Monday, August 09, 2010

Chemical and Biological Weapons Proving Ground, Dugway, UT

There are several surveillance landscapes on show at Tate Modern at the moment - the Exposed exhibition website has some of Jonathan Olley's photographs of watchtowers built by the British Army in Northern Ireland; other examples are Sophie Ristelhueber's Fait (1992) series, providing aerial evidence of the impact of the first Gulf War, and Shai Kremer's Panorama, Urban Warfare Training Centre, Tze'elim (2007).  However, the photograph in this exhibition that most intrigued me was Trevor Paglen's Chemical and Biological Weapons Proving Ground / Dugway, UT / Distance - 42 miles / 10:51 am (2006).  It is a beautiful, shimmering, nearly abstract image taken from so far away that the landscape is impossible to read.  Paglen's website has an explanation of the 'limit telephotography' method used for this and similar images:

'A number of classified military bases and installations are located in some of the remotest parts of the United States, hidden deep in western deserts and buffered by dozens of miles of restricted land. Many of these sites are so remote, in fact, that there is nowhere on Earth where a civilian might be able to see them with an unaided eye. In order to produce images of these remote and hidden landscapes, therefore, some unorthodox viewing and imaging techniques are required.  Limit-telephotography involves photographing landscapes that cannot be seen with the unaided eye. The technique employs high powered telescopes whose focal lengths range between 1300mm and 7000mm. At this level of magnification, hidden aspects of the landscape become apparent.'

Bryan Finoki's 2005 article on Paglen's work for Archinect explains that 'by zooming in on the military taking cover in the sheer remoteness of nature, Paglen seeks to debunk the mythologies that adorn the American frontier, and expose those off-limit landscapes-as-camouflage for the pervasive culture of inscrutability they serve.' Paglen is both artist and geographer, and he sees his experimental geography as running counter to the history and current practice of the discipline (he tells Finoki "I've heard that around 40% of professional geographers in this country work for the CIA or other intelligence agencies.") In the clip below he compares nineteenth century photographers, whose work helped open up the West for expansion, to modern reconnaissance satellites. In The Other Night Sky, Paglen uses the data of amateur satellite watchers to track classified spacecraft in Earth's orbit so as to photograph them over iconic Western landscapes. His book Invisible: Covert Operations and Classified Landscapes will be available soon, with an accompanying essay by Rebecca Solnit.

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