“Dead Satellite with Nuclear Reactor, Eastern Arizona (Cosmos 469)” by Trevor Paglen (2011)
“Dead Satellite with Nuclear Reactor, Eastern Arizona (Cosmos 469)” by Trevor Paglen (2011)

Just across a narrows in the Great South Bay from Fire Island, Mastic Beach is a modest hamlet on Long Island. Mastic Beach may be best known for its recent failure at incorporating as a village. It might yet still emerge as one of the South Shore’s hidden gems, but it’s less a secret than a dead end.

Trevor Paglen’s photograph of Mastic Beach captures the feel of the place: long sandy beach, scattered swimmers and sunbathers, a bit depressed. But that’s only the surface. The other half of “NSA-Tapped Fiber Optic Cable Landing Site, Mastic Beach, New York, United States” (2015) reveals a hidden ecosystem swirling underneath the blighted homes and leathered tans. A dizzying grid brimming with network charts, topographical maps, and statistical diagrams uncovers a companion Mastic Beach, the site of an underwater cable landing, a secretive hub for national intelligence.

This diptych—one part landscape photograph, one part paranoid mood board—underscores the twin impulses in Paglen’s art. Sites Unseen, a comprehensive midcareer survey by the artist now on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, runs along two tracks. At once it is a showcase of a photographer devoted to the history of landscape photography, an exhibit rife with references to Ansel Adams and Timothy H. O’Sullivan. But it is also a story of an artist working (even fighting) to center art in his practice as it slips further and further into unknowns and uncertainty.

Paglen is a chronicler of the Deep State; just as Adams and Carleton Watkins used photography to chart the vast unknown American West, Paglen uses the medium to map the territory controlled by the American military intelligence apparatus. Paglen favors the same lunar landscapes as Adams and company: craggy desert reliefs or low alkali flats in Utah and Nevada. “Dead Satellite with Nuclear Reactor, Eastern Arizona (Cosmos 469)” (2011) depicts arcs of orbiting light in nightscape over a lonely desert bluff. Paglen even recreates one 1874 photo by O’Sullivan of Idaho’s Shoshone Falls, the image surface marked up by computer vision detection algorithms.

Where Adams strove for stark scenes in black and white, Paglen revels in the gray areas. Some of his earliest works on view here are blurry, blown-up images shot by telephoto lens over long distances. “Control Tower (Area 52); Tonopah Test Range, NV; Distance ~ 20 miles; 11:55 a.m.” (2006) shows the physical surface of the drone base hiding in plain sight in southern Nevada. Drones are a fascination for Paglen and the subject of some of his best work, including several gorgeous skyscape C-prints from the early 2010s. Majestic skies might be marred by the tiniest speck purporting to be an elusive example of next-gen war machines.

These sunsets over reaper drones are meant to be beautiful. Paglen is cousin to Edward Burtynsky, the Canadian photographer whose breathtaking landscapes of toxic nickel tailings and exhausted mineral quarries credit human-kind’s awesome power to remake the world. Paglen’s tribute to the landscape–industrial complex is subtler, and perhaps scarier for it. While Burtynsky shows the hidden costs of the world we’ve built, the pockets of environmental cataclysm that we leave in our wake, Paglen is looking for the hidden world we’re building. The Camp Springs, Maryland–born photographer’s pursuit of satellites flows from an interest in satellite photography, but also from an almost millenarian belief that satellites will be the lasting testament to humanity.

“Prototype for a Nonfunctional Satellite (Design 4; Build 4)” (2013) can’t be missed in Sites Unseen: a massive reflective orb floating at the end of American Art’s modern galleries like a great mirrored Death Star. It’s a sketch for a project called “Orbital Reflector,” a sculpture that Paglen aims to launch into low Earth orbit on the back of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket this fall. But that’s skipping ahead. There are a few steps between Paglen’s investigative forays into #natsec photography and his Elon Musk phase.

That’s where curator John Jacob’s otherwise excellent survey slips up, if only a little. It gets hard to follow Paglen’s footsteps as his focus expands from the physical footprint of the Deep State to embrace machine learning, algorithmic processing, and, eventually, full-blown eschatology. It might be easiest to track his expansion beyond photography to other media. These range from found objects (fabric patches representing the emblems of various military-intelligence agencies) to portraiture (facial-recognition scanning images). With two works, Paglen even pays tribute to the cube: the black-box symbol for system opacity, but also a fan-favorite mode of modernist art. One is “Trinity Cube” (2017), a sculpture combining Trinitite glass forged in the 1945 atomic bomb test in New Mexico with glass recovered from the Fukushima Exclusion Zone disaster in 2011 in Japan; the other is “Autonomy Cube” (2015), a Plexiglas box housing computer components able to route wi-fi traffic through the encrypted Tor network.

Photography governs everything in Sites Unseen, whether it’s an “adversarially evolved” machine-learning print of a rainbow or a cube made of dark web. Paglen is more concerned with ways of seeing than sites or scenes. Like the early photographer Eadweard Muybridge, who pioneered experiments in cinematography because he wanted to capture motion, Paglen wants to see what the camera sees. Only in Paglen’s case, the camera is increasingly an automaton, making or receiving images made by and for other machines.

At times, Paglen’s work takes him off the deep end. A series of oversized emblems from specialized spookshops—including “Operation Onymous (FBI Investigation of the Silk Road)” (2016)—hang like calligraphic roundels in a corrupted mosque. “Timeline of Earth History” (2012), a wall drawing, denotes the Space Age as an inconsequential blip in the story of the rise and fall of eukaryotic micro-organisms.

If the dark roads that Paglen has taken—the things that he has seen—have turned him into a prophet in the wilderness eating locusts and wild honey, well, what’s the saying? Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you? Sites Unseen is slightly more optimistic than that. As unnerving as his subject matter may be, his work, deeply invested in the tools and strategies of modernism, elevates art as a form of resistance—and an unlikely source of hope.

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