Trevor Paglen and the Art of the "Unknown Known"

Kevin Lin
Jul 17, 2013 9:41AM

The first work is a chromogenic color print of a skyscape. Upon closer inspection, just off of the center to the right, there is a tiny yet clear outline of a shape in the air. Is it a bird? [1] The lines are too linear; this is a machine. Even if you did not glance at the title beforehand—Untitled (Reaper Drone), 2013—upon finding out, your reaction might be, "That's what I thought?" The pastel-colored sky no longer evokes that of serenity, as ominous overtones that had been perhaps abandoned, forgotten, and neglected in the subconscious begin to emerge. The second work proceeds in similar fashion.

In the third work, the title is also an integral part of experiencing the piece: Detachment 3, Air Force Flight Test Center, Groom Lake, NV; Distance ~ 26 Miles, 2008. The words "26 Miles" lingers in the mind like the light in the desert air.

The fourth work may look like an impressionistic landscape painting. However it is a photograph, and the blurring is not caused by the image being out-of-focus. The cause can be determined from the title: National Reconnaissance Office Ground Services Station (ADF-SW) Jornada del Muerto, New Mexico: Distance approx. 16 Miles, 2012. The photograph is taken in the New Mexico heat on astrophotographic equipment. (The fifth work even resembles the atmosphere of the planet Jupiter.) Again the distance is critical, as the subject in the photo and the others aforementioned, is forbiddingly elusive.

The astrophotography in the sixth work is momentarily an illusion of another gas giant. However it is a long exposure, but over a distance much closer to Earth: Prowler (Stealthy Geosynchronous Satellite Interceptor; Deployed from STS-38), 2012. Perhaps the spy satellite is very much like a moon amongst the rings of Saturn.

In a way these photographs evoke the work of Gerhard Richter: the layered orbitals of his STRIP (II) (2013, 60 x 110 cm, digital inkjet print between acryl glass, work 7); the blurred photographic paintings of military aircraft such as Phantom Abfangjäger / Phantom Interceptors (1964, 140 cm x 190 cm, oil on canvas, work 8); the blurred squeegee technique of September (2005, 52 cm x 72 cm, oil on canvas, work 9).

If these pieces leave you with feelings of perturbation, this is intentional: the artist and geographer Trevor Paglen "welcomes distortion in his images because his aim is not to expose and edify so much as to confound and unsettle."[2] Furthermore, in a recent New Yorker profile, "Paglen said that blurriness serves both an aesthetic and an 'allegorical' function. It makes his images more arresting while providing a metaphor for the difficulty of uncovering the truth in an era when so much government activity is covert."[3]

In the way that Gerhard Richter's work explores the gap between representation and abstraction, between objectivity and subjectivity, between the real and the imaginary, Trevor Paglen explores the gap in the epistemological matrix as laid out by Donald Rumsfeld [4] in a statement to the press on February 12, 2002 (concerning the absence of evidence linking Iraq with weapons of mass destruction):

"There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don't know we don't know."

That gap, the one that Rumsfeld fails to mention, is the "unknown known". This is formally identified by the philosopher Slavoj Zizek, as he writes in the following (from this article):

"If Rumsfeld thinks that the main dangers in the confrontation with Iraq were the 'unknown unknowns,' that is, the threats from Saddam whose nature we cannot even suspect, then the Abu Ghraib scandal shows that the main dangers lie in the 'unknown knowns'—the disavowed beliefs, suppositions and obscene practices we pretend not to know about, even though they form the background of our public values."

The art of Trevor Paglen extends the "unknown knowns" of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo to include that of drones, black government facilities, and covert operations in general. With the recent leaks by Edward Snowden revealing details of the NSA surveillance programs, Paglen elaborates on such "unknown knowns" in his recent Guernica magazine article:

"We have entered an era of secret laws, classified interpretations of laws and the retroactive 'legalization' of classified programs that were clearly illegal when they began. Funding for the secret parts of the state comes from a 'black budget' hidden from Congress—not to mention the people—that now tops $100 billion annually. Finally, to ensure that only government-approved 'leaks' appear in the media, the Terror State has waged an unprecedented war on whistleblowers, leakers and journalists. All of these state programs and capacities would have been considered aberrant only a short time ago. Now, they are the norm."

(Paglen also recently participated in a discussion about government surveillance at MoMA PS1 with Thomas Drake, former senior executive of the NSA, and Jesselyn Radek, national security and human rights director for the Government Accountability Project.)

One of the compelling characteristics of Paglen's work is that his method of obfuscation in a way illuminates his subjects as a kind of psychological apparition: what is initially an "unknown known" has materialized into the conscious in a haunting manner.

You can learn more about the art and work of Trevor Paglen from his website.


[1] This is the inverse to the post-9/11 reaction to the cover of Don DeLillo's novel, Underworld, published in 1997: "Is that large object a plane that appears to be flying dangerously close to, seemingly heading toward, one of the towers? No, it's a large bird." [1a: 51]

[1a] Duvall, John. Don DeLillo's Underworld: A Reader's Guide. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2002. Print.

[2] Weiner, Jonah. "Prying Eyes: Trevor Paglen makes art out of government secrets". The New Yorker, 22 Oct. 2012: 56.

[3] Ibid, 56-57.

[4] The director Errol Morris premiered his documentary, The Unknown Known: The Life and Times of Donald Rumsfeld, at the Telluride Film Festival on August 29, 2013. You can view a clip of it here.

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Kevin Lin