THE ART OF WAR: The work of Trevor Paglen, Wendover, UT, and other subjects
KW, New York City
I recently attended a talk featuring Trevor Paglen—an artist, author, and all-around expert on uncovering Black Ops. Paglen is an artist who, through various mediums, shares obscured or privileged information—and this defines his overall artistic practice. I was introduced to his work through the “Colbert Report” a few years ago when he made an appearance to promote his (then) new book, I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to be Destroyed by Me—a catalogue which decodes the patches, insignia, and other memorabilia and ephemera that is created by and for top-level, secret government programs.
Mentally archiving these creepy and fascinating badges of honor for a couple of years, I came across him again last fall during the exhibition “Free” at the New Museum. Like many people who listen to NPR or watch Colbert, I assumed he was an author, so it was a nice surprise to discover him again in a gallery. Paglen is a School of the Art Institute of Chicago grad with a PhD in geography from UC Berkeley, and has been producing an incredibly diverse and intriguing body of work for the last decade or so.
A linking theme throughout his work is the exploration and uncovering of Black Operations—which can be loosely defined as clandestine business within the military or other government agencies (CIA, namely) that is conducted outside of military protocol and under deviant and sometimes illegal circumstances. As an experimental geographer, Paglen has mapped, discovered, and traveled the courses that a number of former detainees have taken—literally around the world, in some cases—through the US government’s practice known as “extraordinary rendition.” By piecing together every little clue and tip he has been able to uncover (through tax forms, omissions from geological studies, the numbers on the sides of planes, hobbyists’ flight tracking records, etc.), he traces paths that have led people to torture and imprisonment for interrogation purposes in the War on Terror. This is documented extensively in the 2006 book, Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA’s Rendition Flights, authored by Paglen and co-author A.C. Thompson.
As Paglen clicked through his slides of tracked planes, signatures of phony identities, detainee facilities, and tax forms, he landed on a photocopy of a passport for a rather ordinary middle-aged woman. Think aging soccer mom with a bad dye job. The banality of her appearance within the context of an incredibly dark conversation made a few audience members giggle until Paglen disclosed that this woman was a CIA operative and known torturer.
“Subtle and insubstantial, the expert leaves no trace; divinely mysterious, he is inaudible. Thus he is master of his enemy’s fate.” – Sun Tzu, The Art of War
The first works I encountered of Paglen’s in the museum were examples of his photography, which are as ominous and haunting as the ones I have described above. His experiments with time-lapse and telescopes attached to digital cameras can be looked at as technologically advanced landscapes for today. Using innovative (and improvised) photography techniques, Paglen has documented secret military installations from long across the deserts of Utah and Nevada, as well as the nearly 200 reconnaissance satellites that orbit the earth. Hazy night skies give way to tiny dots, which Paglen has been able to identify as spy satellites. He claims that with a little training of the eye and patience, we too can find these atmospheric monitors, which orbit around us in a predictable pattern based on Kepler’s laws of planetary motion.
I couldn’t help but think of the disused Air Force base in Wendover, UT, which I had visited days before attending Paglen’s talk. Why Wendover, UT? I myself was visiting the Bonneville Salt Flats to see the World of Speed—an article unto itself, accompanied by Kenji and Kerry Proletariat of this here blog. After a freak rainstorm in the desert, we decided to see what the creepy old military base had to offer. A number of artists have been intrigued by this area of nothingness in Utah and Nevada, including Paglen, Misrach (above), Matthew Barney with Cremaster 2, and the folks at the Center for Land Use Interpretation (“CLUI”)—a Los Angeles, CA-based nonprofit organization that is dedicated to promoting the knowledge and history of land around us. Through CLUI’s encyclopedic displays in repurposed barracks, we learned that this now-vacant base once trained and housed WWII bomber crews, including the 509th Composite Group that flew the Enola Gay and dropped the world’s first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
We also learned that the Wendover base was also the location for mid-90s thriller Con Air, Independence Day, as well as a number of nuclear testings in the early part of the 1940s. The Enola Gay hanger and abandoned tracts of barracks are all that remains of that era, and in recent years, it has been restored to ensure its safety for human occupants. Despite the millions in reconstructing and face-lifting, the hangar itself remains inaccessible almost all of the year. Luckily for us, CLUI provided answers to the many inevitable questions we had.
There are definitely a number of creepy and shameful themes shared to discuss further, and both Paglen and CLUI provoke intriguing dialogue through their practice—especially in times like now where a term like waterboarding has become entrenched in our vernacular. More basic and fundamental to their practices, though, are the way these artists are expanding our perception of America. Naturally, one has to wonder how this level of transparency is accepted, especially in the case of Paglen. How has he not been silenced, given the sensitivity of the information he has been uncovering? On the contrary, Paglen has stated that a number of his fans (and some of the most enthusiastic ones) are those who served or are serving in these Black Ops. They are happy to have a little light shed on their livelihoods that otherwise would not be recognized.
The author of this article was raised in a military yet conspiracy-fearing household. She wishes she could spend more time on Trevor’s website, but spends her days hustling for a museum.