Surrounded by No Trespassing signs, we'd reached the end of this dirt road as we poked around Beale Air Force Base looking for a good spot to chill. Our mission was to try and peer into the hangars a few miles out with the right sunlight setting behind us. The national capital of America's stealth arsenal looked abandoned in the scope of Marysville's golden fields, and the searing blue skies felt eerily unpatrolled. Just as we turned around thinking we may not find activity, a U-2 spyplane silently appeared out of nowhere over our heads maybe a thousand feet away, framed for a second in the car's open sunroof before disappearing inside a lonely cloud that loomed over the base. We stopped instantly, busted out our cameras and snapped some lucky shots. As we put our lenses away, two more suddenly appeared and followed suit with the same disappearing act. Another minute later a couple of suspicious vehicles kicked up dust plumes on the roads approaching us, and we skidded off for cover into the nearby Spenceville State Wildlife Area tucked up in the hills. That's when I realized, if chasing spyplanes all day is geographic field study, then I'm ready to go back to school.
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Experimental lecturer and all around academic outlaw Trevor Paglen is a new breed of researcher for the University of California at Berkeley. He has been more aptly called by his peers an underground geographer , armed with a telescope, a GPS device, some light field military listening equipment, a car trunk full of cameras and maps, and one hideously nondescript corporate infiltration suit. Swapping between his other outfits as an intervention artist, and investigative journalist, a prison-abolition activist, punkrocker and total sound head, not to mention a third degree master in the art of panoptic trespass, he takes a wildly experimental approach to studying the strategic and practical boundaries of contested public/private space.
Altogether, he's concocted his own strain of what he prefers to call 'experimental geography ' that he uses to trace the immense networks of undisclosed borders, shadow lairs and underground finanscapes edified by corporate, state and national defense collusion. Occasionally straddling barbwire, his tactics get him close enough to chart the ecologies of power that drive the military and prison industrial complexes just outside the public's normal daily purview. Or, as he likes to point out, sometimes hiding more easily right under their nose. "It takes a little bit of research to find this stuff, but it takes common sense too," Paglen giggles without forfeiting seriousness. "It's very easy to hide something in plain sight, particularly when people don't even notice what's going on in their own daily surroundings."
Chances are if Paglen's not in a classroom teaching geography somewhere in California, or sitting on a panel discussing his work , he is out surreptitiously roaming the skulking frontiers of the American West, where the spirit of expansion has cloaked a frightening constellation of military installations and state prisons in some of the most remote hiding places in the country. To look at them literally 'under the scope' like Paglen does, quickly puts that insipid adage 'out of sight, out of of mind' into fresh perspective. Even in the current security climate he's more often out plotting new perches for his telescope while leading remote tours of the Tonopah Test Range somewhere along the tumbleweed fringes of conspiracy-bugged "Area 51," a vast wasteland of valleys and desert sprawl in Nevada historically symbolizing the largest black hole of classified military activity on any geographer's radar. His doctoral thesis is a direct challenge to these very far-removed and made-to-look-empty places where, for all intents and purposes, humanity imagines an uninhabitable nature, which serves the military's penchant for secrecy quite well.
He's constructing an ambitious mapping project to document the geospatial boundaries of what military types call the "black world" of classified military spending. Within this web, the politics of secrecy have fundamentally reshaped the socio-cultural and economic morphogenesis of the U.S.'s democratic landscape. Collaborating with engineers at USC on a long term surveillance project of restricted areas and "secret bases," he plans to lay out his research both in a book and on the web as a sort of interactive cryptogeographic field guide to the informal "Gun-Belt" of the reinvented frontier. By zooming in on the military taking cover in the sheer remoteness of nature, Paglen seeks to debunk the mythologies that adorn the American frontier, and expose those off-limit landscapes-as-camouflage for the pervasive culture of inscrutability they serve. The project is even a little ironic, considering the history of the discipline of geography. Paglen explains, "Historically, the field has often gone hand-in-hand with empire-building. Geographers helped "fill in" the "blank spots" on the map for 19th Century European and American empires. It was a kind of reconnaissance." In his estimation, that legacy is still very much with the discipline. "I've heard that around 40% of professional geographers in this country work for the CIA or other intelligence agencies. That's huge!"
Paglen has partnered with astronomers and other independent researchers to surveillance restricted air spaces and satellite domains as well. Though for now, he's focused on keeping vigil over the Defense Department, undoubtedly the largest ghost land developer in the United States. Needless to say, Paglen's project gives a democratic turn to the map, a tool which has been historically developed to draft blueprints for imperial conquest. Perhaps the time is ripe for this. With the evolution of GIS, GoogleMaps , and a phenomenon of web projects like Flickr , FoundCity , Geobloggers , and Sprol , there is a real movement now for people to define their own maps, their own boundaries and social proximities, their own landmarks, and to see and expose places which have managed to hide from public view due to a basic lack of accessibility.
Paglen insists on the value of actually going out and trying to see these things and making their presence visceral. To do this he leads students and colleagues on field trips to various classified sites like the furtive test ranges of the Antelope Valley near Los Angeles, the Groom Lake basin in Nevada, and even the Navy's Shipyard in the San Diego harbor. While San Diego is not technically "classified," it's a city Paglen claims is practically a secret base unto itself. "The city of San Diego is synonymous with the military. It is chock-full of defense contractors and military bases, and its sky is filled with so many F-18s and Blackhawk helicopters that it feels like an occupied country." His expedition there has provided a glimpse of the Navy's floating secret base, the HMB-1, which was a cover for the Sea Shadow in 1982. Allegedly it was a giant submergible claw to retrieve a soviet sub that had sunk off the coast of Hawaii, but also a massive veil for private-contractor Lockheed's plan to develop a naval stealth ship. The Sea Shadow today is absurdly docked in downtown San Diego practically in broad daylight. These group-sightings venture into a rugged sleuthy realm of performance art, as locative and experiential approaches to educating people 'on site' about the far-out places of the frontier's conspiratorial lore.
In trying to map something as intangible as a network of our nation's "secret bases" it's easy to fear that an approach to the subject could easily escape any definitive or verifiable view. So the squirrelly university teach keeps a cool level head about circumnavigating the snares of conspiracy theory that threatens to mock his work. "These places are very good at hiding what goes on within them, so rather than trying to find out what's 'actually going' on behind closed doors, I'm trying to take a long hard look at the door itself. How does the Defense Dept. keep these giant swaths of land relatively obscure? How is it possible to hide something of this magnitude?" Even though these questions seem more mundane, it still requires a good deal of creativity to try and answer them. For intrepid Paglen, geography is not just a science, it is an art form.
Paglen was, in fact, not always interested in geography. After studying Religious Studies and Music Composition at Berkeley, and six years performing in experimental electropunk band Noisegate with fellow artist Chris Fitzpatrick, he shuffled off to Chicago for an MFA in Art and Technology at the Art Institute. Two years later, he decided to return and enroll in the Geography Department back at his undergrad alma mater. This shifty approach to academia is characteristic, and only adds to his sensibility as a geographer constantly nudged by wanderlust. Rather than stumbling upon an overbearing interest in geography itself, he discovered it through his search for a creative language, one more suitable to his own sense of artistic context that he's been charting ever since he was a teenager.
"I got into art because I got frustrated with music. Instrumental music is a very abstract language; it rarely 'means' something outside of itself. That's one of the things that makes instrumental music beautiful, but it can be a frustrating limitation as well. So, I went to art school because the questions I had weren't going to be answered by music theory. Since art theory mostly comes out of images, (that's traditionally the language anyway), a lot of it presupposes that images exist as"things unto themselves." Art theory often makes it seem more like art exists in some kind of vacuum. I was more interested in 'art' as an approach to relationships, not as a thing. When I think about this stuff, it seems to me that everything happens somewhere, and happens in relation to other things. So I got interested in geography because it has a language that's precisely about that: everything being somewhere. Geography is interesting to me because it's a language you can use to think about relationships in a very material way. In terms of geography as an academic discipline, it's fun to turn that logic back on itself, to say, in effect 'Hey, the study of geography happens somewhere, too. Let's go have a seminar in the desert next to a secret base instead of this stuffy room.' I guess that's how I got to this place where art and geography are woven together in a way that I really like, and which I think is actually quite productive."
Before delving into the Pentagon's "black world" hall-of-mirrors (as the intelligence community likes to put it), Paglen spent five years trying to understand and document California's "Prison Industrial Complex." Somewhere along the way, he learned that "if you want to understand the Prison Industrial Complex, prisons themselves can actually be a very misleading place to look." In his latest intervention Recording Carceral Landscapes, our consummate border snoop went completely AWOL to spy deep on the micropolitics of California's behemoth crisis, and brought back nothing less than a scathing topographical survey of the world's third largest incarceration machine.
Back in May, he presented a collection of multimedia installations at The Lab in San Francisco, each one a unique hyper-layer of evidence which helped unravel the shady entities that contour a 'carceral landscape.' The gallery show has been one piece of a more comprehensive project of which he's just recently published online .
The exhibition elements created a meandering narrative which guided the audience through the depths of his investigation, uncovering deeper glimpses of a prison-industrial complex along the way. At first encounter, the viewer is faced with a headless mannequin wearing a generic office suit with an American flag pinned to the lapel. This innocuous uniform (seemingly more for corporate temp jobs than anything else), was ideal for retrofitting with a secret camera and hidden microphone. Over by the bar was a monitor projecting the passersbys onto a grainy surveillance screen. "Stop touching the suit!" Paglen kept reiterating the night of the opening to get people to stop fondling the threads for explanations. Just over the shoulders of his subtle spy get-up, a group of wall photos tacked his mission of venturing as deeply as he could into the heart of prison management, wearing this silly costume. Instead of staring at walls of inmates in cages, the viewers watched Paglen casing specific locations. One could hear him whistling inconspicuously along the plush backroads behind Pelican Bay State Prison, and trying to act like just a regular guy sniffing around the capital building in Sacramento. He sauntered past security desks and staked out different corners of restricted chambers testing the bounds of executive privacy. Backgrounds were filled with the pristine halls of justice and the shimmering marble floor lobbies of corporate towers like Siebert, Branford, Shank, and Co. in Oakland, carrier of one of California's most profitable investment portfolios in prison financing. "With these photos I wanted to show this prison landscape that is fundamental to California and is in plain sight. The parts of it which are so ordinary we don't even realize it. So I wanted to go downtown and say, 'hey look, this building has everything to do with prisons, maybe even more so than prisons themselves.' I wanted to try and expose parts of the prison-industrial complex, which are ironically so out in the open we would never suspect them otherwise."
Below these images, Paglen placed mock "classified" folders in transparent shelves containing a series of covert shots like these taken of heads of correctional lobbies and prison financing commissions, apparently tickling one another over negotiation strategy. Also inside these folders were copies of the Governator's first prison bond issue (even though his campaign preached a strong need for prison system reform), along with copies of state contracts detailing omissions of oversight regulations, increasing Prison Guards' Union budgets, and other official notices of exemptions extended to the heads of California's prison authority. Though none of these materials offered a smoking gun or clear incriminating evidence of any corruption, they certainly provided the public with a paper trail of the short cuts and shady backroom deals that keep the governance of this megabusiness unchecked, and where dubious alliances are consummated simply by lack of scrutiny.
Projected across two walls in one corner of the space was a scrolling mash up of media video clips and recovered text documents, public hearings, lawsuit transcripts, statistics, corporate logos and maps of California's prison sponsors and geographic expansion. Shockingly informative, Paglen designed his own version of a mediascape which illustrated the incredible network of powers dominating the state under the guise of crime control. To see the connections between steel companies, bond brokers, construction contractors, architecture firms, political lobbies, law enforcement agencies, and various private interest groups, all sewn together across California, was a truly horrifying image of private-public pimpdom.
Behind a dark curtain, Paglen cordoned off a small area to simulate solitary confinement with audio recordings he managed to obtain from inside Pelican Bay's infamous SHU (Security Housing Unit), better known as "the hole." It was the most skippable part of the show if you weren't careful. You had to want to look behind the curtain to find it. Otherwise, it was certainly the most dark and evocative.
A dangling pair of headphones hung in the middle of the space high enough to make you stretch your neck in order to reach them. On cramping tippy toes you felt you were hanging from a noose in some anonymous cell listening to a chilling pre-death soundtrack of having spent months of your life twenty hours a day withering in a dark cage. Guards keys sinuously jangled as you passed the idle silence and time of your life rotting away. Doors repeatedly slid and slammed so you couldn't be sure if they were open or shut. You failed to keep up with the mumble-encoded conversation of other inmates talking about something and nothing at the same time. Closing your eyes, ghosts of men desperately trying to whisper themselves out of insanity burrowed somewhere between your ears. There, Paglen mingled voices in your own head with a stark acoustic reflection of the tragic rationale that echoes in our prison system. Perhaps no one has obtained such field recordings of the SHU the way Paglen has, since all recording equipment was banned from state prisons years ago.
Perhaps the most lighthearted and optimistic portion of the show came at the end in three provocative proposals for a 'Prison Reclamation Project .' Mocking the absurdity that overwhelms us from coming to terms with the stretch and imbrication of the prison-industrial complex in our society, he collaborated with architects Carrie Foster, Matt Wittman, and New York art collective Nsumi Group, to conceptualize speculative re-uses for some of our most oppressive incarceration facilities should they ever be closed. Combined, they cast a sarcastic and poetic re-imagination of how even the darkest and most demeaning constructs of our built environment could be humanized, as symbols of both the land's defense against our will to conquer it, and, of our own ability to evolve better uses where nature is helpless to defeat such monstrosities on it's own. One even fancied an 832 hole golf course flanked by hazards of barbwire and concrete, so the good old boys that ran this prison might actually be encouraged to stay there.
With the exposure of crucial insight into the enclaves of the prison authority's power, Paglen's show was a powerful indictment of the associations the public naively makes about prisons. He recently hosted a lecture with a panel of experts entitled, "Everything I Thought I Knew About Prisons Was Wrong," which continued a startling discussion on how the institutional racism, political spin, and economic exploit behind the prison industry is more reflective of the way we have rudimentarily ordered the structure of our society. Paglen confesses that once he immersed himself in this project, "which initially began with the simple concept of gathering a bunch of guerrilla audio recordings of prison interiors, it forced me to completely reexamine the notion of what a 'prison-industrial complex' really looks like," and how as a geographer he would be able to evidence that. Looking at the exhibit and seeing very few images of prisons, Paglen shows that "they themselves are really only a superficial product, or the social output of a much more insidious architecture of politics at work beneath the visible landscape. That's not to diminish their importance, or say that they aren't horrible, because they are. I just wanted to point out that prisons are only one part of a much larger 'carceral landscape.'"
The general fear about the impact of surveillance on a democratic environment is that the Great Panopticon is only making the already-private even more private. Meanwhile, what's left of public space is scraped clean by the encroach of excessive street cameras and Big Brother experimentation. Paglen's work is a hard look at the hegemony of technology's right over space, and ultimately the role of a military economy in the production of space. With the eye of both an artist and geographer, he clarifies those ambiguous terrains where public land buffers the bunkers that function at the highest forms of concealment. In times of greater need for more public scrutiny and institutional transparency, Paglen somehow finds a way to hijack the panopticon and stare back at the warden through his tinted fortress glass -- if only for a moment in order to spot his odd behavior in there. Each project helps us glimpse a little further a pale forensic vision of modern landscapes haunted by suspect activity and impenetrable secrecy, where the government is reflected in a murky complexion of democracy's mirage. While counter surveillance may be a clever aesthetic Paglen uses to draw attention to his work, the symbolic gesture of this citizen geographer conducting his own reconnaissance and mapping something like the government's 'infrastructure of classification,' well, that seems like a pretty damned cool adventure to me.
Text by Bryan Finoki / Photos by Trevor Paglen, Bryan Finoki, & Bill Luoma (2005)
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