ponedjeljak, 22. travnja 2013.

Trevor Paglen - The Last Pictures, Torture Taxi, Blank Spots on the Map, Covert Operations and Classified Landscapes

Paglen se doslovno bavi "zabranjenim" temama: otkriva i (tele)fotografira tajne špijunske satelite, lokacije izbrisane sa zemljopisnih karata, "nevidljive" vojne infrastrukture i djelatnosti, grbove tajnih postrojbi (knjiga I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed By Me: Emblems from the Pentagon's Black World stekla je kultni status)...
U najnovijem projektu, The Last Pictures, riječ je o odašiljanju u svemir diska koji može trajati milijardama godina a na kojemu je pohranjeno 100 (ponekad duhovitih) fotografija koje će i nakon što nas davno ne bude svjedočiti o vrsti koja je oko planeta (zbog nekog razloga) stvorila smetlište satelita a onda (zbog nekog razloga) nestala. 

The Last Pictures, 2012 In 1963 NASA launched the first communications satellite “Syncom 2” into a geosynchronous orbit over the Atlantic Ocean. Since then, humans have slowly and methodically added to this space-based communications infrastructure. Currently, more than 800 spacecraft in geosynchronous orbit form a man-made ring of satellites around Earth at an altitude of 36,000 kilometers. Most of these spacecraft powered down long ago, yet continue to float aimlessly around the planet. Geostationary satellites are so far from Earth that their orbits never decay. The dead spacecraft in orbit have become a permanent fixture around Earth, not unlike the rings of Saturn. They will be the longest-lasting artifacts of human civilization, quietly floating through space long after every trace of humanity has disappeared from the planet’s surface.

Commissioned and presented by public art organization Creative Time, The Last Pictures is a project to mark one of these spacecraft with a record of our historical moment. For nearly five years, artist Trevor Paglen interviewed scientists, artists, anthropologists, and philosophers to consider what such a cultural mark should be. As an artist in residence at MIT, he worked with materials scientists to develop an ultra-archival disc of images, capable of lasting in space for billions of years.
In September 2012, the television satellite EchoStar XVI will lift off from Kazakhstan with the disc attached to its anti-earth deck, enter a geostationary orbit, and proceed to broadcast over ten trillion images over its fifteen-year lifetime. When it nears the end of its useful life, EchoStar XVI will use the last of its fuel to enter a slightly higher “graveyard orbit,” where it will power down and die. While EchoStar XVI’s broadcast images are destined to be as fleeting as the light-speed radio waves they travel on, The Last Pictures will continue to slowly circle Earth until the Earth itself is no more.

American artist and “experimental geographer” Trevor Paglen travels to the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to document the launch of the communications satellite EchoStar XVI in today’s special reportage. Unlike the 1000s of other craft pointed towards the stars, this one harbored a message for the distant future in the form of an innocuous capsule bolted to its exterior and containing the multi-disciplinary creator’s latest work, The Last Pictures. Commissioned by New York's Creative Time, the object contains a silicon wafer micro-etched with 100 archival black-and-white images, selected as photographic documents of recent human history. "Images do not make arguments the same way a scientific paper makes an argument,” Paglen says of his choice of medium. “The way they communicate is much more impressionistic and affective, and by playing with those relationships I was able let the images do what they want to do.” The disc is encased in a gold-plated aluminum cover with further imprints on its surface that maps when—not where—it comes from. “The project is more about going into time than into space,” explains its architect. The satellite now appears in the night sky as a fixed, manmade glowing sphere, joining Earth’s orbital rings for the rest of time. An ironic wink at extra-terrestrial beings who may one day come across it, the archive functions as a cave painting in space, a prescient epitaph for an extinct civilization, or as Paglen puts it, "a silent film for the future". www.nowness.com/

The Last Pictures 
Human civilizations' longest lasting artifacts are not the great Pyramids of Giza, nor the cave paintings at Lascaux, but the communications satellites that circle our planet. In a stationary orbit above the equator, the satellites that broadcast our TV signals, route our phone calls, and process our credit card transactions experience no atmospheric drag. Their inert hulls will continue to drift around Earth until the Sun expands into a red giant and engulfs them about 4.5 billion years from now.
The Last Pictures, co-published by Creative Time Books, is rooted in the premise that these communications satellites will ultimately become the cultural and material ruins of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, far outlasting anything else humans have created. Inspired in part by ancient cave paintings, nuclear waste warning signs, and Carl Sagan's Golden Records of the 1970s, artist/geographer Trevor Paglen has developed a collection of one hundred images that will be etched onto an ultra-archival, golden silicon disc. The disc, commissioned by Creative Time, will then be sent into orbit onboard the Echostar XVI satellite in September 2012, as both a time capsule and a message to the future.
The selection of 100 images, which are the centerpiece of the book, was influenced by four years of interviews with leading scientists, philosophers, anthropologists, and artists about the contradictions that characterize contemporary civilizations. Consequently, The Last Pictures engages some of the most profound questions of the human experience, provoking discourse about communication, deep time, and the economic, environmental, and social uncertainties that define our historical moment.
Copub: Creative Time Books

Prying Eyes: Feature Article in the New Yorker. Weiner, Jonah

Nato Thompson: The Last Pictures: Interview with Trevor Paglen

In 1963 NASA launched the first communications satellite, Syncom 2, into a geosynchronous orbit over the Atlantic Ocean. Since then, humans have slowly and methodically added to this space-based communications infrastructure. Currently, more than 800 spacecraft in geosynchronous orbit form a man-made ring of satellites around Earth at an altitude of 36,000 kilometers. Most of these spacecraft powered down long ago, yet continue to float aimlessly around the planet. Geostationary satellites are so far from earth that their orbits never decay. The dead spacecraft in orbit have become a permanent fixture around Earth, not unlike the rings of Saturn. They will be the longest-lasting artifacts of human civilization, quietly floating through space long after every trace of humanity has disappeared from the planet’s surface.
Commissioned and presented by public art organization Creative Time, The Last Pictures is a project to mark one of these spacecraft with a record of our historical moment. For nearly five years, artist Trevor Paglen interviewed scientists, artists, anthropologists, and philosophers to consider what such a cultural mark should be. As an artist-in-residence at MIT, he worked with materials scientists to develop an archival disc of images capable of lasting in space for billions of years.
In September 2012, the television satellite EchoStar XVI will lift off from Kazakhstan with the disc attached to its anti-earth deck, enter a geostationary orbit, and proceed to broadcast over ten trillion images over its fifteen-year lifetime. When it nears the end of its useful life, EchoStar XVI will use the last of its fuel to enter a slightly higher “graveyard orbit,” where it will power down and die. While EchoStar XVI’s broadcast images are destined to be as fleeting as the light-speed radio waves they travel on, The Last Pictures will continue to slowly circle Earth until the Earth itself is no more.
Nato Thompson: It is great that we have an opportunity to talk about The Last Pictures after working on it for numerous years. There is a lot to tackle in this project, in that it is this sort of grand gesture (going to space) with a critique of that very gesture.
Trevor Paglen: This has been a very strange project to work on, as you can imagine. The notional framework is to create a collection of images for the far future, a future where there is no evidence of human civilization on Earth’s surface, but where a ring of dead spacecraft remains in orbit, perhaps for the descendants of future dinosaurs or giant squid to find. So right from the start, we have a situation that is utterly absurd. The idea that we can “communicate” anything whatsoever to anything outside our own social and historical context is preposterous. But that doesn’t change the material fact that our communications satellites will, in all likelihood, really be in orbit around Earth for the next four or five billion years (until the Sun expands into a red giant), and The Last Pictures may very well be the “last pictures.” How, as an artist, does one navigate between these two poles? It’s an impossible task and an impossible question. Over the course of researching this project, several touchstones became really important to me. The most important is cave paintings, and in particular a tableau from Lascaux called “the Pit” or “the Shaft.” Cave paintings are an example of images or records we have from cultures that have been radically torn from any historical context. They are to us what our spacecraft may be to the future. I actually think about The Last Pictures as cave paintings for the future.

The headless astronaut, Armstrong’s suit as exhibited in Cape Canaveral.
NT: One of the obvious jumping-off points was Carl Sagan’s Golden Record of 1974, which was a tremendous encyclopedic attempt to communicate with aliens.
TP: Yes. Another touchstone for the project is the history of objects or messages that are specifically designed for extraterrestrials, objects that are designed as gifts for an alien in the far future—and over the course of this project, the figure of the alien and the “figure” of the future have become completely intertwined in my own thinking. Of these objects-for-aliens, the Golden Record is the most elaborate. At first glance, the Golden Record seems very much like an artifact of the 1970s. It’s an LP record attached to the Voyager space probe. One side holds a collection of world music and greetings in fifty-five different languages, and the other side has a collection of images encoded into a video signal. The images are a cross between The Family of Man and National Geographic, which is actually the source for most of them. When you look at the Golden Record’s contents, it looks a lot like a kind of “it’s a small world” multicultural utopia. No images of war, poverty, inequality, environmental destruction. You can imagine the obvious critiques. The more I look at these images, the more bizarre it is and the more sympathetic I’ve become towards it. On one hand, working on The Last Pictures has actually taught me a lot about images, mostly about how overflowing with excess images are, how utterly alien they become when they float away from their immediate contexts. Cave paintings, or even things like pyramids or the Moai of Easter Island, are deeply strange artifacts to us—so strange, in fact, that some of the most popular shows on TV are about trying to “uncover their mysteries,” and so forth. All images are ultimately cave paintings. A fun exercise to demonstrate this: take out all the pieces of music and languages that are familiar to you, then play the unfamiliar ones over a slideshow of the images. The “it’s a small world” read goes away quite quickly.

Trevor Paglen, The Last Pictures, 200X-2012. The image above, titled Glimpses of America, American National Exhibition, Moscow World’s Fair is one of a collection of 100 photographs placed onboard a communications satellite.

NT: It’s a strange time we live in, as I can’t help but notice a certain “nihilism,” as you put it, in terms of a general mood of gloom with respect to the future. At first, you were rather cynical about this project, in that you felt it was completely absurd and perhaps even demonstrated the hubris of the modern project. I believe you said it has something to do with the ethics of time.
TP: When I began The Last Pictures, I thought that the idea of creating human marks on timeless spacecraft was an absurd idea. But over the years, I started to think that not marking our spacecraft, and not marking things for the future may be symptomatic of a culture in which we actively annihilate the future through our disregard for it. Environmental destruction is an obvious example of this attitude, as is cutting education budgets. And so, in this way, the idea of creating “greetings” for the alien/future seems to embody an ethics in which we imagine that the future actually exists and, perhaps, as a consequence, care more about it. I don’t want to come off as a big advocate for the Golden Record or say how great it is, but I think when we look at it and say “it’s naïve,” or “it’s so 1970s,” it’s a fine line between pointing out (rightly) problems with the meta-gesture of the Golden Record and a nihilistic attitude towards the future that’s widespread right now in culture, society, and politics.
NT: I can’t help but think global warming has radically altered the global ontology. Thinking about the future seems to be almost a luxury. How does all this fit into The Last Pictures?
TP: When we look at a problem like global warming, it appears very clear that our contemporary political and social institutions aren’t up to the task of dealing with challenges that happen at the scale of the planet and that play themselves out on timescales that intersect human time but aren’t exactly aligned with it. In The Last Pictures book, I argue that the last 150 years or so were characterized by increasingly acute temporal contradictions. On one hand, the logics of capitalism and warfare have fueled a constant speeding up and mastery of time—whether it’s the time of post-industrial production, the just-in-time supply lines, factory automation, flexible labor, and so forth with regard to capitalism, or the militarization of space-time through drones, cybernetic warfare, GPS, and so forth. But, curiously, this domination of time has happened at the other end as well, so to speak. At the same time that humans developed machines to communicate at the speed of light, they developed machines capable of industrializing the “time” of the atmosphere, evolution, and even the deep-time of geomorphology. Some geologists point out that over the last hundred years or so, things like real estate markets have become geomorphic agents—fluctuations in commercial real estate markets can move more sediment than “natural” geomorphic processes like erosion or tectonics. Something like global warming is a perfect example of what I think of as a contradiction in time—global warming is an earth process that will play out over the next century or so, but it largely emerges from the industries controlled by business turnover times of a few months (at most). On top of that, we live in a political system where the turnover time of politics is a few years at a time (between elections, for example) and there’s little incentive to address problems whose effects play out on a longer temporal scale than an election cycle. I think that global warming in a great example of how these contradictory time scales produce effects that humans have few credible means of dealing with. These material contradictions are the “stuff” that The Last Pictures is made out of—it’s a communications satellite delivering signals at the speed of light, put in the service of quarterly profits for the company that owns it, amortized over its fifteen year lifespan, that will become a ghost ship that lasts in orbit forever. It’s all there. I don’t mean to be all doom-and-gloom, especially when we also see such amazing things as the Egyptian revolution and of course mass mobilizations like Occupy. At the same time, the post-’89 world we find ourselves in seems to definitively vindicate Benjamin over Marx: revolutions aren’t Marx’s “locomotives of history” so much as what Benjamin called the “human race grabbing for the emergency break.” It is no coincidence that the first image in The Last Pictures is a photograph of the back of Klee’s Angelus Novus.
NT: I get the feeling that it isn’t just that you are playing with time, but instead that the deep time of this project itself, billions of years, forces an almost exponential consideration of the implications of what it means to communicate across vast gaps in time.
TP: The old nineteenth-century idea of Progress seems to be pretty definitively over these days, which I think is partly what you mean when you say that thinking about the future seems like a luxury. That’s one of the things I like about The Last Pictures being in geostationary orbit—instead of the “linear” time of spacecraft that boldly explore the unknown, like the USS Enterprise or the Voyager probe, the perpetual circling of The Last Pictures is more like Blanqui’s eternal recurrence—and his own critique of progress. I’ve definitely come to the point where I don’t think about the Last Pictures as having very much to do with communication at all. I don’t think that anyone will ever find our artifact, and even if the dinosaurs came back in 100 million years and developed spaceflight and found our object, the images wouldn’t mean anything at all. It seems to me that the notion of “meaning” might itself be a relatively contemporary idea. So what is the status of The Last Pictures? The closest thing we have to an analogy as to what these images might “mean” for the future is what cave paintings “mean” to us. Of course, we have absolutely no idea what cave paintings “mean,” and I strongly suspect that our notion of meaning here is part of the problem.

Edward Steichen, former Director of the Museum’s Department of Photography, leading a group of visitors through “The Family of Man” exhibition at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste, Berlin, 1955.
NT: You have said to me that you loved reading Bataille’s take on the Lascaux cave paintings but that you felt he didn’t go far enough. Why didn’t Bataille go far enough? What do cave paintings say to you?
TP: Yates McKee got me thinking about cave paintings pretty early in the research process. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about a particular image from Lascaux, the famous painting in “the Pit” or “the Shaft,” which is one of the one hundred images I included in The Last Pictures. Pre-historians have offered all sorts of theories about this bizarre image, from it being a depiction of a hunt gone wrong to some sort of shamanistic tableaux. In the book, I recount some of these theories about the image, and then conduct a thought experiment: I assume that the artist who made that painting is just as sophisticated as any contemporary artist in terms of understanding what he or she was doing as an image-maker. My frustration with a lot of the pre-historians is that they see the painting as the work of “Primitive Man,” rather than as the work of a reasonably sophisticated artist who happened to live tens of thousands of years ago. Bataille is much more generous to the prehistoric artist and is able to think through the “meaning” of various images from Lascaux in a more creative way than his contemporaries, but I think he’s still stuck on the idea of reading the paintings through his own notion of the “primitive” and his own notion of some kind of unified “early Man” whose collective unconscious is somehow expressed in the paintings. I think we should get rid of the idea of “primitive” and drop the idea that a cave painting is some kind of Jungian collective-unconsciousness image. If we do away with those two premises, then our reading of the paintings can get pretty unorthodox pretty quickly.
NT: So then we have two radically different periods of time that this project is considering; the extremely distant future billions of years from now and one that is this very slight, very tenuous thing we know as the immediate present. If you truly feel that no one will actually find this artifact, why go through all the trouble of getting it in space? Why make something that will only make sense now and claim it is meant for the distant future?
TP: That’s one of the many paradoxes at the core of this project. I don’t think that it will ever be “found,” nor do I think that it would look like anything more than a handful of nonsensical scratchings if anyone ever did find it. But I could be wrong, and much of the project has been an enormous effort organized around the idea that I might be wrong. On one hand, the project is destined to be non-sense, because it is going to a place and time where “sense” does not exist. Incidentally, I disagree that the project “makes sense now”—it makes no sense to me at all; it is a frozen contradiction. On the other hand, the title is not a metaphor—this collection of images really might be the “last.” And it seems to me that that fact—regardless of whether it’s nonsensical—comes with an enormous amount of responsibility. I spent years thinking through the ethics of this project, interviewing the smartest people I could find and conducting weekly seminars and directed research with a great group of students to think through the ethical maze of this project. Regardless of whether anyone will ever find the pictures, the very fact of acknowledging the future—whether it’s the human future of the next few decades or hundred years, or the deep future in which there will be no evidence of human civilization on Earth’s surface—comes with a great responsibility. A lot of people have described the project as a “time capsule” or a “message for the future,” which is one way to think about it. But I often think about the project as an exquisitely human construction, containing traces of stories, emotions, impressions, and ideas. The object then goes into space, and the pictures—little bits of congealed humanity—then orbit the earth forever, and the pictures will watch the earth transform, evolve, and ultimately end. In this scenario, the pictures aren’t representations or messages so much as little traces of humanity that will watch the earth when we are gone.

Trevor Paglen, The Last Pictures, 2012. The photograph Greek and Armenian Orphan Refugees Experience the Sea for the First Time, Marathon, Greece was placed in earth’s orbit onboard EchoStar XVI.

NT: Who did you speak with as part of the research for the project? I know that you experienced some resistance from people about the nature of this project in terms of it trying to tackle universal questions. I also know that these conversations have to some degree made you a little concerned that the project will be entirely misunderstood as some big spectacle-in-space project.
TP: Well, I’m not trying to tackle universal questions in this project and I’m not even sure what a universal question would be—and that is actually one of the themes of the project. The germ of this project happened many years ago when I was talking to an amateur satellite spotter named Ted Molczan. I’d asked him whether he had a good algorithm for determining how long it takes for a satellite in orbit to fall back to earth. Molczan pointed me towards a satellite catalog called the Royal Aerospace Establishment Table of Earth Satellites, an old British publication that listed all the (non-secret) spacecraft in Earth’s orbit, along with their orbital characteristics, one of which was the lifetime of the orbit. The catalog has been out of print for decades, but orbits are relatively standardized so if you want to know the orbital lifetime of a recent satellite, you can just find an older satellite in the RAE Table with similar orbital characteristics and the lifespan will be about the same. The vast majority of satellites are in what are called “low earth orbits” at an altitude between 300–1000 kilometers. At these altitudes, satellites slowly accumulate drag from the last wisps of Earth’s atmosphere, and the accumulated drag pulls them back toward earth. For low earth orbiting satellites, it takes anywhere from a few days to about a hundred years for this to happen. As I scanned the tables, I noticed something strange: some satellites, especially geostationary and geosynchronous satellites, had lifetimes listed as “one million years” or “indefinite.” I asked Molczan whether these numbers were correct, and when he told me they were, I realized that these spacecraft will be some of the longest-lasting things humans have ever made, and perhaps will ever make. Molczan agreed, saying he thinks of them as “artifacts.”

Trevor Paglen, The Last Pictures, 2012. Engraved disc.

When I began thinking seriously about marking one of these future artifacts in some way, I realized that the form of the work could only be a “grand gesture”—i.e. no matter how absurd the idea of making something “timeless” is, the project will inevitably be in dialog with gestures like Steichen’s The Family of Man, or the Voyager Golden Record, a kind of modernist or humanistic meta-gesture the likes of which we’re all able to critique to shreds in our sleep. This terrain is the exact opposite of what’s considered a reasonable framework for a critical artist. But even if the dead satellite in perpetual orbit seems like a dead meta-gesture, its materiality nonetheless persists. And that became a really interesting image to me. So as I began working on the project, I laid out several rules: 1) the project would in no way be a grand “representation of humanity”; 2) instead, the project would be a meta-gesture about the failure of meta-gestures, a collection of images that spoke to the Janus-faced nature of modernity, a story that was not about who the people were who built the dead satellites in perpetual orbit so much as a story about what they did to themselves; 3) this would not be a project that I would do on my own—the project should emerge from a long, sustained series of conversations and interviews with a diverse group of critical thinkers; 4) there would be no representations of humans.
Most of the people I initially approached were very skeptical of the project for understandable reasons. Ignacio Chapella, a brilliant and fiercely critical biologist at UC Berkeley, told me that he didn’t think the project could have any critical value. The author and historian Mike Davis seconded that notion, as did most of the people I talked to, actually. But many were nonetheless game for the ridiculous conversation I was proposing. There are a lot of examples of images in the collection that emerged from these conversations: the entangled bank image emerged out of conversations with Chapella where he was critiquing the bio-engineering paradigm that frames much life-sciences research these days. We talked about the image of the entangled bank in the last paragraph of The Origin of Species—an image of the limits of our ability to understand “life”—as a counterpart of DNA’s double-helix as an ideological representation of the desire to read and master some kind of “book of life.” The “monster function” image came out of a long series of conversations with cognitive scientist and mathematician Rafael Núñez about the ideological notion of mathematics as “universal.” The photograph of Yvonne Chevalier was inspired by Ariella Azoulay’s work on The Family of Man. In addition to these interviews and conversations, I held a research seminar with six research assistants, where we spent the better part of six months scouring archives, looking at and debating thousands of images, and trying to think through what we were doing. A lot of the thought processes and conversations that the images emerged from are recounted in the book.
NT: This work actually works against its very premise, which isn’t exactly the easiest thing to communicate. It is a project that launches into space and is extremely skeptical of the sensibility and emotions that people tend to carry with them when thinking about space. You can’t just remove its colonialist trajectory.
TP: It’s been a real struggle to push against the dominant images of outer space. I think that in the U. S. we’re so culturally conditioned to the narrative of space conquest that a lot of people simply cannot think about space as anything more than some grand colonial expedition to locate and exploit faraway resources and life forms. From the start, the point of the project was to make something that complicated or went against the heroic images of giant rockets hurtling off into the great unknown, or astronauts planting flags on extraterrestrial worlds. I’ve always thought about this project as being quiet, almost sad, and about the dead satellite in perpetual orbit as a twenty-first-century version of Shelly’s “Ozymandias.” A few years ago, I gave a series of talks in which, as an aside, I argued that humans would never colonize other planets—which seems obvious to me because we can’t even “colonize” places like Nevada or South Dakota without massive and ongoing influxes of external resources—and there’s water and oxygen in Nevada and South Dakota, unlike on the moon or Mars. That argument made quite a few intelligent, critical people viscerally angry with me. It was strange—I didn’t even want to announce The Last Pictures until the spacecraft had already been in orbit for a few months. The project is meant to be an alternative to the stupid story about “man’s conquest of the stars.”

Detail of painting known as “The Pit” or “The Shaft,” Lascaux cave, France.

NT: It is a project that speaks to people millions of years from now while simultaneously saying that such a notion is impossible and absurd. To flip the condition on its head, perhaps you don’t want a grand gesture in space, but isn’t it really that anyway? You don’t want it to be perceived that you are trying to speak to people in the distant future, but there are, in the end, photos on the disc. You have to sort of nod your head at its potentially being a grand gesture after all.
TP: Yes. The Last Pictures is a paradoxical project. Its theme is paradox and the materials it uses are paradoxical. It is a montage of images whose materiality is such that it will probably last until the sun expands and engulfs Earth in fire and plasma five billion years from now. At the same time, those images are essentially meaningless, not only in the future, but in the present. Very few of the images in the montage “speak themselves” or reveal the things that they gesture toward. The book contains explanatory captions and texts about the images that tell the viewer what they’re looking at; the disc in orbit does not. The Last Pictures is a grandiose gesture that is partly about the suicidal nature of grandiose gestures, but it doesn’t stand outside its own form—it’s not a notional project or a textual critique of another project, it really is a montage of images in orbit for billions of years, and it really will still be there when humans are long gone and the future dinosaurs begin to look up at the night sky.

written by Maurizio Di Iorio Focus on: Trevor Paglen

Post image for Focus on: Trevor Paglen Trevor Paglen’s work deliberately blurs lines between science, contemporary art, journalism, and other disciplines to construct unfamiliar, yet meticulously researched ways to see and interpret the world around us. His experiments have produced powerful insights into the photographic calibrations between the visible and the invisible, homing in on the sub rosa installations of the American military both on the ground and in the air. With his latest exhibition, “Unhuman”, Trevor Paglen advances his ongoing investigation of what he terms the history of “seeing with machines.”

Paglen’s visual work has been exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Tate Modern, London; The Walker Arts Center, Minneapolis; The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Institute for Contemporary Art, Philadelphia; The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, North Adams; the 2008 Taipei Biennial; the Istanbul Biennial 2009, and numerous other solo and group exhibitions. His art and writing have appeared in major publications including The New York Times, Wired, Vanity Fair, Newsweek, Modern Painters, Aperture, and Artforum. He has appeared on The Colbert Report, The History Channel, Coast to Coast AM, Authors at Google, and C-Span Book TV.
…the sublime arises from those moments where we can sense that we cannot sense let alone understand something. This brings us to the “aesthetic” dimension of the work….Historically, aesthetics has often been linked to notions of freedom: ambiguity and the sublime can be quite powerful and is something visual art can be quite good at dealing with. So it’s important to me that it’s a part of my work, but the underlying “relational” and ethical aspects of the work are crucially important. Without them, it’s just pretty pictures. And there’s no reason to care about pretty pictures. – Trevor Paglen

They Watch the Moon, 2010

Artifacts (Spacecraft in Perpetual Geosynchronous Orbit, 35,786 km Above Equator) (Detail, part two of diptych), 2010.

Unhuman Installation at Altman Siegel Gallery

PAN (Unknown; USA-207), 2010

DMSP B5D2-8 from Yavapai Point 
(Military Meteorological Satellite; 1995-015A), 2009

A Time-Capsule Launched into Space for Aliens to Find When All the Humans Are Gone

Billions of years from now, when the earth has erased all traces of our stay here, hundreds of dead satellites will remain in orbit around the earth. Along with these pictures.
Soyuz Fg Rocket Launch, Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan (NASA/Carla Cioffi)
If humanity's earthly tenure isn't fated to end with the Mayan calendar next month, it is certain to end someday. It's the sort of thing artist and author, Trevor Paglen, thinks about a lot. He knows, for example, that we homo sapiens have occupied the earth a mere .004 percent of its 4.5 billion-year history. He knows the sun will one day expand, torching our planet in the process. And he knows that life on earth is a few million years overdue for its next sweeping extinction event. We may someday build lives on other planets; here, we're on a fixed-term lease.
Still, as Paglen's latest multimedia project, "The Last Pictures," underscores, we humans have created a legacy to outlast us: Billions of years from now, when the earth has erased all trace of our inhabitance, hundreds of dead satellites orbiting the planet will remain, immune to the terrestrial effects of rust, erosion, and decay -- the last artifacts left to say "we were here." A dubious bequest, perhaps. But for Paglen that ring of future space junk seemed the obvious place to put a public art installation: an archive of 100 black-and-white photographic images, built to last for billions of years, launched aboard a communications satellite into outer space from a site in Kazakhstan last week.
Paglen, who holds a master's of fine arts and a Ph.D. in geography, has a history of making art about cosmic-sized ideas. For his 2010 project, "The Fence," Paglen photographed otherwise invisible electromagnetic waves produced by an immense radar system surrounding the United States, part of an early warning system against ballistic missile attacks. For "The Other Night Sky," he produced a series of photographs between 2007 and 2010 documenting American spy satellites and other space debris, using tracking data culled from amateur satellite trackers around the world.
The seeds for "The Last Pictures" began germinating in Paglen's mind while working on such projects, he said during an interview in his New York apartment, the week before the space launch. He began to wonder how long the satellites he was photographing -- or, indeed, any satellite -- remained in orbit.
"Most satellites are in what are called low earth orbits, about 300 to about 1,200 or 1,400 kilometers" above the Earth, Paglen discovered. "There's no clear line that separates the atmosphere from space -- it just kind of gets wispier and wispier and thins out. The vast majority of satellites experience small amounts of atmospheric drag, and that drag accumulates over the years and eventually pulls them back down towards earth." For some it takes a few days, others a few hundred years. All will burn during reentry to our planet, sooner or later.
But satellites occupying a very specific space -- geostationary orbit -- have an estimated lifespan approaching infinity. Forming a ring around the earth 35,786 kilometers above the equator, these machines maintain a relatively fixed position relative to the Earth's rotation (appearing motionless in the night sky). They are high enough to escape atmospheric drag, but not so high as to get pulled away by other gravitational forces. "These satellites are the longest-lasting things that humans have ever made," Paglen explained.
"Very few, if any, traces of human civilization [will remain] on the surface of the earth," he said. "But a ring of dead satellites and spaceships will remain in orbit, essentially, forever."
For an artist, the implications were paradoxical: One could, it seemed, create art effectively guaranteed to last forever -- our people's sturdiest time capsule. But the only place to "bury" it was outer space. It presented obvious challenges that wanted institutional support. Paglen connected with Creative Time, a Manhattan-based arts nonprofit, whose president and artistic director, Anne Pasternak, had long wanted to put art in outer space. Pasternak has witnessed space launches at Cape Canaveral, most recently the Mars rover launch in November, 2011 -- an experience she called "better than the Olympics." That is to say, she recognizes the ennobling sentiments of space exploration, but "there's another side of space exploration that's quite dark," she said. Dark like ballistic missiles and spy satellites. "Trevor completely changed my experience of looking up at the night sky," she said.
"I used to look up at the night sky," she added, "and say 'Oh, stars, oh, planets, how lovely, I'm insignificant, isn't that wonderful? There's a whole big universe out there, it's so beautiful.' And now, I look up at the night sky and realize that the things I'm looking at are man-made things as well. ... It feels polluted."
* * *
Paglen and Creative Time decided early that they wanted the project to be a photographic archive. Paglen also knew he wanted it to be several shades darker than one of the project's obvious forebears: Carl Sagan's Golden Records.
Launched in 1977 aboard the Voyagers 1 and 2 spacecraft, the Golden Records were designed as a greeting to whatever intelligent alien the spacecraft might meet beyond the solar system. They contained nothing about disease, conflict, or the Cold War nuclear fears that drove the American space program. Its curators attempted to present something like universality, loading the records with analog images and recordings expressing human variety (audio recordings of greetings in 55 different languages) and similarity -- like its drawing of a nude man and woman, criticized for being both puritanical (the woman has no vulva) and chauvinistic (the figures are clearly white and Occidental).
Sagan's records implicitly assumed we would be around for an alien follow-up call. It tried -- ambitiously, if somewhat arrogantly -- to make a good first impression. "The Last Pictures" assumes it is impossible to say anything universal or lasting about humanity, and that we'll be long gone by the time its pictures are discovered, if they're found at all.
"This is not a project that's supposed to explain to aliens what humans are all about and be the definitive record of human civilization," Paglen said. It is, he added, "a collection of images that explained to somebody in the future what happened to all of the people who built the dead spaceships in orbit around the earth. And how they killed themselves." (Or perhaps were killed?)
Greek and Armenian Orphan Refugees Experience the Sea for the First Time, Marathon, Greece (public domain image, courtesy of Trevor Paglen and Creative Time)
Selecting images to outlast humanity is not easy. Paglen interviewed philosophers, scientists and artists for help, and met each week with a group of research assistants from varying academic disciplines who combed through tens of thousands of images from international archives. The 100 images they selected are challenging and unexpected. Where one expects the Berlin Wall or Neil Armstrong, "The Last Pictures" offers, instead, a little Japanese girl smiling at a WWII internment camp, a Rorschach test, orphans touching the sea for the first time, a middle finger extended toward the Eiffel Tower, or an army of bees, wired by scientists to sniff-out explosive material.
Such images don't explain themselves; in some cases, they impart next to nothing without supplemental texts. Paglen insists that's partly the point, an intent he made clear to his research assistants. "He was interested in images that were unstable or undermined their own truth claims," said Katie Detwiler, and anthropology student at the New School, in New York, who was part of the research team. "Sometimes in my own search for images, it became really difficult to commit to any image over another," she added. In deep time, it wasn't "possible to communicate any meaning," she said. "It could be a picture of a flower or a picture of a slaving ship. There's no distinction at the endpoint that we're thinking of."
Migrants Seen by Predator Drone, U.S.-Mexico Border (public domain image, courtesy of Trevor Paglen and Creative Time)
Flipping through the book produced by Creative Time to accompany the project, one experiences the sort of contextual groundlessness a strange being billions of years from now might experience. A photograph of two longhorn cows and a calf means little before reading in the back of the book that one cow is a clone of the other -- and mother to the calf. A picture of two gloved hands holding a human brain means less before you know it is Leon Trotsky's.
Photo captions are presumed to mean nothing to a being that far in the future, when all traces of our language will have been erased. (Earth-bound, 21st-century readers have captions in the book.) "The most important points of reference for this project are cave paintings," Paglen said. "Those are images that are the closest thing that we have now to what this may be in the future. ... We know very little about what [the cave paintings] could mean, although they seem to speak to us."
The Pit Scene, Lascaux Cave (Hans Hinz/ARTOTHEK)
* * *
To create an archive capable of withstanding the stresses of space travel and eternity, Paglen worked with a development team led by MIT scientists Brian L. Wardle, an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics, and Karl Berggren, an associate professor of electrical engineering, an expert in quantum nanostructures. Among considerations like weight, size and cost, the archive had to last for billions of years -- a kind of "philosophical constraint," as Berggren put it. Again, Sagan's golden records presented an antithetical model: Gold was perfect for most human purposes, but in deep, cosmological time, it presented a problem.
"Gold atoms have a tendency to migrate with time," Berggren said, adding: "Even if there's only a nanometer of motion -- one billionth of a meter's worth of motion -- in a year, over the course of a billion years, obviously, that's going to be a huge amount."
Cherry Blossoms (Al Jazeera English)
Silicon was a much more static element. It was also, among other things, inexpensive and road-tested, as demonstrated by the innumerable silicon-based integrated circuits filling every modern spacecraft. The team at MIT shrunk Paglen's 100 images and nano-etched them into a thin, silicon wafer just a few inches wide, in such a way that the images are visible to the naked eye and comprehensible with relatively low magnification.
Creative Time found a willing partner in the EchoStar Corporation, which agreed to bolt the wafer and its protective shell to a satellite leased to Dish Network, the EchoStar XVI. During its 15-year operational lifespan, the EchoStar XVI will broadcast an estimated 10 trillion pictures and video frames to the earth's computers and televisions, each as ephemeral as the next. The silicon wafer on-board will store its images billions of years after the satellite goes dark.
Waterspout, Florida Keys (NOAA)
* * *
Odds say that the silicon wafer will never be found -- perhaps the central paradox among many that animate Paglen's project. But there's always the possibility it will be found -- by aliens, or perhaps post-apocalyptic humans (or, to employ one of Paglen's better fantasies, by a future race of highly evolved giant squid).
Paglen admits he doesn't expect it to be found either. The entire project is "deeply non-sensical," he says. But the possibility that it might be found creates an ethical obligation. A billion years from now -- or far fewer -- his pictures really may be the last surviving pictures of humanity.
"On one hand you can just say, 'Okay, well you're just throwing some pictures into space, who cares?' and that's kind of true," he said. "But at the same time, the title of the project is 'The Last Pictures,' and that's not a metaphor."
7_Glimpses of America.jpg
Glimpses of America, American National Exhibition, Moscow World's Fair (© 2012 Eames Office, LLC)

Seeing is Believing: An Interview with Trevor Paglen

Written by

Recent advancements in technology such as Google Earth and street-view, has given anyone with a computer and an internet connection the ability to collapse time and space. It is easy to sit in the comfort of your home and within just a few seconds, virtually place yourself anywhere in the world, that Google has imaged. This uniquely 21st century way of seeing may be relatively new to the masses, but there is no doubt that similar advancements were made years ago for military purposes. From the birth of photograhy, man has learned to “see with machines.” This concept is a crucial part of Trevor Paglen‘s research in art and experimental geography. Paglen recently presented a new series of images, and video, in an exhibition titled Unhuman on view now at Altman Siegal Gallery in San Francisco. I recently spoke with Paglen about photography and art history, aesthetics and the politics of watching that which watches us.

Trevor Paglen They Watch the Moon, 2010 / Courtesy of Altman Siegel Gallery
Seth Curcio: Trevor, your practice is centered in both experimental geography and art-making. Often the two collapse into one. Did your interest in geography develop concurrent with your interest in art-making? Or, did one come before the other?
Trevor Paglen: I’ve been an artist my whole life – much longer than I’ve been a geographer. In the mid 1990s, I started doing projects that had a strong relationship to landscape and the politics of visibility. While earning a MFA in Chicago, I became frustrated by the limits of traditional art theory, which mostly comes out of literary criticism, and wanted to find a more expansive theoretical language that could account for things like economics, politics, materiality, and so forth, in addition to questions of representation. Geography theory, I found, was incredibly powerful and flexible: it provided me with a way to think about cultural production in a much more powerful way than what I’d found in art and representational theory. So, I ended up moving to Berkeley and doing a PhD in geography.

Trevor Paglen: Unhuman Installation View/ Courtesy of Altman Siegel Gallery
SC: It’s interesting to know that you began making art long before your interest in science. In much of your work, there are strong references to art history as well as the history of photography. Those histories are intermingled with political and scientific concerns, allowing much of the work to function on multiple levels simultaneously. There are obvious references to Abstract Expressionism in works such as The Fence (Lake Kickapoo, Texas) and Untitled (Reaper Drone), as well as specific references to the history of photography in the works Time study (Predator; Indian Springs, NV) and Artifacts (Anasazi Cliff Dwellings, Canyon de Chelly). How do you feel these art historical references operate in the work, and what insight do they provide the viewer?
TP: Absolutely. There are all sorts of reference and nods to various art-historical moments and works, and references to specific historical photographs and gestures. I constantly use those references in a number of ways. With those references I want to ask “150 years ago, for example, a photographer looked at a particular place and that act of looking and photographing, at that particular historical moment, said a number of things about that historical moment. What happens when we try to see the same place now, and what might that act of seeing or photographing tell us about our particular historical moment?” The same is true for the references to various representational modes: “What,” for example, “does abstraction mean now? What, if anything, from that particular way of representing a historical and cultural moment, is relevant to our own contemporary moment? Why? And how?” For me, these sorts of historical references act as guide-points that we can use to understand how to see the world now, which is ultimately what I’m interested in.

Trevor Paglen Untitled (Reaper Drone), 2010 / Courtesy of Altman Siegel Gallery
SC: The notion of seeing remains consistent in your work. As you mentioned before, this idea can be explored through the use of photography or by referencing specific moments of art history, when considering how other artists have seen the world and then represented that view in their work. Beyond these methods, much of your work is also investigating technology that is designed to see us, but not be seen. I find it interesting that the main way you shed light on these objects is to track and photograph them yourself, further reinforcing the idea of seeing. It seems that you are actively engaged in watching that which watches us. How do you feel about this cyclical processes?
TP: I think that there is a little bit of any irony in the act of “watching the people who are watching you” here for sure, and it’s certainly something that I’ve developed into a sub-theme quite explicitly in some works. But overall, I don’t think that particular dynamic is something I’m categorically interested in. That reading seems to emphasize the “surveillance” aspect of the work too much, and I’m actually not particularly interested in surveillance, per se. But it does point towards something that I am interested in, something I call “entangled photography” or “relational photography” – what I mean by this is thinking about photography beyond photographs. What happens if we start thinking about the practice of photography as embodying the critical moment in the work? In other words, what if the “fact” of photographing something is the essential critical point of a work? I started thinking about this a while ago when I was photographing secret military bases and CIA prisons – for me, a crucial part of those projects is not always what the images look like so much as the politics of producing them.

Trevor Paglen Time study (Predator; Indian Springs, NV), 2010 - Detail / Courtesy of Altman Siegel Gallery
I think I’m going to revise what I said about these relationships of seeing not being interesting to me. They are. But I think they’re part of what we might call the spatio-ethical dimension of the images’ conditions of production, rather than the aesthetic part of them. Sometimes the “entangledness” of the photograph can arise from these complex relations of seeing and counter-seeing in my work (i.e. photographing spy satellites or Predator drones photographing me), but not always. Sometimes the relational dimension can arise from the very fact of taking a photograph of something that, for political purposes, “isn’t there.”  Or any number of things. But, yes, the “relational” aspects of my work are absolutely crucial, even though they’re often not self-evident in the prints themselves.

Trevor Paglen Time study (Predator; Indian Springs, NV), 2010 / Courtesy of Altman Siegel Gallery
SC: It’s intriguing to consider the fact of photographing being the critical crux of the work. However, I think I am still unclear exactly what you mean by entangled or relational photography in this context.  Can you provide me with a little more insight? Are you saying that the fact that you are able to produce the photograph supersedes the photograph itself? If so, why show the photograph at all — does it then become about exhibiting proof of the action?

With regard to your question about whether “that the fact that you are able to produce the photograph supersedes the photograph itself,” what I mean is a little more subtle. The “fact” of being able to produce the photograph is just one aspect of this. Let’s think about what photography is in two ways: we have one aspect of “photography” that happens prior to the photograph itself, and we have another aspect which is the photograph or image itself. In the former sense, I’m talking about all sorts of things – on one hand, you have a technological and social history of “seeing with machines” (my definition of photography). You also have specific sets of relations that  “set the stage,” as it were, before you open the shutter. In every instance, those relations are going to be different, but what I mean by “entangled” photography has to do with making those relations somehow part of the work – whether visible in the final photograph or not. And yes, the photograph in a sense does become “proof” of the action, or, more precisely, the photograph may point towards the action. But that doesn’t mean that the “relational” or “entangled” aspects of the photograph supersede the photograph itself. On the contrary, we also have the photograph itself. The image or photograph is an opportunity, related yet distinct from the “relational” aspects of the photography process, to convey other sorts of meaning, metaphor, allegory, or, if you’re so inclined (I tend not to be), documentation. So I’m not really talking about either part of the photography process superseding the other, I’m talking about the fact that there are all sorts of opportunities to develop the “relational” side of the work that can contribute to what the overall artwork is.

Trevor Paglen Untitled (Predators; Indian Springs, NV), 2010 - Detail / Courtesy of Altman Siegel Gallery
SC: As you often turn to the sky to track objects such as satellites, planes and drones, you seem to present these objects engulfed in a sea of space. Formally this presents a vastness that seems to echo the sublime. I feel like this gesture is also referential of moments in art history, but I also suspect that the idea of vastness itself operates as a metaphor for the unknown, or at least that which is present but rarely detected.  What are your thoughts on the concept of vastness and the sublime as it relates to some of the images on view now at Altman Siegel Gallery?

TP: This notion of the “sublime” is a really important part of what I do. I think about the sublime in relation to Jean Luc Nancy’s definition of it, which has to do with the sublime being the “sensibility of the fading of the sensible.” In other words, the sublime arises from those moments where we can sense that we cannot sense let alone understand something. This brings us to the “aesthetic” dimension of the work. In terms of contemporary critical theory, an investigation or discussion of the aesthetic is often thought of as a philosophical dead-end, a discussion that ended quite some time ago (except in reactionary ‘neo-art-for-art’s-sake’ conversations which usually function as little more than apologies for vapid art). But I’m not willing to cede aesthetics to the more reactionary corners of the art world. Historically, aesthetics has often been linked to notions of freedom: ambiguity and the sublime can be quite powerful and is something visual art can be quite good at dealing with. So it’s important to me that it’s a part of my work, but the underlying “relational” and ethical aspects of the work are crucially important. Without them, it’s just pretty pictures. And there’s no reason to care about pretty pictures.

Trevor Paglen PAN (Unknown; USA-207), 2010 / Courtesy of Altman Siegel Gallery
SC: Well, I appreciate that you are able to balance both political and aesthetic concerns without either seeming arbitrary. Taking a different turn, I’m also interested in the intersection of vision, geography and time in this new work as it applies to the 21st century. As an artist and scientist that produces artwork and research in this area, I am curious what you feel is happening right now? What are the implications of new technology and how do you feel it is changing the way we, as a collective society, view ourselves and the world around us?
TP: Ha! That question is too big for this interview, I think. This is really something I’m trying to think through. I’m not someone who thinks there’s something historically new about the fact that human perception is being radically reconfigured at the moment (I think that those in the 19th Century were probably greater, and this is a big hint to looking at some of my newer works), but at the same time, I’m interested in the ways that what “seeing” is, is historically specific. I’m extremely interested in what seeing is, and what seeing means in the contemporary moment. Of course, this has everything to do with machines, which in turn has everything to do with time (in several senses: 1) the ways in which machines rationalize time; 2) the ever-increasing “speed” of vision – think Predator drones in Pakistan flown by pilots in Nevada), which of course has everything to do with space (what Marx called the “annihilation of space with time” – again, think Predator drones flown from Nevada creating a relationally contiguous geography even though they’re obviously on opposite sides of the world). You can see the question gets really big really quickly.

Trevor Paglen: Unhuman Installation View / Courtesy of Altman Siegel Gallery
SC: Thanks for entertaining a question of that magnitude. I know that you currently have an exhibition on view, but I’d love to hear more about the research that you are currently engaged in. What are you working on now, and what projects or exhibitions do you have on the horizon?
TP: In the immediate future, I’m continuing my work on drones and continuing my work on “invisible” infrastructures that the piece The Fence (Lake Kickapoo, Texas) points to. I’ve also begun work on a longer-term project dealing with time and universality. I know that’s pretty vague, but it’s going to be a while before I begin to understand that project.

Photographer Documents Secret Satellites — All 189 of Them

By Bryan Gardiner

Artist Trevor Paglen's time-exposure photographs show the streaks of light left by classified satellites.
Photo: Trevor Paglen
BERKELEY, California -- For most people, photographing something that isn't there might be tough. Not so for Trevor Paglen.
His shots of 189 secret spy satellites are the subject of a new exhibit -- despite the fact that, officially speaking, the satellites don't exist. The Other Night Sky, on display at the University of California at Berkeley Art Museum through September 14, is only a small selection from the 1,500 astrophotographs Paglen has taken thus far.
In taking these photos, Paglen is trying to draw a metaphorical connection between modern government secrecy and the doctrine of the Catholic Church in Galileo's time.
"What would it mean to find these secret moons in orbit around the earth in the same way that Galileo found these moons that shouldn't exist in orbit around Jupiter?" Paglen says.
Satellites are just the latest in Paglen's photography of supposedly nonexistent subjects. To date, he's snapped haunting images of various military sites in the Nevada deserts, "torture taxis" (private planes that whisk people off to secret prisons without judicial oversight) and uniform patches from various top-secret military programs.
The nearly vertical streak in this image shows a satellite called Keyhole 12-3 crossing the sky near the constellation of Scorpio.
Photo: Trevor Paglen
While all of Paglen's projects are the result of meticulous research, he's also the first to admit that his photos aren't necessarily revelatory. That's by design. Like the blurry abstractions of his super-telephoto images showing secret military installations in Nevada, the tiny blips of satellites streaking across the night sky in his new series of photos are meant more as reminders rather than as documentation.
"I think that some of the earliest ideas in the modern period were actually from astronomy," Paglen explains. "You look at Galileo: He goes up and points his telescope up at Jupiter and finds out, hey, Jupiter has these moons."
More significant than the discovery itself, Paglen says, was the idea that anyone with a telescope could verify it and see the same exact thing that Galileo saw -- an idea Paglen is trying to re-create in his own photographs.
"It really was analogous to a certain kind of promise of democracy," says Paglen, who sees a similar anti-authoritarian premise running through his own work.
Paglen says his most recent project is the culmination of close to two years of trial-and-error experimentation with astrophotography, untold hours of fieldwork and analysis, an ongoing collaboration with amateur astronomers, and many nights in his Berkeley backyard and at California's Mono Lake.
"Lacrosse/Onyx II Passing Through Draco (USA 69)" shows the transit of another surveillance satellite.
Photo: Trevor Paglen
To capture his images, the researcher and "experimental geographer" employs a motorized mount with various combinations of telescopes and digital and large-format film cameras. Paglen uses spy-satellite data compiled by Ted Molczan -- a renowned amateur astronomer profiled by Wired magazine in 2006 -- to predict where a given "black satellite" will be in the sky. Then he decides how he wants to compose the image.
"I'll find where a star will be in the compositional plane," he says. "Then I'll use one telescope, which is attached to a webcam, to focus on that star."
With the help of a computer program that controls the mount of the telescope and keeps it focused on the heavenly body, Paglen says he can get the telescope to swivel with the Earth's rotation.
He then uses another telescope attached to a high-end digital camera for his deep-sky shots, similar to the rig he used for his desert shots.
"I'll see the satellite in the sky, kind of know where it's going to be in the frame, then I'll open the shutter and take a long exposure of the satellite passing through."
Paglen's initial interest in the government's so-called "black projects" took shape while combing through U.S. Geological Survey archives of satellite prison photos in 2002. He noticed that many of the photo frames of prison sites were missing or, in some cases, heavily edited.
"I thought: What the hell is this? We still have blank spots on maps? We've mapped the whole structure of the cosmos and the human genome, so what's this all about?" Paglen said.
Eventually, those blank spots led Paglen to other covert subjects and turned a hobby into a full-time job -- one with a decidedly political stance.
"For a time, people were getting arrested for photographing the Brooklyn Bridge," Paglen notes. "So to me, what it meant to do photography also changed. There was a new kind of politics to it -- something that was very aggressive and dangerous -- and a presumption that it would reveal some kind of truth or evidence."
Ultimately, the satellite photos are an attempt to critique that attitude. While the budget for black military operations has more than doubled in the last 10 years and the government continues to espouse the virtues of secrecy, it can't prevent interested amateur astronomers from calculating the orbital paths of spy satellites.
"The National Reconnaissance Office cannot classify Kepler's laws of planetary motion," Paglen says. "They just work ... and they're unbelievably accurate." 

They Watch the Moon
36 x 48 inches
This photograph depicts a classified “listening station”deep in the forests of West Virginia. The station is located at the center of the “National Radio Quiet Zone,” a region of approximately 34,000 square kilometres in West Virginia and parts of Maryland. Within the Quiet Zone, radio transmissions are severely restricted: omnidirectional and high-powered transmissions (such as wireless internet devices and FM radio stations) are not permitted.
The listening station, which forms part of the global ECHELON system, was designed in part to take advantage of a phenomenon called “moonbounce.” Moonbounce involves capturing communications and telemetry signals from around the world as they escape into space, hit the moon, and are reflected back towards Earth.
The photograph is a long exposure under the full moon light.

This image depicts an array of spacecraft in geostationary orbit at 34.5 degrees east, a position over central Kenya. In the lower right of the image is a cluster of four spacecraft. The second from the left is known as "PAN."
Launched on September 8, 2009 from Cape Canaveral, PAN is unique among classified American satellites because it is not publically claimed by any intelligence of military agency. Space analysts have speculated that PAN may be operated by the Central Intelligence Agency.
While some analysts believe the acronym PAN stands for "Pick a Name," the launch patch for PAN contains the phrase “Palladium at Night. A palladium is defined as “a sacred object that was believed to have the power to preserve a city or state possessing it. Of course, "Pan" also refers to the Greek god known for inspiring fear and confusion (and is the root of the word "panic" ).
Posters and stickers associated with the launch feature an illustration of a frog wearing a cowboy hat riding a rocket. The word for frog in Spanish is "sapo", which may be an acronym for Special Activities Programs Office, which is part of the CIA's Special Activities Division and is involved with clandestine paramilitary activities.
Some analysts have speculated that PAN may act as a communications relay for armed CIA Predator and Reaper drones operating in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Limit-Telephotographer Spies on Stealth Military Installations

Sonia Zjawinski 

Trevor Paglen's subjects are good at keeping secrets — and their distance: Many miles of secure federal land frequently surround the off-limits military installations that he goes to great lengths to photograph. To zoom in on them, Paglen — a photographer and geography buff — developed what he calls limit-telephotography. It's a hack based on astrophotography, a technique normally used to shoot distant planets. "It's much more difficult to take a picture of something on the ground than of something trillions of miles away," he says. Paglen modded the lens mount on his standard-issue Canon digital SLR to accept high-powered telescope lenses ranging in focal length from 1,300 mm to 7,000 mm (a typical telephoto is about 300 mm). To capture the heavens, such lenses peer through at least 5 miles of relatively dense atmosphere. Aimed at terrestrial subjects, they magnify and distort the up to 65 miles of air, dust, and smog that hovers between camera and subject. The resulting shots, some of which go on exhibit in July at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, are hazy abstractions that expose a certain truth, yet leave everything to the imagination. View Slideshow >

Trevor Paglen reveals the “Blank Spots on the Map”

To Serve Man (military patch, secret test flight unit)
Trevor Paglen may be familiar for his 2008 appearance on The Colbert Report, where he talked about his book I Could Tell You but Then You Would Have to be Destroyed By Me, a picture book of military unit patches worn by servicemen in secret flight squadrons and other classified projects. The patches are a mix of the humorous and the sinister. Space aliens and cartoon spies abound, as do symbols referring to Sept. 11 or to Area 51, the top secret Air Force test range at Groom Lake in Nevada where many of the “black” projects operate. The patch pictured at left shows an alien piloting a black flying wing, with the slogans “To Serve Man” and “Gustatus Similus Pullus”—”tastes like chicken”—the slogans being a humorous reference to a Twilight Zone episode about visiting aliens who wanted “to serve man”—for dinner.

But Paglen is not a collector of military patches but a geography professor at UC Berkeley who specializes in, to cite the title of another of his books, the “blank spots on the map” — places like Area 51, or Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan,where military and civilian authorities go about their business under a shroud not so much of invisibility as elision, obfuscation, redaction and just plain indifference. Blank Spots on the Map traces the history of secret military projects through the 20th and into the 21st century, travelling from the campus of UC Berkeley to the Nevada desert, and from the secret Honduran bases where the CIA ran the Contra war to a “black site” on the outskirts of Kabul. He finds that even hidden locations, programs and projects leave intriguing signs of their presence.
Paglen documents these uncharted places in books and also in photography. One of the winners of the 2008 SECA Art Award, his photographs are hanging in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, along with a selection of the strange military patches, through May 10. Earlier this month I met him at the museum and talked to him about his work.

Rumpus: Start by telling me about some of these patches — first instance, the “Red Hats” one.
Trevor Paglen
Trevor Paglen
Paglen: The Red Hats were a unit of test pilots whose job was to fly a squadron of Soviet MIGs, Russian aircraft. Since the 1960s, the United States has acquired, over time, a squadron of foreign aircraft — a secret squadron. They were based at Groom Lake in Nevada, and the pilots who flew these basically purloined MIGs called themselves the Red Hats, after the color red that’s associated with the Soviet Union. On their patch is a bear coming across the world, and the slogan is MORE WITH LESS, because they’re doing more work with less stuff — because they don’t have that many of these MIGs.
Rumpus: It has six stars. What do those signify?

Paglen: They signify 5+1, for Area 51, which is where they’re based.
Rumpus: I notice that several of the patches feature what look like space aliens. Or in one, there’s a picture of the spy from MAD Magazine.

Paglen: Right. That’s a theme that you see over and over again in a lot of these patches, the spy from MAD Magazine. It’s a recurring motif in a lot of this imagery. You see that in many different kinds of intelligence organizations, they use that spy as a mascot. I’m not exactly sure what the program for that patch is — something called Sensor Hunter (with the slogan) NO COUNTRY TOO SOVEREIGN.
Rumpus: And another patch has the numbers IX and XI on it…

Paglen: Nine-eleven, right.
Rumpus: Many of your photographs at SFMOMA employ what you call Limit Telephotography. What is that, and why is it useful to you in your work?

Paglen: These are pictures of things that are not really visible with your unaided eye. They’re pictures that are shot from very far away using, like, ridiculous lenses. In normal photography, like sports photography, a normal telephoto lens will be somewhere between 100 and 400 mm. A lot of the lenses I use here are designed for astronomy, so they’ll have focal lengths between about 2000 mm and 7000 mm. So it’s going far beyond what the normal range of camera optics are. (The picture of) the airplane was taken from a mile away, whereas this (second photograph) was taken from about 26 miles away. So, trying to photograph things from really extreme distances.
Rumpus: The second photo is a picture of the Groom Lake secret air base in Nevada, also known as Area 51, which is the site of a lot of the secret stuff that you write about in your book.

So what can we see here (in this photo)? I see a horizon with a lot of indistinct lights on it, and some mountains in the background. You shot this from a location 26 miles away from the installation…

Paglen: On top of a mountain.
Rumpus: So what can we really see here?

Paglen: Nothing! (Laughs) And that’s one of the things that I like to do, photograph something even though there’s only so much that a photograph can tell you. That’s why I use the word limit in the name of the technique. Think about it: we’re seeing these places, but we’re also seeing the limit of seeing these places.
Rumpus: A lot of people would just use Google Earth to zoom down there and see it up close. How useful is technology like that for looking into secret places like the Groom Lake base?

Paglen: My images are not produced in order to be evidence of some kind, or to reveal any kind of information at all. These are art photos.
What a lot of people don’t realize about the satellite imagery in general is that resolution is measured along two axes. There’s a linear resolution, which is what is the most detailed thing you can see in the photograph. But if you’re an intelligence analyst, or a spy — what’s actually more important is the temporal resolution. In other words, how quickly can you get the image? How close is the image in time to the thing that you want to see?
So for example, I want to see a (satellite) photograph of Basra, Iraq on January 12, 2004 at 9:14 a.m.: that is also a kind of resolution that is very — actually much more important to an analyst than linear resolution. However, there’s basically no temporal resolution whatsoever in Google Earth, (where) there is a kind of illusion of seeing more than you actually are. … But something like Google Earth is helpful to me in trying to find places where I can find lines of sight, and helping me figure out how to compose some of the things that I want to photograph.
Rumpus: Now this (third) photograph is a picture of Half Dome in Yosemite, taken at night, with the landscape illuminated by starlight. And overheard we can see the movement of the stars, sweeping in the kind of arcs that we’re used to seeing in long time exposures at night, and set against them are several streaks in the sky that are going at almost a 90 degree angle. And those are?

Paglen: These two are airplanes; there’s another one here that is also an airplane. And this one here is a spy satellite whose name is KEYHOLE IMPROVED CRYSTAL. The satellite looks like a white line interrupting the flow of stars through the sky — or disrupting it — and what that is, is the movement of this satellite over the course of the exposure. It’s a long exposure so it leaves a trail.

I’ve been photographing spy satellites in the night sky for years now, and as kind of a subset of that body of work I’ve been photographing spy satellites over iconic landscapes in the West, in places that were first photographed by 19th century photographers like Muybridge or O’Sullivan or Watkins, who were often funded by the Department of War to conduct survey missions. A lot of these 19th century photographs we think of now as art landscape photography, at the time they called it reconnaissance missions. So I’m trying to think about contemporary spy satellites as being a part of this photographic tradition. And also thinking about those 19th century photographers as part of a military imaging tradition, where we usually think of them as being in an art tradition. Of course they were great artists too.
So I stand in the place where these classical landscape photographs were (taken), but photograph these other photographers in the sky which are also descendants of that landscape tradition in a different way, in a way that those photographers are not usually thought of.
Rumpus: For a picture like this, did you start from the perspective of an artist, or a journalist, or from your academic perspective as a geographer?

Paglen: Pretty much all of my work starts from my perspective as an artist. Art is about trying to see the world in particular ways, and communicate them to other people. So underlying all of my projects is that desire to see something in a particular way and communicate it to other people. But also I started writing and doing more academic research because I thought it would help me with that basic ideal. There are a lot of things that you can communicate in a book that you could never communicate in a photograph, and there are a lot of things you can communicate in a photograph that you would never be able to explain using a different medium. It started (while I was) doing visual work, but then I had stuff that I wanted to think about and talk about that art was not particularly well suited to dealing with. So I started writing.
Rumpus: I wanted to ask you about your writing, because I admire the quality of journalism in your book, and the easy way that the book flows.

Paglen: Well, thank you very much. I never was formally trained as a writer. I just sat down one day and decided I wanted to try, and kept doing it. I spent a lot of time trying to develop a style and a voice and a tone, and getting lots of feedback from friends and colleagues. My brother is a screenwriter, and we spent a lot of time together on the manuscript (of Blank Spots on the Map). Especially in academia, there is not always such a premium put on good writing. And because I have a background as an artist, I think about writing as an art form, so I really want to be a good writer, and that really matters to me.
Rumpus: I was struck by the wealth of material in your book. You go through the Iran-Contra scandal at some length, for example; you visit what was a secret CIA base in Honduras; and it struck me that most of the things you write about could be expanded into a whole book in themselves.

Paglen: Yeah, that’s one of the nice things about the book, but also one of the limitations of the book, that it’s at a low level of resolution, in a way. I’m trying to talk about a lot of different things and connect them with each other, and show how they’re part of a larger structure: everything from the Manhattan Project to the exploration of the West, to things like Iran-Contra, to things like the extraordinary rendition program. It is a gigantic overview of the 20th and 21st century experience of secrecy. And as a consequence of that, it’s an abbreviated account of a lot of these stories, where the point is to have them all in one place.
With any kind of project, (artists) have to decide what level of resolution we’re going to see something in. Like a satellite: if we look further back, we can see a broader swath of land with less detail, or we can look up close and see a lot of detail, but a smaller swath of land. So this is a very broad view.
Rumpus: The secret programs that you talk about in your book, everything from Area 51 to 9/11 to the CIA, fit into a sort of paranoid view of the world. There’s a whole demimonde of people who are fascinated with that world — some of them more balanced than others.

Paglen: It is tricky, working on this material, about how to find a language to talk about state secrecy and covert operations without getting into the speculative world of conspiracy theory. That’s something I try to be pretty rigorous about — trying to figure out a way to think about this stuff without having it be written off as conspiracy theory.

I think that a lot of us have the idea that the state does secret stuff, and then ten or fifteen years later it all gets declassified, and then we know about it. And that just isn’t true at all. The kind of, the amount of information that gets declassified is only a small fraction of the information that is initially classified. Every year there are more documents that get classified than go into the Library of Congress. It’s a stunning amount of material.
Investigative journalists are becoming so scarce; there’s increasingly less and less funding for people to do real time-consuming, painstaking forms of research and journalism. And let’s face it, when we look at the big news stories coming out of the world of state secrets in the last eight years or so, they were pretty much all broken by people who spent years, investigative journalists who spent years working on these stories. Things like NSA wiretapping, CIA secret prisons. And people who are in a position to do that work are becoming rarer and rarer, and there’s less and less funding for that kind of work.
Rumpus: To the extent that your research has given you a reasonably realistic view about just how much conspiracy there is, has it made you feel fearful at all? Or do you feel as if you have an idea of what kinds of things happen, and the extent of them, and it doesn’t really affect your daily life so much?

Paglen: I think both at the same time. A lot of people, perhaps (due to) popular depictions of the CIA or NSA or these covert parts of the government, assume there is a kind of purpose behind them, or that the CIA is a unified entity with certain goals, and is capable of undertaking certain kinds of things — and that’s true, I think, to a much lesser extent than the popular imagination would have it be true. What I mean by that is that the CIA and the NSA are giant government bureaucracies, not unlike Amtrak or the University of California system, that are composed of a lot of people who often violently disagree with one another; (they have) a lot of workers who think their bosses are idiots, and bosses who think their workers are fuckups.
One thing I’ve come to see in researching this is that the state is internally very inconsistent, fractured and contradictory. And when you start to see that, you take out some of the mystique and some of the fear we have about organizations that are devoted to covert activities. At the same time — in particular when I was working on the rendition project — every day you’re looking at accounts of people being tortured, talking to people whose family members have disappeared, talking to people who are justifying all of these terrible things. And that is really hard to do emotionally, to sit there and look at that stuff day after day after day.
When I was first working on that, it was the depth of the “war on terror,” and some of these policies were very popular (to the extent that they were known about). It was a very different kind of cultural climate to be working in, and that was really terrifying as well. I mean, they were talking about investigating journalists and throwing people in jail for researching that stuff, so it was pretty unsettling.
Rumpus: In the Epilogue to Blank Spots on the Map you go back to your geographic theory of how to see your work. I’m going to read a couple of sentences.
Just as the secret state has grown by creating facts on the ground, then sculpting the world around them in an attempt to contain the ensuing contradictions, the secret state only recedes when other facts on the ground block its path, when people actively sculpt the geographies around them.
Rumpus: And then you go on to mention some of the people who have tried to shine some light into some of these things.
Paglen: One of the theses of the book is that it’s helpful to think about state secrecy as a landscape, as a set of institutions and facts on the ground. in addition to a series of bureaucratic operations. In traditional social science, the way that you think about secrecy is in terms of bureaucracy and culture. I think that if you add geography to that, you can explain how secrecy works in a more robust way. And that also explains some of the failures of oversight (of) the secret state, historically. For example — the crucial example, in fact — is the Church and Pike hearings of the 1970s, which I talk about a little in the book. That was a moment in history where Congress really got angry and took on covert operations in a way that was unprecedented before that, and is unprecedented since that moment. This is where things like the Hughes-Ryan Act come out of, where Congressional committees which are ostensibly charged with oversight into covert activities come out of, this is (the reason for) laws requiring presidents to sign findings for covert activities. All of those come out of the Church and Pike hearings. But only a few years after a lot of that legislation was passed, we see the Reagan administration and the CIA under Bill Casey figuring out all kinds of ways to undermine and to get around all of those laws. Which culminates in the Iran-Contra affair. And the fact that nobody went to prison for Iran-Contra, nobody was really held accountable, is a hugely important moment in American history.
Rumpus: It just encouraged them.
Paglen: Yeah, exactly — Dick Cheney’s minority opinion in the Iran-Contra congressional report is the blueprint for 21st century executive power. In terms of creating oversight of the secret state, or trying to contain its internal tendency to grow, those … There are clear limits to what the legislative approach to that can do. That legislative approach has to be augmented by other kinds of approaches that would be more spatial. What exactly that means, I think, cannot be answered in the abstract, since you have to look at specific programs and operations; (they) have to be answered in the specific. But a clear example would be: shut down the secret prisons. Make it impossible for those kinds of spaces to be created, or literally shut them down.
Rumpus: I wanted to ask you what projects you’re working on now, if you have any other books you’re working on.
Paglen: I’m working on a photography book that I’m publishing with Aperture. That’ll come out next year. And some other projects that are going to come out in the fall next year that you’ll just have to stay tuned for and see what they are, but they’re really cool.
Rumpus: Thank you.

Trevor Paglen: A Compendium of Secrets 

Thomas Wagner, Ute Riese, Uta Riese, Trevor Paglen 

While studying maps of the United States, the political conceptualist Trevor Paglen discovered gaps--"white spaces," as he calls them--that he then visited and photographed, making powerful images of political phenomena kept under conditions of extreme secrecy: spy satellites, hidden military bases, test sites and code names of military programs.

Invisible: Covert Operations and Classified Landscapes 

Invisible: Covert Operations and Classified Landscapes is Trevor Paglen's long-awaited first photographic monograph. Social scientist, artist, writer and provocateur, Paglen has been exploring the secret activities of the U.S. military and intelligence agencies--the "black world"--for the last eight years, publishing, speaking and making astonishing photographs. As an artist, Paglen is interested in the idea of photography as truth-telling, but his pictures often stop short of traditional ideas of documentation. In the series Limit Telephotography, for example, he employs high-end optical systems to photograph top-secret governmental sites; and in The Other Night Sky, he uses the data of amateur satellite watchers to track and photograph classified spacecraft in Earth's orbit. In other works Paglen transforms documents such as passports, flight data and aliases of CIA operatives into art objects. Rebecca Solnit contributes a searing essay that traces this history of clandestine military activity on the American landscape.

Blank Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon's Secret World 

Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA's Rendition Flights 

I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed By Me: Emblems from the Pentagon's Black World 

Nema komentara:

Objavi komentar