Fiction to Fact: Trevor Paglen's Other Night Sky
As of late, Trevor Paglen's practice is characterized as "experimental geography," a catchall term he uses to loosely describe his work as an artist and geographer. For nearly a decade, some of which has been spent earning his Phd in Geography from the University of California, Berkeley, Paglen has explored the "Black World," a code name for the covert (and at times, ethically questionable) activities performed by the U.S. government. Operating in the interstices between seemingly divergent disciplines, his multiple identities have converged in the production of The Other Night Sky, a series of photographs now on view at Bellwether gallery.
The Other Night Sky is the product of years' worth of research conducted in the desert valley beneath the Sierra Nevada mountains where, guided by the stars, Paglen employs sophisticated telescopic equipment in order to track and photograph the nearly two hundred classified American spacecraft orbiting the earth at any given time. This invisible, "other" sky harbors deep secrets, as do the many government-controlled sites Paglen documents as part of his larger practice. Parsing sources that vary from the websites of amateur astronomers, to Federal budgets, to the FAA's flight plans -- all available to the general public -- he uncovers government activities, some frightening in their implications. In an age of increasing public demand for government transparency and accountability, Paglen's photographs serve as "proof" - evidence of our deepest suspicions.
The Other Night Sky was initially debuted in 2008 at Paglen's first solo museum exhibition as part of the Phillis Wattis Matrix program at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archives, where its contextual shift from documentary evidence toward the realm of fine art helped bolster his reputation as a photographer in the tradition of those who documented the American West in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; exhibitions in San Francisco and Cologne run concurrently to the Bellwether exhibition. In a text written on occasion of the exhibition, Matrix curator Elizabeth Thomas likens Paglen's "other night sky" to a shadow that "[reminds] us of these recent modifications to democratic society, the culture of government secrecy, that have taken us an uneasy distance from the foundations of democracy upon which this country was built." "In both location and intent," she writes, "it echoes the early scientific work of empiricists such as Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton, who hundreds of years ago looked to observable phenomena like the stars and planets in a quest for truth in the face of authoritarian institutions." Like any truth, however, his work requires a certain consensus of belief in order to make it so, as Paglen readily admits.
This isn't the first time his investigative efforts have taken visual form: Paglen has shown documentary evidence unearthed during research, along with text-based works, and even replicas of the patches produced in order to commemorate so-called "black operations." This body of work, however, is certainly the most visually compelling, if only for its revelatory nature. In The Other Night Sky, Paglen reveals a space that has captured the imaginations of scientists and backyard astronomers alike - for better, or worse.
Four Geostationary Satellites Above the Sierra Nevada by Trevor Paglen; KEYHOLE/IMPROVED CRYSTAL Optical Treconnaissance Satellite Near Scorpio (USA 129) by Trevor Paglen. All images courtesy Trevor Paglen and Bellwether Gallery.