Like Taryn Simon, American artist Trevor Paglen takes up the ideology of transparency in photographic projects that address the politics of inaccessible spaces and interrogate the unseen networks that structure life under the state. He too activates questions around visibility, participation, and the relationship between aesthetics and politics in works that expose the representational limits of photography. While their subject matter and strategy differ in significant ways, Paglen’s work is likewise emblematic of a type of photography that shifts between image and information, between a seductive formalism and the carefully controlled revelation of evidence, strategically deploying visual and textual details in tandem so that the viewer becomes aware of what exists outside the confines of the frame. For each artist, their projects inhere meaning only when the viewer is able to identify the limits and restrictions imposed, limits that are often the result of a long, careful process of research. In both cases, this is an artistic strategy that moves away from the kind of aesthetic or visual research artists might typically employ and instead re-frames aesthetics in the context of their respective backgrounds in journalism (Simon) and geography (Paglen.)
In one of his earliest photographic projects, The Other Night Sky, Paglen presents images of classified American satellites, objects that are not officially or publicly logged but that orbit the earth to covertly track or collect data. Working with amateur groups who observe and record the movements of satellites in order to calculate and predict their paths in the sky, Paglen produces visually seductive, telescopic images of the sky at night. Often shot in remote locations, Paglen’s skies are filled with stars and light, producing the familiar sense of wonderment that comes with the contemplation of the universe. Yet of course what he is showing his viewer is much more sinister, revealing as it does the satellite systems that are not part of a transparent public record. This aestheticization of surveillance processes serves to highlight a paradox of visuality itself, since the mere presence of lights in the sky discloses very little factual information even as they signify the covert processes of state surveillance.
A similar and more recent series, Untitled (Drones), shifts his focus to observing and recording the paths of American military drones, an investigation that dovetails with the increased use of drones under the Obama administration. Drones, or “unmanned aerial vehicles,” operate simultaneously as automatic recording devices and weapons, looking back at us with their eyeless vision to animate a geographically indeterminate space between viewer and viewed. Such indeterminacy is matched by Paglen’s visual strategy, where his large, saturated prints utilize flat, abstract fields of colour. The viewer is thrust into a vividly atmospheric space, and with no horizon line to orient us towards either earth or sky our normal sense of spatial orientation is confused. Clouds spread wide across the picture plane, serving to reflect, colour, abstract and obscure, attracting our gaze to search for what is held within them. Often only after close scrutiny does the tiny point of the drone reveal itself, reminding us that the sky is not neutral.
Heaving with “the electromagnetic waves of encrypted information that pulse through the atmosphere,” the sky bears the digital information required to keep UAVs airborne. Paglen’s use of striking and sublime images paradoxically articulates that the sky no longer acts as a projection of our desires for limitless freedom and the fantastical unknown; it is a space that is as mapped, linked, and virtually connected as anywhere on earth.
Paglen’s work pivots on the tension between aesthetic representation and the documentation of specific instances of state surveillance. He probes at the limits of photography and what a photographic document is able to do: is an image of a drone or a geo-stationary satellite, even with all of the supplemental text that the artist includes, capable of telling us anything about the American military complex and its secretive, violent actions? This disjunction between what Paglen would call the relational aspects of his projects, what exists external to the image, and the highly aestheticized, historically referential qualities of the image itself, is a problem set with an established history in aerial photography.
Both Butler and Azoulay provide accounts of the representational limits of photography and the political limits of public visibility. They each draw our attention to the terms that restrict visual representation and to what is at stake politically if we are not able to recognize the externalities of photography–its framing devices, its temporalities, its participants–as such. Developing a theoretical model that looks outside the image in order to construct meaning has significance not only for photographic practices but for the way we understand and consume visual information in an era that assumes data is, or should be, transparent. The “ideology of communicational transparency” is one that both Paglen and Simon take on, through recourse to the genealogies and aesthetics of photographic media.” This problem has equal bearing on theories of vision, on ideas that determine how we see what we see, and on the dialectic between revelation and concealment: why do we assume that transparency is aspirational?
Political scientist Jodi Dean, writing in the early 2000s, has developed strong arguments for the critique of a transparent public sphere. For Dean, the clichéd assumption that the public has a right to know, that knowledge will come through transparent processes, and that such knowledge is a fundamental obligation of a democratic society, is a problematic assertion that veils the ideological function of the very idea of a public sphere. She points out that contemporary technoculture relies on the notion that the solution to any problem is publicity, or really, transparency, and that more information and greater access to that information is the answer Her work investigates the secret–that which is purposefully kept hidden and inaccessible–as the limit of such publicity: