Rene — Journalisms — Interview with Trevor Paglen — The Black World of the Military — 08.15.05

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Rene: Before we officially begin the interview, I thought it may be good to begin with some of your key research findings.
Trevor: Ok, here’s the super-condensed version of what my basic findings are so far:
1) The military has a whole “shadow” infrastructure composed of what are usually called “Special Access Programs.” Special Access Programs are set up in such a way that their very existence is usually classified; they are programs that “don’t exist.” The amount of money dedicated to these sorts of programs is astronomical, probably around $30 billion annually.
2) That these kinds of military expenditures do not happen in a vacuum; they entail producing some bizarre forms of space. “Black budget” military spending is far more pervasive than I had ever imagined – money (and thereby certain forms of space) extend from remote “secret bases” in the desert to downtown high-rises, and from “things that go bump in the night” on military land to the most innocuous corners in the halls of the academia. The “black world” is truly global. Furthermore, “black world” spending is not an obscure “special case” of militarism: the infrastructures dedicated to it and the land it occupies achieve the scale of cities in the first instance, and small countries in the second.
3) The military is far more capable than I would have imagined at keeping secrets. To give you an example, I’ve been able to figure out that between 6 and 11 still-classified airplanes have been built in the last twenty years. There is almost no direct, publicly available evidence for the existence of a single one. The amount of money and people that you need to build a single airplane is absolutely enormous.
4) The socio-economic relationships and bureaucratic capacities developed in order to perform classified research, development, procurement, and testing have become increasingly generalized throughout the state. The Department of the Treasury, for example, has taken on far more characteristics of the National Reconnaissance Office than vice versa.
5) The “black world” of classified spending is not only a socio-political regime, but an ecological one as well. With the introduction of strange chemicals and other materials to the landscape, classified military programs become a source of ecological mutation. The forms of these mutations are themselves classified, but they have often meant death (this is a very long discussion). Like capitalism, “black world” spending has a particular metabolic relationship to nature and to the land.
6) The “black world” is a highly racialized landscape, whose reproduction presupposes the practical “non-existence” of certain groups of people. In the US itself, this usually means Native American communities. Moreover, the “black world” of domestic militarism mirrors the “black worlds” traditionally associated with empire: the American Frontier, the Belgian Congo, the Mekong Delta, the West Bank, and so forth.
Rene: We can start very simply with just asking you how you became interested in the Pentagon’s “black world”?
Trevor: The last major project I did was called “Recording Carceral Landscapes,” which was a sustained investigation of the California prison system. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how it worked, and documenting its various nodes. At some point while I was going over that material, I was looking at satellite photo archives. I had an idea that I might do a series of juxtapositions between images of prisons and other sites associated with incarceration or something.
I didn’t end up doing that, but it was very interesting to look at those photo archives.
This was long before Google satellite or anything.
It turns out that a lot of those photos were taken by U2 spy planes, which I thought was weird.
After a while, I started to notice that huge parts of the archives were redacted (i.e. “blacked out”) or were missing altogether. Looking at those “black spaces,” I had a kind of Conradian moment where I wanted to know what was under those marks, and in those “missing” parts of the archives. It turns out that a lot of weird military stuff happens in roughly similar places as modern prisons. Both kinds of places are quite remote and away from major population centers.
I started to realize that there was a huge amount of land devoted to the military, and that a lot of it was quite bizarre. What were these blank spots and airfields doing out in the middle of nowhere? It’s kind of a cliché, but I got interested in this material from blank spots on maps.
Rene: Well, there are already a lot interesting headings to pursue in your response, but I thought before we move further, it is good to get an idea of what you have been doing since the time you became interested in these blank spots on the map. So very simply, how does one go from looking at a blank spot on a map to actually constructing a course of activities or techniques for arriving at tangible findings. I imagine that some of your earlier work with the prisons contributed a lot, so you can touch on that if indeed I am right and also touch on some things that were unique in this research.
Trevor: Well, this research is very much still in progress. It’s quite a big project, and I’m always trying to find additional ways to get information. When I first started looking into this stuff, I realized immediately that there was basically no academic writing on it, but there were other sources. Some journalists had looked into it, but most of that work was quite old. I started reading declassified CIA reports about spy planes and so forth. From reading that material, I got a rough idea about the histories of some of these programs and places. Again, this meant “reading between the lines” quite a bit – much of that “declassified” material is hilarious because it’s mostly blacked out. I also started reading trade publications for the defense industry – journals like “Aviation Week and Space Technology,” which publishes a lot of material that you can use to infer larger defense trends. A lot of that material can be wrong, but by reading it you can get some general outlines. On top of that, I started attending weird functions, like ceremonies honoring test pilots and so forth. This year, for example, marks the 50th anniversary of the U2 project, so there are a lot of old-timers having parties and so forth. You can go to these things and listen to people’s stories. There’s quite a lot to learn, but again, a lot of the information is indirect. On top of that, I started making connections to defense journalists, military historians, and sometimes people who work at these places. Some people will tell you stuff “off the record,” which can be frustrating because it’s hard to verify a lot of what they say. Also, people lie or don’t have good information a lot of the time. That’s frustrating as well. At this point, I’m not really interested in “what they’re doing” insomuch as I’m interesting in how these places, programs, and cultures become established, sustain, and reproduce themselves. The project as it stands now is a socio-historical and epistemic investigation.
Rene: Trevor, I see your work within a field of artists who are taking full ownership of the potential to hack, to see the role of the artist as a hacker, others have compared this role to one of an amateur, and even Giorgio Agamben speaks of tricksters or fakes as the constituent whatever-singularities of his Coming Community. In your case, although you are affiliated with the Geography program at UC Berkeley, where do you draw the line between the research that is acceptable in the Academy and the research that may well be something we can refer to as unorthodox. I can track the last response, and at several points you talk about things “off the record” or informal means of gathering information. If I can bring together all of the latter comments into a question, I would just ask how you see your involvement within the field of geography and how has hacking that discipline informed your exploration of issues like these unmapped or hidden military sites?
Trevor: This is a big question that has haunted me for a long time. On one hand, I completely reject any disciplinary or formal boundaries within the work that I do, but on the other hand, I still think that one should be as responsible as one can.
Rene: Yes I know, so I know whatever your response to this question is, we will agree that it is preliminary and really based on this day’s thoughts
Trevor: Being affiliated with a department like Berkeley gives the project some legitimacy in certain situations. There are a lot of people who would probably not talk to me if I weren’t a “professional” geographer. On the other hand, I also am a card-carrying journalist and artist. These other “modes” are equally useful a lot of the time. One of the problems with this project is that there are a lot of people interested in the material who don’t really have very good analytical skills. There’s also all the UFO stuff and conspiracy stuff. I try to stay very far away from those things, but when you’re looking at this subject matter, it’s inevitable that you come across it. As much as I can, I try to bring these encounters into the larger story that I’m trying to tell. You also asked about what counts as “legitimate.” That’s a great question. I used to think that a lot of what I was doing was too unorthodox, and the stories that I was able to tell were based on evidence that could easily be a lie. I spent a lot of time worrying about that. More recently, I’ve come to realize that these sorts of problems aren’t at all specific to my project. Historians, for example, base much of their arguments on evidence and stories that are equally unverifiable. A good historian will tell you that the best they can hope for is to tell a good, and relatively accurate story. All cultural production, to a certain extent, is a kind of myth-making. The trick is to do it responsibly, I think. Note that when I say ‘cultural production’ above, I include all the social sciences and humanities. For me, academic production is also cultural production. I really don’t see any distinction at all between my work as an artist and as a geographer.
Rene: Well, I am actually quite interested in this arena that may even go beyond unorthodox research initiatives. Here I am thinking about ‘Area 51’ for example and all of the folklore and writing that has been done around it by various peripheral communities. You also spoke earlier of ‘myth-making’, are there times in your own work on this project that you have had to question your own views on this type of “research”? Generally “intellectuals” can be very quick to dismiss people who may believe in aliens, UFOs, extraterrestrial life, the things you have referred to ‘X-Files’ type of stuff. But actually, we can also look at these subcultures as another hacking culture. These individuals were hacking sciences long before artists found it a useful or interesting mode to work in. So I wonder if in your research you may have also had … certain biases about these subcultures and if you found any of that “research” useful in your own investigation.
Trevor: Good question. In this material, there’s a constant dialectic between what we might call “the myth” and “the ban.” What I mean by that is that there are all sorts of strange dynamics between the invisible, the unknown, and the ultra-visible and spectacular. We can put a lot of the stuff about UFOs and aliens and so forth into the first category: myth. But at the same time, myths resonate because they contain certain truths. This is how advertising works; Barthes talks about this when he’s writing about mythologies. If you poke around the internet, you’ll find all sorts of materials about aliens and weird things, and on and on. A lot of stuff about cover-ups and conspiracies. Well, it turns out that there are tons of cover ups and conspiracies. There are lies within lies and so forth. Tons of it. A lot of the “alien” people fill this in with bizarre stuff, creating myths about it. And it’s very hard to prove a negative – i.e. it’s almost impossible to “prove” that the government, for example, DOESN’T have a bunch of alien bodies at Area 51. This dynamic is in constant tension with what we might call “the ban.” The fact of the matter is that if you go to Area 51, there’s a big sign that says “photography prohibited” and “use of deadly force authorized” and so forth. If you talk to people who have worked on these programs, there are huge silences. People simply do not talk about this stuff. And so I think that’s one of the dynamics around this material. Interestingly, both the “myth” and the “ban” are techniques of silence. The ban on images, speech, and documentation is quite literal. Myth functions like a kind of Marxian fetish – it conceals much more than it reveals, but is hyper-visible at the same time. Myth, particularly those around Area 51 and so forth produce exactly the kind of silence that you’re talking about – they render the subject “illegitimate” somehow. But if I take you to a mountaintop where you can see Area 51, you can see that the place grows and grows… it’s huge. And it’s most definitely there…
As to whether these kinds of “hacking” cultures have been helpful, the answer is a resounding yes. I get tons and tons of information from plane-spotters, scanning buffs, sky-watchers and other subcultures. A lot of the material that they have is very specific and without any context at all, but on a lot of occasions someone will send me an email about an interesting flight they’d tracked or something, and I can follow the lead and see if it goes anywhere. I get a tremendous amount of “raw material” from these kinds of people, and I’ve learned a huge amount from them. A lot of techniques that a “serious” UFO investigator might use, for example, turn out to be very helpful. A lot of the information-gathering techniques developed in these communities are highly virtuosic.
Rene: Well, your response took the question somewhere I had not anticipated somehow, nevertheless, a desired locale, which is related to the notion of visibility and invisibility…
Trevor: I want to point out that these problems aren’t specific to what I’m doing. I have a friend, an anthropologist, who is interested in hydropower projects in Laos. He has exactly the same kinds of issues. Same for the prison project that I did. These questions just are extremely exaggerated around this particular material. Did I misunderstand the question?
Rene: No, I like your point that there are certain types of noise that do more to conceal than actually reveal. This is a phenomenon that we can say is programmed and in some cases quite intended. Ok, well we have covered some good ground, I am floating through my notes and want to have a quick look over what we have so far, so let’s take a short break!!!
Trevor: Ok, cool
[we return from our break]
Rene: I think we can begin by exploring the notion of visibility and invisibility a bit further. I offer as a kind of aside or footnote to consider the following provocation/question. Do not all incapacities at some point arrive at a new capacity? The obvious example is that the person who is unable to see, if willing, can develop new modes of sense and experience beyond sight (e.g., heightened sense of sound or touch, etc…). Keeping this in the back of our mind, I would like to argue that we actually live in society that more and more so, privileges and entertains a notion that there are things that are kept from the public, there are things that are purposely kept invisible, hidden from us, and if our government for example, or our media was more transparent, gave us the truth, more information, we would then live in a better society.
Trevor: Tricky, tricky…There’s some truth in that, of course.
Rene: Yes. I am adding a bit to the text to give you a better picture and actually arrive at a fair question, but if you want to comment on what I have written above, go right ahead.
Trevor: I can make a few comments on what you have said thus far if you want.
I recently read a paper in which the author claimed that more information was now being produced annually that was classified than was produced in all of academia. Add up all the publications in all the journals, all the new books, the author argued, and it would be less than the collection of classified information. On the other hand, we have incredible amounts of information at our disposal right now. Every day I can read the papers from the U.K., from Pakistan, from wherever I want. I can also get in touch with all sorts of people that I wouldn’t have been able to in the past. I can find out about extremely obscure goings-on. It’s a fact, in my opinion, that we have access to more and better information than ever before. But, the second half of the question is whether that makes our society “better.”
This, I think, points to a problem that Marx identified 150 years ago, in his refutation of the young Hegelians in the German Ideology. The fact that we know more stuff, that our consciousnesses are more “raised” doesn’t necessarily mean that our societal condition will automatically improve. When the Iraq War was ramping up, for example, there was an incredible amount of information available about how it was a bunch of lies and so forth. The public had much better information, for example, than in the buildup to the Vietnam War. Did it matter? It was really weird to me when “Fahrenheit 9/11” came out and all these people came away from the film saying “I didn’t know about that” and so forth. It was extremely old news. If you’d been actively reading the news, there wasn’t a shred of information in the film that wasn’t easily available to anyone who even looked for a second. To give another example: I still do quite a lot of anti-prison activism. At some point in doing that work, we realized that our job didn’t have to be “public education” or consciousness raising. Poll after poll showed that Californians are totally sick of an out-of-control prison system, that they don’t want more prisons and so forth. As far as a lot of the prison work is concerned, public opinion is squarely on the side of the activists. But that doesn’t mean that the structure automatically changes. Far from it, in fact.
Rene: Exactly, although I do believe in seeking and fighting for transparency, to being told the truth by our elected officials, getting access to classified materials and accurate reporting, I have to say that I am also critical of this position as our central node of struggle. And I think this one key aspect of this notion of hacking or amateur is about taking initiative to find one’s own way and helping others to do the same.
Trevor: In general, I agree that more information is better. Of course. My point is that the dynamics that shape public opinion, the dynamics of an “informed public,” and the dynamics of change are extremely messy.
Rene: Agreed. But to continue the thought from above, … as you note, there is a lot already available and visible. More importantly, in some cases, we need to stop relying on “those who know” and do our own research and possibly enable others to do the same. In a certain respect, I see your own work more along these lines in that you use what is in many cases readily available means and collect/gather information. At the end I do not know what is more important. And I am not even sure if it is necessary to choose. Is the most interesting aspect the research you generate, the information you provide in your activities/talks or the implicit message in the mode with which you work? And this implicit message for me is something that empowers and asks people to not rely on standard notions of visibility and invisibility but actually recognize that there are zones of discern-ability, fields wherein things are given to us and others withheld and it is up to individuals to determine what in fact is this threshold of the visible (to borrow a phrase from Kaja Silverman). Any way, I realize it seems more of a comment than a question.
So, maybe I will get myself to come up with one final question, what strikes me in general about seeing things that we are “not meant to see” is that I become suspicious. I think for example about the photos from Abu Ghraib and my contention may in fact be that if something is in front of us, than in some sense we are meant to see it. Very few things arrive on screens or monitors that were not intended to be seen. Nevertheless, I am also not immune to believing that there is an incredible amount that we are not told about. Given your own research, do you find yourself believing more and more in a shadow economy or world that the general public has little knowledge of? And if this is the case, what are its implications to the political field, to political activism?
Trevor: I’ll address both parts of your question. I’m not sure that I agree with you about the idea that we don’t see things that we’re “not meant to see.” I think that it’s easy to become conspiratorial when it comes to the logics of these things, but I think that we should try to resist that impulse. I’m not saying that conspiracies don’t exist – they most certainly do – but that we should take pause when we find ourselves positing a “them” and an “us” and ask whether we’re making too easy of an analysis.
Remember that wherever there’s power, there’s resistance. Resistance is, in fact, a feature of power. Some of the people who are most interested in this “black world” military stuff are people who work in it. The way that information is doled out in those situations is compartmentalized. I guarantee you that there are numerous people who have extremely boring jobs at Area 51 doing data-entry or something, and who are not told what’s going on in the hangar next to them. They might not even know the purpose of the project they’re working on. If you go hang out on some of the viewpoints from which you can see these bases, you’re probably more likely to run into military people who are interested in it than you are civilians. My point is that there is no “them,” but that the structure of the “black world” exists nonetheless.
As far as believing in a shadow economy that not many people know about, the answer is absolutely. It’s not even really a question of belief. It’s easier for me to prove to you that it exists than it is for me to prove to you that a creature called the platypus exists. I can show it to you.
But should the existence of this “black world” proscribe different kinds of activism? I don’t think so, really. I think that a lot of it comes down to the same old things: racism and inequality. Let me explain what I mean by that. These phenomena are the result of a society which is largely organized around militarism, both economically and culturally.
On the economic side, this “black world” is only a certain permutation of a more generalized way in which our economy is organized. Since the Second World War, the U.S. economy has been completely dependent on the military spending hundreds of billions of dollars each year on “defense.” This has been an American solution to recurring crises of overproduction, because it acts as a giant sink for surplus capital. The military spends tremendous amounts of money on weapons, which usually just sit in a field or on a base somewhere, not doing anything. But this vast amount of spending creates lots and lots of jobs, whether that’s for soldiers’ salaries, or for electronics companies or what have you. You also get all the multiplier effects of this spending – soldiers’ salaries become an influx of cash to various local economies, for example. Right now, the Pentagon is looking at closing a huge number of military bases in the U.S., and there’s tremendous opposition from the states, because those bases have become integral to their economies. Ellsworth Air Force base, for example, is the second largest employer in the state of South Dakota. The “black world” is, in economic terms, just a variation on this theme.
On the cultural side, if you’re going to have this kind of enormous military complex, you have to have some justification for it. You have to have some “enemies” who are out to get you, and from whom you have to protect yourself. Those enemies need to be construed somehow as “less than human.” This idea of the “threat” traditionally posed by “communism,” which has now been replaced by “terrorism” seems quite similar to the “threats” posed by “violent crime” or by “illegal immigrants.” All of these are, in my opinion are barely-concealed racist cultural tropes. But they are used to justify more militarism, more policing, more surveillance, more secrecy, and so forth.
As you can see, when we look at it this way, the biggest secret of these “secret bases” is that the socio-economic relationships that they come out of are everywhere – they’re hidden in plain sight; they form the “secret basis” of our society.
So, what kinds of activism does all of this proscribe? I think that we should be striving to end poverty, to end racism, and to radically alter our conception of “public safety.” I think that there are some great models for this kind of activism out there: groups like Critical Resistance, who are a prison-abolitionist network, come immediately to mind. Native people’s struggles for self-determination like the Western Shoshone Defense Project, or environmental justice groups like the Central California Environmental Justice Network (CCEJN) also come to mind. But I also think that we could do a better job of recognizing the kinds of militaristic underpinnings that underlie many of our lives and jobs. For example, one of the fields I work in is academic geography. It turns out that one of the major funders of professional geography is the CIA and other intelligence agencies, and that affects the kinds of directions and methodologies that are the norms of the field in all sorts of hidden ways. Once we recognize these underpinnings, we can start to have a conversation about how we might reorganize the professions or organizations that many of us work in.
Real-time Online Interview conducted with Trevor Paglen by Rene Gabri on July 27, 2005