They Watch The Moon
Trevor Paglen, photography and activism for the networked age at the Brighton Photo Biennial 2012.
This year's biennial takes as its theme the politics of space.
Taken together, the BPB's curated exhibitions, interventions and
events present a convincing argument that photography's future will
depend upon its participation in a collective, politically aware
environment, where the potentiality of the world wide web is fully
explored in both still and moving image-based practice. In the
same week that saw the announcement that the UK is to double the
number of armed RAF drones flying combat and surveillance
operations in Afghanistan, the Brighton Photo
Biennial opens with not one but two artists exploring the
implications of drone technology: Omer Fast, with the first UK
screening of 'Five Thousand Feet is Best' and American artist Trevor Paglen, with his
exhibition 'Geographies of Seeing' at the Lighthouse in
Paglen uses advanced optical technology to document the secret
activities of military and intelligence agencies, often
photographing these military sites from as far as 40 miles away.
The resulting images are - because of the distance covered by the
lens - often warped and distorted by atmospheric
conditions. Heat, in the form of convection waves, rise from
the desert floor and give the images a hazy quality, which Paglen
prefers. Clarity is not what Paglen is after. He prefers to use the
blurriness of the resulting images as analogous with the murkiness
of covert operations.
The resulting images are troubling and beautiful. Formally, they
evoke the aesthetics of JW Turner and Ansel Adams but also the
blurred colour-banding of Gerhard Richter. They offer,
however, a highly politicized reading of the American landscape
which does, nonetheless, juxtapose successfully with the aesthetics
of a more romantic, painterly, tradition.
Paglen began the research for this body of work whilst embarked
on a PhD in Geography at Berkeley, California. Researching
Geological Survey aerial material of far-flung prisons in the
library, he first noticed sizeable redacted chunks in certain
landscapes - the footprints of hidden military bases. This research
(and the resulting geography dissertation) led him to create the
images in his first solo gallery show. A version of this
dissertation "Blank Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the
Pentagon's Hidden World" was published in 2009.
To take his pictures, Paglen finds viewpoints on public land
often as much as ten to forty miles distant from his subject. Using
lens commonly used for astrophotography, he connects his camera to
these telescopes using a tubular magnifying lens. In 'Pan
(Unknown; USA-207)' 2010, Paglen uses this technology to track
satellite movement in the night sky. In 'Pan' Paglen reveals an
array of spacecraft in geostationary orbit. One of these objects is
PAN, believed to be operated by the Central Intelligence Agency,
but never claimed by them - or any other agency - as such. It
floats anonymous in the night sky, suspected in acting as a
communications relay for armed CIA Predator and Reaper drones
operating in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Wendy McMurdo (Foam Magazine #10/Stories)
Trevor Paglen's exhibition 'Geographies of Seeing' is
currently showing as part of the UK's 2012 Brighton
Photo festival, curated and produced by Photoworks.