The Other Night Sky / MATRIX 225
Photography is an act of concentrated seeing, and by extension an act
of knowing. Its origins are intrinsically linked to the idea of the
“document,” although our understanding of both the uses and abuses of
photography has expanded over the years as its possibilities for
recording image and event have been debated and manipulated. Trevor
Paglen is interested in the idea of photography as a kind of
truth-telling, but his pictures often stop short of documentation, with
their blurry subjects and barely discernible detail. Paglen’s nearly
constant subject is the “black world” of the United States government,
and through research and visualization he attempts to outline the edges
and folds of this hidden world of military and intelligence activities.
Whether photographing secret military bases from fifty miles away, or
imaging spy satellites in the heavens from earth, Paglen’s photographs
embody the limits of visibility, imposed both by the realities of
physical distance and by informational obfuscation, that keep us as
citizens from seeing and knowing these subjects on our own.
This black world is, of course, not meant to be seen, so Paglen, trained as both an artist and a geographer, deploys an array of tactics—from data analysis and on-the-ground exploration to long-distance photography and astronomy—to map this shadowy world. Paglen’s MATRIX exhibition looks to the night sky as a place of covert activity: working with data compiled by amateur astronomers and hobbyist “satellite observers,” cross-referenced across many sources of information, he tracks and presents what he calls “the other night sky.” Large-scale astro-photographs isolate barely perceptible traces of surveillance vessels amidst familiar star fields, and a digitally animated projection installation covers the globe with 189 currently orbiting satellites.
We have always contemplated the night sky with awe, envisioning ties to mythic pasts or inspirations of space-bound futures. The night sky of the present is pregnant with these associations at the same time that it is full of constellations of audio and visual surveillance satellites launched secretly by the United States government. The presence of these reconnaissance satellites in this “other night sky” is a symptom of recent adaptations to democratic society that have taken us an uneasy distance from the foundations of democracy upon which this country was built. Democracy and empiricism have shared roots in the Age of Enlightenment, when thinkers like Galileo and Newton looked to observable phenomena like the stars and planets in a quest for truth in the face of authoritarian institutions. Paglen looks upwards to the night sky, one of the oldest laboratories of rational thought, in order to visualize and document certain facts, looking for answers about truth and democracy in the present moment.
Trevor Paglen’s work has been exhibited at Transmediale.08 Festival, Berlin; The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia; Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco; Kunstraum Muenchen, Munich; and Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, North Adams, among other venues. His work has been featured in numerous publications, from Wired to the New York Review of Books to Modern Painters and Aperture. His third book, Blank Spots on a Map, is forthcoming in late 2008 or early 2009. Paglen received his M.F.A. from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and this summer will receive his Ph.D. in geography from UC Berkeley. The Other Night Sky is Paglen’s first solo museum exhibition.
Phyllis Wattis MATRIX Curator