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The Art of Looking at Government Secrets

From clandestine military bases to spy satellites, Trevor Paglen photographs invisible America.
December 8, 2013, 8:41pm

To Trevor Paglen, the things we can't see are really just the things we're not supposed to see. Clandestine military bases and rendition aircraft, spy satellites, the logos of top secret military programs, the courtrooms of espionage trials. There's an art to looking at, and looking at it—in all its difficult, mind-bending weird beauty—amounts to art, which is the art he makes.

"I've been interested in the question of the visible and the invisible for a very long time," Paglen told the Creators Project in a new video. "Everything in the world--whether it's a secret airplane or secret satellite--has to intersect the visible world at some point. With photographing the invisible, it's about identifying where those boundaries and intersections may be."

Secrets are only as safe as the measures that keep them from the people who want to know them, as technology makes it possible for more people to peer at them. And secrets are only as legitimate as the trust that's behind them, a trust that's fraying. The struggle over secret things is deeply political but it's also moral. "There's something very serious going on," Paglen says, "that has to do with, what is the kind of soul of the country going to be."

Just as the mysteries of the universe have been uncovered by new optics, so too can the mysteries of our own world—uncanny, and increasingly uncomfortable mysteries—be knocked open by new technology. Naturally, Paglen's impressionistic photos of secret military installations, was made using some of the same astronomy equipment he uses to photograph secret spy satellites as they orbit the earth. (That puts him in the company of a loose collection of amateur astronomers who track these satellites as a hobby; we profiled one of the most famous, Thierry Legault, last year.)

Four Geostationary Satellites Above the Sierra Nevada, 2007

Detachment 3, Air Force Flight Test Center, Groom Lake ["Area 51"], NV. Distance approx. 26 miles, 2008

They Watch the Moon, 2010

When the things that are done in secret are breaking the law, the law that protects those secrets also shows cracks. How we treat people who break the latter laws relates to how legitimate we think are their grievances about the former laws. To Paglen, secrecy has grown out of control; some secrets are necessary but critics insist that the size and scope of the black budget and the programs it supports have exceeded their usefulness.

While the cases of whistleblowers like Bradley/Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden are of primary concern to Paglen, and an inspiration—courtroom portraits of Manning are the subject of his latest project—he's not interested in breaking any laws. That doesn't deter him from playing along the fringes of what's legible—or, as the word's derivation points out, what can be legislated. It's in these places where the laws can be as hard to see as the military bases in the far distance, and in these places where the public's consciousness doesn't tend to wander.

"What happens when you push an image to the point where it breaks, when you push vision to the point where it collapses?" he asked. The idea of that collapse made me think of the mental acrobatics that secrecy and its uses and abuses tends to demand. This is why Bruce Schneier, the cryptographer working with Glenn Greenwald on analyzing the Snowden documents, compares them to death. "We know it's coming. It's not a surprise. And yet when it comes, it's always a surprise," Schneier said. "That's what [Edward] Snowden is doing—he's making us think about this."

Paglen brings a similar agenda to his lawful work—at turns demystifying, bewildering, and hopeful. "I feel like my job as an artist, is to take something like NSA surveillance or the Espionage Act or the Manning trial, and to learn how to see it for myself, to change my own vision, so that when I walk around every day, I can see the fact that this is happening. And then try to show people how to see them."

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