Would You Launch a Satellite into Space to Celebrate Your Smithsonian Retrospective?
Trevor Paglen, a photographer of the hidden landscape, would say “yay.”
Trevor Paglen, They Watch the Moon, 2010. C-print. Collection of Cynthia and Armins Rusis. Image courtesy of the artist; Metro Pictures, New York; Altman Siegel Gallery, San Francisco. © and photo by Trevor Paglen.
This fall, American artist Trevor Paglen will launch a satellite into outer space. The crowdfunded artwork, entitled Orbital Reflector, will be visible in the sky, like a star, as of October 30th. To whet Americans’ anticipation for “the first satellite to exist purely as an artistic gesture,” the project’s production models are showcased in the artist’s major exhibition opening today at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC. His mid-career survey will also include 119 other artworks from the past 13 years, ranging from his early work photographing military bases, NSA cables, and drones, to more recent sculpture and AI projects.
He is essentially a landscape photographer following in the tradition of Ansel Adams or Timothy H. O’Sullivan, but instead of making lush renderings of nature or documenting American geography, Paglen depicts the secret locations and centers of classified information that are crucial to the American military-industrial complex. Although he makes pictures of the National Security Agency headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland and undersea communications cables in the Atlantic, Paglen doesn’t identify with the tradition of photojournalism per se.
“I’m promiscuous the way I approach how to see something,” he said. “Journalism offers certain tools but I will also use tools from geography, data science and social science; the artworks I make are more ambiguous than I want them to be.”
Though Paglen has a reputation of being something like the art world’s very own Inspector Gadget—sans trench coat—he is pretty casual on a video call on Skype. “A lot of the work is an extended study of landscape,” he shrugs. “All the ways in which the environments we create, creates us, and that’s a pretty consistent theme throughout the show.” The Paglen proverb is as such: “Rather than trying to find out what’s actually going on behind closed doors,” he said, “I’m trying to take a long hard look at the door itself.”
Looking back, Paglen believes that his work came into focus after he started researching the 9/11 terror attacks, which led him into the rich topic of global mass surveillance. In the Smithsonian exhibition are photos of NSA-tapped fiber-optic cables on beaches in New York and Hawaii, along with ordinary images of people on beaches. “But these landscapes are like the Magritte paintings, this is not a pipe—or a beach,” said the artist. “It’s knowing the landscapes around us as a point between aesthetics, politics, landscape, and our environments.”
After Orbital Reflector heads to its home in outer space, it will be trackable on an app and website for three weeks before burning up and disappearing. “Orbital Reflector was about consciously trying to make the opposite of a secret satellite. It has no military, scientific or commercial armature around it,” said the artist. “Can you build a satellite that is the opposite of everything that’s ever been built? If you think about outer space as public space, that’s different.”
Trevor Paglen: Sites Unseen runs through January 6, 2019 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC.