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The Last Secrets: Trevor Paglen in conversation with The Straddler

Black Site, Kabul, Afghanistan 2006
Courtesy of the artist, Metro Pictures, New York, Altman Siegel Gallery, San Francisco, and Galerie Thomas Zander, Cologne
Artist and geographer Trevor Paglen’s books include Torture Taxi (2006), I Could Tell You More But Then You Would Have to be Destroyed by Me (2007), and Blank Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon’s Secret World (2009).

In all of his work, Paglen attempts to document what he refers to as “the horizon of visibility”—the point at which he, the artist (and we, the viewers), experience the sublime frustration of not quite seeing, of not quite knowing. Paglen has worked to photograph evidence of U.S. secrecy, from military testing grounds in the deserts of Nevada, to “black sites” in Kabul, to orbiting spacecraft facilitating global projections of power.

More recently, in “The Last Pictures,” a project sponsored by Creative Time and published by Creative Time Books and University of California Press, Paglen collaborated with artists, scientists, philosophers, and anthropologists to select one hundred images depicting life on Earth. Micro-etched to an indestructible silicon disc, Paglen’s image archive was launched, this fall, into geostationary orbit aboard the communications satellite EchoStar XVI.

Images from “The Last Pictures” will be on display at an exhibition at Metro Pictures, in New York City, from February 7 to March 9 of 2013.
On November 16th, The Straddler sat down with Paglen at his apartment in Lower Manhattan.

Paglen, November 16, 2012
Most people think of secrecy as being about what you get to know versus what you don’t get to know. I don’t think about it that way at all. Secrecy is about economies, political institutions, juridical conventions, buildings, jobs, budgets, all organized in a political way that is very different from the rest of the state. Secrecy is a state within the state. For example, the CIA’s drone assassination program in Pakistan and Yemen is a secret. We know about most drone strikes the day after they happen; but good luck bringing one of those into a court of law. It will be thrown out because the CIA will say it’s secret. It doesn’t matter if everybody knows about it.
Secrecy, in general, always produces contradictions of this kind. If you want to do something in secret, you have to have institutions for it. If you want to build a secret airplane, for example, you can’t build that in an invisible factory. You have to build it in a factory that looks the same as any other factory. If you understand secrecy as a set of institutions that have addresses and people that work for them, you find a contradiction between this will to make things disappear and the fact that the material realities of these institutions are such that they reflect the light in the same way that everything else does. And so, methodologically, I’m always looking for the places where that contradiction emerges. Those are the places where something that is politically or culturally invisible becomes visible as a military base out in the desert or as a point of light in the sky.

Untitled (Reaper Drones), 2010
Courtesy of the artist, Metro Pictures, New York, Altman Siegel Gallery, San Francisco, and Galerie Thomas Zander, Cologne

Spacecraft are a fantastic illustration of this idea. All satellites have to follow Kepler’s law of planetary motion. So even if you create a secret satellite, you can’t make it disappear. With a couple of good observations of where that spacecraft is, you can use early seventeenth century mathematics to predict where it will be tomorrow, two weeks from now, a year from now.

The U.S. Strategic Command has a series of surveillance programs that keep track of everything in Earth’s orbit. They maintain a database that they update twice a day, and the results are published. What the military doesn’t publish, however, are classified American satellites. I’m particularly interested in things that don’t exist; things that people won’t talk about. When we’re looking at military and reconnaissance spacecraft, I am interested in the ones that aren’t on the map.

If we think about the point of a democratic society, I understand the American project in its ideal form as people poking at society, contesting it, constantly asking questions about what it is exactly that we’re doing. I’m interested in American infrastructures and the ways in which the U.S. deploys power because that is something that I am nominally responsible for. The U.S. projects military power across the globe in a way that is unlike any other country at any point in history. So when you’re looking at American infrastructures and American foreign policies, you’re talking about a global phenomenon. You can photograph American bases in over a hundred countries.

Glimpses of America, American National Exhibition, Moscow World’s Fair
The Last Pictures, 2012

Courtesy of the artist, Metro Pictures, New York, Altman Siegel Gallery, San Francisco, and Galerie Thomas Zander, Cologne

And images are different than articles in journals or opinion pieces in the New York Times. Images are slippery things whose meanings you can never pin down—images are interesting precisely because they run away from meaning. They’re not reasonable.  And a lot of the things that I look at—like secrecy or the night sky—are about trying to see the impossible. There’s an attraction to the unknown, an attraction in imagining that something might be revealed to you, but that is never revealed.

A successful art object is able to tell multiple stories at the same time. When we look at the history of fine art there are a series of propositions about seeing that are always historically specific. For example, if we’re looking at a Turner painting of “Rain, Steam and Speed,”[1] there is a vision of mid-nineteenth century collapse of space and time that that painting helps us to see. That way of seeing is interesting for us now; but it’s also interesting to think about new arrangements of space and time and politics and economy—what would “Rain, Steam and Speed” look like today?

Dust Storm, Stratford, Texas
The Last Pictures, 2012

Courtesy of the artist, Metro Pictures, New York, Altman Siegel Gallery, San Francisco, and Galerie Thomas Zander, Cologne

I’m consistently interested in the horizon of visibility and the horizon of intelligibility. What is that moment where empiricism turns into something imaginative? What is that horizon of knowledge? This is the classical idea of the sublime. The sublime is the moment where you realize that you are not going to be able to make sense of something. This is exactly when you arrive into the realm of imagination or speculation. It is the job of an artist to work at those horizons.

People have always looked at the night sky to try to explain what’s happening here now, and to try to explain human histories and futures. That’s true of Babylonian astrology just as it’s true of the Hubble Space telescope—trying to see the origins of the universe, which are ultimately our origins.

The Last Pictures, 2012

Courtesy of the artist, Metro Pictures, New York, Altman Siegel Gallery, San Francisco, and Galerie Thomas Zander, Cologne

American space mythology—and what I mean by mythology is the set of organizing coordinates that we use to think about something—is always about the frontier. You can think of space as the continuation of the U.S. westward expansion. On Star Trek, it’s the final frontier. There’s the Pioneer spacecraft. “The Last Pictures” was influenced by a different mythology—the Russian space mythology. The constellation of myths in the Russian tradition is very different than the American. In the Russian tradition, a lot of the thinking about space goes back to Nikolai Fyodorov, who was an aesthetic philosopher in the late 19th century. Fyodorov wrote about what he thought was the ultimate purpose of humanity: one, to become immortal; and two, to resurrect all of our ancestors. He meant this very literally. He said space flight is important because we’re going to have to go to space so we can collect the particles of our ancestors and put them back together as a part of this greater project of resurrection. A lot of early Russian space theorists like Nikolai Tsiolkovsky were influenced by this thinking, as were Russian artists like Kazimir Malevich.

So in the Russian tradition, going into space is going into your own psyche, your own past, your own history. This sometimes emerges in Russian science fiction as well. Andrey Tarkovsky’s Solaris is a great descendent of this kind of thinking.[2] In the U.S., you have Star Trek; in Russia, you have Solaris, which is deeply existential. Those Russian histories were very influential in how I was thinking about “The Last Pictures”—which is a dead spaceship, in orbit, forever.

Water Spout, Florida Keys
The Last Pictures, 2012

Courtesy of the artist, Metro Pictures, New York, Altman Siegel Gallery, San Francisco, and Galerie Thomas Zander, Cologne

[1] J. M. W. Turner, “Rain, Steam and Speed.”

[2] Andrey Tarkovsky, Solaris (1972).

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