Friday, November 13, 2009

Trevor Paglen at Art Papers Talk

Trevor Paglen, experimental geographer and artist, presented an interesting talk about his work at Emory University as part of the Art Papers Live! lecture series on the eleventh. You might also be interested to see him on the Colbert Report (Facebook viewers will have to come here to the blog to view this):
The Colbert Report
Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Trevor Paglen
www.colbertnation.com

Colbert Report Full Episodes
Political Humor
U.S. Speedskating
As is the case with my notes from the European Graduate School, my notes here may not do justice to what the speaker intended and are not actual transcripts of the talk, they are notes I took.

So, here's a photo of where I work at UC Berkley, McCone Hall:

It's named after a former CIA Director (John A. McCone). This helps me to remember that knowledge production is integrated with the production of power. I was standing at the end of the hall on the weekend (I like to work then) and noticed a man was messing with this photo at my office.

I asked him what he was doing and he explained to me that he had been a pilot and asked me if I knew what this photo was. I told him it was Nellis Air Force Base in the Nellis Range.


This is an airbase in the state of Nevada where the Air Force trains fighter pilots. At this site there is also something called "The Box", a restricted area where no pilots are allowed to fly. If you were a pilot at Nellis and you were to experience an emergency requiring you to land and you had to do so in "The Box" you are instructed to instead ditch the aircraft. The pilots are told to eject rather than land at the strip in "The Box".

This pilot told me about a fighter pilot who had to make just this decision and rather than risk ejecting and wasting the millions of dollars that his fighter jet cost, he landed in "The Box" and disappeared for a week. When he came back he could not say a single thing about occurred to him upon landing in "The Box". That's because "The Box" is part of what is called the "Black World" whose annual budget is somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 billion. You can arrive at this number by looking at the Pentagon's defense spending budget.


What can you get for $50 billion?
  • You could get 5 copies of the California Prison System
  • You could get the Chinese Army, the second largest army in the world (now, keep in mind we're spending this much just on the secret stuff, let alone actual defense work)
So much defense money goes into the the southwestern United States that it is often referred to as the "Gun Belt". During WWII there was a great build-up of secret military installations for testing secret projects such as the first jet and the Manhattan Project.

During the 1980s, under the Reagan Administration, there were unprecedented amounts of money going to the development of "Silver Bullet Technologies" these were projects that were hoped would give the U.S. such a military superiority that the Cold War would be won. This is also the time when the phrase "the Black World" is being promulgated.

If we look at the ads from the trade magazines we see something interesting: They can't say what happens in this secret world and so the biographies of those featured are always written in the most ambiguous terms. Not only does the reader not know what that person did, but if we consider this man's profile, it says he flew seven secret aircraft during his career, which means that literally thousands of people were involved in these projects. And so, thousands of people are keeping these secrets in this secret world.

How are we supposed to study this secret world?
Maybe if we become like astronomers.

They say something like 98% of the universe is composed of dark matter which can only be hypothesized but can't be detected and yet it structures the universe itself. The secret world has to be made of the same stuff our world is made of: matter which reflects light. This originary contradiction leads to other contradictions and may offer us something like a negative outline.

Let's talk about logistics. "Amateurs talk about strategies, professionals talk about logistics," that's the phrase, right? If you have secret infrastructure and secret logistics you could use "front companies" which would allow you to blend-in and also provides a flexibility that is not possible in the secret world. A military plane that is subject to the Chicago Convention cannot enter another Chicago Convention country without it seeming like this is an invasion. But, a front company for the military can enter a Chicago Convention country without alarming that country's military.

How would you know where to find these fronts? One place to look would be CALPS (Civil Aircraft Landing Permits). You can request a list of all the civilian aircraft that are allowed to land on military bases around the world, often you'll see companies like DHL or UPS, but you can also see other companies with non-brand names that are given world-wide landing privileges. These are largely fronts. These fronts also facilitated what are called Torture Taxis, airplanes used to take abducted people to meet extraordinary renditions when the hosting country doesn't allow for torture.

From these CALPS you can then get the serial numbers of individual planes from the owners (also a public document) and with these you can begin to track flight records. You can begin to make flight maps and begin to notice patterns. This is what we did with the Institute for Applied Autonomy.

You can see that there are names associated with these companies, signatures for incorporation, or signatures for tax payments, but the signatures are wildly different. They are people who have no records, no credit histories, existing only in this context.

But where are the prisons to which these fronts take their cargo? This was what we were hoping to be able to identify in mapping these flight paths.

If the secret world is made of the same material as ours, then they must emit all sorts of electromagnetic stuff. Which you can hear, albeit scrambled.

The secret world is made of people, though. So a little amateur anthropology would be of use to us were we to explore the secret world. People have to work on these projects and people are amazingly contradictory. It's a very alienating world, this Dark World. You can't tell your loved ones what you do, you feel like you have to lie to your mother's face every day. But on the other hand, you develop a very intense camaraderie with those you work with: these are the only other people in the world that understand what you do and where you spend the most significant parts of your day.

And these people have alumni associations, they have reunions, they have secret football teams, they have memorabilia that they exchange with one another. These are really funny though because it's a lot of people gathered who can't say why they are there. They give out awards to each other for "Significant Achievement at Undisclosed Place." They have patches and coins and rings.

Limit-Telephotography - if matter reflects light, you can probably photograph it. But light begins to fall apart at distances like 18, 19 miles away. They collapse at 40 to 60 miles, into complete abstraction. This is one pole of the secret world, the other pole is very banal and every day.

2 comments:

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