism. It is the reflections of the present, where Paglen’s work will expose the invisible world we don’t even know we’re in, that I am eager—and terrified—to see.
Terence Hannum is a Baltimore-based visual artist, musician, and writer. His writing has appeared in Terraform and Lamplight, and his novella All Internal was released this year on Dyantox Ministries.