Documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013 revealed that America’s “black budget” (money allocated for classified surveillance programs) was just under $53 billion. The money financed 16 spying agencies which employed 107,035 people. [i] Trevor Paglen, a writer, photographer, and multimedia artist with a PhD in geography, creates art that addresses America’s clandestine security agencies, the “black world.” Through September 27, East Lansing’s Broad Art Museum is featuring his art in the third and final installment of its Genre series in an exhibition loosely arranged on the theme of the landscape.
Paglen’s art is emphatically contemporary, but it conscientiously evokes tradition. J.M.W. Turner’s Angel in the Sun, for example, inspired Reaper in the Sun, Paglen’s photographic print of a distant military drone cutting its way across the Nevada sky. Acknowledging the tradition of landscape in art history, one gallery parallels Paglen’s work with a generous spread of related art from the Broad’s permanent collection, featuring artists ranging from Turner to Warhol. Two subsequent galleries exclusively showcase Paglen.
Here viewers encounter his Prototypes for Nonfunctional Satellites, one of which commandingly fills an entire room of its own. These prototypes are deliberately archaic-looking throwbacks to Sputnik-era spacecraft. Though designed in collaboration with aerospace experts, they serve ultimately as post-minimalist sculpture. Stand close to their reflective surfaces, and you’ll see your lucid reflection peering back. Their large, imposing scale calls attention to the physicality of actual surveillance and reconnaissance satellites which, though virtually invisible to us, are nevertheless very real and omnipresent. These prototypes will never leave Earth, but in 2013, a hundred photographs by Paglen were etched onto silicon and launched into orbit aboard the telecommunication satellite EchoStar XVI; these images now exist in a nearly entropy-free environment and will, like all space debris above the atmosphere, probably outlast everything on Earth.
Large photographic prints accompany his Satellite Prototypes, and in addition to serving as art-objects, they document performance. In defiance of the NSA’s order not to, Paglen photographed the NSA headquarters from a circling helicopter (which was legal), producing an ironically luminous print of the U.S. Government’s most secretive agency. Paglen also photographs classified air bases from adjacent public land (which is also legal). Necessarily, these photographs are sometimes taken with a powerful telescopic lens from distances of up to 35 miles away. The resultant blurry images of military drones and classified aircraft underscore the murky ethics of clandestine surveillance. These photos are both conceptual and visually striking. Eerily, Paglen can transform the White Sands Missile Range into an image as serene as a painting by Agnes Martin.
Paglen is no conspiracy theorist, and he certainly isn’t anti-military. His father was in the air-force, and Paglen grew up on military bases in many countries. But his work serves to raise our awareness of the encroaching black world, and it initiates important and necessary dialogue regarding the increasingly uneasy balance between national security and personal liberty.
PBS recently featured Trevor Paglen in its series Art21 in the episode “Secrets”
Paglen’s website documents many more of his art projects and journalistic investigations, such as Torture Taxi, an exploration of the CIA’s Extraordinary Rendition program.
[i] Gellman, Barton, and Greg Miller. “‘Black budget’ summary details U.S. spy network’s successes, failures and objectives.” The Washington Post, 29 Aug 2013. Web. 7 July 2015.