Secret Moons and Black Worlds – Interview with Trevor Paglen

Trevor Paglen, ‘They Watch the Moon’, 2010.

This is a belated posting of a piece Timothy Moore and I contributed to the Moon issue of Volume, released at the end of 2011. We spoke to artist and self-described ‘experimental geographer’ Trevor Paglen about his work peering into the dark worlds of the military industrial complex. Here’s the lead from the original publication:

Our vision of planet Earth is oft-skewed by accepted grand narratives, which cloak alternative realities from view. Trevor Paglen, artist, author and experimental geographer, visualizes elements in these shadowlands, from military installations to classified reconnaissance satellites, in order to return the gaze back upon democratic institutions. By combining empirical research with artistic interpretations, Paglen questions the truths told about the frontier landscapes of today.

Timothy Moore: In a period where the whole world can be seemingly mapped, we still have a plenitude of blind spots. And in this blindness, we can find so-called ‘black architecture’. Can you describe this black world?

Trevor Paglen: The black world is a phrase that emerged in the 1980s when the amount of spending in the American defence and intelligence budget reached historic highs. Billions of dollars were being spent on secret programs: on everything from stealth fighters and bombers and weird ‘Star Wars’ space weapon systems, to spy satellites and all kinds of very expensive technology projects.
There was an extension of what they called ‘covert operations’, which are paramilitary operations. In the 1980s, this was mostly in Afghanistan and Central America where the American government was fighting in secret. Because this secret part of the state had become so prominent, yet strangely invisible, people in defence and intelligence circles started to talk about something called the black world. There is a materiality to this world so when we talk about secrecy, we are not just talking about secret documents, we are talking about an entire landscape and a geography of secret things.
I started to research this world before there was Google Earth, Terraserver or other commercially available satellite imagery. Back then, if you wanted to look at aerial or satellite photographs, you would have to go to government archives. But the US geological archives are incomplete. There are photos that do not appear in those archives. When you go through them, you notice some are missing. You literally had blank spots on the map.
I thought it was an apt metaphor as blank spots allude to European and imperial histories: dark spaces inhabited by ‘dark’ people, places where fantasy and reality became intertwined in some very violent ways. To me, it seemed like this metaphor also worked for some of these military and intelligence geographies because they were also places that we did not have access to, and were marked by fantasies and extreme forms of what we may call informal violence.

TM: Yet this black world is maintained by infrastructure and logistics. For example, if the military are testing new fighter planes, they need a landing strip. People also have to commute daily to work on these projects. How is it plausible that this black world remains hidden?

TP: I am not sure this world remains hidden from our view. When we talk about the way we see, it’s a matter of believing in something and then seeing it. For example, when we look at its architecture, like the National Reconnaissance Office in Northern Virginia, it looks totally unremarkable. It looks like a big office building. Thousands of people drive past it each day and don’t know what it is. That is one form of this architecture. It looks like anything else. But parts of this architecture are more remarkable but hidden in different ways. In the state of Nevada, which is basically a giant desert, the military has a section of Nevada called the Nellis Range, where they have their own country. It’s the size of Switzerland. Nobody is allowed in there. There are other ways that secrecy works as well like setting up outposts in remote parts of the world, like Afghanistan.

TM: How does one pick up on traces or signs where the secret world intersects with the world we know?

TP: If you can describe the borders of it, you can get a negative image of it. Architecture has to interface in all kind of ways. You have to find where those intersections or contradictions are. Then you can perhaps learn something about that world. In Torture Taxi, I looked at the CIA’s rendition program: a program that kidnaps and tortures people. The CIA, and parts of the military, use a civilian cover during these operations. The whole point is you don’t want your fingerprints on it. You don’t want it to point to you. Often you will adopt the guise of private enterprise or corporations to do these operations. The advantage of this is that you are able to hide in plain sight.
The problem is, if you are setting up an airplane company for instance, the aviation industry is highly regulated so you actually generate a paper trail in public. One of the things that we realized is that if you could figure out what airplanes the CIA was using for this program, then you could learn quite a lot about the structure of the front companies. You could follow where the airplanes went and that would give you some clues to the outlines of the program’s spatial geography. You collect data points and connect them to other data points. It happened a number of times when somebody got out of one of these secret places and said, ‘you’d never believe what happened to me. I was tortured for the last six months and I was not actually sure of where I was but I think it was Afghanistan’, and he could give you some details like he was kidnapped at a certain date. Then we find a tail number from one of the airplanes that we have connected to the program landing in an airport from where he was kidnapped from and then flying to Afghanistan.

Trevor Paglen, ‘Morning Commute, ‘Gold Coast’ Terminal, Las Vegas, Nevada, 2006′

Rory Hyde: As an artist, you must end up with strange neighbours. On the one hand, you have the conspiracy theorists who are scanning the skies for UFOs and wearing silver hats. On the other hand, you have the hardcore investigative journalists. How do you position yourself?

TP: I don’t really hang out with conspiracy theorists. It’s very easy to imagine things into the evidence that you have because the evidence is partial and inconclusive. There is always an opportunity to imagine it as being something completely different than what it probably actually is.

RH: Do you have an agenda? Is there an instrumentality to what you produce?

TP: With the visual works, it is about a political epistemology. How do we know what we know in a political moment where it’s unclear what the state is doing? What is the difference between truth, falsehood and propaganda when it’s unclear how to differentiate these things from one another? With the Torture Taxi book, I had a clear agenda. The whole point of the book was to shut the project down.

TM: And you are trained as a geographer, so there is the notion you are still generating or producing space.

TP: This is what I call ‘experimental geography’, something I have written about, which explores the dynamics between research, geography and artistic practices. Geography provides a powerful way of thinking. It is the last materialist discipline. It emphasizes the way we produce the world around us, and are produced by it. There’s a whole tradition in comparative literature and semiotics about how our world is meaningful and socially constructed.
If you reframe those questions as questions about geography and the dialectical relationship that we have with the surface of the Earth, it is a much more convincing way to approach these questions, whether you are studying global warming or ecosystems. It gives you a framework within which you see the role that humans play in sculpting or changing the surface of the Earth.

TM: Or the skies above us. You talk about satellites as secret moons in your project The Other Night Sky, where you capture traces of covert spacecraft. What do you mean by secret moons?

TP: The Other Night Sky is a project that involves tracking all of the spacecraft in orbit around the Earth. The United States military strategic command has a catalogue of the spacecraft, which has about 20,000 objects, and includes French spy satellites and German spy satellites. Other countries get cranky when the US military publishes it for everyone to see. What is not in the catalogue is all of the secret US and Japanese satellites. A friend of mine, as a hobby for about 30 years, has been maintaining a supplement, which is all of the things that are missing from the military catalogue. He does that by going out with binoculars and telescopes and making observation of these objects, keeping track of them and trying to follow new launches as they go up.
The Other Night Sky uses this catalogue based on amateur observations to track all of these secret satellites and photograph them. To do this work, you are basically using seventeenth-century maths. You are using Kepler’s laws of planetary motion. Here we are in the twenty-first century, and we are able to use the actual basic tools of the early Enlightenment to do a very similar type of work.

Trevor Paglen, ‘Four Geostationary Satellites Above the Sierra Nevada’, 2007.

Galileo famously looked up with a telescope in 1609 and saw Jupiter had moons that were not supposed to be there. That fact undermined what was established as truth. So the Ptolemaic worldview had to be wrong. The second part of that was even more radical: anyone with a telescope could look up and see the exact same thing. Right there, at the very sight of truth, there was a reorientation towards what we might call the ‘liberal’ or ‘bourgeois’ subject. It didn’t matter who you were but you could look up to the sky and see the same thing and the truth would emerge from this rational consensus. It’s very interesting for me to think about what we can still recover from the early Enlightenment project. Those ideas that were so radical at that time: are they still radical at this point? Is there something that we can recover politically?

RH: It’s interesting that this Enlightenment idea of the bourgeois subject has never eventuated. The evident truth – looking through the telescope – has not trickled down beyond a small cluster of experts. We still have an ‘us versus them’ scenario, whether it be against the Catholic Church or the military. Despite shared knowledge or shared expertise, we haven’t found a common ground. In your position as an artist, would you be interested in working from the other side of the fence, from within the military for instance?

TP: A lot of my work relies heavily on collaboration with people in the military and intelligence services, but off the record. Would I like to join the military? Absolutely not.

RH: The reason I ask is that one of the other ideas we’ve been discussing as part of the research for this issue is broadening the kinds of experience of those participating in space or military research. If we sent an artist into space, what might we learn that would be different? Or how could you tinker with the space program to create different outcomes beyond science, outcomes that are potentially more important and relevant for society?

TP: People have always looked to the skies to understand ourselves or the world, whether that’s looking at the constellations and explaining events on Earth, or sending up a Hubble Space Telescope and trying to see the most distant reaches of the universe and its origins; where we come from and where we are going. Of course, when we look at the science of space, it is dominated by the empirical tradition of rationally trying to understand what is out there. But there are limitations to that and perhaps that is where artists have a role to explore space which we don’t know or cannot know due to the limitations of a rational empirical approach. I’ve been talking to guys from Mountain View and Berkeley who search for extra-terrestrials, and I’ve been really fascinated by them because of lot of what they do is trying to understand what humans are. A part of the project of trying to discover aliens, or to communicate with them, is trying to radically imagine different ways of being in the universe.

TM: Is the universe the frontier landscape of today?

TP: The frontier has always been in our minds. [Laughs] It is the imagination of empty space. There is always something there. In a cultural sense, the frontier has shifted to space. This was more true in the Star Trek era: space as the final frontier. People were actually figuring out things like how to go to the Moon. That’s over. If we wanted to go to the Moon today, we couldn’t do it. There a lot of people who imagine space as a frontier to be conquered. More practically, it represents a condition of confinement. Space is more so a prison than a frontier and that notion is depressing. To me, the most powerful image having to do with space is Pale Blue Dot, requested by Carl Sagan and taken by Voyager. It makes me think of space not as a condition of possibility but as a condition of confinement. It reorients our tension to the Earth itself when we realize that there is no place else to go – so we better not mess this up … People get angry when I say this, but I don’t see us colonizing space: who’s going to pay for it?

For more on Trevor Paglen see and his recent monograph Invisible: Covert Operations and Classified Landscapes, published by Aperture.

Related: my other piece for Volume’s Moon issue: ‘Whole Earth Rise‘.

Posted: October 24th, 2011
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