Profile of Trevor Paglen

I interviewed Trevor Paglen at Eyebeam, in New York, one afternoon in the fall of 2007. In talking with him about his work, and the research that goes into it, it was easy to get caught up in the dark tangles of government espionage. But he soberly asked me to view his work as art, not just risky investigative journalism. So I put my action movie fantasies aside and really looked. This profile was published Dec. 2007, in Modern Painters.
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A desolate landscape stretches toward a barely perceptible horizon. The air is thick with white dust, and the pale gray ground is striated with musty purples and greens. Evoking an abstract painting with thick, nearly monochromatic brushstrokes, or a photographic negative subjected to experimental developing processes, the blurred image is titled with extreme precision, describing when and where it was taken by artist Trevor Paglen in 2005, and what it strains to capture: Chemical and Biological Weapons Proving Ground/Dugway, UT/Distance -42 miles/10:51am.

To explain his work, Paglen often quotes a well-known line from George Orwell’s 1984: “Freedom is the freedom to say two plus two equals four.” In other words, Paglen’s unauthorized photograph of a classified weapons-testing site in Utah can be read as a document that reveals how facts are denied, obscured, and, ultimately, controlled. To this extent, all of Paglen’s work answers “four” to the firm, executive assertion that the answer to the equation is, actually, “five.” In response to disinformation, he advances photographs of secret airports and fuel caches; a video of people exiting an unregistered airplane; the only known snapshot of the notorious “Salt Pit” secret prison in Afghanistan; or ephemera he’s collected from covert military programs.

For his photography, Paglen has spent the past six years traveling to regions of the world that are officially nonexistent, getting as close as possible to classified military sites. From great distances—up to 65 miles so far—Paglen zooms in on barely detectable buildings with his telescope and camera. The pro-cess of researching where such “black sites” (as the CIA refers to them) are located and how to reach them, and the hours spent anticipating a moment when conditions are best for capturing even the vaguest contours of hidden structures, amount to a kind of durational performance. Alone in the allegedly empty desert at 3 am, the artist watches until he sees a glimmer of a searchlight in the far distance, proof that something we are not supposed to know about exists.

A self-proclaimed experimental geographer, Paglen is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in geography at the University of California, Berkeley—fitting for an artist who investigates, as he explains, “how spaces are made,” whether the spaces in question are visible and acknowledged or veiled and denied.

While his work could be read as a feat of investigative journalism or political activism, as an artist Paglen chooses to meditate on the nature of his medium, approaching photography as an inherently untrustworthy source. His “evidence,” distorted as it is by the distance he must keep to remain undetected, says little about what the “black” world actually looks like or what the intentions behind it are. Instead Paglen exposes the structure of a network of sites and routes that we are not intended to see. In this sense, his work as an artist-geographer might best be understood as producing a subversive cartography of the invisible.

 

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