(Top) secret America:hidden in plain sight

In his first book, geographer and artist Trevor Paglen employs photography to document the mysterious world of US military and intelligence operations…

On July 19 this year, the Washington Post published the first instalment of a series entitled Top Secret America. Its authors note that the two-year investigation of “the top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programmes exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work”. This secret world is, say the authors, “an alternative geography of the United States, a Top Secret America hidden from public view and lacking in thorough oversight”.

The Washington Post’s Top Secret America sits on top of the merely Secret America that already existed before the terrorist attacks: the military sites that are used to test new weaponry, the intelligence installations that gather information, the spy satellites that orbit the planet, and so on. In 2015, the so-called Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) is scheduled to start its work. Astron-omers will photograph the sky every three nights. Since some of America’s secrets are spy satellites, these astronomers will be required to ensure that none of that information gets out.

Whether or not the US has become safer because of all these secret activities is unclear. Since the activities themselves are secret, it is impossible to tell whether they work or not. WikiLeaks released over 90,000 documents from the Afghanistan war, but those were merely Secret ones.

We can only guess at the extent of Top Secret activity in the country.
This is not to say that peeking into the secret world is impossible. Top Secret America is part of our physical world. It uses space, it occupies buildings, it travels in (unmarked) planes, it employs satellites. In other words, it is not quite as invisible as it might seem. If you know where to look, you can see it hidden in plain sight.

Enter Trevor Paglen – artist, writer and ‘experimental geographer’. Defining geography as “studying the ways in which humans sculpt the surface of the earth and are, in turn, sculpted by the surface of the earth,” he notes that, “thinking about the world in terms of the politics of space or the production of space really opened up my mind to different ways of thinking about what I was interested in and my own practice as an artist.”

From satellites to symbols
For years, Paglen has literally been looking into Top Secret America, photographing and documenting its activities and locations. A large fraction of his work is now summarised in a recently published book entitled Invisible: Covert Operations and Classified Landscapes, published by Aperture in New York. On the surface, what the artist describes as “experimental geography” looks like photography. But it is more than that. It is also journalism and a form of social science.

Invisible is divided into five main sections, some purely photographic, others less so. Each of them presents a different aspect of Top Secret America. For example, Limit-Telephotography features photographs of classified military installations in the southwestern United States, taken with powerful telescopic lenses, instruments originally designed for use in astrophotography. With such equipment Paglen took photographs of installations from miles away, with detail progressively lost with distance. At the one-mile mark you can take photographs that show individual people in good detail, at 42 miles, everything becomes a blur (especially during the day, when 42 miles of hot atmosphere provides ample cover for covert activities).

The Other Night Sky section employs astrophotography, but here Paglen pointed his telescope at sections of the sky traversed by spy satellites. Those satellites orbit the planet at low altitudes so they move swiftly across the sky. In a long-exposure photograph they leave a clear trail (even when the telescope is programmed to remain stationary on a star that would itself move due to the rotation of the planet).

The Symbology chapter shows unit insignia and mission patches from classified military and intelligence programmes and projects, a large fraction of which Paglen deciphers. Maybe not surprisingly – there are humans behind all the programmes after all – those insignia and patches often contain a large amount of pretty obvious (and, it needs to be said, borderline childish) symbols, such as, for example, the one where a smiley face has its mouth covered by a zipper.

For the artist, the work is nothing more (and nothing less) than an exploration of “the politics of how we know what we think we know”, which makes it “filled with all the contradictions, dead ends, moments of revelation, and confusion that characterise our collective ability to comprehend the world around us in general”.

That a visual artist would approach this subject matter – or, phrased differently, that an experimental geographer and artist would approach the subject matter like a photographer – makes Invisible especially poignant. We can literally look at that which is hidden from our sight, and we can try to comprehend what is going on.

What is perhaps most revelatory is how little we learn from looking in a literal way. Seeing photographs of unmarked airplanes in some desert location does not reveal their use or deeper meaning. But we do learn that the individuals behind all these programmes are humans, just like us – in every possible way.
Top Secret America might contain a few of the almost superhuman characters that TV shows present to us. But for the most part, it is filled with people like us. It is us. Maybe that is why we should be even more worried.

Jörg M Colberg runs the art photography blog, Conscientious, at jmcolberg.com/weblog. Invisible by Trevor Paglen is published by Aperture; $49.95. aperture.org, paglen.com

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