I've been dabbling in dystopia of late. A little Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, a little Brazil (1985) and bam! I'm up to my ears in fears of bureaucracy and government subterfuge and omnipresence – as if that's a new thing.
But on the real, it is a bit discomfiting, the similarities between our culture's visions of the fall. This discomfort sharpens with “black sites” researcher Trevor Paglen's monograph Invisible: Covert Operations and Classified Landscapes (Aperture), an eerie book of photos and artifacts that acts like a show-and-tell of why we can't trust The Man to level with us. Paglen will be presenting it at City Lights – those anarchos, of course! – Thurs/21.
“There are many kinds of invisibility. There is the invisibility of what is so taken for granted that few see it, the custom of the country, the water in which the fish swim. Thus to perceive that the U.S. is an empire on a permanent wartime basis is to be alien to, or become alienated from, the mainstream.”
So says writer Rebecca Solnit in her introduction to Invisible, which happens to be an excellent sourcebook for those wishing to be party to this alienation themselves. The book is a product of years of research on the part of Paglen, and is mainly comprised of photos he managed to take of things we are not supposed to see, like massive bunkers in the desert and streaking surveillance objects in the night sky. Though the photos – some taken from miles away, using high grade camera surveillance equipment – that Paglen has assembled of classified military compounds in the deserts of Southwestern United States are disturbing, what really got to me in his monograph were the badges.
What in the god damn god damn? From left, military patches from an unknown mission, the Desert Prowler program, and the 1990s launch of an intelligent spacecraft. From Trevor Paglen's Invisible: Covert Operations and Classified Landscapes
A freaky-weird Illuminati eye shooting lightning bolts. A dragon wrapping its scaly body around a globe. Inexplicable star patterns. These are the images created for the insignia patches worn by personnel of our government's top secret missions. Sure, we know a little bit about them – a woman's golden umbrella is explained by Paglen to be a symbol for the gold plate satellite systems that a particular mission helped to install – but for the main part they seem to use American English to speak a language that the rest of us aren't aware of.
A world supported by taxpayers, yet not seen by them. It's for our safety, right? Again, Solnit: “If war is an act of violence to compel others to do our will, you can speculate on how the American people have been essentially subjugated by the war economy to keep paying for it.”
Seen in this way, the research that Paglen does seems to be a form of liberation. Hours spent in libraries (some with SFBG contributor A.C. Thompson at his side) have yielded passports that show people that are not people – CIA operatives, in fact, charged with the disappearance of terror suspects.
There are long exposure photos of classified satellites tearing through the sky. Some of these are quite lovely, a craggy, water-surrounded peak in one under a phalanx of light diagonal streaks in the sky above. There's nothing lovely though, about the fact that amateur astronomer network The Other Night Sky (of which Paglen is a part) has identified almost two hundred secretly-purposed objects in our atmosphere, placed there by our government for reasons that surely have to do with eminent safety matters. Right?
This was the dillemma presented by Invisible. Meaning: if these things are indeed so ubiquitous and codified – water and war, in Solnit's example -- are they normal? Should we be worried? Should we all take to the hills of Nevada with a backpack full of digital cameras and squint mightily past lines of no-entry?
Maybe we'll depend on Paglen to do it for the moment. And, of course, look at his photo books.
Trevor Paglen: Invisible: Covert Operations and Classified Landscapes
Thur/21 7 p.m., free
City Lights Bookstore
261 Columbus, SF