The work of artist Trevor Paglen explores the intersection of conceptual art, geography and activism. Paglen’s ongoing project of photographing and otherwise documenting restricted military bases and testing facilities operates at the limits of vision, rendering visible landscapes normally invisible to the naked eye. In “The New American Landscape,” Spark joins Paglen on an expedition to the edges of the restricted area that surrounds the Tonopah test range to catch a glimpse of the artist and geographer at work.
According to Paglen, it is not illegal to photograph secret government bases, provided one does not enter a restricted area to do so. Tonopah is a vast area containing multiple test sites and secret military bases, including the famed Area 51. It encompasses 3.1 million acres and 12,000 square miles of airspace — an area roughly the size of Switzerland.
Bases like the ones at Tonopah are located in remote areas and surrounded by hundreds of miles of restricted empty land, making these facilities literally invisible without the aid of a telescope. To photograph these areas, Paglen uses technologies borrowed from astrophotography. He notes that these areas are so well buffered that it is actually easier to photograph the planet Jupiter because there are only about six miles of breathable atmosphere between someone standing on Earth and the outer planets, whereas dozens of miles of restricted area may separate Paglen from his subject matter.
Even with the assistance of the latest telescopic technology, photographing remote targets such as these presents a unique set of challenges. Paglen is limited in terms of composition, because usually there are only a few vantage points from which he can observe a site. His palette is restricted to the colors of the Nevada desert, and Paglen often shoots during a particular season to exploit its subtle changes in color. In addition, the thickness of the atmosphere creates a painterly effect, impinging on the crispness of the image.
By Paglen’s estimates, the United States is currently spending more money on classified programs than ever before. To demonstrate the extent of these programs, Paglen created the “Code Names” installation, a list of code names for classified military programs whose names have been declassified or have otherwise entered the public domain. Paglen constantly updates the list, adding new names as they become available and removing those of programs believed to have been ended. Though the list includes more than 2,000 entries, it represents only a small portion of active secret programs because the code names of the vast majority of them remain classified.
Trevor Paglen earned an M.F.A. from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in geography at the University of California, Berkeley. His work has been exhibited at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, the University of California San Diego and the California College of Art, among other places. He is a contributing editor to the “Journal of Aesthetics and Protest” and develops tactical media projects with the prison-abolitionist group Critical Resistance. Paglen’s writing has been published in “Blu Magazine,” “Art Journal” and the collection “Spaces of Terror.”