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Forums Home : Unmarked Planes and Hidden Geographies : Peer Response   view project   project page  
Now You See It, Now You Don't: Trevor Paglen's Unmarked Planes and Hidden Geographies
In Unmarked Planes and Hidden Geographies, Trevor Paglen uses maps, schedules, photographs, and texts to represent people moving between secret military bases and other parts of the United States. Paglen suggests that visualizing obscure and mostly invisible US military installations and the plane routes that people take to and from these sites provide a fleeting view of otherwise hidden aspects of the military and "trace the outlines" of the military's "black world."

Paglen is particularly interested in considering how planes and people shift between hidden (military bases) and visible (other parts of the US) geographies, the places the military permits individuals to see and those that it hides, the points where the visible becomes an invisible world, and how material things are seemingly erased when they move over these "borders." To engage these issues, Paglen reworks aviation records and photography into a form of counter-surveillance that can be used by site viewers. However, he does not indicate why the viewer should be concerned about the portrayed military actions, what makes these military elisions different than inaccessible business or personal worlds, and how his counter-surveillance is more just than other investigations.

The "Flight Tracking" part of the site is designed to connect non-contiguous spaces that appear to be unrelated but are "profoundly interwoven." Viewers, triggered by the indicated connections and critical texts, might consider what is made visible by this work. They might also contemplate how seeing the outline of this world can help understandings of related processes, including operations performed from US military bases, governmental and military assertions of power and control, connections between different military forces, military prison practices, and the National Guard's position in New Orleans. Paglen's maps and images promise that a provocative diagram of the relationship between seen and "unseen," military and civilian, power and powerlessness can be produced, but there is no framework provided to connect this "outline" of the military's "black world" to other contemporary military and governmental practices.

Paglen's grainy surveillance images of planes, airfields, terminals, and bases appear to be of familiar objects and processes and may suggest that there is nothing much to see or worry about at these locations. The daytime surveillance shots, with their washed-out palette and compressed depth of field, appear to imply that everything is illuminated and can be seen but the night image of the Las Vegas terminal conveys an unfamiliar and uncomfortable artificiality. The people in the waiting room seem too large and easily viewed, the wall of the building appears to be too thin, the light emanates from too many locations, and the pick-up truck is too detailed. Such images encourage further considerations of how aspects of web sites interrelate and of the aesthetic of counter-surveillance. Surveillance images can contribute to our critique of the military and other regimes of secrecy and power, justify empowered views, or correlate military behaviors to the banal when there is both nothing much to see and a great deal that should be viewed.

Some questions for discussion that the project raises:

What are the politics of writing about and imaging something that is supposed to remain unknown and unremarkable? Should this politics engage the viewer in a consideration of militarization, governmentality, privacy, and citizenship?

What is the aesthetic of critical surveillance? How does this aesthetic resist the regimes of power that control what is visible and visually unavailable?

In War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception, Paul Virilio traces out the relationship between camera-based technologies and the military. How might this history relate to the possibilities and problems with camera-based critiques?
- Michele E White, Tulane University, 01.29.2007