Artist Trevor Paglen exposes the shadowy world of black operations

From photography and sculpture to academic research, Trevor Paglen's multifaceted work maps the shadowy contours of the black world.

From photography and sculpture to academic research, Trevor Paglen's multifaceted work maps the shadowy contours of the black world, writes Benjamin Tiven Six digital prints of crudely Xeroxed American passports are framed in white on a New York gallery wall. The faces of these travellers are slightly obscured by the contrast of the photocopier, and the type is difficult to read. A label gives us a straightforward title - Six CIA Officers Wanted in Connection with the Abduction of Abu Omar from Milan, Italy (2007) - but this is a cryptic clarity, since we know that CIA officers on foreign assignment are not honestly represented by their passports. Of course, these people do not exist: they are the ghost identities used by American operatives who abducted the Egyptian cleric Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, outside a mosque in Milan, in February 2003.

The kidnapping of Abu Omar, who was taken to Egypt - where he alleges he was tortured in custody - was one of the most prominent examples of America's "extraordinary rendition" programme, and one that backfired badly when an Italian court convicted 23 Americans in absentia for their roles in the abduction. As part of the evidence pool built for that case, Italian prosecutors presented these copied passports, which had been used to check into Milan hotels.

The American artist Trevor Paglen - who has made a host of works out of the scattered material remnants of covert US military and intelligence operations, meticulously researching and tracing out the paths by which these secret operations unfold - contributed his own research to the evidence amassed by the prosecution, and in turn obtained copies of these passports, which he then re-presented as a new piece.

In many ways, this small project shorthands all the issues circling through Paglen's work: he recopies and presents critical archival material, as if it were some kind of readymade; he uses photography to question the truths we assume in an image; and he reveals his position as an artist through a shrewd deployment of mild-mannered captions and text to accompany these charged images. There is an intrinsic confusion of fiction and reality at the heart of any faked passport, and this is the question posed by all of Paglen's work: How are we sure that the image is what the artist claims it is? What are the limits to what we can know?

Through photography, installations, sculptures, academic writing and popular publications, Paglen has examined the nature of the Pentagon's so-called "black world", a web of highly classified military and intelligence programmes that includes advanced weapons testing, aerospace engineering and covert operations training. Drawing equally from journalism, the social sciences and contemporary art, he anchors his investigation in the intrinsic contradiction between claims to invisibility and the demands of real space: something cannot "not exist" and take up space in the real world at the same time. Armed with this insight, Paglen examines the realities of the black world's relationship to the real world: its funding, accounting methods, rolls of employees, naming conventions, arcane symbologies and physical footprints. Whether written or visual, his projects either present concrete evidence of these supposedly invisible legal abstractions, or adduce those structures by gesturing toward the holes they leave behind. Paglen either shows us nothing where the evidence dictates there ought to be something, or shows us something where we were told there was nothing.

Paglen's first large body of photographs, made between 2003 and 2006, involved finding and photographing some of the classified military compounds that dot the deserts of the southwest United States. These bases are sited deep within huge buffer zones of fenced-off federal land, in the country's most inhospitable climates and inaccessible locations. They are unmarked airstrips and anonymous bunkers, hidden from public view, and blocked from commercial maps and satellite data.

"Initially," he explained to me over coffee at his apartment in New York, "I wanted to photograph them, just for myself. Of course you can't really see them, and it was just a question of whether you could even take a picture of something that was that far away." Camping out on nearby mountain peaks, he connected his camera to an astronomical telescope and pointed it down toward the desert basins.

The resulting images - visually compressed through the magnification of the lens and blurred by many kilometres of atmospheric haze - are wavy, sun-burnt images of indeterminate camp-like developments, in strange colour schemes. Through a layer of abstract digital noise, one can make out some mute examples of military architecture: low-slung unmarked bunkers, generic road strips, lots of fencing. Paglen gave each of the images blandly straightforward titles - like Chemical and Biological Weapons Proving Ground / Dugway, UT / Distance ~42 miles / 10:51 am, and Electronic Warfare Facility /Halligan Mesa, NV / Distance ~19 miles - presenting the pictures as evidence for the existence of these facilities, even if the images themselves suggested no such clarity.

Using the same technique he had employed to photograph the bases - which he calls "limit-telephotography" - Paglen then turned his attention to the people employed by these classified installations. Many of them - whether civil or military - live in or around Las Vegas; they are shuttled to and from work by a small fleet of unmarked planes that leave from a restricted corner of the Las Vegas airport, called the Gold Coast Terminal. Perched in a top-floor room at a nearby casino tower, Paglen tracked these planes' daily schedules and photographed the banal commute of this classified workforce, producing images of tail numbers and shambling passengers that betray the pedestrian core of secret operations.

In person, the 36-year old Paglen is quiet, with shady blonde hair and a piercing stare. Seemingly laconic, he listens intently, gathering up what's being asked of him, and then systematically rolls off a specific, sequential and thorough answer. He's an odd combination of offbeat and serious: in a low almost-whisper, he can knowledgeably discuss the orbital paths of military satellites or the history of federal wire-tapping, and then immediately crack a loud and wide laugh about the bleak reality that he deals with. He is disarmingly self-effacing, offering a pretty straightforward defence of his often complex and obscure work: "I'm just inherently interested in [these things], and I assume that I'm not so different from other people, and that if I'm interested in something then other people will be too."

He spends his work days on a curious mix of textual research, data mining and active field work: he has spent as much time hiking out into the desert and mountains making telescopic photographs of forbidden zones as he has reading front-company tax receipts and filing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for declassified information from US archives. Paglen is interested in the places where the secret world intersects with the non-secret one, and he exploits the inevitable paper trails those intersections leave in their wake.

In 2006, Paglen and his collaborator AC Thompson published the book Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA's Rendition Flights, which detailed their extensive efforts to identify and define the CIA's rendition programme by gathering the scattered evidence of its existence; Paglen's photographs and prints served as illustrations. Because of its mandate as a civilian agency, the CIA must operate within the civilian world, which means that its fictional aviation companies and ghost identities are a matter of public record: they have to file their tax receipts, flight logs, corporate charters, airworthiness certifications, and the serial numbers of their aeroplanes, just like any private charter company.

Along with a wide network of amateur plane-spotters, military buffs, and flight-control enthusiasts, who all collect and share information in online forums, Paglen began, around 2004, to track, collate, and cross-reference thousands of pieces of data in an effort to decipher the programme's contours: its flight routes, operators, and structure of ownership. Some of the rendition planes showed up at the military bases he had already been photographing, which actually provided an interesting set of clues to investigate.

"If I was a CIA front company, what would I want to be able to do?" Paglen said, explaining how his research had unfolded. "Well, I would want to be able to land at military airfields as a civilian, so there's got to be some document that the Air Force or the Army has that would list all the civilian aircraft that are cleared to land at military bases. Another document I'd look for would list which civilian aircraft have contracts to buy fuel at military airbases. So, its about thinking through how to operate in the world, and what kind of paper trail that operation would leave."

While photographing airbases triggered his interest in deciphering the rendition programme, sifting through dummy-company documents for Torture Taxi produced a new suite of printed works called Missing Persons. Paglen discovered that the signatures of the fictional board members at each front company often looked very different on the numerous documents they had been asked to sign. Intrigued, he recopied the repeating signatures into a set of inkjet prints, which show the different "signatures" used by each fictional person.

In early 2006, Paglen and Thompson travelled to Kabul to seek out concrete evidence of a CIA black site prison known as the Salt Pit. They arrived in a war-torn, bombed out city, looking for a supposedly non-existent building. The only first-person account of this site was the sworn testimony of a German citizen, Khaled el Masri, who was held there in 2004 for four months in a case of mistaken identity; he claimed it was within a 10-minute ride of the Kabul airport.

Paglen also had Google Earth satellite information, and the recollections of an elderly Afghani guide, who knew the area from before the rise of the Taliban. Triangulating these different memories, the projected cartography, and the realities of the road construction - along with his best guesses - Paglen did eventually find the Salt Pit complex. Despite the roving armed guards and warning signs prohibiting photography, Paglen managed to take a photograph of the Salt Pit's low-slung tan exteriors behind multiple layers of razor wire. This is evidently the only known photograph of the complex, and he produced the print in an edition of one.

The project embodies the tactical geography that has become Paglen's specialty: probing the limits of what we can see and know, and searching out the hidden on the basis of what must be knowable. But the photograph would go on to have even more resonance for an artist whose work revolves around the contention of truth within images. Late in 2006, it was used by the Centre for Constitutional Rights in a challenge filed on behalf of the Guantanamo Bay detainee Majid Khan, who claimed to have been held there, in order to help establish that there was enough publicly available evidence of this site for the case to proceed.

The son of an Air Force doctor, Paglen grew up in and around military bases in the western US; the jargon and social codes of the military are innately familiar to him. After completing an MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, he began a PhD in geography at the University of California, where his work began to turn toward the hidden world of classified US military projects. During his graduate research on the geography of the California prison system, he first noticed huge areas of redacted land on most US Geological Survey maps: parts of California, Utah, Arizona, and lots of Nevada were all scrubbed from the official map, replaced by large black shapes. Intrigued, he set about deciphering what they were, and his art practice shifted toward a research-heavy method of engaging with these "black" sites, and finding out whatever could be found about them. His work is now grouped within the subfield of "human" or "cultural" geography: he studies the ways human activities sculpt the surface of the earth, and the way those actions then set constraints on further human activities.

In early 2009, Paglen published a popular geography text called Blank Spots on the Map, which gives a broad overview of the history of the black world and provides an intellectual context for his own art projects. These programmes, unsurprisingly, have their origins in the Manhattan Project, whose vast structures of secrecy persisted after the close of the Second World War, expanding even further with the paranoia and political challenges of the Cold War. Statutes like the National Security Act of 1947 and the Central Intelligence Agency Act of 1949 created the operational framework and flexible legal rationale for black projects. Layers of intentional bureaucracy now isolate these black directorates from their parent agencies, and their budget line items are annually redacted from the government's constitutionally mandated public accounting.

Most of these programmes will never be de-classified or publicly acknowledged, let alone seen in pictures. Paglen's photographs are an attempt to establish the reality of this secret world - but they are also an examination of the history of American landscape photography, which travelled west hand-in-hand with the military. In a 2009 body of photographs called The Other Night Sky, Paglen meticulously tracked the orbital paths of classified satellites, making images of the night sky that at first seem familiar: framed by timeless mountain vistas, the thousands of stars are either distinct, glowing points (kept in place by putting the camera on a gyroscopic mount that moves in synch with the Earth's orbit), or they streak across the frame in arcing lines. In both cases, tiny lines of light run at transverse angles to the main group of stars, appearing as streaks or scratches barely visible in the print.

According to Paglen's titles, these are classified objects like the Keyhole/Advanced Crystal (Optical Reconnaissance Satellite), the Lacrosse/Onyx V (Radar Imaging Reconnaissance Satellite), or the MILSTAR 3 (Inactive Communication and Targeting Satellite). These photographs hint at the complex blend of military and political interests that has been at play in American landscape photography since its beginnings. The now canonised work of photographers such as William Henry Jackson, Carleton Watkins and Timothy O'Sullivan was originally made under government contract, accompanying the major geological and cartographic surveys of the western territories in the 1870s. Commissioned by competing federal agencies, including the War Department, these survey teams effectively scouted resources potentially useful for future federal projects or military needs. They paved the way for the network of air bases and weapons-testing ranges - as well as state boundaries, the national park system and Native reservations - that now make up the American West. This landscape has had a dual narrative in the history of photography ever since, both as the site of reflection on the sublime (see: Ansel Adams) and, more recently, as a landscape horribly disfigured by the violent legacies of human science and warfare.

While none of Paglen's work could be called light-hearted, it is not without its humour. In 2007, he published a collection of the black world's most tangible remnants - decorative military patches produced for project participants - in a book called I Could Tell You, but then You Would Have to be Destroyed by Me, a rather faithful rendering of the Latin inscription on one patch. These patches are coded with arcane symbology and abstruse references: there are lots of wizards, lightning bolts, skeletons and naked women. They are meant to be impenetrable to anyone not participating in a programme, and are produced, in part, to help maintain secrecy: they reinforce the club of participation, and advertise to military colleagues that there are parts of one's job that cannot be inquired about.

The breadth of black-world projects is huge: from developing weapons systems to satellite imaging, electronic and cyber warfare, stealth technologies and aerospace engineering. There are even patches for the various ground crews, recovery teams, and support staff, whose own activities, of course, are also highly classified. How Paglen came to have a collection of many classified insignia is a key window into his artistic practice. His underlying methodological premise is to find and exploit the internal contradictions and inconsistencies of the secret state, beginning with its frequent contention that a given thing does not exist.

After seeing a few different patches in the trophy cases of retired old-timers he'd been interviewing, he was encouraged to take them seriously and find more examples: they contain a lot of answers to what the black world has been up to. Paglen figured, rightly, that since "there wasn't a secret patch factory, that means that somebody is sending a design document from a secret office to a non-secret patch factory.

"And so, if that's true, then it's going out into the world and you should be able to FOIA request it." Amazingly enough, his FOIA requests began to turn up sketches and illustrations for these patches, some of which Paglen remade to specifications with another embroidery factory. Later, when Paglen called specific bases to speak with PR representatives about the designs he had received, he was told they were strictly classified; that is, the base had no idea that the design documents themselves were not classified - and that they had already been released.

"Secrecy reproduces itself through spatial contradictions," Paglen explained to me recently, when we met in New York. He is preparing new work for multiple exhibitions in Europe this fall, including a solo show at Secession in Vienna. I'd asked him for a more serious take on his work, from his standpoint as an academic geographer. "One of the reasons why this secret world keeps growing," he said, "is because its always trying to make itself invisible and it never can. It always invents new ways to hide itself, which always fail, so it has to invent new ways to hide those, and so it grows."

Benjamin Tiven is an artist living in New York.