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Trevor Paglen: Excerpt from Interview in Conveyor Magazine

Artist, author, and experimental geographer Trevor Paglen uses photography to document what lies beyond the limits of the visible world. In Limit Telephotography, he uses sophisticated optical systems to take long-range photographs of secret government sites, which he calls “black worlds.” Similarly, in The Other Night Sky, he tracks and photographs classified reconnaissance satellites, or “secret moons,” within the Earth’s orbit. The resulting photographs are aesthetically spectacular, and, although they often serve as a by-product of his methodological research practices, the images create an entryway into invisible worlds that often exist in plain sight. 

Christina Labey: I think, as you sometimes write, that people misperceive geography. A lot of us understand it as just a collection of maps.

Trevor Paglen: Yes, that is what everyone seems to think geography is, but, in fact, it has nothing to do with [maps]. In general, geography is about trying to understand the ways in which humans sculpt the surface of the earth. For example, when we build institutions, geography looks at how our societies and cultures are sculpted by them. The word that we use for that is production, as in the production of space.

CL: And you’re interested in something called “experimental geography,” which departs from the conventions of geography. What is experimental geography?

TP: Experimental geography is, on the one hand, about formal experimentation within the social sciences and, on the other hand, about creating a way in which people can think of cultural production as a kind of geography. If all human activity is spatial and we are always creating new space, one might look at the space of scholarship and academia and wonder why it mostly involves conferences, written journals, and other very standard forms of thinking. Experimental geography allows you to produce new spaces where experimental forms of scholarship and academia can thrive.

CL: Does that have a relationship with photography?

TP: Absolutely. Instead of thinking about photography as creating images or representations,  you can see photography as creating space. Experimental geography suggests that there are a lot of ideas in geography that help articulate productive ways to think about contemporary art. A crucial part of the experimental geography thesis is not to accept the pre-given framework of the art world and to instead create spaces that you want to exist.

CL: Does your work fit into the framework of photography? Are aesthetics important in your work, or are they simply a by-product of the research?

TP: I am interested in the history of aesthetics and, while photography is a part of that, so is painting, sculpture, frescos, filmmaking, and even literature. My relationship with photography is more about seeing with machines, including cameras, computers, web-cams, drones, spy satellites, and so on. I am drawn to how we use machines to generate new types of power or to break up time and space. Since the advent of photography, our capabilities of seeing through these machines has not only dramatically reorganized our political, economic, and social institutions, it has quite literally shaped how we see the world itself. So yes, aesthetics are absolutely important in my work: I am interested in aesthetic tropes and posing questions that address what they mean in the present moment.


CL: You often hike to remote places to capture military spy satellites in the night sky; I imagine it’s quite contemplative. How does the dichotomy between the romanticism of the night sky and the fact that you are looking for secret military satellites toy with your cosmic perspective? And does this type of seeing inform other areas of your practice?

TP: I spend a huge amount of time in very isolated places and there is a certain way of seeing that is very different than how you might see things in a place like New York City. You become attuned to things in the sky that you can’t see in the city. For example, I might notice that Jupiter is rising a littler earlier today than it was yesterday. 

There is a certain sensitivity that you develop when working in those kinds of places, and it is not actually that different from the way of seeing that informs some of my other work. For example, right now I am sifting through thousands of documents related to the CIA, searching through this huge amount of material. Identifying what is actually interesting is not that dissimilar from recognizing a spy satellite among millions of other particles of light in the night sky. In both cases, the material being sought after is visible in plain sight—it just involves a particular kind of paying attention. 


The full version of this interview can be found in the Mapping Issue of Conveyor Magazine. To get your hands on one, visit: { www.conveyormagazine.org } 

Posted 2 years ago and has 20 notes
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