Tuesday, 23 October 2012

They Watch The Moon

The Lighthouse, Brighton, UK © Wendy McMurdo
Trevor Paglen, photography and activism for the networked age at the Brighton Photo Biennial 2012.

This year's biennial takes as its theme the politics of space. Taken together, the BPB's curated exhibitions, interventions and events present a convincing argument that photography's future will depend upon its participation in a collective, politically aware environment, where the potentiality of the world wide web is fully explored in both still and moving image-based practice. In the same week that saw the announcement that the UK is to double the number of armed RAF drones flying combat and surveillance operations in Afghanistan, the Brighton Photo Biennial opens with not one but two artists exploring the implications of drone technology: Omer Fast, with the first UK screening of 'Five Thousand Feet is Best' and American artist Trevor Paglen, with his exhibition 'Geographies of Seeing' at the Lighthouse in Brighton.

They Watch the Moon, 2010, C-print © Trevor Paglen, Courtesy of Galerie Thomas Zander, Cologne and Altman Siegel Gallery, San Francisco

Paglen uses advanced optical technology to document the secret activities of military and intelligence agencies, often photographing these military sites from as far as 40 miles away. The resulting images are - because of the distance covered by the lens - often warped and distorted by atmospheric conditions. Heat, in the form of convection waves, rise from the desert floor and give the images a hazy quality, which Paglen prefers. Clarity is not what Paglen is after. He prefers to use the blurriness of the resulting images as analogous with the murkiness of covert operations.

The resulting images are troubling and beautiful. Formally, they evoke the aesthetics of JW Turner and Ansel Adams but also the blurred colour-banding of Gerhard Richter.  They offer, however, a highly politicized reading of the American landscape which does, nonetheless, juxtapose successfully with the aesthetics of a more romantic, painterly, tradition.

'Large Hangers and Fuel Storage; Tonopah Test Range, NV; Distance approx 18 miles; 10:44am', 2005, C-print © Trevor Paglen, Courtesy of Galerie Thomas Zander, Cologne and Altman Siegel Gallery, San Francisco

Paglen began the research for this body of work whilst embarked on a PhD in Geography at Berkeley, California. Researching Geological Survey aerial material of far-flung prisons in the library, he first noticed sizeable redacted chunks in certain landscapes - the footprints of hidden military bases. This research (and the resulting geography dissertation) led him to create the images in his first solo gallery show. A version of this dissertation "Blank Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon's Hidden World" was published in 2009.

‘Pan (Unknown; USA-207)’ 2010, installation shot, the Lighthouse, Brighton, UK. All images © Trevor Paglen, courtesy of Galerie Thomas Zander, Cologne and Altman Siegel Gallery, San Francisco

 To take his pictures, Paglen finds viewpoints on public land often as much as ten to forty miles distant from his subject. Using lens commonly used for astrophotography, he connects his camera to these telescopes using a tubular magnifying lens.  In 'Pan (Unknown; USA-207)' 2010, Paglen uses this technology to track satellite movement in the night sky. In 'Pan' Paglen reveals an array of spacecraft in geostationary orbit. One of these objects is PAN, believed to be operated by the Central Intelligence Agency, but never claimed by them - or any other agency - as such. It floats anonymous in the night sky, suspected in acting as a communications relay for armed CIA Predator and Reaper drones operating in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Untitled from 'Geographies of Seeing',  2012 Brighton Photo Biennial © Wendy McMurdo

Wendy McMurdo (Foam Magazine #10/Stories)

Trevor Paglen's exhibition 'Geographies of Seeing' is currently showing as part of the UK's 2012 Brighton Photo festival, curated and produced by Photoworks.


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