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For over two decades the artist and experimental geographer Trevor Paglen has given form to visually elusive subjects, from black-op military bases hidden in Nevada deserts and spy satellites encircling the earth to NSA-tapped fiber optic cables on the Pacific Ocean floor. The Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM)’s recent midcareer survey brought into focus how Paglen probes the subject of seeing itself—whether as an embodied human act or an algorithmic code. What does it take, to what lengths must one go, to occupy a position from which one can truly see the world? Moreover, how can one learn to see the ways in which she appears and is seen in this world? How do likenesses, thoughts, and utterances become embodied, captured, and encoded? How and for whom do those forms generate meaning or value across space, time, software, and even civilizations? These are enormous questions to which Paglen’s manifold, research-driven practice has not sought answers or explanations so much as posited an aesthetic language for better navigating economies of the sensible and the known.
A first for the American-born, Berlin-based artist, SAAM’s retrospective exhibition Trevor Paglen: Sites Unseen included more than one hundred photographs, videos, sculptures, and mixed-media works dating from the early 2000s to the present. Curator John P. Jacob, SAAM’s McEvoy Family Curator for Photography, designed Sites Unseen to extend into the permanent collection and physically exceed more than twice the space normally allotted to special exhibitions. Notably, the suspension of a silver mylar model of Paglen’s Orbital Reflector (2018) from the ceiling of SAAM’s east wing suggested formal and historical links with surrounding artworks from the Museum’s collection of art since 1945, including Sean Scully’s Maesta (1983) and Helen Frankenthaler’s Small’s Paradise (1964). While Scully’s painterly references to horizontality foiled the Orbital Reflector’s suggestion to look skyward, Paglen’s sculpture recast the so-called “purely optical” appeal of Frankenthaler’s acrylic emulsion-stained canvas both in its literal reflection of the painting and—intriguingly—its insistence on making similar demands of its observers. Orbital Reflector is an early prototype for a self-inflatable satellite that the artist launched into orbit in December 2018 with the support of the Nevada Museum of Art and SpaceX. Designed with “no military, scientific, or commercial purpose,” Paglen’s satellite is an invitation to simply look at the sky—to return the gaze of orbiting spacecrafts that keep constant watch over earth. At SAAM, the prototype’s reflection of Harry Bertoia’s Sculpture Group Symbolizing World’s Communication in the Atomic Age (1959) was also a temporal proposition to look across the sixty years that have passed since the advent of satellite technology.
Sites Unseen grouped Paglen’s work according to series while still offering vantage points that enabled visual, conceptual, and even audible correspondence across projects. Beyond the usual tombstone labels and gallery wall texts, additional texts posed research questions—the kind that drive Paglen’s own practice—to visitors at various junctures in the exhibition. Museumgoers carrying “smart” devices could scan a QR code to hear Paglen reflect on these questions. Alongside selections from his series of photographs produced via “limit telephotography,” a technique of the artist’s invention, were questions such as “What’s hiding in the deserts of the American West?” and “How do you photograph something that is forty miles away?” These inquiries motivated the observer to continue to look harder, despite the refusal of each work to yield an illusionistic image. For the Limit Telephotography series, Paglen turned telescopic camera lenses normally used for photographing astronomical phenomena toward US military “black sites” in Nevada and New Mexico deserts. While the extreme magnification of nearly-fifty-miles-long stretches of desert air and sun-drenched dust deforms the targets of Paglen’s gaze to the point of granulated abstraction, the sites are identified through titles such as Chemical and Biological Weapons Proving Ground/Dugway; UT/Distance approx. 42 miles; 11:17 a.m. (2006). The white-noise soundtrack for the two-channel video 89 Landscapes (2015) in an adjacent gallery sonically underscored the viewer’s inability to render the images into finite sensible forms. The soundtrack also spilled into the central gallery where Paglen’s Untitled (Drones) series (2010–15) was displayed, evoking the uncanny whir of an invisible aircraft. This multisensory experience made palpable the vast and (until Paglen’s images) sensually illegible distance between an observing body—my body—and the inscrutable operations of the state.
Through its design, the exhibition helped to foreground the phenomenological and historical problematics of vision. For instance, the pairing of Paglen’s DMSP 5B/F4 from Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation (Military Meteorological Satellite; 1973-054A) (2009) and Timothy O’Sullivan’s Tufa Domes, Pyramid Lake, Nevada (1867) demonstrated how both the vantage point of the surveilling gaze and the scale at which data is collected and evaluated has drastically shifted over the last century and a half. Though the photographs share a subject, Pyramid Lake, Paglen’s choice to frame it in portrait view draws attention to one glaring distinction: arched streaks of light trace the paths of satellites orbiting the earth, their presence evidencing the vast intensification of the linkage between imaging surveillance and control that O’Sullivan helped to establish as the lynchpin of American westward expansion. With the advent of self-guided missiles and eventually satellites in the mid-twentieth century, Cartesian views of the world—views that could be traced back to a single, mathematically definable point of view like a camera lens—have been gradually supplanted. In their place, composite images, patchworks of remotely sensed satellite data, are today pieced together algorithmically to generate views of earth that have no single vantage point.
While Paglen’s series The Other Night Sky (2007–10), to which DMSP 5B/F4 from Pyramid Lake belongs, visualizes the technological infrastructure that makes these machine views possible, his recent work tackles the intricacies of machine vision itself. In these projects Paglen explicitly probes questions such as, Who engineers machines for seeing? What do the people building those machines want? What do machines see when they look at us? For Adversarially Evolved Hallucinations (2017–present), Paglen “trained” a pair of AI image-recognition algorithms, the first to recognize images of omens and portents—rainbows, black cats, vampires—and the second to “paint” such subjects. The “adversarial evolution” occurs when the first AI evaluates the second AI’s creation as not recognizable, prompting revision after revision until the two algorithms “agree.” Paglen refers to these AI-generated images as “hallucinations” because, as one wall text explained, they have no relation to light, memory, vision, or the “traditional components of human image-making.” Of course, this is not entirely true. The images, objects, and subjects that such AIs “see” do not come out of thin air; our digital “pattern of life”—from Facebook photos to our geolocation tracking appendages—are the lifeline of neural networks.
Amid an expanding culture of images made by machines for other machines—what Paglen calls “invisible images”—what form can a contemporary critical aesthetic take? A pallid likeness of Frantz Fanon’s face, “Fanon” (Even the Dead Are Not Safe) Eigenface (2017), suggests an answer. Looming like an apparition from across the room, the face dissolved as the viewer approached it. The play of appearance and optical disintegration conjured Fanon’s writing on the conditions of his own appearance in the world. Yet while Fanon wrote of the burden of bodily weight “dissected under white eyes,” Paglen’s portrait of the writer derives from a mode of image-making that is not for eyes at all. Nor is the likeness constituted by the same “bodily schema” of which Fanon wrote. Rather, the image was generated via Eigenface, a computer vision process that encodes physiognomic features of a human face as a pattern of numerical values that can be digitally scanned and recognized like a barcode. Paired with machine learning, the process has been foundational to facial-recognition algorithms including DeepFace (Facebook) and FaceNet (Google). Sites Unseen, particularly in this closing moment—one of its only explicit motions toward issues of race—both acknowledged the growing primacy of machine vision in today’s culture and embedded this contemporary problem within a broader history of vision and its entanglements with power.
In his catalogue essay, Jacob emphasizes Paglen’s conception of his artistic practice as experimental geography, a mode of making that links cultural production to geography’s long-theorized notion of the “production of space.” He frames Paglen’s engagement with photography as a mode of probing—not merely mirroring—the relationship of classified spaces and invisible images to the systems of power they serve. This is most relevant in Jacob’s closing discussion of Paglen’s recent foray into the realm of “invisible images,” also the high point of Luke Skrebowski’s text. In his final paragraphs, Skrebowski’s (recurring) citation of Walter Benjamin’s “The Author as Producer” helps signal the historical urgency of Paglen’s practice: in this age of machine-to-machine visual culture, what is the role and efficacy of the artist in helping us imagine a reordering of the scaffolds of power? Here, Skrebowski’s earlier nod to Soviet Constructivism might have made a compelling comparison. These authors expound the intimate yet invisible reality of hyperpredatory sensing machines that Paglen’s work makes tangible. In translating the encoded output of AI systems into forms intelligible to human eyes—from Eigenface identities like Fanon’s to the misrecognition inherent in the operation of AI “discriminators”—Paglen opens the door to forms of mediation against the totalizing regime of the algorithmic optimization of everyday life.
PhD Candidate, Department of Art History, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois
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