Trevor Paglen reveals the “Blank Spots on the Map”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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View Paglen’s work on his website, on that of the Bellwether Gallery in New York, and on that of the Altman Siegel Gallery in San Francisco.


Mark Pritchard is the author of the novel How They Scored and the collections of sex stories "Too Beautiful" and "How I Adore You." He lives in San Francisco. More from this author →