REVIEW: “Investigating a World That Doesn’t Exist – Trevor Paglen – Black World” by Drew Waters

Bellwether, New York, November 16 – December 23, 2006
All images courtesy of Bellwether Gallery

Increasingly, we have come to exist within a militarized media landscape where aerial surveillance maps, satellite photographs and cockpit video footage of reconnaissance missions give the formal impression that “those that can do harm” are being kept under a watchful eye – images of “evidence” designed to build consensus.

It is within this territory that Trevor Paglen’s work makes itself felt by performing an about-face on this official data, turning the surveillance-eye back on the surveillant, the military industrial complex.

Paglen’s solo show, Black World, highlights several years of work investigating and documenting the existence of US classified military installations and programs both at home and abroad. This includes tracking the activities within secret military bases and the CIA’s practice of “extraordinary rendition,” the transportation of terror suspects to secret prisons or interrogation sites. Paglen recently co-authored, with AC Thompson, a book laying out this research: “Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA’s Rendition Flights” (Hoboken, Melville House, 2006).

Many of the images in this exhibition are from Area 51, an off-limits military installation in the Nevada desert. Activities taking place here are photographed from up to 22 miles outside restricted zones with the use of powerful telescopes, a technique Paglen terms: “Limit-Telephotography.” The images depict buildings and structures, cargo and passenger planes ready for take-off and video footage of workers moving around. It remains unknown what kinds of activities take place here. It remains unknown for exactly what purpose these buildings and planes are used. We are made to witness this state of the unknown and undercover, along with a few details that can be established from outside the perimeter; time of day, location and brief descriptions of structures: Control Tower/Cactus Flat, NV 11:55a.m. Distance ~ 20 miles, or Large Hangars and Fuel Storage/Tonopah Test Range, NV 10:44am Distance ~18 miles

Unlike official military surveillance photographs released within the schema of war, these images remain open to interpretation. We bring to them our own knowledge of CIA activities, we write our own narratives upon their surface and draw our own conclusions.

Surrounded by these photographic documents, a feeling of inconsistency and incredulity arises. The images contradict that which we have been urged to believe, through mainstream media and military news transmissions – that it is the other, the enemy, over there that has something to hide; that it is the other who needs to be scrutinized – this mythology is subtly disrupted and taken apart.

Each photographic and video image bears the environmental effects of the desert heat – visual distortions and the appearance of mirage, giving the work both a tempered painterly quality and raising questions on the dependability of our visual perception. It seems that at any moment these formations may dissolve back into the desert landscape, leaving no trace or evidence to take hold of…

Also on display, are a series of sew-on fabric insignias worn by third party military contractors whose clandestine missions remain classified. Each appliquéd badge conveys a sort of invented symbology that includes aliens and question-marks and the words “don’t ask”. A kind of fake authority is portrayed by these badges, emblems that could just as well be invented and worn as part of a secret neighborhood boys club. These glimpses of proof that something is taking place seems evident and yet unreachable, and those involved, present yet invulnerable – unseen, in a Black World.

Drew Waters is an Australian writer and video installation artist residing in Brooklyn, New York ~