During the four year period of my life in which I tried every job I was certain to fail, I spent a month managing a stock portfolio and alumni database for an arts institution in the city before being fired. Even now, I’m amazed I landed the job; my answer to the interview question, Are you good at math? running something along the lines of, “No. But I can add”. While it took all of 15 minutes on the job for the organization to figure out that someone else was going to have to take care of the stock portfolio, I was allowed considerable more time to fuck up their database with my hapless sleuthing for disappeared alumni.
I bring the job up, because the experience taught me there’s a real skill to investigating paper trails, a point that needs to be acknowledged in any discussion of Trevor Paglen’s work. Tracing the secret government operations that make up the Black World, Paglen has the rare ability to retain huge amounts of largely useless data to draw connections and spot inconsistencies, to find greater meaning within those documents, and to visualize that information in such a way that its aesthetics don’t become subservient to the process, (in other words his photographs aren’t only about finding the location and the high tech camera he used to shoot, but are in and of themselves an investigation of representation.)
Logically, Paglen began with the paperwork side of things by going through public records such as the National Defense Budget in an attempt to give some conceptual shape to the black world. Unlike most programs in this document that disclose their budget, the artist pointed out the code names for government projects that don’t do this. Revealing that it is possible to at least track the active black world initiatives, Paglen also observed that if you were to add up every single line item, and subtract that number from the total budget, you’d come up with 30 billion dollars as the black world budget.
I suppose the visual result of that process is about what you’d expect; a gallery wall with about 2000 program names, thus making it the weakest work he showed that evening (keep in mind I’m judging a projected jpeg, so I might change my mind seeing the work in person). Generally speaking Paglen’s documentation and found objects are much more powerful than any rearticulation of that material, and in fact are closer to the artists articulated interests. “Where are the places where this abstract world, this logic of secrecy, intersect with the visible world and how does it influence the visible world?” asks Paglen later on in the talk, identifying his objectives for his art. He went on to explain,
“I think that it influences the world in all kinds of ways because there’s a fundamental contradiction with secrecy. Secrecy, from the get go represents a contradiction, and that is, that what you’re trying to do with secrecy is to make things disappear, now the problem that you have is that the world is made up of stuff, and one of the physical properties of matter is that it reflects light, so right there you have this original contradiction. I think that there’s a whole number of contradictions that are in this world, and if you can find those contradictions, you can start to develop this visual vocabulary, this way of trying to come to terms with this secret world.”
A number of these contradictions Paglen talks about are found in paperwork, which he impressively details throughout the talk, though I responded most to the observation above that physical matter reflects light, because it betrays the mind of a photographer. Perhaps for this reason, Paglen’s photographs hold the most interest to me as art objects, followed by the photocopies of the fake passports held by terrorist hunters.
Speaking of the aesthetics characteristic of this world, the artist later remarked of his art “The visual vocabulary collapses…one in form of abstraction the photographs become abstractions…the other way is that the images collapse into a vision of everyday life.” I would add to this sentiment that the work doesn’t necessarily represent one or the other form of visual collapse, but often a melding of the two. Take for example, the photograph above, which on the one hand, looks very abstract, and on the other, resembles the familiar grainy 35 millimeter shots that once littered yard sales. Of course, the work is too carefully composed to truly look as though it were taken by accident or the result of a poorly cared for negative, though enough confusion exists that it becomes very difficult to see the difference between real life and the black world. And therein lies the paradox of the work; secrets, as Paglen intimates earlier, almost without fail take the form of everything we already know.