Visual Resonances

by Karin Bareman

English Essays

Watching You Watching Me: Trevor Paglen and Simon Norfolk Are Looking Back

In one of the earliest episodes of The X-Files, Mulder and Scully investigate the disappearance of aircraft test pilots in Idaho. As a result they trespass onto a military airbase, where they witness a mysterious aircraft performing seemingly impossible maneuvers in the night sky. In a case of reality mirroring fiction, two photographers have also looked up to the heavens and noticed something odd going on up there. But unlike Mulder and Scully, who were chased out of town by some black ops, and who were unable to keep any physical proof of what they had witnessed, Trevor Paglen and Simon Norfolk have come back home with some tangible results.

Paglen’s series The Other Night Sky shows a large variety of reds, blues, blacks and purples. Because of long shutter times, the use of telescopes and zoom lenses, and the effort of trying to capture objects at long distances, the photographs have soft, muted, beautiful colours and blurred outlines. In order to capture these images, Paglen travelled to some particularly remote parts of the United States. His pictures seem to prove how many stars and planets would be visible to the human eye, if not for the light pollution present in most places on earth. In a number of his photographs he combines the night sky with some of the most iconic sights of America, thus paying homage to the great American landscape photographers such as Ansel Adams and Carleton E. Watkins. Just as their images romanticized the American natural landscape, Paglen’s work invokes romantic and idyllic thoughts of what else could be out there in the galaxy.

But Paglen provides some uncomfortable answers to that particular question in the pictures’ captions. Because one thing is definitely out there, and that is Big Brother watching you watching the stars. With the help of an amateur network of stargazers, a relatively simple set of calculations and a basic understanding of astrophysics, Paglen has been able to track and document classified American satellites and other unacknowledged spacecraft in earth’s orbit. So those light streaks in the photographs are not just some shooting stars, they are actually spy satellites. Paglen is interested in the links between surveillance, the war on terror, climate change, loss of democratic powers and growing inequality. His various projects have involved trying to make the invisible visible in order to criticise contemporary American society. The Other Night Sky is a supreme and uncomfortable example of that critique.

The Other Night Sky has a lot in common with Full Spectral Dominance by Simon Norfolk, both visually and conceptually. But unlike in Paglen’s work, very few stars are visible in Norfolk’s pictures. Instead the images all show beautiful upward curves of light. They look like the trajectory of festive fireworks on New Year’s Eve. In reality though we are witnessing nuclear missile launches at Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg Air Space, which regularly take place to train crew and to test systems. Norfolk’s images have the same beautiful blues, blacks and purples as Paglen’s. But by using several technical cameras to capture the curve of light, Norfolk’s images are a lot sharper, a lot harder.

No longer is a battlefield a place where soldiers fight one another in hand to hand combat. Instead, war has become increasingly computerised and executed at long distance.

Like Paglen, Norfolk is an activist photographer and has consistently been trying to photograph the invisible. His goal is to inform people, to alert them to what is slowly happening around them. Norfolk tries to show in his pictures what constitutes a battlefield nowadays, what the technology of war looks like. No longer is a battlefield a place where soldiers fight one another in hand to hand combat. Instead, war has become increasingly computerised and executed at long distance. But despite the complexity of space and military technology, both Norfolk and Paglen have used relatively mundane means to find out about it and to visualize it. After all, as the launches are rather noisy and cause tremors, thus inconveniencing the local population, the local papers provide advance notice. All Norfolk needed to do to capture the launches was to read about it, and show up at the right and right place.

So space truly does seem to be the final frontier, both photographically and military. And just like with every border that has ever been contested by parties with opposing agendas, war and technology are a constant feature of it. By producing these pictures, both Norfolk and Paglen have been trying to reclaim space on our behalf.


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