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  • The Expeditions:Landscape as Performance
  • Trevor Paglen (bio)

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Since 2004, I have lead a series of "tours" or "expeditions" to view secret military and intelligence installations in the Nevada and California deserts. In 2003 I began work on a series of photographs of so-called "black" sites in the United States, places whose existence was either entirely unacknowledged by the state, or whose purposes and missions were classified. These sites had become paradigmatic of the "war on terror" in several ways. Under a program called "Anabasis," the CIA and military used covert Nevada bases to train teams of Iraqi expatriates with an eye towards sending them into the country, pre-invasion, with the goal of committing acts of sabotage and a casus belli for an American intervention. Aircraft owned by CIA front companies (e.g., Premier Executive Transport Services, Stevens Express Leasing, Richmor Aviation) made regular landings in the Nevada desert. Those aircrafts were later found to be the workhorses of the "extraordinary rendition" program, and other still-unreported covert programs in Colombia and possibly Venezuela. Special detachments of drone pilots operated out of these bases, flying still-classified unmanned airframes via satellite in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Pakistan. But these domestic black sites were paradigmatic in another sense: their legislative and legal status—from their "black budget" funding to their immunity from judicial overview in the name of the "state secrets privilege"—were foundational to the economic and legal architecture of what Dick Cheney famously called the "dark side."

I spent weeks, even months, locating points on public land from which obscure installations such as the "operating location" near Groom Lake, the Tonopah Test Range, Base Camp, and Site 4 could be seen—albeit usually only with binoculars and telescopes due to the vast swaths of restricted land surrounding them. I spent days at a time on mountaintops using telescopes and ultra-telephoto lenses to take photographs. I have always conceived of this photography in terms of performance. The act of taking a photograph of a black site is just as important, if not more, than the photograph itself. To take a photograph is to insist on the right to photograph.

I led several desert expeditions each year. These expeditions further developed the performative aspect of the overall project, engaging participants as witnesses/spectators in an enactment of the right to see and to photograph. Instead of creating two-dimensional landscapes for galleries and museums, I was bringing people to the actual landscapes.

There was no cost, but I told prospective fellow travelers that they had to be in reasonably good shape for long hikes up high-altitude mountains, bring their own food, camping gear, and supplies, and follow my instructions before and during the trip. In some places, we would be hundreds of miles from the nearest town, and it would be easy to get injured, die, or wind up in prison.

On some trips we camped in the snow and nearly froze. Cars broke down on several others. We built fires. We made new friends. We sat on mountains and acknowledged the geography of the "dark side." And we watched. [End Page 3]

Trevor Paglen

Trevor Paglen is an artist.



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