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Talking to Trevor Paglen about "Blank Spots on the Map"

Photo documentation of one of Trevor Paglen's 2005 "Expeditions"
Photo documentation of one of Trevor Paglen's 2005 Expeditions. Via the artist's website.
Jessica Loudis recently reviewed Trevor Paglen's Blank Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon's Secret World, published earlier this month by Dutton. Loudis' review will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Brooklyn Rail, but is currently available on her blog. In addition to reviewing the book, Loudis had a chance to talk to Paglen about this project and others. Their conversation is reproduced below. -B.B.

Jessica Loudis:One theme that you develop at great length in the book is the relationship between geography and legality, or the idea that the unmapped and invisible directly inform what eventually becomes permissible in the white world. Could you elaborate on why you think geography is interconnected with law in this way?

Trevor Paglen: Geography is about facts on the ground. If you build something or institute some kind of system or program, what you’re doing is producing space. You’re producing facts. Oftentimes if we’re talking about secrecy or classified programs, these happen outside the law. Covert actions, covert programs, are such oftentimes precisely because they’re illegal in some way, there’s something outside the law about them. So what tends to happen over and over again when you look at the history of this stuff is that those facts on the ground intersect the legal system and in order to preserve them the legal system has to bend around them. There’s a case history that shows exactly this, and it goes back to a precedent called United States v. Reynolds. Now, we see that precedent used over and over and over again, for everything from NSA wiretapping to extraordinary rendition, to cases about CIA black sites. What you’re seeing are these facts on the ground carving out a blank space in the law. But I think what’s crucial here is that the facts on the ground of this stuff -- the materiality of it, the geography of it -- precede the legal stuff surrounding it.

JL: In what ways do you think your training in geography has informed the way you frame and pursue your projects?

TP: It gives me a couple of assumptions, to start with. Methodologically, I always want to go look at things, I want to see where things take place. I think about things happening in the world as having a materiality to them, and that seems obvious but I think it has a number of methodological and theoretical implications that are hard to recognize unless you think about the world spatially. One of the things that was methodologically important to me in developing the book was to think about contradiction. I talked about state secrecy as being characterized by an originary contradiction that has to do with the fact that all secrecy is about things, trying to keep things secret, whether it’s events or people, or things that have happened -- and all those things happen in the world, they’re spatial, material phenomena. So you try to make that secret, you try to make it disappear, you try to make that thing that has happened or that space somehow invisible. Now right there we have a contradiction because the material world is visible. Matter reflects life in the most basic sense. I think from that originary contradiction there are all sorts of contradictions that develop and that suggest very fundamental methodologies in terms of approaching this stuff. For example, something happens in the world so a paper trail is generated, people see it. It suggests a course of research in a way if you take those axioms seriously.

JL: You bring up the notion of ‘relational geographies’ -- the idea that what happens in one place directly affects events in another. You discuss this in terms of contractors in Afghanistan and how that relates to the landscape of Northern Virginia, for example. I was wondering if you could talk about other models of relational geography you see in the world that promote a more transparent, democratic project?

TP: A counter-theme in the book are different people that confront this secret state in one way or another and try to push it back. There are people like Stella Kasza, who’s a very old woman living in a trailer park outside of Las Vegas. Her husband worked at a secret Air Force base and acquired some kind a very bizarre illness. He tried to sue the Air Force to find out what chemicals he had been exposed to, and was told it was all secret and the place where he claimed to work didn’t exist. So she took the Air Force to court and tried to bring this secret world into the court system. There’s a guy named Ted Molczan in Toronto who tracks all the classified American spacecraft in orbit using a pair of binoculars and a stopwatch. I think throughout the book there are all kinds of examples of people producing what I think are more democratic kinds of spaces that counter parts of this secret world.

JL: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

TP: There are two things. A lot of us are familiar with extraordinary rendition and waterboarding and government secrecy and Dick Cheney and the whole dark side of the war on terror and all this stuff – one of the things that I really wanted to show in the book was that none of this stuff was invented on September 12, 2001. There’s a very long history to this secret state within the American state. It waxes and wanes a little bit, but overall this secret state has been growing more or less unimpeded since the end of the Second World War. All of this ‘dark side of the war on terror’ stuff is really nothing new; it’s built on foundations that have been around for much longer. That’s one point. The second point is to show that this is not something that’s easily changed. Obama the other day signed a series of executive orders trying to shut down Guantanamo Bay, trying to shut down some of these CIA black sites. If history is a guide to the future, history shows that that will be astounding if it actually works. My point is that from administration to administration you see far more continuity than disruption in the growth of this secret world. It's something that people should think about as we head into the future and confront some of these big questions that we’re facing now about how to deal with this.